How to recover photos from a corrupted memory card

Canon E-P3

How to recover photos from a corrupted memory card

If anyone knows a good cardiologist, get in touch. On Sunday, my heart came perilously close to stopping after I put a memory card in my PC and it cheerfully reported that it couldn’t read the contents and perhaps I’d like to format it? The potential heart attack prompted by the fact that the memory card contained more than 250 photos from the wedding reception I’d shot the evening before, and that sickening feeling that you’d just lost a good chunk of the memories from one of the most important nights of the couple’s lives.

Thankfully, after two of the most stressful hours of my life, I managed to recover all but a handful of the photos, and I’m going to tell you how I did it, in the hope that, should you ever find yourself in such a hole, you might too be able to clamber your way out.

How the photos were taken

First, a little background. I’m not (yet) a professional photographer but I’d offered to take the reception photos both as a favour to a friend of my partner’s, and as a way of building up a portfolio for when I’m in a position to charge for such events.

My camera doesn’t have dual memory card slots, and I was acutely aware of the danger of card failure, so I’d taken the precaution of formatting two high-capacity cards ahead of the reception, ready to swap them over halfway through the night so that if one did fail, not all was lost. That’s exactly what I did, and I returned from the event with more than 500 photos across the two cards and reasonably satisfied with my night’s work.

The following morning, I fired up Lightroom on my PC and imported the contents of the first card onto the computer without problem. I popped in the second card to repeat the process but was met with a rather ominous spinning wheel icon for a good three to four minutes. Eventually, Lightroom reported it could find only four videos on the card, which was curious since I hadn’t taken any videos.

I ejected the memory card (checking Lightroom had finished with it first) and popped it back in the slot, and tried to access the files via Windows Explorer. No dice. Explorer reported an error with the card’s file system and told me I’d need to format it before proceeding. My pulse rate accelerating past that of a suicide bomber, I once again ejected the card and popped it back into the camera to see if it could read the files, but it too reported a file-system failure and prompted me to format the card. At this point words were uttered that were unbefitting of the Lord’s day.

The recovery

Immediately, my mind turned to potential recovery utilities. I’ve read and written plenty of data recovery features over the years to know that the more often a disk is accessed, the more you reduce your chances of successful data recovery, so the first thing I did was flick the lock switch on the memory card to make sure that nothing else would be written to the card.

I’ve a fair few professional photographers following me on Twitter, so I put out a plea for recommendations for Windows recovery utilities, and was soon wading through the websites of three to four different alternatives.

Piriform’s Recuva was recommended by more than one of my Twitter correspondents, and had the undeniable advantage of being free –but alas, it failed to even recognise the card in the slot because the file system had been corrupted.

Another correspondent recommended PhotoRec, but that has both an intimidating command line interface and a reasonably complex set of recovery instructions. I was willing to give it a shot if nothing else worked, but in my frazzled state of mind, I didn’t want to risk a utility where one mistyped instruction could make matters worse.

Finally, I stumbled across Card Recovery. This utility has a clever business model, where it’s free to download and scan your memory card, but the moment you attempt to recover a file you have to pay $40 to unlock the feature. Card Recovery wasn’t put off by the mangled file system and immediately set about listing all the files it could recover – except they weren’t the Canon raw (.CR2) files I was expecting, but a barrage of TIFFs and videos. Which is when I finally realised the mistake I had made the previous evening…

I hadn’t, in fact, used the second memory card that I’d carefully formatted the night before the wedding. I’d accidentally used another card in my camera bag that we’d previously used for camera testing in the office, which explained the dozens of TIFF files and videos the recovery utility had discovered.

That still didn’t explain why Card Recovery – which listed raw files among the file types it could salvage – wasn’t seeing the 250 or so images I’d snapped at the reception. So I started the scan wizard again, and this time in the dropdown menu that I’d previously overlooked in my haste, selected Canon from the list of camera manufacturers. Bingo. Within 15 minutes, the utility had found 250 raw files, ready to restore the moment I stumped up £25 for a licence key.

I’ve never been so happy to part with £25. I did a lap of honour round my living room and, keep this to yourself, let out a small tear of relief that I hadn’t buggered up someone’s wedding shoot.

I then spent the rest of the day backing and triple-backing up the files, to make sure I didn’t have to go through that again.

The lessons to learn

I’ve learnt – the hard way – a few valuable lessons from my experience.

1. Make sure you clearly label memory cards I think this fiasco would probably have been avoided if I’d used the correct memory card. The only time I’ve ever had any problems with memory card reliability is when switching them from one camera to another. The format card option built into most cameras appears to be a very low-level format that often doesn’t erase the previous camera’s file system. That can cause conflicts, which is why I’d taken the effort to do a full Windows format on the cards the night before. I just picked the wrong card out of my bag. A schoolboy error I won’t make again.

2. Have a recovery plan in place The moment after a card disaster strikes is not the time to start investigating recovery solutions. You’re panicking, you’re not thinking clearly, and in that state of mind it’s easy to compound a mistake with another. I was fortunate that I had the advice of some professional photographers to fall back on, but I should have had a recovery utility installed on my PC in the first place, which I had previously tested and was familiar with. The mistake I made by not selecting Canon from the dropdown list was borne out of haste and unfamiliarity. If I’d tested the utility beforehand, I would have been less likely to make that mistake and potentially write-off the utility that eventually saved my bacon.

3. Back up your memory cards right away I’m looking to upgrade my camera equipment, and a camera with a dual memory card slot is now high on my priority list. Even if you can’t quite stretch to that, a solution such as the Eye-Fi Pro X2 memory cards (, which let you wirelessly backup the photos to a nearby laptop without having to remove the card from the camera, could provide a solution. PC memory card readers are notoriously fickle, and I can’t rule out the possibility that my laptop was responsible for corrupting the card in the first place. It’s best to have a backup in place before you put a card anywhere near the PC.

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