It’s a horrible feeling, the shuddering realization of what you just did—deleted all the images from your SD card by mistake. You are not alone in doing this. Many photographers—enthusiasts and professionals alike—have accidentally wiped a memory card at some stage in our photographic journey. It’s easy to do—a new camera, a lapse of concentration, or even just butterfingers.

The good news is that all may not be lost. The caveat is that you will probably need to spend some money, and if you only shoot RAW, you may be out of luck. Image recovery has become a big business. There are now multiple software packages available, as well as dedicated companies that will do the hard work for you. So assuming you have deleted your images, what can you do?

Image recovery - Lexar professional memory card

Deleted images are not actually deleted

How to recover deleted pictures from sd card

The first thing is not to panic. Immediately remove the card from the camera and store it somewhere safe, and make sure you mark the card as requiring recovery. Perhaps the best way to do this is to put it in an envelope and seal it, or at least in a memory card container with a paper note inside with the card.

The reason for doing this is simple; you haven’t actually deleted the images. When you delete or format a card in your camera, all that is actually happening is that you are effectively removing the links to the image files on the card. The actual images remain in place until other shots are recorded over them. For this reason, it is vital not to keep using the card.

Once you get back home, it’s time to try and recover those images. As mentioned already, there are a multitude of recovery software packages out there, some free, some cheap and some expensive. Some memory card manufacturers provide free recovery software with certain types of cards.

SanDisk in particular has some effective recovery software. To find software, Google is your friend. As with many things, you get what you pay for. Free software will not have the same amount of function as paid software. That said, if you are just shooting jpg’s, you might find free software that will do the job.

Image recovery - cardraider photo recovery

Select the required card

Most software will work in a similar way. You will have options to try a quick recovery, or if that fails to try a more advanced recovery. More sophisticated software will allow you to define block sizes, recover RAW and movie files, and clone the card. Cloning the card is a useful step as it preserves the file layout of your card as a disk image on your computer’s hard drive. If your software provides this, then its worth doing this as a first step.

With the card cloned, first try the quick recovery mode. This will run through the card looking for traces of data that it recognizes as the headers for image files—usually jpegs. Depending on the size of your card, this can take from several minutes to half an hour or so. If it finds image files, it will present you with a screen showing thumbnails of those images, allowing you to select them and copy them to a folder on your hard drive.

Those of you shooting RAW files might see thumbnails, but these may actually only be for the RAW’s embedded jpg file and not the full RAW.

Image recover - scan finished

Card Raider has successfully recovered Fuji X100s Raw files

 Image recovery - carda rescueYet Card Rescue fails to recognize the RAW in quick mode

If the quick mode has been unsuccessful, it’s time to use the advanced, deep recovery modes. These will scan every bit of data on your card, looking for telltale traces of images, and then will try to rebuild the files. As mentioned, the more sophisticated recovery software will allow you to recover RAW and movie files, so when considering which product to buy, make sure files from your own camera are supported. Deep scans can be very slow, taking several hours; however, they are likely to be more accurate. Again once completed, the program will present you with a list of thumbnails of the recovered files and allow you to copy them to your computer.

Image recovery - saving recovered photosSave files to a folder

One thing to remember when using image recovery software is that it may recover every image that has not been copied over. In other words, you may find images from months if not years ago being recovered with the stuff you lost recently.

If all else fails and your software has not been able to recover the images, then, depending on the value of the shots, you may be able to send the card to a specialist company for recovery. These companies will have state-of-the-art software, and experts who will do everything possible to recover the card. They will not be cheap, however.


Of course prevention is better than cure, and to avoid the need for image recovery, make sure that you learn and understand your camera’s deleting and formatting menus. With the price of memory cards being so cheap these days, it is perhaps better to avoid deleting anything until you have copied everything to your computer. Get into the habit of downloading your card after every shoot. Of course this will not help if the card gets corrupted, but you can reduce this risk by purchasing known-brand cards from reputable dealers. If buying from eBay, be aware of the dealer’s reputation, because eBay has become a haven for fake memory cards. Unbranded, third-party cards are cheap for a reason, and this can increase the likelihood of failure. Spend the extra few dollars on a good brand, and you may never need to spend more money on image recovery software.

About The Author

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Odessa Ukraine. His work has been published worldwide in newspapers, books magazines and strangely on towels from a Turkish textile company.

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