Last updated: Mar. 27, 2017
Who could have thought that one tiny piece of plastic and metal could cause so much heartache? But that's exactly what happens when misfortune falls on your camera's memory card. Whether you deleted photos by accident, damaged the card or for some inexplicable reason can't access your photos, SD card recovery isn't about saving a $20 piece of plastic, but salvaging the memories stored inside.
Thankfully, recovering those images isn't only possible, but is sometimes even quite simple. From recovering deleted pictures to fixing damaged cards, here's everything you need to know about SD card data recovery.
Causes of SD Card Errors
The reasons behind SD card failure are almost as numerous as the number of photos you can fit on one card. Sometimes, user error results in data loss, but other times, the fate of that memory card was completely out of your hands. Here are a few of the most common scenarios:
- You accidentally deleted photos on the card without saving them to the computer, either by deleting individual photos or by reformatting the entire card.
- The camera was accidentally damaged — perhaps you dropped your camera in the lake or crashed a drone. Sometimes, that damage extends to the SD card.
- Manufacturer defects can also cause SD card errors. It's not a good idea to go with a cheap off-brand card, because they're more prone to errors. Cards from larger manufacturers also tend to be more durable — even reading without a problem after being left inside a pocket then washed and dried. Always buy from a reputable source too — there are counterfeit cards out there that pretend to be high-end SD cards.
- The card isn't compatible with the camera. While theoretically you should be able to use an SD card in any SD card slot, that's not always the case. Some cameras are picky and only function well with a card from certain brands. Make sure to check to see if the manufacturer of your camera has a list of recommended cards.
- Incomplete files or missing files can also cause SD card errors. Often, these issues pop up after pulling the card out while files were still being written, after the battery dies while writing a file, or after deleting single files from the card with a computer. Usually, these errors result in the error message "Card not formatted, would you like to format it now?" while there are still images on the card.
Tips to Increase Chances of SD Card Recovery
Often, images can be recovered from a damaged or formatted card, but that's not always the case. There are a few things that can help enhance your chances of recovering your images.
Stop using the card right away. As soon as you realize you lost data, stop using the card. Continuing to write information to the card will overwrite those fragments that a recovery software or company could put back together. If you need to keep taking pictures, use a different card.
Make a backup copy of your card. If your card is readable, make a backup copy. By making a replica, if you try recovery methods that end of damaging the actual card, you could still try recovering the information from the backup. The exact steps vary a bit based on whether you use a Mac or a PC, and you can't make a copy if your computer won't read the card at all.
Backup your files frequently. While starting good backup habits won't help your current situation, it could help prevent loss in the future. Never store images on SD cards for long periods, as soon as possible, move them to your computer then a backup location like an external hard drive or cloud service. If your camera has two SD card slots, you can also choose to write the same files to both cards, so if one card malfunctions, it's no big deal.
How to Recover Deleted Pictures or Fix a Damaged SD Card
Option 1: Check the Physical Components
First, check and make sure that there's nothing physically preventing your memory card from communicating with the camera or computer (If you accidentally deleted the files, skip to option two and three). If you can read your card in the camera but not in the computer, try a different computer or a different SD card reader. If you have a USB cord that connects your camera directly to the computer, try reading the files that way.
Take a look at your SD card. Make sure the write protection switch on the side didn't get bumped — that can cause card errors but it's simply a way to prevent files from getting deleted.
SD cards can also get surprisingly dirty. If you are using an older card, clean the metal contacts on the back with a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol. You can also try cleaning out your SD card reader or USB cord using a can of compressed air to carefully remove any dust build up.
Option 2: SD Card Recovery Software
Whether you accidentally deleted files from your card or another type of error popped up, the right software can often put the pieces back together and recover your images. When you delete images from an SD card, pieces are left behind that dedicated recovery programs can often put together. Recovery software also often works well with "card not formatted" errors and can add-in missing files from when the camera stopped recording suddenly.
Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery is a good option. The program is free to try out — so you can see what the particular program was able to find and determine whether or not it's worth the purchase.
When you use a photo recovery software, you'll plug the SD card into the computer (or plug your camera with the SD card inside into the computer). With the program open, you'll locate your SD card and click scan. The process often takes several minutes.
After the scan, you'll see a preview of the images the program is able to recover — you'll need to purchase the program to actually move forward with downloading those files to your hard drive, but the software is often worth recovering those lost photos.
Option 3: Use a Data Recovery Service
The DIY software is a good option for quickly recovering files from accidental deletions or card errors. But what if the software didn't work or your card is too damaged to even be recognized? There is one more option, but it's also the most expensive one. Still, if those images are very valuable to you, it could be worth a shot.
With a card recovery service, you take the SD card into a store or ship it to a company, they work to recover the files and will either upload any recovered files to a cloud storage system or send them to you on a new card. Because the process is complex and time-consuming, data recovery service is often expensive, typically over $100 and often reaching $500, depending on how large your SD card is.
Start by taking your SD card into a local camera or electronics store and asking about recovery prices and options — local stores could have the best deals. Then, find out what company your SD card manufacturer recommends. SanDisk, for example, recommends LC Technology, with recovery starting at $125 and a $100 fee for cards that need to be physically repaired before recovering the information.
When comparing data recovery companies, it's important to check their policies on cards that cannot be recovered. Many have a small fee just to check the card, while others could charge that high total even if they can't recover any data.
SD card errors and damage is more than just frustrating — it's lost memories. While some photos really are lost for good, others can be recovered by checking the physical components, using a DIY recovery software or using a data recovery service.
Hillary is a technology writer and photographer based in Michigan. While her favorite tech brands are Apple and Nikon, she enjoys exploring all but the most frustrating new devices.