How to Recover Lost Photos from SD Card

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 SD card.

Whether you deleted photos by accident, damaged the memory 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.

SD card recovery

Thankfully, recovering photos from your SD card isn’t only possible but is sometimes even quite simple.

In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to know about this topic, from recovering deleted pictures to fixing your damaged SD cards.

Common SD Card Issues

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:

1. You accidentally deleted photos on the card without saving them to the computer, either by deleting individual photos or by reformatting the entire card.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Tip: Memory cards from big brands also tend to be more durable — even reading without a problem after being left inside a pocket and 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.

4. The SD card isn’t compatible with the camera. While theoretically, you should be able to use the card in a memory card slot, that’s not always the case. Some cameras are picky and only function well with a card from certain brands.

Tip: Make sure to check to see if the manufacturer of your camera has a list of recommended cards.

5. 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 this SD card formatting error message “card not formatted, would you like to format it now?” while there are still images on the card.

How to Recover Photos from Your SD Card

Recovering deleted files from a SD card is indeed possible but it will not work in every instance and is not guaranteed. Make sure to follow the steps below.

Step 1: Check the Physical Components

First, check and make sure that there’s nothing physically preventing your SD card from communicating with the camera or computer (If you accidentally deleted the files, skip to options two and three).

If you can read your card on the camera but not on the computer, try a different computer or a different 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 reader and 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.

Step 2: Try SD Card Data Recovery Software

Whether you accidentally deleted files from your memory 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.

Third-party photo recovery software also often works well with “card not formatted” errors and can add in missing files from when the camera stopped recording suddenly.

When you use photo recovery software, you’ll plug the SD card into a computer (or plug your camera with the SD card inside into the computer). With the program opens, 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.

Pro Tips:

  • When you attempt to save recovered items, remember not to select your SD card as the source drive. Otherwise, chances are partial data would be overwritten.
  • Once you have recovered your pictures, be sure to back them up in multiple devices just in case. Also, it’s best to transfer your photos more frequently.
  • Once again, to increase the chances of SD card recovery, try not to write additional data to the device before you start the process.

Step 3: Use Data Recovery Services

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 SD 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.

Tips to Increase Chances of SD Card Recovery

Often, images can be recovered from a damaged or formatted SD 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 SD card. If your card is readable, make a backup copy. By making a replica, if you try recovery methods that end up 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.

Final Words

SD card data loss 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 an SD card recovery software, or using a data recovery service.

Hopefully, you will be able to restore your files if you ever find yourself in this situation but remember that by backing up your SD card you reduce the risk of data loss.

Have you ever tried to recover deleted files from an SD card? How did you go about recovery, if so? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Debbie

    Does this work for a cell phone sd card too?

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      AnySoftwareTools Team


  • Tom Harmon

    Hi Hillary: I have a micro SD 16 GB card that I use to record voice (not photos). I removed the card from my digital recorder without turning off the recorder. It looks like this process deleted/formatted the card since it is blank now.

    Does all of your advice for recovering data apply even though it is voice rather that pictures that have been recorded? Thank you… Tom

  • Carl Henry

    I went to Wyoming to witness and photograph the total eclipse this August. When I took the CF card out of camera and put in my reader it would not mount on the computer. I have heard of data recovery companies in the past but never had data/images that were worth the estimates I received. This time I wanted the images. I contacted several companies and got quotes that did not have a fixed price but wide price range based upon how much work is required once they receive the memory card and evaluate it. The low price was at the upper end of what I was willing to spend but I not being a fixed price I hesitant to send my card. I kept searching and found a company in Germany called Recoverfab that offered a fixed price based upon size of the memory card. It took a week for the card to to get there but in under a day I had an email that the my images we recovered and available for download. I could not believe how easy and good it was to work with them.

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      AnySoftwareTools Team

      Good to know, thanks for sharing your experience.