Recover Photos From Damaged Memory Cards for Free: Fstoppers Reviews PhotoRec

Recover Photos From Damaged Memory Cards for Free: Fstoppers Reviews PhotoRec

Few things are more terrifying than a corrupted or accidentally formatted memory card. When that recently happened to me, I hastily hopped on the Internet to find memory card recovery software. After several hours of searching, I came across an obscure but free tool, and a few hours later, all my images and videos were safely and securely transferred to my hard drive.

My girlfriend works as a marketing director, and part of her job involves taking shots of products and events for her company. Recently, she came home with an almost full 32 GB memory from an industry event, and while she was casually browsing through the photos and videos, I heard her exclaim: "oh no!" The card had been accidentally formatted and now showed nothing. Unfortunately, she was shooting with an 80D, so that one card slot meant there was no backup waiting to save the day.

I told her to turn off the camera and let me have the memory card, then hopped on to Google to find some memory card recovery software for my Mac. I found about five different applications and downloaded them all. Three found nothing on the card, one found about 100 images and videos, and one application managed to find all 3,000 images and videos. However, like most memory card software, every application would allow you to recover a small amount of data (normally between 500 MB and 1 GB) and would then charge you the full application price to recover the rest. In the case of the one application that found all the missing files, it would be $89. While this price is certainly worth it to some people who need this sort of utility more often, all my cameras have dual card slots, and it was such a random mistake that caused the files to be lost that I highly doubted I would need it more than once, so I set out to find any free software I could.

It turns out that there are a few options for Windows users, but I work exclusively on Macs, and thus, it seemed like I was stuck with paying. That was when I stumbled upon two applications called TestDisk and PhotoRec. TestDisk is a data recovery tool designed for lost partitions and non-bootable disks caused by bad software, viruses, or human error. PhotoRec is a companion app designed specifically for photo and video files. 

PhotoRec specifically ignores the file system on whatever media it is examining, allowing it to still recover files even if the file system is badly damaged or has been reformatted. It can recover files from media formatted for FAT, NTFS, exFAT, ext2, ext3, ext4, HFS+, and others. It runs on DOS, Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. PhotoRec can recover over 480 different types of files, including every common raw file type and JPEGs. 

The one drawback is that PhotoRec works only on command line; it does not have a graphical user interface. If you are not comfortable with computers, this might be a bit of an impediment, but that being said, the instructions in the command line interface are perfectly clear and the process is very straightforward. Furthermore, when it comes to a program I was hoping would save 30 GB of images that did not cost me a penny, the last thing I cared about was how good it looked in the process. 

To begin, I simply extracted the PhotoRec/TestDisk folder and ran the PhotoRec application (you may have to allow unidentified applications in security preferences). 

Though a command line interface, PhotoRec is perfectly logical to navigate.
From there, you select the disk from which you would like to recover files. The application will then ask you what partition you would like it to search. For a memory card, this will generally be fairly obvious, as it will be the only partition that has a large size. If you so choose, you can set options, such as the types of file extensions you want to recover. I did not bother with this, as I knew the memory card only contained JPEGs, raw files, and video files, and I did not need to distinguish or zero in on any one type. 
Selecting where to save recovered files.

Next, PhotoRec will ask you what kind of file system the memory card has. Generally, you can select "other." Then, PhotoRec will ask if you want to scan unallocated space or the entire partition. I simply scanned the entire partition. Lastly, you simply select where you want the program to deposit any recovered files. 

Once I set PhotoRec loose on the memory card, it took about three hours to run its magic. Lo and behold, it found and successfully recovered all 3,000 images and videos and neatly deposited them in the destination folder. It also provided a statistical breakdown of how many of each file type it recovered, making it easy to quickly see that it had gotten everything back. All in all, it was a tremendously straightforward and simple process, and it brought back every file that had gone missing. From there, I simply copied the recovered files onto a thumb drive and handed them off to my girlfriend.

One thing to note: I am currently running a beta version of MacOS Catalina, and it seems PhotoRec will not run on it, not without some extra tinkering, at least. It is not clear if it will run on the final version when it is released or if the application will need an update, but this is just something to be aware of.

What I Liked

  • Free
  • Straightforward
  • Powerful and effective
  • Efficient

What I Didn't Like

  • Not much. The lack of a graphical interface might be a drawback for some, but the text-based interface is very straightforward and easy to navigate.


PhotoRec is a great option for anyone who needs to recover files from a corrupted or formatted memory card; it worked both quickly and effectively for me. TestDisk and PhotoRec are donationware, so if you like them, please consider thanking the developer with a donation. You can download them here

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Dan Cantero's picture

Hey Alex, this is a great article mate. I've gone through the same thing and luckily I've been able to recover my files using a product called RescuePRO. This product comes included with all Sandisk cards so I make sure that if I buy a couple of cards I store the little sticker with the activation code in my card case just in case. I'm not affiliated with Sandisk in any way but I thought I would mention it as it has saved my bacon a couple of times. Having said that, I've also bookmarked this article for reference on my next disaster. Thanks again mate!

Giulio Roman's picture

I cannot believe finally someone reviews a piece of free and open source software in the photography industry! It seems everyone is so scared by the word "free", and honestly I think many don't even understand how a filesystem works under the hood and *why* you can recover deleted files... it's no magic.

I use PhotoRec since many years on my Linux box, along with Darktable, Gimp, Hugin, Kdenlive, Siril and other amazing free software. If you'd like to write another great article then have a close look to Darktable and be ready to drop Lightroom forever. Bruce Williams has a great youtube channel about it

Tony Northrup's picture

Qphotorec is the GUI. I think it's included in the download zip.

Alex Cooke's picture

Weird, I just double-checked my download and re-downloaded the entire thing and don't see it!

John Cliff's picture

just downloaded it and Qphotorec is in there...may only be for Windows as I am on Windows and downloaded the Windows version

Daniel Sandvik's picture

That was unexpected.. an actual article this time and not a linked video?

Mark Harris's picture

I had a horrible experience with my Sony RX100, back in the days when LR only imported stills, and missed videos. I counted the stills to make sure they were all copied, but just as I hit 'format', I remembered the videos that needed to be transferred manually. Ugh.
I then spent days with RescuePro and every other rescue software I could find, without success. Then I talked to a professional rescue company, and they found that the RX100 really, really formats sanDisk cards, so that even they couldn't get anything back. He pointed out that an easy check to see if you're going to be able to recover anything is to make an exact bit-for-bit copy of the card on a hard drive, and then run compression on it. If the resulting file is very small, then there's no recoverable data.

David T's picture

Thanks for this, will keep it in mind.
Tried a few GUI based tools, found them to be kinda crappy.

Nathan Burns's picture

PhotoRec does have a gui version (QPhotoRec).

Doug Pardee's picture

Just a reminder that the format operation on Sony full-frame cameras, at least since the A7II series, perform an extra step that totally wipes the data, making it unrecoverable by any means. Deleting individual files is okay, but in-camera format totally cleans the card.

meshal alawadhi's picture

yeah it happened to me.. i got a7iii, i format the memory by a mistake and i couldn't get anything.. i tried like 5-6 programs, PhotoRec was one them.. none worked for me :(
i hope sony changes their format way so we can recover the memory..

Mutley Dastardly's picture

PhotoRec also exists under linux.

Garry Gant's picture

You should update your article to include QPhotoRec GUI for Windows NTx + *nix OSes.
Please see the NEWS text file -> line 60 [found in the program's main directory/folder after extraction of all files from respective zip/bzip/bz2/tar archive]:
"QPhotoRec is a Graphical User Interface (Qt based GUI) version of PhotoRec. More user friendly, it recognizes the same file formats."
Please see the TestDisk [current version 7.1] PDF manual -> page 18 -> Chapter 6 -> paragraphs 6.4 + 6.5:
MacOS doesn't seem to have a version of QPhotoRec GUI.
Thanks for listening. ;-/

Nathan Burns's picture

FYI: PhotoRec does have a gui version. You can find it on their website.