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An Adventure in Corruption and Recovery


© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker

It was bound to happen sooner or later; after all, I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for over six years. But did it have to happen to my Olympic sunset shots? To make it worse it was my own fault. A corrupt compact flash memory card and all those shots of that great sunset were gone in a flash. Or were they?

The Corruption

On a day trip photographing various locations around Hood Canal in Washington State, I finished the day filling most of a memory card with shots of the sunset over the Skokomish River delta at the southern end of the Canal. (For those not familiar with Washington State geography, Hood Canal is not a canal, but a natural saltwater body connected at one end to Puget Sound. It is long and narrow, running southward along the eastern side of the Olympic Mountains, before turning eastward into the Puget Lowlands.) Before starting the sunset shots, I put a freshly reformatted card in the camera. As usual, I was shooting in RAW format.

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker

The following day, I downloaded the images from the trip, using a card reader built into an external hard drive to start my editing process. I was importing the images directly into Adobe Lightroom while simultaneously backing them up. The card from the earlier portion of my trip downloaded without any problems. Then I stuck the 4GB card with the sunset shots into the card reader. Normally, memory cards slip into this particular card reader without much problem, but this time, it felt a little stiff going in. As the download progressed, image previews started popping up in Lightroom. The first two looked fine, and then the next one was a completely white frame filled with lots of color noise. The next one looked similar, as did the one after that, and the one after that. When the downloading was done, all the images were bad except those first two and the final one. I pulled the card out of the reader and noticed one of the reader’s pins was flattened. Obviously, I bent it when forcing the card in.

No worry, I thought, the problem was with the transfer, not the card. So I inserted the card back into the camera and asked the camera to playback the images for me. But the camera said “Hold it a minute Mr. Photographer, there are no images on this card.” I felt slightly sick.

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker

A Search for Recovery

After cursing myself for being so stupid – why did I have to force that card into the reader – I thought I should try some file recovery software before totaling giving up on ever seeing that sunset again. Being rather cheap, I thought I should try some free programs first.

After a Google search, I ended up at a shareware download site. I downloaded their top freeware, data-recovery software; a program called Recovery Manager. Unfortunately, I quickly found out it doesn’t work on Windows 7 and that it is no longer supported. Next down the list was Power Data Recovery. A quick download and installation later, I was running the program. However, I discovered this “freeware” program is only free to “home users.” Since I sometimes shoot professionally, I doubt they would consider me a home user. However, I thought I’d give it a try, to see if my images could be saved, before paying for the commercial license. The Power Data Recovery website claims the program is powerful and easy to use. And indeed, I found that to be true. The program had no problem recognizing the corrupt disk and successfully recovered all the lost RAW files.

I was thrilled that my files were not lost after all! So, being an ethical guy, I went to buy the commercial license. However, my best intention was defeated by sticker shock. With a license cost of $119, I started wondering how ethical I really am. Before shelling out that much, I decided to keep looking at my options. I re-accomplished my Google search, and downloaded another freeware – Smart Recovery. This program didn’t even recognize the memory card, let alone recover any files. Maybe $119 isn’t too much to pay for a sunset, I thought.

I kept trying. I thought to look at a photo forum and see if others had experiences with this issue. I went to dpreview.com and search the forums there, looking for anything recent on the subject of corrupt cards. I found one string started not too long ago where some poor photographer had done the exact same thing I did, bending a pin on their card reader and corrupting their card. They suggested a free program called Photorec. Others suggested freeware called Recuva.

Of the two, Recuva appeared easier to use (since Photorec runs in a DOS window), though Photorec appeared more powerful. I gave Recuva a try first, and it was easy to run. However, while it found several old files from an earlier shoot that had been deleted when the card was reformatted, it did not find the corrupted RAW files from my recent Hood Canal trip. So it was on to Photorec. It took a bit of effort and several visits to the Photorec website to figure out how to get it to work. The effort wasn’t worth it; the results were essentially the same as with Recuva.

About this time, I remembered that Tim Grey had recently recommended a data-recovery software in one of his Ask Tim Grey enewsletters. Checking my email, I found he had recommended PhotoRescue. Though not free, at $29 it is considerably less expensive than Power Data Recovery. PhotoRescue also allows you to try before you buy and comes with a money back guarantee. The trial version produces thumbnails of recovered files. After paying for a license, the full program recovers the actual files and records them to your hard drive. If the recovered files are not usable files, they refund your money. (If you ever purchase their software, be sure to check out their refund page; it has some funny refund requests that the company has received, including the classic “the dog ate it” and one from a woman who claims their program put “horrible pornography on my husband’s memory chip!”)

I downloaded the trial version, and it operated without problem. It took a bit longer to work than some of the other programs, but soon it was showing thumbnails of all my lost Hood Canal sunset shots, plus 20 or so other images from previous shoots. I purchased the license, and true to its word, the program fully recovered all the RAW files. These imported without issue into Lightroom; and several days and $29 later, I was back to my editing.

© Joe Becker
© Joe Becker

Lessons Learned

So what did I learn from my adventure in corruption and recovery?

  1. Never force your memory card into a card reader. Bad things may result.
  2. If you do find yourself with corrupt card (or alternatively, erase files that you later want back or accidentally reformat a card), don’t lose hope. Immediately stop using that card and try some data recovery software.
  3. There are lots of options out there for data-recovery software. If you don’t already own one (sometimes such programs come with memory cards), try one or more of the free software options first. Of the ones I tried, I like the interface for Recuva best; though it did not work for the corrupted files on my memory card, it did recover ones lost earlier by reformatting.
  4. If you don’t mind spending $29, PhotoRescue appears to be an excellent option. It is easy to use and works well.

About the Author

Joe Becker is a freelance photographer based in Tacoma, Washington. His work has recently been published by Northwest Travel magazine and Washington State Tourism. You can see more of his images at his website seldomseenphoto.com and on his blog joebeckerphoto.wordpress.com.

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Patrick Flynn

Thursday, June 30 2011 @ 09:11 PM EDT

Joe, thanks for all of this information! I have never actually "lost" data on a CF card, but I sure have had nightmares about it.

I have often wondered what options exist in worst-case scenarios, and I felt like there HAD to be some solution. I am impressed and very pleased to learn that technology is at the point where the solution is both cheap and easy! Thanks for sharing!