How to recover data from a memory card for free

So a friend of mine took some pictures on her camera which contains an SD card but for some reason was unable to retrieve the pictures off of it. I have a similar camera and a Mac she has Windows. Many times I’ve been able to access data on removable drives on my Mac that were inaccessible on Windows but not this time.

So my first hurdle was how to mount this drive under the file system. I put the card in my camera but it does a great job of masking that there is a removable drive inside of it. Normally I don’t care. I just plug it in and up comes iPhoto ready to pull the images off and remove them from my camera. So when I plugged her card in, iPhoto dutifully came up…but no pictures. So I found a free piece of software called PhotoRec that would supposedly extract the data from the memory card if I could only see it. So with iPhoto up and running I ran the app, but there was no drive to be seen. For some reason I decided to look around on my Mac to see if by any chance there might be a card reader of some sort and lo and behold right under the CD drive is an SD card reader. Who knew? So I plugged her card into the reader and finally it was properly mounted.

The website for PhotoRec says that as long as you can see the card and the proper size of the card is detected, then there is a very good chance that the data can be recovered. Luckily this card was reporting the proper size. Now PhotoRec is a free application and as such it doesn’t have a fancy user interface that just anybody can click around and figure out. You have to run this utility from the command line.

The drive that is 1000GB is my hard drive, the one that is 513MB is the memory card. So I choose the first one /dev/disk2, not the /dev/rdisk2. And I’m given a screen with more options:

Disk /dev/disk2 - 513 MB / 489 MiB (RO)

Please select the partition table type, press Enter when done.
[Intel  ]  Intel/PC partition
[EFI GPT]  EFI GPT partition map (Mac i386, some x86_64…)
[Mac    ]  Apple partition map
[None   ]  Non partitioned media
[Sun    ]  Sun Solaris partition
[XBox   ]  XBox partition
[Return ]  Return to disk selection

Intel seems like the most reasonable out of the choices so I select that one. I’m then prompted with more choices:

Disk /dev/disk2 - 513 MB / 489 MiB (RO)

Partition                  Start        End    Size in sectors
No partition                   0    1002495    1002496 [Whole disk]
1 P FAT16 >32M                   233    1002495    1002263 [NO NAME]

I’m pretty sure that memory sticks for most cameras are formatted as FAT so I choose that. I’m then prompted with more choices:

1 P FAT16 >32M                   233    1002495    1002263 [NO NAME]

To recover lost files, PhotoRec need to know the filesystem type where the file were stored:

[ ext2/ext3 ]  ext2/ext3/ext4 filesystem
[ Other     ]  FAT/NTFS/HFS+/ReiserFS/…

Again, I choose anything that says FAT, and again I prompted with more choices:

1 P FAT16 >32M                   233    1002495    1002263 [NO NAME]

Please choose if all space need to be analysed:

[   Free    ]  Scan for files from FAT16 unallocated space only
[   Whole   ]  Extract files from whole partition

You know me, I’m going with FAT. Now I’m asked where I would like to save the recovered files. This is starting to look promising.

Do you want to save recovered files in /Users/socketwiz/bin ? [Y/N]

Do not choose to write the files to the same partition they were stored on. I choose to store the files on my desktop and then select Y and it begins to attempt to restore the files…FINALLY. A folder is created on my desktop called recup_dir.1 and PhotoRec appears to be recovering the files:

Disk /dev/disk2 - 513 MB / 489 MiB (RO)
  Partition                  Start        End    Size in
  1 P FAT16 >32M                   233    1002495    1002263

  Pass 1 - Reading sector     384119/1002263, 151 files found
  Elapsed time 0h01m41s - Estimated time for achievement 0h02m42
  jpg: 151 recovered

After around 10-15 minutes all 412 files are properly recovered. Your mileage may vary but I would say if you can mount your card, and the operating system is reporting back the proper size of your card, then you have a pretty good chance of recovering you data from it. This software also runs on Windows and I would expect you would receive the same choices I described above. At any rate, if you or a friend end up with a corrupted memory card give these steps a try, I hope this helps.