Card Error! – Two words that strike terror in the heart of a digital shooter. In the old days, it was opening the camera after supposedly rewinding the film and see film still there. But now days with the blessing of technology, we get a bit spoiled in thinking that since the widget is “digital”, it should be perfect every time. But it’s not perfect every time, sometimes the card has issues, the camera has issues or the person running it all has issues and the pictures are not readily accessible.
Unlike in the old days of film, I’ve only had ONE digital card (SD card) go bad enough to where I could not get the images off the card, even with the help of a specialized forensics lab trying also. I have had several times where I had to use special software to recover images and for the most part, the software works pretty well.
The recovery of images is not any different than recovery of files from a hard disk since the flash card appears to be a hard disk to the camera and computer. They are typically formatted in FAT32 though the older cameras use FAT16 and trying to mix n’match between these two formats leads to problems. FAT32 has been around a long time and is pretty reliable overall. The reliability is enhanced for our needs here by most camera manufacturers taking a short cut when we say “Format” the card by just erasing the root directory and not the entire card. So when you accidentally format a card with images, it’s a small matter for the software to go and scan each block of data looking for specific signatures that indicate JPEG files, RAW files, TIFFs and so on. You wont get the original name back, but you will get the image back. That is how it works in the simplest form.
This image was corrupted by using www.recyclism.com
What happens if the image is corrupted? Where a bit or two or three is not what it should be and now the image looks like it has grey blocks or streaks through it, or weird color bands through the image? or the image is unreadable for Lightroom, Photomechanic or your editor of choice? It becomes alot tougher to recovery anything usable. Alot depends on how you saved the images when you shot them. For example, for those of us that shoot RAW, there is a JPEG that is created and kept in the RAW file unbeknownst to many photographers. When I had a card go bad on me and corrupt 90% of the images on that card, I had shot RAW and so I used a tool called “File Juicer” for OSX to recover that JPEG out of the corrupted RAW file. It was not perfect but it was enough to let me recover about 95% of the shoot. I do not know of a similar tool for those on Windows. With FileJuicer, you just drop the RAW file onto the application and let it go. Like magic you will have some folders with the extracted text and JPEG. Here are some screen shots of File Juicer in action on a NEF (Nikon RAW) file.
It does not get much easier than this to recover a JPEG from a RAW file, even a corrupted one. There are numerous recovery applications for getting images off a formatted or dying flash card. My personal favorite is Sandisk’s own application called “Rescue Pro”. It has worked for me many times where others have not faired as well. You can find out more about it here. I got my copy with the purchase of some flash cards a while back.
None of these tools will help you if you have overwritten the files by new files and you do not have any back up. All you can hope for is that you can recover some files from space not written to by the new files.
I will say this, flash cards are alot tougher than people give them credit for being. I personally have run two of them through a wash cycle (dont ask) and they were fine afterwards. I still use them in fact but not for paid shoots 🙂 I just read a piece about a couple’s point and shoot getting dredged up from the ocean bottom by a fisherman and he was able to read the card, post the recovered images and reunite the couple with their up to then, lost images. Imagine, months in saltwater and still readable.. amazing but I hope not to have to test this one myself. There are some basic rules to avoid having to test any of this advice due to user error.
The best rule to remember is ALWAYS format the card in the camera it will be used in. Do not trust anything else’s formating tools or the factory formating.
The second best rule is to NEVER delete images from the camera, just keep shooting and delete them in your image workflow software.
A third guideline is to buy the fastest card your camera needs. Not that YOU need but the one that the camera can really use. Using a slow card in a fast writing camera is asking for trouble. Even more so when writing large files like RAW files. JPEGs are about 1/3 the size of a RAW or even smaller so there is more forgiveness there in writing to a slow card.
A trick if you are recovering a damaged card and you use a Mac. Make a image file from the card very first thing. This will let you work from a bit for bit copy of the data instead of a slowly failing card. You can use OSX’s disk utility tool to make this image file. File Juicer has this built into the tool as a menu option, yet another reason to buy File Juicer.