SD cards (and microSD/SDHC/SDXC cards) are used everywhere – from DSLR cameras to mobile phones. They are reliable but prone to logical and physical damage. If your photos disappeared from your SD card, this is probably the case and you have to address it immediately.
This article has all the information you need to figure out what exactly happened to your SD card, no matter what device you’re using, as well as how to recover data from it before it’s too late. Originally, we had a section detailing possible reasons for missing photos at the beginning of the article. However, to help you find a solution to your problem more quickly, we decided to move that section to the second half of the article. If you’re interested in reading about those reasons, you can find them at this link.
How to Recover Photos Missing From Memory Card
For as long as your SD card’s missing photos haven’t been overwritten by new files, you can still extract them using special tools called data recovery software. These utilities can pull data from the file system, and some can even rebuild files that got corrupted. If you’ve never used one before, we’ll demonstrate the process below.
Option A: Disk Drill
Disk Drill is one of the most powerful and well-loved tools of its kind, and its easy-to-use GUI (graphical user interface) makes it perfect for users attempting DIY recovery for the first time.
Disk Drill is especially useful for recovering photos that disappeared from your memory card because you can preview files along the way (even RAW images). If you want to know more about Disk Drill’s features, read our full Disk Drill review. Additionally, we also have a dedicated safety analysis of the tool for those interested in its security aspects.
- Make sure your SD card is securely connected to your computer.
- Download and install Disk Drill. Then, launch it.
- Select your SD card from the drive list. It may appear as a “Generic USB” if you’re using a USB-type card reader. Then, click “Search for lost data.”
- Disk Drill will now scan your SD card. Wait until the app notifies you that the scan is complete, then click “Review found items.”
- You’ll now be able to review the files Disk Drill found. On the top-right corner of the screen, you can use the search bar to filter results to show only the files you want. For example, type “.cr2” to display only Canon RAW image version 2 files. You can also use the left sidebar to show only lost images on your SD card.
- Our favorite Disk Drill feature is the ability to preview files in the app. This is also useful since data recovery software might not always be able to retrieve exact file names. Hover your mouse pointer to the right of the file and click the eye button that appears.
- Use the checkbox column to select the files you want to restore. Then, click “Recover.”
- Use the dropdown button to select a location on your computer where Disk Drill will save the files it recovered from your SD card. Then, click “OK.”
Disk Drill Basic for Windows offers only 500 MB of free recovery. However, you can preview as many files as you want without paying a cent – this can help you figure out which files you can recover using software. We actually cover SD card recovery software in the next section, which is available for free, but note the limitations that are standard across all such tools.
Option B: PhotoRec
If you want to recover files above 500 MB and you don’t really have the budget to invest in Disk Drill (although we do recommend it as it offers a lifetime license), you can try recovering your data with PhotoRec.
Like Disk Drill, PhotoRec is a comprehensive data recovery software and it can restore pictures from an SD card that disappeared. However, it does have some limitations since it’s free. Most glaringly, it doesn’t have an interface – you’ll be recovering your data primarily through Command Prompt.
PhotoRec’s last update was also released in 2019, so your mileage may vary when using it. If you want to learn more about its features and our (recent) experiences with this software, read our full PhotoRec review.
- Make sure your SD card is securely connected to your computer.
- Download and install PhotoRec (it comes downloaded with TestDisk, its sister software).
- Launch PhotoRec.
- Use your arrow keys to select your SD card from the list, then highlight “Proceed” and hit enter.
- Use arrow keys up and down to highlight the partition you want to scan, then use your right arrow key to highlight “File Opt” and hit enter.
- Browse the list to make sure the file type you want to recover is selected. Make sure to select J-PEG and PNG files, as well as manufacturer-specfic RAW files (for ex. CRW for Canon cameras). Hit enter to return to the last screen.
- This time, highlight “Search” and hit enter.
- Use your arrow keys to highlight “Other” and hit enter.
- If you only want to recover files you deleted, go ahead with the “Free” option. Otherwise, use your down arrow key to highlight “Whole” and hit enter (this works better if you want to recover files from a corrupted SD card).
- Use the arrow keys (up and down to select a folder, left and right to enter and exit highlighted folders) to select a destination for your recovered files. Then, hit enter. Please remember to select a location on your computer and not on your SD card to avoid overwriting files.
If you want to restore your SD card from Android directly on your mobile device, there are similar apps on the Play Store. We wrote an article to help you choose the right one: Top 5 Best Apps to Recover Data from SD Card on Android.
Option C: Professional Data Recovery Service
If you can’t preview your files and/or you suspect that your SD card has been physically damaged, it’s time to call the pros (or risk further damage and data loss). If you’ve never used a professional SD card recovery service before, try to find one that offers at least most of the following:
- Free remote estimate: The most reputable centers have worked with thousands of cases… So they’re able to guesstimate a project based on similar cases without even diagnosing your SD card in person.
- No data-no charge guarantee: In my experience, not many services offer this guarantee. If you find one that does, it’s a good sign that they’re confident in their ability to restore their customers’ data.
- Class 100 Clean Room: This is an ultra-sterile lab where tiny dust and debris are highly controlled to avoid scratching or contaminating storage disks. This is non-negotiable. Anything less than a Class 100 Clean Room only increases the likelihood of permanent data loss and further damage to your SD card’s disk.
- Case-by-case pricing: Beware of data recovery centers that offer a fixed amount per GB recovered. Data recovery is too complex to follow this pricing structure.
Is it Possible to Recover Photos That Disappeared or Keep Disappearing From SD Card?
Most of the time, yes! SD cards follow the same behavior as most storage devices do – whenever you delete a file, the storage disk just marks its data block as “unallocated.” In other words, it gets treated as free space. So when you save a new file, the old data gets overwritten. Before that happens, you can still extract that data from the file system using special tools. However, cameras, mobile phones, and other multimedia devices all rely on the SD card and its variations… So things get a little more complicated. Since different devices interact with SD cards in their own ways, it’s important to properly diagnose the problem before attempting repair so you can avoid further data loss. Use the table below to figure out your next step and use the links to jump to the most relevant section.
Commonly happens to…
Digital cameras with LCD displays like Canon DSLR and Nikon DSLR cameras (it’s easy to hit “delete all” instead of “delete all in folder,” and cameras do not create recycle bin folders in their SD cards).
If you deleted your photos on your computer, check your recycle bin. If you deleted them using your camera, stop using it immediately. Then, refer to: How to Recover Photos Missing From Memory Card
Popular branded memory cards like Kingston SD cards, Sony SD cards, and SanDisk SD cards. The read/write speeds and/or indicated storage capacity are usually false. Continuing to take footage when your storage runs out can cause overwriting.
Corruption due to virus attack, read/write interruption, etc.
All memory cards and devices
DSLRs like Nikon and Canon cameras – if you insert an SD card with the wrong format, you’ll be prompted to format it directly on your device (which wipes your data)
Most mainstream SD/SDHC/SDXC card brands, such as Kingston, Transcend, SanDisk, and Sony have physical locks. microSD cards may have physical locks themselves or can be locked via an adaptor.
Check your SD card’s corners for a lock switch. You can’t access or recover photos from a SanDisk SD card if it’s locked. If it’s unlocked but still inaccessible, refer to: Additional Methods of Recovering Disappearing SD Card Photos
All memory cards and devices
Additional Methods of Recovering Disappearing SD Card Photos
If you’re sure that your SD card isn’t corrupted and you didn’t delete your files or format your card, then something is blocking your computer from accessing it. Below are some alternative ways to recover files from your SD card, provided that they haven’t been deleted. Expand the tabs for step-by-step instructions.
Method 1: Restart your computer
If you’ve opened and closed a lot of programs and haven’t restarted your computer in a while, temporary files and background processes may be hogging loads of its resources.
This may cause your computer to get stuck while refreshing itself, preventing it from mounting your SD card properly. This applies to any device with an operating system and file system. Try rebooting and see if that solves the problem.
Method 2: Add or change your SD card’s disk letter
It’s also possible that your computer failed to assign a drive letter to your SD card (or there are conflicting drive letters due to another problem), preventing it from properly recognizing the drive. Changing its disk letter manually may cause your photos to reappear.
- Launch Disk Management (use the search function in the Windows Start menu).
- Identify your SD card’s disk, then hit right-click > “Change Drive Letter and Paths…”
- If your SD card already has a drive letter, click “Change…” Otherwise, click “Add…”
- Make sure “Assign the following drive letter:” is selected, then use the dropdown button to choose a letter. Then, click “OK.”
Method 3: Update your drivers
Most users turn off Windows Updates to avoid bugs, but that means we also skip out on the latest drivers. Outdated drivers can limit a computer’s ability to recognize other devices. To resolve this, you can upgrade Windows as a whole (Control Panel > Windows Update) or update your USB drivers only:
- Launch Device Manager.
- Expand the “Universal Serial Bus controllers” toggle, then right-click one of the entries and click “Update driver.”
- First, try “Search automatically for drivers” (make sure you’re connected to the internet). If it doesn’t work, you may have to download drivers from the manufacturer’s website. After that, you can launch the updater again and select “Browse my computer for drives.” To proceed, follow the instructions on the dialogue box.
- Repeat steps 2-3 until all items have been updated and/or your SD card photos reappear
Method 4: Use another SD card or computer
Figure out if your SD card is really the problem. If it doesn’t work on any computer, your card may actually be damaged. Recover as much as much data as you can, then format it (Right-click your SD card on Windows File Explorer > Format).
If you need to recover files that disappeared from your SD card, you need the right tools to do it. Otherwise, your SD card can suffer more damage and even permanent data loss. We also suggest that you create a regular backup routine if your files matter to you. No matter how you try to baby your memory card, something will happen down the line – it’s just the nature of technology.
Alejandro Santos was both a tech guy and a writer early on in his life. As a kid, you’d find him in his uncle’s repair shop helping fix customers’ computers. Today, you’ll find his work on data recovery and software testing published on multiple tech websites, continuing to help users from afar.
Andrey Vasilyev is an Editorial Advisor for Handy Recovery. Andrey is a software engineer expert with extensive expertise in data recovery, computer forensics, and data litigation. Andrey brings over 12 years of experience in software development, database administration, and hardware repair to the team.