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How to Recover Deleted Photos From Your Memory Card or Smartphone

S#@$*! Accidentally deleted your vacation photos from your memory card? These steps might help get them back.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

“Oh, no. Oh, nonononono. S#@$*!” — You, after realizing you just accidentally deleted all of your vacation photos from your camera’s memory card. Or maybe your child somehow got his grubby little hands on your smartphone and wiped your camera roll clean.

It sucks, and I sympathize. And I hope you can take some comfort from my advice: You may actually be able to get those photos back.

What follows are some ways to recover your lost photos from a memory card or smartphone. Some solutions involve using software, while others might be as simple as looking in the right folder. I should note that there are a lot of other options out there; these are just a few examples.

There’s no 100 percent guarantee that the methods will work, but they’re worth a shot before paying for a professional recovery service or giving up completely.

Recovering photos from a memory card

Before diving into the recovery process, it might help to understand what happens when you delete a photo from your memory card. Doing so doesn’t actually completely erase the files from the card. The data is still there. The system just marks the space as available for use for other files (new pictures).

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Still, in this case, it’s important that you don’t take any new photos, since they might overwrite the space of the deleted photos, at which point they’re totally gone. If you follow that rule, there’s a good chance that you’ll get those images back using recovery software.

Your memory card or digital camera may have come bundled with recovery software, but if you’re anything like me, you either threw it out or you have no idea where you put it. Fortunately, you can find plenty of solutions online.

I tried several different desktop apps, such as Stellar Phoenix Mac Recovery, but the one I had the most success with is called PhotoRec by CG Security. It costs nothing, and works with Mac and Windows. But it has a rather intimidating user interface, so I’ll walk you through the various steps.

For my tests, I used a MacBook Air running OS X Yosemite. (For Windows users, Recuva is a good alternative, with a more user-friendly interface.)

Step 1: Connect your memory card to your computer either a built-in or external card reader.

Step 2: Launch PhotoRec and enter your Mac password if prompted.

Step 3: Using the arrow keys, select your media card from the list. It may not be labeled in a manner that you’re familiar with (e.g., SanDisk media card), so look at the size of the disk as a clue. For example, if you have a 16 gigabyte card, you’ll want to find the drive similar in size. Once you’ve found the correct drive, press Enter.

Step 4: On the next screen, select the option that reads FAT32 by pressing enter, and then choose Other by hitting Enter again.

Step 5: The following screen will give you two options: Free or Whole. Choose Free if you’re looking to recover deleted files. But if you think your memory card is corrupted, select Whole.

Step 6: Next, you’ll be asked to choose where you want to save your recovered files. You might want to create a new folder on your desktop, or save it to your Pictures folder. Just use the arrow keys to make your selection from the list, and then press C to confirm. PhotoRec will then start the recovery process.

Depending on how many files you had on the memory card, it might take a little while. PhotoRec was able to recover 168 photos from my camera’s memory card, and it took a little over half an hour. The app provides an estimated time of completion, and shows you in real time the number and types of files it has recovered from your memory card.

Recovering photos from your iPhone

With the release of iOS 8, Apple made it easier to retrieve deleted photos and videos from your iPhone. You just need to follow these steps, but there is one important caveat, which I’ll explain later:

Step 1: Go to the iPhone’s Photos app and tap Albums on the bottom toolbar.

Step 2: Scroll down the list and tap on Recently Deleted. As the name suggests, this is where you’ll find an album of recently deleted photos and videos.

Step 3: If you find the missing image, simply tap on the individual photo and select Recover to add it back to your photo album, or Delete if you want to permanently erase it.

That caveat: Recently Deleted only shows photos and videos from the past 30 days. After that time, the files are deleted permanently.

If you’re looking for a photo that’s older than 30 days, you may be able to retrieve it by restoring your iPhone from an old backup using iTunes (you are backing up your phone, right?), or trying a third-party photo-recovery app.

Recovering photos from your Android phone

If your Android device has a microSD card slot, and you save your photos and videos to the memory card, you can use recovery software like the aforementioned PhotoRec to locate your missing images.

Otherwise, try a desktop software app like Kvisoft Data Recovery, which is available for Windows and Mac. The app will scan your Android device for deleted files for free, but in order to recover them, you have to upgrade to the paid version, which costs $70. Another option, though it’s Windows only, is Wondershare’s Dr. Fone for Android.

Here’s how to use the app:

Step 1: On your Android smartphone, make sure the USB debugging feature is enabled. To do this on an Android 5.0 device, go to Settings > About phone > Build number, and then tap a few times until you get a messaging saying, “You are now a developer!” Return to the Settings menu, select Developer Options and turn on USB debugging. You can find directions on how to do this on older Android devices here.

Step 2: After launching the app, connect your smartphone to your computer via USB cable, and select Multimedia/Mobile Device from the main menu.

Step 3: On the next screen, select your device to scan files (again, if your phone doesn’t show up under a familiar name, look for similar capacity size as a clue) and then press Start.

Step 4: Once the scan is complete, you can preview and select which files you want to recover using the menu on the left side. After that, click the Recovery button and select where you would like the files to be stored.

Hopefully, one of these solutions will help you recover your photos. If not, you still have other options, like professional data-recovery services. Our videographer at Re/code recently used one and, while expensive, they were able to recover some important work files.

And if that doesn’t work, you have my full permission to have that aforementioned freak-out, before you start snapping new photos and gathering new memories.

This article originally appeared on

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