We've all done it. A brief lapse of concentration and your precious photos are sent to oblivion; a small human error and key files are deleted from your hard drive. Although it may seem like it at the time, it's not the end of the world, as it's often possible to resurrect images from hard drives and memory cards - even if the card has been formatted. All you need are the right tools, quick action, and a little luck.
For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the file deletion process, here's a quick recap. When you delete a file, Windows typically moves it to the Recycle Bin. As long as you don't empty the bin, the file is easy to recover. Unfortunately, memory cards don't have space for a Recycle Bin, so files are deleted immediately. However, their contents aren't erased; what is erased is the data that tells Windows where to find them. The only time a file is truly wiped is when new files are written over the area where it was once stored.
The cardinal rule when you want to retrieve a deleted image file from a card you are using in a camera is this: don't take any more photographs with the card. The same rule applies to files on your hard drive: don't add any new files to it. The data that makes up a deleted file is still there, albeit temporarily, so the next time you take a picture, it may overwrite the deleted file with the new image.
Your next step is to get a copy of a suitable file recovery program. There are many expensive tools for the job costing $50-100, but the two programs on our July cover CD will do the job for free. File Recovery 3 is used for hard drives and Smart Recovery is for memory cards.
Recovering files from memory cards
To recover data from a memory card, start by installing Smart Recovery. Don't run the program until you've plugged in your camera, card reader or other device - and yes, you can use it on standard USB drives, but the format choices are limited to multimedia files such as images, videos and sounds.
Once Windows has assigned your device a new drive letter, start Smart Recovery ( see here for a screen shot.). From the first window, select the drive, then the file type. If you know the file format of your images, this stage will be a breeze. If you don't have this information to hand, you'll need to repeat the scan process for each format. You can take a few shortcuts - stick to image formats if you are recovering photographs (e.g., JPEG, TIFF) or video formats for movies (e.g., MOV, AVI).
Choose a file location for the recovered images and click the Start button. Don't, under any circumstances, select your media as the destination for recovered files, as this may well wipe the data you're trying to get back. When the process has finished, Smart Recovery will show the number of files it has salvaged. If the program doesn't find any files to recover, it will switch to Intensive Mode. If you wish, you can switch to the Intensive mode at any time by clicking File-Settings-Intensive Mode.
Recovering deleted files from hard drives
Ideally, you should install File Recovery on your PC before you need to use it. Installing it after the horse has bolted may overwrite your lost data. If you haven't installed the program before you need to recover a deleted file, then you'll just have to take the risk that it may overwrite some of your files. At the very least, try to install it on a drive that is different to the one where the files were originally stored.
After starting File Recovery, select Object-Drive. This will detect the hard drives on your system. Once this has finished, click the Scan button. You'll now be able to browse files on your drive, both current and deleted. Click the deleted folder icon and try to find the location of the file. The program will also give you a condition report for each file: a label of 'good' means that the recovery should be successful, but files labelled 'poor' will have a lower chance, due to parts being missing or overwritten.
Once you've located the file to recover, highlight it and select Object-Save to, or right-click on the folder. Again, avoid restoring the file to the same disk; use a floppy drive if no second hard disk is available. If you can't remember the location of the deleted items, or you want to recover all deleted items, click Edit-Select all followed by Object-Save to. Incidentally, this technique works for most file types, not just image formats.