Don't Panic! – Memory Disasters

Memory Card Conundrums

When shooting film, there always was an outside chance you’d have a problem and lose photographs. I was shooting production stills for a music video producer once and one of the two camera backs I was using locked up, destroying a roll of film and rendering that back a paperweight. Those pictures are gone forever. Reading this you might be nodding at this moment, thinking that you’ve been through the same thing.

At first glance, the digital equivalent of such a disaster can be much more devastating. After all, a 4 MB CompactFlash card can have hundreds of images on it—a single card could hold an entire job. While it’s rare for any memory card to fail, it can happen, and if it ever does, the most important thing to remember is not to panic.

Memory cards typically fail because they become corrupted. Rogue data interferes with the camera’s or the computer’s ability to interpret the image data. The result is an error message and the appearance that all images have been lost. Note that I said the appearance is that all images have been lost. Appearances can be deceiving. Nine times out of 10, the image data isn’t gone, even if the card has become corrupt. Using image recovery software like Image Rescue 2.0 from Lexar, ImageRecall 3 from FlashFixers and RescuePRO from SanDisk, it’s a simple matter to recover the “lost” files.


Besides electronic corruption, which can happen for any number of reasons, there’s the possibility of human error contributing to lost files. Sometimes, the “Yes” answer to the key “Are you sure you want to delete these images?” question is selected hastily or by accident. A deleted file still exists in the memory card; however, it has been modified to be seen as expendable by the camera or computer. Using image-recovery software, you usually can recover these deleted files as well. If you format the card, images probably are gone for good, but if you merely delete the images, you stand an excellent chance of getting them back.

The other side of the coin also applies. If you want to delete your images from a memory card to prevent someone else from getting hold of them—say, you had borrowed a card—be sure that you format the card instead of just selecting the delete option.

In some cases, the memory card can’t be accessed by the recovery software. Then your best bet is to contact the card manufacturer. The major memory card makers like Lexar, SanDisk, Kingston and Delkin, among others, have a vested interest in helping you recover any lost imagery or data. If you contact their customer service centers, you’ll be directed to the appropriate recovery software, but if you point out that the software failed, the company often asks you to send the card in for a last-ditch effort at recovery. Of course, this is on a case-by-case and company-by-company basis, but they do try to be accommodating.

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