Recover photos from a hard drive

By | September 20, 2020

When choosing the best photo recovery software it’s important to consider from what type of drive you need to recover from. To recover photos from a hard drive, in 9 out of 10 cases generic file recovery software will do better, give less fuzz and be quicker than specialized photo recovery software.

In advance: SSD is different.

Now before I will give a more detailed explanation it’s important to be aware of the fact that I’ll be discussing what happens at the file system level. If you’re using an SSD this whole exercise becomes somewhat moot as in specific scenarios the SSD will make data unrecoverable due to a thing called TRIM. This also applies to so called SMR spinning hard drives.

Why is it  bad idea to use photo recovery software on a hard drive?

Reason that I am doing this post because on various forums etc. I see people trying to recover their photos from hard drives running into all kinds of issues. Reason is that really specialized photo recovery tools are so called ‘raw scanners’ or ‘carvers’. This type of tool typically comes with some important drawbacks:

  • Needs to scan entire drive so is slow
  • Does not recover original folder structure and file names
  • Tends to produce false positives, it ‘thinks’ it may have found a photo while it didn’t
  • Tends to also produce many corrupt files
  • Can not handle file fragmentation unless you use even more specialized carvers
  • On a hard drive potentially produces thousands and thousands of photos for you to sort out

All in all it makes recovery of photos from a hard drive a huge undertaking. Some examples of such tools are PhotoRec, and also my own JpegDigger. This type of tools only makes sense if the file system on a hard drive is destroyed and if generic software fails.

Advantages of using generic file recovery software to recover photos 

This is why I advice you to first try recovering photos from a hard drive using a good, generic file recovery program. My personal goto tool is ReclaiMe.

If we look hard drives today, and I am limiting myself to Windows systems as I am a Windows user, the drive will be formatted (most likely) using the NTFS or exFAT file system. If you lost photos due to formatting or deletion, file system meta data pointing to that file will be largely intact. This is why in many situations a generic file recovery tool will be able to recover:

  • Intact files even when fragmented
  • Recovers filename
  • Recovers directory structure
  • Only scans file system meta data, so a lot quicker compared to raw scanners

Generic file recovery software recovers any type of files. Just because it doesn’t explicitly address photos doesn’t make it unsuited to use it for photo recovery. When it comes to file deletion or recovering photos from a formatted drive there’s nothing special about photo files. The photo format does not matter either, whether it’s JPEG, PNG, CR2, NEF etc..

One Other tool besides ReclaiMe that are most often used by data recovery labs for logical data recovery is R-Studio.


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