Lost File Recovery
Reformatted Drive Recovery
Ease of Use
Digital Camera Recovery
Help & Support
Best Photo Recovery Software
How Can Photo Recovery Software Help You?
The top performers in our review are Remo Recover Media Edition, the Gold Award winner; Disk Doctors Photo Recovery, the Silver Award winner; and Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Before digital cameras became common, losing your family photos meant that you couldn't find the photos or they had been destroyed. A box went missing during a move. There was a fire. The toddler somehow got his hands on them. The photo paper lost the image to age. Back then, you had to take your photos to a store that developed the film on special paper. Enjoying a photo meant physically holding it in your hands at some point. We stored our photos in frames hung on walls, in albums on a bookcase, or in shoeboxes under a bed or in the back of a closet. To recover a lost photo meant you had to have the negatives. Digital cameras turned this experience on its head.
With digital cameras, photography habits changed. While you might still develop your most sentimental photos for hanging on your wall, you don't need to develop or print photos to enjoy them anymore. Photo albums have largely moved online with social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram and offline in a picture folder on your computer or phone. Instead of in shoeboxes, excess photos are stored on hard drives and SD cards. Unfortunately, these storage devices have a shorter shelf life than film. Kodak estimates that a 35 mm film negative, under the right circumstances, would last over 1,000 years. In contrast, the average hard drive has a shelf life of between four and 10 years. So you're probably more likely to lose photos now than you ever were. Fortunately, photo recovery software makes it easy to get your photos back when this happens.
Digital cameras work similarly to film cameras in that they create an image by capturing light using apertures, shutter speeds and other common features. The difference is in how the image is imprinted. With a film camera, the light of the image imprints on a strip of film. With a digital camera, image sensors capture the light of an image and the image is processed into data on an SD card. Image recovery software works by scanning your storage device, reading the data on the drive, and stitching the images back together like some hipster friend obsessed with putting puzzles together without looking at the box.
How Does Data Usually Become Lost?
In most scenarios where you've lost your photos, the cause of the data loss is rooted in the file path or file directory. The directory has been deleted, removed, corrupted or reformatted. In any case, the operating system can't access the photo because the path to the file is gone. However, the ones and zeros of the file are still on the storage device.
One way to imagine how this works is to view your storage device as a large warehouse where all of your files are stored in blocks. Your operating system is the warehouse foreman with a clipboard. The clipboard is the warehouse directory. It lists all the files and the locations of all the blocks that make up each file. When you request a photo, the warehouse foreman looks at the directory, goes into the warehouse and comes out with the photo, fully assembled. If anything happens to that clipboard, the warehouse foreman won't know where to look or how to assemble the files. Photo recovery software works by going into the warehouse and putting the files together without the clipboard.
The most common data loss scenario occurs when you delete a file and empty the recycle bin. Most of the time, this is done intentionally, but it's not uncommon to lose files accidentally this way. Perhaps you deleted the wrong folder. Perhaps someone in the family deleted a folder of photos not realizing that someone else needed those photos. Either way, the actual data loss doesn't occur until you've emptied the recycle bin. It's called a recycle bin instead of a deletion bin because you're literally telling your computer to recycle the space on the drive. The ones and zeros of the file are never deleted from the drive, but if you keep using the drive, the OS will eventually write new data over the old data. Overwritten files cannot be recovered unless there's a copy of the data elsewhere.
The Steps to Photo Recovery
The first step toward recovering your lost photos is to stop using the storage device. If you continue using the drive, your OS will eventually write over the photos with new data. The longer you use your storage device after data loss has occurred, the less likely a successful recovery will be. To illustrate this point, we added 5GB of data to a thumb drive, and then we deleted the data and emptied the recycle bin. To simulate a few weeks of using the drive, we added 1GB of data. Then we scanned the drive with recovery software to recover the deleted files. You'd think that only 1GB of the original data was overwritten, but you'd be wrong. Since the blocks of data are written randomly to the drive, almost all of the 5GB of files were partially overwritten, which made them inaccessible.
The second step to recovering your lost photos is scanning your storage device with picture recovery software. To do this, you have to consider your situation. If you can't remove the hard drive, you should make sure you choose image recovery software that is read-only or that has a boot utility feature. You don't want to install the software to the hard drive, as this can overwrite the very photos that you're trying to recover. If the photos are on an external device like an SD card, an external hard drive or a thumb drive, you can simply install the software to your hard drive and scan for the external drives attached to your computer. After the photo recovery software has completed the scan, the software writes the photos to a different storage device, completing the recovery process.
There are many free photo recovery software programs. Many are available from the makers of the best data recovery software on the market. This is because image files, like JPG and PNG, are among the easiest files to recover. Many data recovery apps offer free photo recovery software as a hook for their more sophisticated data recovery apps. This is done with the idea that if you recover all of your photos, you'll view the software as a reliable product and turn to it when you need to recover documents, music and videos.
We tested several of the free photo recovery apps to see how they compare to photo recovery software in our review. In the tests, the free photo recovery software recovered JPGs at an average rate of less than 7 percent. This was the best recovery success rate that the free software recorded for both the lost file and reformatted drive tests. The software did recover a high number of production, vector and camera raw files – more than was included in the data set. However, it turned out that most of these recovered files were either duplicates or too damaged to open and view.
We also compared how well photo recovery software performed against data recovery software when recovering image files. Most data recovery software costs close to $100, but the best data recovery software we've reviewed, Data Rescue PC3, costs less than $30, which is the same as most photo recovery apps. However, while the success rates are comparable to photo recovery software for recovering JPGs, the data recovery software struggled to save other image files. It didn't recognize any of the camera raw images and recovered a very low percentage of production and vector images. As such, you're definitely better off with photo recovery software if you're recovering any images that aren't JPGs.
Photo Recovery Software: What We Tested, What We Found
The most commonly used digital image format is JPG. As such, you're far more likely to be recovering JPGs than any other image type. Fortunately, JPG is the easiest file format for photo recovery software to recognize and recover. However, the best photo recovery software should be able to recover all types of image files. So, to test this, we created a data set with an equal number of raster files, vector files, production files and camera raw files. Then we used this data set to test the lost file and reformatted drive scenarios. To account for variables, we performed the tests multiple times on many drive types to determine average recovery rates.
Building the Data Set
A raster image is constructed on a matrix of pixels. In other words, if you zoomed in on the image, you'd see that the picture is made of dots, not unlike Georges Seurat's famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." The quality of a raster image depends on the number of pixels. If you change the size of the image, the quality of the image decreases and becomes blurry. This is the most common image type because it contains exceptional detail and can naturally blend colors. The raster files in our data set included an equal number of JPGs, PNGs, TIFs, BMPs and GIFs.
A vector image is an image based on geometrical points, lines and curves. As such, vector images are scalable, which means that the quality of the image remains the same at any size. You can resize an image to fit a billboard or a business card and the quality of the image would be the same on both. However, vector images lack the detail and natural color blending of raster images. These images are mostly used in logos, graphics, and web and print design. For our data set, we included SVG, DWF and DWG vector images.
A production image is a layered image that requires software to view. For the purpose of our review, we defined production files as unfinished or in-progress images that you'll eventually save as a raster or vector image. In other words, you use these image files in conjunction with photo or graphic editing software. When opened in photo editing software, these images have multiple layers, filter effects and other information concerning the editing of the image. For our data set, we included production images for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Corel Paint and Corel Draw.
A camera raw image is the proprietary format used by specific digital camera brands that contains all of the raw information the image sensors capture when you take a picture. As a result, these files require software to view. Once you open the image in the software, you can edit the lighting, exposure, color saturation and almost any other aspect of the image before saving it as a raster image. These proprietary formats are very large and are typically only used by professional or experienced hobbyist photographers. We included raw formats of all major camera brands – Nikon, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji and more.
Lost File Recovery
Human error is the most common cause of data loss. Usually, it starts with deleting a folder without looking at the contents, followed by emptying the recycle bin. Eventually, you realize your mistake. In a different scenario, you've downloaded some nefarious file with a virus and the virus has corrupted the directory. To test these scenarios, we added the original data sets to an empty HDD, SSD and SD card. Then we deleted the data set and emptied the recycle bin so that the drives appeared to have no files. At this point, we installed the photo recovery software and scanned the drives to recover the deleted files. After each recovery, we compared the original data set to the recovered data set. This determined the recovery percentage.
Since each product scanned the same drives, the tests are a comparable reflection of what each product was capable of recovering in the same scenario. Most of the photo recovery software recovered JPGs with a perfect success rate. While the success rate began to dip for the other raster files, most products we tested still recovered a high rate of TIF, PNG, GIF and BMP files. The success rates became far more varied with the vector, production and camera raw images, which is to be expected. These image formats are less common and more complicated than a standard raster file.
Reformatted Drive Recovery
Another common data loss scenario is the reformatted drive. Typically, this begins with attaching an external drive to your Mac that isn't formatted for your current iOS. Your Mac recognizes the mismatched format and asks you to format the drive. You click OK because you want to use the drive. However, you don't realize until after the drive's been formatted that the data is gone. To test this scenario, we added the data set of photos, documents, videos and music files to an HDD, SSD and flash drive. Then we reformatted the drive and used the Mac hard disk recovery software to scan and recover the data set.
Similar to the lost file scenario, each photo recovery app in our review scanned the same reformatted drives, creating a comparable look into how the products fare when recovering data from the same drive and the same scenario. The recovery rates of JPGs were similar to those of the lost file test, but there was far more variation with the other raster files.
Digital Camera Recovery
One of the most common image recovery scenarios occurs when you take an SDHC card out of one camera and place it in another camera. If the camera brand is different, you may have to format the card, losing any data taken from the previous camera. Since nearly every digital camera brand features its own proprietary raw format, we looked at how well the photo recovery software recovered these camera formats from a reformatted SDHC card. Instead of looking for the recovery percentages of the files, we only considered whether or not it recognized the format. Since there are so many camera raw formats, we only looked at ones from popular digital camera brands – Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Kodak, Fuji and Polaroid.
Most of the photo recovery software programs in our review claim to recover all types of camera raw formats. This test turned out to be the most surprising facet of our testing. Less than half of the products recognized any of the camera raw formats on the reformatted drive test. As such, we decided to credit the picture recovery software if it recognized the format at any point in our tests.
Ease of Use
We don't want to make your day any more stressful by recommending software that's difficult to use. As such, we think it's important for photo recovery software to guide you through each stage of the recovery process. The best photo recovery software should be easy for even the most novice users. You should find no learning curve. To determine the software's ease of use, our tester looked closely at the interface, the installation, the scanning process and the recovery process.
From our tests, we determined grades for each stage of the recovery process – installation, scan and recovery. It's important to the ease of use that the scan and recover buttons be clearly defined and labeled. We also considered the number of mouse clicks between each stage and how long it took the tester to figure out how to initiate features. The best photo recovery software has no learning curve, even for a novice user.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate typical, real-world experiences with data recovery software. For our tests, we obtained the units in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input on our testing methodology, and our rankings were not shared with them prior to publication.
What Else Is Important in Selecting Photo Recovery Software?
The best photo recovery software has a great balance of performance and ease of use. However, you should also consider the scan and recover speeds. Software that can scan and process data at a high rate will help you get your pictures quicker, which means you can sooner put this bad day behind you. You'll also want to look at the software developer's help and support features. If you happen upon a problem, you'll want support that helps you fix the issue.
In each test we ran, we measured how much data the product could scan in an hour. Then we averaged the scan speeds from every test we ran on the HDD, SSD and SD card. We found no correlation between recovery success rates and scan speeds, so you shouldn't think that a product with a slow scan would produce better results. A fast scan simply means that you'll get your photos back sooner.
Once the software finishes scanning a drive, you have to preview and select the files that you want to recover. Once you've initiated the recovery, the software writes the data to a new storage device. You can't write the data to the same device that you're recovering it from, as this would overwrite the data you're trying to rescue. We timed the amount of data that the image recovery software can recover in an hour on an HDD, SSD and SD card. As with the scan speed, a high recover speed simply means you'll have your family photos back sooner.
Help & Support
As with any product, you should consider how well the manufacturer supports the software. We looked at how you can contact the support team of the software developer. In case you need help with the software, the developers have phone numbers, live chat and email contacts. You should look at how the user manual is available online. A PDF format is easier to reference and access than an HTML format. You should also consider the educational resources available like tutorials, articles and a knowledgebase.
Photo Recovery Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The best photo recovery software in our review was Remo Recover Media Edition. It had the best overall recovery rates for the lost file and reformatted drive tests, and it recognized nearly every camera raw format. Disk Doctors Photo Recovery was the runner-up with high recovery rates for all the raster images. It also received above-average grades for the ease of use in each stage of the process and was one of the fastest at scanning drives. Our Bronze Award winner, Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery, was the easiest product to use.
At about $20 less than the top photo recovery software, PhotoRescue is the most affordable picture recovery option. While it didn't have recovery rates comparable to the best photo recovery software, it still recognized most of the camera raw formats and recovered JPGs at an above-average rate. It definitely outperformed the free photo recovery software we tested.
Losing your family photos is extremely deflating and stressful. Photos allow you to relive the memory repeatedly. They keep your most valued moments fresh in your mind. Photo recovery software can rescue those moments. And after you recover your photos, make sure you back up your photos with online backup services or data backup software. Online backup services often provide infinite storage for a reasonable monthly fee, while backup software generally comes at a one-time cost but requires a second device or computer to store the backed-up version of your data. Either way, choosing an effective method of backing up your photos is the best way of avoiding this terrible experience. If you lose your photos or your hard drive dies, you'll always have a copy ready.