Whether an album commemorating a family vacation, a perfectly posed selfie or a compromising shot of a wealthy politician, photos have value. While storing them digitally has revolutionized our ability to safeguard our photos from the ravages of time, accidents can still happen.
When you’ve got hundreds or thousands of photos stored on your hard drive, it’s a relatively simple matter to delete one without thinking. It’s also not unheard of to accidentally format a partition, losing everything on it.
On top of that, hard drives, particularly HDDs, have lots of moving parts that are prone to malfunction. This leads to corruption that can render image files unviewable. Similar issues can occur with digital cameras, SD cards, USB drives and other places where you might have photos stored.
Restoring Lost Photos
The good news is that often times deleting files from your hard drive doesn’t really delete them and file corruptions aren’t always a lost cause. The bad news is that computer repair stores often charge mucho dinero to recover deleted files, including photos. The other good news is that with the right software, you can do the same for much less.
During this guide, we’ll consider some of the photo software recovery options available to you and show you just how easy the process can be, using Stellar Photo Recovery and PhotoRec and as examples.
Before we tackle software recovery, we’ll first take a look at how you can recover files using cloud storage or online backup, since if you use one of those tools, there’s a good chance your lost photos are just a click or two away. Also, if you’re just looking to recover regular files, make sure to check out our best data recovery software reviews.
Recovering Deleted Photos From The Cloud
If you used your Android phone to snap the photo you’ve lost and happened to have turned on automatic upload to Google Drive, you’re in luck. Android users automatically get 15GB of free storage space, which also covers Google Photos. Head to drive.google.com and click the Google Photos tab on the left to access photos uploaded from your smartphone or tablet.
If you haven’t set up Google Photos or took your pictures from a digital camera, this method of recovery obviously not going to help. You can protect yourself from future deletions by opening your Google Photos app on your smartphone, going to settings and turning on “backup & sync.”
For iPhone users, Apple iCloud can also be used to recover deleted photos if you had the foresight to set up automatic uploads. With iCloud, however, you’re limited to 5GB of free storage. In either case — Google Drive or iCloud — your storage space is likely to run out.
While it won’t help you recover photos now, we’ve put together a list of the best cloud storage for photos if you’ve found the free storage space you get with Google Drive or iCloud just isn’t enough. There are some great alternative options available, including the super secure Sync.com if you’re afraid of NSA spies mocking your selfies (read our full Sync.com review to find out why we love it so much).
A better bet than cloud storage to recover photos deleted from your computer hard drive is to recover them from an online backup solution. If you’re unclear on the difference between cloud storage vs online backup, our guide to the best online backup should help.
The Case for Backup
The advantage of online backup over cloud storage is that online backup can be used to automatically backup photos stored on your computer regardless of where those photos are in your file system. Cloud storage usually requires moving them into a sync folder, making it easy to overlook photos.
Online backup provider IDrive is perfect for protection against accidental file deletions because even when a file is deleted on your computer, it remains on the IDrive server until you manually delete it there or run an archive cleanup process. As you can read in our IDrive review, the service calls this method of deleted file recovery “true archiving” and it’s something you won’t get with many other popular online backups, including Backblaze and Carbonite.
Other services also retain deleted files, but only for a limited amount of time.
|Service||Service Type||Deleted File Retention|
|Google Drive||Cloud Storage||Indefinitely|
|iCloud||Cloud Storage||30 days|
|Dropbox||Cloud Storage||30 days|
|OneDrive||Cloud Storage||30 days|
|Backblaze||Online Backup||30 days|
|Carbonite||Online Backup||60 days|
|CloudBerry Backup||Online Backup||Indefinitely|
|SpiderOak ONE||Online Backup||Indefinitely|
Both cloud storage and online backup services usually incorporate a feature called versioning, too. With versioning, you can revert back to previous file states with relative ease. While we often associate versioning with walking back undesirable file changes, it can be used to fix file corruptions — including image file corruption.
In fact, versioning is a great way to get yourself out of trouble with ransomware, a type of cybercrime that uses file corruption as a means of coercion. Simply delete the malware that caused the issue and restore the previous version.
The process of restoring a previous image file is usually relatively simple. With Sync.com, for example, it’s just a matter of logging into the browser, right-clicking on the image and selecting “view history.” Find and mark the file you want to revert to and click the button that reads, “restore selected.”
While most cloud storage and online backup services offer file versioning, how many and how long versions are kept is another matter.
|IDrive||Retains previous 10 versions of any file|
|Backblaze||Retains all versions from last 30 days|
|Carbonite||Retains at least three versions regardless of age and other versions for up to three months|
|Sync.com||Unlimited versioning (Pro account)|
|Dropbox||Retains all versions from last 30 days|
For When You Didn’t Backup: Photo Recovery Software
Cloud storage and online backup make deleted photo recovery relatively straightforward, to a point. Then again, if you’re reading this article there’s a good chance you’ve haven’t implemented one of those solutions.
As we noted at the outset of this article, there’s a whole range of software designed to recover deleted image files and even repair corrupted ones. You’ll find some free, open-source options and some licensing options available, each with varying degrees of performance, features and user experience.
For the remainder of this guide, we’re going to walk you through using two of these services. The first is PhotoRec, which we chose because it’s one of the best free, open-source options available. The second is Stellar Photo Recovery, which we chose for its features and the fact that the Stellar brand favorite among IT-shop professionals.
Recovering Photos With PhotoRec
PhotoRec is one of the best free recovery tools you can get thanks to its ability to recover hundreds of different file types (not just photos). It can recover photos from your hard drive, USB drives and even your digital camera. One of the benefits of PhotoRec is that it’s fast, ignoring the file system and targeting underlying data only.
This approach also lets PhotoRec access photos even if your computer’s file system is damaged and lets it recover photos from pretty much any device, regardless of its type of file system.
The big problem with PhotoRec is that it doesn’t use a GUI: it’s a command-line tool. That means you’re going to need to be comfortable with a little less hand-holding than you’d get with most modern software solutions.
You can install PhotoRec along with TestDisk, a more complete data recovery tool, by visiting cgsecurity.org (named after the author of both pieces of software, Christophe Grenier).
Once downloaded and extracted, you’ll need to click on the PhotoRec application file to run it.
This will open the command line interface. It may look a little scary, but it’s really not difficult to use. Start by using your keyboard arrow keys to highlight the partition you want to scan or the entire physical drive. Then highlight “proceed” and hit enter.
Next, you’ll need to either choose to run the scan against your file system or the underlying disk. Once you’ve made your pick, make sure “search” is highlighted below and hit enter again.
The next step is to choose to scan just free space or the entire partition. If you’re only looking for deleted files, just scan the free space. Otherwise, you’ll be returning non-deleted files and the process will take longer.
Finally, you’ll need to pick a place to save your recovered files.
Hit “c” once you’ve settled on a directory to drop your files, and the scan will begin running. The command line interface will keep you updated on the progress as it runs.
Once finished, navigate to the directory you indicated for recovery and your photos should hopefully be there.
PhotoRec does the job and it’s free, but if you’re looking for a more fully featured experience, you might want to look elsewhere. In addition to relying on a command-line interface, PhotoRec doesn’t let you preview files before recovering them and it doesn’t repair corrupted photo files. There are many great options out there if you don’t mind spending a bit of money, with one of the best being Stellar Photo Recovery.
Recovering Photos With Stellar Photo Recovery
Stellar Photo Recovery isn’t free, but you can at least download the software for free and run a scan in order to make sure your files are recoverable first. That way, you don’t end up paying for something that isn’t going to work for you, compounding the frustration of having lost your photos in the first place.
In addition to images, Photo Recovery can be used to recover video and audio files, too. If you’d like a more flexible file recovery solution, Stellar also makes one of the best data recovery tools available, which you can read about in our Stellar Data Recovery review.
To get started with Stellar Photo Recovery, you’ll first need to download the correct recovery software for your computer. Clients are available for both Windows and Mac and there are two different versions available for each operating system: standard and professional.
Go with the standard version if you just need to recover accidentally deleted media files. If you’ve got corrupt files that you want to repair, you’ll need professional.
All versions can be used to recover files from your file system, formatted hard drives, digital cameras, external storage devices, memory cards and flash drives. Over 100 different multimedia formats are supported.
Installation only takes a few minutes. Once the software is up and running, click the blue “recover photo, audio & video” button to get started.
On the next screen, you’ll need to pick a partition to scan. If your partition was accidentally deleted or formatted, you can run a scan against the entire disc to recover media files, too.
Make your selection and click the “scan” button. Scans run relatively quickly even against large hard drives because the program is only looking for media files. Once complete, you’ll be able to browse and preview all of the recovered files.
Note that the app will display non-deleted files in the list, too. If you want to narrow down the results to just those that have been deleted, click the “deleted list” tab. From there, you can choose to recover specific files or all files. Once you’ve made your picks, clicking the “recover” button will let you save them to a location on your disk drive.
That’s really all there is to it. TheStellar Photo Recovery app isn’t as nice to look at as the more full-featured Stellar Data Recovery tool, but it’s certainly easier to use than PhotoRec.
The best means of preventing the loss of photos through accidental deletion, file corruption and disk partitioning is to make sure you have your collection safely stored in the cloud, either using a cloud storage tool like Sync.com or Google Drive or, preferably, an online backup tool like Backblaze, IDrive or Carbonite.
However, while we’re strong cloud advocates here at CommQueR.com, we also know how easy it is to skimp on preparing for disaster recovery in favor of binge-watching Netflix and catching up on social media.
For those occasions when you’re not backed up, a number of excellent recovery tools are capable of reconstructing your lost photos. While Stellar Photo Recovery and PhotoRec are two of the favored options, they certainly aren’t the only ones.
We’d love to hear your own opinions on the best options for photo recovery in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.