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Recover Deleted Photos from a Nikon Camera: The Definitive Guide

Have you ever accidentally deleted precious pictures from your Nikon camera and wanted them back badly?

I did. One day, somehow, all the photos were removed from my Nikon D3100 camera's 32GB memory card while I was transferring them to my computer.

I don't know what I did wrong — they just disappeared.

The good news is that I managed to recover all the deleted pictures, thank G!

If that has happened to you, or you are unable to access your photographs due to other reasons (reformatting, card errors, etc.), I hope the Nikon Photo Recovery Guide below is useful to you.

Note: for those who are using non-DSLR cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix series, I assume this guide also applies so long as the cameras use flash card for storage. In addition to photos (including NEF raw), video clips are retrievable as well.

Stop What You Are Doing Immediately

No matter how your pics got deleted, the first thing you should do is: stop writing any new data to the camera card. This may sound overly severe, but any further data writing activities that happen to the flash card can seriously endanger your chances of recovery.

Just remember this as I am going to explain why in a later section.

Why Is It Possible to Recover Photos Even After Deletion?

If you get into the technicalities of how storage devices work, you'll understand that a flash memory card is pretty much like a hard drive on your computer. When your operating system removes a file, what actually happens is that the space the file occupies on the hard disk is marked as free — meaning available to be overwritten by any new data. The same principle goes for your Nikon memory card as well.

That is not only the case with deleting, but with formatting as well. In fact, reformatting a card does not overwrite your image data. Instead, it overwrites the file allocation structure — think of this as a table of contents.

However, if you save new files to the card, chances are the marked-as-free space (where your deleted pics reside) will be eventually overwritten. Once that happens, it's safe to say that the possibility to recover your deleted pictures is slim to none.

girl making faces

Several Misconceptions

If you were told the following, or something similar, be aware that they are not correct:

  • Once you delete a photo from the camera, it is gone for good;
  • Formatting a card will permanently remove the content inside;
  • It's ok to continue to use the memory card after you found something missing.

Okay, now that you've the basic knowledge, how do you actually recover the lost Nikon photos?

Read on…

What You Need to Prepare

Before you can recover your images, you will need to gather a few items.

  • Grab your computer (either a PC or Mac is fine).
  • Find a memory card reader, or the USB cable that comes with your Nikon camera.
  • Make sure you have access to the Internet.
  • Download and install a photo recovery program.

Nikon Photo Recovery Software

Please be aware that Nikon does not provide such software for data recovery purposes. You have to rely on a third-party program that runs with your computer.

I recommend Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery because it is simple to use, and powerful — with the ability to preview and recover all types of media files (picture, audio, and video). But you can choose from several other tools to receive similar results.

What about Nikon .NEF Raw Images?

You may wonder besides common JPEGs, does the software also support NEF recovery? Quick answer is: yes. The program even allows you to specify the file types you wish to scan and recover, including Nikon's RAW image format, and this helps speed up the scanning process. Which is a good thing, right?

You'll be able to find out how in the tutorial below.

Step by Step Recovery Tutorial

  • Step 1: Connect your Nikon camera (memory card) to your computer. Make sure your computer can recognize the card as a disk drive.
  • Step 2: Get Stellar Photo Recovery and install it on your computer. Make sure you choose the right version, i.e. if you are using a PC, get the Windows version. For Mac users, click the Mac one.
  • Step 3: Install the program on your computer. Launch it, and click the "Recover Photo, Audio & Video" button.

(this is a screenshot of the PC version, Mac version looks slightly different)

  • Step 4: Follow the instructions within the software to complete the scanning process. Then preview & recover the pictures it finds.

Please note: The program is very intuitive, you should have no problem handling it. If you do encounter any issues, let me know by posting your question in the comments below. Also if you are using a trial version, it allows you to do anything until previewing the found files; eventually you'll have to purchase an activation code to save the files.

Handling a Nikon Memory Card Crash Issue

Sometimes you may need to recover images due to memory card corruption — evidenced by a "can not format" error when you try to open the disk on your computer.

If that happens, do not reformat it right away. The best procedure is to reformat the card only after you have copied all the images. First check if the card works in another computer (with a different operation system preferably). If that still doesn't work, try the above photo recovery software to recover some of the pictures. Then reformat the card. After that, use the program again to rescue more files.

Note: some cards have to be reformatted to recover the image data. Without proper formatting, getting the card to mount on a system would require very expensive forensic software and possibly modified firmware on the card reader.

What If the Card Is Damaged?

A damaged memory card is usually not detected by a computer, meaning no software is able to work. In this case, forensic work might be required, such as splitting open the card and sistering the EPROM array to a working board. You'll probably have to send your card to a data center and let the experts work on it.

Warning: the operation can be very expensive and chances of recovering any data are slim. Try this only when you can't live without those pics.

Final Words

It can be intimidating to lose precious photos you spent tons of efforts to capture. I've been there and totally understand your feelings. As long as you follow the steps and tips I’ve outlined, however, your chances of getting those memories back are pretty good.

I wish you luck. Plus, read this post for tips on how to protect your camera data safe. You should find some to implement.

About the Author Johnny Matthews

Johnny is an international freelance event photographer. He has used several Nikon cameras in the past decade. When he is not shooting pics, he can be found writing a book.

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