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How to “Unformat” a Camera Card to Restore Your Lost Photos

Today I am going to teach you how to recover a formatted memory card and get back your lost photographs (pics, videos, etc.).

Whether you reformatted your camera card by accident, or because you are getting the annoying "card is not formatted, do you want to format it now?" error, I'm sharing with you the step-by-step guide to handle the situation properly.

Bottom line? You'll see your lost stuff again very soon (hopefully). No need to send the memory card to a data recovery center or a repair shop.

Let's get started.

I accidentally formatted my camera SD card, now what?

Stop using the card immediately! That is absolutely the first step you should take.

Note: it's important that you do not take any additional photos using the same camera card (be it a SD, CF or xD).

Studies show that the primary reason why data recovery fails is that the user continues to use the storage media with massive data writing activities (such as saving new files), causing the data contained in those files marked as deleted to be overwritten, and thus they become totally unrecoverable.

So, again, do not use the card any more. If you can, remove it from your digital camera and put it back into a plastic case (or another safe place).

What does it mean after formatting your memory card?

Simply put, a formating operation prepares your card back to default setting — it marks it as blank (learn more from this Wikipedia page). It's pretty much the same thing whether you format it via your camera or by using a computer. However, most photographers do suggest that we format in camera in order to avoid any unexpected compatibility issues.

That said, there is no "unformat" option available on a camera or computer, as far as I am aware. That means you are to have either backed up or transferred all useful files to another device. All card manufacturers (SanDisk, Kingston, Lexar, etc.) have also recommended the tip in their user manuals.

Well... accidents happen as we humans make mistakes. You may be wondering — what if I formatted the card without backing up the data?

Good question.

Can I still recover photos from a formatted card?

In a nutshell — yes, you can. However, full recovery is not 100% assured.

What do I mean?

Remember the first step I recommended was to stop using the card? If you didn't follow that, it's possible that you'll be unable to retrieve the lost items. Of course, there are other reasons due to the nature of data recovery.

Theoretically, formatting won't permanently erase the data stored on a camera memory card. It just removes the header information in the file system about how and where the data are stored. But the actual data is still there, intact, waiting to be overwritten.

If you continued using the card to save new taken pics, chances are the "free space" your original files took will be newly occupied. When that happens, you've lost them for good. But the good news is — it can take quite some time for the "re-occupation" activity to occur if your card is large capacity, say a few gigabytes or more.

Okay, now you understand the functionality. What do you do to actually recover the lost files from the formatted card?

Step by step to recover files from after a card reformat

Before you get started, make sure you have the following things ready:

  • Your camera memory card.
  • A USB cable or card reader.
  • Your personal computer connected to Internet.

After that, follow the steps below:

  • Step 1: Connect your camera's memory card to the computer via a USB cable or card adapter.
  • Step 2: Turn on your computer, open the web browser (Safari, Chrome, or Firefox, etc).
  • Step 4: Install the software and launch it. To get started, hit the big blue button located in the center.

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

  • Step 5: Now select the right drive (that stands for your camera memory card), and click "Start Scan" to continue. Soon a scanning procedure will begin.
  • Step 6: Once the scan is complete, preview the found items to see if your formatted data are there. Next, select those you want to recover and save them. Done!

Please note: the trial version only allows you to scan the card and preview found photos; To save the files, you'll have to get a code which requires you to purchase -- around $39.

What to do if my card shows "card not formatted" error?

If the memory card is showing some weird error, for example, it says "the card is not formatted, do you want to format it now?" when you connect it to a PC, that means your memory card may have crashed due to reasons like improper operation (e.g. plug out without safe eject).

Follow these steps to rescue the data. Note: do not format it immediately if you have important photos saved on the card.

  1. Try to connect your card to another computer. If the error still occurs, go to next step.
  2. Try the above recovery software to retrieve as much data as possible.
  3. Reformat the card, then use the recovery tool to rescan to see if more items can be found.

Now it's your turn!

Do you find this guide helpful? Have you managed to "unformat" your camera and retrieve the lost pics or vids? If yes, congratulations.

Feel free to post any issue you encounter. I'll be happy to address it to the best I can.

About the Author Helen

Helen is an enthusiastic photographer and entrepreneur based in Bay Area. As much as she's been into technology, she also loves blogging and helping people tackle tech issues.

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