It is the stuff of nightmares, the unthinkable happens and you accidentally format that SD card containing the images from the wedding you just returned home from, or worse, you click the wrong button and wipe out your primary photo storage hard drive and all of your original files are gone. These are the sort of things that can keep a photographer up at night, and it is why data redundancy and backups are preached about so often by the photography media.
Thankfully, unless the device storing your images are destroyed or damaged on a hardware level (which would require sending it somewhere like a lab no matter what), there are usually software solutions that can help you recover all or at least some of what you may have lost through error or mishap. The problem with the free solutions out there is that you never really know what you are going to get. Some may find your files, some may not. Some may find them but make you pay if you want to recover any of them.
As someone who has had hard drive failures and formatting mishaps in the past, I am a bit anal about data security and image redundancy nowadays. But I still like to have the assurance that if I do happen to make a mistake, I’ll likely be able to correct it on my own without needing to send the drive to a data recovery firm and spend hundreds if not thousands on a stupid mistake. So, I recently was given the opportunity to test out Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery, a data recovery software suite (Mac and Windows) that specializes in recovering image, audio, and video data from storage media.
Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery is, thankfully, incredibly easy to use when you are trying to recover some files. This is good, because as we all know (or will know when this inevitably happens to you), it’s easy to be flustered and upset when you are freaking out about the possibility of having just lost the images from the wedding you just shot or the RAW files from last year.
When you open the software you are greeted with three options, and in most cases, you are simply going to want to press the big blue button. The one that says ‘Recover Photo, Audio, & Video’, as this is the way you need to go in order to start the process of trying to recover your images. From there you are greeted by a list of all the storage media currently connected and detectable by your computer.
This list will tell you the name of the storage drive, what type of device it is, the type of file system it is currently formatted in, and the size of the drive. All you need to do here is navigate the list of connected storage media and select the one you are hoping to recover your images from. At this point, you can move on, or you can also tell the software specifically what type of files to search the drive for. So, for example, if you were looking specifically for image files and nothing else, you could uncheck the boxes next to audio and video; the software will only search the drive for the type of media you want it to. This is good if this was a drive you may have had a lot of types of files stored on as it will make the scanning process, later on, more streamlined and take less time overall.
You can also get really specific in terms of the type of image files specifically you want to recover. Let’s say you are a Canon shooter. You don’t need the software searching the drive for any Panasonic or Nikon RAW files. In the advanced settings, you could go in and have the software specifically only search for CR2 files and JPEGs.
Once you are ready to move on you simply press the ‘Scan Now’ button. From here the scanning process is all handled by the software, and all you need to do is sit back and watch. But beware — this process can take quite a long time, especially if the storage media you are scanning has a large storage capacity.
As noted above, the speed of this process depends a lot on the types of files you are scanning for and the size, in terms of total storage, of the drive. For what it’s worth, in my testing the software was still fairly quick, considering what I was asking it to do. I completely wiped a 220GB SSD and used this software to scan and recover the data I previously had on it. In all, the scan process took about 1.5 hours. I also tested the software on a more average 64 GB SD card, and that scan took much less time, clocking in at just under 35 minutes.
My 16GB Sandisk SD card was scanned and I was ready to recover my images off the card in about 10 minutes. So the scan time really does have a lot to do with the size of the drive/card you are scanning and the type of files you are hoping to recover, as well as how much the card has been used, if at all, since the files were deleted or lost.
This is the fact of the matter, but the truth is that no matter what you use, the chances of you getting back every file you lost are unlikely. It can happen, sure, but what is more likely to happen is that you will get a collection of files recovered, some you were looking for, some you weren’t. But there will likely be files that the software doesn’t find in its scan — a reality of at home software-based data recovery.
That said, I ran this test on several drives and several SD cards. Each time keeping note of what I had on the drive before I formatted it (several times I formatted the drive a few times before attempting the recovery) and then attempted to recover the files I had on the drive using the Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery Software. The results were, as noted, a little varied, but overall quite positive.
On drives where I only formatted the drive once before attempting recovery, I was able to recover the vast majority, if not all, of the files that I was looking for with percentages in the 90% to 100% range. This is good for those in the ‘I accidentally formatted my SD card’ camp. For drives/cards where I formatted the drive multiple times before attempting recovery the successful recovery percentages, as expected, drop. But they still maintained a mostly positive result in the 80% to 100% range. I should also note here that this testing was done after doing ‘quick’ formats through Windows 10.
You could look at this and say that is a bad thing, potentially still missing 20% of the images you were hoping to recover. You are not wrong in thinking that, but the other way you could look at this is that you may not have any success at all with free file scanners, and if you need to send it in somewhere the cost will be extreme. So to get back 80%+ of your data at home without needing to sell a kidney is still a positive result in my mind. As well, to be clear, the software was only unable to recover all of my test media a couple of times. Most of the time it was able to recover all of my files, so overall I would call the software really reliable.
The one big caveat here, and it’s a big one from a photographer standpoint, is that unfortunately, after a full format (either through Windows or done on the camera) the software was unable to recover any of the images that had been on the card. In other words, if you accidentally formatted the card in your camera, chances are you will not have much luck with recovering the files on your own. You can delete the files on your camera and still recover them, but if you use the format function within your camera menu then you will likely need to send that SD card somewhere in order to have any hope of recovery.
Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery is good at what it does and offers you some piece of mind that, in some situations at least, you can save yourself some stress and recover image files you may have accidentally deleted. The downside here is the false sense of security that may give you until you need the software and realize you are screwed because you formatted the card with your camera. That said, for the money, I really don’t see any reason not to invest in some software like this, especially from a business standpoint.
Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery only costs you $49.99 if all you need to do is scan a drive/card and recover files from it. That is an incredible saving over needing to send your drive or card in somewhere, which would certainly cost you many hundreds more. It is true that this software will not be able to save your bacon in every situation, but if it is even possible for you to recover it at home yourself, this software will be able to do it. There are also two other tiers of license for Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery: Professional and Premium. The difference is that the Professional version can repair Jpeg files that may have been corrupted on your card, and the Premium license can repair both Jpegs and Video files. These are certainly nice features to have, but hardly required. The standard version can only scan and recover the files, and cannot repair any potential corrupt files for you.
The hope is that through your backup and redundancy workflow you will not even need a piece of software like this. But on the off chance that you find yourself in need of it, wouldn’t you rather have it and know you can rely on it? At the very least it’s a $50 business expense for you to put on your taxes as another write off.
If you are interested in getting your hands on Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery you can download the trial version on their website. You can give it a try and scan your drives for free, you only need to pay for the license when/if you want to recover the images it was able to discover. If you prefer to just get the license and be done with it, you can do that over on their website. The Standard version is currently $49.99, Professional is currently $59.99, and Premium is currently $79.99.
Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery receives four out of five stars.