It happens all the time. We’re in our camera menus, we play around, and oops, you get a finger happy and accidentally format your SD card! Now, what do you do? After all, there was a whole wedding on that card. Don’t worry — it’s possible to recover an SD card. You can do it for free, too!

The good news is, in most cases, you can actually recover all the files you have accidentally deleted. The bad news? If you’ve started storing new images on that formatted card, well, it might be time to grab the Kleenex. If, however, you’re reading this before you make a mistake, or you search the web hoping to find out how to recover an SD card right after hitting the trash can icon, you’re in luck.

But, I formatted the card, how can the images be recovered?

When you format an SD card or any Flash-type memory, you’re not actually formatting the card. What’s happening is a restructuring of the data. Instead of the files being wiped, your camera simply marks the data slots on the SD card as empty. Even though your camera and your PC will see the card as empty, the actual files are still present and, for the most part, are unharmed.

Marking the data tables as empty just lets your camera know where to store any new files. When you format and take a new image, the slots marked empty will be written over. This is why it’s vital that you do not do shoot any new images on the SD card you accidentally erased.

How to recover an SD card, step one: Breathe

Breathe! It’s going to be OK. The first thing you need to do is take the SD card out of your camera immediately and store it in a safe place until you have time to recover the data.

The process of recovery is fairly straightforward. However. before you attempt to recover an SD card, make sure you have some time set aside. It can be a lengthy process, especially if you use large SD cards.

How to recover an SD card, step two: Grab some free software

recover an SD card

There’s plenty of SD card recovery software that’s completely free. So, don’t fall for software that will try to rob you blind. When I suffer from fat finger syndrome and accidentally delete something, I use Recuva to bring single files or a whole SD card back to life. Just a note here. This is not a sponsored article and we have not been in touch with any company. This really is what I use personally.

Most SD card recovery software is easy to use. They all work the same way. You simply tell the software what drive you’d like to scan, and what types of files you’d like to look for. You tell the software to do a deep scan and then you go and make a pot of coffee or tea and wait.

Once the scan has been completed you simply select which files you’d like to recover. Then you select the storage destination. After the scan was complete, my files were saved to the destination hard drive in under two minutes. There were 1826 files and Recuva rescued 1531 of them. You won’t get 100% recovery rates, but you will get the majority of your files back.

How to recover an SD card, step three: Learn a lesson

don't delete in camera

The biggest lesson you can learn here is to not delete images directly from your camera. Accidents do happen and you can inadvertently format the entire SD card instead of one image. For years, I have been telling photographers not to delete in camera. One, LCDs and EVFs don’t have high enough resolutions to resolve all the detail in images. So, that ‘bad’ image you’re looking at might be better than you think.

Secondly, just don’t set yourself up for a panic attack. Get home with your images and copy them to your computer before you do any formatting. SD cards are cheap enough these days, so you can easily carry multiple cards with you. There’s no need to delete when you can just switch out to a new SD card.

I make it sound like I format memory cards accidentally often. I don’t. It has only happened to me once many years ago. However, I’ve had a few close calls when using cameras with touch screens. Accidental bumps against the screen can quickly take you deep into menu systems, so be careful. Weird things can and do happen! Bookmark this page. Download the free software and just be prepared to deal with whatever accidents might happen with your precious data.