Most photographers have had at least one heart attack moment when they realize all of the photos they’ve taken on a shoot (or a vacation) are suddenly gone, and there’s nothing on the camera’s storage card. Perhaps you’ve accidentally formatted the wrong card, or the card just somehow got damaged. If you’re a professional photographer, there’s a good chance your’e also not a forensic scientist or a hard-core nerd (although it’s OK to be all three!). That minor detail doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t learn to carve data off of a bad storage card and save yourself a lot of money on data recovery. While there are many aspects to forensic science that are extremely complicated, data carving isn’t one of them, and I’ll even walk you through how to do it on your Mac in this article, with a little bit of open source software and a few commands. If you’re scared of your computer, don’t worry. This is all very easy even though it looks a bit intimidating at first. You can test your skills using any old storage card you might have on hand. It doesn’t have to be damaged, although you might be surprised just how much data you thought was deleted from it!
First, lets talk about how your storage card works. When you plug your storage card into your computer, your computer looks for a list of files on the card; this is kind of like a rolodex of all the files your camera has stored. This “catalog” basically says, “OK, this file is this big, and it starts here”. You can think of it like the table of contents of a book. When you format a storage card, most of the time it’s just this table of contents that gets deleted; the actual bits and bytes from the photo you took aren’t erased (because that would take too long). The same can be true when the file system becomes damaged; in most cases, it’s just the file listing that gets blown up somehow, making it appear like there are no files on the card. In more extreme cases, physical damage can sometimes damage the data from one part of the card, but the data for the other half of the card can still be recovered; your computer needs to be told to look past all the damaged data, instead of just giving you an error message.