How to recover when disaster hits your disk

How to recover when disaster hits your disk

Photo of a kākā parrot chick sitting on a towel and held gently by a bird handler
A photo of a cute kākā chick found after data recovery was run on an old SD card.

A product review: Stellar Data Recovery

We’ve all had that sinking feeling when we try to download our photos off the camera card but instead get a nasty error. Or perhaps an inadvertent slip of the mouse deletes your files permanently. Or even worse, lightning strikes and zaps your computer! No matter if it’s a snap of your cat with its tongue stuck or a rare and endangered bird that you hiked 10 km to photograph, chances are your photos are precious to you.

​Is all hope lost? Not at all! Deleted and damaged files are not necessarily gone forever. With a simple deletion or reformat, the files are still there so long as you don’t write more to the disk. All that’s gone is the index to those files. Even a damaged disk is likely only damaged in parts. Fortunately, there is data recovery software to save us. It’s been many years since I’ve had to resort to disk scraping, so I had no idea what the software to do this tedious task is like these days.

Recently Stellar asked me to review their data recovery software, with the nice kickback of a free standard licence. I assured Stellar (and you) that receiving this gift would not affect my review. Stellar asked me to do this review as a wildlife photographer. They didn’t know that part of my day job at Mimosa Acoustics (where I wear many hats!) involves product testing and bug discovery. And I’m good at it. I’m known as the Chief Breaker and Wrecker. If I can find a way to break it, I will. But I tried my best to behave and use the software in the same way an end-user might rather than a product tester. So I started by not reading the instructions! And trust me, this is what 95% of users do when faced with new software. My day job also involves user manual writing and customer support - I know you don’t read the manual!

The install is straightforward and kindly takes you to the website showing the steps to get started. I ignored it all and jumped on in…

Screenshot of Stellar Data Recovery file selection
Choose file types to look for.
Stellar has designed their product with photographers in mind. What’s really cool is that the software is meant to recognize a vast range of image formats, including native RAW formats, and can display the images. This makes it much easier to find what you’re looking for. But how well does it actually work?
Screenshot Stellar Data Recovery choose location
Next choose which locations to search. I've chosen an old SD card.

I found an old 6GB SD card last used in an ancient Panasonic Lumix superzoom camera and in an old scanner to save PDF scans to file. The card had 2 empty folders and one folder with 6 PDFs, circa 2014. The initial scan found a further 22 files in 7 folders. I liked that the file structure interface clearly showed the existing folders and deleted (but recoverable) files and folders, which had a red cross over the icon.
Screenshot of Stellar recovery
The DCIM (camera folder) had subfolders, one of which had RW2 (Panasonic) raw files.
The preview wasn’t able to show me an image of this old format, but I chose the first image to recover. I saved it to my desktop and was glad to see the entire folder structure was written and not just the file. Win10 could preview the image, and I was delighted to see it was a photo of a baby kākā! Awwwww cute!

Screenshot Stellar Data Recovery deep scan in progress
Waiting for the deep scan to finish.
Curious as to what a Deep Scan might reveal, I tried that. A Deep Scan does take significantly longer to run, but a progress dial manages expectations. This time 43 files were found in 14 folders. A new folder was created on the card called “Raw Data.” In this folder, the files are grouped into subfolders by file type, not in their original folders. Why is that? Well, if the original folder structure was still readable, it would have been picked up by the Initial Scan. Without the index, all the data recovery software can do is recover the individual files. What is curious is that it found files it labeled as *.RAW from the old Panasonic camera and could preview them. Perhaps it just didn’t know that RW2 files are RAWs? 

The four RAW files it found had wildly different sizes. Two were 4GB, and two were 20MB. I’m guessing the two 4GB files were missing end-of-file markers because they were partially overwritten. The JPG preview in the RAW file was still viewable. Conveniently, these files are named by the camera type and image dimensions, e.g., “Panasonic DMC-FZ100-4536x2448-9029440.RAW”. The smaller files were recoverable, but the larger ones took forever (and to be honest, I got bored after 10 minutes and stopped the recovery). I also tried deep recovery of a WMV (not readable) and a PDF (recovered without error). Deep recovery is not guaranteed even if a file is recognized because it may be partly overwritten by other data.

Photo of a fridge with magnets, including an SD card
SD card stuck to my fridge with a strong magnet - eeek!

I then took this card and stuck it on the fridge with a powerful magnet for a few minutes (don’t try this at home) and then dropped it on the floor (inadvertently). My plan was to well and truly corrupt the card, but unexpectedly, the card survived its torture just fine. It wasn't corrupted! Rerunning Stellar showed the same files available for recovery, including the Deep Scan. I still wouldn't recommend doing this on a card you care about though...

Screenshot Stellar Data Recovery showing preview of photo
Screenshot after scanning my Sony card - this time the previews showed, including a photo of a glorious tūī!

I then tried one of my current 64 GB SD cards, which regularly gets reformatted by my Sony a7riii camera and currently has multiple photoshoots saved. The card was less than a third full, so there was plenty of “empty” disk to find previously deleted photos. The Stellar file preview could display the Sony ARW images, which was handy. The initial scan showed the expected available, undeleted folders and one deleted folder, which was empty.  So I entered Deep Scan. Curiously, the deep scan did not find the photos prior to formatting as I expected. A card reformat doesn’t delete the files; it merely rewrites the index, so there should have been files there to be found. It seems there is something about the Sony reformat that Stellar doesn’t recognize? This is obviously an issue for a product aimed at photographers. Who among us hasn’t inadvertently reformatted a card before downloading the images?

Photo of a takahē foraging on grass
The late "Puffin" Takahē - long gone, but not forgotten. It was lovely to find an old photo of her, even if the photo wasn't that good...

For fun, I then looked at a 32 GB SD card from my Panasonic GX8. This card had been reformatted and had no images. The initial scan found nothing other than the basic file structure. But unlike the Sony-formatted card, switching to Deep Scan revealed deleted files. There was a JPG, 8 RAW files (all with previews), and two TAR files in the Raw Data folder. All the RAWs were suspiciously 4GB again, which is much larger than the native RW2 format of around 15 MB.  I recovered both the JPG and a RAW file successfully and opened the latter in Adobe Camera Raw. I also found a previously deleted folder with Panasonic RW2 files under the MISC folder, none of which could be previewed by Stellar. They were, however, recoverable, and I could also open them in Adobe Camera Raw. So lovely to find an old photo of Puffin!

FINAL THOUGHTS

Stellar Data Recovery has a friendly user interface and is intuitive to use. I liked being able to search and group by file types and see previews (sometimes!). I can see how that could considerably reduce the search time and effort if it’s just a specific file that needs recovery.

I did not have a corrupted disk to test, but I hope recovering photos from reformatted SD cards is a fair test. It certainly worked fine for the card from my Panasonic GX8. But there is an issue with Sony-formatted cards that Stellar might want to look into, given Sony cameras’ rising popularity.
 
I hope you never need to use data recovery software, but Stellar is worth a look if you do. Stellar offers a free trial, so if you find that it doesn’t work for your situation, you won’t be out of pocket. When it does work, it works well and is intuitive and straightforward to use.

Have you ever had a corrupted disk and had to use data recovery software? How did you fare and what did you use? Let us know in the comments... 
 
Reviewed: Stellar Data Recovery Standard
Platform: Windows 10
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