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Recovering deleted video files

John DeMaio on April 7, 2011 - 12:23 pm in Featured, General, Tutorials

Up until now, I’ve been pretty diligent with my media. I use P2 on a regular basis and now I’m shooting more and more with the Canon DSLR cameras. However, I made one of those “project ending” mistakes the other day that we all have nightmares about…I accidentally deleted files from my Canon 7D that hadn’t been transferred yet. It was nobody’s fault but my own – we were being rushed and the mistake was made. However, I was able to get myself out of trouble easier than I thought.

I’ll do it tomorrow…

We were moving from location to location quick that day. It was just me and a producer. I had two CF cards and was doing my best to cycle them – taking the necessary time to transfer footage to my Mac when I could. The very last card of the day was shot and the camera was put away – we had to catch an early flight. I thought to myself, “I’ll just transfer that tomorrow.”

Strike 1 – I should have taken the extra 20 minutes (like I usually do) to organize everything.

The next day was a travel day. When I got home I started transferring the rest of the footage. This time was different – I had photos on the CF card in addition to .MOV files and the producer wanted the photos “right away.” So I made a folder for the photos, I made a folder for the GoPro footage that I had to transfer, I made a folder for the recorded audio files and I made a folder for the .MOV files. After everything was transferred (or so I thought) I put the CF card back in the camera and hit delete. Then I moved on to another project.

Strike 2 – Always double-check that your media has transferred before doing anything else.

When I realized what had happened – it seemed a little too late.  Or was it? Luckily for me, I didn’t strike out on this one.

The Solution

After spending some time on Google, I found a few solutions that looked promising. I downloaded a trial for a piece of software that was supposed to fix my problem, but all it did was crash.  Over and over and over. So I did some more Googling…and I found something called PhotoRec, by CGSecurity.

PhotoRec is file data recovery software designed to recover lost files including video, documents and archives from hard disks, CD-ROMs, and lost pictures  from digital camera memory. PhotoRec ignores the file system and goes after the underlying data, so it will still work even if your media’s file system has been severely damaged or reformatted.

Could this be the answer? Actually, yes, it was. Here’s how it works:

How it works

PhotoRec is a standalone program that runs on DOS, Windows, Unix, MacOSX or OS/2. I needed it for MacOSX (Intel), so I’ll talk about that.  If you need a different OS, check out PhotoRec’s Wiki for detailed information.

  • Download the program and extract to your computer.
  • Make sure that you have the device in question (CF card, SD card, Memory Stick, Hard Disk, DVD, CD, etc.) mounted so that you can see it on your desktop.
  • Open the newly created folder – at the time of this writing the folder created is called “testdisk-6.12-WIP.”
  • Double-click the “photorec” program and it will open in a Terminal window. Yes, I said Terminal – don’t be scared, it’s pretty easy. Double-click PhotoRec and you will see this:

PhotoRec running in MacOSX Terminal window

  • On my system you see four selections; three hard disks and a 32 Gig CF card.  My problem was with the CF card so just arrow down to the device in question and hit return.

Partition table type

  • The next screen discusses the partition table type. In most cases, PhotoRec will select the proper partition table type for you. Most digital cameras use an Intel/PC partition type. Hit return again.

Search Screen

  • This screen locates the information on the device by searching for it. In order to make it work, you have to hit return again.

Filesystem type

  • This is the filesystem screen. PhotoRec is asking you which file system you would like to search. Again, PhotoRec does a pretty good job of “guessing” for you. In this case, it has selected the “other” which is exactly what I need. Hit return.

Choose the space to be analyzed

  • This screen is asking if you want to search unallocated space only or the whole partition. In my case, I deleted files but I didn’t start recording any new clips. Therefore, I didn’t need to dig too deep into the partition. So I chose “Free” to scan for files in the unallocated space.  In simple terms – the files weren’t “deleted” when I deleted them. Most file systems use an allocation table as a type of “table of contents” for all of the files on the drive. In my case, the “table of contents” was wiped clean – but the files still remain…until they are written over by other files. That is the important part here – as long as you don’t re-write information on the card, you probably won’t lose any of your previous photos or movies.  Now, hit return again.

Destination folder screen

  • This screen asks where you want to put the recovered files. I choose to put it on the desktop so I arrowed down to the “Desktop” line (4th line down on the image above), hit return to select the “Desktop” directory then hit “c” on the keyboard.  This creates a new folder called “recup_dir.1” on your desktop. This is where all of the recovered files will end up.

It's working

  • If you’ve made it this far, you’re almost there. This screen means that it’s working – and it may take a while! As you can see above, it looks like it’s going to take 123hours! Actually, don’t let that fool you, this thing fluctuates quite a bit. Go grab some coffee (or better yet, watch some Production Apprentice videos) and it will be done in no time.

Awesome. Now I’ll never have to worry about deleting my footage again, right?

Not exactly. As I mentioned above, the file system does use a “table of contents” type of system to point to files on the partition. However, if you delete footage then fill up the card with other footage – you’re out of luck. The CF card isn’t a magic box of unlimited space. It has only as much free space as they advertise. In my case, I deleted the files – but I was quick to realize my mistake before I shot any additional footage. If I would have shot additional clips, I would have essentially erased the previous footage on the card. It doesn’t wipe the drive clean as soon as you start shooting more footage but as space is needed the previous files are written over. So it’s safe to assume that if you start shooting on a deleted card you’re not completely out of luck – as long as you realize your mistake early. Don’t think that this is a miracle program that will fix lost photos or videos from months ago. This will only recover files that have not been overwritten by new photos or videos.

From now on, be careful when transferring footage and make sure that you double-check every transfer. This means that when you transfer a card:

  • Unmount it from the system and check the newly transferred files.
  • Make sure that they are all there and
  • Make sure that they all play.

Trust me. It will save you from that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get when you realize that you’ve made a huge mistake.

My favorite screen of all

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  • April 8, 2011

    Great post, thanks.

    When I got into the whole ‘tapeless’ thing I bought a NexTo DI NVS2500 as part of the new camera package and it makes life so much easier. You can back up pretty much anything whilst packing away the gear.

  • April 18, 2011

    It recovered the file i had accidentally deleted, but Windows Media player won’t read it. I assume there is some file corruption. How do i fix that?

    • April 19, 2011

      Try downloading Mpeg Streamclip – it’s free software that allows you to convert files. Mpeg Streamclip is a great tool for opening just about anything, so If you can open the file in Mpeg Streamclip, you can usually convert it into something that you can use. Hope that helps.

  • June 5, 2011

    Hi John,
    I’ve recovered some absolutely essential MOV files that somehow didn’t make it onto my laptop from my CF card (I used a Canon 7d too) using this tutorial. The files that made it before are there, alive an well. However, the ones which were missing are showing as quicktime document icons. They’re all around 1GB in size, but they do not open in Quicktime player, MPEG Streamclip or DivX converter. Is there anything I can do?

    Thanks for this great tutorial anyhow!

  • March 1, 2012

    Thank you so much for this. You saved my ass today, big time!

  • May 19, 2012

    Hi John,
    I’ve recovered some absolutely essential MOV files that somehow didn’t make it onto my laptop from my CF card (I used a Canon 7d too) using this tutorial. The files that made it before are there, alive an well. However, the ones which were missing are showing as quicktime document icons. They’re all around 1GB in size, but they do not open in Quicktime player, MPEG Streamclip or DivX converter. Is there anything I can do?

    Thanks for this great tutorial anyhow!

  • March 27, 2013

    Holy shit. You just saved a weeks worth of footage for me and you didn’t try to sell me some overpriced, unnecessary software. Thanks!

    • March 27, 2013

      Glad I could help!

      • December 11, 2013

        Hi , I have been researching about photorec to find my lost mts files. I have downloaded it but when I try to open the Photorec folder on my Mac Os x instead of 1 Terminal window appearing, appear like 50 terminals which say the couldn´t open and they are white, not black. Could you help me out?

  • July 14, 2013

    Agree, data recovery software sometimes helps.

  • September 20, 2013

    I followed these instructions and was able to get my photos recovered. However my video files look recovered, but they play all black and no audio. I’ve tried playing with VLC and MPEG streamclip with no luck. The new file names also end with _ftyp.mov. Any suggestions what I did wrong and how I can get these videp clips recovered to play back? Thanks for your help.

    • September 22, 2013

      There might be a chance that the audio is recorded separately from the video on the camera that you’re using. It’s a slight chance, but worth a look.

      I know that the recovered files come up as weird names so try running a check on different types of audio files in that directory. You might find them in there.

  • October 1, 2013

    Similar to Austin I have the problem of retrieving my video files back with only a black screen as well. However, accompanied with the black screen is the audio, just no visuals.
    Is there any hope for my case?

    • October 15, 2014

      Hi,,, A huge thanks for helping me… i just recover my .mov files from my 32gb cf card. I am using 5d markii, initial i use photorec 7.0 but that didnt work then i download 6.14 version and it recover 15gb of data with voice also…
      Many Many Thanks and I pray for your good health and happy life