I had one of those heart-stopping “oh !@#$” moments this morning. I’ve been using Adobe LightRoom since about February as my primary photo management and manipulation tool. Over the weekend I’d been exporting all the lost gloves from iPhoto on the mac and last night tried importing them into LightRoom. I had some problems so I deleted all the imported stuff, emptied the trash, and tried reimporting a subset. The problems persisted so I called it a night.

This morning while waiting for folks at work to make up their mind what they wanted me to work on, I fired up LightRoom again and was horrified to see that when I thought I’d been deleting the stuff I’d just imported, what I’d actually done was delete everything I’d ever imported. This revelation was followed by much cursing and head bashing and gnashing of teeth. All the photos Becky and I had taken since February gone. Poof!

Once I’d gotten done pounding on things I went googling for file recovery tools. I’m happy to report that I found a couple of free tools that allowed me to get back a large portion of the lost pictures. Neither tool is perfect, but they’re imperfect in mostly complementary ways.

The first thing to do as soon as you realize that you’ve deleted some valuable files is stop doing anything on the affected computer. The only hope of recovery is if the portion of the disk that your file is on doesn’t get reused for some other file, so you need to not do anything that will create or expand files. This includes not shutting down the computer. Just stop using it.

The tool I’d try first is FreeUnDelete. You have to install it, but you can install it on a memory stick or an external drive (remember you don’t want to modify the drive where your files are until you’ve got them back!). (I used my Palm LifeDrive because both my system drive and my external drive potentially had copies of the files I wanted back). Once the tool is installed, run it and you can scan the drive for deleted stuff. This was really fast on my 56GB C: drive, only took a few minutes. When the scan finished it presented a list of directories known to have deleted files. You navigate to the file you want back (or whole directory tree as in my case), select the stuff, and click on restore. Then you have to specify a location off the fragile disk for the tool to copy the stuff to. I again used my LifeDrive. After doing this you’ll want to review the files to see if they were successfully restored. My restore was all jpg files and most of them were just fine after this step. A bunch of them had read errors or partial data, though, probably because I didn’t notice my stuff was gone for a while and so had been using the machine. The down-side of this tool is that it took forever (hours) to scan my 160GB USB external drive and then didn’t even finish successfully, but crashed, so beware if you have a big drive.

The other tool you can try is Restoration. It doesn’t require a complex install, just run it from the unzipped directory. This one does a similar scan of the hard drive but it allows you to filter the scan and show just files whose names match a pattern (I think FreeUnDelete will do that too, but I didn’t try it). I searched for “jpg” and that seemed to find all the gone images. Restoration’s restore is much clumsier for large numbers of files, because you can only restore one file at a time. I was able to restore a bunch by selecting the first one in the list, then using the alt-S keyboard shortcut to save the file, hitting enter to accept the target directory (after setting it on the first one) and then hitting down arrow to move to the next file in the list and hitting those three keys repeatedly. It behaved well when I got a bunch of these queued up, so don’t be afraid. Some of the files recovered this way came out better than the versions I pulled back with FreeUnDelete (though it’s possible I was restoring the better ones from a different drive, I did a bunch of stuff and I can’t remember for sure. I do know that I have piles of files recovered with each tool and I haven’t actually worked my way through them all yet.) This one handled the 160GB external drive fine.

Anyway, I still lost some files, but it was nothing like the disaster I thought it was going to be. Now I need to rework my photo download workflow to add a backup step in there somewhere so I don’t get in this situation ever again.