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Building the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit  
Wednesday, January 23, 2002 | by
The first time I lost photos to a camera storage card problem was in Rwanda in 1994. I'd just filled a Maxtor MobileMax 105MB PC Card with a series of photos of an orphan boy peering through a pane of broken glass. As I was anxious to shoot more before he was put off by my hulking NC 2000 digital SLR, I'd already slid the card out of the camera before I realized that I hadn't checked to see if the camera's card status light had stopped blinking first. It hadn't. Sure enough, the card wouldn't mount on the desktop of my Powerbook 180c, and those images, I assumed, were gone forever. I'd shot additional frames of the scene on another card, but none that measured up to the moments I lost.


If only I knew then that recovering photos in such situations is not only possible, it's also relatively simple. Okay, back then it wasn't - the only viable option at the time, especially for a Mac user, was to send the DOS-formatted card to a data recovery firm. Today, however, it's possible, with the right hardware and software, to recover photos from prematurely-ejected cards, cards that have been erased or in-camera formatted, even cards that refuse to mount on Mac or PC. And such recoveries can be performed from either a Mac or PC desktop or laptop computer with equal effectiveness.

This article outlines the tools you'll need to set you or your photo department up with industrial-strength photo recovery capabilities, as well as what you'll need to prep an errant card for its eventual return to service. The recommendations made are the culmination of a 3-year quest to find a method for camera storage media data recovery from the Mac; somehow, that has led to a stack of DOS and Windows data recovery applications on my desk, plus one DOS and two Windows PC computers humming away beneath it.

This underscores the fact that the path to data enlightenment is through Microsoft, even for Mac users, because the key application that makes photo recovery possible on the Mac is Connectix Virtual PC, a PC emulator. The good news is that the last two major revisions of Virtual PC work so well that data recovery from within the Virtual PC environment on a Mac is just as straightforward as on an actual PC.

I'm calling this the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit, because of how well it seems to work. This name might also appropriately describe how expensive it can be to assemble certain configurations of the Kit on multiple computers, once the cost of Virtual PC and one or more Windows OS versions are factored in.

The primary focus here is on CompactFlash cards, both the flash memory type and IBM's Microdrive. In theory, PC Card media can be recovered using most of the same equipment, but there's one hitch: PC Card readers that work in conjunction with some of the key configurations I describe are hard to come by. Partly out of necessity, then, this article discusses CompactFlash recovery only.

Note: PC Card users might find some of the information in the Testing Notes sidebar helpful.

This article describes data recovery tools capable of performing minor miracles. If you want to be assured of having the same level of success, it's absolutely critical that you duplicate the key pieces in the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit as they're described in this article. For example, Mac users will need to obtain a specific USB card reader, because in my testing only one currently-shipping card reader (available from two different vendors) out of eight was compatible. Windows OS versions are equally important, as you'll see. Obviously, there are configurations other than what I describe that will work, but as there are many more than won't, mirroring the gear I've settled on will improve your chances of success immensely.

Also note that there's no substitute for a data recovery engineer tackling the job of recovering prized photos. The Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit I believe to be the best available end-user image recovery method, but it can't match the capabilities of someone trained to work with physically damaged media, manually piecing back together fragmented files. Data recovery services from companies like Ontrack and DriveSavers, as well as Lexar's no-charge data recovery service for Lexar Pro Series cards, will almost certainly be a step up from the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit.

Having said that, the majority of even seemingly serious problems you might expect to experience with Compactflash cards are ones that are readily handled by the data recovery software described here. That's because it's rare that a troublesome card is physically damaged, even when it won't mount on the Mac desktop or shows as unformatted from within Windows. Instead, corruption in the card's DOS file system is the more likely culprit. That means that the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit may well be able to exhume the photos you need, and do so on deadline in the middle of nowhere if necessary. If the IBM Microdrive is the card in question, however, and it's making strange noises you've not heard before, I strongly recommend that you not attempt to recover it yourself. The noises are a sign of a physically damaged drive, one that may be further harmed by your data recovery attempts.

Note: See the sidebar Why Are My cards FAT? for technical information on how images are stored on CompactFlash media.

Building the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit

This section lists the programs, card readers and Windows OS versions that form the core of the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit. Read the descriptions, and consult the summary tables that follow, to determine which items are necessary for your configuration.

Section Links

Software and Hardware Overview (Windows and Mac)

Ontrack EasyRecovery 5.12a - EasyRecovery is one of a gaggle of generic data recovery packages for DOS and/or Windows, all of which purport to recover data from media that has been subjected to a wide range of horrors. In preparing this article I tested all that I could locate, including FinalData Enterprise, Winternals Disk Commander, R-tools Technology R-Studio, Stellar Phoenix, Runtime GetDataBack for FAT and various dtidata offerings.


EasyRecovery 5.12a recovering a CompactFlash card full of EOS-1D
photos from within Windows XP running on a Dell Dimension 8200

While all may be fine programs when pointed at proper hard drives, all but EasyRecovery appear to be tripped up by CompactFlash media and/or uncommon photo file formats. Symptoms include not being able to recognize the card, hard crashes, completed recovery attempts that recovered next to nothing or apparently limited OS and/or card reader compatibility. In other words, one or more of these programs may work some of the time on some configurations, but I can't recommend any but EasyRecovery as being suited to reliable, consistent Compactflash media recovery of photo files of various formats, including JPEG, NEF, TIF, DCR and CRW. Out of the rest, only GetDataBack remains on my list of programs to try again in the future. Though it was as broadly compatible as EasyRecovery on both PC and Virtual PC test systems (that's a big hurdle to overcome), it consistently struggled to identify any recoverable raw format files, plus it found fewer truly recoverable JPEG files than EasyRecovery.

All this shouldn't be a big surprise, since it's safe to say that none of these packages were designed to recover photos from CompactFlash cards. That includes EasyRecovery; Greg Olson, Director of Data Recovery at Ontrack, confirmed that during the development of the latest release of the program no CompactFlash testing was performed. In my testing, however, EasyRecovery chugged along without drama from within Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000 and Windows XP Home Edition in both Virtual PC and real PC environments, successfully recovering more photos in the process. One minor hitch, and the simple workaround for it, is described in the Configuration and Usage Tips section ahead.

EasyRecovery's approach is to attempt to rebuild in memory (the card is not written to at any point) the DOS file system on the card. It does this by scanning the entire contents of the card, making determinations about what's a valid structure and what's not. It's also capable of discerning valid files, regardless of their format, and projecting the likelihood of their successfully recovery. The end result is that photos can be recovered from a card that has been formatted in, for example, the Nikon D1, or one that's assigned a drive letter in Windows but won't open. In my experience, EasyRecovery is second in effectiveness only to the program discussed next.

Wait, you say! If there's a program that's more effective than EasyRecovery, why not just go with that? The answer is simple: EasyRecovery's broad compatibility and very good photo recovery capabilities means that it's of equal value to Photo Rescue, a killer photo recovery program that can be picky about the configurations it supports. In other words, a setup worthy of the title Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit needs both. After all, if one can't bring your photos back, perhaps the other can.

Three different versions of EasyRecovery are available: US$30 Personal Lite, US$179 Personal and US$489 Professional. The US$179 EasyRecovery Personal is the one to choose; the Professional version contains additional controls that few photographers will ever use (note that all EasyRecovery screenshots in this article are from the Pro version, however). EasyRecovery Personal, in 5 different languages, may be purchased and downloaded online. A demo version is available.

Note: Be wary of some demo versions of data recovery software, which are generally tuned to allow you to see what files might be recoverable, but require paid registration to actually perform the recovery. It's not unusual, however, for only a portion of the apparently recoverable files to actual recover intact, a fact that won't be revealed to you until you've purchased the software and finished the recovery process. An exception is EasyRecovery. The program's demo (and paid-for) version, for one, lists the condition of the file and therefore provides some information about the likelihood of the file actually recovering. Several other packages do not.

DataRescue Photo Rescue 1.0.1.589 - Photo Rescue is from Belgian software firm DataRescue. While the company name would suggest otherwise, DataRescue actually left the data recovery business in the early 90's. Today, its flagship product is a programmer's tool called IDA Pro. The first iteration of Photo Rescue was thrown together in July 2001, to help a friend salvage a card full of wedding photos shot in India. It's based, says company CEO Pierre Vandevenne, "on the code we still use from time to time for forensic analysis. We never intended to bring it on the market in any way. But the friend gave it to others who gave it to others who asked for this and that..."


Photo Rescue performs a physical drive mode recovery
from within Windows XP on a Dell Dimension 8200

From humble beginnings comes a powerhouse photo recovery application. Running Photo Rescue on the first of five test cards, a 256MB unit that refused to mount after a couple of swaps back and forth between a D1 and prototype D1X last year, was like a trip down memory lane. While EasyRecovery brought back the 24 D1X JPEGs that I'd last shot before the card corrupted, Photo Rescue found those plus 82 other intact files, mostly JPEG and a few NEF photos that I'd shot in the preceding weeks on a D1. In fairness to EasyRecovery, it found the files I needed. But Photo Rescue found everything.

The key difference between Photo Rescue and other data recovery software seems to be the photo-specific knowledge it brings to the search. Simply put, it knows what the file structure of an EXIF-format JPEG looks like, as well as less-common formats like the Canon EOS D30's raw .CRW. With its most advanced features switched on, it also appears to dedicate more processor cycles to scanning and rescanning a card for data than any other recovery program tested.

It's also poised to improve from here: the company is currently building in new or improved support for the raw formats from the Nikon D1-series, Canon EOS-1D, Canon EOS D30, Kodak DCS 5xx, 6xx and 7xx series cameras. That version is expected to be released in the first quarter of this year.

Vandevenne stresses that Photo Rescue is designed to be, in his words, "fair." That is, if the program shows a photo as being recoverable, by virtue of it being displayed in Photo Rescue's mini-browser at the end of its analysis process, then in most cases it really will be recoverable. My experience with Photo Rescue supports this claim, and is not typical of some other data recovery applications.

Offsetting Photo Rescue's power is the fact that it requires an NT-flavoured version of Windows to unlock its full potential. That means Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP only (Data Rescue recommends either Windows 2000 or XP for best results). Though it will run in, for example, Windows 98 SE, it's restricted to handling only minor card problems by virtue of the fact that only its logical drive mode is available, and not its zoomier physical drive mode. From within Virtual PC 4.02 or 5.01, you can exclude the combination of Photo Rescue 1.0.1.589 and either Windows XP or Windows 98 SE altogether, though Windows 2000, Virtual PC and Photo Rescue seem to be a stable, reliable trio. I have not tested Windows NT or ME from within Virtual PC or on an actual PC.

Photo Rescue is US$29 and may be purchased and downloaded from DataRescue's web site. The current shipping version as I write this is 1.0.1.590; the trial version available for download is 1.0.1.589. Registered users should contact Data Rescue directly for information on obtaining new versions as they come online.

Note: Vandevenne indicates that DataRescue is currently evaluating the development of a Mac version of Photo Rescue. No release date has been set. Given the complexity of the task, Mac users should resign themselves to the fact that Photo Rescue for Mac may not ship for a good long time.

AccessData WipeDrive 2.2.4 - Before a recovered CompactFlash card is used again, I always overwrite it with zeros using WipeDrive. In fact, whenever I smell trouble at all, even something as minor as a temporary hiccup copying files from card, out comes WipeDrive. This is a DOS program designed to, among other things, prep hard drives prior to their sale, where the goal is to remove all data from the drive to ensure the seller's private files aren't accessible to the buyer.


WipeDrive overwrites all physical sectors on a CompactFlash card

But WipeDrive wipes more than just files, it overwrites all host-addressable physical sectors starting with the one containing the Master Boot Record. WipeDrive is the only program that I know of that can overwrite from the first physical sector of a Compactflash card and do it from within Windows (a DOS window within Windows, to be exact). Since a corrupted Master Boot Record is perhaps the most common form of file system corruption I've witnessed in cards that won't mount or open, WipeDrive for me is an essential part of the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit.

The main purpose of WipeDrive, then, is to overwrite the entire CompactFlash card with zeros (well, a pattern actually, culminating in zeros), thereby ensuring that a corrupted DOS file system can't interfere with the card's proper operation when it is subsequently formatted and returned to active duty. One example of the program's usefulness: During a training seminar last year, photographer Jill Hennessy presented me with a card that would not function in the Nikon D1. The camera simply blinked CHA (an error messages that means Change Card). While this is often a sign of serious trouble, in this case the card, after a run through WipeDrive, was recognized by the D1 as functioning but unformatted. The camera was able to format the card, and Hennessy reports that the card is still in daily use several months later.

In addition, the act of running WipeDrive over a CompactFlash card also serves a diagnostic purpose: if the software reports any sector errors, chances are the card is physically damaged and should be taken out of service (CompactFlash cards, including the IBM Microdrive, should never report sector errors when operating properly).

In truth, it's probably overkill in many cases to wipe the entire card with zeros. Simply reformatting it in the camera will often suffice. BUT, since WipeDrive will also help determine the health of the card, and since it's rarely possible to know beforehand if zeroing out the card will or won't be of benefit (it will never harm the card), I recommend it whenever a CompactFlash card is acting up. But only after all data recovery efforts have concluded, since overwriting the card with zeros effectively eliminates the ability to recover data from it.

The DOS WipeDrive works fine within Windows 98 SE on both a real PC and in Virtual PC. It's incompatible, however, with Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP. AccessData indicates that there are no plans to modify WipeDrive to make it compatible with NT/2000/XP in a future version.

WipeDrive is sold as the inseparable sidekick of CleanDrive, a program that you won't actually need for the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit. Together they are US$40 and may be purchased and downloaded from AccessData. A demo of WipeDrive (part of the CleanDrive demo package) is available.

Microsoft Windows OS - There's no getting around it: the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit must be comprised of two different Windows operating systems. While EasyRecovery isn't picky, WipeDrive requires Windows 98 SE (or perhaps ME; I've not tested this OS) and Photo Rescue runs best in a variant of Windows NT. It's working well for me within Windows XP Home on a Dell Dimension 8200, and in Windows 2000 within Virtual PC. The temptation may be to dump WipeDrive from the equation, which eliminates the need for Windows 98 SE along with it. I would caution against this; WipeDrive is an essential part of the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit. For big photo departments, a compromise might be to equip photographers with the right stuff to recover photos in the field, but not to run WipeDrive. That task could be provided on a computer in the office, thereby limiting the number of two-OS installations.

Running multiple Windows OS versions and switching between them is actually easiest for Mac users. Virtual PC for Mac makes this a snap. The process is more involved for actual PC users, though there are a number of programs that can help. I used Powerquest Partition Magic 7.0 to prep my main PC's drive for a life of dual booting. In an NTFS partition is Windows XP; in a FAT32 partition is Windows 98 SE. The included PQ Boot application makes simple enough the occasional switching from my primary OS, Windows XP, to Windows 98 SE, and back.

The summary tables at the end of this section provides additional information on OS versions.

Connectix Virtual PC 5.01 - The latest release of the well-regarded PC emulator, as well as the older 4.02 version, make photo recovery possible from the Mac platform. The principle reason is Virtual PC's support for direct access to devices on the USB bus. Windows data recovery software needs to be able talk directly to the CompactFlash card as if it's a hard drive. If you're familiar with Virtual PC, you may be thinking that setting up a CompactFlash card as a shared folder would work just as well. It doesn't work, not at all. The program's emulation of a USB 1.1 controller, and ability to stop the Mac from protesting that Virtual PC has taken over the USB ports, are key here. With the right USB card reader, you're in business. FireWire or SCSI card readers need not apply; Virtual PC does not offer direct access via these protocols.


Virtual PC 5.01 running Windows 2000 and performing
a recovery with DataRescue's Photo Rescue

Virtual PC can be purchased with DOS or one of several flavours of Windows. It can host multiple OS versions by creating a new virtual hard drive image and installing the new OS into that. Connectix offers OS Packs, which are preconfigured versions of the included OS. An OS Pack makes short work of adding an additional Windows operating system to a Virtual PC installation. A standard Microsoft installation CD should work too,though I encountered errors during the installation of Windows XP from an off-the-shelf CD.

As already discussed, the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit requires two versions of the Windows OS. Based on my testing with Virtual PC, they are Windows 98 SE and Windows 2000. Note that Photo Rescue is not compatible with Windows XP from within Virtual PC, though it runs just fine in Microsoft's latest operating system on an actual PC.

The summary tables at the end of this section provides additional information on OS versions.

See the Connectix online store for prices. Remember, the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit requires two OS versions. If you're starting from scratch, then you'll need a combination such as Virtual PC 5 w/Windows 98 SE and an OS Pack for Windows 2000.

SCM Microsystems Microtech Zio! CompactFlash card reader (USB) - If you're a Mac user, look no further than the Zio! card reader, or its twin the Delkin eFilm Pocket Reader-10 mentioned just ahead. Both readers, as well as the discontinued Delkin eFilm Pocket Reader-2 (and probably other discontinued clones of this unit as well), are built around the same or similar SCM Microsystems reader chipset, and use the same or similar Windows OS driver too. Whether by accident or design, these three reader/driver combos are the only ones out of twelve current or discontinued readers tested that worked reliably or at all. This is despite the fact the Connectix lists the Zio! as incompatible on its web site. Of the rest, two popular USB readers are most definitely not compatible with the Virtual PC version of the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit - the Microtech USB CameraMate and Lexar Media USB Jumpshot cable.


Delkin eFilm Pocket Reader-10 (left; without label); SCM
Microsystems Microtech Zio! (right; with included USB cable attached)

Actual PC users, your mileage may vary. The same trio that works well with Virtual PC tests out just fine on an actual PC; with certain other readers it may be hit and miss. During testing I quickly eliminated all USB readers that didn't work with both an actual PC and Virtual PC, hence I'm not in a position to offer more than the fact that the Zio and Pocket Reader-10 have been rock-solid here on all tested platforms. I would encourage you to test your USB reader's compatibility with Photo Rescue, EasyRecovery and WipeDrive before deciding to purchase another.

A better choice, if your actual PC supports it, is a FireWire card reader, since it will perform the same recovery and zero-filling operations 4-5 times faster than any USB card reader. Two FireWire card readers are described just ahead.

The Microtech Zio! is about US$30.

Delkin eFilm Pocket Reader-10 CompactFlash card reader (USB) - This reader is the same as the Microtech Zio.

The Delkin eFilm Pocket Reader-10 is about US$30.

Lexar Media FireWire CompactFlash card reader - Mac users can now skip down to the summary tables. Virtual PC doesn't support direct access to devices on the FireWire bus, so recovery over the Apple-invented protocol is for PC users only. Actual PC users will benefit from the tremendous speed advantage FireWire readers have over any USB card reader. I know of only two FireWire card readers - the Lexar Media FireWire CompactFlash, which is manufactured by Datafab for Lexar and several other vendors, and the SCM Microsystems Microtech FireWire CameraMate mentioned ahead. Both have tested flawlessly for me with EasyRecovery, Photo Rescue and WipeDrive.


SCM Microsystems Microtech FireWire CameraMate (left);
Lexar Media FireWire CompactFlash card reader

The Lexar Media FireWire CompactFlash card reader is about US$50-60.

SCM Microsystems Microtech Firewire CameraMate CompactFlash card reader - As with the Lexar reader above, the Microtech FireWire CameraMate works effortlessly with the software in the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit. But for actual PC users only.

The Microtech FireWire CameraMate is about US$90.

Note: Several Kodak DCS cameras, including discontinued models, have a photo recovery function built into their firmware. The recovery function only works with cards that have been formatted in the camera originally, and can bring back images only when the problem is a couple of different forms of photographer error. For example, it can quickly restore photos that were deleted from the card, as long as they haven't been overwritten by new photos. It's long been great to see this recovery function in Kodak DCS cameras, but it would be a mistake to think of it as a substitute for the all-purpose power of the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit.

Summary Table for Mac Users - Building the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit

The recommendations in this Summary Table are for Mac users. Three Windows OS versions were tested in the preparation of this article: Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000 and Windows XP Home. Windows NT and Windows ME may also work in some circumstances, but as I have not tested them they are not included in the table.

Component Details
PC emulator Virtual PC 4.02 or 5.01 (5.01 is current version)

Note: Virtual PC 5 is compatible with both OS X and OS 9.x; all testing has been done in OS 9.x only. See the Testing Notes sidebar for more information.

Data recovery software •Ontrack EasyRecovery 5.12a
•DataRescue Photo Rescue 1.0.1.589 or later
•AccessData WipeDrive 2.2.4
Windows OS versions •Windows 98 SE (WipeDrive, EasyRecovery)
•Windows 2000 (EasyRecovery, PhotoRescue)

Note: Photo Rescue 1.0.1.589 is incompatible with Windows 98 SE and Windows XP from within Virtual PC (though it functions just fine from within Windows 2000); just prior to the publishing of this article I discovered that an as-yet-unreleased new version of Photo Rescue will operate in Windows 98 SE from within Virtual PC, but only in logical mode. The same unreleased version remains incompatible with Windows XP from within Virtual PC, and continues to be compatible with Windows 2000.

Card reader (select one) •Microtech Zio! for CompactFlash (USB)
•Delkin Pocket Reader-10 for CompactFlash (USB)

Summary Table for PC Users - Building the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit

The recommendations in this Summary Table are for PC users. Three Windows OS versions were tested in the preparation of this article: Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000 and Windows XP Home. Windows NT and Windows ME may also work in some circumstances, but as I have not tested them they are not included in the table.

Component Details
Data recovery software •Ontrack EasyRecovery 5.12a
•DataRescue Photo Rescue 1.0.1.589 or later
•AccessData WipeDrive 2.2.4
Windows OS versions •Windows 98 SE (WipeDrive, EasyRecovery)
•Windows 2000 or Windows XP (EasyRecovery, PhotoRescue)

Note: Photo Rescue 1.0.1.589 is compatible with Windows 98 SE, but only in the program's logical mode. It is strongly recommended that Photo Rescue be run from within Windows 2000 or Windows XP to take full advantage of the program's power.

Card reader (select one) •Lexar Media FireWire CompactFlash
•SCM Microsystems Microtech FireWire CameraMate
•SCM Microsystems Microtech Zio! for CompactFlash (USB)
•Delkin Pocket Reader-10 for CompactFlash (USB)

Note: Some other USB CompactFlash card readers may also be compatible

Installation, Configuration and Usage Tips (PC and Mac)

It's important to remember that the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit, especially for Mac users, probably shouldn't work. It's rare that the alignment of the stars allows for such power to be placed into the hands of mere mortals, especially when computers are involved. This section lists some of the steps I took to work around quirks and hiccups in the installation, configuration and usage of the Kit.

Section Links

Virtual PC 5.01

• Create a folder on your Mac hard drive and name it MacFolder (or whatever you wish), then make that a shared folder in each Windows OS you install. That way, when recovering photos, you can designate in Photo Rescue and EasyRecovery that they be recovered to this folder. Once done, you can access them directly from the Mac environment without having to copy them from the Virtual PC drive image first.


In the Virtual PC List window, click Settings, then
designate a Mac folder to be automatically shared each
time the Windows OS is started. The folder will
appear as a networked drive in My Computer

• Remember to install the Windows drivers for the Microtech or Delkin reader. If you choose to install the Mac driver as well, it's a good idea to disable it in the Extensions Manager control panel, then enable as needed to use the reader from the Mac environment (this recommendation assumes that this reader is not your primary method of transferring photos to the Mac). You may also wish to disable the USB Software Locator extension, which will unsuccessfully search the Web for a compatible Mac driver each time you insert the card reader into the Mac's USB port when a Windows OS is not active in Virtual PC.

• Some Windows installers will not run properly if they are launched from a Mac shared folder. Move them to a folder on the virtual drive of the Windows OS before launching.

• In the Settings for each Windows OS in Virtual PC List, ensure that Enable USB is checked. This will stay checked thereafter. Placing a checkmark next to the reader itself (i.e. SCM Micro USBAT-02) isn't necessary.


It isn't necessary to open Settings to place a
checkmark next to the card reader (SCM Micro
USBAT-02) each time you start Virtual PC.

• Always plug the card reader into the USB port once Windows has launched and is the frontmost window on the Mac. Insert the CompactFlash card into the reader before plugging the reader into the Mac to ensure that it will be properly recognized by EasyRecovery, Photo Rescue and WipeDrive (especially WipeDrive). If you insert the card into the reader when it's already attached to the Mac, you may have to open My Computer and double-click the reader's drive letter (probably E:) to kickstart Windows' recognition of the card. This still may not be enough for WipeDrive to see the card. If that's the case, remove the card and reader from the USB port (in Windows 2000, stop the device first from the taskbar icon in the lower right), then plug in the card/reader combination again after a pause of 5-10 seconds.

• Always unplug the reader from the USB port before quitting the Windows OS. If you don't, you may see this message:


Unplug the reader from the computer before quitting the
Windows OS to avoid seeing this message.

• Choose to shut down the Windows OS, instead of saving its state, to eek maximum stability out of the card/reader/data recovery software combination next time.


Choose to shut down the Windows OS

• Virtual PC can run multiple Windows OS versions simultaneously, but each OS can't recognize an attached card reader simultaneously. Quit one OS before launching another, and be prepared to unplug the card reader too.

• Virtual PC will run in the background, enabling data recovery operations to take place while you work in another Mac application. This may slow the recovery considerably, however. Processor-intensive operations, including the conversion of raw format files to finished files in, for instance, Nikon Capture, may also kill the recovery that's underway in Virtual PC, so be sure to choose light-duty foreground tasks on the Mac when sharing the processor in this way.

Windows OS on an actual PC

• Remember to install the Windows drivers for the Microtech or Delkin reader. The FireWire readers do not require additional drivers: both the Lexar Media FireWire CompactFlash and Microtech FireWire CameraMate are instantly recognized by the Windows OS when plugged into an Orange Micro FireWire PCI board here.

• Windows XP, if configured to automatically search for Windows updates, should seamlessly locate and install from the Web the driver for the Microtech/Delkin reader.

• As with Virtual PC, insert the CompactFlash card into the reader before plugging the reader into the PC's USB or FireWire port. This isn't always necessary, but will ensure that EasyRecovery, Photo Rescue and especially WipeDrive can see and work with the card without difficulty. See the WipeDrive tips section for additional information.

EasyRecovery 5.12a

• A message in EasyRecovery's progress screen notes that recovery speed will improve if progress details are hidden. This may be true when EasyRecovery is performing a recovery of a fast computer hard drive, but not when the media is a CompactFlash card. Therefore, it isn't necessary to click Hide Progress Details as the screen suggests.

• On both an actual PC and Virtual PC, EasyRecovery sometimes has trouble locating the Partition Table in the Master Boot Record on a CompactFlash card, even if it contains a valid Master Boot Record. This prevents the program from automatically determining the location of the Partition Boot Record, which means it will display Unknown File System Type in its System Overview screen. Working around this problem is simple:

First, select the CompactFlash card (below) in EasyRecovery's wizard-based interface and click Next.


Select the CompactFlash card, then click Next

Enter "0" (zero) in the Start Sector field (below). This forces EasyRecovery to begin searching for the Partition Boot Record from the first physical sector. Click Next.


Enter "0" in the Start Sector field and click Next

Set the File System Type popup menu to FAT16 (below) and click Next.


Set the File System Type popup menu to FAT16 and click Next

Usually, EasyRecovery will locate the Partition Boot Record instantly and the recovery can proceed normally from there.

If the program continues to scan for the start of the file system for more than about 10 seconds (i.e. beyond the 2% mark for all but the lowest capacity cards), click Cancel. Then, Pro version users might try clicking View and searching for the Partition Boot Record manually. Once found (it will resemble the screen below), note the Physical Sector value, close the View window and enter that value into the Start Sector field. If you can't locate a Partition Boot Record this way in the first few hundred sectors of any capacity of card, and EasyRecovery wasn't able to detect one either, chances are the card's DOS file system is seriously damaged.


The Partition Boot Record on a CompactFlash card
formatted in a Canon EOS digital camera

If the photos you need are not recovered by EasyRecovery, try Photo Rescue. Also, don't rule out the possibility that you're attempting to recover the wrong card altogether. Check all the other cards in your bag to see if they contain the photos you'd thought were lost. This mistake may seem obvious and easily avoided, but it's also an easy one to make when juggling a stack of CompactFlash cards at big events or other stressful shooting situations.

Photo Rescue 1.0.1.589

• The successful use of Photo Rescue in a broad range of photo recovery scenarios means potentially running the program's routines multiple times, changing the options each time. Try starting with a logical mode recovery, then a physical mode recovery, then a physical mode recovery with expert mode enabled (and "Ignore directories and FAT" checked if prompted to input the card size). Stop when you've recovered all needed photos, and don't be surprised if one of the two physical drive mode runs recovers the greatest number of photos. Don't rule out the logical drive mode completely, however. In one logical drive mode test I was able to recover 6 photos that a physical drive mode recovery failed to locate, though in all other tests the logical drive mode recovery either brought back fewer photos or stopped before it began because of serious corruption in the card's DOS file system.


Logical drive mode recovery underway

• If prompted to input the card size, enter the number in MB that's listed on the card. This will almost always be larger than the actual capacity, which may translate into a string of "File Read Error" entries in Photo Rescue's running status window sometime well after the beginning of the analysis. This error does not appear to impact the recovery. The same error at the beginning of the analysis may mean that you've selected the wrong drive letter or physical drive.

• If prompted to input the card size, you'll also see a field for cluster size, just beneath the capacity field. Photo Rescue will notify you if the cluster size is too small for the capacity of card when you click OK, so feel free to work your way up in size until Photo Rescue accepts your choice. The Photo Rescue documentation further recommends experimenting with different cluster sizes to see if one is closer to the mark and therefore results in the recovery of more photos.

• When switching from logical drive mode to physical drive mode, Virtual PC users should consider first unchecking "Determine the card size." Otherwise, the program may choose to query mounted media twice to determine the capacity of each: once when switching from logical to physical drive mode, then again when the recovery analysis begins. This does not present a problem per se, but it can be a time-waster, since the process of determining media capacity can be long for Virtual PC users (and only somewhat less so for actual PC users with a USB reader). Having said that, if you're unsure of which drive represents your CompactFlash card in physical drive mode, knowing the capacity as reported by Photo Rescue may help narrow the field. If you opt to uncheck "Determine the card size", remember to check it again prior to commencing the recovery.


Choosing the CompactFlash
reader in logical drive mode

Choosing the CompactFlash
reader in physical drive mode
(Determine the card size was checked when switching from logical drive mode)

Choosing the CompactFlash
reader in physical drive mode
(Determine the card size was unchecked when switching from logical drive mode)

• In logical drive mode, choose the drive letter that corresponds to that assigned to the card in My Computer. In physical drive mode you will see fewer choices than logical drive mode, but the order in which the physical drives are listed should mimic that of logical drive mode. Therefore, if you see A:, C:, D:, E: and F: drive letters in logical mode, where A: is an empty floppy drive, C: is the computer's internal drive, D: is the CD reader, E: is the CompactFlash reader and F: is, for example, an empty ZIP drive, then in physical drive mode you might expect to see just Drive 0, Drive 1, Drive 2. Drive 0 will always be the computer's drive (the A: drive seems to be ignored, even if a floppy is inserted), while Drive 1 seems to consistently be the CD reader (or a hidden partition on my PC's drive, I'm not sure). That means Drive 2 is the CompactFlash reader. Therefore, choose Drive 2. In Virtual PC, however, the choice will almost always be Drive 1 unless you have more than one virtual drive or external USB media device connected. The reported capacity of Drive 0 from within the Virtual PC environment may also be amusingly high.

• Be wary of the "Cache the input" setting. This is designed to speed up the recovery on machines with lots of RAM. In my testing on a Windows XP machine with 512MB of RAM, however, enabling the caching function while recovering cards as small as 16MB resulted in no photos displayed in the program's mini-browser at the end of the analysis phase.

• Once the recovery analysis is complete, Photo Rescue presents a browser window full of photos it believes it can recover. For some file formats it will begin to build thumbnails, a process that may seem agonizingly slow when the clock is ticking towards deadline. Fortunately, it isn't necessary to wait for that process to complete before you begin to save selected or all found photos off the card.


Photo Rescue set to save all
recoverable photos off a card

• Make sure you're working in a Photo Rescue-friendly Windows OS. As of this writing, that means Windows 2000 for Mac/Virtual PC users, and Windows 2000 or Windows XP for actual PC users.

• If the photos you need are not recovered by Photo Rescue, try EasyRecovery. Also, don't rule out the possibility that you're attempting to recover the wrong card altogether. Check all the other cards in your bag to see if they contain the photos you'd thought were lost. This mistake may seem obvious and easily avoided, but it's also a simple one to make when juggling a stack of CompactFlash cards at big events or other stressful shooting situations.

WipeDrive 2.2.4

• WipeDrive wants to be finicky about recognizing CompactFlash cards, but can be made to see and work with them consistently. The key is to first insert the card into the reader, then plug the reader into the computer. Windows 98 SE should already be launched before doing so. This is true of compatible USB readers and Virtual PC/Windows 98 SE. It's also true of both USB and FireWire card readers and an actual PC running Windows 98 SE (remember, WipeDrive will not run in Windows NT, 2000 or XP). Both tested FireWire card readers, however, add one more twist - it's necessary to double-click on the card's drive letter in My Computer prior to launching WipeDrive for the first time in the session. Otherwise, sometimes WipeDrive sees the card as having a capacity of 0.0MB.

• After zero-filling a card with WipeDrive, exit its DOS window. Then, immediately unplug the card/reader combo from the computer. Do not attempt to stop the device in the task bar or otherwise force Windows to interact with the card. WipeDrive overwrites the card with zeros without alerting Windows, so its vital to remove the card from the Windows environment before the operating system attempts to interact with the card in any way.

• I've been able to cheat the last recommendation a bit when wiping multiple CompactFlash cards in succession using a FireWire card reader connected to an actual PC. Though the first card needs to be in the reader before the reader is plugged in, and Windows 98 SE needs to be already launched too, subsequent cards seem to be recognized properly by WipeDrive if I exit the DOS window, remove the card from the reader (without unplugging the reader), insert the next one, then double-click on its drive letter in My Computer before launching WipeDrive again.

• WipeDrive will report any bad sectors it encounters. It does so on screen during its run, and in a log file that can be viewed once it has completed wiping the drive. WipeDrive should never encounter bad sectors on a CompactFlash card. If it does, consider this a sign from the CompactFlash Gods that this card is nearing a complete metabolic meltdown. That's because both flash memory cards and the IBM Microdrive are designed to map out internally any areas no longer able to hold data, and do so transparent to programs like WipeDrive. Therefore, a bad sector report from, for example, a Microdrive, can mean that the card has used up all its spare sector locations. If that's the case, it's likely to not be spinning up much longer. Though physical errors are infrequent, when flash memory cards go the symptoms are usually dramatic and obvious. For example, the screenshot below is from a 153MB CompactFlash card that one day began to think itself as more of a 92.2MB card. WipeDrive located numerous sector errors, and ultimately the card would not work properly in a camera or computer.

Note: WipeDrive does not map out bad sectors, it simply identifies them.


WipeDrive encountering bad sectors on a flash memory CompactFlash card

• As a colleague discovered the hard way, WipeDrive will happily zero-fill Virtual PC's virtual hard drive, even when that drive happens to house the active Windows 98 SE operating system, and even WipeDrive itself. I haven't been so bold as to test if it will do the same with an actual PC's drive, but I think it's safe to assume that it could. Therefore, when selecting the drive to be cleansed by WipeDrive, examine the drive list carefully before making your choice. The following screenshots illustrate a typical WipeDrive operation:


Launch WipeDrive by clicking on its icon in the CleanDrive folder.
The program will automatically open into a DOS window within
Windows 98 SE. Choose option 1: Securely overwrite a hard drive
by typing "1". The program will automatically accept the choice.


Drive #1, which is option 2 in this case, is a 256MB CompactFlash card (with
an actual capacity of 245MB). Choose option 2 (or whichever one is the
CompactFlash card). If none of the options appear to be the CompactFlash
card, or its capacity is listed as 0.0MB, you may need to review the tips
earlier in this section. Whatever you do, don't choose Drive #0 (option 1)
or you may overwrite your internal hard drive (or Virtual PC's virtual drive).


A single overwrite will be sufficient to prep a CompactFlash
card for reuse, so choose option 1.


Make sure that the drive selected is in fact the CompactFlash card, then type Y.
The only information you have to go on is the capacity of the media, so be sure!


During the wiping process, Virtual PC users can switch to working with Mac
applications, though WipeDrive will in some cases slow down considerably.
Wiping time is dependent on the capacity of the card and the speed of the
reader. FireWire readers will all be about 4-5 times faster than USB readers.


At the end of the process you can choose to view WipeDrive's log. Only
feel compelled to do so if errors were reported during the wiping process.
Otherwise, three presses of the ESC key will clear the remaining WipeDrive
screens and exit the program. It isn't necessary to restart the computer.


Once you're looking at this screen, click the "X" close button in the upper
right corner of the DOS window, then follow the earlier tips related to
removing the CompactFlash from Windows as soon as possible.

WipeDrive clears the card of all data, including all DOS file system elements. Before using the card again it will be necessary to partition and format it. As the sidebar discusses, the best place for most photographers to do that is in the camera itself, since most if not all digital cameras will both partition and format camera storage media in one step when the format function is engaged.

Conclusion

For some, assembling the necessary bits and pieces that comprise the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit will be an expensive and time-consuming affair. The hassle will have been worth it, however, the first time an important assignment is recovered, in time for deadline, from the middle of nowhere.

Thanks to Dylan Goss, Reed Hoffmann, Nick Didlick, Greg Olson of Ontrack, Pierre Vandevenne of DataRescue, Dan Le of Lexar Media and Bernard Davis of Delkin Devices for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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