Recover lost photos: how to repair corrupt images
26th Dec 2012 | 12:00
We show you how to recover lost photos, with the best JPEG repair tools around
Digital photos are an incredibly convenient way to preserve life's most important memories and moments, and are so easy to use that it's tempting to take them for granted.
And why not? You see a thumbnail, double-click it and the image always appears, so you assume it always will.
But of course life isn't always so straightforward.
It only takes something tiny - a scratch on a CD; a bad sector on your hard drive. And, suddenly, a photo could be trashed: split into chunks; colours displayed incorrectly; bits missing; maybe you can no longer view it at all. Your photo - or photos - have been corrupted.
Don't panic, though - there are several programs around which claim they can repair JPEGs.
They're almost all commercial products, but if you want to fix corrupted photos then you can always pass your images through their trial versions, which will give you an idea of what can be recovered (although repaired images tend to come with a bulky watermark until you buy the full package).
So which tool is best?
To find out, we've tested seven of the most well-known contenders, and the differences are absolutely amazing: some programs really deliver, while others are entirely useless. Keep reading to find out more.
How we tested
To benchmark our repair tools we needed some corrupted JPEGs. And so we set about creating some, by intentionally damaging four groups of images in very specific ways.
Test 1, 'Zero Signature', was the simplest: we just zeroed the first two bytes in every image. No critical data was lost, so we would expect any capable recovery tool to fix the problem.
Test 2, 'Zero Header', was an extension of the same idea, zeroing the first 32 bytes. This would be a little more difficult to fix, but should still be recoverable.
Test 3, 'Lost intro', saw us delete the first 8KB of every file (that is, the corrupted file started at original file byte 8193). Obviously this missing data can't be recovered, but could our tools make at least something visible?
This is a tough test.
And test 4, 'Lost middle', saw us delete 8KB from the middle of each file (so the data isn't zeroed, it's removed entirely and the file is 8KB shorter). Again, the lost data can't be restored, but would our test programs make the photos more viewable?
It was time to find out.
Stellar Phoenix JPEG Repair 126.96.36.199
Image Recovery Rate: 62.5%
Stellar Phoenix JPEG Repair stood out straight away thanks to its dedicated thumbnail extractor.
Point this at your corrupted images and the program will do its best to extract any thumbnails they might contain; these plainly aren't going to be high resolution, but if they're the only record you have of the image then you'll probably still be very happy to see them.
And the feature's inclusion here is a great idea.
Of course the program can also try to repair your JPEGs, though, and here it works more or less exactly as you'd expect. Add a few files, click the 'Repair' button, and wait a while for the results to appear - it's all very straightforward.
The program's repair tools were mostly very successful, too.
Our zeroed signature images were recovered immediately, for instance.
The 'corrupt header' set was more difficult, but Stellar Phoenix still restored 12 out of 14.
The program was able to make 2 out of 14 images look good, even after we zeroed 8KB in the middle of each file, and even deleting the first 8KB from each file couldn't prevent it from restoring half of our images.
Your photos may be different, of course. But a relatively unobtrusive text watermark means it's quite easy to see how well the program's recovery efforts have worked.
And perhaps best of all, Stellar Phoenix JPEG Repair can be yours for a very reasonable $39 - that could be money well spent.
File Repair 2.1
Image recovery rate: 0%
If you don't want to spend big money repairing your image files then the freeware File Repair should have obvious appeal, especially as it also claims to repair Office documents, archives, videos, PDF files and MP3 files.
But while this sounds great, the program does suffer from a fairly significant problem. With regards to JPEGS, at least, File Repair simply doesn't work.
We pointed it at every one of our test pictures - individually, as it can't batch process files. And in each and every case the program told us it was "Rading the damaged file", displayed a progress bar by way of proof, before stating "No data to recover detected".
So after failing in every case, we pointed File Repair at some uncorrupted images, just as a check. And it told us "No data to recover detected" there, too.
The File Repair authors do claim on their website that they can repair files manually (for a fee, we'd guess). And perhaps they can.
Don't waste your valuable time expecting File Repair to fix your corrupted JPEGs, though - from our tests, it's entirely useless.
JPEG Recovery Pro 5.0
Image Recovery Rate: 39.3%
If we were marking our software on ease of use alone, then JPEG Recovery Pro would be an easy winner.
Point the program at your folder of corrupted photos and there's no tedious progress bars, no tables of figures: it just recovers all the images it can, and displays a thumbnail of each picture so you can judge the results right away.
Better still, there's no massive watermark placed over the top, so you can't actually tell if the image has been fixed at all - these are just regular thumbnails.
And although they're a little small, double-click any of them and you're able to view a larger version.
If there's a down side here it's that the program's recovery technology isn't as effective as some of the competition.
Sometimes it did reasonably well - JPEG Recovery Pro was able to access half the pictures in our toughest Test 3, for instance (where the first 8KB of our test images were lost) - but others weren't so successful, with the program occasionally failing even on our relatively easy 'zero signature' test.
JPEG Recovery Pro is a likeable, well-designed program, then.
If you're frustrated by the massive watermarks used by other recovery tools, give it a try. The core recovery engine needs work, though, and you may find it's unable to fix your damaged photos.
Image Recovery Rate: 0%
IrfanView is a tiny but amazingly powerful image editor, packed with a host of powerful features, so it was no great surprise when we found people often recommending it online in discussions about corrupted JPEGs.
"Try IrfanView", we kept reading, "it can often read images that other programs won't touch".
This sounded interesting, so we downloaded and installed a copy of the latest version, pointed it at our test images - and were slightly disappointed by the results, when it proved unable to read any of them.
Even the pictures with the simplest forms of corruption - the wiped signature - returned nothing but error messages.
To be fair, the IrfanView site makes no claim about it being able to read corrupt JPEGs, anyway, so this shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the program. It remains a 5-star image viewer, editor and management tool, and every PC owner should have a copy.
If you have a few corrupt JPEGs, though, don't expect IrfanView to handle them. In our experience, it's no more likely to read damaged images than anything else.
Picture Doctor 2.0
Image Recovery Rate: 64.3%
Picture Doctor 2.0 is a likeable tool, straightforward and very easy to use: you'll know what to do just as soon as the clean and clear interface appears.
There are no complex options to consider, nothing to set up or tweak.
Just add your files, choose an output folder, click 'Start Rescue' and all that's left to do is wait for the results to appear. Which won't take long, either (the program is very quick).
Picture Doctor did an excellent job of repairing our broken images, too. All our 'zero signature' images were recovered; only one of the pictures with a zeroed header defeated it, and even removing the first 8KB of an image wasn't the problem we expected, with the program restoring half of our test pictures to a very acceptable standard.
Problems? The trial version places a big black rectangle over the bulk of the image, so it may be hard to judge any recovery results.
And the program is undeniably expensive at $99.50. But, if you really need to repair some images, Picture Doctor has a better chance of success than most.
Image Recovery Rate: 33.9%
Most of our recommendations here are for Windows packages, which won't be a great deal of help if you've got a Mac, or perhaps need to recover an image on a computer where you can't install software.
Don't worry, though. OfficeRecovery.com offers a free online solution which may be able to help.
Just visit the site in your browser, upload a single image (JPEG, GIF, TIFF, BMP, PNG or RAW) and wait for a while.
If the recovery is successful then you'll be invited to tweet about the site, or 'Like' it on Facebook, and in return you'll get a free link to the finished image. (Actually, if you just click the 'Like' and Tweet links for a while, you'll get the free link anyway.)
Does it work? If your images are simple, maybe. Most of our images with corrupt signatures and headers were restored, though only by recovering thumbnails in one or two cases.
But in general the service isn't up to the standard of the best commercial tools. OfficeRecovery.com failed to restore access to a single picture where we'd removed the first 8KB, for instance; the competition managed to repair 50% of the same files.
Perhaps you really do get what you pay for, after all.
Image Recovery Rate: 51.8%
If the OfficeRecovery.com web repair service worked occasionally for you, then you might be interested in PixRecovery, its Windows-based big brother. The program is able to fix more picture problems, and it can process multiple files at the same time, too.
The first task, as usual, is to select your corrupted images. PixRecovery supports a good range of formats here: JPEG, GIF, TIFF, BMP, PNG and RAW.
There's then plenty of control over where the repaired images will go. And in a click you can set the program to work, quickly examining each image and recovering whatever it can.
The trial version then makes it difficult to see how successful the recovery had been, unfortunately, as a huge white watermark is placed over the centre of the picture.
In our experience the program did almost as well as some of the other top commercial tools, though, effortlessly recovering JPEGs with damaged headers, and repairing half of our test images even when we stripped out the first 8KB.
Problems? PixRecovery can't recover progressive JPEGs. Otherwise, its repair capabilities and wide file format support make the program a sensible image recovery choice, and the $49 price isn't bad, either.
And the winner is...
Image repair tools can be alarmingly expensive, but if you're on a strict budget then Office Recovery may be a good place to start.
Its repair tools weren't up to the standard of the rest, and it's relatively awkward to use, but the service can still repair simple corruption issues for free.
And for sheer ease of use and an excellent trial version, JPEG Recovery Pro has to be worth a look. Image repair rates were reasonable, and unlike some of the competition, the trial build doesn't obscure recovered images with a massive watermark, which makes it much easier to confirm that it's worked.
Ultimately, there are three programs which stood out from the rest, though.
In third place wasPicture Doctor. It's likeable, easy to use and has the best recovery rate here, but a high price and annoying watermark were issues.
PixRecoverywas our runner-up, thanks to its wide image format support and general configurability.
But first place has to go toStellar Phoenix JPEG Repair. It almost matched Picture Doctor's recovery rate for less than half the price, with a far less intrusive watermark, and some useful extras, and this sheer all-round excellence makes it a worthy winner.