I work in tech and have offered IT training and support for decades, and write software reviews and how-tos for business users. I’ve taken an in-depth look at PhotoRec to let you know how likely it is to recover your lost photos and other files.
I discovered that PhotoRec is suitable for advanced users only. It runs from the command line and does not offer a graphical user interface. If you’re not sure what that means, just refer to the screenshots below. I imagine most users would prefer to use an alternate app, and I’ll recommend some below.
In this PhotoRec review, I’ll explore the types of data the application can restore, how long this is likely to take, and weigh up your chance of success. Let’s get started.
PhotoRec is a free tool that recovers lost photos and other types of files from hard drives, CD-ROMs, and digital camera memory. It is designed to work even when the file system is damaged or has been reformatted. It can be used in conjunction with the company’s other free recovery tool, TestDisk.
The application is distributed under the free software GPL v2+ license which means that you can use the software free of charge and share it with others. There are versions for a number of operating systems that can be downloaded from the official website. 
- Windows (from XP on) and Windows server (from 2003 on)
- BSD (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD)
- Sun Solaris
In this review, we’ll cover the macOS version. Mac users running recent versions of macOS will need the 64-bit version of the software, and this can only be installed using the Homebrew package manager.  That confirms that this is a tool aimed at tech-savvy users.
How is data recovery possible? When a photo is deleted, the data isn’t removed, but just marked as available space. As you take more photos, the data will be overwritten, so it’s important to stop taking photos or saving files when you realize you’ve accidentally deleted something.
Method of data recovery offered: A scan of the underlying data (rather than the file system) so that data on damaged or formatted drives can be recovered. This is slower but has the potential of locating a larger number of lost files.
Supported storage media: Hard disks, CD-ROMs, memory cards (CompactFlash, Memory Stick, Secure Digital/SD, SmartMedia, Microdrive, MMC, and more), USB memory drives, DD raw images, and more.
It has been successfully tested on the following digital cameras:
- Canon EOS 10D, 60D, 80D, 300D
- Casio Exilim EX-Z 750
- Fujifilm X-T10
- HP PhotoSmart 620, 850, 935
- Nikon CoolPix 775, 950, 5700
- Olympus C350N, C860L, Mju 400 Digital, Stylus 300
- Sony Alpha DSLR, DSC-P9, NEX-6
- Pentax K20D
- Praktica DCZ-3.4
Disclaimer: It is difficult to recover data from solid-state drives (SSDs). The TRIM technology that increases their efficiency also makes it impossible to recover your files once the trash has been emptied.
Supported file systems:
- Windows formats such as NTFS, FAT, and exFAT
- The older HFS+ Mac format, but not APFS that comes preinstalled on all new Macs
- Common Linux formats including ext2/ext3/ext4, but not ReiserFS
Unfortunately, that means many Mac users can’t use the software to recover files from their internal drive but can use it to scan compatible external storage devices such as flash drives and digital cameras.
Supported file types: 480 file extensions are supported including ZIP, Office, PDF, HTML, JPEG, and various graphics file formats. A full list of supported file formats is maintained. 
If you’re old enough to have run MS-DOS, you’ll have an idea of what to expect from PhotoRec. You start the application by typing a command on the command line (for Mac users, that’s sudo photorec), then read the text prompts and use your keyboard to interact with the program.
For most users, this will feel like going back to the dark ages. Technical Linux users will feel right at home.
Scanning for lost files can be time-consuming. How fast is PhotoRec? I scanned the unused space on a 4 GB flash drive I connected to my iMac, and the time taken was 18 minutes.
That’s slow compared to other recovery tools. I found that other apps scanned the same drive in four or five minutes, and the slower apps took 8-10 minutes.
Data recovery can never be guaranteed. How successful is PhotoRec? I was able to recover eight files from the flash drive. These were all text files containing random information. Because the directory structure isn’t scanned, file names are not recovered.
The files were automatically saved in a folder on my iMac.
PhotoRec seems quite effective at recovering lost data in a number of scenarios. The CG Security blog lists successful tests performed by users running a number of different operating systems. 
User satisfaction is high. CNET gave the application a user rating of 4.3 stars based on 23 reviews.  Many users had success when using the software, but not all. Data recovery can never be guaranteed—in time, the lost data will be overwritten.
The official PhotoRec website offers step-by-step guides on how to use the software as well as a comprehensive 60-page PDF. Support can be obtained from other users on the PhotoRec Forum and the developer seems quite active there as well. 
Is PhotoRec safe?
Yes. It performs scans in read-only mode to make sure your data is not overwritten. Recovered photos and files must be saved to a different drive to protect your lost data from being lost.
Is PhotoRec really free?
Yes. The GPL v2+ license (GNU General Public License) means that you can use and distribute the software free of charge.
If PhotoRec isn’t right for you, here are some alternatives I recommend.
Stellar Photo Recovery is much easier to use and is a non-technical recovery tool aimed at photographers. Windows and Mac versions are available.
Stellar is a general use recovery application by the same developers. Scans are slow but effective. It’s available on both Windows and Mac.
Data Recovery offers an easy-to-use wizard that will scan your drive quickly for lost files. It’s available for both Windows and Mac.
PhotoRec seems quite effective at recovering deleted files from your computer and lost photos from your camera, and you can’t complain about the price. But the software feels like it belongs in the 1980s, and most users will have difficulty installing and using it.
Instead, I recommend you use a modern application with an easy-to-use interface, like those listed above. Data recovery can be done with no technical knowledge in a few simple steps. The software will cost money, but only after you use the free trial version to verify whether or not it can locate your lost files so that you have peace-of-mind with the purchase.
- 1: https://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/TestDisk_Download
- 2: https://brew.sh/
- 3: https://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/File_Formats_Recovered_By_PhotoRec
- 4: https://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/TestDisk_and_PhotoRec_in_various_digital_forensics_testcase
- 5: https://download.cnet.com/TestDisk-PhotoRec/3000-2248_4-10511792.html
- 6: https://forum.cgsecurity.org/phpBB3/