Salvaging photos after an iOS5 upgrade disaster is a tricky business.
I’ve received several emails this week from readers and 3AW listeners asking for help after an iPhone iOS5 update went pear-shaped and deleted some or all of their data. A quick search reveals that plenty of other people are facing similar problems. Thankfully there are a few things you can try that might recover some of those lost files.
I think people would be most concerned about their lost photos and video clips, as they’re generally impossible to replace or recreate. The good news is that iTunes does a full backup of your iPhone, including your photos and video clips, whenever you sync to iTunes. Unfortunately this data is locked away in hidden folders and strange file formats, but it’s possible to dig through it in search of lost files.
UPDATE: Here's something you might try first. If iTunes tells you that your iPhone is full of photos but you can't see them on the phone, try using iExplorer and following these instructions. This lets you browse the contents of your iPhone from your computer and make a few changes to the phone which should make your photos visible again.
The first thing you need to do is find the iTunes backup folder and copy it to a USB stick. It's possible that iTunes may have deleted your old backup files, but even then it might be possible to recover them. It’s important to stop using your computer, as every time you create a new file you’re slowly writing over the top of old files that have been deleted.
If you’re using Windows XP, your iPhone backup should be in;
\Documents and Settings\USERNAME\Application Data\Apple Computer\MobileSync\Backup
If you’re using Vista or Windows 7, look in;
If you’re using a Mac, try;
If you’re lucky you’ll find a few folders in here with really long random names. Each contains a backup of one of your iGadgets. Copy them all to a USB stick (you want them all because not every photo is stored in every backup, also you’ll find some of those backup folders might be for other devices such as your iPad). Now copy them somewhere else again as a backup before you start tinkering with them.
The safest option is to use another computer to extract data from your iPhone backup, because if we don’t find what we’re looking for then we’re going to go back to the computer with iTunes installed and try to recover deleted files. If you keep using that computer for other things, you’re slowly overwriting your deleted files so they can’t be recovered.
If you only need to recover photos and movies the process is pretty easy. The photos are actually stored as individual files inside each backup folder, they just don’t have the .jpg or .mov extension. Open the folder in your finder, switch to a view which previews the file and then order them according to size. You’ll find your photos are generally between 500KB and 3MB. The preview should show you a thumbnail, then just change the file extension to .jpg and you’ve got your photo back. If you can’t get a preview, try changing them all and see what you find (this is why you’ve got a second copy as a backup). Files that are too big to be photos could be video or audio recordings, try changing them to .mov or .m4a.
If you’re after other data, the easiest way to pluck it out of your backup is with iPhone Backup Extractor. It’s a free download, but you can’t recover all your files at once unless you pay $US25. If it successfully recovers a few files, I’m sure you’ll consider that a small price to get everything back.
Install iPhone Backup Extractor on your second computer - you’ll want to look at the the Required Specification list at the bottom of this page to see what other software you need. Once it’s installed, point it at the backup files on your USB stick and see what it can recover.
The iPhone Backup Extractor support page will walk you through the process and gives a really good overview of how the iPhone stores data, what you can recover and how you can get it back onto your iPhone.
If you’re lucky, this is everything you need to recover data that was lost, at least up to the point that you last backed up your iPhone to iTunes. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, there are things you can try but your chances aren’t great.
It’s possible that iTunes deleted the old backups of your iPhone as part of the upgrade process. If so they’re still on your hard drive, waiting to be overwritten. You need software designed to recover deleted files. There are plenty of options around, I’ve used R-Studio in the past on Windows. If you don’t already have such software then this Lifehacker post should help you on your way.
Obviously you want to avoid installing the software on the same hard drive as your deleted backup, lest you write over files you want to recover. Something that runs straight from a USB stick is best. Once you get your recovery software running, you want to look for deleted folders in the MobileSync\Backup folder mentioned earlier. Recover as much as you can, copy it to a USB stick, make a second copy and then search for photos files like before or use the iPhone Backup Extractor on it.
You might find that you can’t recover some files because they’re corrupted, probably because they’ve been partly overwritten. You might see thumbnails of photos but not be able to open to full file. This is the situation I found myself in a few years ago when an upgrade of my wife’s iPhone went bad.
To cut a long story short, you still might be able to recover some of these photos. I had luck with JPEG Recovery Pro, which recovered 91 files of which 64 were full images and the rest partial images. There’s a big fat watermark on them, but you can remove this if you pay $US40 for the full version - which seems reasonable if it saves the day.
Before you hand over any money, try the Shareware photo editor IrfanView. Its photo viewer is great at compensating for data corruption and I easily recovered about 50 photos. Thankfully these included the photos my wife was most upset about losing, so I didn’t pay for JPEG Recovery Pro but happily paid the 10 Euro donation requested for IrfanView.
I don’t have any experience recovering corrupt .mov and .m4a files, but a Google search turns up a few good leads. Leave a comment if you find something that works, to help others who might have the same trouble.
I know this process sounds like a lot of trouble, but it’s not actually that tricky and it’s certainly worth a try. It’s also important to back up all your phone’s files in future before you do an iOS upgrade. Don’t just trust iTunes, copy the photos and movies off yourself and keep them on your computer. When you plug your iPhone into Windows, it should recognise it as a USB camera and let you import your pictures. Mac users can access the content of their iPhone using Apple’s pre-installed Image Capture application.
It’s also vital to make backups of all your important photos, both onsite and offsite, to protect against fire, theft, hardware failure and other nasties.
I’ve covered a lot of ground here, but hopefully it helps out some of those people who were struck by an iOS5 upgrade disaster.