Imagine you're happily clicking away with your digital camera when, suddenly, you get an error message. How very strange. So you turn the camera off, take out the data card, wait for a minute, replace the data card and turn the camera back on expecting everything to be hinky dinky once again. Instead you see an error message that says No Memory Card.
It's really amazing how reliable digital storage is, especially considering those clever engineering geeks are jamming gigs of data into a space not much wider than a credit card. But the more data they figure out how leverage onto a storage card, the more devastating it can be when something goes wrong. And something will go wrong. Someday you'll turn on your camera or digital device and get that error message.
Some people have the funny idea that storage cards fail because they get filled up, which is simply not true. I routinely fill my data cards when shooting video and yet the one that failed on me years ago died after only 5 minutes of video.
The first thing is not to panic and make things worse. Data cards are really just a solid state hard drive with a smaller footprint and there are ways to get your precious memories back. I remember, back in the days when cameras used film, the terrible feeling of sending a roll of film to the lab and getting the proofs back with a note that said something bad happened during processing and a large piece of the film was ruined. You were really out of luck then, but with a storage card you can at least recover the undamaged files.
First, Do No Harm
The first thing they teach you in EMT school is pertinent in a situation like this. Many people will panic and try to reformat their data card in an effort to get it working again. Don't do that. Even if you manage to get it working again, the chances of another failure are quite high. More likely the formatting will not work and the effort might ruin your chances of getting any of the photos or video back.
Don't do anything. Take the memorycard out of the camera, put it somewhere safe and dry and go home.
Commercial Data Recovery Services
If the material on that data card is really valuable, the most reliable to retrieve your data is sending it to a commercial data recovery service like DataTech Labs. They have clean rooms, sophisticated data recovery tools and protocols worked out through years of experience. These services can be quite expensive, but if it's once in a lifetime data, it may be worth it.
Data Recovery Tools
If you'd like to get those pictures or videos back and it's not worth employing a commercial service, then check the website of the data card manufacturer. Most of them will have a data recovery tool you can download for bad cards.
Try the manufacturer recommended triage and tools first. If that doesn't work, move on to the next step.
Your next step is to try PhotoRec, a software tool that ignores the device formatting completely and dives straight in after the data files. PhotoRec works on data cards, hard drives, CDs, and even your camera's resident memory. It works even if the file system has been damaged and it's a tool you'll want to keep handy for data emergencies.