How do I retrieve old photos?

In today’s digital age, many of us have years of photos stored across various devices, platforms, and services. As time goes on, it can be challenging to keep track of old photos and ensure they aren’t lost to the passage of time. Thankfully, with some effort, there are effective methods for locating and recovering photos from the past.

Checking Existing Devices and Storage

The first step is to check any devices, external drives, or other local storage you may still have in your possession. Photos from years or decades ago were likely taken on a digital camera, phone, or scanner and could still be stored locally on those original devices if you haven’t deleted them.

Go through old hard drives, computers, phones, cameras, memory cards, CDs, DVDs, and any other device that may potentially have your old photos stored on it. If the device still functions, connect it to a working computer and browse the files to see if any photo folders are present. If the old device is broken, you can remove the storage media like a hard drive or memory card and connect it to another device to access the files.

Photos may also be stored on devices that are no longer functioning, like an old phone, camera, or external drive. In these cases, you’ll need to remove the storage media and connect it to a computer using an adapter or enclosure designed for that type of media. For example, you can purchase a Micro SD Card reader to access photos stored on the card from an old phone or camera.

Tips for Checking Local Devices and Drives

  • Carefully label any media or drives you remove from old devices to avoid mixing them up later.
  • Store media properly in anti-static bags or cases when not in use.
  • Try your old devices or media using multiple computers and cables in case an issue lies with the reader or connection interface rather than the storage media itself.
  • If you have a large number of storage devices to go through, document each one and note any photos found so you can keep track.

Checking Online Services and Websites

Many services and websites allow users to store or back up photos. If you utilized any online storage in the past, your old photos may still be accessible in the cloud.

Go through the account and settings of any online services you’ve used over the years to upload or back up photos. This can include:

  • Photo sharing sites like Flickr, Snapfish, or SmugMug
  • Social media accounts like Facebook, Instagram, or Google Photos
  • Cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive
  • Any websites, blogs, or forums you uploaded images to

Log into each account and browse through all the photos and albums to see if any old images may have been uploaded there from your camera, phone, or computer. Expand your search by looking through all available folders and storage locations within each online account.

Tips for Finding Photos Online

  • If you can’t remember old account details, try going through password recovery steps and searching old emails for verification links.
  • Some services like Google Photos have built-in search by date features to easily surface old images.
  • If any accounts have been deactivated, contact the company to check if your photos can still be retrieved.

Contacting Friends and Family

Think back on any photos you may have shared with others in the past via email, messaging, thumb drives, or prints. Connect with relevant friends and family members to ask if they still have copies of any photos you sent them years ago.

Create a list of people who you remember sending old photos to or printing copies for. Reach out and explain you are trying to track down some lost photos from years ago and wanted to check if they may still have any you shared.

Give as many specific details as possible in your requests, like the approximate dates, life events, or locations of the photos. Mention any distinctive props, clothing, or scenery that might jog their memory and help them identify any photos you are seeking.

Tips for Contacting Connections

  • Call or meet in-person when possible, since it can be easier to discuss and remember key photo details.
  • Offer to pay shipping or drive to pick up any located prints or drives with your photos.
  • Ask them to double check old hard drives, CDs, or archives for any photos of you and your family.
  • Follow up any digital transfers with a polite thank you note.

Checking Photo Printing Services

If you ordered printed photos from a film developer or printing service in the past, there is chance they may still retain copies of the images in their archives.

Contact any businesses you used for printing photos before going digital. Provide as accurate details as possible like approximate dates you used their service and specific locations you had photos printed at. Ask if they can check their records and archives for any past orders under your name and account.

Many photo labs and large retailers like Walmart, Costco, or CVS keep digital records of print orders. Larger professional printing labs may also physically archive copies of their customers’ printed photos and negatives.

Tips for Contacting Photo Print Services

  • Provide phone and email contact info in case they need to follow up with any questions while searching.
  • Inquire about any fees for staff time or archives access – you may be able to pay to get higher priority service.
  • Ask about how photos are stored and labeled to better identify any matching your orders.

Searching Photo Scanning Services

If you ever had old film photos or negatives scanned to digital, the company who performed the scanning may still have the resulting files.

Contact any businesses you used to scan traditional film photos to digital format. They may still have the digital copies stored on their systems or archived physically. Share any details on approximate timelines, original photo formats, and account information.

Larger scanning companies will often keep digital copies of their customers’ scans for a number of years. Local photo scanning businesses may have a shorter retention window but could still have your digital files archived, especially if it was within the past 5-10 years.

Tips for Contacting Scanning Services

  • Ask specific questions about their photo retention policies and timelines.
  • Inquire about file labeling conventions to better search for your scans.
  • Offer to pay reasonable archive access fees if allowed by their policies.

Using Photo Recovery Software

If you have a device or storage media that you can’t directly access photos on, specialized photo recovery software may be able to help extract the image files.

Photo recovery software can scan drives and media that won’t open on your computer and sometimes recover images even if the device is damaged or corrupted. The tool scans for common photo and image file signatures.

Look for photo recovery software that works for your specific media type like memory cards, internal drives, or external hard drives. Be sure to research trusted and reputable recovery software brands to avoid downloading malware or ransomware.

Tips for Using Photo Recovery Tools

  • Carefully read all installation and scanning instructions provided.
  • Install and run the photo recovery tool on a separate clean computer if possible.
  • Save any recovered photos to a completely different new drive.
  • Be prepared that only a portion of photos may be able to be recovered.

Consulting a Data Recovery Service

For storage media that is highly damaged or formatted, a professional data recovery service may be able to recover photos that consumer tools cannot.

Data recovery experts have specialized tools and methods for extracting data from drives that won’t mount or have serious physical damage. This is essentially a last resort option when you are unable to access the photos yourself.

The recovery process can be expensive and take several days or weeks depending on the severity of the drive issues. But for irreplaceable photos it may be worth the cost and time invested if no other options are available.

Tips for Using Data Recovery Services

  • Find a reputable recovery company with strong reviews and security practices.
  • Get a quote for service costs before proceeding with recovery.
  • Ask about how recovered data will be handled and returned to you.
  • Inquire about any data or privacy guarantees they can provide.

Checking Public Photo Archives

If you are seeking very old photos from before the digital age, public photo archives can be another option for tracking down images.

Various government agencies, libraries, universities, museums, and historical societies maintain public photographic archives you may be able to access. Contact the research librarians or archivists at institutions near where you lived or any associated with the origins of the photos.

Describe any details you have on approximate time period, locations, or subjects of the photos you are looking for. Any distinctive landmarks, family names, or other historical context can aid their research into any matching archival photos.

Tips for Accessing Public Photo Archives

  • Be prepared to provide official identification or other documents to gain access to certain archives.
  • Understand that institutions may only allow on-site access to view and scan certain collection photos.
  • There are often fees associated with accessing and scanning from photo archives, so discuss any costs involved.

Using Genealogical Research Tools

Genealogy records and research tools can also assist in rediscovering very old family photos and history.

Genealogical databases like contain billions of historical records that may have photos attached or referenced. You can search for family names going back many generations.

Contacting genealogical or historical societies tied to your family’s origins and ancestry can also uncover leads on locating photos in archives or personal collections. They may have access to niche local records and history not available online.

Tips for Genealogy Searches

  • Use any details you know like family trees, dates, locations, or names to aid the ancestry research.
  • Take advantage of free trials with genealogy database services before paying for subscriptions.
  • Join relevant local ancestry Facebook groups or email lists to post queries.


Tracking down long lost and low resolution photos from the past can seem daunting. But with persistence across the various options available, the odds are good you can recover photos you thought were gone forever. Spend the time to carefully follow through on all promising leads, and you may just uncover those priceless moments in time once again.