Tom Vincent

Essays on hacking, travel and self-improvement

Post-PhotoRec Strategies

If you’ve ever been in the unfortunate situation where your hard disk fails beyond recognition (like mine did), then you’ve likely come across a low-level file recovery tool called PhotoRec.

PhotoRec does a fantastic job of recovering files by matching byte headers with signatures of known file formats. At the time of writing, it recognises over 440 file formats, which covers just about every format you’re likely to encounter day-to-day.

However, the challenge after using PhotoRec is what to do with its output; the unavoidable result of the data carving technique it uses is that the underlying directory tree and file names are lost. You are therefore left with a flat-level tree containing thousands of seemingly nonsensical files with file names such as f1191548088.txt… Not particularly useful.

This post looks at a few approaches you can use to organise the recovered files.

Sorting strategies

Lets look at a few strategies to sort through the mess:

Sort by file extension

PhotoRec’s After Using PhotoRec wiki page lists a few methods to sort files after using the tool. The mentioned Python script collates each file by its file extension. Whilst by no means fully solving the problem, this method can help in combination with other approaches. Although unlikely, this may also be of use if the file system in use has a maximum files per directory limit, such as FAT32.

Hash audit

hashdeep, a program that computes and matches hashsets, has an audit function that can compare file hashes against a known set. If you have a known-good backup, this can be an effective way to determine which files you already have and then prune them from PhotoRec’s set.

Rename using metadata

A fortunate side-effect of using binary formats is that metadata is often saved alongside its content. Depending on the format, a number of tools can be used to re-organise the recovered file without reliance on file names.


In the case of photos, we can use the excellent exiftool to rebuild a directory tree based based on their timestamp:

exiftool -r '-FileName<CreateDate' -d %Y/%m/%Y%m%d_%H%M%S%%-c.%%e [files]


Music can be handled elegantly using MusicBrainz Picard. For a given audio file, it will use acoustic fingerprinting techniques to generate a hash of said file and then query it against the MusicBrainz database to determine its contents.

Be sure to read through Picard’s how-to guide, particularly the clustering function, which greatly speeds up the querying process. Also, at the time of writing, the latest release of Picard (v1.2) contains a memory leak which causes it to hang when dealing with large datasets. Try running the development version (the issue is resolved in pull-requests #143 and #146) if you experience this.

Alternatively, many cloud-based music platforms such as Google Play Music or iTunes have a “scan and match” feature (using similar fingerprinting technologies as Picard), which will provide high bitrate, fully-tagged versions of recognised files available to stream or re-download.

Remove corrupt files

Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal way of determining whether a file is corrupt. However, depending on the importance of your recovered data, there are a few approaches worth trying:


The Python Imaging Library (PIL) contains a verify method (search for ‘verify’) that should catch obvious corruptions. After installing PIL, try running Denilson Sá’s jpeg_corrupt, which is a thin command-line-based wrapper around PIL’s verify method; given a glob of input paths, it prints the names of those verify determines as corrupt.


Running ffmpeg without an output file parameter displays information about the given file. If ffmpeg is unable to parse the file, it’ll spit out a warning, which can be leveraged to filter and delete corrupt files, e.g.:

ffmpeg -i "$i" 2>&1 | grep -q 'Invalid data found when processing input' && rm "$i"