Here's how to recover deleted files in Windows after you've emptied your PC's Recycle bin.

We've all done it - 'cleaned up' your PC's desktop, emptied the Recycle bin, sunk your heart to the bottom of your boots. Or maybe you've hit Windows/shift/Delete, which bypasses the Recycle bin. Throw in third-party applications that delete files without using the Recycle bin, the process of command-line deletion, or simply deleting excessively large files, and it is frighteningly easy to lose beyond all apparent recovery valuable files and folders.

Baby and Wedding photos can disappear faster than you can say 'marriage over'.

But fear not. When a file is deleted from the Recycle Bin, or if the recycle bin is bypassed altogether, the file can no longer be recovered by the Windows Operating System. However, the content of the file still remains on the hard drives, relatively intact, until the section of the drive it occupies is overwritten by another file. So before you do anything else - stop writing to the disk: don't move and save large files, and don't use any disk optimisation or defragmentation software.

Check, and check again

The first thing to do, before you go to any expense, is to thoroughly check that the files you have deleted are not replicated anywhere else on your system. Windows is a fiendishly complicated beast, and it's relatively easy to end up with duplicate copies of photos in various place. Go to Start, and input the name of a file you know you deleted into the Search field to have a good hunt around your hard disk. You never know unless you try...

File recovery software

Assuming you haven't got lucky and found copies of your lost files, it's time to spend some money: but not a lot. File-recovery software looks beyond the operating system and identifies the contents of lost files on the hard drive. It then allows you to recover them.

With the better programs, even if a file has been partially overwritten the software attempts to reconstruct as much of the file as possible. And it works, often surprisingly well.

One good example of this type of software is PC Tools File Recover. It costs £29 (it's also part of the £39 PC Tools Performance Toolkit) and will attempt to recover files from hard drives, floppy drives and other types of fixed media in minutes. There's a free scan so you can try before you buy.

Other file-recover packages include Acronis True Image Home and AVG PC Tuneup.

Simply download and install the software, and it will find all recoverable files - in our case, 884 of them! There's a good chance your deleted photos are in there.

One PC Advisor reader, Fay Siddy, had exactly the experience we're talking about, and used File Recover to rescue her images: "My husband was deleting all the files off our PC thinking I'd saved all our pictures to disk. I hadn't, so we lost five albums of pictures (including our honeymoon, our children's birthday parties, holidays).

"The file recovery program was simple and quick to use and recovered about 95 percent of our pictures. The quality was just as good as the original pictures and the recovery programme restored them in albums, so we didn't have to sort through the hundreds of pictures into albums again. A brilliant programme that I'd highly recommend to anyone in our predicament."

Get the experts in

If you've tried file-recovery software and it hasn't worked, you may have to accept that your photos are gone forever. But your final option is to contact an online data-recovery service – just Google ‘data recovery’ or ‘hard disk recovery’.

There are no guarantees, but the good ones offer no-win no-fee services.

You will have to send away the hard drive and if they do find something it isn’t cheap. For priceless memories, of course, they may not be such an issue.

Good hunting.