The tricky business of memory cards – best practice for making them last

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Memory cards are sensitive, volatile little numbers; they’re your best friends until you make one wrong move and suddenly they’re holding all your precious photographs at ransom. They’ve been known to survive a cycle through the washing machine, or a squish under a car wheel and still work (not that we recommend you try this as a regular practice) but look at them the wrong way and they’ll stumble into a non-functioning strop that’s not always reversable, and even if it is, it’s likely to cost you a small fortune to retrieve your precious pixels.

 

With this in mind, there are certain best practice recommendations to keep the disruption to a minimum.

 

Choosing a memory card

There are two main types of memory cards that most cameras take – Compact Flash (CF) cards are larger and slightly more robust looking, or Secure Digital (SD) cards which are smaller, thinner and more often that not these are the cards that you get in entry level and newer cameras.

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Most cameras will take one or the other, occasionally cameras will take both – this is for added security, creating an immediate back up in camera. If you’re not sure which your camera takes, consult your manual before buying one.

Because memory cards are relatively volatile, we prefer to have multiple cards with smaller memory, so that if one goes wrong you’re not losing too many images. With a larger card, there’s a temptation to leave it in the camera for longer and only download when it gets near full. I’ve got a selection of 4gb, 8gb and one 16gb CF cards that I use and rotate on a regular basis.

The other thing to look at is the write speed or transfer rate on the card – this will effect how quickly the camera can record the data to your camera, and at times (e.g. when you are shooting multiple shots in quick succession in burst mode) this can be important. While your camera is recording the data it can’t take the next shot. CF cards show the write speed in mb/s and SD cards use a grading system. Where grade 2 is 2Mb/s grade 4 is 4Mb/s and so on…. I generally try to choose cards with a transfer speed of 40 Mb/s plus.

 

Most of   my cards are Sandisk – I can’t say whether they are better than any other brand but I am generally pretty happy with them.

 

Inserting your memory card

Turn your camera off before changing your memory card. Make sure you have it the right way round before you push it into the slot… this is a really easy way to damage your card and your camera if you get it wrong.

The first time you use your memory card you should format it – see the instructions below for how to do that.

 

Downloading your images

I was told years ago that you shouldn’t remove your card from your camera to download as this increased the risk of damaging your card, so for a long time I used a cable that ran from the camera right into the back of the computer (usually via USB – the cable is included when you buy a camera) when I downloaded my images, but I think modern technology has caught up since then. So these days I remove my card and put in into a card reader which is attached to my Mac by USB to download as the transfer rate tends to be a bit quicker and I can use my camera for something else while it’s downloading if need by. Some computers have the slots already (mine has an SD slot, but not one for my CF cards) and don’t require a separate card reader, but in this age of making everything smaller, slimmer and more portable there are less and less ports on newer models.

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It’s good practice to download your images regularly – if I’ve been on a professional shoot or I’ve been shooting something personal that I know was a one off event and I couldn’t easily replicate it I download them as soon as I get home, if I’m shooting for myself and it’s less important I may sometimes leave it until I use the camera again, but as I’m shooting every day it is never long between downloads. The reason for downloading quickly is that the card is far less reliable than your computer, and if you create a back up copy every time you download (recommended), even more so.

I download my images straight into Lightroom and have it set to create a back up copy of each image at the same time. When I have finished downloading and I am sure I have at least one back up, I DON’T delete the images from the card through the computer. First, eject the card properly – this is another important step to protect the card from corrupting, and put it back in your camera. Then turn the camera on and access the menu. Find the format function on the menu. On both of my Canon cameras this is in the first yellow section of the menu, with a little spanner image on it. If you are sure you have all your images downloaded and backed up, select the format option – your camera will ask you whether you are sure you want to format – click ok and it will delete all of the images from your card and reformat it ready to use next time. This is a far healthier option for your card and will help to prolong it’s life.

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When your cards aren’t in use

I would recommend keeping a spare memory card with your camera, just in case. I’ve forever got numerous memory cards kicking around which aren’t in use, I’ve usually got a spare in my camera bag, and another in my handbag, and several more on my desk. For my bags, I keep them in a purpose made plastic protector case, for the ones on my desk, a little box suffices.

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A Happy Capture photography workshops combine practical technical advice with creative concepts so that you can learn how to get the most out of that fancy camera and create images that you are proud of.