Gear: Memory Cards


One of the most overlooked pieces of gear for photographers are memory cards.  I’ll venture to say it’s the MOST important piece of gear in your bag.  Show up to shoot a game, concert or wedding without them and see how many “keepers” you get.. zippo.   Akin to the strings of a guitar, they are essential to producing the final product and trump all the other bells and whistles with their simplistic necessity.  Yet now that we don’t have to purchase film – what we record our images on frequently takes a  backseat.

When digital cameras first became available  a 1 Gig memory card was unthinkable.  Who would ever need that much?  When they did actually come out a few short years later, they rang in at over $150.. but soon prices plummeted and capacity shot up.  Most people got to that 1-2 gig stage and haven’t thought about their card since.

There have been a lot of changes with cards in the past few years.  Most cameras now use one of two formats: CF Cards (typically in pro level gear, they are larger and more expensive, but also more durable) and SD Cards (small & affordable).   With the increase of Mega Pixels in newer cameras – file sizes have also increased.  While the “size” requirement of the cards has been upped so has the “speed” requirement.  This is rarely discussed with your Best Buy salesman – but there are slow cards and fast cards.   Typically rated as speed 4, 6, 8 or 10 – faster cards allow faster read and write times.  So you can get pictures and videos recorded quicker and upload them to your computer faster.

Cards also fail – I’ve lost images due to card errors and it’s painful.  Also, they are tiny!  These things get lost, dropped, washed, etc.  So here are my suggestions to prevent image losses and manage your cards.

1.) Use multiple cards.  Deciding to get one huge card so you never have to change it may be convenient, but it’s risky.  Lose your camera and you lose your pictures – cameras can be replaced.  Card Errors can also wipe your entire bank of images – not fun.  Instead, keep 3-4 cards in rotation and spread your risk.  This will also FORCE you to get your photos onto your computer.  Imagine what it was like to only get 12 pictures before changing film!

2.) Dump the little cases they come in, they are just as likely to get lost. Instead, use a card case like this one from Pelican.  It does a much better job of protecting your cards against impact and moisture than a camera will.  I typically keep my new cards face up on the right, then flip them over and put them on the left when full.. simple, effective, safe.

3.) Don’t fill your cards. Of the errors I’ve had, they are most often due to shooting close to the limit of my card.  If it says there’s room for 10 more shots, change the card.  It’s full enough and much more likely to create an error.

4.) EMPTY YOUR CARDS! This is the single most important theme here.  Cards are not designed to function as long-term storage devices.  If you want to have pictures to show people, put them on your phone/tablet (they will look far better as well).   Using smaller cards helps force this essential process of uploading your images to the computer while keeping the events organized.  Ever uploaded a year’s worth of pictures and tried to organize them?  Tons of fun.

5.) Reformat. Each time you put a card into your camera – go into the menu and reformat it.  This recreates the necessary root drives and sub-folders which may have been disturbed when you transferred the images from the card or deleted them.  It is the best way to clean the slate.

6.) Travel with your Card Case: if your baggage gets lost/stolen/damaged you won’t lose your pictures if they are in a carry on.

How much memory do you need?  If you’re shooting JPEG images, you can fit over 500 on a 4GB card.  If you shoot RAW, you’ll want to bump it up 8 GB to fit the same 500.   Having a few of them in your case will allow you to separate days/events if you don’t have time to unload to the computer. Spread long vacations over multiple cards – shoot a wedding on one card and the (often spill prone) reception on another.

Finally, save a bunch of money and don’t buy your cards at retail locations – Similar to the HDMI Cable Rip-offs (selling $2 cables for WAY more) , big box stores sell slow memory cards at insane prices.

So pick up a few of these (8GB class 10  for $15 – Seriously!?) along with a card case and bring some organization to your 21st century film.

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