The Best Way to Delete Photos From Your Memory Card

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When it comes to photography, we spend most of our time thinking about taking photos – lighting, composition, exposure, and posing. Then, once the photo is taken, we may start to think about post-processing, gently nudging the photo along until it becomes exactly what we’ve pictured in our mind’s eye. Once that’s accomplished, we do it all over again.

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Back in high school and college, I shot film. I can vividly remember running out of film, and sometimes having to wait weeks until I was able to buy more. Our public high school relied heavily on donations of film, and sometimes when there wasn’t any left, our teacher would have us walk around campus with our pointer fingers and thumbs shaped into a rectangle, pretending to take photographs. Now that digital cameras are on the scene and we’re using memory cards in lieu of film, with the capability to erase images and write over them again, the number of photographs that we can take in any given week or month is nearly endless.

You may have noticed that I said, “nearly” endless, and that’s because memory cards do have a lifespan, and will not last indefinitely. That said, there are a few things that we can do to maximize the lifespan of our memory cards, including making sure that we are deleting our photos off the memory card in the most efficient manner possible. This isn’t something that’s talked about all that often, but when it comes down to it, it is really simple:

Less Desirable Ways to Delete

Deleting each photo individually through the camera by using the “Delete” or Trashcan Button

Del3

Deleting all photos through the camera by using the “Delete All” option

Del2

Plugging the camera into the computer, and dragging photos into the computer’s recycle bin and/or allowing your import software to delete the files from the card once they’re uploaded.

Del1

Most Desirable Way to Delete

Using your camera’s Format function

Del4

In the end, all of the  above methods work toward the same end, in that they remove the images from your card. However, the first three ways to delete are actually more taxing to the memory card than using the card’s Format function. I’ve heard it explained like this:

Let’s pretend for a moment that your memory card has a shelf-life of 1,000 uses. Let’s say that you go out and take 500 photos, that’s 500 uses on your memory card. You then upload the photos to your computer, and then individually delete each photo using the delete button on your camera. Deleting each photo individually counts as another 500 uses on your card. So in all, you’ve just spent 1,000 uses of your memory card, leaving you with no uses left on that card.

Now, let’s pretend that you’ve uploaded your 500 photos, but instead of deleting them with your delete button, you use your camera’s Format function. Formatting works in a different way than deleting, and only deletes the directory files rather than the images themselves. This then allows the images to be overwritten the next time you take a picture. Because of this, formatting only counts as ONE use of your memory card, regardless of how many photos you’re deleting. So, in the scenario above, you’d have used only 501 of your memory card’s uses, as opposed to 1,000 with deleting manually. Certainly,  memory cards available today will be able to handle far more than 1,000 uses, but the illustration still rings true – formatting your card causes less wear and tear on your memory card than other ways of deleting images.

Additionally, because formatting only deletes the directory file instead of the images themselves, images on a card that has been formatted are typically much easier to recover (if needed) than those that are deleted manually, assuming that you did not overwrite them by taking more photos. Not a bad trick to have up your sleeve in case of emergencies, am I right?

I’d also like to add that I have personally seen a difference in both buffering time of the card, and also a decrease in the amount of corrupted images/cards that I’ve come across since I’ve been formatting cards rather than deleting in some other way. I’m not sure whether there’s an actual scientific basis there, but it definitely seems related in my book, and it is now pretty rare that I delete even a single image in any way other than formatting.

So, how often should you format? Some people like to wait until their card is totally full, and then format. Personally, I like to format my card before each new photo session. It just makes sense to me to start fresh each time, and be able to upload everything on the card to one location. This is really a matter of personal preference as far as I’m concerned. The one hard and fast suggestion that I do have when it comes to formatting cards is simply to be sure to format the card in whichever camera body you plan to use it in next.

How do you typically delete images, and why?

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Meredith Clark is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She can also be found blogging at La Buena Vida and Meredith Clark Photography.

  • longshadow

    EVERYTHING has a finite number of “use” cycles, the water pump on your car, the wall switch for your table lamp, the cartridge or washers in your water faucet… This is called life expectancy. Life expectancy for ICs (Integrated Circuits) is so high that you will probably be replacing your car’s water pump or timing belt first. Memory chip life expectancy is not measured in reads or writes, how big the files are, or how many files there are, it is measured in time. Power on time. Static electric zaps will also destroy a card. Or, it may just degrade the card, and the card may fail days, weeks or months later. My guess will be by the time you need to replace the 8Gig card, they won’t be making them anymore.
    Sorry for the rants here, but the misinformation finally tripped my breaker. If you’re wondering about my background, for 25 years I wrote test programs for incoming inspection of ICs and semiconductors for a major telecom manufacturer.

  • longshadow

    And your information is from someone with an engineering background or from a data book from the memory manufacturer? Think about it…

  • longshadow

    An erroneous one.

  • longshadow

    I do agree with formatting a card in the camera it will be used, especially if it is a different camera manufacturer. Formatting will eliminate the fragmented space on the card left over from storing and erasing photos, how much faster? That would require testing to achieve actual speed differences, which may or may not be markedly noticeable to the user.

  • longshadow

    It’s based on the “accepted” connotations and procedures, even if erroneous. If enough people purport it, it must be true.

  • longshadow

    I never use the camera delete function unless its for the one I just took, too slow a process to delete a lot.

  • longshadow

    The actual read/write times of the memory cells themselves remain constant over the life of the chip. What changes is the time it may take to get the information to those cells because of the fragmentation of where files are and were stored in memory on the chip. The actual “memory” are cells, the interface routines that allow your camera and computer to access them, treating the memory cells as if they were a disk, a virtual disk. The routines create a FAT table (File Allocation Table) on the card, just like the one on your hard drive, to keep track of where in memory each file (image) is located. Like de-fragmenting your hard drive to improve access speed, formatting the chip would achieve the same effect. De-fragmenting does not destroy data, but formatting does. Interesting thought, I’ll have to see if a card can be de-fragmented… Never tried that.

  • Bhaskar23

    Which is good for the card. Just normal formatting or Low Level Formatting and why? Can anybody shed some light on this topic?

  • longshadow

    A low level format will remove data, quick format only removes the
    directory entry, the files remain until somewhere down the line another
    file is written over top of the existing file. Your preference. If you start having problems with the card, try a low level format.

    I finally found some documentation on the life expectancy of the cards, about 100,000 program/erase cycles. That means the card should last about as long as your shutter. Formatting also uses up those cycles, but 100K is quite a bit. (They’re working on making cards last 1,000,000,000 cycles.)

  • Jason N photography

    What happens from what I remember isn’t so much the deleting, it is the camera attempting to re-write over a deleted block is when the problem can occur.

  • Bhaskar23

    Thanks a ton.

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  • ED

    If your Memory card life is something you are going to worry about – just replace it in 4 years – I never had to replace one. I worry alot more about the buttons on the camera wearing out or the memory card bay spring getting weak. Mine goes in and out alot while checking on the computer to see how I did while experimenting.
    I still don’t understand why Nikon says only manipulate the memory card in the camera only and not on the computer. If both understand the file system what does it matter. I recently got in trouble with my card on the computer but the camera could still read the pic just fine – really wierd!
    Formating the card makes alot of sense to me – but I am
    worried about the buttons not the card.

  • Stephan Handuwala

    First I checked whether the article was published on April 1st or not? apologies, I just read it.
    In a technical point of view (electronics), this article is TOTALLY INCORRECT, and misleading. I’m wondering why the editors have passed this to be published at the first place.

    This is a common misconception among most of the tech USING personals, they “assume” or “heard” about something and “pretend” that, “Oh, memory cards behave like this. So need to avoid this”.
    The truth, technology is being well researched, modern and more fool proof and far beyond the things that end user could imagine, like “that should be avoided”

    I guess, its a crime to spread this false information around this famous learning platform. Most of the PHOTOGRAPHING newbies (like my self) would fall in to these kind of pit-falls. I avoided the risk of being fooled due to the area of my work field. (my career 🙂
    Then I’m having a doubt about other articles also, because I’m not an expert on those fields.

    Editors also should responsible for this mistake. Not a personal offense for author, She’d be really good at her stuff what she has described, However please stick to what you’ve improvised.
    We’d love to hear, learn more about your beautiful family photography than the pretended stuff.

  • JOHN Heaton

    I was taught to always let the camera do the formatting and not a pc, I have heard of several cards rendered useless by for matting in a the pc.

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  • Kristine7845
  • UniPhoto

    I realise this discussion has been ongoing for some time but as there are so many experts contributing here I wondered if someone could pinpoint the reason for the partial failure of my CF cards.
    The Canon 5D I own first displayed the message ‘Cannot format this card’ some years ago. Switching the camera off and on seemed to clear the problem. In the past I always used a card reader to upload images to the computer but eventually the card reader stopped being able to read the card. I bought a new card reader but the problem persisted. I bought a new 8GB CF card but the same massage appeared on the camera screen soon after.

    I bought new Lexar 16GB cards to go with the 5D Mk 2 I also own but I have the same problem with this camera too. I still use both cameras but upload images using the direct connection to the USB slot in the camera. The images upload without problem everytime. I always format the CF card in the camera after every photo session.

    I sent the MK2 away to Canon but they could find nothing wrong.
    Your comments would be most welcome

  • Rekiburhussain40@Gmail.com

    Rekiburhussain40@Gmail. Com

  • Rekiburhussain40@Gmail.com
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