Memory cards are an essential part of digital photography. They record your precious files and keep them safe until you’re able to transfer them to your (hopefully) full-fledged storage solution – which means that it’s essential that you understand how to use memory cards correctly.
After all, a properly cared-for memory card will often perform flawlessly for years – while a poorly looked-after card will be prone to errors, corruption, and loss of files.
In this article, I share 18 tips for keeping your memory cards in good condition. I explain how you should correctly eject your cards, how often (and when) you should format your cards, and more.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Carry backup cards whenever you shoot
Card failure is unpredictable, and the last thing you want is to miss a once-in-a-lifetime shot because your only card decided to act up.
Therefore, I’ve made it a habit to carry at least three cards with me on every shoot. And while it might seem excessive, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Imagine you’re capturing a breathtaking sunset or a candid moment at a child’s birthday party. Suddenly, your camera stops working due to a card error. If you have a backup, you just switch cards and continue shooting. But without a backup, that moment is lost forever. (Of course, it’s not just about having extras; it’s also about ensuring you have enough storage to keep shooting without worries.)
For different shoots, the backup cards you choose can vary. For a casual day out, a couple of smaller capacity cards might suffice. But for a professional gig, you might want to carry a handful of larger, high-speed cards. These backups will be your photography lifeline.
By the way, one thing I’ve noticed that’s true, at least for myself: having backup cards provides immense peace of mind. When you’re focused on getting the perfect shot, the last thing you want is to worry about storage space or card failure. The backups serve as a guarantee that no matter what happens, your photography can go on uninterrupted.
2. If disaster strikes, stop shooting
If you’re in the middle of a photoshoot and you run into a memory card problem – for instance, you accidentally delete your images or see a card error message – then stop photographing immediately.
Turn off your camera, eject the card, and store it in a safe place. When you run into one of these problems, all is not lost, and you may still be able to recover the images. However, it’s important that you stop using the card; otherwise, you might overwrite the files. Data recovery services and other tools are often very effective, especially when recovering accidentally deleted files, but once an image is overwritten, then it’s often lost forever.
If you do have a memory card issue while shooting, you can always continue the session with another card. The key is to safely remove the problematic card as soon as possible.
3. Treat your cards well
It’s crucial to treat your memory cards with care, especially when you’re out in difficult conditions. In the heat of the moment, switching cards quickly might seem necessary, but it’s also essential to take the time to handle them properly. I’ve seen too many instances where a little negligence led to big problems. A few tips here:
First, always ensure your hands are clean when handling memory cards. Dirt and oils don’t mesh well will the delicate connectors. And hold the cards gently by the edges, avoiding the gold contacts. This might sound like overkill, but it’s these small habits that can prolong the life of your cards.
Another key point is to be focused when handling your cards. Distractions can lead to accidental drops, especially in outdoor environments. I’ve heard of photographers dropping cards into puddles. Don’t let that be you!
Proper storage is also vital. When not in use, keep your cards in a protective case to shield them from dust, moisture, and physical damage. Avoid extreme temperatures and magnetic sources as these can damage the data. Think of your memory cards as fragile; that way, you’ll have the best shot at preserving the images they hold.
4. Avoid deleting files one by one on your camera
Did you know that repeatedly deleting images from an in-camera card while the card is still in your camera can actually shorten that card’s life? It’s true.
The rule is that the fewer times you add or remove data on your card, the better. So instead of selectively deleting files as you shoot, aim to erase all the images at once after uploading them to your computer. That way, you delete the files in a single cycle, not one at a time.
(Or better yet, use the Format function on your camera to wipe the card before each new photoshoot!)
5. Remove cards safely from your computer
It’s tempting to connect a memory card to your computer, transfer the images, and then pull it out of the card reader slot.
But that’s an easy way to cause problems, so after uploading images to your computer, make sure you take the time to eject the card before removing it from your card reader.
(If you use a Mac, you’ll probably need to right-click the relevant drive and hit Eject. If you use a Windows PC, you’ll need to use the Safely Remove Hardware option in your system tray.)
6. Multiple small cards can be better than one big card
These days, you can grab memory cards that store 128 GB, 256 GB, and beyond. But while these products do offer significant advantages – you need to carry far fewer cards, for one! – they also come with a significant drawback: You’re reliant on one (or a few) cards to get you through lengthy photoshoots and even week-long photo adventures.
I myself learned this lesson on a recent trip; I had a memory card die on me, and if I only owned one huge card, I would’ve been unable to continue using my camera. That’s why it’s at least worth considering multi-card storage solutions (plus, if you do lose the data on one card, not all of your images from a shoot will be lost).
7. Keep your cards organized
With memory cards, a little organization can go a long way! It’s easy to mix up cards when you’re juggling multiple shoots or locations. You don’t want to reach for a card during an important shoot, only to find it full. Or worse, realize that you just formatted a card that holds valuable images.
I’ve found that a clear system can be incredibly helpful. I use a memory card case for this purpose. My fresh cards always go on the left side, and the used ones on the right. It’s simple but effective. When I’m in the field, this system saves me from second-guessing. I always know exactly where my empty cards are.
Of course, what works for me might not work for you. Some photographers prefer labeling their cards with stickers or using different colored cases. The key is consistency. Stick to your chosen method so it becomes second nature.
8. Avoid filling your cards completely
My friend recently had an issue with a memory card. When he took it into the store, the clerk asked if he’d completely filled the card with images – and when he nodded, he was told that this could occasionally cause problems with some types of cards.
Let me be clear: I’ve not heard this advice before, and I’m somewhat skeptical about it myself, but it’s probably worth keeping in mind. The advice would be to regularly take images off your cards rather than only removing images when the cards are full; this is a good idea anyway because it’ll prevent significant heartbreak if you lose the card or the files are corrupted.
9. Periodically reformat your cards
This memory card tip is quick but essential:
Reformat your memory cards every so often, and do it with your camera, not your computer. This will clean the card and get it ready for a new batch of images. Of course, you should only do this after you’ve downloaded all files – otherwise, you’ll lose them!
10. Format your memory cards in the right camera
As I discussed in the previous tip, it’s a good idea to format your memory card in a camera. But you shouldn’t format the card in just any camera; instead, make sure you format it in the camera you plan to shoot with.
For instance, if you’ve been using your card in your Canon DSLR but want to start using it in your Canon mirrorless camera, you should safely store all the images, then reformat the card when you put it in the mirrorless camera for the first time.
11. Switch off your camera before removing the memory card
Years ago, it was said that a camera could give a card “voltage shock” when the card was pulled out of the camera without first turning the camera off. But while manufacturers seem to have since made improvements in this area, it’s better to be safe than sorry! That’s why I recommend you always turn off your camera before you remove a card.
(Additionally, if your camera is on, it might still be in the process of writing images – and if you remove the card, those images may become corrupted or go unwritten.)
12. Transfer photos as soon as you can
There’s a simple rule I follow: transfer your photos as soon as possible. Why? Memory cards are reliable, but they’re not infallible. The longer your images sit on a card, the higher the risk of loss, either through card failure or misplacement.
I’ve made it a habit: every time I return from a shoot, I transfer my images to my desktop hard drives. Then, once the images are safely transferred and backed up, I delete them from the card. This routine ensures I always have a fresh card ready for my next adventure.
But there’s another reason for this habit: untransferred images are easily forgotten. You might capture an amazing moment, only to forget about its impact and relevance when it sits unseen on a card for months.
13. Keep your camera up to date
Every so often, camera manufacturers will release firmware updates, which keep your camera up to date and include fixes for errors or problems that are identified with the camera.
Some of these fixes can relate to the camera’s interaction with the memory card, so I encourage you to check for camera firmware updates every few months and download them as needed.
14. Periodically update your cards
Memory cards can last a long time – even years. However, like all electronics, they wear down with constant use, so it’s important that you update your set of cards periodically to prevent issues.
Fortunately, memory card prices are always dropping, so updating your cards has become a surprisingly inexpensive task!
15. Replace batteries before they die
When you’re on a photoshoot, it’s important that you keep an eye on your battery levels – and if the battery does get low, either pause for a recharge or swap it out for a fresh one.
You see, when a battery runs out just as you take a shot, it can prevent your camera from writing the image to your card. This can also cause card errors, so make sure you keep an eye on those batteries!
16. Don’t switch off your camera too quickly after shooting
This one really depends on your camera model. If you fire off a burst of photos, your camera will need a little time to write all of the data to the memory card – and if you switch the camera off during this process, some cameras will simply lose the images and even end up with errors.
However, recent models will continue buffering even after you switch them off (thus avoiding the problem). If you’re not sure how your camera handles the issue, check the manual or do some Googling.
17. Keep your memory cards safe
Perhaps this memory card tip should go without saying, but whenever you’re shooting, do what you can to keep your cards safe.
Make sure the cards stay dry and clean – a dedicated memory card case is perfect for this – don’t expose them to extreme temperatures, don’t drop, bend, or puncture them, and don’t expose them to electromagnetic currents.
That way, your cards remain in good condition for years!
18. Prepare your cards in case they’re lost
This last one is optional, but if you’re afraid that you might lose your camera and/or memory card, you might try taking a picture of a luggage tag or business card complete with your contact details, then keep it as the first image on each of your memory cards.
Then lock the image so it’s not deleted. If you lose your camera or card and an honest person finds it, they’ll hopefully see the image and get in touch!
How to use camera memory cards: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to take care of your memory cards – and you’re well-equipped to prevent common card errors.
Bottom line: Having backup cards, organizing them effectively, transferring photos promptly, treating them with care, and more – these aren’t just recommendations, they’re necessities for any photographer who values their work. Implementing these habits will save you from the heartache and frustration that come with memory card mishaps.
So remember the tips I’ve shared, keep your memory cards safe, and (with a bit of luck) you won’t run into any issues.
Now over to you:
Do you have any memory card tips that I missed? Share them in the comments below!