8 Tips for Maintaining your Memory Card

8 Tips for Maintaining your Memory Card

Pachi Chen-Wong over at Lexar has taken some time to write us a guide called  “8 Secrets for Keeping Your Important Piece of Photo Gear Operating at Peak Performance”

I was lucky enough to meet with the team from Lexar at PhotoPlus in New York a couple of weeks back and here’s some advice for all of you as a result.

Besides your camera, your memory card may be the most important piece of equipment in your photo bag. Without a memory card, your camera won’t work, and if it’s not operating right, you could lose all your images from a long day of shooting. The good news is that by learning some basic maintenance tips and best practices, you can keep your cards running at peak performance and help ensure you don’t lose the images you worked hard to capture.

1. Format the Card in Your Camera

Whenever inserting your memory card into a camera, be sure to format the card in the camera so it’s completely prepared to work with the hardware. We don’t recommend that you use the same memory card in multiple cameras, unless you’ve already removed the important images from the card, saved them on your computer (or backed them up), and reformatted the card in the second camera first. Switching cards between cameras can corrupt images saved on the card or cause it to malfunction during shooting.

2. Choose a High-Performance Reader

When transferring images from a memory card to a computer, many photographers directly connect their camera to their computer. However, this can drain the camera’s battery unnecessarily and it’s not very efficient. Instead we recommend you use a memory card reader to move images to the host computer. These devices aren’t very expensive and don’t require a battery or charging. And high-performance card readers can provide accelerated workflow with faster image transfer speeds to help you get images off the card and onto your computer, saving your valuable time for more important things like editing and sharing.

3. Watch for the Light!

Often after prolonged burst-mode shooting, the buffer will become full and the camera won’t allow the photographer to take any more images. This will be indicated by a light. It’s critical that you DO NOT turn off the camera or remove the memory card when the light is on, as you could corrupt your images. Always wait for the light to turn off before removing your card or powering down your camera. This also applies to transferring images off the card through a reader. DO NOT turn off the computer or remove the card while the reader light is still on.

4. Keep Track of Capacity

It is also important to pay attention to the memory card’s capacity. When shooting, the image counter on the internal screen will count down how many more images you can store on your memory card. Don’t go past that number! Trying to shoot more images than your card can store may corrupt or erase some of the images you previously captured as the card looks for more room to save new shots.

5. Wear Your Memory Cards Evenly

Rotate your cards. If you’re shooting a lot of images and using multiple memory cards, develop a system to know which cards have been used and which are empty. This will save you from fumbling around trying to figure out which cards you’ve used, or worse, shooting on a full memory card. You can insert them in your card wallet upside down, hold your empty cards in your left pocket and the full ones in your right, or even just mark the full ones with a removable sticker.

6. Water Doesn’t Necessarily Spell Disaster

It is critical that you take extra care of your memory card, but don’t panic if it gets wet. Sometimes memory cards go through the wash or get dropped in puddles. If it happens, DON’T PANIC! Let the card dry out for a day or two and then use a card reader to get the images off it right away.

7. Be Diligent About Backing Up

Backing up your work should be part of your routine if it isn’t already. Professional shooters make a living from their images, so losing them is not an option. To ensure your images will be there when you need them, never delete images or format your card until you’ve not only removed them from the card and saved them on your computer, but also backed them up.

8. Be Prepared for Every Occasion

If you’ve ever accidentally deleted an image, experienced a card corruption, or had camera batteries fail while saving a picture, you know the results can be devastating. Be prepared for any situation by using image recovery software to recover files from your memory card and help you save your valuable photos and videos. Whether you’re a professional photographer capturing important moments for clients or a casual digital camera user shooting family snapshots, image recovery software is critical for restoring your lost or deleted files.

If you keep these tips in mind you will keep your cards running at peak performance and take the necessary steps to avoid losing images.

How do you manage your memory cards? Do you use SD, CF or something else? Do you find the simple tips above helpful? 

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Sime (aka #gtvone) is the customer support manager for dPS, and lead blogger in our Cameras and Gear Blog. He's a Melbourne based photographer, www.gtvone.com and please feel free to follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Some Older Comments

  • D Starz January 10, 2013 12:59 am


    Just wondering, if a card was used for multiple devices, but I cleaned (and tediously organized) the files so I can dedicate the cards to their specific cameras, how does formatting work? Can I format via one camera and it does...whatever formatting does (I am slightly confused by all the comments i.e. "blocks, FAT files, etc"). I just want to clean off the cards for a fresh start in their respective cameras.


  • jody July 31, 2012 11:40 pm

    Can you use this program with any memory card photogeezer?

  • jody July 31, 2012 11:36 pm

    Flash card?

  • photogeezer July 31, 2012 12:31 pm

    Jody, download this freeware program, PC Inspector Smart Recovery: http://www.pcinspector.de/smartrecovery/info.htm?language=1
    Figure out how to use it then run it against the flash card. I used this to recover files from a card I had formatted by mistake.

  • jody July 31, 2012 07:23 am

    I need help please! I have had my Sd card for awhile now. Tons of pictures and videos. But for some reason in my camera or any camera it will not show anything. It says card cannot be read! when I insert it in a computer/laptop, it says the same thing. Please help me this card is very important to me :(

  • photogeezer November 25, 2011 03:38 am

    I agree with Paul sV's points, but I have to say I love downloading 100 RAW files much more quickly with my Firewire 800 card reader ;-) It was not an essential purchase, however.

  • Wedding Photographer November 25, 2011 03:28 am

    Sometimes I use 10 cards during a wedding. I just don't have time to reformat them one by one before every wedding or engagement session. I have smaller cards so there is not problem if one of them corrupted. I loose less images.

  • Paul vS November 25, 2011 03:19 am

    About #2 - Memory card reader

    1. Battery life: Today's cameras use so little battery power that you can shoot 1000 photos and still have more than 50% remaining. Connecting the camera for 30-60 minutes maybe drains 5% or less.

    2. Speed: Squeezing out 5 minutes doesn't really matter. Relax, make yourself a coffee and then start editing.

    3. Data security: The safest thing you can do when handling your card is to leave it in the camera. Data corruptions happen (if they happen) when connecting the card to a card reader. So far I haven't heard of a story that a card got corrupt inside the camera (that is a card that has been formatted in the camera and wasn't removed at any time before the pictures were transferred with a cable camera/computer).

  • iseektoknow November 24, 2011 04:50 am

    When traveling I carry about 5 SD cards (those are pretty cheap). I use about one a day. If I lose the camera or it gets stolen I've only lost one day's worth of shooting. For me the photos are worth more than the camera. The camera can always be replaced, but the photos can't.

    I've only 'lost' my camera once and that was in Las Vegas at the Buffet @ Harrah's. It was a P/S Sony. Was all bummed out about all the shooting I had done and now I've lost the photos. I went to the lost and found and my camera was there. They had looked at all my photos (lol) and asked me to describe a photo that was not taken in Vegas. Luckily I could and I got my camera. Even though my case had my first initial and last name in it, they wouldn't call the front desk to see if I was registered because I didn't have my first name written.

    Gave the girl a hug and was leaving and she showed me about 40 cameras that had been turned in, but never claimed. Some were very expensive cameras.

  • MaxRoadster November 22, 2011 10:25 am

    Read through the comments but did not see any regarding electro-magnetic impact on memory cards. I know the airport x-ray machines do not affect my cards. However, machinery (generators – electrical motors and even a computer’s CPU) generate or create electro-magnetic energy which can and does destroy hard drives and floppy disc. Caution- operator created dumb experience at work here!

  • Vera November 21, 2011 01:00 am

    Thanks for the tips, the comments are just as precious.

  • David November 20, 2011 12:29 pm

    Minor mistake in last posting. I meant USB hub not router.

  • David November 20, 2011 12:03 pm

    I always use an SD card reader. I use the Targus-CRD-25 (Radio Shack $19.95) connected to my MAC Mini. I have found it very important to directly connect to one of the Mini's USB ports NOT a router, even if powered. In addition, for safety I always slide the Lock Tab on the SD card to LOCKED (or safe) before i insert it.

  • Evette November 20, 2011 07:36 am

    @marco. Thank you so much! I will start doing this today.

  • Marco November 20, 2011 06:54 am

    @Mary Jo Cox -- read the manual from your camera. It will lead you through the steps of your camera's menu function that will get you to the format card function. Different steps for different cameras but every camera that uses cards has the format function available.

  • Marco November 20, 2011 06:50 am

    Some folks here are obviously not using CF cards. My 400x CF 16GB UDMA card on Amazon was $80 and I could not even find one locally when I needed a backup card. The 600x card was about $140 so I don't know how people can say that they are so cheap!!!

    @evette - you should format the card IN THE CAMERA when you first use a new card. The debate is whether to use the format option in the camera instead of the erase function every time you empty the card onto your computer. I for one am not sure yet what is best, but I insert my card into the reader on my computer, navigate to the correct folder and use the select all and then MOVE instead of COPY to transfer them and empty the card in one step. I then put the card back in the camera. I try to format the empty card about every fifth time that I empty it, just to be sure that the FAT tables are clean. Some will agree with me, some will disagree with me, but this seems the best to me. Never format a card with your computer as the camera might not be able to see the card any more.

  • Evette November 19, 2011 10:06 pm

    I am completely new at this; how do you format a memory card? In the camera or connected to your computer? Thank you!

  • ccting November 19, 2011 03:42 am

    I thought inserting cards into the laptop will shorten the card's life very fast... lol

  • Mary Jo Cox November 18, 2011 11:21 am

    How do you format a SD card?

  • Big T November 18, 2011 11:15 am

    Our survey grade GPS (Leica) uses the same type memory cards that camera's do and they recommend downloading the data then formating the card in the GPS unit and not on a computer every time before starting a new job. This keeps the data from getting corrupt and keeps the files in the right place just as it does in a camera. Therefore, formating is safer than just deleting. We have only had one card to stop working in the last 10 years and that happened when a coworker formated the card on a computer instead of the GPS unit and it would not work or re-format in the GPS after that.
    Tha card is doing the same thing as it does in a camera, storing and transfering data. I have been using the format in camera method for many years and never had a card to go bad.

  • pommystuart November 18, 2011 10:11 am

    An instructor at a course i went to suggested having three SD cards marked Morning, Afternoon and Evening and cycling them.
    That way if a card does go down (highly unlightly, but !! ) you only loose part of Paris or the wedding or what ever. Cards are relatively cheap so why reuse them?

  • lINUXDANISH November 18, 2011 05:01 am

    so for all the discussion about formatting erasing, I have yet to hear anyone talk about (for or against) simply cutting to the comp. rather than pasting. So what do you guys think? is their an issue i am unaware of with this method? because I am using it regularly and it avoids the issue of having to go back and delete/format.

  • michael November 18, 2011 03:18 am

    What are the symptoms of a bad card. I've been having intermittent problem where my camera seizes up when I shoot. Thinking cards, which are several years old are bad, not the camera.

  • Karl November 17, 2011 06:30 pm

    I always found that 2 memory cards max is already enough for any amateur photographer to be working with. But having to constantly maintain your memory card? That's a new concept to me. I know that memory cards can be used upwards of 100,000 cycles and obviously it won't get worn out that easily. I've read Photogeezer's comments and they were very informative, thank you for those comments. And I'd also like to state the obvious: Magnets are a no-no for memory cards.

  • Big-D November 17, 2011 11:48 am

    so have we decided format or low level format. I don't really know the difference. I format when inserting a brand new card. I always use the same cards in the same camera. to erase my images I am using the low level format. does it really matter???

  • sigfried baterina November 17, 2011 10:43 am

    luckily, i haven't had a need for a recovery software. but, i guess i have to consider installing one. any recommendations(freeware)?

    save to PC: check!
    backup to drive: check!
    format and clean(external): check! lastly,
    burn to disk(you never know when you internal or backup drive is going to crash): CHECK!

  • Ian Mears November 17, 2011 09:13 am

    John Bokma actually it is the firmware in the card that decides where to write the files, not the camera. They operate differently to hard drives. All flash storage comes with firmware that looks to even out where data is written as each memory cell has a limited lifespan. There are two types of flash, MLC (multi level cell) and SLC (single level cell). The MLC stores multiple bits in each memory cell and has a lifespan of up to 10000 writes. This is used in flash cards and consumer SSD drives and is cheap. SLC has a single bit per cell and has a lifespan up to 100000 writes, used in enterprise drives and is expensive!

    Switching cards between cameras does not cause problems. They just create different directory structures to write their images.

  • Paul November 17, 2011 06:55 am

    Try PhotoRec - it's free and available for most OSes. http://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/PhotoRec
    I've had success recovering a few photos I had accidentally deleted.

  • Sam November 17, 2011 12:52 am

    As far as file recovery software:
    It would be nice to have a few suggestions of WHICH apps to use [free is better :) ] that can deal with the mem cards (both for PC and Macs).

  • John Bokma November 16, 2011 03:13 pm

    "the card looks for more room to save new shots."

    Srsly? No: the card doesn't "look" for more room, it's the camera that has the software that access the card, and a camera that corrupts the filesystem on a memory card in order to create "more room" has buggy software.

    As for formatting: don't mistake formatting for a "low level format", the software is most likely /not/ writing all zeroes (or ones) to each and every sector but just resetting/rewriting the FAT structures. If that's wearing out your card, you should have replaced it ages ago.

  • Johnp November 16, 2011 03:03 pm

    I corrupted a card by just removing it while the camera was turned on (not while the read light was lit). So now I make sure the camera is off before removing a card.

  • John MacDonald November 16, 2011 01:57 pm

    Re: #1

    While photography is my day job electronics is my hobby. Most all in one flash products (everything you're going to come in contact with on a regular basis, CF, SD, USB, etc) includes quite a lot of firmware for wear leveling the flash cells.

    Theoretically formatting the card every time actually gives those routines more room to do their job so in addition to making sure the card is ready to go with that camera by moving where all of the images are put onto the card. If you don't format the card it can only wear level the cells that are NOT in use by image currently.

    Worst case scenario if you fill a card and delete a photo, take a photo, delete the new photo, you're going right up against the wear cycles in individual flash cells and get to the 5-10k cycle life... even then you're camera buttons will wear out before the flash.

    I have some cards that are 5+ years old and have been used almost every day, formatted every single time I put them into a camera, that still work.

  • Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche) November 16, 2011 11:32 am

    I almost never reformat a card in the camera except when I first put a brand new card into the camera. I use only one brand of camera, and the card file format is interchangeable across the entire line. I erase the files on my desktop after copying them to the desktop and then backing them up. I've been doing it this way for more than 10 years. Also on another note - I've washed and dried an SD card and it still had every photo on it and continued to work fine. Not recommending this, but they are very stable and reliable. I buy only well known brand names and I've had just one card out of many, many cards go bad in all that time.

  • Sarah November 16, 2011 11:09 am

    Gee! Thanks to photogeezer.... Those posts were all becoming very contradicting and unesscessarily complicated before photogeezer stepped in with some sense.

  • Photogeezer November 16, 2011 10:28 am

    If you edit a file on the card, you've lost the original, so that's not a good idea anyway. The lifespan issue has been overstated in many places on the internet. If it was such a potential problem, then flash memory hard drives (SSDs) would not be sold with new computers. The technology is basically the same, and these drives experience many more write cycles than you will in your camera. Shoot, format and erase to your heart's content.

  • WBC November 16, 2011 10:22 am

    Oh, I also go for more little SD cards (4 / 8 GB) than a few big ones. That way i am cycling through them faster and in theory getting pictures out of harms way faster. But - I am not shooting 20 megapixel ;)

  • WBC November 16, 2011 10:19 am

    Yeah, Photogeezer has hit on a few things I was going to say...

    I second the info on the format / erase - it is not going to wipe all the actual photo data off a card. I have actually recovered all the images on a formatted card using free tools.

    If you need to really remove everything on the SD card, you will need a computer to do it.

    I would definitely agree on formatting each time (on the camera) to reset the file system anyway - its quick and could avoid some issues if the FAT is messed up somehow.

    For the lifespan, it will vary by card - but if you buy good ones you should get a long life out of them. I'd also say to get the fastest your camera can support... and go by CLASS # - my Nikon will take a class 6. Don't fall for "marketing crap" like "Double speed" or whatever...

    Pelican makes a nice small hard case for 8 or 10 SD cards. I put them back in upside down when used and grab the next one in line. On the downside, my hinge on it broke for now reason one day... still works, but I doubt it is water tight now.

  • Scott MC November 16, 2011 10:16 am

    There's another point I read about transferring files from the card to your PC... just cut and paste onto your HDD - def don't edit images on the card because it will reduce the lifespan of the card. :)

  • Photogeezer November 16, 2011 09:43 am

    Boy, there sure is a lot of misinformation about the format vs. erase issue on the interwebs. Dr. Bob is correct in that almost all cameras do a quick format, which just recreates the file system (File Allocation Table and Directory), unlike a low-level format, which deletes every block. However erasing only marks the directory table entry for a file as unavailable so that its space on the card can be overwritten; it doesn't touch the file. Erasing can't fix a corrupt File Allocation Table (unlikely but possible event); formatting can. You can reformat every time you want in order to remove files, if you want. And formatting is quicker than erasing. As far as the life of flash memory is concerned, it's not as long as a hard disk, but you can get upwards of 100,000 write cycles. You won't be wearing out the card any time soon.

  • sillyxone November 16, 2011 06:17 am

    Most cameras do a quick format, which only clears the partition table (that hold pointers to the actual files). It will take a long time to actually erase the data (going through the whole card). Most recovery software scan the card to look for image file headers, thus, don't need to rely on the deleted partition table. You can easily recover deleted files if you haven't overwritten the old data with new data

    Somebody mentioned before that most modern cards have internal wear-leveling mechanism, so formatting a card before each session is recommended.

    However, in a recent accident which I had to recover deleted photos, to my surprise, I can recover photos that have been at the end of the card from last year because I rarely fill more than two thirds of my card. That also means every time I format the card, the new photos are written from the beginning of the card without touching the end of the card. Thus, my card will die sooner because the begining sections of the card are subjected to significantly more IO ops than the rest.

    I'm not sure what can be improved in this situation beside trying to fill the whole card before formatting it (make sure you have spare cards handy when it runs out of space).

  • Photogeezer November 16, 2011 05:24 am

    A helpful article, but you should have explained what you mean by a "high-performance" reader. Most of them are based on the USB 2.0 specification which transfers at 480 Mb/sec. My Firewire 800 (800 Mb/sec.) reader is 3 times as fast as USB 2.0 on my computer, which is great when I'm downloading 100 RAW files. Furthermore, Firewire is architected for faster serial download of multiple files than USB 2.0. The newest type is USB 3.0, which transfers at 5000 Mb/sec. All these speeds are theoretical, really, because of other factors. If you buy a faster reader than USB 2.0 (all computers now have USB 2.0 ports) make sure you have a port on the computer which matches! You might have to also buy an adapter card to make it work.

  • Dr. Bob November 16, 2011 05:11 am

    That's the only formatting camera's do (at least the majority of them)

  • Alexander Rose November 16, 2011 05:05 am

    Doc Bob,
    this only applies to a quick format though.

  • D. Lambert November 16, 2011 05:00 am

    Re: #1 -- I've definitely experienced problems when not formatting in-camera every time. This might vary by camera or card, but erasing all the images *is not* the same as formatting, and formatting in-camera is not equivalent to formatting on your pc via a card reader, or formatting on another camera, etc.

  • Dr. Bob November 16, 2011 04:55 am

    Point 1 probably is meant as Kiran puts it: Format instead of erase all. Erase all will write '0' to each block on the card. Instead format will only write to the partition table. Thus minimising write-actions to the card.

  • Alexander Rose November 16, 2011 04:51 am

    Some more corrections other than point 1 being odd...

    3: When transferring images to your PC, turning off the PC won't damage the card. The images on the PC can be corrupted but since it's only read access on the card, the card is safe.

    4: I am not aware of any camera that would overwrite pictures already stored on a card.

    5: SD cards have a write lock in the upper left corner. Just use that one, it's easy.

    And most importantly: Memory cards are so cheap today, don't hesitate to replace one that makes troubles. It's not worth it.

  • Alexander Rose November 16, 2011 04:37 am

    No need to clarify - formatting the card every time you use it is pure nonsense.
    The way you understood it initially is the only way that makes sense.

  • Kiran @ KiranTarun.com November 16, 2011 04:31 am

    I am unsure I would re-format each time. But I do take a back up and save all images before erasing the image files on memory card. Not sure if it's the same. But surely doesn't wear out my memory cards' completely :D

  • Bekah November 16, 2011 04:23 am

    I also recently read that you shouldn't hit erase all. You should format the card to erase everything instead. Said it like "reorganizes" the card. Not sure how true/useful it actually is though

  • Mike T November 16, 2011 03:52 am

    @Alexander Rose,

    When I first read point number 1, I took it to mean to format the card the first time you put the card in the camera. This is what I do - for the same reasons he mentions. However I don't format my memory card every time.

    However upon re-reading point number 1, I see how you got what you got.

    So Sime, can you clarify please?

  • Alexander Rose November 16, 2011 03:09 am

    Serious about 1?
    Cards have a limited life time, depending on read-write cycles.
    Formatting them every time just means more cycles, thus wearing them out more.