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How I Work with Memory Cards

A Guest Post on Memory Cards from Andrew Mills.

The memory card – every digital photographer uses them, and they are the subject of many heated debates.

Everyone is different, and have differing opinions, rituals and ways of doing things, but this article goes into how I use/work with memory cards. It contains some tips,etc., that I have gleaned from other photographers and some stuff I have found myself.


memory-cards-how-I-use-them.jpgI store my cards in a hard aluminium and plastic case that is just the right size for my pocket. This case hold 4 cards and protects them from knocks, dust/dirt and moisture (light rain, but not from being dropped into a lake!)

Using this also has another sort of advantage – “fresh” cards are placed in face up, and “used” cards are placed in face down, so I know at a glance which cards are full and I don’t need to check through them to see which are which.

That said, just to be safe, I do just briefly check what’s on a fresh card when I insert it as it only takes a second or two.

As a back up, I do also keep a couple of spare cards separate from this case in my camera bag at all times.

Rotate them

memory-cards.jpgWhen I say rotate them, I don’t mean literally – I mean in the sense that I do not go to and use the exact same card each time. I try and use them equally and pick one from the case at random.


I prefer to use several smaller cards than one huge card – if one dies, I would lose fewer images and not all of them as I would if they were all on one large card. 2Gb cards are big enough to hold around 150 RAW images for my Canon 40D. If I had a Canon 1Ds or similar higher megapixel camera then I would use some larger cards due to the larger file sizes, but for me, 2Gb cards are big enough.

Some photographers will argue that you could miss a shot whilst changing a card, but if you keep an eye on how many shots you have left (which you should anyway), you can change it during downtime if you are getting low on space. Old advice says you should not try and fill a card anyway as it could, in rare cases, cause read/write errors on the card.

For example, if you are at some sort of racing event and have just finished shooting one race and notice you only have space for 10 images left, change the card now. You are now ready for the next race and will not have to panic changing the card during the race, potentially missing a good shot.

Transferring files

Personally I have found it more convenient to use a card reader to transfer files from the card to my PC. It also saves the camera’s battery, is faster (in my experience) at transferring files and saves wear and tear on the camera’s USB socket (a card reader is really cheap, replacing a worn or damaged USB socket is really expensive).

Format the card

An old one, but one I still follow – that is to format the card in the camera, rather than to just delete the files. Formatting helps prevent file fragmentation (which will slow the card down over time and in worse case scenarios, lead to file corruption) that can still occur when you delete all files.

I insert the card, quickly flick through some of the images to make sure it contains images that can be deleted, then format. I rarely change other menu settings, so when I go to the settings menu, it’s usually already on this screen, so only takes a second or two.

Don’t format on a computer! There are many different file systems (FAT8, FAT16, FAT32, NTFS, ETX3 are just a few) and each can be set up differently. Formatting in the camera makes sure the card is set up optimally for your camera make and model.

The only downside of this method is that it may be harder (but not impossible) to recover images you’ve accidentally deleted. Which brings me on to…

Don’t delete until…

Don’t delete the images or format the card until you are ready to insert and use it next time. This kind of acts like a back up in case you somehow lose the copies on your PC. By the time you use the card again, you should have a proper backup of your images. You do have backups, don’t you?

Use a known brand

I will never use an “unknown” cheap brand, or even an “unbranded” memory card. You just cannot guarantee their reliability so it’s just false economy and you’ll regret it when you lose your images.

Think this will never happen to you? Just before Christmas I tried to rescue images off a failing card for a friend. They were of her and her family who went on a trip to Venice – many of those images were lost forever as they were corrupted.

I mainly use Sandisk as they have an excellent reputation, but do also have cards by Kingston and Dane-Electric.


The electrical contacts on come card types like Compact Flash are hidden away and protected inside the card – some, like SD cards, they are on the outside. Wherever possible, never touch the electrical contacts on a card – you can be holding a static charge and if you are unlucky enough discharge this via the contacts on the card, you will fry it.

There is also the chance that oil and dirt from your skin can cause poor connections between the card and camera.

And finally…

It is advisable to turn your camera off whilst changing the card. Admittedly, sometimes I forget, but it should help avoid problems that can result. The camera may have some sort of built in safety device to prevent electrical damage occurring when you change the card when it is turned on, but if you are unsure, then it’s not worth the risk.

The other advantage with some cameras is that it activates the sensor cleaning function, so will help keep your sensor clean…

That’s more or less it – do you have any tips of your own?

Check out more photography from Andrew Mills at his site www.andyphoto.co.uk.

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