Memory cards are a crucial component of digital photography, yet they’re more prone to problems than we like to admit. If you don’t take proper care of your SD, CF, and XQD cards, you might end up with a card failure on the job – or, even worse, corrupted files that you can never get back.
So how do you prevent memory card issues? In this article, I share everything you need to know, including:
- When to format your memory cards
- How many images to shoot before switching to a new card
- How to prevent corruption when ejecting a card
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to put a stop to memory card errors once and for all, then let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:
What is a memory card?
A memory card is a storage accessory that records the image data created by digital cameras. Every camera contains some type of memory card, which slots right into your camera and saves each photo on the fly.
Thanks to memory cards, you don’t need to carry a laptop into the field; instead, you can let the memory cards (temporarily) store your images until you can access your computer or external drive.
At the end of each shoot, you can remove the memory card from your camera, connect it to your computer, and transfer the images for viewing, editing, and storage.
All memory cards are designed for the same broad purpose – saving data – but there are many different memory cards built to suit specific needs, camera models, and budgets. Not all cameras use the same memory cards, and not all memory cards are equally durable, fast, or reliable.
And while memory cards are an incredible piece of technology, they do require care. Below, I offer my top eight tips to keep your cards in tip-top shape:
1. Purchase quality cards
As I explained above, there are several types of memory cards, each with different specifications and levels of quality. And while it can be tempting to purchase a few cheap cards and call it a day – especially in light of your expensive camera and lens purchases – it’s important that you select your memory cards thoughtfully.
Unfortunately, cheap memory cards can compromise your photos. The cheaper the card, the more likely it is to fail during a shoot or while transferring images (both of which can lead to file corruption). Plus, cheap cards tend to be less durable, which means they’ll struggle to function when dropped in water, rained on, or otherwise impacted.
Bottom line: Purchasing a good memory card is key to safeguarding your images. While quality cards may be more expensive, they’re undoubtedly worth the extra cost. Brands like SanDisk and Lexar are go-to options for professional photographers. Steer away from deals that look too good to be true, avoid purchasing used cards, and avoid obscure brands with poor reviews.
Also, if your memory card does start to have problems, remove it from your camera immediately and put in a more reliable card. Shooting with an already-sketchy card – even if the issue seems to have temporarily disappeared – is a recipe for disaster!
2. Use a good card reader
Memory cards offer different specifications and quality levels. The same is true of card readers, devices designed to transfer files from a memory card over to a computer.
While card readers seem like pretty straightforward equipment, you don’t want to run the risk of corrupting files as you upload them to the computer, which can happen and may result in the loss of thousands of photos.
So invest in a good memory card reader. It’ll save a lot of stress down the road. Ensure the reader you purchase has plenty of good reviews, and – as with memory cards – swap it out at the first sign of trouble. It’s not worth risking your precious files.
3. Correctly eject your memory card from the computer
Do you ever remove your memory card from the computer without ejecting it? If the answer is “Yes,” then you’re not alone – but I’d encourage you to change your approach.
Removing your card without ejection is generally harmless, which is why many folks do it without issue. But in certain cases, not ejecting your card can result in corrupted data or even card failure, putting your next shoot at risk (and potentially costing you lots of money, too).
So to prevent memory card problems, always eject your card through the computer before removing it. (There are a few ways you can do this, and as far as I’m aware, they’re all equally effective.)
Also, if you try to eject the card but your computer gives you the “This memory card is still in use” dialog box, then do not attempt to remove the card anyway. Make sure all relevant operations are complete, then eject the card a second time.
4. Turn your camera off before removing your memory card
Here’s another simple way to minimize memory card problems:
Turn off your camera before removing the card. (And make sure your LCD screen goes black; if you’ve just taken a burst of photos, the camera will continue saving images, even once the switch is set to “Off.” You don’t want to remove the card until after this writing process is complete.) Removing your memory card with the camera still on is an easy way to interrupt the writing process and corrupt your image files.
Additionally, avoid shooting while your camera battery is low. If your camera runs out of power while reading/writing to the card, it can be detrimental to all the data on the card.
5. Don’t completely fill your card with images
It sounds counterintuitive, I know. After all, if you have the space, you should fill up the card…right?
Not quite. You see, just like a maxed-out hard drive, a card nearing capacity underperforms, and this can compromise your images.
To avoid this issue, invest in a large memory card, keep an eye on your image count, don’t fill your card over 85-90% capacity, and always have a spare card at the ready. (At the same time, don’t use a card that’s too large; it’s better to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket.)
6. Don’t switch devices without formatting
Switching your memory cards from camera to camera risks compatibility issues that can corrupt the data of the whole card.
If you need to change equipment, either format the card before use or grab a new card. So if your main camera fails and you need to switch to your second body, don’t just take the card out of your first camera and stick it in; instead, safely store the in-use card, then pop a freshly formatted card in the second camera.
7. Don’t delete files in-camera
I get it: If you take a photograph you don’t like, it’s tempting to erase the image right then and there. For some photographers, it’s part of a memory-saving strategy. However, individually deleting photographs in-camera can lead to corrupted files, so I’d encourage you to avoid it whenever possible.
Deleting images can also soak up valuable shooting time (and you may miss various opportunities because your eyes are on your camera LCD screen). Plus, LCD previews aren’t easy to evaluate. You don’t want to delete an image only to later realize it was an absolute gem!
So don’t do any in-camera deleting. If you want to delete content, wait until you’ve safely uploaded the files to your computer.
8. Format your memory card each time you use it
My final method of avoiding memory-card issues is a big one:
Once you’ve transferred a card’s files to your computer, stick it straight back into your camera and format it. (You can find the “Format” option in your camera’s menu.) Formatting a card will completely clear it and will prepare it to store new image files. If you go too long without formatting a card, the data will start to get scrambled, you’ll start to see various memory card errors, and you’ll end up with all sorts of problems.
So format, format, format!
Note: While it’s possible to format a card via your computer, this isn’t recommended. It’s always best to format the card using your camera.
How to prevent memory card issues: final words
Memory cards are amazing little pieces of technology. And while they can have problems, a few simple steps will keep them functioning at peak performance, allowing you to focus your attention on taking photos.
So remember the tips I’ve shared. Incorporate them into your workflow. And have fun shooting!
Do you have any other tips for minimizing memory card problems? Have you ever lost files due to a corrupted card? Share your tips and stories in the comments below!