Life is full of mysteries. Why is “abbreviation” such a long word? Do dogs get sore throats? How long do fish wait to swim after eating? Why is bra singular but panties plural? Which genius decided that the word “lisp” should have an “S” in it? But perhaps one of the biggest mysteries is one that strikes at the very heart of the photography industry. It’s a puzzler that I see all the time, yet I just can’t quite figure out a reasonable answer. Can anybody PLEASE tell me why someone would spend several thousands of dollars on the camera and lens, and then buy the cheapest memory cards they can find? ACME products never actually helped Wily Coyote catch the Roadrunner, so why would anyone think that cut-rate memory cards will help them succeed at capturing life’s moments?
You’d think it would be a no-brainer. After all, the cost of high-quality CF and SD cards has drastically reduced in the past couple of years. And yet I had calls from two different photographers in the last week or so, asking me if I had any suggestions for a good image recovery program. Granted, any memory card can experience problems, but when I asked each of these photographers what brand of memory cards they had been using, they responded with brand names I’d never heard before. Why, I asked, would you skimp on a $50 memory card when you’re shooting with a $3,000 lens? Each replied with frustratingly similar versions of, “What difference does it make?”
The short answer is that it can make a big difference. But while we’re tackling this mystery, let’s also take a fresh look at some key things to keep in mind about memory cards.
You Really Do Get What You Pay For.
In what was admittedly a not-so-very-scientific test recently, I put two cards with supposedly identical specs (capacity, read/write speed) head-to-head to see how they fared. What should have been the only difference was the brand name. One was a SanDisk Extreme, the other was an off brand. There wasn’t much of a noticeable difference in performance in-camera when taking single shots. But when I switched to rapid fire and pushed the bounds of the buffer, there was an obvious winner and loser. The SanDisk had no trouble keeping up, while the off-brand actually froze for several seconds. It eventually caught up, but I did have one or two corrupt files when I dumped the card. Had I been shooting something important (i.e., a paid job) I easily could have missed a crucial shot. This is not to say that every off-brand card is going to be a dud, or that every SanDisk or Lexar will be flawless in its performance. But in my experience, the higher cost of a known-commodity pays for more than just the card. It also pays for peace of mind, which to me is invaluable.
Remember how much this little guy cost way back when?
Electricity is Your Friend.
One of the very last things you want is for your camera battery to die while a file is still being written to the card. If the power goes, so does that last shot. Today’s camera batteries have a pretty long charge life. I’ve often shot an entire 14-hour wedding day on a single battery. Just because you can do something, though, doesn’t mean it’s a great idea. Monitor your battery status and be sure to switch it out before it dies on its own. There is a similar concern to turning your camera off while files are still being written to the card. It’s essentially the same thing as your battery dying. I don’t usually turn my camera off very often, but when I do I make sure it’s done writing first.
While we’re on the topic of turning your camera off, I’ll confess to one of my(many) bad habits. Camera manuals all say that you should turn your camera off before removing the memory card to avoid something called “voltage shock,” and they’re right. Unfortunately, I almost never do this. I know I should, and I also know that one of these days I’m going to learn my lesson the hard way. But like I tell my son, this is one of those “Do as I say, not as I do” things.
Always Format in the Camera.
Your camera is basically a computer with a window to the world sticking out the side. You need to make sure the computer can talk to the media, and the best way to do this is to format the card in the specific camera with which you are shooting. I knew a photographer a while back who would format all of his cards at the end of a shoot, so they would be ready for the next one. What he didn’t stop to think about at the time was the fact that he shot with the same cards across two different cameras. Once the card is formatted, the camera knows that space is available for saving images. But every camera sets up its file structure a little differently. The better practice is to simply format the card each time it goes in the camera you are about to use.
Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
Just like it’s not a good idea to test the limits of your battery, it’s also not a very good idea to test the limits of your memory card. For starters, memory cards actually have less available space on them the label says it does. More importantly, the number of images the camera says you can still fit on a card is only an approximation. Not every photo is the exact same file size. Some will be a bit larger and some will be a bit smaller, depending on image data. If the card doesn’t have enough room for the entire image file it will only record what it can. Since the price of CF and SD cards has fallen so dramatically in the past year or so, take advantage of that price drop and be sure to have more cards than you think you are going to need. It’s better to switch cards early and make sure you get everything, than to push the card too far and miss something important.
As long as we’re on the subject, I have a quick observation about the newer, high-capacity cards on the market. While it might be convenient to shoot an entire wedding day or sporting event on a single card, for example, I still use either 4 GB or 8 GB cards for event photography. The pessimist in me is always planning for the worst, and I can’t think of anything worse than losing an entire event because a single card went bad. If I at least have the event spread out over multiple cards, I’m not going to lose every frame from a once-in-a-lifetime event if something goes wrong with a memory card. Yes, there are some good image recovery programs out there, but no system is perfect. Better not to risk it if you can avoid it.
Keep Cards in Your Pocket, Not in Your Bag.
Memory cards are usually one of those things that when you need it, you need it fast. Getting to the cards in your bag is usually going to take too long. Keep your cards in a memory card wallet of some kind and keep the wallet where you can get to it fast. It’s also a good idea to have your own system of knowing which cards have been used and which are still available. I usually keep available cards with the label facing up, and used cards with the label facing down. Being able to know at a glance which cards are used and which are free helps save time during the shoot and prevents a catastrophic mistake.
Never Delete in the Camera.
Someone much better versed in the tech side of things once tried explaining to me the difference between deleting and formatting. Quite frankly, it all sounded like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, but I seem to remember something about erase cycles. I’m not going to complicate it for you. For me, the reason to never delete images from a card in the camera is much more practical– It’s way too easy to make a mistake. Turn a wheel or push a button too fast, and instead of impressing your client with your photography, you’ll be impressing them with your creative use of four-letter words. Regardless of whether you are a professional or an enthusiast, there is simply too much that can go wrong. Cards have gotten huge. You won’t be at all inconvenienced by waiting until the cards are backed up to start deleting.
Back it All Up. Then Back it Up Again.
Forget deleting. I don’t even start looking at images until I know that everything has been downloaded and backed up at least twice. That’s right. There are three copies of everything before I even think about clearing a card or deleting anything. Everyone has their own system. I download each card to my main hard drive. Then I copy everything to an external hard drive on my desk. A third copy is created on another external hard drive that is kept locked up in the gear closet. An overabundance of caution? Maybe, but I’d rather be too careful than have to explain to the client why I’m an idiot. (Just as a side note, I run a complete catalog backup once a month that is stored off-site).
The 90-Day Rule
My 90-day rule applies to any purchase of any new technology. Simply put, I won’t buy the newest release of anything– memory cards included– until they have been out on the market for at least 90 days. I figure this gives the companies a chance to work out any bugs that might present themselves.
A Special Note About SD Cards
One of the great things about CF cards is the fact that they are completely enclosed and have no moving parts. As long as you’re careful and don’t accidentally bend any of the contact pins at the bottom of the card slot there is very little that can go wrong with them. SD cards are another matter. Being smaller and lighter they can be easy to lose, but what I really don’t like about them are the exposed contacts on the back of the card. I once noticed a loose strand of a metallic contact when taking an SD card out of my camera. I was faced with a pretty difficult choice. There was no way to get it into a card reader with the damaged contact, but if I broke it off I might not be able to access the images on the card. Throwing caution to the wind, I pulled off the remaining strand of loose contact and put the card into the reader. All of the images were accessible. I decided to test the extent of the damage and (stupidly) put the card back in the camera. It still worked perfectly, but that was the last time I used the card. Considering how easily replaceable memory cards are, it would have been crazy to put that card back into regular circulation.
We may use our cameras to preserve moments in time, but those moments are preserved on memory cards, not on cameras. Choose your memory cards wisely and treat them well. Otherwise, the only memories you’ll be preserving will be the ones of you banging your head against a wall, wondering why dogs don’t get sore throats.