04.22.13 Anytime

The Best Memory Cards for Digital Cameras

few weeks ago, I asked my good friend Charlie to offer insight as to why he prefers shooting with prime lenses as well as offered tips in doing so. Well, I'm happy to say he's back this week to chat about the glamorous world of memory cards. The first time I heard him explain "X ratings" for his CF cards and their respective write speed, I just smiled. And blinked. He was kind enough to break it down for me and today he'll do the same for you.

What Are the Best Memory Cards For You
By Charlie Mai

When it comes to photography gear, we often focus our attention on a particular camera body or lenses we want to invest our hard-earned dollars in - after all it's the bread and butter. How often though have you seriously asked yourself, "What memory card(s) do I buy?" Understandably, it's not exactly an exhilarating topic, like pondering what to order on the dessert menu at dinner. But given the continually evolving technology of cameras (particularly DSLRs), memory cards have also had to evolve in order to keep up with increased performance demands. Hence, it's worthwhile to factor in their role in the photographic workflow.

1. Card Capacity
    Cards come in all manner of capacities, from a couple of gigabytes to upwards of 128GB at this point. The size you decide upon can be based on a number of factors, for example:
· File format - Do you shoot in RAW or do you prefer to shoot in JPEG? Maybe even RAW+JPEG? If you have a megapixel monster and shoot with RAW, count on the need for a bigger card.
· Do you put all of your images on one card (a.k.a. all eggs in one basket) and go for the biggest card you can buy or do you break down your day into a collection of smaller cards? This of course comes down to preference, risk tolerance or both - just ask any wedding photographer you know.

2. Card Speed
    Memory cards are labeled according to their speed in "MB/sec" (ex. 60MB/sec) and/or an "X" rating (ex. 400X or 1000X) where X= 150KB/sec. Simply put, the higher the rating the faster the card, BUT pay specific attention to whether a manufacturer is referring to a card's "read speed" or "write speed," the former being how fast you can access the data off the card, the latter being how fast data can be written to a card (i.e. by your camera). The distinction isn't as apparent as it could be and often it's the maximum possible read speed that is implied on the label.
    Manufacturers may label their cards with keywords such as "Extreme" or "Professional" - granted there is a marketing angle behind them; they also are a clue to speedier performance, the cost of which rises as you gravitate towards the crème de la crème.
    Compact Flash (CF) cards will often have the designation "UDMA" or Ultra Direct Memory Access. Most DSLRs manufactured in the last 5-6 years will be UDMA capable. This designation relates to a standard of reading and writing data at enhanced speeds.
On Secure Digital (SD) cards, you'll also see a "Class" designation such as Class 6 or Class 10. This relates to a minimum sustained speed (ex. Class 6, where 6 stands for 6 MB/sec) for recording video. If you're not capturing video, it isn't critical to focus on it.
Gauge the level of speed that suits your shooting style - If you shoot a lot of fast-moving action (ex. sports), speed will be your friend and a card with a higher write speed allows your camera's memory buffer to clear more readily when shooting in bursts, allowing you to keep going with fewer or no interruptions.

3. Price
    In general, the more robust the card capacity + the faster the card = the more you'll have to spend. If money's no object, go for it. Otherwise, it will come down to factoring in speed and capacity relative to the price that suits your budget. Fortunately, memory prices dip over time as newer and faster cards come to market, so keep an eye out for price drops. These days, it's not at all difficult to find value and performance all in one card, especially online.

Lastly... consider this - that little wafer or stamp-sized card holds the ability to record images that you've crafted in your mind, unique instances of time that surely occur only once and missing any of which can lead to an "If I'd only done this..." moment and perhaps a firm palm to the forehead. Could you simply trust any 'ol card that was indiscriminately purchased, without knowing how it functions with your camera? Just a little food for thought.
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Stephine Lisa - Excellent tips here. Memory cards is one of the most important part of digital camera which help to increase its performance. Make sure to choose the right memory card which has a good capacity feature, good performance and affordable in price.  05.20.14 - 11:23pm
Kool Ed - Very informative. Thank you!  05.12.13 - 2:19am
Mohamad Hafez - Yup, agreed with the last sentence. Study the function of your camera, if you're into photography then it is important for you to equip yourself with all necessary accessories that suit your needs. In this case, choose the right memory card wisely.  05.01.13 - 6:56am
Glessner Photography - Thanks so much for the info. It was very helpful!  04.27.13 - 12:56pm
Tanya - Great Post. Fiona, that is something I have always wondered about formatting the card after uploading the images. Do you delete/erase all the images first and then format the card after? Or do you just format the card as a way of erasing? Also how many uses does the average card have?  04.23.13 - 12:43pm
Brittany - Can anyone tell me if memory cards have a lifespan? I use CF cards for my MarkII and I have heard various things - some people say they're only good for so long and then you should chuck 'em and replace. Can they only be reformatted so many times before they become unreliable?   04.23.13 - 7:28am
Cherry May Ward - This is great! I had to figure out what all these numbers meant a month ago, and even the camera sales shop couldn't explain most of it ... this is really helpful!  04.23.13 - 1:33am
Manuel Ortega Photography - Great read! Are you a RAW + Jpeg shooter? I generally shoot RAW on both of my cards in my 5dMK3's however I'm going to have to upgrade in size to 64GB cards since I shoot snippets of video during weddings. Thanks  04.23.13 - 12:57am
Ken Tan - To be honest, I don't even look at the specs on my memory card. The only number that matters to me is 32GB or 64GB for capacity... but it's great that you wrote this post to give people an insight on what the rest of the numbers mean.  04.22.13 - 1:07pm
Tod p - You know the funny thing about this is, there are plenty of people shooting who have no idea what card speed would actually mean to their shooting, but with todays image file reaching well over 20 megapixels the investment on fast cards are very important and can mean the difference of getting the shot or missing it due to camera bog down... I think fast Cards and faster Cars are all a necessity in this life time!