Choosing the right memory card for photo and video is a critical decision. An under-powered, old, or even bad card can be the weakest link in your workflow chain; and if it breaks, your project will suffer. The wrong choice of card could even cause the unthinkable to happen – card failure at a critical moment during a wedding or sports shoot when the under-capable card can’t keep up with the flow of data from your camera. In today’s market, you may find it challenging to select the right memory card. A card comes with the following criteria; type, speed, price and capacity. If you want to buy a high capacity card with low price it might come with a low transfer speed. If you wish to buy a high transfer speed with high capacity card, it may come with a really high price. If you want to strike a balance between both, you may have to compromise on quality.
What is a memory card?
A memory card is a small, removable memory medium which can be used to store data on one medium and to transfer the data to another medium.
A 32GB (gigabyte) memory card can hold up to about 1000 RAW photographs, assuming that one RAW file size is 30MB (megabytes) [Note: A RAW file is the image as seen by the camera’s sensor. Think of it like unprocessed film; instead of letting the camera process the image for you by turning it into a JPEG image, shooting in RAW allows you to process the image to your specifications.] Likewise, a 16GB card can hold about 500 photographs. If you shoot in JPEG format, then a 32GB card can hold around 3200 photographs, assuming you have your jpeg settings as ‘fine’ in detail and ‘large’ in file size. With that setting, a JPEG file will come in at an average size of 10MB.
Types of memory cards
There are many types of memory cards available on the market, with the most popular being Micro SD cards, SD cards, Eye-fi cards and CF cards.
Secure Digital card (SD card)
This type of card is most widely used in digital cameras, primarily in point and shoot cameras and entry-level DSLRs. The constraint in using this card is the capacity. The initial capacity was 2GB when it was introduced in 1999, but as technology progressed, a later version (SDHC – Secure Digital High Capacity) was introduced with a higher capacity of 64GB in 2006. The recent iteration of the SD card was released in 2009 with the SDXC cards (Secure Digital eXtended Capacity). This type of card offers up to 2TB (terabytes) and an increased transfer speed.
Micro SD card
Micro SD cards are a miniature version of the SD card and are meant to be used in mobile phones. This card has capacity, as well as transfer speed restrictions; that is why it is used primarily in smartphones where one can store music, apps or other less active data.
These are unique SD cards that come with built-in WiFi. This allows you to transfer the data to your computer, a cloud-based service or your Smartphone directly, thus enabling you to clear the memory as you shoot without having a need to replace the memory card. It is even possible to geotag your photographs with the available wireless service.
Compact Flash card (CF card)
First introduced in 1994, CF cards have high reading/writing speed & a high capacity. This is the reason why CF cards occupy the primary card slot in professional DSLR cameras. Present SD cards are equaling the speed and capacity of CF cards, but camera manufacturers are not leaving CF cards just yet; some cameras provide slots for both an SD and CF card. This provides extra space inside the camera and saves money for the photographer (CF cards costs roughly twice that of SD cards).
UHS-II standard SDHC/SDXC cards were recently released by SanDisk and aim to offer quicker transfer rates, increasing write speeds up to 250MB/s or faster. The SanDisk Extreme Pro cards match up with the sheer amount of data streaming through the camera’s buffer when shooting lots of RAW files or high quality HD movies. Prices can range between $65-$200, depending on the capacity.
Memory Card Readers
You’ll need a memory card reader to transfer photos to your computer if you don’t carry around a USB cable for every one of your devices. You’ll be able to get a card reader for each type of memory card, and some come with built-in memory and can also function as a USB flash drive. Make sure to check the device you’re loading your photos to as some computers, printers and notebooks already come with built-in memory card slots. If you’re using more than one memory card regularly, it will probably be worth investing in a multi-card reader (which accept multiple types of memory cards and brands). Some even take as many as 35-in-1.
All memory cards come with speed (speed means both writing and reading). The one indicated on the card is the maximum speed the card can read, but the most important thing is the write speed. Read speed is the time taken to read the data from the card and the write speed is the time taken to write the data. Simply put, read speed comes into action when you transfer the data from the card, write speed comes into play when you shoot. In general, the write speed is about half of the speed of read speed in SDHC cards.
The speed of cards have been classified into classes by the SD Association, which are referred to below. The speeds are primarily meant for video recording, where sustained recording (write) is required. You should definitely take note of the speed when you buy a memory card. All SD cards have a class noted on them:
Class Minimum Speed
In 2009, another class (UHS) was introduced by the SD association and is designed for SDHC and SDXC memory cards. UHS utilizes a new data bus that will not work in non-UHS host devices. If you use a UHS memory card in a non-UHS host, it will default to the standard data bus and use the “Speed Class” rating instead of the “UHS Speed Class” rating. UHS memory cards have a higher potential of recording real-time broadcasts, capturing large size HD videos and extremely high quality professional HD.
UHS Class Minimum Speed
When it comes to CF cards, the speed is often mentioned as X times and in many cards, it’s been mentioned as MB per second, which is pretty straight forward. Whereas when the speed is mentioned as 600X or 1066X, what exactly does it mean? X means 150Kb per second; it is a standard brought over from optical media recording. To find out what exactly the speed is of 600X, multiply 600 by 150 and divide the result by 1000. The final result is in MB per second. For example, a 600X speed card is capable of 90MB per second read speed (600*150 = 90,000. 90,000/1000 = 90). The latest CF cards come with the UDMA 7 (Ultra Direct Mode Access 7) which improves clearing the camera’s buffer memory quickly, which allows the camera to get ready for the next burst.
When it comes to price, speed is the primary criteria. The next deciding factor is capacity of the card. An SD card is half the price of the same capacity CF card. So, if you want to buy a high speed card with the same capacity, you will need to pay more. On the other hand, if you want to buy a high capacity card at a lower price, it is possible to do so, but you’ll get a lower speed card.
What to look for
If you plan on primarily using your camera for amateur photography, the most important feature to look for when buying a card is the capacity. Most memory card manufacturers publish tables on their websites to show how many images you can save on the specific card. Different file types, compression and resolution all affect the size of each file, so the number of images you can put on one card from one camera to the next is never the same. 1GB to 8GB of storage should be enough for an average beginner photographer using a compact camera and won’t break the bank.
If you plan on becoming a professional or semi-professional photographer, you’ll need to look for the speed of a card. Since most DSLRs can produce large RAW files, shoot HD video or capture multiple shots in a single burst, the data streaming through the camera’s buffer will need to be met by a card that can match up to its specifications to receive all the information. Professionals should also look at how reliable a card is, as you can’t take the risk of losing all your photos. This can be worked out by Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF). SanDisk claims a MTBF of over 1,000,000 hours for its memory cards – that’s almost 115 years before the average card is expected to fail.
Buying a name brand memory card can cost more, but along with the name comes a trustworthy company, a good warranty, a generous exchange policy and a reputation for stability. If you know what you need, you’ll likely find it for less on Amazon than in a brick-and-mortar store. When a retailer buys from a supplier, it gets a discount for buying in bulk. The more cards a store orders, the cheaper that memory becomes. Quite simply, physical stores just can’t compete, and you can find name brand memory online for sometimes hundreds of dollars less than the manufacturer’s MSRP. If you want more assistance or you’re not sure about your device’s particular memory card requirements, you’ll find added value by visiting a reputable camera store; I have found MicroCenter can be a great resource when purchasing memory cards. Also, feel free to ask your questions in the comments below & I’d be happy to answer them!
While the urge to pick up a cheap memory card in the checkout line might seem convenient, avoid impulse purchases as much as possible. Take the time to read your manual and do some research online; you’ll find that making an informed and economical purchase can result in a much better product.