What’s your thought process when choosing a memory card?  Get the cheapest one?  The one with the most storage for the best price?  The first one you see?

If that’s the case, you may have no problem with it, but let’s discuss a few things before you go shopping for one again.  If photography is your livelihood, you should put as much thought into it as choosing insurance…because, well, it is your insurance.

Disclaimer: This technology changes faster than I can write this article.

The two types of memory cards you’ll encounter with Canon cameras are SecureDigital (SD) and CompactFlash (CF).

  • SD cards are becoming more and more popular with camera manufacturers.  The “standard” SD cards had a maximum capacity of 2GB when they came out, so you’ll also see SDHC (High Capacity) and SDXC (Extra Capacity) up to a whopping 512GB.  You’ll also see naming conventions of UHS-I (Ultra High Speed) and UHS-II.  These cards have faster write speeds, and the latter is mostly only used for 4K video applications.  Always check with your camera manual to find out which type of SD card will be compatible with the camera.  Older cameras may not be compatible with newer cards.
  • CF cards come in Type I and Type II specifications.  While most cameras with a CF slot can hold a Type II card, support for these cards is being dropped.  These cards are thicker, draw more power, and can be more complex, i.e. break easier.  Stick with the Type I.

All of these cards should be formatted in your camera.  If you format or erase images from the card using your computer, the card may be corrupt when you put it in your camera due to the different operating & file systems.  I always erase & format the card while in the camera.

How to Choose a Memory Card

SD CardFirst, obviously, is to determine what kind of card your camera accepts.  There’s really no discussion here, just know that some higher-end cameras have multiple slots for different types of cards.

Second, ask yourself what kind of shooting you do primarily.

Do you do high-speed burst photography, such as with sports?  If so, you’ll need a card that has a quick write speed.  Otherwise, this feature probably isn’t as important to you.
SanDisk’s Extreme PRO and Lexar’s Professional 1066x CF cards both write up to 160MB/sec.  The slower CF cards like SanDisk’s Ultra still aren’t all that slow at 60MB/sec.
SD cards are slightly slower; Lexar’s Professional UHS-I and SanDisk’s Extreme PRO UHS-I cards both write at around 90MB/sec.  Non-UHS cards are designated with a “class” system; the lower the number the slower the speed.

Why is this important?  When you shoot in burst mode, you’re filling up your camera’s buffer while it writes to the card.  The buffer will fill up faster if it’s a slow card, and the shutter will be disabled – you’ll miss the shot!

Do you shoot in JPEG or RAW?  If you’re a RAW shooter you’ll probably want more capacity to handle the larger files.  If you output smaller JPEG files, a smaller card is fine.  But which size?  This is where personal preference comes in.  I’ll just offer my two cents; take it for what it’s worth.
I shoot 21MP RAW files.  An 8GB CF card can hold approximately 250 images in this format.  This is large enough where I’m not constantly changing out cards and small enough where I’m not worried about losing all of my images if a card becomes corrupt or I lose it.  I can’t very well change out the card when I take the camera underwater so in that situation I opt for a 16GB card.
If you shoot in JPEG only, it’s probably unnecessary to get a 128GB card that can hold thousands and thousands of images.  But again, that’s your personal preference.  Just hope that you don’t lose that card, or that it doesn’t become corrupt, because then you’ve lost everything (assuming you haven’t backed up).

Third, which brand?  SanDisk is pretty much the pioneer in this technology and the leader.  Lexar is a reputable brand as well.  You can go with cheaper, lesser known brands but you may risk device corruption (something that happens only very rarely).  Some of these lesser brands use components made by SanDisk, but not all of them do.  It’s just my preference, but I’d rather go with a proven leader to secure my images.

Fourth, where to buy…beware, knockoffs do exist!  Fake cards are sold in identical packaging and you don’t want to leave your images in these cards!  Go through a recognized dealer, such as those listed below.

In Short

For the RAW shooters who constantly use burst mode:

CF: Try the SanDisk Extreme PRO 16GB (160MB/sec, $53.95 from Amazon) or the Lexar Professional 800x 8GB (120MB/sec, $27.95 from Amazon).
SD: A UHS-I SanDisk Extreme Plus 16GB SDHC (60MB/sec, $23.17 from Amazon) or Lexar Professional 400x 8GB SDHC (60MB/sec, $10.96 from Amazon).

For the RAW shooters who don’t hold down the shutter:

CF: Go with the slightly slower, but cheaper, SanDisk Ultra 8GB (50MB/sec, $19.99 from Amazon).
SD: The Lexar Platinum II 200x 8GB SDHC UHS-I ($11.59 from Amazon).

For the casual JPEG shooters:

CF: You shouldn’t need that much more storage, so the SanDisk Ultra 4GB should be plenty (25MB/sec, $14.99 from Amazon).
SD: You should be fine with the SanDisk Ultra 4GB SDHC Class 6 ($8.01 from Amazon).

Please leave your thoughts below!

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