Memory card maintenance

Dave Johnson, TechHive
14 June, 2010
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Flash memory cards hold your digital photos until you have a chance to get them onto your Mac for more permanent storage. Whether you are just getting started in digital photography or have had your camera for years, these are some important tips for how to handle your camera’s memory cards.

Don’t delete photos in camera

As a general rule, using the camera’s Delete button to prune unwanted photos from your memory card is a bad idea.

First, it takes precious battery life to review and delete photos from your camera. Would you rather delete a few bad photos or have enough juice to shoot some more pictures?

Second, it’s really hard to tell if an image is good or bad on the camera. The LCD is so small — and the overall brightness and colours so inaccurate — that you’re better off discarding unwanted photos on your computer, when you have the benefit of seeing them on your monitor.

Third, you run the risk of accidentally deleting a photo you want to keep when handling the awkward controls of your camera. You might not notice that you just deleted a great photo of Elvis disembarking from a UFO, and that would be a shame. Also, if you make a mistake during the deletion process, it’s easier to undo a deletion of a photo on the computer — you just retrieve it from the Trash. To recover a deleted photo from a memory card, you need to use a photo-recovery program.

It’s best to transfer all photos from your camera to your Mac, and then delete unwanted photos from your Mac.

Clear your card regularly

Once you have copied your photos from your memory card to your computer, where they will presumably be backed up, you can clean up your memory card.

There are many ways to reformat a card. You can open the card in the Finder, select all the files and folders, and press Delete. Another option is to return the memory card to your camera and press the button or menu option to delete all your photos. This is essentially the same as using the Finder to delete the photos. The advantage to this approach is that if you have “protected” any photos (generally, by using the button with the key symbol on your camera), they will remain on the card.

You can also format the card. Memory cards are like hard drives in that they get fragmented when you repeatedly store and erase lots of files. You can’t defragment a memory card, but formatting achieves the same purpose. It can also help prevent data corruption on cards used in multiple cameras. Every camera has a formatting command built in, and formatting a memory card takes only a few seconds.

Some people format their memory card after each and every photo session. You can do that — there’s no harm in it — but if you delete your photos by using your camera’s Delete button rather than its Format command, it’s a good idea to format your card occasionally, such as after every five or six times you download and delete your photos.

Have a spare

It’s a good idea to have more than one memory card. Memory is pretty cheap, so you can carry a second or third card in your card case just in case. A second card eliminates the need to selectively delete photos on the fly, or to reduce a photo’s size or quality to cram more on a card. A spare card can also rescue you when your card fills up, or on those rare occasions when your memory card fails.

Know your card’s life expectancy

Memory cards store a massive amount of information, with no moving parts. That means you can drop them, sit on them, even accidentally run them through the washing machine and most of the time they’ll keep on ticking. Nonetheless, they’re not indestructible, and they have a limited lifespan.

Memory cards can be written to a set number of times and will eventually stop working. Expect your card to work for about eight to ten years. On the front of the card, write the month and year that you enter each memory card into service. As the cards approach their expiration dates, recycle and replace them. They’re cheap enough that it’s better to buy a new card than lose a slew of photos because you waited too long.

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