Just about every week I hear of another photographer who is crying for help on a private Facebook group because they lost the photos from a shoot. Either their compact flash memory card went corrupt, they deleted the images on accident or they lost the memory card full of photos entirely. Here are 9.5 tips that I have used over the years that have made sure my compact flash cards stay healthy and safe.
1) It is best not to fill the entire card up with photos. In other words, as you are shooting and the counter is telling you that you have only 20 photos left on your card, consider changing out the card with another. If you overshoot the card and the camera tries to squeeze in the last few shots onto the card it can corrupt those images and possibly lead to card lockup.
2) When you are ready to use the card again, instead of choosing to "Delete All Images" on the card, choose to "Format" the card. When you format your card you are starting fresh, erasing all the images, making sure the card's system structure is clean and is in sync with the camera you are using.
3) Only shoot with your card in one camera. After the card is formatted (see Tip #2) you don't want to remove the card and use it in a different camera. When you do that you risk the chance of corrupting the card because of the two different camera file systems. It can be done of course, not saying it's impossible to do or won't work, but by doing it you are taking more risk with your cards. So for example, when I go out to shoot I will typically format all my cards on my Canon 5D Mark III. However, if during the shoot I decide to use my Canon 5D Mark II I will put a new clean card into the camera and do a quick format so that the file systems match since my original format was done with my Mark III.
4) As you are shooting refrain from deleting images in camera. This is a tip I learned about a year ago and as I searched Google today for some supporting material I was unable to find anyone talking about it. So take it for what it's worth but it sure seems to make sense to me. The reason you want to avoid from deleting images as you shoot is because of something called "back fill." Here's how it works. As your card is shooting it is firing off a sequence of photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Now each is going to be a different size photo (not all are the same.) So if you stop and erase photo #2 for example and then take another photo, your memory card will back fill the next photo into the empty space where photo #2 once was. If it is a bigger image it will then fill the rest of the data continuing on from where you last left off. Fortunately our computers understand the system and are able to piece together the images with no issues. However if you get a corrupted card and have to recover the data, I have heard cards that have been back filled are substantially harder to fully recover than those that were not.
5) Develop a system to know what cards have already been used on a shoot. After I have shot photos onto a card I will store it in my LowePro CF Wallet with the label side facing in. That is a quick reminder to me that the card has already been used.
6) Turn off the power of your camera before removing the card. While some cameras profess to now have the ability to remove memory cards while the camera is still on. Why chance it? Flip the switch off and then remove the card. Along these same lines, if your camera is currently recording images to the card (usually apparent by the LED light lit up on the back of the camera) do not remove the card until that light is off.
7) Find a way to properly secure your cards to avoid them getting lost. Some photographers like to shoot on lots of different cards (keeping all their eggs out of the same basket) others prefer to shoot larger memory cards so they have less risk of losing a card. I tend to agree with the later and am now investing in 32GB cards or larger so I can keep just one card in my camera during an entire shoot and not have to worry about losing it. However if you would rather shoot on smaller cards, make sure you have a great system to keep them from getting lost. I use the locking cable on the ThinkTank International bag to attached my LowePro CF wallet to it. By doing it this way, I keep the wallet from accidentally falling out of my bag, or being misplaced and losing the cards. Another option is to use the velcro strap on the back of the LowePro CF wallet and attach it directly to your belt for safekeeping.
8) If you like to store the cards in your pocket make sure to keep them in the plastic storage cases. While compact flash cards feel quite sturdy in your pocket, what can ruin them is the dirt and lint in your pocket that gets inside the multipin sockets.
9) Make sure your batteries on your camera do not run out as you are shooting. When your camera begins to flash the low battery signal, be sure to replace them right away. If you do not, you run the chance of having the battery die as you are recording images to your compact flash card. Not only will you lose those images but you also run the high risk of causing card errors. So, be sure to keep an eye on the camera battery and replace it before it reaches 0.
9.5) This last tip might be the most important. Don't ever drop your cards as it will throw all your photos out of focus. ;)
What did I leave off the list? Let me know about your tips on making sure you take proper care of your CF cards. Also be sure to check out this article by Lee Morris regarding his reason for shooting on larger cards vs. smaller ones. He makes some great points there.