9.5 Tips To Take Care Of Your Compact Flash Cards

9.5 Tips To Take Care Of Your Compact Flash Cards

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.

Trevor Dayley's picture

Trevor Dayley (www.trevordayley.com) was named as one of the Top 100 Wedding Photographers in the US in 2014 by Brandsmash. His award-winning wedding photos have been published in numerous places including Grace Ormonde. He and his wife have been married for 15 years and together they have six kids.

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Great info Trevor. Thanks man. A few things in there that I need to incorporate into my best practices.

Hahaha...Nice way to start the day. Thanks!

I know of a guy that lost some images of an event, now when he shoots he puts the used cards in a red case. They only get removed at his desk after import. I know simple stuff but when you are shooting all week things get messy.

i like the idea of a used case and unused case... I'm going implement that into my weddings.

10) Label your card with name, telephone, email, and the word "REWARD". You can even take a photo of your business card each time you format as well. Studies have shown that offering a reward greatly increases the odds of items being returned.

Great tip Ian. I do have my info on the cards but had not thought about offering a "Reward."

First shot on every card after a format, has been my business card for about the last 7 years.
*touch wood* I've never lost a card, but it's one of those things that takes 5 seconds and may save a lot of heart ache later.
I will add a "Reward if returned" to the cards however since I don't have that on them yet.

this is a good one

Very helpful information and good to know so you don't make a mistake that will cost you $$$$. The only thing else I would say (although it's not exactly care) is to always download the images from an external card reader and not by hooking up your camera to your computer to download. The battery or power could shut off in the middle of the download. But again it's not exactly "care" but "use"

I like the idea of using an external reader, but a friend offers this anecdote: The pins in his D70 have worn out and now the cards don't work so well, so he suggests that you should always download directly from the camera. My response: get a new camera dude. In any case, using a card reader saves time. It is very important to save two minutes during the downloading so you can use those two minutes during the 37 hour editing session!

Tip 9.5...That's not true! I can't believe half the crap i read on Fstoppers now!! Booo!!!

:-) Heheheheh

Thats the excuse I use for my clients.

"Sorry all your photos are a little out of focus, I accidentally dropped the card immediately after the shoot"

I read your comment thinking, "Oh no he actually thought that was for real." Thanks for the clarifying smiley face. Wheww!

Great article brotha :)

The reason why your photos get out of focus when you drop a card is not because your dropped the card. It's because you were shooting drunk and THOUGHT the photos were in focus and you ALSO dropped your card because of the booze! LOL I've actually always wanted to get totally drunk and then try shooting to see what I'd get. I haven't tried it because a bit of me is afraid my drunk shots will be better than my sober ones! hehe.

this is a forum for photographers not alcoholics haha ;)

It's been my experience, that very, very few photographers could not be considered alcoholics!

I have found that I am much better at editing my photos (and more creative) when there is a glass of wine beside me.

#4 sounds like file system fragmentation. If a file is deleted in the middle, a hole opens; if a new photo is taken that is bigger than that empty hole, it will be split into two or more file segments.

Or part of the image grayed out. I've also seen in my years owning a photo lab the whole card becoming corrupt. This person went back and deleted a number of photos trying to fit in more. It could also have been the issue, just like with a hard drive- never fill it up. Many good points that I've seen create problems!

#6 and #9 are critical for not messing up videos when shooting with Canon. I have done this several times. When Canon writes a video file to a card, the beginning of the actual file is not written until you stop recording. If you pull the card before its done writing in a dash to change cards, or the battery dies, this important data is lost and the file becomes broken. It can be recovered (will show up as a .DAT) I know this from painful experience, and because once I accidentally formatted a card and had to manually recover the files (recovered all but one).

#2 is scary. I almost never format my cards. Both "Delete all images" and "Format" are scary. How do you know you have successfully copied the files off the card and on to your PC?

I wrote custom software (not yet ready for use) that generates a batch file to copy all the files off my card to one location, then MOVE the files to a second location. If the file is not on the card, then it has been successfully copied. If it is on the card, then it has not. This allows me the freedom to continue using a card, for multiple shoots, or even swapping cameras. I have been using this method for years on all my cards, and maybe had one photo corrupt (if that) ever.

I have never had an issue with #3. I see the logic in it, but will likely continue to use cards in whatever camera I wish. I have rarely formatted my cards, which means I have reused them possibly 100's of times in different cameras without formatting. Perhaps I have just been lucky.

You might be wondering why I copy the files off the card twice? Several reasons.
1. The files have not always copied over properly. Occasional the master copy doesn't seem to be correct and I have to copy it from the backup. At some point I should potentially add a checksum verification. I use robocopy to do the copy but it doesn't' always seem to work. Never had both copies bad so the backup is good.
2. The hard drive I am copying to may have an issue. I had this happen once. The hard drive had a read/write issue. Had to return it. Fortunately my backup was a second copy from the card, not a clone from the hard drive.

#2 is scary. I almost never format my cards. Both "Delete all images" and "Format" are scary. How do you know you have successfully copied the files off the card and on to your PC?

Import with lightroom, make second copy while doing that as well using the LR option (to a separate drive). Let LR build the previews (if it fails a preview build you will be given a notice telling you the file is screwed). Check the number of files in LR and on the card and if they match up - in LR and the secondary folder, the card is now safe to format. I personally don't actually format them until I've copied them onto a second PC - at home, not the studio and checked the numbers again.

You're not supposed to delete or Format until you have completely cleared the card. lol

How do you know you have cleared the card?

I like the idea of waiting for Lightroom to build the previews. Lightrooms' back up copy doesn't mirror the folder structure of the other files and does me no good. Right now with my back up drives, I can swap them in for the real ones and I am good to go. I don't want a back up that has files organized differently from the originals.

Secondly, Lightroom doesn't really provide me with the means to offload videos, and audio. The application I wrote allows me to quickly pick a profile, which I pick based on the camera the card came from, and then the files automatically go to all the locations I desire. If there was software out there that would do this, and mirror a second copy to a differnet drive, and then delete the files off the card when it was done I would be happy.

For me, a file is "saved" when its not on the card. As long as it is on the card, it is not been downloaded. I'll never accidentally format a card that has files on it i meant to keep. I'll never have to worry about putting the wrong card in the camera, or anything. Some day I'll make this software available when it is more polished. Again, for Windows it is a fancy batch file generator which allows me to review the batch file to ensure it is executing the commands correctly.

Not sure if this would take care of your needs exactly - but a few friends use this to real time sync folders to different drives / network paths


I wasn't meaning to use LR backup feature - that's only for catalogues (I personally set mine to back up to dropbox) - I was meaning use the *Import a second copy* feature - which when setup correctly, does replicate the working drive folder structure.

Like you mentioned however - not as ideal for working with Audio and Video files.

I did just yesterday discover this app. It is a great app for syncing the rest of the files on my backup, but I still prefer the app I use for performing the dual copy.

I never format a card until I have downloaded them to my HD AND backed it up to another HD or drive.

Have you heard about ShotPut Pro? Give it a try, best offloading software ever.

Thank you for giving such a great tips..

Now I know why all my photos are out of focus! I dropped my cards! Thank you for that.

Now I know why my photos are always out of focus. I need to stop throwing my cards!

It is important to consider the brand of the card charging? or is this a myth?

Buy cameras with dual card slots like the Canon 5DMIII, so you can write to 2 cards simultaneously. It's great insurance against corrupt or misplaced cards.

I recommend smaller rather than larger memory cards for a few reasons. Most obviously if a 64GB card dies or gets lost you lose a lot more photos than if it were one of several 8GB cards. Also I've heard that performance/speed is better on the smaller cards which I guess makes sense once you start filling the card as your camera is having to work with many times more images on a higher capacity one.

I agree with you David. These cards are such a small item to carry, that it makes sense to have several. If one fails, you only loose what is on that card. If it's a 64g card, that is a lot of photos!

I have not seen data tests but doubt the speed issue. The file system knows where the last file ended and where to write the next one (no matter if is the first or 500th).

Wonderful article and very useful..

However i cant agree with this

"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."

as file system is same for whichever system hosts the card

Thanks a lot! Very useful tips :) I feel proud of myself, because I follow most of those rules :)

Most of the first few on this list are skepticism due the lack of understanding that is how the hardware and software works on the camera.

1: If the image corrupts it has nothing to do with filling up the card. This is a tall tail that stems from non solid state systems (spinning type computer drives). Your camera calculates the total amount of shots left based on the max size of a single image divided by the total amount of space left. It'll never go "oppps too big."

2: To be honest I don't know how the camera "formats" the image, but if you are going to format it, it probably should be done through your computer unchecking "quick format". The process it probably similar, which all it's really doing is deleting header information so that the system no longer sees the info on the drive. It's still there though, and if there is corrupt information you'll attempt to write to it and lose that picture.

3: I'm not sure if the writer is saying that he means NEVER cross the streams? Or just never take a card from one camera with images on it and put into another? If you have a new formatted card it can go in any camera, there would be no reason why you wouldn't, all of the cards are in FAT32 or NTFS or what ever you use, otherwise you would need special software to view the images. But yes, don't cross the streams.

4: This is not how this works, the data is written where it can. If there are enough data blocks it writes to it. If the firmware has an action to reallocate data blocks it will. So when you delete an image it reallocates those block as they are by size. But an entire image spans over hundreds of blocks and are scattered all over the card, not in order. The camera softwre could careless where on the card each blocks goes as long as it can write to it without error and as long as the block is open.

The rest of these look fine to me.

I corrupted my card, put it in 2 different cameras... is there any way to un-corrupt or recover any of these photos?

How did you corrupt the card? Did images just disappear? If that is the case it might be possible to use software to recover some of the images. But if too many data blocks there isn't much you can do. Data is much harder to recover off an SSD than a spinny type drive.
If when you insert the card into your computer and it can't read it or asks to format it then you would need to send the card to a recovery company which is about $300-$1200 depending on what needs to be done.

If you can read the drive fine and you haven't already written over the images then you can either buy recovery software at your own risk or try free ones. Search "recovery software review" in the googles.

Nothing reads it unfortunately. A Mac, my PC, both my cameras.... I'll look into a recovery software or a company. I have done nothing to it, but try to see if there is any equipment that will "see" it... No luck. Thanks for your quick feedback and wish me luck! ( lesson learned!)

The sad reality is Leah that when these develop problems there's usually little you can do. I have not seen any good success with data recovery off of solid state media that goes bad, but maybe some company can give you different result.

Are you saying that putting it in 2 different cameras corrupted your card? Did you remove or install it with the power on?

You beat me to it. Dead on.

Number 4? Cards and cameras may be smarter now but I had more than one customer in my lab corrupt a card doing exacting that. One had a full card and went back and deleted to create space for more pictures during 4H at the fair. Corrupted some 1,400 images. I was able to get almost all with hours of computer time and recovery software but it was pretty scary for her. I do have to say that as time has gone on I've seen fewer issues, early cards and cameras were certainly more 'temperamental' but you wouldn't catch me deleting 'in camera'.
One more thing I do just to prevent a problem- after I do format the card in the camera I move from that menu screen so there's no chance of me inadvertently getting to that menu and accidentally formatting the card!

Does this mean I can still carry my cards in my bra? No dirt, no lint. But sometimes I forget they are there until I get home and they drop to the floor and all get thrown out of focus!

Left for unused cards and right for new ones?

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