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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.

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Previous comments
Aden Priest's picture

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

Sandra Jackson's picture

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

Jorge Andrés Arce's picture

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

James's picture

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.

David Long's picture

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.

Yoni Mayeri's picture

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!

John Schickler's picture

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).

uv's picture

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

Natasha Efole's picture

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

Joey Duncan's picture

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.

Leah's picture

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

Joey Duncan's picture

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.

Leah's picture

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!)

woofa's picture

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.

woofa's picture

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

woofa's picture

You beat me to it. Dead on.

Paul Rentz's picture

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!

tanyamalott's picture

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!

John Schickler's picture

Left for unused cards and right for new ones?

tanyamalott's picture

Unused and new are the same thing, no? But I put shot on the left, unshot on the right if you must know. ;)

János Pásztor's picture

As an IT person #1 sounds like hoax to me, do you have any sources? As far as I know, an SD card is formatted with a VFAT filesystem which doesn't allow "overloading" the card, the camera knows exactly how many bytes it can write to the card. The only thing I can imagine would be certain blocks getting corrupted and that's why the cards capacity would decrease, but since the camera is doing the filesystem handling, it should be aware of that fact.

Joey Duncan's picture

ya I actually touched on this, as far as I'm aware it can't, unless like you said there are errors. The max size of an image is used to calculate the total images left, so regardless you can't try to write too much. Also this follow the same thought process that the other statements do in that it's believed that the entire image is written as one giant block on the card, rather than blocks.

Bo's picture

I will add that tips : Copy your pictures on your computer (or hard drive - twice is better - ) As soon as you can. Never keep uncopied pictures on your cards... especially if you work with a team.

mark pogi's picture

Nice tips. I just hope I could find a case for my CF Card soon.

woofa's picture

I'm sorry but there is a lot of this information that doesn't hold water as they say. I was in the process of composing a similar post to what Joey Duncan did because 1-4 are basically old wives tales sort of information. These are the information of someone who doesn't understand how data is written and how the OS works. Joey covered it nicely.
#6 is probably the most common cause for card corruption of existing images. It may not permanently damage the card but to get proper use back a full format (not in camera but on a comp where a proper full format can be done) will likely do the trick.
The rest are common sense.

Allan Milnes's picture

I don't use cards bigger than 2 GB. tho' replacement cards that size are hard to find

Rosh's picture

My tip, don't leave your CF cards in your pocket, throw your shirt or pants in the laundry and later wash them. I will say, although this has happened to me a couple times, I've never lost any images. (tips 5 and 7 will help prevent this).

Good list.


j wright's picture

If your card becomes unreadable. These guys can recover them. Fast, reliable and fair. They have helped me a couple of times.

ibh's picture

great tips! here's another, very important one: when downlading to your computer, allways download the entire folder formation from the card, not just the shots. and don't change folder names or locations. this will prevent files from becoming corrupted, especialy videos.

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