Why a $9.99 Card Reader Will Complete Your Photography Setup

Why a $9.99 Card Reader Will Complete Your Photography Setup

A chain is only as strong as the weakest link, so the proverb goes. We could modify that for photography and say that our processing is no faster than the slowest component. It's not necessarily about having the latest great-and-good, but rather about having matched components. And there's no better place to start than when offloading your photos from the camera.

An extreme example of this is the Sony a7R III which is a resolution vampire; it just sucks every last bit of detail from a scene that's possible. Headshot? You're not just pixel peeping, you're not only looking into their soul, you're virtually dissecting their eyes. Of course, all good things have a compromise and for the a7R III it's those gigantic raw files that you need to pull off the camera — and we're not talking a few extra megabytes. Those full 42.4-megapixel resolution, 14-bit, uncompressed raw files weigh in at a hefty 80 MB each. If you come away from a wedding shoot with 2,000 images, that totals a sweat inducing ~150 GB of data which you've got to backup, process, export, deliver, and archive. From one (insert your own expletive) job.

So, the first step is using that new Dell XPS15 laptop to get the images off the camera. Then take the SD card out of the a7R III, plug it in to your card reader, and… 1 hour 15 minutes later it finally transfers those 2,000 images. That's not a go-to-the-kitchen-for-a-cup-of-coffee moment, but rather a go-and-have-lunch-and-an-afternoon-nap moment.

Where on earth did the matched components mantra go wrong? It's got a Samsung PM961 SSD drive (peak write speeds at 1,600 MB/s) and a USB 3.0 port (400 MB/s). There's a SanDisk Extreme Pro UHS-II card which runs at up to 300 MB/s. Where's the problem? Theoretically that should be able to go at 300 MB/s and so take around nine minutes. In fact, if you'd plugged the a7R III straight into the Dell it would have raced along at those speeds (the Sony actually has a USB 3.1 port built into it). The culprit was the USB 2.0 SD card reader plugged into the laptop.

USB 3.1 transfers at ~800 MB/s, significantly faster than USB 3.0 (400 MB/s), USB 2.0 (35 MB/s), and the original humble USB 1.1 (1 MB/s). So in addition to the main PC drive and port, and the SD card itself, there needs to be a fast connection to the PC. Plugging the camera directly into the PC is one solution, but my preference has always been to use the humble card reader. It works with any camera, I can easily tuck it away in the camera bag, and I can match it to the speed of my system should I upgrade in the future.

And the cost? Well this is where big brands don't pay. I have a slightly older version of this KiWiBiRD SD card reader, while this Anker SD/micro-SD card reader costs the princely sum of $9.99. Both will blast along at full USB 3.0 speeds. It doesn't get much simpler than plug and play, it's bus powered, and, well, just works. Gear reviews don't come much shorter, but it is a salutary reminder that you need to match camera to card to socket to SSD. You do that, and you hit the matched components sweet spot and only consume one cup of coffee while you're waiting for those images to transfer.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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dont cheap out with a crappy card reader. Watch one of your cards go corrupt and you go crying to your client

Once I started using cameras with two card slots, I never went back. I write the same thing to both cards (in my case Sandisk). If both were to fail at the same time, at least I could argue during my Errors & Omissions lawsuit that I exercised all due diligence.

I'm a Canon user so we still use CF cards, and I upgraded my reader about a year ago and couldn't believe the differerence! So I hear what you're saying.

That design is the dumbest thing I have seen for a USB device in a while. Exactly how is it going to sit next to other USB ports on computers where they are arranged flat and horizontally? Like my old MacBook Pro which only has 2 USB ports. I would have to unplug one of them just to use this and then I would have to try and cram the data from the cards onto the small SSD I have for that laptop because my USB external drive would be unplugged.

Sometimes I wonder if designers do this on purpose or if they are just dense?

Kind of unrelated, but I don't really understand shooting a whole wedding at 42 megapixels. Is anyone going to print any of the 200+ delivered party photos large enough to justify the huge files?

This is me being a drag, but do stand by the question.

You never know...I've had clients select images from culled-out shots in the garbage pile for large printing. You have no idea what an individual likes or how they might want to use the images.

That said...it's still a drag.

I've been using an Anker card reader for a year now...cost me about the same excluding shipping from Amazon. Works much better than the previous unit (Sandisk)which costs much more and is small, small, small.

Fun-fact for that a7R III, if you own a capable computer, plugging a data USB Type-C 3.1 cable will offer theoretically better performance than your card reader.

If you're shooting large single cards mostly, this will (theoretically) be better. But if you have a habit of consistently filling a larger amount of small cards, a USB 3.x interfacing reader will most likely work better for your workflow.

I'm with Daniel Schenkelberg, I can tell you a story of how a 9,99 transcend reader destroyed 2 cards ( sandisk extreme pro ) with 3 hours of work.. losing also 400$ of assignment. i had to buy photos from a collegue to save my client's face...