Which Size Memory Card Should I Use?

Which Size Memory Card Should I Use?

Probably like most of you, I have a plethora of different memory card sizes from 2GB up to 32GB. When I head out on a big shoot I tend to wonder if it would be better to use the smaller cards and spread the shoot out across a number of cards or shoot entirely with one. It seems every photographer has a different opinion on this one, here's what I think.

Those who choose to shoot with the smaller cards tend to all agree that they want to make sure and not put all their eggs in one basket. They would rather have 4-6 smaller cards than one large card with half or maybe even all the photos from the event. Those who shoot on the larger cards argue that they would rather keep the card in their camera the whole time and not take the chance of losing it. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages I see with each.

But before I list those I think one important component to consider is which camera you are using. My favorites are the cameras with dual card slots - which is one of the main reasons I upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark III the day it came out. As a wedding photographer it was very important to me to have a second card recording back up images the entire time as I was shooting. Knowing that I have a back up image going to a second card gives me the peace of mind that if something happens to one of my cards (get's lost or corrupted for example) I still have the images recorded somewhere else.

On a newly formatted card, using my Mark III I can shoot approximately 125 original RAW photos on an 4GB card, 261 on an 8GB, 512 on a 16GB, and about 1000 on a 32GB card. This number fluctuates as you shoot depending on the actual size of the images. The cost for a name brand decent 4GB card runs about $25 ($6.25/GB), 8GB for $29 ($3.65/GB), 16GB for $47 ($2.97/GB) 32GB for $85 ($2.65/GB) or 64GB for $138 ($2.15/GB).

Advantages of Using Smaller Cards

- Don't fear losing all the images to a corrupt card.
- Slows down your shooting style since you know card space is limited.
- Space out your shooting throughout the day on different cards to keep from losing an entire event if a card gets lost.

Disadvantages of Using Smaller Cards

- Greater chance of losing a card if you have a number of them to keep track of.
- Risk missing a moment while swapping out a new card.
- More wear and tear on your camera components removing and inserting cards often.

While shooting with smaller cards does have it's advantages I have personally chosen to instead shoot on larger cards (namely 32GB) when I am shooting weddings.

Advantages of Using Larger Cards

- Less risk of losing your card because it stays in your camera throughout the entire shoot.
- Better cost per gigabyte of space.
- Easier organization and importing of cards
- Less chance of missing something important while changing a card out.
- Less risk of damaging a component in camera while changing card.

Disadvantages of Using Larger Cards

- Big risk of losing most or all of a shoot. All eggs in one basket.

So which option is the best choice? It really is a matter of preference and as I mentioned above it also depends on the camera you are using and the functions it provides. The way I have it set up on my 5D Mark III is that I use 32GB cards and have the RAW files recorded to it. I then have a 32GB SDHC card inserted in the second slot that acts entirely as my backup. I record medium size JPEG's to the SDHC card. It fits about 7400 medium size JPEG's on the 32GB card so I leave it in there for a couple weeks at a time backing up each shot I have taken. Then after a couple of weeks I'll back that card up to a separate hard drive on my computer before formatting and using again.

Now it's your turn. How do you manage your cards? Large ones or small ones? Why?

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When shooting sports, I prefer to use many smaller cards. I'd rather only lose a few photos due to a cfcard failure...which has happened. I lost an entire 1/2 of a game because of that before. Wire services aren't thrilled what that happens.

Adam T's picture

I don't shoot with anything over 8gb unless i'm tethered. I once had a 32gb kingston crap out on me after a shoot and the job was flopped. Never again!

I also keep a laptop (either in the car or in clients office) for quick backups in the field during luls or breaks.

Adam T's picture

I do that too, but unfortunately I was shooting red carpet wall for a charity event and only had 30 min to get all the images. I shoot great photos but when I put the card into the computer zap, nothing! Tested other cards they were fine, hoping that is was the reader. Took the card to a comp. forensics guy and they said the card was dead. Cameras won't even recognize it. Lesson learned, I now wifi out for backup always.

I actually connect the camera via USB and sync that way. I never use a reader (had a similar experience).

E Port's picture

Large cards. I scan for bad sectors before the shoot to make sure they're dependable. Never once had an issue. If I'm feeling extra paranoid (aka bad weather), I have my camera transmit a backup to my phone's SD via WIFI.

It's not always the card though. I've actually had my camera completely go nuts on a cf card. It was an anomaly, but you can't count on just the card failing.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I'm on a Mac. Can you recommend a program for scanning bad sectors?

E Port's picture

A lot of people use Drive Genius 3.

Maybe TechTool Pro can help you.

Large cards ( 32gb) in both slots of my D800, both recording small jpegs + lossless compressed raws.
Buying one new pair of cards before every wedding season.

^Good point^ cards are getting so cheap you can just buy new ones for every job

Maybe not for every job, but flash memory has a limited lifetime and maybe i won't photograph a paying wedding client on an eight years old 4gb card ;)

You're right, if you have these good jobs. But I have small jobs (for example wedding for $200-$500) and I can not afford to buy it for every job.

$200 Weddings? Uhm... But that's another point...
Updating my cards once a year to me is like paying an insurance for my data - In 2014 i'll be using my 2014 and 2013 cards

I understand. I'm living in small country, where average salary is only $900 (Big wedding is for $4000-$5000). I have normal job for newspapers and weddings are just extra jobs.

32GB cards in both slots, both recording RAWs.

Timothy Nguyen's picture

Definitely the same, always in backup mode.

Never had a corrupt card (knock on wood). It's worth have a 16 g + a 32g in my opinion (have one of each in my D800 / D3s), if you buys quality cards it's less likely that an issue will occur so do some research and don't cheap out.

Avoid a corrupted card and do NOT delete individual images from the camera while reviewing. Also do not pull the card if the buffer is not empty. Common sense. Twin 64gb cards in camera mirroring images.

Hi Steven, What effect does deleting individual images from the camera while reviewing have on the card?

Tam Nguyen's picture

Without getting too technical, I'll simplify it by saying that non-volatile memory (cards, disks, etc) have a maximum amount of writes it can take. Each time you delete an image, it's actually doing a write-operation to the card - marking the "slot" as empty. Doing this too often would be like adding wear and tear to the memory.

It's often recommended that you format the card while it's in camera. That way the card is formatted in the most optimal way for its purpose.

Yes. And when you delete images it causes fragmentation that causes more delay in writes that can cause the corruption.

Tam Nguyen's picture

Well, I'm not sure if fragmentation plays any significant role here. There's no moving parts, so nothing needs to spin and hunt the data down.

Either way, don't mess with the individual images on camera. Just keep shooting, go home, dump all the images, back them all, maybe discard ones you don't want, and file the card away. In that order. Better yet, back it up on-location if you have the means.

I generally don't even format the card(s) until the night before my next shoot. I've heard people get burned by whacking the photos on the card too soon, and then finding out that the copies on their computer weren't good. Yikes!

fragmentation is your biggest enemy if your card fails and you need to use computer software so restore it. its my biggest reason for not deleting individual images

Thank you Tam!

Thank you Steven!


Its better to keep shooting and delete later. You are messing with the file system if you delete in camera.