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Camera Memory Cards: Does Size Matter?

written by: A. Jitesh•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/26/2009

What is the right size of memory card for my camera? With larger cards and higher megapixel cameras being launched regularly, the size of memory card one needs becomes pertinent. This article aims to analyze whether one large card or multiple smaller capacity cards make for a better purchase.

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    Memory Cards: Does Size Matter?

    Life was so much simpler in the days when film cameras ruled. For one, new models didn’t keep hitting the shelves every few months. Technology didn’t get redundant at the pace it does today. Take memory cards, for instance. Not so long ago, a 1GB card was considered large enough for a professional photographer and we mere mortals were quite satisfied with a 256MB card. But today, the bare minimum anyone usually starts off with is 2GB. And the thirst for larger capacities seems insatiable, as memory card makers keep launching bigger and faster cards every few months. Very recently, a new standard for SD cards called SDXC was announced, which can support upto 2TB in a single card. Yes, you read it right, that's 2000GB. So, where does that leave us now? What’s the largest capacity card money can buy you today? And more importantly, does one really need a monster card in the camera, or will having two or three smaller capacity cards serve the purpose better? Read on for an objective analysis of the pros and cons of the ‘size race’.

    (Click on any image to enlarge)

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    Sandisk 32GB CF CardKingston 32GB SDHC Card
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    May the largest card please stand up….

    To come directly to the point, the largest capacity card you can buy today is 32GB. That’s astonishing considering not so long ago, 40GB was the standard size for a computer hard drive, and was enough for the OS plus all applications as well as data! And now you have 32GB camera cards. But simply having a large card is only half the deal.

    The more important feature of a card is its write speed. The write speed is usually indicated either as MB per second (MBps), ‘X’ (as in 133X, where one ‘X’ corresponds to roughly 6.66 MBps), or as a ‘Class’ value – Class 2, Class 4, Class 6, where the number indicates the minimum guaranteed speed in MBps. Speed of the card is critical as the camera is ready for the next shot only when the data of the previous shot has been written on to the card. So, if you want to use the continuous mode of your SLR to fire off, say, at 4 frames per second, but your card being slow can’t keep up with the camera, you pretty much won’t be able to do it. Thus your camera underperforms because of the lower speed of your card, and you may end up missing that ‘Kodak moment’!

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    Whats on offer?

    The card manufacturers know it and it reflects directly in their pricing. Consider this: a Sandisk 16 GB 45 MBps CF card (Extreme IV) costs $190, the Sandisk 16GB 30 MBps CF card (Extreme III) costs $93, and a Sandisk 32GB 30 MBps CF card retails for $185. That’s almost double the price difference for the same amount of memory from the same manufacturer for a higher speed card and a comparable price for almost double the memory but much slower speed.

    The table below summarizes the size, speed, cost and cost per MB of some popular brands of CF and SD cards available today (kindly click to enlarge). This list is not exhaustive, but indicative. I’ve tried to incorporate most commonly used brands. All prices are from Amazon.com and are current till 21st May 2009.

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    Comparison of CF and SD Cards
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    There are two trends clearly visible from the above chart;

    1. For the same memory, faster cards are much higher priced.

    2. Smaller capacity cards have lower cost/MB ratio and give better value for money.

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    Please continue on to page 2, where you will learn the pros and cons of using a large and fast memory card, as opposed to several smaller sized memory cards.

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    What's on offer in the memory card market? How are cards of different sizes and speeds priced vis-a-vis each other? Also, find arguments in support of and against one large memory card versus multiple smaller memory cards by reading this photography tips article.
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    So what do I buy? Larger or faster?

    Now that I’ve ended up confusing you more than when you started reading this article, let me try and make things clearer. What does a buyer out in the market for a card do? Go for memory or speed? Go for larger size cards or multiple smaller cards? The answer to this question depends on the following:

    1. You, the photographer:

    a. The camera you use – the higher megapixels you shoot at, the larger the file size and the quicker you fill up your card.

    b. The format you shoot in – RAW files are typically 4-5 times larger in size than superfine or fine JPEGs, and fill your card faster.

    c. Your shooting habits – are you trigger-happy or do you wait for the perfect moment before pressing the shutter button? Try to estimate how many frames you shoot on a typical day.

    2. Going by cost per MB, multiple smaller cards work out cheaper than one large card. Another compelling logic is that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If, God forbid, your camera (with one of your memory cards in it) finds its way to the bottom of the Pacific, or beneath a tusker’s leg, you lost only some of your photos. That’s better than losing all of them stored in one big card.

    3. The flip side to the above logic is the very probability of such an event happening. It's not daily that you’re face to face with a raging tusker. But a smaller card will make its painful presence felt on a far more regular basis. Apart from the inconvenience of having to swap memory cards so often, you end up increasing wear and tear on your camera’s card compartment, as well as the cards themselves. With many of today’s cameras refusing to operate with the card-door loose or open, you really wouldn’t want to damage it at all.

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    4. Speaking of probabilities, the more number of cards you have, the higher the chance of a mishap happening with one of them. Simple mathematics: you’re more likely to drop a card while shuffling half a dozen of them than you are handling just one or two. It's like choosing between losing a day’s worth of photos once in a few years, to losing half a day’s effort far more frequently!

    5. Another logic proponents of the ‘eggs-in-one-basket’ theory give in their support is in the event of the failure of the memory card itself, you’ll end up stranded. Again, technology today is quite advanced and provided you don’t skimp on the quality of the card and stick to reputed brands, the probability of the card failing is very less. You’re far more likely to lose or damage the card yourself before it fails.

    6. Great photos can’t be planned. You may be a master of scheduling, but you just cannot predict the exact moment your son is going to score that goal, or when the tiger will decide to show up. And you really don’t want your camera flashing ‘card full’ when that happens, do you?

    7. The final point is in favour of faster cards, not necessarily larger ones. Faster cards are also faster in transferring photos to your computer, so you save quite a bit of time there too.

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    In summary....

    The final conclusion, as always, is to go for the optimum. Being at the cutting edge of technology would not suit most people’s pockets. So buying the largest card won’t be a viable option. But go for something large enough to cover your day’s shooting. Plus a little more, as a buffer for those special moments that come unannounced. And go for the fastest card you can afford at this size point. Keeping a second card as a backup makes immense sense. But buying a dozen tiny cards is going overboard on caution.

    A little bit of planning your card purchase will help you avoid missed moments as well as get the maximum ‘bang-for-your-(hard-earned)-buck’!