How To Really Format SD Cards For Optimal Performance

General March 10th 2014 11:30 AM 33 Comments

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Whether you’re shooting with an $80 point and shoot, or a heavy DSLR, flash memory cards are going to be your constant companions and requirements in order to keep your photography and digital life operating effectively. More specifically, the likelihood is your device will accept and or require a Secure Digital (SD) card. No shortage of memory examples have arisen, but SD has triumphed as the primary flash memory format. Sure, if you’re shooting with a pro level DSLR, then CF is your staple, but for the majority, SD still is the go-to. Like any electronic device, SD cards do well with some maintenance, and with a little, you can improve and prolong the life of your card, and have less detrimental hiccups while shooting.

The Secure Digital standard came about in 1999 as a replacement and upgrade to MultiMediaCards (MMC), and is maintained by the SD Card Association (SDA). As such, the type has gone on to feature in thousands of photography products. There are four SD card branches which come in 3 different forms; Standard Capacity (SDSC), High Capacity (SDHC), the eXtended Capacity (SDXC), and SD SDIO, which unites data storage and input and output capabilities. Furthermore there are the original size, mini, and micro. Many adapters are available for the smaller sizes to be read by a device built for an original size. The Original is the standard and measures 32 x 24 x 2.1 mm, weighs around 2-3 grams, and is easily identifiable by its cut corner design.

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Being so small,  they can be finicky pieces of electronics. They spend most of their time waiting idly in unused cameras and phones, and then, upon our request, are expected to leap into action time and time again. They usually do, until they don’t, and we all know they don’t at the precise moment you really need them to. If you’ve ever had one go awry,  then you’ll know there probably wasn’t any physical damage, but your device wouldn’t recognize the card, or it was acting slow, or would say it’s at capacity when it wasn’t. A computer engineer for Boeing once told me that its not a matter of if, but when, storage drives will fail. To keep them working optimally and to extend their utility, proper formatting is required.

The SD Association tries to help by providing a great resource, but in my experience, most people don’t know about what they have to offer. They have an application offering called SD Formatter and it does SD, SDHC, and SDXC. It’s entirely free and easy to set up, and due to the source being the actual SD Association, it’s more trustworthy than third party apps. You can download it here and format all your SD, SDHC, SDXC cards in a flash.

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You may argue that Windows or OSX or your camera have built in formatting options like Apple’s Disk Utility (which has failed me in the past). However, the SDA issues warning that by using these generic operating system formatters, “optimum performance may not be experienced.”

The official formatter aims to ensure that all cards formatted using it are entirely compliant. This can mean better read and write speeds, buffering, and available storage.
The SDA states:

The SD Formatter was created specifically for memory cards using the SD/SDHC/SDXC standards. It is strongly recommended to use the SD Formatter instead of formatting utilities provided with operating systems that format various types of storage media. Using generic formatting utilities may result in less than optimal performance for your memory cards.

Thoughts

The utility could not be easier to use. It’s a very simple interface without clutter or distraction, and not too many options, and doesn’t take long.

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If you’ve never had an SD card fail on you, then you may think you’re in the clear. Well, fingers crossed you are, because the moment it happens is usually a bad one. I’ve only ever had it happen to me a single time. I had traveled to Norfolk Virginia to go to NAS Oceana Master Jet Base to shoot my favorite subjects. I was using two cameras, a DSLR and a point and shoot, and when I returned home, one of the cards decided it would not register on the computer, then on the camera, and then decided to die. Thankfully, it was from the point & shoot, but I try to keep the cards in good shape since.

[REWIND: SD Cards Pose Real Security Risks For Photographers]

Keep in mind this is not solely for the purpose of ‘injury proofing’ your card to prevent data loss and corruption. If you’re shooting video, or perhaps shooting RAW on a high megapixel camera the likes of a Sony A7R or a Nikon D800, or frankly, any camera with a sensor doing above 16MP, your files are going to be tipping the scales. To keep shooting with a constant fluid workflow you’ll want, or need, your card to be able to write without hiccup, and in an expedited manner. This can help. I hope this finds you well.

The SD Utility is entirely free, and current version available for Mac OSX (10.5-10.9-) and Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

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About

Kishore is a photographer and writer based in Miami, though he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. With a passion for beauty and aviation photography his work is all at once focused and eclectic. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

33 Comments

  1. Josh

    Lexar actually recommends you use Disk Utility (for Macs) to fully format your cards.

    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Josh, I was intrigued by your post so I decided to directly contact Lexar for an explanation. After speaking to numerous people from tech support to software engineers, I was informed that they disagreed with the notion that Apple’s Disk Utility was the formatting option to go with. First and foremost they suggested that while dealing with Lexar memory card products, that they regularly advise users to use Lexar Image Rescue 4 and 5 to salvage info off their Sd and CF cards, and to format. They also said formatting with the SD Association app was fine for a root level reformat, and not just a clearing of data tags like what happens in camera.

      Lexar Image Rescue I have never used, but it is offered free along with their premium products. I believe there is a free trial, but you can also easily purchase it from their site. I hope this is of some use. Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Cheers

  2. Jessica Deeks

    Does this exist for CF cards too? That would be even better haha

    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Jessica. Can I just begin by saying, I just looked over your site, and you do really wonderful stuff. I enjoyed that. Keep it up. Regarding the CF formatting tool. This is strictly for SD, BUT there are free and purchasable apps/tools which can do both or just CF. I’ve heard that when doing a low level reformat generally it may be advisable to format in camera after, especially with CF. Don’t quote me on that though. Thanks for posting Jessica. Cheers

    • Jessica Deeks

      Thanks for the kind words on my work Kishore! And for the info on the CF formatting. I’ve always done it in camera with no issues but it’s interesting to learn of different methods :)

      Cheers,
      Jess

  3. Mike

    This would be much more useful if you had actually tested their claims. Format using the Win/Mac OS, a camera, and the utility and measure read/write performance. Right now it’s just a claim that I have no interest in checking on myself. I format my cards every time I use them using my Nikon, works fine for me.

    • Kishore Sawh

      Mike, hi. I use this type of low level formatting not strictly for speed of read write. My primary concern is a corrupt storage unit. It’s important to understand if you do not already, that ‘formatting’ in camera isn’t really formatting. It’s a high level surface cleanse of id and data tags of files. It doesn’t erase the files. It essentially clears the tags so the camera can look at it and think there is space to be written on, and overwrite. Doing this over and over again, just like on a regular HD, can create problems and corruption which can have the card work sub-otimally.

      The formatting on from the SDA is a low level format. It clears information, and repairs corrupt disks, essentially resorting the card to the state it was originally meant to operate it. Will this have an effect on read and write? Sure. How much I do not know, but it’s the lesser concern for me and a lot of people who can’t afford a corruption related loss of data. I’ve contacted the SDA for the info you requested, and will follow up with you should they reply in a timely manner. The Win/Mac options are ok too. Remember the card spec is absolute, and just having it from the SDA makes it the most compliant. I hope this helps you. All the best

    • Phil

      The comment should be nicer but yes, please let us know what you find, Krishore. I have no problem trusting the guys who invented the SD card.

  4. Maarten de Boer

    People often use quick format with their SD cards, as well on their PC’s as their camera’s which just simply clears the FAT table which is an index for the file system to keep track of which files are where. When the FAT table is cleared the PC or camera simply assumes the card is empty which in fact it is not. Data is still there (hence you can use recovery software) , yet not indexed and thus assumed empty.

    To really optimise your performance, and probably what these applications just do is fill the card and every sector of it with zeroes. This technique has been around for ages and was used to clear hard drives that use FAT as file system.

    For Canon I know you can zero your card by pressing the dustbin button in the format menu, for other brands I’m not sure. You can also do it on your PC with built-in software, no need for extra software to do so called magic.

    • Class A

      “To really optimise your performance … fill the card and every sector of it with zeroes”.
      On what basis are you making this recommendation?

      I’m a computer scientist and I can assure you that the file system could not care less whether the data that is overwritten when a file is created has been zeroed out before or not.

      You are not optimising anything by clearing your card, you are just wearing it down.

      This is not your fault, but in general there is too much FUD around which formatting is the best and that just deleting files will cause corruption over time. Question: How many times have you lost data on your computer because you just deleted files and not regularly formatted your hard drive?

      File systems are reliable and work without requiring regular formatting. This is not black magic.

      Something that can actually affect performance and storage capacity is the cluster size. So the SA Association formatter may choose a better value compared to what an OS would choose per default.

  5. Elaine

    When I buy a certain brand of SD cards I go to insert in my Nikon D50 camera and it immediately beeps and gives me an error message of CHR. Would this method of formatting my card allow me to use these cards. It is truly frustrating since I have to test every card before I go out on a shoot. Thanks for any help that you may give me.

    • Ryan Hildebrant

      I have an D50 I keep around for fun. You have to remember that it is an older camera. It is not compatible with SD cards that are speced SDHC or SDXC. Any card over 4GB is going to be SDHC or SDXC, and most 4GB cards you can buy are SDHC too. That limits you to 1 and 2 GB cards. There are non-HC 4GB cards still out there, just a little harder to find these days.

    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Elaine, sorry to hear you’re having an issue with your cards. I have heard of the CHR error message and mainly on cameras older than yours. It is my understanding that the D50 does have trouble formatting 4GB, or anything over 2GB cards. You can see if there was a firmware update for the D50 (I don’t think there was), and you could try this method. Once formatted on the comp I would then try to format it right after in camera to see if it helps. I have also heard of scenarios where taking a card that won’t work in a camera like yours is put into a small point and shoot and formatted, then put back into the D50 with working results. It’s not a science as far as I know, but it’s worth a shot if you’ve got the option. If you’re shooting a D50 I don’t think you’re doing much speed/data intensive photography, and honestly, most regular SD cards will give you good enough read/write speeds, if that’s you’re concern. I hope this helps or you find a solution. Cheers

  6. Ryan Hildebrant

    I just did some not-so-scientific tests with a card I happened to have on my desk and BlackMagic Disk Speed Test, using the SDXC reader built into a MacMini which is tied into the PCI-E bus, so it is as fast a card reader as you are going to find for an SD card.

    The Card: 16GB SanDisk Ultra Class 10

    The card had about 8GB of video and photos taken with a Canon DSLR on it, so about 50% capacity, tested like this it scored:
    Write: 39.7 MB/s | Read: 45.3 MB/s

    Formatted the Card Using Disk Utility on Mac OS X and repeated the test:
    Write: 37.0 MB/s | Read: 42.5 MB/s

    Formatted the Card in Camera and Repeated the Test:
    Write: 38.8 MB/s | Read: 45.5MB/s

    Formatted the Card in Camera w/Low Level Option Enabled:
    Write: 39.6 MB/s | Read: 45.5 MB/s

    Formatted Card Using the SD Formatter Utility Overwrite Format:
    Write: 30.1 MB/s | Read: 40.7 MB/s

    Not quite the results I expected, so I:

    Formatted Card in Camera Again (non low level):
    Write: 38.9 MB/s | Read: 45.3 MB/s

    Formatted Card with SD Formatter Utility Overwrite Mode again:
    Write: 28.8 MB/s | Read 41.5 MB/s

    I would have thought that Overwrite would write 0’s to the card and that would have a minor POSITIVE impact on speed. Instead, it appears there is a pretty dramatic NEGATIVE impact on Read/Write speeds. So now I’m wondering… is this formatter all it is cracked up to be? Or is Canon doing something in their format to squeeze performance out of cards? And, what is the impact, if any, on the stability of the data on the card…

    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Ryan, this is great stuff. I should state again that the purpose of formatting this way isn’t primarily for speed, though that is a consideration. Hopefully I will be able to be in contact with the SDA soon, and i certainly will be bringing this up their attention and will report back. Cheers for this.

    • Mike

      I wonder how much age and brand impact a card. An older and slower card made by Acme SD is probably slower than a similar card made by Lexar, PNC (HP), SanDisc, or Sony. Also, memory amount seems to matter. Lately, 32GB has been the sweet spot. But 64GB is not far behind. Perhaps higher and newer cards to come will beat the 32s.
      Not to mention classes and other factors.
      If Ryan ran that test with a 64GB version of the same card, and other brands, the speed spread would also be all over the place.
      Finally, this is hard for people to get but, even the top pro cameras are limited in read and write. Yes, Class 10 is the way to go as it will work in a pro body now and a future one. But the only reason to care about speed (sorry, I have forgotten the number for that speed but it is not even close to top class 10 transfer speeds on a top card reader) is when the card leaves the camera to a card reader (any kind). Then speed of card matters. But only a pro would care! If you are 99% of most people, you either share instantly via Wi-Fi or when you get home, use the camera with a USB cable or the SD slot on you iMac to read the images in. Sometimes, days or weeks after taking pictures.
      I say, for all but pros, don’t worry about speed. Don’t buy the dirt cheapest cards. Try to find one of these top brands on sale. Do the best you can to match the card to the camera. The SD Association web site has a good Consumer section about cards.
      Also, what forums on the web say and what your uncle Bert “the photographer” in the family tells you about SC and other memory cards, is probably wrong.

    • Mike

      Sorry, some typos. No way to edit posts here?

      SD not SC.

    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Mike, I have actually wondered much the same. I remember years ago seeing a comparison of card performance done by an independent testing group. The problem was even 4 years ago cameras were not at all what they are now, and I wonder how improved cards are. I would love to see a brand comparison. Maybe we’ll set something like that up at SLRL. Cheers

  7. Elaine

    Thanks guys. I am using a 2GB SD card, I will try all of the things that you suggested. It is just one of those things that will drive a person crazy. I haven’t upgraded to a newer camera because I just started to use it more (it stayed in the box for over four years). I mostly shoot macro and animals. Thanks again for your help and suggestions.

  8. Cy Sawyer

    Ok, I have to say this Kishore. I am very impressed with your personal touch of actually replying to every question and or comment! Not just a brief one liner either, a thorough response with an actual answer!

    We don’t see this very often on other blog sites, or even this much attention to detail on here after the original post has been made.

    Kudos to you,

    Damn I love this site!

    • Kishore Sawh

      CY, hi there. A real sincere thank you for those kind words. Really, it was nice of you to take the time to say something positive. The internet can be a dismal place sometimes so it didn’t go unnoticed. I think I can speak for our entire family here at SLRL that we really do value all of you who are patrons to our stuff. We, like most people, are very busy but we’ll try to connect with people, and hopefully provide what it is you were looking for, and perhaps, even what you didn’t know you were.

      I see you are hailing from Oshawa and Toronto! I’m a fellow GTA member here, just not for some time. I do miss it and hoping to get back to the T.Dot in the next few months. Don’t be a stranger, keep in touch. Cheers CY!

  9. Alex Calish

    I have a Nikon D7000 (2 card slots) and have been using a 16gb in slot 1 and a 8gb in slot 2. I keep finding that the card is “full” at around 400 photos. I havent spent the time to check, but it seems like my camera keeps assuming they are both 8gb cards. I have the camera set to ‘overflow’ so it should fill the 1st card up and then continue to the second card.

    I am going to do this formatting to see if it helps my card with the capacity issue. I like formatting my card in my nikon camera, because as I understand it, it sets the card up to work specifically with my camera (very un-technical i know). Can I continue formatting with my camera? or should I only use this SD formatter…or both? Thx.

  10. dslr video studio

    Many thanks for sharing this and informing people about this free dedicated SD utility application. Much appreciated.

  11. Tanja Barnes

    Hi, Kishore! Thanks for a very informative article. I had read that reformatting your SD cards shortens their lifespan. Is this true?

    • Kishore Sawh

      HI Tanja, I’m glad you found the info useful. I’d like to have a definitive answer for you but unfortunately I don’t have one. However, here is something to consider; When you format in camera, as mentioned above, you’re really just clearing data tags and letting the camera think there is new space to write on, when in fact it’s writing over old info you don’t want. This overwriting can contribute to corruption and argued by some, to reduce the lifespan. I don’t really know how measurable this is, or if it’s even something to worry about. Doing a low level format suggests it should keep the card in better working order.

      Frankly, if you’re shooting often, I’d recommend changing your memory cards every year to year and a half. Mind you, given the manufacturing and recycling processes for these cards, there’s no guarantee a brand new card will perform better or be less prone to corruption than one you’ve used. I honestly wouldn’t worry about it too much.

      PS – that Super Smooth Mural 360 shot of yours….that’s hot.

  12. Watty

    Thank you! I’ve been having issues with the sd reader on my Mac, stating my card is locked. (it’s not) I’m going to try this out as a last resort before going to take it into the apple store.

    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Watty, I’m really glad, though possibly prematurely, that this helps you. I hope it solves your problem. If the card is not locked you should be able to tell quickly from your camera itself. Also, you’ve got a photo of some macaroons in your Flickr feed – really like that one. Reminds me of being back in England. Cheers

    • Dave

      I have a card that does that too.. The culprit on mine is the locking slide switch, it doesn’t look locked but it sometimes is but I put some tape on it to hold it still and been fine since

  13. Dave

    I tried this on two class 10 u 50mb/s 16gb cards in my D7000 and while not scientific for the first time ever I actually have to stop and wait for pix to be written to disk… Missed quite a few shots because of it, i won’t be doing this again!! lol

    As for comment about the speed only matters transferring to computer… i’d disagree, i can definitely tell a major difference between say a 4 and a 10 card as camera is writing it to disk

  14. Dave Kai Piper

    Very interesting to read and even more interesting to read the comments !!

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