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When Should You Replace A Memory Card? – Q&A

By Matthew Saville on October 20th 2013

QUESTION

One of the most common issues among both hobbyist and new professional photographers is the lifespan and “safe retirement” of memory cards.  When is a good time to retire a memory card, or relegate it to “secondary usage only”?  Well, any number of things can start happening to a memory card, from images going corrupt on the card noticeably often, to weirder things such as in our case today, where a professional wedding photographer noticed that their 16 GB memory card briefly appeared to only be 8 GB in capacity for no apparent reason.  Sound like a harmless glitch?  Think again!  Even this subtle “weirdness” can be an indicator for impending total failure and data loss.

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ANSWER

The very first thing that comes to my mind as an expert in this area is, …where did you buy the memory card in question, and what “class” / speed and brand is it, plus of course how has it been treated overall?

In my opinion, there is a good chance it is time to at least relegate such a memory card to secondary duty.

HOWEVER, this “wrong size” issue is actually also a common telltale sign of faux Sandisk cards from Ebay / Amazon third-party sellers, in which case you are at HIGH RISK of losing either half the card, or the ENTIRE card at any time, without further warning.  And often times in this particular case there is no chance of data recovery, compared to how easy it can be to run a 100% successful recovery on a “legit” professional-grade memory card.

I know this sounds terrible and maybe even a little bit paranoid / overreacting, however considering the cost of memory cards these days and considering that wedding photographers in particular are paid professionals who are capturing once-in-a-lifetime images, I see very little reason NOT to replace such a card immediately.

I honestly just buy entirely new complete sets of memory cards every few years, card wallet and all. (After a few years of heavy use, the Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket that I love so much can admittedly start holding CF and SD cards a little loosely, so that’s why I buy a new card wallet too.  Plus I like to keep my old memory cards around, for emergency use and personal high-volume shooting.)

[REWIND: Sandisk Announces 4K Optimized 256GB CF Cards]

Of course I shoot every new memory card to 100% full a few times on non-essential casual work, (I shoot a lot of timelapses, which is a convenient hobby) …just to test out the card. Or you Nikon users can just set your cameras to TIF mode, and fill a card in just 100-200 shots!  Yes, I have had to send back a few cards over the years but that has only been when I tested out low-budget cards.  The pro-grade, name-brand memory cards, purchased through an authorized reputable dealer such as B&H Photo Video, have NEVER let me down.

Anyways my point is, the safest thing to do is to start fresh every few hundred thousand images. I now have three separate card wallets, and in a pinch if I have to shoot 5-6 days of weddings back to back I might start using the older cards to “mop up” dance floor reception shooting at the end of the night, while using the more reliable cards for shooting earlier in the day.  Again keep in mind, when I say “more reliable” I’m not even referring to cards that have given me issues in the past, I’m just talking about replacing perfectly functional cards that are simply 2-3 years old.  Personally, any card that gives me a serious error such as this, gets immediately taken off professional duty, and goes in the bin for “random timelapse footage” and quick around-the-house shooting only…

So, it doesn’t have to be that OCD / complicated. All I’m saying is that if you value your images, or if this is your profession; be ready to invest in its upkeep / wear-and-tear!  A complete set of memory cards runs just a hundred bucks or two, while our cameras and lenses can accumulate to over $10,000?   Trying to save a few dollars on a memory card or three is a very, very bad idea.  Replace any well-used memory cards after 2-3 years, and mark them “BAD” if they give you a serious error such as a “Cannot use this card” warning on your camera, (Even if it works fine again after formatting once or twice!) …or the previously mentioned capacity discrepancy.Of course don’t freak out if you get a “glitchy” image (see below) every 10,000 clicks or so; that simply means you may not be formatting / caring for your memory cards properly, …which is another discussion for another day.

Recommendations

My number one recommendation is to avoid anything but the best, professional grade memory cards, purchased from a reputable dealer such as B&H Photo or your local camera shop.  No, this doesn’t always mean you need the absolute most expensive cards; those are usually so pricey simply because they’re insanely fast.  There are plenty of pro-level memory cards with moderately fast read/write speeds that are relatively affordable.  What about us?  Sandisk CF and SD cards from B&H are what we buy here at SLR Lounge and Lin & Jirsa Photographers.

To learn more about general workflow safety and organization, check out our Complete Workflow DVD Workshop for Lightroom 5!

when-to-replace-bad-memory-cards-glitchy-image

Until next time, take care!
=Matt=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

3 Comments

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  1. Chuck Eggen

    I’m constantly wondering how long I go before I retire a card. So far I haven’t suffered a crash. I do rotate them as they are used. Don’t know if this helps.

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  2. MartinDoersch

    I totally agree with your way of working and thinking off memory cards.
    In addition I recommend to use “smaller” memory cards in general. Why? At first they are less expansive. But the main reason for my is that if one card dies, I don’t loose all the images at once. The same is true for loosing, washing by accident,…

    I tend to shoot with cameras that feature two card slots: Slot 1 is my “small” card capturing RAW files and get swapped with new cards when the time allows it. Slot 2 is most of the time on capturing JPG as a backup. From time to time I switch the second card to capture the backup als RAW as well.

    All the best from Austria!
    Martin

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  3. BoredJoe

    Pretty scary how that happens with faulty memory cards

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