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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.
Digital memory cards are really quite amazing. The task of storing large amounts of data quickly, reliably, and efficiently is no small feat. Yet one we often take for granted. When that data happens to be our most precious photographic memories, the stakes are raised considerably.
Memory cards, for the most part, are actually quite durable. But without the proper care and handling, this vital link in the digital chain can fail before its time. For the digital photographer that means trouble. Important photographic memories are all but impossible to replicate.
Digital memory cards must be treated with the same respect we give our film. Let's begin by examining the most popular types of removable camera media and see what we can do to help to prolong its life and protect our most important photographs.
The most popular types of removable digital camera memory in use today are Flash memory and Micro-drive memory. Let's begin with the Micro-drive.
Micro-drives store images on a very small, spinning platter similar to the hard drive you'd find on a computer. Mobile memory with moving parts has some inherent problems.
Moving Parts = Reduced Lifespan
Moving Parts = Delicate handling required
Micro-drives are particularly sensitive to impact and generally don't fare well when dropped. They are also sensitive to extreme temperature changes. From a durability standpoint, they don't stand a chance against Flash memory. Because Micro-drives are geared primarily for professional cameras, we'll leave them out of this discussion. Instead we'll concentrate on the other type of removable media, Flash memory, which is far more common. We'll take up micro-drives in a later article.
Flash memory stores images on a silicon chip using no moving parts, also known as solid-state construction. Because there are no moving parts, "wear and tear" caused by friction is eliminated and that translates into a longer life. Solid-state construction also means quiet operation, fast read/write speeds, low power consumption, as well as being small, and light, in size. Flash memory cards also enjoy universal acceptance across platforms and card reader support. For all intents and purposes flash memory is the perfect blend of speed, size, and efficiency for the digital photographer today.
High-Speed Flash Memory
New high-speed cards make write times super-fast. Photographers are an impatient bunch. We need our digital cameras to work quickly without any time lost in between shots, while a file is being written. New high speed cards have super fast write speeds, and that means less time between shots ultimately reducing the risk of missing a shot. They're easy to upgrade too, just buy more cards.
CompactFlash cards are rated for speed as well as capacity. When it comes to digital photography, speed is a critical issue. The faster the files are written, the less chance that you'll miss the next shot.
Choose a card with a rated write speed that's compatible with your camera. If your camera isn't able to write files fast, it makes no sense to buy a high-speed card. Conversely, a slow card in a fast camera will perform sluggishly.
Slower entry-level cameras will perform well using cards with write speeds of 4x. Faster, higher quality cameras will be better served by the faster cards rated at 12x. Super-fast cards that have ratings of 40x and 80x are designed for professional cameras capable of writing 12MB per second. That's fast.
Flash Memory Types
Flash memory comes in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Compact Flash, Secure Digital, SmartMedia, and Sony's Memory Stick all store data using Flash Memory.
Despite the physical differences between flash memory types, all have similar weaknesses. Take, for example, Compact Flash, one of the most popular types of Flash memory available today. The following specs were found on the Compact Flash Association's Web site. They give you a general idea of the expectations for these nifty cards.
CF operates well within a wide range of temperatures (the industrial version has an extended range -40C - +85C. Wow! That's -40 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit) The consumer model should work between 0 C and 60 C. That's a wider range of temps than even I would consider working in.
According to the CFA, CompactFlash cards have an operating shock rating of 2000 G's. That's the equivalent of a 10-foot drop. The lesson: Don't drop your Compact Flash Cards.
The CFA also states that with typical usage, CF cards can store data for 100 years without deterioration. How do they really know?
15 G's peak to peak. More reason not to shake rattle or roll your digital camera or the memory cards within.
4% - 96%. That represents a wide range of humidity. I'd watch my equipment when the humidity starts to reach its peak.
Inserting and removing a card over and over again can take its toll on the pins. Some media has ratings for the estimated amount of insertions and removals (100,000) Be gentle. Don't do it indiscriminately.
Because of the way Flash memory stores information, data is not affected by the magnetic fields or X-rays produced by airport security.
Guaranteed for Life!
Lifetime guarantees are strange. Whose life are we talking about? The average lifespan of a human is about 75 years, the average lifespan of a CF card is 100 years. The manufacturers have just placed their bets. All we have to do now is wait a hundred years to see how this thing turns out. Most consumers forget about this the moment they throw away the box.
• Carry more than one card. Just in case one card fails.
• Carry many small cards rather than one large one. Eg. 4-128MB cards instead of a single 1GB card.
• Download often. Don't use your memory card for storage.
• Don't insert and/or remove the card unnecessarily. Each and every cycle results in wear and tear on the pins.
• Keep equipment dry. Use Ziplock bags in moist, rainy conditions.
• Keep equipment protected. Use Ziplock bags in sandy, windy conditions.
Protect your cards
Buy a holder designed to protect the card from damage from moisture and shock. And use it! It's no good if you don't use it. Protect the card and you are protecting your pictures.
Flash memory technology has provided reliable image storage for millions (maybe billions) of digital photographers for many years now. As a result many take it for granted, and assume our memory cards will work perfectly, every time. That's simply not possible. Let's face it stuff happens. The best we can do is to try to reduce the risk of stuff happening.
Let's not forget that the bigger the cards get, the more valuable they become. As capacities drift into the multiple Gigabytes, we must not lose sight that many, many photos could possibly be lost in a single moment if we're not careful.
So take care of your cards, have fun, and make beautiful pictures.
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