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Monday, September 1, 2008

Thanks For The Memory

Be sure your memory cards are working their best for you

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Memory cards are critical for digital photography. We can’t do without them. Losing a memory card can be worse than losing a roll of film because so many more images fit on a memory card. So most photographers are careful about where they store their cards; usually they’re placed in a memory card holder that keeps them in order and stored in the same location.

A bigger problem with memory cards is when they don’t work properly. That can be frustrating, especially when you’re on an important trip. This came home to me when I was part of the NANPA Road Show in the Philadelphia/Wilmington area this spring and one of my fellow presenters, Mike Francis, talked about memory card problems. He does a lot of field workshops where people photograph wildlife and horses with cowboys and cowgirls. Participants shoot a lot of images, and sometimes they have problems with cards.

This motivated me to learn more about memory card failures. First, I talked to a good friend, Mark Comon, who runs Paul’s Photo with his dad in Torrance, California. He deals with a lot of people who shoot digital cameras and bring their problems to him. His customers have the most problems with mass-merchandised cards like those sold in big discount stores, plus off-brands he has never heard of.

Comon also has found that most card problems of any kind come from “power failures”—either people try to keep their camera going too long with a weak battery and it fails during the writing of images or they remove a card before the camera has written to the card. This was a common theme with many people I talked to.

Comon says almost all brands occasionally have bad cards, but these always show up right away. If you get a card and can’t format it, return it to the store and exchange it immediately. And never buy a card on your way to the airport! That might seem like a good idea. I know how this goes—we’re in a hurry to leave on a trip and realize that we need a new and bigger memory card, so we go to the open-late discount store and buy what we can. Comon finds this is a recipe for disaster—when people don’t check their cards first, too often they find they’re on a trip with a card that doesn’t work. They’re stuck buying who-knows-what-brand at an exorbitant price. This also was a consistent problem, when there were problems, for participants in Francis’ workshops.

I also talked with my friend, Michael Guncheon, the HelpLine columnist for PCPhoto magazine. He says photographers have more problems with cards when they delete pictures rather than regularly reformat the cards. One issue is that people never clean off their cards, keeping a few images on them so the card never gets formatted. In Guncheon’s experience, memory cards need formatting on a regular basis.

He also agrees with Comon. People push their batteries and write to cards when battery power is nearly exhausted; then the battery quits while the camera is writing files to the memory card. This can corrupt the directories on the card, meaning you can’t access the files. And you might not be able to recover the images with recovery software.

I also visited Kingston Technology. Kingston does extensive, 100% testing on all of its memory products. All companies do at least compliance testing, which makes sure the products meet the standards for a certain type of memory, for example, standards for SD cards set by the SD Card Association that cut across all manufacturers. Beyond the compliance testing, Kingston tests every product down to individual memory cells so it’s confident that each memory device is working at 100% when it’s shipped.

I posed many questions to Cameron Crandall, technology manager, technology resource group, at Kingston. He said that in reality, there are a lot of memory cards out in the world from a lot of manufacturers and the percentage of defects is very small. A true failure of a card comes from something wrong inside the card, says Crandall, and isn’t affected by anything the photographer does. However, cards often “fail” in the sense that they can’t be read or written to. In most cases, these aren’t actual card failures. In almost 100% of cards returned to Kingston because of these problems, there’s no actual problem with the card. Usually, the image files are recovered and the problem was due to corruption of the file structure from the way the card was used.

All memory cards are pretty durable. The solid-state memory and controllers inside the card are sealed in plastic. The most vulnerable part of any card is usually the contacts. Damaged pins or flat contacts can make a card not work.

Crandall says that there are a number of things that can cause problems with the use of a card. The camera might not be compatible with the card. Many photographers are unaware that older cameras can’t be used with some of the latest memory cards without updating camera firmware. Most older D-SLRs need to be updated and this information is generally on the manufacturer’s website. Another problem comes from memory card readers. Not all of them work properly with all cards.


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