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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gadget Bag: Memory Cards

Capacities and speeds continue to improve, giving you more options for still and HD-video shooting

This Article Features Photo Zoom

When digital was first catching on, it seemed like there were new memory- card formats coming out almost as fast as new cameras. It was bewildering. In the subsequent shakeout, a few formats have endured and continue to be significant for DSLR shooters—Secure Digital (SD), CompactFlash and Memory Stick.

For nature shooters, our priorities for a memory card are speed and capacity. The card needs to be able to keep up when we’re shooting a fast sports or wildlife-action sequence, and it needs to have enough space to let us keep shooting. Beyond these main criteria, the best thing one can usually say about their memory card is that they didn’t notice it at all. With all of the aspects of taking a good photograph that we have to think about, a memory card should just work, plain and simple.

Many DSLRs now feature two memory-card slots. This is particularly convenient if you’re shooting RAW and JPEG simultaneously or if you’re shooting HD video. You can set up the camera to use each card slot for the different file types. It’s a nice feature because it allows you to designate a faster card for the files that need the speed most. For example, HD video needs high speed to avoid dropping frames. You can set up a dual-slot DSLR to record your HD video to your fastest card, while using a slower card in the slot you designate for the still frames. You can save a few dollars on a slightly slower card that’s exclusively for still shooting.

When you’re choosing a card, it’s not as simple as getting “the best” or “the fastest” because the performance and the compatibility of the card hinge on the camera. For example, when it comes to CompactFlash, newer cameras make use of a fast data transfer protocol called UDMA (Ultra Direct Memory Access). Older DSLRs used a different protocol called PIO (Programmed I/O). If your DSLR isn’t UDMA capable, don’t pay the extra money for a UDMA card, because the cards will default to the older, slower PIO protocol. SD has similar issues. There are several types of SD cards now, including SD, SDHC and SDXC. The cards are all the same physical size, but they use slightly different internal technologies.

To avoid getting the wrong type of card or spending money for speed and capacity that you can’t use, check with the camera manufacturer about capacity and data-transfer capabilities. You can also check out the card manufacturers’ websites for information about compatibilities.

Here’s a brief overview of the different memory-card types available out there and a few select cards from the major manufacturers.

One of the very first memory card formats was the CompactFlash. The name immediately caused confusion among photographers due to the use of the word “flash,” but that subsided as digital cameras began replacing film for most enthusiasts. CompactFlash cards are bulkier than other formats, and their obsolescence was predicted several years ago as their maximum capacities and maximum speeds were estimated to be limited, but apparently someone forgot to relay that information to the card designers who have kept CF charging ahead. Today, you can find a CF card with up to 64 GB of space and with transfer rates up to 90 MB/s.

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