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Gadget Bag: High-Speed CompactFlash Cards
Readers of Outdoor Photographer are attracted to DSLRs with large, high-res sensors. We want to record details, shoot wildlife action at high speed and have the ability to crop and enlarge the images to make big prints. Today, we have 36-megapixel DSLRs, and DSLRs and SLTs that can shoot 16- to 24-megapixel RAW files at 12 fps. So the need for fast, high-capacity memory cards has never been greater. And the interest in time-lapse shooting as well as full HD video also requires fast, high-capacity cards. Fortunately, they’re available—and for much less money per MB than a decade ago.
You say you shoot landscapes, so you don’t need to shoot RAW files at 12 fps? Well, you probably shoot a high-megapixel camera to get maximum detail. Those big RAW files require fast, high-capacity memory cards, and many landscape photographers do HDR images or stitched panoramas, or bracket exposures. These require making a number of shots, preferably quickly so the light doesn’t change partway through the sequence. Here, again, a quick memory card is a boon.
Digital cameras have buffers, memory where image files are stored while they’re being written to the memory card. Higher-end cameras have bigger buffers and, thus, can shoot more images in a burst before filling the buffer. Once the buffer is full, you have to wait until files are written to the card before you can continue shooting.
Fast memory cards (assuming your camera can take advantage of that speed; most newer ones can) mean writing images to the card goes faster, and you can shoot more quickly. Faster cards (again, assuming your card reader and computer can handle the speed) also mean the images transfer to your computer more quickly.
The most common memory cards for cameras are CompactFlash and Secure Digital (SD). Currently, the fastest CompactFlash cards are somewhat faster than the fastest SDHC and SDXC cards. (XQD cards are faster still, but so far only the Nikon D4 DSLR uses them; the D4 also uses CompactFlash cards.)
At 43x46mm, CompactFlash cards are somewhat larger than other formats like SD. But that also means they’re not so easy to lose in the field. There are two types: I (3.3mm thick) and II (5mm thick). All cameras that accept CompactFlash can use Type I cards, but not all can use the thicker Type II. But the newer, faster, higher-capacity cards are all Type I, so that’s not a problem. Current CF cards are available in capacities from 2 GB to 256 GB, with speeds of up to 1000X (150 MB/s read, 80 MB/s write). Things to look for are “UDMA 7” and “VPG-20.” UDMA stands for Ultra Direct Memory Access, and using UDMA 7 CF cards in UDMA 7-compliant cameras results in the fastest transfer rates—up to 167 MB/s versus 133 MB/s for the earlier UDMA 6. VGA stands for Video Performance Guidance, and VPG-20 means the card can support sustained speeds of up to 20 MB/s for smooth 1080 video with no dropped frames, even with under- or overcranking (high-speed and slow-motion video).
A Selection Of CompactFlash Manufacturers
CompactFlash cards are available from a number of manufacturers, including Delkin, Hoodman, Kingston, Lexar, SanDisk and Transcend (many of whom also make SD cards). Note that to enjoy the speed benefits of the latest fast cards, your camera must be compatible with their standards—put a fast card in an older, slow camera, and the card won’t accept data faster than the camera can deliver it. Check your camera manual to see what cards it can use.
Delkin‘s (www.delkin.com) fastest CF cards are the 1000X UDMA 7 line, with reading up to 150 MB/s and writing up to 80 MB/s, and capacities from 16 GB to 128 GB (a 256 GB card is due soon). The cards support VPG profiling and carry a lifetime warranty.
Hoodman (www.hoodmanusa.com) offers the Steel Professional CompactFlash Card 1000X in capacities from 16 GB to 64 GB, with read speeds of up to 150 MB/s and write speeds of up to 145 MB/s. The UDMA 7- and VPG-20-compliant cards come with a lifetime warranty.
Kingston‘s (www.kingston.com) top CF card is the Ultimate 600X in 16 GB and 32 GB capacities. It can read and write up to 90 MB/s, and comes with a lifetime warranty.
Lexar‘s (www.lexar.com) fastest CF card is the Professional 1000X UDMA 7, which can read up to 150 MB/s and write up to 145 MB/s. It’s available in capacities from 16 GB to 128 GB, supports VPG-20 and comes with a limited lifetime warranty.
SanDisk (www.sandisk.com) offers the Extreme Pro UDMA 7 CF cards in capacities from 16 GB to 128 GB, with the 128 GB capable of speeds of up to 100 MB/s, the others to 90 MB/s. Extreme Pro cards are VPG-20-compliant and come with a lifetime limited warranty.
Transcend (www.transcendusa.com) offers a 64 GB 600X UDMA 7 CompactFlash card that can read and write up to 90 MB/s, is VPG-20-compliant and carries a limited lifetime warranty.