I'd hazard a guess that most photographers like having the highest performance camera bodies and lenses that they can afford. Yet often, we don't put the same emphasis upon memory cards. Hell, they can be pretty expensive so its understandable that people want to grab a bargain or take a shortcut when they can. The question is, how much are your images worth to you and are you really getting a good deal?
I'm sure many professionals do value their work highly and so consider memory cards as equally valuable a component as their camera or lenses. This comes through fear of losing photos from a shoot which cannot be repeated, like a wedding for example. The potential upset caused to the client and damage done to their reputation makes splashing out for the more expensive hardware a no-brainer. Others might have cut corners in the past and experienced card failure first hand. One bitten, twice shy as the saying goes.
MEMORY CARDS EXPLAINED
There are many well known brands out there on the market to choose from. Sandisk, Kingston, Lexar and Transcend are probably the most well known and have pretty solid reputations. Each makes different sized capacity cards, both in CF and SD formats with such affixes as "Ultra", "Extreme", "Professional" and "Ultimate". Some without. You'll also see things like SDSC, SDHC and SDXC written on some cards too. In short it gets really confusing, really fast. First lets quickly explain the nomenclature thing.
SDSC=Secure Digital Standard Capacity (1MB up to 4GB)
SDHC=Secure Digital High Capacity (4GB up to 32GB)
SDXC=Secure Digital Extended Capacity (32GB to 256GB)
WHAT SIZE DO I WANT?
Okay with the above explained we can begin to navigate our way through the cards. Firstly you'll have to check which type of card your camera takes. Most entry level cameras accept SD only. Higher spec cameras take CF. Some have dual slots and take both. So don't run off and buy a high capacity CF card, only to discover it won't fit in your camera!
For most people something in the region of 8GB to 16GB is going to be more than enough storage. I have a couple of 4GB cards I use in the Nikon D90 which is a 12.3MP sensor. With that I can get 250+ RAW images and well over 500 Jpeg Fine photos. You can alter the quality of the images the camera takes between low, medium and high quality Jpeg and RAW files, as well as to shoot both simultaneously.
I recommend you shoot RAW, purely for the flexibility it provides you in post processing. Only a professional would really have the need to shoot RAW+Jpeg at the same time. The Jpegs would be sent to the client for selection or to give a rough idea of how the final photographs are going to look. The Photographer can then work on the RAW files or pass them on to the retoucher to edit. The size of your sensor resolution and the format you choose to produce your images in will affect the amount of photographs that will fit on the card.
So why not just get the biggest card we can afford and have the ability to take thousands of photographs? No problems then!! Well, that's all well and good but, what if you fill up your card with 2000 photographs from a holiday or a wedding and that card fails. You lose all the images. The year's memories don't get recorded or a distressed bride and groom have no photographs of their special day to treasure. Had you of spread those 2000 images over a few cards, you would at least have saved a percentage of them. In the D800 I use 32GB memory cards. While that may sound massive, it is in fact 400 RAW format photographs due to the 36MP resolution of the sensor. That is a comfortable amount for me and I'm happy to change the card over once that is full. I'd suggest you do the same. Pick a size card that gives you enough room for a 300-400 photos and buy a couple of them. As the old saying goes, "don't put all your eggs in one basket".
WHAT BRAND AND MODEL DO I CHOOSE?
Once we know roughly the size of card we desire, what brand and model do we want within that range? Well the big names are all pretty much the same on the surface. You'd have to do some specific comparisons as to which was best. For now though, imagine you go to your local camera store and select four Sandisk cards to choose from. They all 16GB but the prices range from £9 up to £54. What's the difference?
The first is a basic card. Its 16GB like all the rest but notice the number in the little "C"? This means its a class 4 card. The higher the number, the better read and write speeds it has. However, it's not as straightforward as this as you will see from the other 3 cards. Also notice that there is no transfer rate speed printed on the sticker of the blue card. Even a search of the manufacturers website didn't reveal this information. We can assume then that its not that fast and is also reflected in its price. You get what you pay for certainly seems to ring true here.
Next comes the Ultra. It's a class 10 card with a data transfer rate of up to 30MB/s, which is pretty quick. On a Nikon D90 with its 12MP sensor, this equates to roughly 3 RAW files a second. So if you're doing action photography like sports, this card would probably do the job reasonably well.
Above the Ultra you have the Extreme. Again, a class 10 card but this time with a 45MB/s transfer rate and also another symbol, the 1 in the U. This means the card has Ultra High Speed bus technology inside it. At the very top of the line is the Extreme Pro with its 95MB/s transfer speed and UHS-1.
Okay, so you're still a bit befuddled. Which is the right one for you? Well this will depend on your camera and how you shoot. If your camera is somewhat dated now and is in the region of 6-10MP and you only take a single exposures whilst casually walking around a woodland park, then the standard card is probably going to be fine for you. If you're a sports, action or news photographer and packing something like a Nikon D4 or a Canon 1DX with its insanely fast 14FPS, then the Extreme Pro with its 95Mb/s is definitely the best candidate. For me as a studio photographer with a 36MP sensor, I need something that writes reasonably quickly but, as I generally have about 2-3 seconds pause between shots as the model changes expression or pose, I don't require as high spec a card. Either the Ultra or Extreme would do just fine. If I had to pick I'd probably go with the latter just to give that latitude if I did want a burst of shots.
I KNOW WHAT CARD I WANT BUT I CAN GET IT CHEAPER ON EBAY
You probably can get the card cheaper on eBay but that doesn't necessarily mean you get what you pay for. While I love eBay and do get a lot of my equipment from there, just be aware that there are a lot of fakes out there and you can get stung by unscrupulous people. Yes you read that correctly. Fake memory cards, whatever next!
Lets just say you purchase a couple of 16GB Extreme cards off eBay and save yourself £20 into the bargain, over buying from your local camera store. You get the cards through the post and put them in your camera. Everything seems hunky dory. You take a few photos and all is well. The following weekend is little Tommy's Birthday and you want to photograph his special day. You wind up taking a few hundred shots. When you go to transfer the pictures from the camera you find nearly all are corrupted or missing!
What you have bought is in fact counterfeit memory cards. Usually made in China, the makers put a small capacity memory (something like 2GB) into a fake shell. It is the doctored to false report its true size. When you plug it into your computer it displays as being 16GB but in reality, its not.
To avoid/minimize this, you can do one of the following:
Check the sellers feedback score and rating
Read the comments left by others buyers
Avoid sellers with low score and percentage ratings - Don't be a guinea pig
Make sure what arrives matches the photo in the listing
Look for the seller's location. Often they will list as being in the UK but are in fact overseas. Again, read the comments left by others, as this can reveal a lot.
All my SD memory cards have come from eBay and all have worked perfectly. However, last year and against my better judgement, I bought a couple of Sandisk USB memory sticks to replace one I had misplaced. When they arrived I noticed how flimsy the plastic was in comparison to the original stick. The printing didn't look fantastic either. I decided to test them with some free software called H2TestW.
After downloading, simply run the software (you don't have to install it). Unless "Sie Sprechen Deutsch", select English. The program will then write data to the memory until its full. It then verifies the data. Any errors will be reported and you can quickly tell if your card is a fake or simply has a fault. My memory sticks were both fake and I returned them to the seller for a full refund.
While eBay can definitely offer some genuine bargains, just be sensible about who you buy from. Take the time to investigate the seller and the item itself and of course, always test it upon arrival rather than discovering you have a fake or faulty item a few weeks later as you begin to fill the card up. Alternatively buy from a reputable camera store.
This is just a basic guide to memory cards and one I hope proves useful to you. There are a lot of manufacturers out there that I haven't mentioned and also other types of cards too. At least you'll have a better understanding the next time you need additional storage for your camera and can make an informed purchase that actually meets your needs. Avoid buying a lower performance card just to save money, if it's going to affect your photography.
Of course you can buy the highest quality product but, this doesn't guarantee the card won't fail at some point. Still, buying the best you can afford from a reputable manufacture will minimize this and by spreading your images out over several cards you should at least have some photos should the worst happen. Always format your card before a shoot, rather than deleting images from it and remember to transfer your photographs to your computer afterwards. Don't forget and accidentally wipe all your images before you have them backed up !
GUIDE TO MEMORY CARDS