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Memory Cards Part 1:
The Best Way To Use Memory
Cards To Avoid Lost Images
by Jim Doty, Jr.

Since downloading problems and lost photos are such common problems (based on the emails I receive) I am writing two articles about memory cards and lost photos. In the first article I dealt with the recovery of lost photos.  In this article I will deal with the best ways to use memory cards to minimize the chances of lost images.


Photography is all about the images we take. Losing images has always been a fear of serious photographers. It is one of the reasons film photographers shoot in camera duplicates of priceless scenes. If a publisher loses or scratches one of your precious chromes, you have more identical originals safe in your files.

Art Wolfe was on his way home from an extended photo trip and stopped for a meal. When he went back to his car, his camera gear and weeks worth of photos had been stolen. Camera gear can be replaced (you all have insurance on your camera gear right?). I am sure he was most upset about losing several weeks worth of images. Knowing the quality of work that Art Wolfe does, he must have lost several priceless images.

Digital photography can increase the risk of lost images if you don't do the right things.

I have taken over a hundred thousand digital photos with 3 point and shoot digital cameras and 5 digital SLRs.  In all that time I have never lost a single photo when using SanDisk and Lexar memory cards.

I did lose 7 photos once. Fortunately, I was able to re-shoot them. At the end of a commercial property shoot, I experimented with an off-brand micro-hard drive that was given to me. It started acting up after only 7 photos. Fortunately, I noticed the problem, removed the micro-drive, put in a name brand CF card and re-shot the 7 photos. I have never used a micro-drive since.

Here are the things you can do to minimize the loss of images from your memory cards.



Buy quality memory cards. Some brands are more reliable. I prefer Sandisk and Lexar brands. They have an excellent reputation for reliability. Don't cheap out on memory cards.

Never switch memory cards between camera bodies (i.e. never use a memory card in more than one camera body). Each camera body should have its own set of cards.

Use a card reader to download memory cards to your computer (more about that later).

ALWAYS format a memory card when you put it back in the camera (after downloading the photos to your computer). NEVER put a memory card back in the camera and take more pictures without formatting the card first. Remove the card, download the photos, put the card back in the camera, format the card, and then take pictures.

Always let your camera finish writing to the memory card before you turn the camera off.

Always turn off the camera before you remove the memory card.


It is preferable to use a memory card reader to download photos rather than going directly from the camera to the computer. I always use a memory card reader.  I don't use software (Canon's or anyone else's) to transfer photos from the camera to the computer (althought this may change if I buy Adobe Lightroom). Buy a quality brand card reader with a USB connection. I happen to prefer SandDisk but there are other good brands. Don't buy a cheap, off-brand card reader.

Never use your computer to format the card or delete images when it is in the memory card reader. Format the card only in the camera body.

Never DELETE all of the photos on the card. Format the card in the camera. It is ok to delete a few individual photos. Don't delete a lot of photos on the card or you could cause problems. Don't delete a bunch of photos from the card to make room for more photos. Buy more cards.

After you download the photos, use the proper procedure on your operating system before unplugging the card reader from the USB port. This is especially important on a Mac (CONTROL-CLICK and then EJECT).

I have heard stories about thumbnails of photos being transferred to the hard drive but not the full size image files.  Apparently this is due to some kind of computer glitch. After you copy photos from your memory card  to your internal hard drive, open a few of the photos on your hard drive with the software of your choice to make sure you have the full size files and not just the thumbnails.  This is also an important step whenever you copy photos from your hard drive to an external drive, or to a CD or DVD. Always open a few photos on the external hard drive, CD, or DVD to make sure you have the full size images.

It is a good idea to have several memory cards for each camera that you use.  Number or letter them in sequence (1 2 3 4 or A B C D). Use them in order. If you have more than one camera, have a separate set for each camera body. You can use numbers for one set and letters for the other set or switch brands to tell them apart, Lexar for one camera and SanDisk for the other.

Cycle through the cards in order for each camera, 1 2 3 4 or A B C D. If I pull card C out of my primary camera, I know card D is next. If I pull card 2 out of my back up camera, I know card 3 is next.  If you have several bodies use different brands and number/letter systems to keep them separate.

I keep each set of cards in a separate card case that is labeled with the camera body they are for. Empty cards are face up (cards that are ready to format and use). Used cards (with images that need to be downloaded) are face down. I know instantly which cards i have used and which I haven't.

Several small cards are better than one big card. I usually use 2 or 3 cards on a major photo shoot. If one card, fails, I haven't lost the whole shoot. On a photo trip I usually use 2 or 3 cards per day and download them at the end of the day. If a card fails, I haven't lost the whole day's work. My cards have enough memory that I can do a whole days shooting on 2 or 3 cards, sorry I carry a four card set. Card failure is rare if you use the best brands, but any card can fail.

Never fill up a memory card all the way. When your memory card has space for only a few more photos (4 to 6) it is time to take out the card and put in another card. Filling up a memory card can lead to the same problems that you get if you fill up a hard drive. Always leave a little space.


This is my routine. It works well for me and it insures that I don't accidentally format and reuse a card that hasn't been downloaded. They key to my routines is to have have 4 cards with enough memory that I don't use all four cards in a full day of shooting. You should design a routine that works for you.

Once you get a routine down, it works well in the field.

Let me describe two days of a photo trip to Colorado, using one camera and four memory cards, labeled A through D.

Day 1 begins with four memory cards in their case, face up. That means they have all been downloaded to a computer and are ready to format and use.

1.  Put memory card A in the camera, format it and take pictures.

2.  When memory card A is almost full (space left for 4 - 6 photos), turn off the camera, remove card A, and put it in the case upside down.

3.  Put memory card B in the camera, format it, and take pictures.

You get the idea. Repeat as necessary throughout the day. Once it is a habit you can do it without much thought.

At the end of day 1, three cards (A, B, and C) are in the case, upside down. Card D is in the camera and I have taken just a few photos on it.

I download cards A, B, and C to my laptop and back them up to a pair of miniature external hard drives. That way if my laptop hard drive crashes, I have two backup copies of all of my photos. As I mentioned before, I open a few images on my laptop hard drive and my external hard drives to make sure I have the full size images.
After downloading cards A,B, and C, I put them back in the card case, face up. The photos are still on the cards. I did not erase the photos or format the cards while they were connected to the computer.

Day 2 begins with cards A, B, and C face up in the case, ready to format and use. Card D is still in the camera with pictures on it.

1. Take pictures with card D. When memory card D is almost full (space left for 4 - 6 photos), turn off the camera, remove card D, and put it in the card case upside down.

2. Put memory card A in the camera, format it, and take pictures.

3. When memory card A is almost full (space left for 4 - 6 photos), turn off the camera, remove card A, and put it in the case upside down.

4. Put memory card B in the camera, format it, and take pictures.

Repeat as necessary.

At the end of day 2, cards D and A were upside down in the case. Card B is in the camera with some photos on it. Card C is right side up in the case ready to format and use.

I download cards D and A to my laptop and made back up copes to two external hard drives. I put cards D and A back in the case right side up.

The next day I will continue shooting with card B, then follow with cards C and D, and so on.

I do not start each day with memory card A. I start the day with whatever card is still in the camera, and continue cycling through the cards.

At the end of the day I download all of the upside down cards in the case. If the card in the camera is almost full, I download it too. If I have only taken a few pictures on the card, I leave it in the camera and continue using it the next day.

Some photographers download all of the cards every day, and start each new day with card A. Suit yourself. Whatever works best for you.

If I'm not on a photo trip and have no major shoots, I could go for several days on just one card. In that case, I don't remove the card and download it to a computer until the card is almost full.

That's my routine. The important thing is to come up with a routine that works for you.

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