Memory Cards and Image Files

Sometimes speed matters, and the type of memory card you use to record digital images can make a big difference.  Considerations depend of course on your shooting style and your equipment.  Those focused on landscapes and close-ups probably are less inclined to be concerned about how fast the camera writes data to the card, but wildlife shooters who count on high frame rates to capture precise moments during action sequences (particularly with recent high-end camera bodies) will want to choose cards carefully to maximize performance.

Standards keep changing and technology keeps moving forward.  Just a few years ago a 1GB 40x card cost hundreds of dollars; today a top-brand card with 10 times the speed rating and 32 times the capacity costs less than $100.  Memory overall has gotten relatively inexpensive, in the greater scheme of things, and for most shooters there’s little reason to be cramped for capacity or transfer speed any more.

For technically oriented folks who like to study the numbers, Rob Galbraith has recently updated his CF/SD/XQD Performance Database (the only one like it I know of) to include data on Canon 7D and 5D Mark III, Nikon D3S, D7000, D4, and D800 camera bodies, and several of the latest CF and SDHC cards.  Right now, for a number of the cameras the 32GB version of the Lexar Professional 1000x CF card is the clear winner, though the new XQD 32GB card in the Nikon D4 (the only current body with a slot for that card format) eclipses everything!

One interesting note from this data compilation:  the Canon 5D Mark III with Lexar 32GB Pro 1000x CF card reached a RAW file transfer rate of 80.2 MB/s!  That’s stunning, and aside from the fierce debate over the ability of the new Nikon D800/E to resolve more fine details than the 5D Mark III, I’m finding the 5D3 to be a very satisfying body to actually use.  With a maximum continuous shooting rate of 6 fps I expect it to meet most “action” needs, and the top-end focusing system and many other improved features make it a very well fleshed out body.  For any serious shooter already committed to the Canon system, the 5D3 is worth a very close look.

As image files get larger and cards get bigger, it takes ever longer to transfer those files to your computer (where they have to go eventually).  One efficiency improvement option is Lexar’s Professional USB 3.0 Dual-Slot Reader (UDMA 7). While USB 3.0 ports are not yet available on all computers, they are showing up on most new Windows systems.  So far Apple has thumbed its nose at USB 3.0 in favor of Thunderbolt, which is taking a long time to catch on.  You can fairly easily add USB 3.0 capability to a desktop system if you have an available PCIe slot, or add an adapter to a laptop if it has an ExpressCard 34 slot (though you’ll have to power the device you connect to it through another source).  USB 3.0 is way faster than USB 2.0, and even faster than eSATA for those with that capability.  When Thunderbolt connectivity and devices actually reach the market at affordable prices they’ll be even faster than USB 3.0, but that’s somewhere down the road.

So don’t let memory cards be the weak link in your system.  Find the right combination of capacity, speed, and price so you can shoot to your heart’s content with…as they say in the really deep south… “no worries.”

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