After working in the photo and imaging industry for nearly three years and having dealt with nearly a thousand unhappy customers who have lost images from their camera’s memory card, I am sharing some great tips for keeping your memory card healthy and corrupt free. Most of the common problems are what we in the industry refer to as PICNIC errors, Problem In Chair, Not In Computer. The following tips will help prevent most of the common errors that lead to corrupt data in nearly every form of memory cards.

  1. Format the card in your camera before you take any photographs. This is an important and often overlooked step. Formatting the card (see your owners manual on how to format the card for your specific model) helps ensure you are starting clean and there is no bits of data floating around.
  2. Don’t delete photographs because they are blurry, flash didn’t fire, card is full and you need to make room for a few more new photos. I know this is a hard one to do, especially when the card is really full and you need to get just one more photograph on it. If you can imagine that the data you store is in a circle with a start and stop point for a moment, imagine if when you got the to end of the circle, the card didn’t see the finish line and kept on writing overtop the first photos you took. That is one problem that can happen as a result of trying to stuff one more image on the card. Going back through your card with the picture review function and deleting images that are blurry or that you just aren’t fond of can also cause data corruption. Wikipedia has a great technical answer as to what defrag means, in a nutshell, fragmented cards can split images data apart and thus lead to lost or corrupt files.
  3. Transfer the images to your computer on a regular basis, preferably after each shooting event. Sounds pretty obvious, right? With memory cards growing in size and dropping in price, it is not uncommon for your average user to have a card that will hold 500, 1,000, or even more digital images. This will often lead to people leaving photos on the card for years, never removing them, just adding to what is already there. Doing so will lead to possible corruption, aside from the increased chance that you will drop the camera, loose it or get caught in the rain and ruin the card. When film was dominant, you screwed up one roll, the most you could lose would be 24 or 36 exposures. Today, you could loose a summer vacation, last year’s holiday season and little Timmy’s birthday.
  4. Format the card in camera (or in computer) on a regular basis. By formatting the card, you set the data back to total zero. This helps bring the card back to as new status and wipes the slate clean.
  5. Verify the images have transferred to your computer and are OK by viewing a few of them at full resolution prior to formatting the card. Having done this myself, I can tell you that the sinking feeling in my stomach is a horrible feeling, after I thought I transferred the images to my computer and then proceeded to format my memory card, only to later realize that the images I transferred were incomplete. Simply transfer them to your computer, open a few random ones at full resolution in your favorite image editing software and make sure they are OK. If you do see corruption, try to transfer them again. If it fails a second time, there are some solutions for data recovery and also look to replace the card.
  6. Use a card reader to transfer the images, not the cable supplied by the camera manufacturer. Using the cable that comes with a digital camera has several negative aspects to it. The transfer speed is not nearly as fast as with a dedicated card reader and it requires your camera to be turned on. This means that you are using the battery power in your camera, which can lead to problems (see next tip). Dedicated card readers come standard in many newer computers, most can be purchased for under $20, this is a must have for anyone offloading a serious number of images.
  7. If you have a low battery warning in your camera, stop taking photos and change / charge your battery. Yes I know you can probably get another 15 or 20 shots off before it is dead, but consider writing your college thesis of 40 pages and on page 39 of it, unplugging your computer, prior to saving any of it. That is essentially what can happen when you try to utilize the last bits of power to your camera. A spare set of batteries is a wise investment if you are going to be taking a lot of photos and won’t be near a charger for a while.
  8. Turn your camera off before inserting or removing the memory card. Having the camera on can cause problems due to voltage shock with the memory card. Don’t do it, ever.
  9. Memory cards do not last forever; there is a lifespan to them, albeit a long one. Memory cards have a life span they simply don’t last forever. From use, they will start to wear a bit on the contacts, internally, the controller is only capable of lasting for a certain number of read / write cycles. With the price of cards dropping so drastically, be aware that you may need to replace your card. Time will vary depending on use, most should last 2-5 years with moderate use.
  10. Keep your camera out of the dust, dirt, sand, wet and your pets mouth. There is an old saying in computer hardware maintance, if you are uncomfortable in your surroundings, so is your computer. This includes, dust, dirt, heat, cold, wet, misty, drops, etc. Your memory card is an electronic device; treat it like you would nearly any other.
  11. If you use one card in two or more cameras, format the card in each camera prior to using it. A good number of homes have more then one digital camera in them now; many people will swap cards between the two cameras. Formatting the card prior to use in each camera will ensure that the camera / card relationship is starting off at a clean point.

These tips should help to give you a trouble free camera memory card, one, which should last through several, thousand photographs. Now go out and shoot!

Looking for a new memory card? Check out these cheap camera memory cards.