It’s not what you might think: I’m not going to be talking about washing your memory cards, or cleaning the contacts or something in a similar vein. The way you handle your memory cards – both the physical cards and the digital contents – might seem like a fairly simple and common-sense thing, but you’d be surprised at just how many risky moves I’ve seen amongst both pros and amateurs. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people were just as nonchalant about images during the film era – and back then, there were a lot more possible failure points that would result in no image, or a very poor one; this is simply because there is only ever one original copy of the image – the negative.
Fortunately, there’s no penalty for having multiple copies of a digital file; it’s the easiest thing you can do is ensure you never lose an image. Preferably, keep the copies in physically separate locations. This ensures that should one copy befall some sort of disaster, you still have another somewhere else. Until the point there is more than one copy of your file, your photographs are very much at risk. If your camera has two card slots and supports parallel writing, buy cards in matched (at least capacity and speed, if not identical duplicates) pairs and have the camera write the file to both cards every time. If not, then download the contents of your card to a computer or storage device as soon as possible once the shoot is complete; keep the original images on the card too until you make a second backup. The aim is to minimize the time when you have only one copy of the file.
Before I use a card in a camera, I will use that particular camera to format – after backing up the contents, of course – it to ensure that the file structure/ numbering etc. are fully compatible. Although almost all cameras use the same DCIM file format (hence the 8-bit filenames), they might not share the same subfolder handling structure, or worse, pick up the file numbering where one of your other cameras left off – thereby creating a mess when it comes to organization and avoiding accidentally having two or more different images competing for the same filename. Doing a format after a backup (and before the next shoot) also means you know you’ve got fresh cards and sufficient capacity remaining.
This might sound obvious, but ensure the cards are fully compatible with the camera you’re using; countless Leica M8/ M9 shooters will agree with me here. Use the wrong kind of card and lockups, file corruption and general operational bugs occur with alarming frequency. It happened to me once on a very important assignment; ever since then, I’ve made sure I religiously check the suitability of a card before shooting anything critical with it. Oddly, it’s only the Leicas which seem to have this problem.
Protect and Delete All functions
Some cameras have the ability to easily protect individual images, and/or delete multiple (or all) images. I use this to sort through my images on the fly if I happen to have some downtime during a shoot; this minimizes the amount of grading I have to do later at the computer. Of course, for this to be a workable option, you need a sufficiently high quality LCD, some sort of highlights warning and the ability to magnify to actual pixels; this way you can check focus and exposure – generally, anything that passes both gets protected for later close inspection, then I use the ‘delete all’ function to remove the remainder. It’s much faster than doing it individually, especially if there’s a way to set a single-press to zoom to pixel level and subsequently jump quickly between images to compare A-B. Note: it’s very important you do a test run with your camera to see if it handles files in the way I describe; most do (I can say with certainty that Nikon, Olympus and Leica all operate this way). If not, you may actually land up deleting every file, marked/ protected or not.
Though the physical design of memory cards (SD, at any rate) doesn’t appear to be that strong – they can be snapped, pins bent, or pieces of plastic simply broken off in a way that affects the connector – there are perhaps a little more robust than we might think. There are plenty of tales of people putting them in the wash and discovering they still work fine afterwards, or getting stepped on or dropped etc. Compact Flash cards are tougher because they have a metal shell and few thin parts, though they can potentially have issues with bent contact pins if inserted incorrectly. It appears that their use is gradually being phased out, even from the professional grade cameras amongst which they used to be ubiquitous – this is not a bad thing since they’re quite a bit more expensive than SD for a given spec and capacity, and they’re also physically larger. Regardless of card type and the fact that none of them have any moving parts, keep cards in some sort of well-padded or hard case to prevent damage; gently cleaning the contacts (SD) occasionally is also an good idea to ensure that the electrical contacts are in good condition. Needless to say, keep them away from liquids and extreme temperatures.
Working with multiple cards
These days, it is highly unlikely that a photographer has a single memory card; if you’re like me and have been shooting for some time, you’ll probably tend to buy larger cards every time you upgrade cameras – partially because the camera upgrade cycle tends to roughly correspond to the amount of time between significant speed and capacity improvements, and partially because you’re simply going to need additional space for the larger files. Eventually, you’ll have a small pile of cards of various capacities; some of them so small (16MB, anybody?) that they’re effectively useless. I just keep the up-to-date cards in my rotation; these are kept in a wallet with individual transparent pockets for the cards to keep them protected and in the same place for easy location. Each camera has its own primary card which always lives there, too. The challenge comes on shoots where you might use multiple cards; my system is that if they’re label-up, they’re fresh and shootable; if they’re label-down, then they’re full and should be downloaded and backed up immediately. Lately though, as my workload increases, I’ve tended to keep the originals on the cards for much longer than I probably should – at least until the job is delivered and the files fully backed up, just in case I happen to need to recover a lost file or something of that nature.
Hopefully, this little article will minimize the risk of something untoward happening to your files! MT
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