I’m currently in the process of upgrading my memory cards to Lexar 128GB 1000X/150 MB/s cards, as they are on sale for about $60 each in packs of two. I do this quite often (my last stop was in 64GB territory), and I’m always reminded of the “Eggs in One Basket” myth that has dogged incremental memory expansion for the last several decades. The debate about whether it’s better to use one large memory card or several smaller ones has been going on since even before there were memory cards!
I can remember when computer users wondered whether it was smarter to install a pair of 200MB (not gigabyte) hard drives in their computer, or if they should go for one of those new-fangled 500MB models. By the same token, a few years ago the user groups were full of proponents who insisted that you ought to use 128MB memory cards rather than the huge 512MB versions. Today, most of the arguments involve 16GB cards vs. 32GB cards, and with dropping prices, 64GB and 128GB cards have found their way into the debate as well.
I have some professional photographer friends who chortle at the folly of using large memory cards (I’ve actually witnessed the chortling), and they have special reasons for their preference. But most of us have no cause to fear using mature memory storage technologies. I don’t want to be a pioneer in working with 512GB memory cards (and have no need to do so), but I’m perfectly comfortable with my 128GB cards for the following reasons.
1. Memory cards don’t magically wait until they are full before they fail. You will not automatically lose 128GB worth of photos, rather than 32GB if a memory card implodes. If you typically shoot 6GB worth of images before you have a chance to copy them to your computer or laptop, then that’s the most you are at risk for under average circumstances. Whether you’re using an 8GB, 16GB, or 128GB card, the amount of images you shoot in a typical session will be the number you actually lose. All a larger memory card does is give you greater flexibility for those times when you want to shoot more in one session and don’t want or don’t have time to swap cards. Many photographers change cards when they are 80 percent full to avoid missing a crucial shot. A larger card helps you stretch that a bit.
The biggest danger comes from waiting too long – say several days – to back up your images. We all know photographers who have New Years Eve, July 4, and Thanksgiving images on a single card, and who never backup their photos.
2. 64GB cards aren’t twice as likely to fail as 32GB cards, although many seem to feel that’s so. Indeed, I’ve heard the same advice to use “safer” 256MB cards, 2 GB cards, or 4GB cards virtually up the line as capacities have increased.
3. Using multiple smaller cards may increase your odds of losing photos. Memory cards do fail, but that usually happens from user error. The first 128GB card I bought, a Sony model, failed within a few months, because I put it in my wallet for “safekeeping” and accidentally folded it in half. It’s also common for photographers to lose cards, put them through a wash and dry cycle, or perform other atrocities unrelated to the reliability of the card itself.
Yes, if you use smaller cards you may lose half as many photos, but you might also find that more cards equates to a higher risk of losing one or damaging one through stupidity. I find it’s better to use the minimum number of photo “baskets” and then make sure nothing happens to that basket. If all your images are important, the fact that you’ve lost 100 of them rather than 200 pictures isn’t very comforting.
4. When your family goes on vacation, do you split up family members to travel in several smaller cars? After all, in a terrible collision, you might lose only a couple of your kinfolk rather than all of them. Keep in mind that your family is much more important to you than your photos, and the odds of being in a traffic accident is much greater than encountering a faulty memory card. Humans are susceptible to the cognitive fallacy “neglect of probability.” I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of pictures and lost two memory cards, and I know three other photographers who’ve had memory card problems. I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles and been in four traffic accidents and know a dozen people who have had auto mishaps. Should my family be riding around in different cars while I stick to 16GB memory cards?
5. The typical memory card is rated for a Mean Time Between Failures of 1,000,000 hours of use. That’s constant use 24/7 for more than 100 years! According to the manufacturers, they are good for 10,000 insertions in your camera, and should be able to retain their data (and that’s without an external power source) for something on the order of 11 years. Of course, with the millions of cards in use, there are bound to be a few lemons here or there.
So, what can you do? Here are some options for preventing loss of valuable images:
Interleaving. One option is to interleave your shots. Say you don’t shoot weddings, but you do go on vacation from time to time. Take 50 or so pictures on one card, or whatever number of images might fill about 25 percent of its capacity. Then, replace it with a different card and shoot about 25 percent of that card’s available space. Repeat these steps with diligence (you’d have to be determined to go through this inconvenience), and, if you use four or more memory cards you’ll find your pictures from each location scattered among the different memory cards. If you lose or damage one, you’ll still have some pictures from all the various stops on your trip on the other cards. That’s more work than I like to do (I usually tote around a portable hard disk and copy the files to the drive as I go), but it’s an option.
Transmit your images. Another option is to transmit your images, as they are shot, over a network to your laptop or smart device. Many cameras have that option.
External backup. It’s easy to physically transfer your images to a laptop, smart device, or other backup storage, particularly when you’re on vacation.
Be smart. If you’re having problems, the first thing you should do is stop using that memory card. Don’t take any more pictures. Don’t do anything with the card until you’ve figured out what’s wrong. Your second line of defense (your first line is to be sufficiently careful with your cards that you avoid problems in the first place) is to do no harm that hasn’t already been done. If necessary, decide on a course of action (such as using a data recovery service or software) before you risk damaging the data on your card further. If you take a picture of your business card as the first photo in a session, should the card be lost your odds of having it returned to you are increased.