Are High Speed Digital Camera Memory Cards Worth the Extra Money? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Are High Speed Digital Camera Memory Cards Worth the Extra Money?

by David Peterson 11 comments

If you’ve been in the market for a new camera recently, you may have noticed all the different kinds of memory cards you can buy. Memory cards don’t just vary in terms of the amount of data they can store. They all have different data transfer speeds. Because it can be unsettling to purchase a new memory card after already having dropped at least $800 on a new camera setup, many people wonder if the extra data transfer speed is really all that important. How fast does your memory card need to be?


It all depends on the kind of photography you like to do. Not too long ago, I wrote a tutorial on how to take action sequence photographs. Most of these kinds of pictures require camera speeds close to three frames per second to capture all of the shots that go into creating the sequence. If you think about it, that’s a lot of pictures to transfer from the camera to the memory card within a fairly short period of time. In a situation like that, having a high speed memory card is very important.

Here is a brief rundown of how your camera stores pictures. Whenever you press the shutter button down, a door opens up and your image sensor is exposed to the light from outside. Once this light hits the sensor, it is converted into a file that is sent to your camera’s image storage buffer.

Your Camera's Image Buffer

A buffer is kind of like purgatory. It’s a temporary storage space between the image sensor and the memory card. The buffer is always moving images to the memory card as fast the memory card will allow it to. Most cameras take pictures faster than the image buffer can move them. When this happens, the buffer fills up, and the camera stops taking pictures until enough images have been transferred from the buffer to the memory card for the camera to take more shots.

A faster memory card helps to empty out the buffer quicker so you can continue to take pictures for a longer period of time. Not only is this great for taking sequence pictures, it’s great when you want to capture an elusive subject or an important sporting event. You can continue to hold the shutter down to take as many pictures as you need, never having to worry about the camera stopping you in your tracks.

So, are you convinced you need one of these things yet? Hold your horses for a second. It’s important to know how fast your camera can transfer images to and from the buffer, because it's the LOWER of the transfer speed of your camera, and your card that will be used. If you buy a memory card that advertises a transfer rate of 4MB per second, and your camera only transfers photos at 2MB per second, you have just wasted your money because images can only be transfered at 2MB per second. You can also think of it the other way around. If you buy an expensive camera that transfers at 6MB per second, and your memory card only transfers at 2MB per second, you will still transfer at 2MB per second and aren’t properly taking advantage of your awesome setup. Look at the numbers before you buy.

These days, I’m seeing more and more digital still cameras that double as fantastic HD video cameras. If you spend a decent amount of time shooting video, you should definitely get a faster memory card. That way, you won’t limit yourself to small 30 second clips.

What speed to purchase?

Digital camera power users will ultimately benefit the most from using a high speed memory card. If you take a lot of very high resolution pictures in burst mode, chances are you’ll need the extra speed. But if you use a point and shoot camera for family gatherings, and you only use it on occasion, you don’t need a high speed memory card - you won't be shooting photos fast enough to be caught by the slow transfer of photos to your card. When all else fails, and you just don’t know what to buy, get a card that matches your camera’s speed. That’s the only sure-fire way to know your taking advantage of everything your camera has to offer.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on high speed memory cards and whether they truly make a difference.

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Comments

  1. Younes says:

    Thank you very much for this article, you made it all clear.

  2. Mercedes says:

    Hi David, I found this article you wrote about the high-speed cards, very interesting and enlightening. Thanks for sharing. Greetings respectfully. Mercedes

  3. Shashikant says:

    Many thanks David for the info. par excellence.

  4. Peter Bednarz says:

    To Jean,
    It helps to read your cameras user manual.

  5. Elvin says:

    @Roger Boeken:
    * Flash can be the bottleneck in burst-speed, that's right and actually mostly if you use (in my experience) the internal flash, much less for the external flash.
    This depends on which flash unit you use and if the flash needs to use all of its capacity within one picture or can be used 5 times for one reload for example.
    I use a lot of flash-photography and mostly with one ore more flash-units that don't need their entire capacity at once.
    Actually there are also flash-units that you can just plug-into the mains (230Volt here in Europe) and don't need to reload at all. I had one but it seased working and needs some repair; but worked quite fine.
    Photographic lights works fine as well of course...

    Elvin

  6. Roger Boeken says:
    • when you use flash, flash reload time is bottleneck
    • if you're camera does more than 3 frames/sec high speed cards are usefull
    • even if you're camera has a good buffer memory , if you want to recover fast from full buffer you need high speed mem card so you can shoot another sequence really fast.
    • if you shoot in RAW or RAW+jpeg you must use fast cards because of large files. Make shure the card is not faster than the camera can write to it, this is waste of money.
    • try a faster card and compare with your own card if possible, maybe you can borrow a card from someone for a few minutes : check how many pics in a row you can continuously shoot before you have to wait for the mem card to catch up. If the number of pics you can take in such way is much larger than you ever need you may not need fast mem cards.
    • youre camera manual shows some figures about shooting speed and includes info about mem card speed needed to achieve this.
    • make sure your camera supports the speed and size of the mem card you buy, if the seller confirms ask if you can test it in the shop , take youre cma with you !
    • last but not least : if youre camera can take movies mem speed is even more important .

    Roger
    eos50D sandisk extreme 60MB/s udma

  7. James says:

    Thanks for the detail information about digital cameras

  8. Carlos says:

    Thanks a lot.
    This article helps us to use money better.

  9. Jean says:

    How do you know what your camera's buffer speed is?

    How do you know that you are getting fast speed in the memory card?

  10. Joan says:

    THANKS this is a subject seldom mentioned. What you say makes sense, thanks very much.

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