Photography by Jim Doty

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How Many Digital Memory
Cards Do you Need?

The recently announced Pretec 12 GB compact flash card, available late in 2004. Estimated price in U.S. dollars: $14,900

Pretec recently announced a 12 GB (gigabyte) compact flash memory card. Impressive! Expected price: $14,900. Very impressive!! It is supposed to be available in late 2004, perhaps in time to put in your Christmas stocking.

This got me to thinking: "What would you do with such a thing?" Stick it in your digital camera and take pictures forever!

Does this make sense?  Not for me. Ignoring the sticker shock, I wouldn't want that many images on one memory card. Too risky.

I use mostly 1 GB flash cards. In a serious shooting situation I might fill one or two cards in a day.  At the end of the day I download the card/s to a computer, do a quick preliminary edit, delete the bad shots, and burn the rest to CD-R discs. Only when the files have been burned to disc do I re-format the flash card and use it again (more on the reasons for this some other day).

At a recent conference I averaged a gigabyte of photos per day for 10 days. You can see some of them
here (scroll down to the 10 "World Conference" albums posted in March-April, 2004). Every night I would download, edit, and burn two sets of discs, one for me and another for the conference PR department. I would drop off their disc the next day.

With a 12 gigabyte memory card, I could have captured the whole conference on one card, but it would not have saved me from the nightly download. They wanted photos every day to post online.

Bad things happen to good memory cards. They can eventually fail, get lost, be physically damaged, dropped down the face of a cliff while you are switching cards while photographing bighorn sheep, stolen, or any one of a number of other mishaps. The loss, damage, or failure of a memory card is just like losing a bunch of rolls of exposed film. The bigger the card, the more pictures you lose.

I have not had a lost, damaged, stolen, or failed memory card yet, but I know it will happen some day. For me, the choice is a compromise between the convenience of carrying less cards and the risk of what happens if a card is lost or damaged and the images unrecoverable.

In Colorado last fall, I filled a 1 GB card with photos almost every day. If something happened to one of my cards, I would lose a a day's worth of photos. That would be truly sad. If I used a 12 GB card and something happened to it, I would lose a whole weeks worth of photos. If it was a great week, that would be truly awful (at least in photographic terms).

I went on the trip of a lifetime to Alaska and photographed the whole venture on film. If I had been using my current digital camera I could have shot the same number of photos on one 12 GB flash card with room left over. It would be simple and save lots of space, but what if something happened to that one card?

So how many memory cards do I need?  I need enough total memory to cover one or two days of intense shooting, PROVIDED I have a laptop to download the cards every night. And I need enough memory cards that it won't be a terrible photographic loss if something happens to one of them.

How many card do YOU need? It depends on how much memory you need between downloads, and an acceptable level of risk for you if something happens to one of your cards.

I can think of one good use for a 12 GB card. In a USB card reader you could carry around a collection of your most treasured files, ready to plug into any computer anywhere.

Then again, for $14,900, you could buy a laptop for your treasured files, or several laptops, or a car to carry your laptop, or lots of camera gear, or several trips to Alaska, or you could buy . . . .

Happy Safe Shooting!

June 9, 2004

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