Find the Right Memory Card for Your Camera

For a number of reasons, compact flash memory cards are the product of choice for high-end digital SLR cameras.  They are fast and more rugged than other types of digital storage media like SD and XD cards, which are much smaller and more fragile.  Here is a quick guide to help you find the right compact flash card at the right price. 

Determine the Storage Capacity You NeedLexar Compact Flash CardCredit:

Obviously, as you increase the size of your compact flash card, you will increase the amount of photos you can store.  Think of what you use your camera for.  Do you generally just use it at family events at home, or do you take it out for long vacations away from any computers?  If you use your camera for extended periods of time without transferring files to your computer, you will need multiple large compact flash cards. 

All dSLR cameras allow you to adjust the resolution of your photos.  So, if you have a 12-megapixel camera you can actually set it to a resolution lower than 12MP, which means you could actually hold more photos than what is listed above.  If you ever run out of memory with your camera and do not have access to more storage, you always have the option of changing your resolution to conserve space.  You do NOT want to do this though if you plan on making large prints with your photos. 

Here is a quick guide to help you determine how many photos you can fit on your memory card.  All totals are based on a 12-megapixel camera, which is fairly typical for lower end dSLR cameras.

Storage Capacity

16 GB




Total Photos 





Do not put all of your eggs in one basket

Many professional photographers will shy away from only using one or two large memory cards, instead opting for a greater number of smaller sized cards.  The reasoning behind this is rooted the accidental destruction or misplacement of memory cards.  If one of your cards is lost and you have a large memory card, you will lose a lot of photographs.  However, if you use a small memory card, you will not lose as many pictures.  Obviously, this is a worse case scenario, but it is something to be aware of, as it has happened to many photographers before. 

Determine the Speed You Need

Standard compact flash cards have dramatically decreased in price over the past few years, but these cards can only receive information at a certain rate.  At most high end camera retailers, you will find a number of compact flash cards that say things like “90MB/s” or “400X.”  This simply means that the compact flash cards can process that much information per second.  In the case of the “400x” cards, the packaging will generally include the number of megabytes per second that the card can process, which is much simpler to understand (a 400x card is equivalent to 60MB/s). 

To determine the speed of card you need to purchase, you must again know what you use your camera for.  If you are shooting fast action, like in sports, you will want to invest money in a fast compact flash card.  However, if you are only taking landscape photos or even portraits, you will more than likely not need a card with a higher speed.  Most wedding photographers do not even need a faster memory card since they rarely use the continuous shooting mode.  At the rare instances when they do shoot many frames at once, the internal memory of the camera usually can store the files while the memory card processes information. 

Also, be aware of the capabilities of your camera.  Many cameras at both the high-end and low-end of the digital SLR market can shoot many frames per second (fps), but many do not.  For example, the Canon 5D Mark II can shoot at 3.9 fps while its class equivalent, the Nikon D700, can shoot at 7 fps.  Nikon owners would and should be much more likely to purchase a faster memory card than Canon owners.  So, be sure to determine how many frames per second your camera can handle.  If your camera can only shoot at 3 fps and the output file size is only 10 megabytes, the MAXIMUM speed of card you should get is 30MB/s (3fps x 10mb = 30MB). 

What brand of Compact Flash card should you purchase? 

Off-Brand Compact Flash CardCredit: Amazon.comSanDisk and Lexar are probably the most popular manufacturers of compact flash cards, but they are by no means the only ones.  SanDisk has “Extreme” cards that are rated for extreme temperatures and humidity.  These cards are even backed by a limited lifetime warranty.  Most cards also feature software that will allow you to recover lost files from your storage device. 

There are a number of no name brands on the market.  They may certainly work well, but use those at your own risk. 

Where can you purchase Compact Flash cards? 

Most high-end camera retail stores offer a vast array of compact flash cards.  Best Buy, however, has a very small selection and often only carries a few CF cards in their stores (Best Buy is not a high-end camera retailer).  Comparison shop before you purchase, and be sure to look at online retailers such as Amazon, where you can often find the best deals.  Compact flash cards have dramatically decreased in price as manufacturers release cards with more and faster memory so you are sure to find a good deal for your camera storage.

In Summary:

  • Determine what size and how many cards you will need to purchase. 
  • Know the output file size of your camera and what you use your camera for. 
  • Determine the speed you need.
  • CF cards with high processing speeds can be very expensive.  Only get the maximum that your camera can handle. 
  • If you are only shooting landscapes and portraits, you probably do not need a fast memory card.
  • Brand is somewhat irrelevant although SanDisk and Lexar have the best reputations among professional photographers. 
  • Shop around for the best deal.  Instantly find deals online or support your local retailer.