So you got a new DSLR for Christmas…now what?

It started with a trip to a local retail store to find a Christmas gift for my sister and I wound up helping an elderly man the ‘non-commissioned’ sales clerk was steering towards very high speed and high end memory for the brand new Nikon D3300 camera.

I saw his standing there, staring at a wall of memory cards, with a 64GB SDXC card that cost close to a hundred dollars. It’s throughput was around 95MB per second and it was a quality name brand and not some off the wall series of letters on a sticky piece of paper.

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When his sales person walked off with the brand new Nikon D3300 in the box to get a lens he asked for with this package, I asked him about the card he was holding. He said it is what the sales clerk handed him and rather than tick off the sales person, I suggested that he go with something slower. I then explained the frames per second rate of the D3300 and how fast the camera writes data to the card.

The key is to have a media card that accepts data at a rate just faster than the write speed of the camera.

So a Nikon D3300 shoots at a maximum still photo frame rate of 5 frames per second. The average file size is a little over 20 megabytes (MB) for each raw format photo. So if your media card accepts data at say 30 MB per second, it will unload three photos while you have taken five. What this means is that the buffer (the amount of built in memory of the camera) will fill up and stop you from shooting at full speed.

And if I know anything about luck, that buffer usually fills up just a few frames before you get your money shot.

But how often are you going to be shooting that fast? This was a senior who was buying the camera for his wife. She likely would not turn on the full burst rate of the camera. And so I asked the man flat out, what was his wife interested in shooting images of. He said nature, birds, butterflies, and water scenes. That type of shooting lends itself to slower shots and limited straining of the camera’s buffer.

I recommended he put down the 64 GB 95 MB per second class 10 SDXC card and instead buy four (4) 16 gigabyte class 10, 30 MB per second cards.

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Just so we can get the speed information down properly, a class 2 memory card records at roughly 2MB per second. This is good for H.264 video. Class 4 and class 6 are 4MB per second and 6MB per second respectively. The cards you want with modern DSLR cameras are class 10, or 10MB per second and faster, data transfer rates on the SDHC/SDXC cards.

There are some companies that complicate matters by saying that their cards are 133x or 200x when it comes to speed. Basically those numbers mean their data transfer rates; 100x = 16 MB per second, 160x = 24MB per second and so on….

So you only need a memory card that will keep up with your camera. Not EVERYONE needs a 280 MB per second SDXC card to shoot photos of your family’s sporting events.

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The next thing to cover is when to use large cards versus smaller cards. If you have a new entry level camera, you will not need to have a large memory card. You should have a memory card that can hold 100 to 250 photos in your raw photo format for your camera.

Any more space than that can lead to a problem that may one day cause a problem for you

If you have one 64 GB SD card and it crashes on you, it takes all 64 GB of your images with it. If you use multiple cards and spread your photos out over the cards, the odds of a catastrophic failure ruining your memories, decrease. In a worst case scenario where a card crashes with your precious memories on it, you might be able to grab a few extra shots on the other cards and while it may not be the moment you want to remember, you will have some image of that time rather than lament about the one that got away.

Now…let’s talk about brands. Most major brands make good memory cards; Transcend, Samsung, Sandisk, PNY, Sony, Panasonic, Patriot, Lexar, and Verbatim are just a few of the names that come to mind. There are many, many more out there that are worth your time and investigation.

In short…unless you have experience with a DSLR, know what your camera’s specifications are, and maybe have a leaning towards one of the many brands, sizes, and speeds of memory cards, you will likely not need the fast, high capacity, cards. You need to know your camera, know what your needs are and how you intend to shoot. If you “spray” (meaning you shoot photos from your camera at the fastest frame rate your camera allows until the camera’s buffer is full) then yes…get faster cards. But most good photographers will tell you that you rarely need to spray any event. Three shots at one time is usually sufficient.

But we will cover that later.