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Some of the earliest consumer digicams had floppy disk drives;  I used to have a Sony Digital Mavica like that. 

Later, when everyone and their grandma started to tout digital photography, one of the selling points was the "memory card".    It holds so many pictures, they said.

Today we're sporting 32 and 64 GB cards, and for many of us, it feels as if that's still not enough space.

Here's a quick look at these little chunks o' semiconductor.  In this article we'll talk about what cards to choose, why, and how to get the most out of a memory card.

A Quick Note

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In This Article

The Old Days

1,000 Pictures of Breakfast

The Overly-Frugal Photographer

Wouldn't It Make Sense

Early Cameras

The SDHC Standard

The SDXC Standard

SDXC and Linux


The Old Days

Remember when a 2 GB memory card seemed awesome? 

At one time, the standard "memory card" was a 1.44 MB floppy disk, loaded straight into the camera.  What's amazing is that a floppy disk couldn't even fit one of today's digital pictures.  A typical digital camera today produces an image that's anywhere from 5 to 20 megabytes per image.   Shoot in RAW + JPEG, and that file size goes up considerably.

Since a gigabyte is nominally 1,000 MB  (1,024, actually), a couple of gigs should have been all that we ever needed.

A roll of consumer-grade film holds only 24 pictures.  And with some people, one roll would last them a year. 

Gradually, we found that a couple gigabytes wasn't enough. 

First it went to 4 GB.  Then, 8.  Then, 16.

This wasn't entirely unpredictable;  when megapixel counts were doubling, it made sense that memory card sizes should also double.

But then there's that other thing.

What other thing?

1,000 Pictures of Breakfast

Digital photography lets people take a thousand pictures of their breakfast, if they want.  Digital cameras do have a finite shutter life-expectancy, so I don't think it would be too good to do that often.  But the point is:  yep, you could shoot 1,000 pictures of nothing special, and if you had a big enough memory card, no problem.

This is one of the many reasons why we fill up memory cards so fast. 

I guess it's better than...

The Overly Frugal Photographer

Few years ago, she got this awesome new 8-megapixel camera with a four-gig memory card.  She went on this once-in-a-lifetime vacation, and she took some nice photos. 

She got home, she printed the photos... and promptly deleted every one of them from the memory card. No backups, no nothin'.

"Why did she do that??" you might ask.

She didn't want to use up the memory card space.

There's "practical", and then there's... I don't even know what to call that.  For some odd reason, I've seen a lot of people do this.  It was more prevalent in the earlier days of digital photography (like 2008), but some people still do this. 

It's one thing to delete photos that aren't that good.  Every photographer should delete their crummy photos.  Those really do just waste space, and since you want to show only your best work, delete the junk.

But why delete the good photos?

Here's another reason not to do that.  Memory card sizes become obsolete eventually.  So, if you keep deleting your old photos, eventually you'll have an empty memory card that's obsolete and worthless.  It would be like saving a ton of blank negatives.  What's the point?

Keep those old memory cards with your good vacation photos.  Clear off the total junk, but keep your favorites at least. Memory cards probably won't last as long as real film negatives, but they're better than no photos at all.

It's at about this point that I usually recommend film.  I still say that.  There are film originals from 1890 and they're still around.  Meanwhile there are CD's and DVD's that have gone bad in just a few years.  But anyway:  point is, memory cards are cheap nowadays, and you can't go back and re-take that once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

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Wouldn't It Make Sense

to buy the biggest memory card possible, and be done with it?


There are a couple things you should know first.

Early Cameras

If you're using an older camera, you have to know what the camera's max memory-card size would be.

Some of the early digicams maxed out at 2 gigs.  The Canon Powershot A520 was such a one.  I used to shoot a lot with a Canon A520;  good little camera, for being only four megapixels.

Today's cameras, such as the Canon Rebel T6S, or the 70D, or the Nikon D5500, can handle larger-capacity SD cards. 

The SDHC Standard

First there is the SDHC standard, and as you might have guessed, HC stands for High Capacity.  SDHC includes cards up to 32 GB.  

The filesystem on these is FAT32, which means they can be read by any modern operating system including Linux.

I like SDHC cards.   A 32GB card usually lasts me a long time, even with video.   And the thing is, you're better off having several smaller cards (32 GB or less) than one jumbo capacity card.  Why?  For starters, when the big cards are almost full, they get much slower.  Also:  what if you lose the card, or it suddenly goes bad? 

If you want the most practical solution, you could stick with 32GB cards or smaller.  The price-per-gig doesn't come down that much by buying larger cards. 

If that works for you, then you won't need to read about...

The SDXC Standard

These are "extended capacity" cards, greater than 32 GB.

Somehow, Microsoft gained control of a standard that should have been open. And why should Microsoft be getting involved in digital cameras, anyway? What happened?  Well, SDXC cards are formatted with something called exFAT.  This requires a Microsoft licensing agreement.

In other words, Microsoft designed it so that if you want to use SDXC cards, you have to use their special filesystem with restrictive licensing requirements.

Is there any advantage at all to the exFAT file system? Well, yes: it's non-journaling, which is important for SD cards and other solid-state drives. Non-journaling means fewer data writes, which means the card will last longer. Are there any other non-journaling filesystems that could have done the job? Sure: ext2. That's the standard Linux filesystem.

Of course, Windows machines don't even know what to do with ext2. They can't even recognize it. Microsoft wasn't exactly in a hurry to accommodate Linux in any way. Actually, they've spent years trying to stamp it out of existence. (Or lately, they've got a more subtle strategy. )

Someone out there is probably thinking, "Hey, no problem, I'll just reformat that SDXC card to FAT32 or regular NTFS, and use it that way."

You might be able to do that, but maybe not.  It would work as a storage device for your computer (yay), but maybe not for your camera. 

The camera might be programmed so that it can't handle an SDXC card unless it's formatted with exFAT file system.  Your mileage may vary, though;  it could be worth a try.  If it doesn't work, you won't be able to use that SDXC card on your camera ever again, probably.

The sad thing, in my opinion, is that Microsoft would actually be more successful and more well-liked if they'd stop acting like they're the only ones with any right to make an operating system or a file system.  The highways of business history are littered with the husks of corporations who thought they could corner the market on something-or-other, forever.   It can be done for a short while, but there are a lot of smart people who don't really like monopolies. And they will innovate. 

SDXC On Linux

This website put it very succinctly when they said, "The state of Microsoft's exFAT on Linux has been crap."  If you have kernel 3.8 or earlier, you should be able to get the exfat-nofuse module.  Download the source and compile it.

Everyone else, you should be able to get and install the exfat-fuse module.  Some versions of Linux will not list it in the repositories.  Sometimes you can fix this by adding the correct "backports" server to your sources (e.g., /etc/apt/sources.list).  The syntax for these backport repositories is critical (like everything else command-line). 

Once you get the repositories nailed, you can then install exfat-fuse (e.g., sudo apt-get exfat-fuse).  From there, enjoy your 64GB+ memory cards!

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Getting The Most

If you shoot a lot of video and your stills are all RAW + JPEG, you will fill up any card... fast. 

4K video is going to make this situation worse.   You could just buy all new 128 GB cards;  on some days, I almost halfway sorta want to do that.

In the meantime:  learn to manage those file sizes.

What are you going to do with the photos?  If you're taking a picture to show your friends what you had for breakfast, that probably doesn't need maximum resolution.

On Medium JPG, a 24-MP camera will still give you 10 to 12 megapixel images.  A 12-MP camera will give you 5 or 6-MP photos.  That's more than good enough if you just want "a picture" of something. 

In fact, even if you make money with your camera, there are many customers who really don't care about the difference between 12 and 24 megapixels.  They just want a picture that sends the message they want to send. 

So, again:  when you don't think you'll need big enlargements, shoot Medium or Small JPG.   Then, when you see the most awesome landscape scene of your lifetime, you'll have the memory card space for some full-res JPG + RAW files.

As for video:  try keeping the clips shorter.  A lot of "erm" and "umm" in videos is distracting, and it wastes space.  You're standing behind the camera anyway, so you might as well read from a script.  And keep that camera on a tripod, because if you're anything like me, then you can't hold the camera as still as you'd like.

Basic idea:   Don't record a video that's ten minutes long when you could have accomplished the same thing in two minutes.

Another idea:  some videos don't need high resolution, either.  If your camera is set on 1080p, you can probably reduce that to 720p. 

And that, my friends, is how to get the most out of your memory cards. 


Today, I would just buy a bunch of 16GB or 32GB cards.  They will work on every operating system that I know of.  (OK, not OS/2 or Windows 3.1, but you know what I mean.)  Besides, it's better to have three or four smaller-capacity cards.  Losing one card won't be as big a problem.

If you want to use larger-than-32GB cards, that's very easy if you use Windows or Mac OS.  For Linux, it can be done with only a little bit of extra work.  Just get the exfat-fuse package, or if you want to be adventurous, compile the exfat-nofuse package from source code.

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