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I don't think anyone can give a definitive answer, but what are the factors I should consider?

What are the pros and cons?

I'm thinking: What are the costs? the risks? How is usability affected? Anything else?

Can you give any concrete examples or experiences you have had which incline you one way or the other?

Any thoughts gratefully received.

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Related Question: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/710/… –  chills42 Feb 21 '11 at 15:20

11 Answers 11

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The funny thing about memory cards is that cost to size isn't always linear. For example, you might buy a 4GB card for $50, but the 8GB might only be $75 or it might be $150. That's just an example, the threshold for where the big price shift happens changes as technology and capacity improve. So, in terms of price, it will depend on the capacities you want.

For general pros and cons:

Single Card Pros

  • Only one card to carry around, no swapping required
  • Likely to be a cheaper option

Single Card Cons

  • All eggs in one basket, so if toasted, you lose it all
  • If you run out of space, you're stuck

Multiple Card Pros

  • Reduces the risk of losing everything if one card is bad
  • Allows for seperation of work
  • If you can afford it, it can give you a lot more capacity

Multiple Card Cons

  • Can be more expensive to get to the same size
  • Easier to lose them (since they're not in your camera)
  • Swapping

To be honest, the eggs in one basket scenario worries me bit, so I usually carry more than one card. Also, despite using 8GB cards, I have run out of space at times and have been grateful to have my spares (I'm paranoid, I have 3 8GB and 1 4GB cards in my bag).

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Thanks for taking the time to set out all the pros and cons - exactly what I was after. Really helpful. –  AJ Finch Aug 4 '10 at 16:32
    
You're welcome! I went through the thought process myself when I decided on how to by cards. –  John Cavan Aug 4 '10 at 17:28
    
Great answer. Just to add an advantage to the multiple card scenario. I read about a professional who treats his cards as write once - he'll shoot the job, copy the images to Lightroom and then puts the card in an envelope. This gets filed away and serves as one of his backups. The cards can be covered as a material cost in the invoice. –  Thomas Bisset Mar 28 at 22:24

My preference is always to carry at least 2 memory cards, just in case something goes wrong. At the moment, that means I'm carrying around one very large card and one smallish card. While I like having the capacity of the large card and not having to worry about running out of space, I'd feel naked without some sort of backup.

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Yes - I don't like the idea of running out of space and having nowhere to go. Great point. –  AJ Finch Aug 4 '10 at 16:33

This really comes down to personal preference, however there are a few best practices that should be advised:

  1. Carry a spare card, or even a few spares.
  2. Stick with more reputable brand cards.
  3. Use a backup solution on a daily/per-shoot basis if you wont be transferring to your computer until much later.

Personally I prefer the largest card that I can afford at the time I'm buying memory cards. The 5D Mark II produces very large images, and because I now shoot bracketed, I go through free space quickly. Murphy's Law will always have me run out of space in the most inopportune time, and to prevent that I use fewer, but larger cards.

The caveat to this is: I only buy memory cards when I start having issues with storage. I haven't purchased a memory card in a few years, and surprisingly 32GB seems to be the sweet spot for me.

The pros of my approach:

  • Fewer cards to keep track of
  • Fewer times you have to change cards
  • Spare card(s) just in case

Cons:

  • Multiple larger cards can be costly
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Thanks for explaining your personal experience - very helpful. In fact, I also have a 5DmkII with a 32GB card, and I keep a few of my "old" 4GB cards around for when I run out of space - but that hasn't happenned yet. –  AJ Finch Aug 4 '10 at 16:32

Buy whatever suits you best. If you have breaks in your shooting style that allow for swapping cards, two cards may be the way to go. If you are shooting high paced events that don't allow a lot of time to swap card, or if you are good at losing small items, one card may be a better choice for you. I know as many photographers who have lost pictures by misplacing a card after they swapped it at a high paced event as have lost pictures due to memory card failure.

Most problems with memory cards are caused by inserting or removing when the card is communicating with the host system. I always power down my camera before swapping cards, and never remove a CF card from a reader that is powered up. In the case of SD cards, being sure to use the OS to eject them before removal should be enough. Following those practices, I've never experienced memory card failure, SD or CF, in any of my cameras going back to 2005.

I use a 400X 32GB Transcend CF card in my 5DII most of the time and a faster 600X 16GB Transcend CF card in my 7D. I have another 400X 16GB card and a couple of 8GB cards in my bag as well. All are UDMA or faster.

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Can only recommend multiple cards for higly organized people. I don't call myself sloppy, but I can't even think of having more than one card. I would quickly misplace and lose the one(s) not inside the camera. So +1 for noting this with emphasis ;) –  Esa Paulasto May 12 '13 at 16:55

Personally, I prefer to take a few medium sized memory cards ...

  • If you find a memory card has gone bad for some reason (rare, I know, but it happens) you can switch to another one.
  • You can segregate major subjects easily ... so if you're traveling and are focusing on a certian theme, you can use one card for the theme and another card for snapshots.
  • If you're with a group, and someone is lacking in capacity or has a bad card, you can easily loan them one of yours.
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I prefer to carry at least one spare card outside the camera.
That way I am not surprised to find I was not looking at the working card's utilization. So, think of the second card as a reserve.

I use a high-speed professional kind card as the working one and am not particular about the reserve card.

I have felt (and heard/read about) various memory based gadgets (not just camera) going slower or at times even crashing firmware frequently with larger capacity cards. I don't really use max capacity cards with my camera but, that could be a point to check.

Finally, I have also been thinking of the 'endless memory' EyeFi cards these days -- will go quite well with a notebook/netbook on the move.

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If you're going camping, a large memory card is your best bet. Not a lot of cards to carry. If you're doing wedding photography or portfolios, you should carry several cards.

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I carry 2 16 gb Sandisk Extreme Pro and 1 8gb Sandisk Extreme III class 10 as a back up. I like having medium capacity cards because it gives me the option of shooting RAW or JPEG. I also download about every 600 shots so I do not need the larger capacity cards...at this time.

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You have pretty much covered it with costs, risks & usability.

One possible advantage to multiple cards could be to group certain tasks. e.g. photos of different events, for different clients, at different locations.

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I prefer having several medium sized cards, which I rotate between at regular intervals.

This has the effect of breaking up my shots into smaller groups and decreasing the risk of losing a large number of shots. I don't worry too much about it though, as I have never actually had any corrupted cards, but I know that is a risk so I try to minimize it.

I also format the cards after uploading my images, which should lower the risks a bit as well.

This is not directly related, but I also recommend using higher speed (Class 6 or higher) cards, simply because it greatly speeds up the upload process.

Also, as far as cost, it is almost negligible, so if I were to want, say, 32GB of memory, I'd prefer 4 8GB cards over 1 32GB card (same speed), which both come out at roughly $70.

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I use one big card, but I'm not a professional photographer. I find that the less things I have to carry and worry about while I'm out taking pictures, the better!

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