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What is the right way to format a SD card to be used for pictures? Inside the camera or SD card software?

According to SD card spec, there is a protected area on the card that can be over-written when formatted with an operating system formatting tool. The use of OS formatting tool can also make the card slower and shorten the lifespan.

For these reason I use SD card formatter software downloaded from SD card Association.

I have Nikon D3000 that has an option to format the SD card inside. Does the camera format the SD card preserving the protective area?

  • I primarily work with Linux but have dedicated a windows laptop for software that has no Linux alternative. I'm sure someone out there will forge (or already forge) such a software for Linux. :-) – Chetan Bhargava Dec 31 '12 at 7:35
  • We have one. It's the standard FAT formatting tool in Linux. Read my comment below, or, as this is getting off-topic, we could take this to a new question on unix.stackexchange.com – mattdm Dec 31 '12 at 14:04
  • That SD formatting software from the SD card association, in my opinion, is a piece of trash. Formatting the card in-camera using the camera menus removes most variables where something could go wrong, and is my preferred method, but that said, I would trust both the camera and Windows to format the card better than that software. Also, don't buy that scare-talk about a protected area on the card - it applies only to a long-forgotten copy-protection feature of SD cards that is no longer used (certainly not by cameras). The card is designed to be formatted by standard formatters. – thomasrutter Apr 22 '13 at 8:01
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The short answer is that it doesn't really matter.

The "protected area" is not important for photography; I'm not aware of any camera that uses it. This area is theoretically used for user-hostile copy protection and is not really for your benefit in any case. When using your camera to store photos, you can just ignore it.

The concern about less than optimal performance is unlikely to be relevant with any modern operating system (or camera). I think the main concern is that the OS may do a "full format", causing unnecessary writes. Since this is terribly slow on any storage device of the capacities we use these days, every OS uses the better-for-flash quick formatting anyway. There's more on this under How often should memory cards be formatted?

As answers to that question note, camera makers usually recommend formatting in-camera rather than with a computer. There are several reasons for this:

  1. A user could format the card with an incompatible filesystem, like NTFS or HFS. This would cause confused users and expensive tech-support calls. Better to just say "do it in the camera".
  2. Very unlikely, but a bug in some OS's FAT implementation or in the camera's own firmware could conflict. Keeping it all in-camera is safer here (but I've never heard of this really happening — the filesystem format is simple and well understood).
  3. Formatting in-camera causes the DCIM folder structure to be created — but as this happens when you write a photo if it's not there already, this is unimportant.

If you understand all this, there's absolutely no harm in formatting the card on your computer, with the special SD Card Association firmware or with the OS's own tools. If you don't, use the camera's own formatting to be safe.

  • What happens to the cluster size? Does the camera optimizes the cluster size while formatting? – Chetan Bhargava Dec 31 '12 at 7:31
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    Since the filesystem is FAT, there are not any choices to be made. For compatibility, I'm almost certain that clusters no larger than 32k can be used, and sizes smaller than that wouldn't allow larger SD cards. But, even if other sizes could be chosen, this isn't a big deal: the camera is generally writing big files all at once regardless of FAT cluster size. You just have to trust the FTL (flash translation layer) on the SD card's firmware to do the best thing. – mattdm Dec 31 '12 at 13:50
  • While I upped the answer, I have had problem with SD card formatted on Win7 PC in Canon EOS 1000D and had to reformat it in camera. Since then I always format in camera. – Gnudiff Sep 4 '17 at 9:16
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I'm a Windows user, in my personal experience, from the days I had Win XP and now Win 7, the OS can cause the memory cards to work slower, create wrong folder structure or even fail.

Whether you're using memory cards in a digital camera, cellphone or any other device, I think it's much safer if you format it in the device itself. I think it shouldn't be such a problem, right?

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    This is because cluster size is not optimized by the OS for the SD card. The SD card formatter utility optimized the cluster size. – Chetan Bhargava Dec 31 '12 at 7:31
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The SD Association offers a free program for formatting SD type cards. The name is SDFormatter.exe for windows. I haven't installed in on my MAC but it's probably SDFormatter.app.

I recommend formatting your SD card occasionally with the SD Association's format utility and then formatting the card again in your camera before using it in the camera.

I format memory cards in cameras about once a week, not every time I upload photos. I backup photos to three hard drives before formatting or erasing a card.

Hope this helps,

Dave

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    Why do you recommend any of this? What effect does it have? – Philip Kendall Sep 18 '16 at 17:08

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