Maintaining Memory Cards for Professional Video Production

Flash cards for video production are an essential part of the production workflow. But how many videographers understand these vital storage components and care for them properly? This is a guide to treating video flash memory properly.

No matter how a videographer saves video images in the field, it probably involves a flash storage card. These range from super-tiny Micro SD to standard SD to larger CFast memory cards — depending on the type of camera used in the video production. However, regardless of the form of memory used, all flash cards should be treated with the same level of care as other professional gear.

The SD card, probably the most popular form of flash memory used in videography today, is a tiny, thin postage stamp-sized plastic card that it constantly handled, moved about and re-used in cameras. In some cases, this card, depending on the build quality, may be the weakest link in the video production chain. If a cheap card was purchased, it can crack, split or the plastic spacers between the contacts can become corrupted.

If users are not conscious of how memory is being handled in the video workflow, there’s a good chance the cards are not getting the best care. That can be a ticket for disaster. Just as with any professional gear, flash drives can be fragile and subject to failure if not treated correctly.

To start, professional videographers should buy name brand memory from a reputable dealer. The quality of the dealer is important because cards are easy to counterfeit and it is very difficult to tell the difference between the real thing and a fake. Be careful of ordering online at too good a price — the memory could be counterfeit.

Included in the best quality brands are SanDiskLexarTranscendSonyPanasonicSamsungKingston, Verbatim and PNY. If you choose an unknown brand, use some due diligence to check out the manufacturer. It is not worth it to purchase inferior memory to save a few bucks on a professional video shoot. Top manufacturers offer five or ten year, or even lifetime warranties. There’s a reason for these long warranties.

Match the speed of the flash disk to the equipment being used. Most modern cameras should support all types of SD/SDHC/SDXC cards. However, technology changes fast and it is important to check that the camera supports the latest specifications, such as SDXC. If it doesn’t, then the card may not work. This can be especially important when shooting 4K video in cameras.

If a memory card has a faster speed rating than a camera can support, it will fall back to the next speed that it does support. That can translate into a waste of money. It is important to match the camera and what you plan to shoot with the fastest memory card available.

Also important is card memory capacity. If you are shooting 4K, smaller capacity cards will mean you are changing cards more often or could run out of storage space too soon. Get the right size card for the type of shoot you are doing.

Be aware that though all memory cards look alike, they only appear that way on the surface. The quality, capacity, speed and energy efficiency of flash cards is very different. The controllers that manage the software are also different. For example, single layer cards cost more, but offer superior energy efficiency and longer life than multi-layer cards. Again, you pay more for better technology.

The best quality memory for professional use is normally protected from water, shock, magnetic interference and airport X-rays. This level of memory typically comes with a lifetime warranty and usually includes software for repair or salvaging corrupted files. Even though a professional level of memory is considered more durable than cheap, consumer bargain-basement cards, all cards should still be treated with care.

If your memory gets wet and you are not sure whether or not it is waterproof, dry it out at room temperature before using it. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Some higher end cards are waterproof, but know exactly what you are using before taking chances with it.

Pelican Hard Case for Media

Pelican Hard Case for Media

To protect all memory in the field from wear, tear and abuse, memory wallets are available from a wide range of manufacturers for all types of memory. These wallets usually hold from four to 10 cards, depending on their size. Not only do these wallets keep memory cards together in one place, they offer varying levels of protection.

Low-cost wallets may be soft, waterproof cases from manufacturers like Think Tank PhotoLowepro and MindShift Gear or hard cases from Pelican, HDE and Transcend. SanDisk, for example, makes a $20 hard case that can hold SD, XD, CF, MS, MMC, MiniSD and MicroSD in the same case. Amazon lists literally dozens of memory case manufacturers. The important thing is to choose one and use it protect your storage medium while in the field.

When purchasing memory, be sure to buy enough — at least three times as much as you estimate you will need. Store the cards at moderate temperature. Though flash memory is not nearly as sensitive as videotape was to humidity, all storage works better if its kept in the same environment where humans feel comfortable. That means don’t leave it in the freezing cold or on the dashboard of a car in 104-degree heat in the Miami summer.

A hard and fast rule that every videographer should honor is to format all memory cards before each use on the camera being used for the shoot. Not a computer or other device — the same camera being used for the shoot. This will save countless problems from mysterious, unexplained reasons.

When the shoot is over, get the images off that memory card as soon as possible. Flash cards are NOT an archival storage medium and should never be used that way. Back up the video to multiple desktop drives.

Lexar Card Reader

Lexar Card Reader

When transferring video from flash memory, it is best to use a card reader for greater speed. Card readers connect to your computer's USB port and free you from having to attach the camera to a computer. Lexar, SanDisk, Kingston and Crucial make card readers for a variety of formats.

To insure transfer accuracy, check out software like Red Giant’s Offload, part of the company’s Shooter’s Suite. Offload is a Mac or Windows application that works with virtually any camera, memory card and format. With Offload, every file is compared to the original to ensure an exact, pristine duplicate. It can also make an additional copy of files to another destination or drive at the same time as the original transfer.

SanDisk CFast Card

SanDisk CFast Card

If an error occurs on a memory card, stop using it right away, turn off the camera and remove the card. This is where recovery software comes in. Use it to try to recover the video or other images. Don’t use the card again until you track down the problem. Put a new card in the camera, format it and resume the shoot again — paying close attention to any additional error messages.

When using multiple memory cards, rotate them. Don’t use the same card over and over again. This is to insure even wear across the cards. No memory card lasts forever. Not only do they become obsolete as memory sizes and technology change, but single layer cards allow in excess of 100,000 read-write actions, while multi-layer cards may allow 10,000 to 15,000 read-write cycles.

As with everything else in video, you get what you pay for with flash memory. Don’t just buy the first card you see. Understand there is a major difference, even within the best known brands.

As a professional, understand every piece of your gear and how it functions in the workflow. Think about memory cards before you make the purchase and understand what you are getting and how to care for them. 

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