Don’t Get Bit by ESD. Safe Handling Practices for Flash Media
Before the advent of digital photography, photographers had to be careful how they handled and stored their film. As an example, it is a good practice to store unused film in airtight canisters and inside a refrigerator (typically set at 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit). Direct sunlight and high temperatures can also adversely affect the reliability of film and even ruin a series of important images. Most analog photographers know the importance of developing good habits for handing and storing their film. Their photographs depend on it!
Although I doubt film will disappear entirely, it has been relegated to niche photography markets. Now that digital photography has become mainstream, it’s easy to get complacent and forget that flash cards can be just as fragile as film. Digital photographs are literally a series of 1s and 0s written onto flash media cards. A simple jolt of everyday static electricity can wipe out an entire flash card. In this guide I will discuss several best practices that will help you avoid losing your digital photographs and preserve the life of your flash cards.
Images courtesy of SanDisk, Lexar and PNY Technologies
Can Flash Media Be Too Big?
Let’s start with size. At the moment, memory cards are up to 128 gigabytes and continue to increase in size. Generally speaking, memory cards (secure digital or compact flash) are keeping pace with the advancements of digital SLR cameras. The more pixels a new camera can pack into a single image, the more space is needed on flash media cards to store those images. For example, a 36.3 megapixel camera produces and raw image with 36.3-million pixels! At first glance, a digital photographer’s mouth may water at the sheer size and resolution, but remember that it also requires a great deal of space to store the final images (initially on a memory card and later onto a hard drive). Despite the massive storage that high end cards provide, I encourage you to work with medium sized flash cards to help minimize the risk of losing all of your images in the event something unexpected happens to a card. Simply put, shooting across several medium sized cards (rather than one large one) will insulate you from losing all the images from a major shoot.
Safe Handling Practices
Most digital cameras offer a blinking light to indicate whether or not the card is being written to or accessed. Never attempt to remove a card while your camera is still writing to it. It’s also wise to always turn off your camera before inserting or removing flash cards.
Flash media, whether compact flash cards, secure digital cards, or thumb drives, are sensitive to electricity and electrostatic discharges (ESD). This is sometimes easy to forget since flash media has been designed to be convienient to carry and store. Flash cards can be easily damaged by static electricity. A digital forensics friend of mine tells me that they always make sure that they are grounded before handing flash cards back and forth between each other.
Static electricity -that you can feel- is usually over 3000 volts! Static electricity -that you can see- can be as high as 20,000 volts! It only takes around 30 volts (or less) to damage electronics and corrupt files on a flash card. Before handling flash cards, consider grounding yourself. This can be done very simply by touching something metal (to discharge any built up static electricity) prior to handling the card. It may sound overly cautious to go through the trouble of grounding yourself, but if the images on the card matter it is a worthwhile inconvenience to build into your regular routine.
Always store flash cards in storage wallets or plastic containers; especially cards that contain images that have not been downloaded yet. I had a terrible habit of just dropping used compact flash cards into my pants pocket and loading up a new one. Can you ever imagine doing that with film? Built up static electricity in your clothing can discharged very easily and damage a flash card. Remember that it only takes 30 volts to corrupt a flash card.
Avoid quickly hitting the playback button on your camera immediately after taking a photograph. At least one camera manufacturer suggests that this could corrupt files on the card. Wait a few seconds after the image has been completely written before viewing the shot. It is also temping to delete individual shots (e.g. out of focus or improperly exposed images) to save space. Not only could you accidently delete the entire card, but there is a possibility of corrupting some of the already written files. Almost everywhere I looked to research this guide (and nearly everyone I spoke to) agreed that you should avoid deleting individual images. If fact, it is better to format the entire card through your camera’s menu system after you are sure that the images have been safely transferred onto your computer (and backed up!). This ensures that the card gets wiped clean before the next use. The delete option simply tells the camera to ignore the image. Just forget about the bad shots and keep working. You can mark them as unselected when you actually transfer the images from your flash card to your computer. Note: Adobe Bridge and Lightroom allow you to quickly unselect a series of images during the transfer process.
More on Formatting
While on the subject of formatting, keep in mind that it is never recommended that you format camera flash cards using a computer. Stick to formatting flash cards within the camera to stay out of trouble. Also remember to format newly purchased flash cards with your camera before you start using them. This will ensure that the file allocation table (FAT) is setup properly for your camera.
Transferring Photographs with the Camera or Card Reader – Which is Best?
Photograph Courtesy of Lexar
Transfer images from your flash card to your computer using a decent quality card reader. I have seen card readers as cheap as $5 USD. If your photographs matter to you at all, invest in a brand name card reader. Also avoid transferring images with your camera. This is fraught with potential problems; the main one being that your camera battery may go dead during the transfer process.
Since flash cards do wear out and have a lifespan, remember to remove the flash card shortly after transferring your photographs. It is easy to jump right into processing your shots and forget that your flash card is still receiving power and being accessed by your computer unnecessarily. Remove the flash card as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary wear and tear. This also ensures that you are not processing the images on your flash card and instead processing the ones transferred to your hard drive.
Best Practices for Inserting and Removing a Flash Card From Your Camera
- Check to ensure that your camera is turned off and that it has an adequately charged battery.
- Ground yourself by touching something metal to discharge any static electricity.
- Make sure the flash card is dry, clean and free of defects before placing it into your camera. This includes making sure that there are no bent pins and that the access ports are not clogged with any foreign material. Gently insert the flash card into your camera.
- Turn your camera on and hit the playback button. I attempt to playback any images that might be on a newly inserted flash card to ensure that I am not trying use a card that has recently shot images on it.
- Format the card (if necessary) from within your camera.
- Shoot a test image and play it back. This is a great time to shoot a grey card to use later in processing.
- Now you are ready to start taking photographs. Have fun!
- Turn off the camera when you are finished taking photographs for the day.
- Ground yourself again.
- Gently remove the flash card and place it into a card wallet or plastic storage case.
- Store the flash card in a safe place until you can trasnfer the images (e.g. camera bag pocket).
- Insert the flash card into a card reader once you are at your computer and are ready to transfer the images.
- Transfer the images from the flash card to your computer using the software of your choice.
- Back the images up to a secondary hard drive (this is optional, but very important). Most imaging software has an automatic backup feature built in to streamline the process.
- Properly remove the flash card from your card reader. Windows users should right click on the flash card icon and select the “Eject” option. Mac users should drag the flash card icon to the trash bin. When you do this, the trash bin will turn into an eject icon.
You may have noticed that I did not point out that you should format the card as one of the last steps. I don’t format my flash cards right away so that I have a temporary third copy in case the images were improperly transferred. I typically format my cards right before I go out to shoot again. Feel free to modify these steps to fit your own style. Some photographers prefer to format their flash cards right after transferring their images so that they don’t accidently try to shoot on a card that still contains old images. The key is to get into a habit of handling your camera and flash media safely and consistently to avoid problems.
If you do run into problems accessing the images on a flash card or notice corrupt files, stop using the card immediately. Whatever you do, do not format or delete images off the card. Recovery software may be able to retrieve the images for you. Recovery software can be hit and miss. Most of the recovery software that comes bundled with flash cards are consumer grade and provide spotty performance. You may need to purchase something heavier duty to get the job done. Even then you may not be able to retrieve all of the lost images. Take a look at the links below for a list of software vendors that specialize in recovery software.
How you handle and care for your flash cards might seem like a minor aspect of photography, but all of your vacation photos could be wiped out with a single jolt of static electricity. It’s important to practice good habits while handling flash cards. Your images depend on it!
Web Resources for Recovery Software
This is not an all inclusive list of recovery software. Please feel free to send me an email if you know of software that has worked well for you and I will add it to the list.
Androit Photo Recovery – Windows (free)
BadCopy Pro – Windows (small cost)
Camera Salvage – Mac (small cost)
Card Recovery – Windows (small cost)
Data Rescue for Windows (small cost)
Data Rescue for Mac (small cost)
Free Recover – NTFS Drives Only (free)
PC Inspector – Windows (free)
PhotoRec – Windows, Mac & Linux (free)
Recuva – Windows (free) (portable version)
Restoration – Windows (free)
Undelete Plus – Windows & Mac (free) (portable version)
About the Author
Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for nearly 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.
Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Prints and Paxton Portraits.