What Memory Card

what memory card for a camera

It may seem like a boring topic, but choosing what memory card to buy for your camera is actually really important.

Memory cards for cameras may only be small, plastic, seemingly-insignificant things, but choosing the right memory card is an essential step for your photography.

There are many complex guides on choosing memory cards and more specific ones on what memory card is best, but I wanted to create a simple guide which you can refer to whenever you buy a new camera.

I’ve tried to dumb this guide down as much as possible, focusing only on the information about memory cards that I think is necessary to the average photographer (whether amateur or pro).

Remember – the memory card may well be the least sexy part of your new camera, but in many respects, it’s actually the most important!

What Memory Card is right for your Camera?

There are various brands of memory card available today. Then there are various formats of memory card, and finally, there are different ratings of each one. Choosing a memory card isn’t as simple as you might think…

The first thing people usually do after buying a camera is to head over to eBay. Whilst there are undoubtedly some reputable eBay memory card sellers, I’d strongly recommend you resist the temptation to search for the cheapest memory cards you can find.

After you’ve spent some decent money on a camera, using a cheap memory card would be like putting cheap tyres on your brand new car. If your camera can’t read and write to its memory card reliably, your camera is essentially useless.

When deciding what memory card is right for your camera, it’s important to consider a few factors. Let’s look first at the various types of memory card.

Memory Cards for Cameras

To simplify this guide, I’ve chosen to focus on the major types of memory cards for cameras, and ignore anything seldom used, or used only on older models of camera.

If your camera still uses formats of memory card such as the Sony Memory Stick or the standard SD card, it may be time for a (camera) update. Camera technology has moved a lot since these formats of memory card.

Even investing in one of these best cameras under $500 will provide a notable improvement in the quality of your photos and features offered by your camera.

So let’s concentrate on the 5 main types of memory cards for cameras most commonly used today.

#1 | SDHC Cards

SDHC Memory Card

These are by far the most common and popular type of memory cards for cameras. ‘Secure Digital High Capacity’ (SDHC) cards are usually referred to simply as ‘SD cards’, although regular ‘SD cards’ are actually something slightly different.

If you ever come across a memory card that’s labeled ‘SD’, usually in big letters, make sure to avoid it. SD cards are an older technology, and are limited to 2GB which will be much too small for modern cameras.

SDHC memory cards on the other hand allow you to store up to 32GB of photos. In addition, the performance of the card (read/write speed – more on this below) is much better.

We’ll talk about what memory card size (capacity) is right for you later on in this guide.

#2 | SDXC Cards

SDXC Memory Card

‘Secure Digital Extended Capacity’ (SDXC) cards are also rather confusingly referred to by most photographers as simply ‘SD cards’ too. SDXC cards are the industry standard for professional photographers whose cameras support the SD card format.

SDXC cards offer faster read/write speeds and higher capacities than any other form of SD card, supporting up to a theoretical 2TB in storage!

Each year the maximum capacity of SDXC cards grows, and prices come down for all the smaller capacities under it.

#3 | Micro SDXC Cards

MicroSD Memory Card

SD cards also come in a miniature version which many of you will recogise as the memory cards for mobile phones, tablets and the latest drones.

As with their bigger brothers, Micro SD cards can be found in Micro SD, SDHC and SDXC varieties. I’ve chosen to focus only on the fastest, largest capacity-supporting variant for simplicity sake.

As with the regular SD cards above, I’d recommend avoiding Micro SD cards, and considering either the HC or XC types which are faster and offer more storage.

#4 | CF Cards

Compact Flash Memory Card

‘Compact Flash’ (CF) cards are something of a dying breed of memory card, but I chose to include them in this guide since several modern professional DSLRs still use it (including most notably the Canon 5D Mark IV – reviewed here).

CF cards a larger and much more robust than SD cards. I enjoyed using them in my Nikon D700 (reviewed here) for a couple of years when I’d just turned professional.

It’s worth noting that some memory card readers don’t support CF cards so make sure you double check.

#5 | XQD Cards

Compact Flash Memory Card

The XQD format is currently the gold standard of memory cards, taking the best features of SD cards and CF cards to create a small, robust and extremely fast memory card.

XQD cards are still relatively new, and as such, their prices remain high. Only a small handful of high-end cameras (e.g. the Nikon D5, reviewed here) currently support XQD, most commonly offer it beside another format in a dual-memory card setup.

If you’re shopping for XQD cards, it’s likely you’re a professional or at least a photographer who wants the best – in which case, focus your attention on the latest generation of G-Series XQD cards which offer incredible 400 MB/sec read and 350 MB/sec write speeds.

Until the XQD format becomes more widespread, you’ll need a specific XQD memory card reader like this one for your computer.

What Speed of Memory Card do you need?

There are several factors that will influence the speed of memory card you require, most notably:

1) What format image you want to shoot (size, RAW/JPEG)

2) Whether you want to shoot video

3) Whether you want to shoot on continuous mode (i.e. take several photos in quick succession)

4) Your model of camera

Depending on your model of camera, you may only be able to take advantage of a certain ‘Write’ speed to your memory card, or your camera’s ‘buffer’ may be a limiting factor.

In this way, some might consider it a waste of money to invest in a memory card that’s ‘faster’ than what your camera is capable of using.

However, in general, I always recommend investing in the fastest memory card that you can afford.

Whilst it’s common for photographers to upgrade their camera equipment every few years, your memory card format usually remains the same. By investing in the fastest memory cards available in the format you choose, you’re future proofing your memory cards to some extent.

In addition, even if your camera can’t take full advantage of a ‘fast’ memory card, it’s likely your computer (and card reader) will be able to use the full ‘Read’ speed of the memory card. This means you can transfer your photos to your computer much faster.

Here’s a diagram showing where the speed of a memory card is typically shown:

memory_card_speed guide

1) Only the maximum Read speed of SD cards is usually shown; 2) Both the max Read and min Write speeds are commonly shown on XQD cards; 3) The max Read speed of this CF card is 160 MB/s and the minimum Write speed is 65 MB/s.

Even though the Write speed of SD cards isn’t normally shown, it’s usually safe to assume that it’s only slightly less than the Read speed.

What Capacity of Memory Card do you need?

There are two main schools of thought when deciding what capacity of memory card to buy. The first is that you should buy multiple smaller capacity memory cards, and swap them during a shoot so you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket.

The idea is that if you lose your camera or your memory card becomes corrupt, at least you’ll have another memory card containing photos elsewhere… just not the same photos, of course! Clearly this way of thinking is flawed…

The other way to buy memory cards is to get the biggest capacity you can afford, and this is what I recommend. With so many variables coming into play when taking a photo, you don’t want to have to worry about the most basic one of all – do I have enough space on my memory card?!

If you choose a large capacity memory card, you’ll be future-proofed in some regards, since the next camera you buy will likely have larger files and will require additional storage space per photo.

Another thing to consider when choosing what size memory card to buy is that the more you remove/insert your memory cards, the more chance there is that they will become damaged in some way. Having a large capacity memory card that you can leave in your camera while out shooting will minimize this risk.

How to Choose which Size Memory Card to Buy

The choice of what memory card to buy for your camera needn’t be a complicated one. Here’s my simple way to work out what size memory card you need:

  1. Estimate the number of photos you’re likely to be taking before returning home to make an off-camera backup;
  2. Double that figure;
  3. Now multiply that figure with the size of one image you’ve shot (this size will vary per scene, but just take any one image as an average);
  4. Divide this figure by 1,000 (since there are 1,000 MegaBytes in a GigaByte)
  5. Choose a memory card capacity that’s greater than this final figure.

So for example, I use a Nikon D750 and shoot approximately 2,000 images in RAW format per day’s wedding photography job – doubling this gives me 4,000.

One RAW image is on average 30 MB, so 4,000 x 30 = 120,000 MB.

12,000 / 1,000 = 120. So I’d be safe with a 128 GB memory card.

I actually decided to choose two of these SanDisk Extreme Pro 256 GB memory cards, just in case I have two consecutive days of weddings and I forget to download the images from my card after the first day.

Memory Card Price

You’ll notice that a memory card’s price rises uniformly as the card capacity increases, then will suddenly jump a lot in price when you hit the higher end capacities, such as 1 terabyte.

If you stick to relatively large memory card capacities such as 64gb, 128gb and even 256gb, you’ll be getting good value for money and a card large enough for a lot of photos.

I use Sandisk 256gb Extreme Pro SDXC cards for both professional work and while traveling with my family. I can easily fit a few weddings onto a card (thousands of photos), or weeks’ worth of holiday photos.

As I mentioned before, even if you see the price of memory cards is much cheaper on eBay, don’t be tempted!! eBay and many other unregulated sites are rife with fake memory cards. It’s very simple for unscrupulous vendors to relabel memory cards, or do other unethical acts to dupe the buyer.

In general, if a memory card’s price seems much cheaper from one vendor, avoid it like the plague!

I know how tempting it is to try and save money on a cheaper memory card after you’ve just spent a lot on the latest mirrorless camera, but trust me – it’s as dangerous as having cheap tyres on your car!

I’ve mistakenly purchased fake memory cards in the past, and have lost photos due to the cards becoming corrupt, or being much smaller capacity than their label suggests.

Now I only buy from reputable vendors on Amazon – those with hundreds of positive reviews, like this one.

A quick word on memory card backups…

Whatever size memory card you choose to purchase, remember to always, always make backups of your photos whenever you can!

Memory card backups can start from in your camera, shooting to both memory card slots at the same time if your camera supports it, then using an infield backup solution like this, before heading home to make further backups to computers, external hard drives and off-site cloud storage.

The Best Memory Cards

Now that we’ve talked a bit about the types of memory card and the factors you should consider when buying memory cards, I’d like to introduce a selection of the best memory cards available right now.

I’ve included memory cards of various capacities, but only those with above-average speeds. If you come across a cheaper memory card by a reputable manufacturer from a reputable vendor, it’s likely that the speed of the card may be a limiting factor.

I recommend you stick to the best memory cards mentioned below.

Best SD Cards | Small Capacity

SanDisk Extreme 16 GB SDHC UHS-I Memory Card

16GB SDHC memory card

Format: SDHC
Capacity: 16 GB
Read speed: 90 MB/s
Price: Approx. $11 – Click here to see latest price

SanDisk rules the roost when it comes to the best SD cards, and this one offers great value for money, fast, reliable memory card. The 16 GB storage capacity will be adequate for most low-mid range compact cameras, or cameras under $200.

If you shoot a lot of video on your camera, I’d recommend one of the larger capacity memory cards below.


Best SD Cards | Medium Capacity

SanDisk Extreme Pro 32 GB SDHC UHS-I Memory Card

32GB Extreme Pro SD memory card

Format: SDHC
Capacity: 32 GB
Read speed: 95 MB/s
Price: Approx. $26 – Click here to see latest price

With 32 GB of storage capacity, this SanDisk memory card is a great sweet spot in the memory card pricing. The SanDisk memory cards are also covered by a lifetime warranty.

I shot professionally using these exact cards with my DSLRs for years before I realised the huge benefit of using larger memory card capacities for wedding photography.

If you own a modern mirrorless camera or DSLR and plan to change cards each day, 32 GB should be enough storage. This card also features a fast write-speed of 95 MB/s, fast enough to keep up with even cameras that can shoot 4K video.


SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB SDHC UHS-I Memory Card

64GB SDHC memory card

Format: SDHC
Capacity: 64 GB
Read speed: 95 MB/s
Price: Approx. $36 – Click here to see latest price

This 64 GB memory card is a great size for the majority of photographers who don’t want to change memory cards whilst on holiday, or during an extended shoot. 95 MB/s is fast enough to record up to 4K video too.

As with the above recommended Extreme Pro memory card, make sure the card you purchase has the small ‘V30’ at the top right of the label which shows it’s the latest version.


Best SD Cards | Large Capacity

Large capacity SDXC memory cards

Format: SDXC
Capacity: 128~512 GB
Read speed: 95 MB/s

There’s not much point me writing separately about the large capacity best memory cards since they all have similar performance, just at varying sizes. The format here is SDXC, with the ‘XC’ referring to their extended capacity.

If you shoot multiple high resolution photos in succession with cameras such as the Sony a9, or Nikon D810, you may want to invest in these larger capacity memory card.

The best memory cards which allow large data storage include the SanDisk Extreme Pro 128 GB SDXC UHS-I Memory Card which costs around $65 (latest price here); and the SanDisk Extreme Pro 256 GB SDXC UHS-I Memory Card which costs about $130 (latest price here) – this is what I use for my wedding photography work.

Then there’s the big daddy, the SanDisk Extreme Pro 512 GB SDXC UHS-I Memory Card – you’ll have to shell out about $280 for one of these (latest price here).

Large capacity memory cards are usually used by wedding photographers, sports photographers, wildlife photographers, or anyone else who needs to shoot thousands of photos a day.

Of course, you can always choose to shoot multiple smaller capacity memory cards, but I don’t recommend this for professionals for the reasons outlined above.

Best Micro SD Cards | Large Capacity

Samsung 64 GB EVO Select Memory Card

64GB MicroSD memory card

Format: Micro SD
Capacity: 64 GB
Read speed: 80 MB/s
Price: Approx. $33 – Click here to see latest price

I say don’t bother with Micro SD memory cards that are less than 64 GB – Micro SD cards are far too fiddly to be removing each time they fill up. Plus prices are very reasonable, even for larger capacities.

This Micro SD card from Samsung is great value for money and an ideal size/speed memory card for phones, tablets, action cameras and drones that shoot in 1080 like the DJI Spark.

If your drone or device shoots video in 4K, you’ll need the Pro version of this card available here.

SanDisk also makes a comparable memory card but it’s slightly more expensive, with little to no difference in performance. It also comes with a 10 year warranty.

Memory cards for phones are dominated by Samsung ,which makes sense since Samsung is one of the largest mobile phone manufacturers.


Samsung 128 GB EVO Select Memory Card

128GB MicroSD memory card

Format: Micro SD
Capacity: 128 GB
Read speed: 80 MB/s
Price: Approx. $92 – Click here to see latest price

At 128 GB, this large capacity of Micro SD card is mostly for mobile, tablet, GoPro or drone owners who like to shoot a lot of video footage.

You’d be able to store an average of 10,940 photos on this card, or 16 hours 20 minutes of 1080 video footage! If you own a GoPro Hero 5, DJI Mavic Pro or any other device that shoots 4K video, you’ll need to opt for the Pro version of this card available here.

The Samsung range of Micro SD memory cards are water, temperature, X-ray and magnet-proof, although if you opt for this large capacity, it’s arguable as to whether the card will ever leave your device!


Best Compact Flash Cards | Small Capacity

SanDisk Extreme Pro 16 GB Compact Flash Memory Card

16GB Compact Flash memory card

Format: Compact Flash
Capacity: 16 GB
Read speed: 160 MB/s
Price: Approx. $33 – Click here to see latest price

Since Lexar recently announced that it would be discontinuing its memory card line, SanDisk is number one for Compact Flash memory cards both large and small.

With a capacity of 16 GB, this memory card is good for approximately 1,000 16 mega pixel photos, or 14 minutes of 4K video – you’ll have to decide if this is sufficient for you.

The super fast Write speed of up to 150 MB/s will mean the only bottle neck when taking multiple photos will be your camera’s buffer speed. The Read speed of up to 160 MB/s will mean that if you use a fast memory card reader and connection, you’ll spend less time waiting for photos to transfer.


Best Compact Flash Cards | Medium Capacity

SanDisk Extreme Pro 32 GB Compact Flash Memory Card

32GB Compact Flash memory card

Format: Compact Flash
Capacity: 32 GB
Read speed: 160 MB/s
Price: Approx. $46 – Click here to see latest price

Compact Flash memory cards typically offer much faster read/write speeds than SD cards, and this is reflected in their price/GB of capacity. CF cards are also more robust than SD cards.

32 GB is a nice sweet spot in the pricing of SanDisk Compact Flash Cards, providing good value for money and decent storage capacity too – 2,000 photos (at 16 mega pixels) and up to 28 minutes of 4K video recording should be more than enough for any hobbyist photographer’s shoot.

Again, the Read/Write speeds are excellent, if your camera and computer can take advantage.


SanDisk Extreme Pro 64 GB Compact Flash Memory Card

Compact Flash Memory Card

Format: Compact Flash
Capacity: 64 GB
Read speed: 160 MB/s
Price: Approx. $75 – Click here to see latest price

This is the a popular mid-large capacity Compact Flash memory card for professional photographers, especially wedding photographers who use the Canon 5D Mark IV.

64 GB of storage will hold approximately 4,000 photos at 16 MP (or roughly 2,000 photos at 30.4 MP if you own the afore-mentioned Canon DSLR) or 56 minutes of 4K video footage.

As with all SanDisk Extreme Pro Compact Flash memory cards, there’s a lifetime limited warranty. I’ve put these cards in the washing machine by accident on numerous occasions (!) but they always come out in one piece – just be sure to thoroughly dry the terminals before re-inserting into your camera.


Best Compact Flash Cards | Large Capacity

Large Capacity Compact Flash memory card

Format: Compact Flash
Capacity: 128~256 GB
Read speed: 160 MB/s

The high capacity Compact Flash cards are mainly reserved for professionals who need to shoot thousands upon thousands of photos, or hours of ultra high definition video.

The capacity of SanDisk Extreme Pro CF memory cards currently only goes up to 256 GB, but this will no doubt change in the future.

The Sandisk Extreme Pro 128 GB CF card will hold around 8,000 photos at 16MP or 112 minutes of 4K video and set you back about $140 (latest price here).

Then there’s the Sandisk Extreme Pro 256 GB CF card that can hold around 16,000 photos at 16MP, or 224 minutes of 4K video.

If you’re using the Canon 5D Mark IV or any other camera offering a higher mega-pixel count, the amount of photo storage will obviously be less, but even so, these two cards should satisfy even the heaviest shutter-finger!

Best XQD Cards

XQD memory cards

If you own a camera that offers XQD memory card support, I’m going to hazard a guess that you’re a professional photographer (or a lucky/wealthy amateur!) As such, you’ll only really be interested in mid-high capacity XQD cards.

Cameras that support the XQD format currently include the Nikon D500, Nikon D850, Nikon D4/D4s, Nikon D5 – hopefully we’ll be seeing more and more cameras released which support this gold standard in memory card formats soon. Here’s Nikon’s explanation of XQD and why you should consider it.

Both Lexar and Sony make excellent, reliable XQD cards which offer incredible read and write speeds. Sony just pip Lexar in cost though, so it’s the Sony offerings that I’ll recommend here as the best XQD cards for photography.

The Sony Professional XQD G Series 64 GB Memory Card is well-priced at around $110 (latest price here), with an incredible 440 MB/s Read speed and 400 MB/s Write speed. Using a camera with high frame rate and large buffer, you can really take advantage of this.

Since XQD cards are still relatively new, jumping up in storage capacity quickly increases the price. The Sony Professional XQD G Series 128 GB Memory Card is approximately $217 (see here for latest price) and the big daddy 256 GB version is about $440 (latest price here).

Clearly though if you’re a professional shooting something that requires you to take full advantage of your high frame rate/fast buffer camera, these high prices are completely justifiable… if a little hard to swallow at first!

If you’re investing this much into an XQD card, I’d recommend sticking only with Sony or Lexar XQD compatible card readers to offload your photos to your computer. The Sony QDA-SB1 is currently the best XQD memory card reader, and it also supports SD cards too.

Transferring images from your XQD cards to your computer is mind-blowingly fast, with thousands of images transferring in just a few minutes. If you’re someone who needs to offload a lot of images as quickly as possible to start editing them, investing in a camera which supports the XQD memory card format is a great time-saving step.

What Memory Card | Final Words

No matter what memory card you choose for your camera, please remember these two things: 1) always, always buy from a reputable vendor (the Amazon ones linked to on this list are the ones I use); and 2) always backup your cards whenever you can.

It may sound obvious, but no matter how expensive or fancy your camera, it’s useless without a memory card! Using memory cards from dubious vendors is a recipe for disaster.

Your precious images deserve a safe place to be stored, so invest in a high quality memory card that will last you the lifetime of your camera.

Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.