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Posts tagged Canon 5D

Memory card conundrum

memory cards and readers

My first digital camera was a Nikon Coolpix 950 bought in 1999 for around $1,000. It came with an 8MB compact flash card. I soon upgraded to a 64MB card for close to $300. It used to be that the cost of memory cards for digital cameras was an important deciding factor in the camera purchase. One of the primary deciding factors in my move from the Nikon 950 to an Olympus E-10 two years later was its ability to use my growing collection of CF cards. However, by the time I traded up to my Canon Rebel XT in 2005 memory card prices had begun to fall while capacities rose and I found my collection of random 48-512MB CF cards replaced by a single 4GB model.

Flash forward to today and the collection of CF and SD cards and readers seen above is what I have left collecting dust in my desk drawer. When I made the jump from the Rebel XT to a Pentax K10D in 2007 I also made the jump from CF to SD memory. Since then I have once again made the jump to CF memory (during my all to brief stint with the awesome Canon 5D), over to Sony Memory Stick (for a not brief enough stint with a Sony DSC-H1) and back to SD (for my once again current K10D). All of this is a way of saying that I have had a bit of experience with memory cards over the years ;-)

Which brings me to the point of this article. With so many options available today, what’s the best solution? The simple answer is that there is no single solution that works for every photographer. However, there are a few things that I have learned that will make things easier for those of you just wading into this quagmire. So, wade into the following quagmire:

Compact Flash, Memory Stick Pro Duo, SD

Card Format:

I’m talking about the physical form factor of the card, not the camera’s software format of the memory card. Your choices today are pretty much limited to Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD). Sony’s Memory Stick (and all its various permutations) seems to be going the way of the Dodo with respect to their DSLRs. Here, the decision will be (or more likely has been) made for you as you pick the camera that works best for your needs.

In my experience Compact Flash is my favorite. They are easier to handle and more durable than SD. However, they require bulky card readers, can be more expensive than similar capacity SD cards and are becoming harder to find as camera makers move towards the smaller SD format as cameras continue to shrink.

SD cards are very small which makes them highly portable (and easy to lose). The main advantage of SD cards is that they do not have the multitude of tiny pins on the device side like CF cards do. These are easy to bend if one is not careful. SD cards may require a bit more attention to ensure proper orientation when inserting them into a device, but their spring contacts are more durable in the long run. One other thing of note: SD cards generally have a sliding lock switch. This is handy if you want to secure your data, but a hassle when you inadvertently lock your card inserting it into your camera.

As of this writing, Amazon is selling a SanDisk Extreme III 4GB CF card for $32.02 while the equivalent SanDisk Ultra III 4GB SD card can be had for only $19.93. That kind of percentage price difference would have been a big deal 10 years ago but today it’s not such a big deal. BTW, a SanDisk Extreme III 4GB Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo runs $58.21. Yikes!

BTW, be sure to format any new card you buy with your camera. Doing so periodically (monthly) will help prevent card corruption and lost images while clearing up miscellaneous files that tend to collect and take up storage space.


This one’s simple. The typical hobbyist DSLR owner should shoot 2-4GB cards. Sure, 8-16GB and even 32GB cards are common and likely within easy reach of most people. However, I can fit around 122 RAW (PEF) images on a 2.0GB SD card with my 10MP Pentax K10D. Switching to high quality full-size JPEGs that number bumps to 410. If I drop the JPEG size to 6MP I get 688 at the high quality setting.

If I was shooting a 16GB card I could likely fit nearly 1,000 RAW images on a single SD card. I personally have never been in a situation where I needed (or wanted) to have 1,000 images on a single postage stamp sized memory chip that could easily be lost, stolen, corrupted, dropped in my coffee (don’t ask), and/or overwritten. I figure it’s safer to shoot in smaller batches and download to the computer more often. When I travel I carry multiple 2GB cards in my bag for back up in case one gets full. I also will often switch to 6MP JPEG mode for the more snap-shotty type travel pictures. The only people who really need the largest capacity cards are professionals and people traveling to far flung places with no computer access (like Nevis or the South Pole).


CF and SD cards come in a wide variety of speeds. These are often expressed in terms of “20x”, “50x”, “133x”, etc. or more helpful “15MB/S”, “30MB/S”, etc. My Flickr friend Jim sent me this link to Rob Galbraith’s great website that scientifically tests the most popular cameras’ speeds with all the latest memory cards. Check out the site, find your camera and see what you find. Most likely you will see that the latest highest speed cameras perform the best with the latest high speed cards. However, you will also find that older slower cameras do not directly benefit from using the fastest cards. My advice, do a little research on this site then buy the fastest card you can justify. If you dig around a little on Rob’s site you’ll find his tests of card readers. This is where the cards’ speed will pay the most dividends for most people. More on that later.

One emerging area where memory card speed becomes increasingly important in the latest DSLRs is video capture. With new cameras like the Nikon D90 and Canon 5D MK II now able to capture full HD video, memory card speed is critical to their performance. If you have one of these cameras be sure to check the manufacturers’ recommendations for memory cards and follow their advice.


I recommend you stick to the top name brands like SanDisk, Lexar, Kingston, and PNY. You may pay a little more than the no-name discount and/or “house” brands but that’s because the larger name brand companies have a lot more to lose if their cards fail. If you follow my advice on speed you’ll be buying the name brands’ higher end cards to get the best speed. There are some “Professional” cards available but unless you can verify that there is a specific performance/dollar advantage don’t spend the extra money. One “Pro” CF card I saw at Best Buy was 2X the price as a regular card of the same speed and capacity from the same company. Turns out it came bundled with some kind of crappy image data verification and cataloging software that I would have never used. This came across to me as nothing more than preying on the prosumers’ desire to shoot “professional” gear.

SanDisk Extreme USB 2.0 card reader

Card Readers:

Now that you’ve settled on a memory card, do yourself a favor by stashing the twisted up USB cable that came with your camera in that drawer where all your old electronics go to die and pick up a card reader. Very few digital cameras can come close to matching the transfer speed of a good external card reader. As a bonus, you’ll save your camera’s battery by giving it a rest during transfers. The SanDisk Extreme III USB 2.0 3-in-1 reader above was one of the fastest USB readers you could buy last year. Now they have changed the design to CF only but at less than $20 it represents a great value for CF shooters.

For Mac users you can get the best speed via FireWire 800 readers. Unfortunately, Apple’s support of this format that they  gave life to seems to be waning. Personally, I’d stick with USB 2.0 unless you have a Mac with FireWire 800 you’re planning on keeping for a while.

USB SD card readers are a dime a dozen and they all seem to work pretty well. Again, stick with a name brand and all should be well. I like a cable attached design for desktop use and a thumb drive style for portable use. Also, if you’re an iPod user check out this product I created while at Griffin Technology. The Griffin Simlifi combines an iPod dock with a USB 2.0 hub and both CF and SD card reader slots. It’s not the fastest card reader out there but can really clean up the cable clutter on your desk. Plus, it features an actual aluminum case that I sweated many months over :-)

Another option for laptop users is a PCMCIA or ExpressCard reader. These adapters are a bit more pricey and can only be used with certain combinations of laptops and memory cards. However, they represent an extremely fast input interface to your machine (up to 480MB/S both ways) and are extremely convenient (especially if you just leave it in your machine). Sticking with a reputable brand name here is critical as I have run across low quality Asian versions that are not properly developed. When I was at Griffin Technology I convinced them to bring in an ExpressCard 34 SD adapter for use with the then new MacBook Pros. We were on track to be first to market with this product when we discovered that our vendor had fouled up the firmware on the first batch of readers preventing the computers they were in from going to sleep when the lid was closed. Griffin’s product finally made it to market and works great but Belkin, SanDisk and others got the retail slots which fatalistically limited production to a single order.

I’d steer clear of desktop built-in expansion bay options as they are not any faster than USB 2.0 options and have been known to have all manner of driver-related issues (particularly on Windows machines).

Bottom line on readers: make sure whatever you choose is USB 2.0 (or FireWire 400/800) compatible. If you end up with a USB 1.0 device you’ll be kicking yourself over the s-l-o-w downloads!

SanDisk SD Plus Ultra II with USB


Hopefully by now you are now fully armed with the basics needed to wade through the morass that is memory card-dum. The SD card above has been my card of choice since it came out a couple of years ago. It’s the SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus with USB and it breaks open to reveal a built-in USB connector. This completely eliminates the need for an external card reader! This is an extremely innovative solution that unfortunately seems to have not gained enough traction in the market for SanDisk to update. They are still available on Amazon but growing scarce. Here’s a couple of shots of one in use with my MacBook Pro:

SanDisk SD Plus open SanDisk SD Plus USB in use

Unfortunately, these Ultra II cards top out at 15MB/second transfer. Now that I’m back to toting around a MacBook Pro with an ExpressCard slot I think I may switch back to my ExpressCard 34 reader and upgrade to a 30MB/second SD card like this SanDisk Extreme III SDHC 4GB card.

If I was still shooting a Canon with a CF card I’d likely be taking a strong look at this Delkin SD to CF adapter so I could still make either my SanDisk SD Plus cards or a newer Extreme III card + ExpressCard 34 reader work. They do make ExpressCard 34 Compact Flash readers but since a CF card is wider than the ExpressCard 34 slot, they leave a nasty tumor hanging out of the MacBook Pros’ sleek 34mm slot.

Hope this helps. Please let me know if I missed anything or if you have any specific questions.

BTW, all the “studio” shots for this post were shot on my kitchen counter DIY whitespace studio.

DIY super macro DSLR lens

Christmas light super close-up

I got this idea from my Flickr friend Jim. I’ve played with this idea in the past but didn’t have the right combination of lenses to really make it work. Seems the kit lens on my Pentax K10D and my 20 year old Pentax-A 50mm f/1.7 make a pretty super duper super macro lens.

The trick is to shoot through a second lens, thus dramatically shortening the minimum focus distance of the combined lenses. This works best with a medium focal length primary lens (attached to the camera) and a fast secondary lens held (typically backwards) in front of the primary lens.

super macro lens assembly

Pentax 18-55mm kit lens with 50mm f/1.7 on front

business end

In this case, the 49mm diameter front element on the 50mm fits perfectly inside the 52mm diameter of the 18-55mm Pentax kit lens. I found that I had to zoom the kit lens all the way out to 55mm to eliminate vignetting. I tried reversing the set-up but the 18-55’s  smaller maximum aperture resulted in vignetting at all focal lengths (hence the need for a fast secondary lens). For the shot above I simply switched the camera into manual focus, dialed in a handful of positive exposure compensation and got up close on a bulb on our Christmas tree:

taking the shot

Depth of field is essentially non-existent- as is typically the case with all macro lenses. Changing the focus of ether lens had very little effect on the focal distance to the subject. To achieve focus you have to simply move the camera back and forth while composing through the viewfinder. The problem is that with such a micro thin slice of DOF any movement will throw off your composition. I ended up dialing up the ISO to 800 so that I could get a decently fast shutter speed (around 1/100 sec) and taking a bunch of hand held shots to get a couple of winners. Use of a tripod would have certainly helped, though holding the secondary lens in position while composing the shot on a tripod might be tricky.

A couple of additional shots taken with this set-up:


ISO 800, 50mm, f/5.6, 1/250sec

My understanding is that you can get similar results by simply reverse mounting certain types of lenses. There are accessories available to do this. Also, I think you may be able to use a threaded step-up adapter ring to attach the two lenses like in my set-up. The $20 screw-on close-up lens adapters (the kind that look like filters) IMO are pretty worthless unless you buy very nice quality ones but you might as well put that cash towards a dedicated macro lens.

The most popular macro accessories (besides a dedicated macro lens, of course) are extension tubes. Again, the price of entry here comes close to a decent dedicated macro lens (or zoom lens with macro capibility). There are cheaper alternatives and quality is less important if you are OK with losing auto focus and communication with your lens. I got some very nice results with my old Canon 5D and 85mm f/1.8 + 12mm Canon extension tube:

Keep in mind that all of these options will limit your focus distance to macro applications. A dedicated macro lens typically will be able to focus to infinity, making it usable as a regular lens in addition to a macro. However, if you have a couple of the right kind of lenses laying around and you want to take some close-up shots, now you know how. Thanks, Jim!


Playing around a bit more with this set-up and I got these shots:

MacBook Pro power button

granny smith apple stem

It also occurred to me that one of the reasons my set-up works so well is that my old manual focus 50mm lens has an aperture ring. This means I can crank it open to f/1.7 to get a clear shot through. More modern lenses often lack an aperture ring and default to the smallest aperture when removed from the camera body. If this happens to you, look for the aperture lever on the inside face of the lens and try sliding the aperture open to get a clear view through your secondary lens.


I'm an industrial designer and an avid hobbyist photographer. People are always asking me "how'd you do that?" So, I decided to create this site as a place to share my experiences and insights about photography, the gear and what it all means to me. I'm not sure if this site will make anyone besides myself a better photographer but I figure it's worth a try. Take a look around and let me know what you think. Thanks for stopping by!


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