Memory Card Failures

by Ellen Anon

Sooner or later it happens to almost all digital photographers - at least all those who shoot a lot. You check some of the images in camera and they look good. You load the memory card into the reader and wait for the images to appear in Aperture's import window. But nothing happens. You push the card into the reader a little more firmly and make sure the reader is attached properly to the computer, but still there's no sign of the card showing up on the computer.


2007-06-13 05:23:47
What's the point of formatting cards in the camera vs. computer? All my photographer friends claim that you should never use your computer to format a memory card, all my CS/ECE friends claim it makes no difference. I'm not sure who to believe, but since the photographers are never able to say why formatting the card in the computer is bad, I'm leaning towards the engineer's side.
2007-06-13 06:27:52
The difference is that you can be pretty sure that the camera will lay down an empty fileystem that it can read. I would not trust that some other device (e.g. the computer) would write a new filesystem on the card that would be 100% compatible with the camera's firmware implementation.

On a related note, the only time I've ever lost images on a card was on a trip to Tahiti and my card filled up (old days when cards were expensive). I deleted a few images in camera to make room for a few more. I discovered that the camera botched the deletes somehow and I lost a lot of images due to filesystem corruption. I'll never make that mistake again.

2007-06-13 06:35:25
Btw, I'm a photographer and Mac software engineer. I used to write Mac HFS data recovery software. Your CS friends are correct in theory, but your photography friends are speaking from real world experience. In the real world, the compatibility isn't always there and the price of failure is high (assuming the images are important to you).
2007-06-13 08:33:09
kubi: Your CS/ECE friends must really be optimists then - or never seen what most embedded software development is like. While this is less true now than it was on older cameras, the FAT implementations in cameras are sometimes incomplete and flaky. You'd hope the camera could read and successfully write a filesystem it created, whereas if a computer has touched it, it might end up doing something "intelligent" that the camera completely barfs on.

The upshot - since I can't always control what my Mac does when I mount a memory card, I always erase it in the camera before taking any more photos.

Ellen Anon
2007-06-13 12:06:36
Thanks Dave and njr. Kubl, I've had the camera manufacturer reps explain precisely why it's important to reformat the card in the camera rather than the computer, but in all honesty, I'm primarily a photographer and what I took away from the explanation was that there could be problems if you format the card elsewhere. Dave and njr make reference to some of the issues the rep mentioned.

I can understand not wanting to engage in "superstitious behavior" but the importance of reformatting in camera is based on real world experience as well as camera manufacturer recommendations. The camera companies truly have nothing to gain whether we reformat in the computer or in camera, so I believe them.

John Graybill
2007-06-17 05:42:19
My real world experience is somewhat different than the views I've read here. I recently had a ultra II 4 GB card give me problems that left me wondering if the card had become defective. After a little less than a year of use with 9 other cards in the mix I started to lose images and was unable to retrieve the images with recover software. After reformatting the card in camera, D2X, and retesting I was still loosing images so I contacted the card manufacture who told me to reformat the card on the computer and preferably on a PC since I am on a Mac saying the Mac doesn't do as good of a job as XP. I reformatted on my Mac anyway and then reformatted in camera fixing the image corruption once and for-all and have had no more problems with this particular card. This leaves me with the assumption that a periodic reformat on the computer might be a good preventive procedure and is now part of my routine.
Jay Warner
2007-06-23 03:56:10
Short story & question: What about a card showing signs of chip (hardware) failure? The camera battery goes flat dead while sitting still in the car and in my office for 2 days. Then with 80 more pictures on it, iPhoto can't upload many of the jpeg files that it sees?

I have not reformatted my cards in some time; I use 2 cards, swapping out as they are used.

Long story:
A year ago I purchased a Canon Rebel XT, with standard 18-55 zoom plus a Tamron 55-200 zoom. I bought two 512 MB Compact Flash chips plus a second camera battery. It was my second digital, my first 35 mm equivalent digital. Camera fulfilled everything I'd hoped for.

I took the whole kit on a 10 day tour in Alaska, along with my laptop for storage & filing. (Side note: With about 130 frames per chip @ 3 MB per jpeg frame, equal to 6 rolls of short film, I'm set for the duration! Right. Filled both chips the first day. When film is free, you use more of it.) Everything worked very well.

By this June 21 I am up to 13,400 'exposures' stored on the two memory cards and uploaded to computers. I've swapped out chips right & left, changed batteries, etc. Translation: used these puppies a reasonable amount.

Last Thursday I took the camera to a picnic & nature walk. When I got it out of the bag the battery was flat dead. That's strange, it was near full a day previous, and sat in the bag. (The Rebel XT automatically goes to standby after some seconds of inactivity.) Well, that's why we have a second battery; swap it out and fire away. I take some 120 shots on the card in the camera and go home.

When I upload the files (I'm using iPhoto on a Mac -- it uploads virtually automatically), it does the first 12 or so, then partially uploads one (leaving the bottom half of the frame all yellow). It works through all the chip, then declares that it can't upload the following files and lists all the rest, complete with .jpg extensions. I avoid deleting the files, read or not.

I swap out the memory card, establish that indeed the camera and upload procedure is functioning just fine. I put the offending card back in and it claims to be 'busy' - the mode when it is uploading - and refuses to do anything. It won't report the number of images, nor display them, or anything. It is busy with its own designs.

So how often does a chip die? Should I expect this to happen again in the next year? I mean, this is the equivalent of the US Post office or film processor loosing 5 or more rolls of film all at once. If this happens with a 1 GB card, I'll loose upwards of 250 shots at once. And does anyone know of a place that might be able to extract the files on the offending card so we can try to repair & recover them?

Ellen Anon
2007-06-23 07:46:51
Jay, your troubles could be from several sources. In some ways the description actually spells out precisely why camera manufacturer's recommend that you reformat the card in the camera after each use rather than just erasing images. Reformatting that card may be all it needs. But first you want to salvage the images. As I said in my blog, I use Photoresuce. Download a trial version and see if it can access your files. After that reformat the card in the camera and give it a test run on shots you don't care about.

Many camera batteries also have "memories" (or lack of same in my personal opinion) that cause them to stay powered for progressively shorter amounts of time. Some batteries need to be "conditioned" before you use them (3 full charge/discharge cycles) and then periodically they need to be totally discharged before charging. It's possible that now that the batteries have been used for awhile, they need to be reconditioned or are wearing.

It's also possible that the camera is not going into the sleep cycle as it should. (BTW most caemras have an option to set how long the camera should wait before going into standby mode.) The easiest way to see if this is the culprit is to turn the camera completely off between uses and see if that prolongs the battery life.

Ellen Anon
2007-06-23 07:49:29
Jay, one more thing. Obviously if the camera battery died while the camera was transferring the images, that could courrupt the images and cause trouble.
2007-06-23 15:14:29
I actually have a problem. My HP camera fell to the ground and it broke, but i still have my HP memory card. Then I bought a new Polaroid camera and I insert the HP memory card, and the pictures that i had in the memory card doesn't show up on the camera or on the computer. What's the problem? How can I fix it and get my pictures?
Ellen Anon
2007-06-23 15:27:35
The problem you're having is that your card has images in whatever format the HP camera used, including the formating of the card, and the Polaroid couldn't' recognize them so it may have written over them. Using a software recovery program may help you find some of the lost pics, but those that were written over may be gone. Always reformat your card in camera before using it, and don't switch cameras without reformatting the card.
Jay Warner
2007-06-23 21:25:42
Many thanks for the suggestions. lack of formatting/reformating could well be the issue, longer term. I haven't done it much. If I can pull off the files, I'll be sure to do it & see if that cures the card flaw.

The battery died while the camera was sitting quietly (I thought!). During up load, the new battery was fine.

2007-07-14 01:54:41
I need a help, my hp 120 digital camera is not working, what happen is that, i am doing some work with it, it overheated then suddenly it shutdown. i dont know what to do now. pls help. u can contact me through my email:
2007-08-06 11:57:34
i have a a memory card that is asccessable to the computer. I can few and copy these images. However my problem lies when I put the card back into the camera. I am unable to take pictures because the camera reads "memory card is write protected", How do I fix this problem?
Ellen Anon
2007-08-06 13:05:22
Jim, have you tried reformatting the card in the camera?
2007-08-17 15:21:58
Hi Ellen, I have the same problem as Jim - after downloading the photos to iphoto via cardreader, when I put the card back in the Olympus Mju27sw camera it is write-protected and I cannot use it, reformat it, read it, or do anything with it. Nobody at the camera shop knows why. It could be the card reader but it works fine with my other Panasoninc Lumix camera and the card doesn't end up write protected with that. So is it iphoto?
2007-08-20 21:25:05
Hi Ellen, I'm very new to digital cameras. I have been taking pictures with my little carmera , transferring them to my computer using the memory card and, probably beginners luck, have been quite sucessful, but today I took some photos, reviewed them, then tried to transfer them using the memory card to my computer, but the computer does not recognise the memory card. It does show the pictures from the camera using the USB port. (I transfered the pictures from the memory card into the camera to see if it would work). Does this mean that my memory card has to be replaced?.
Also, what does reformating in the carmera actually mean?.
Thank you, Jean.
Ellen Anon
2007-08-28 06:15:44
Some cameras have a lock feature that prevents you from accidentally erasing the images off a CF card. I wonder if you have somehow set that in your camera. Check the camera's manual to see if that;s a possibility. I haven't personally seen a card become write protected from being read in the computer and think that's pretty unlikely. You could try formating the card in the computer and then putting it in the camera - or putting the same card into a different camera and seeing if there is still a problem. If there is, I'd contact the CF card manufacturer for suggestions.

Sometimes the directory on a CF card becomes corrupt and the computer can't recognize the card. Using software recovery programs such as mentioned in the blog can save the day.

Reformatting the CF card is important to clear away all the old information so that the new information (pictures) can be accurately written and stored. Erasing pictures is not enough and over time is likely to lead to trouble. Again, check your camera manual for instructions on how to format the CF card.

2007-11-01 17:40:05
Hi there, hoping someone can help me out, I took my memory card out of my camera today and put it into my card reader & pluged it into my computer, it would not show me any pic's but told me to format, but i didn't because i knew i would loose them. Why wont they show up? I even put the memory card back in my camera and it wont show mw anything, and it keeps telling me to reformat my memory card. I have 600 pics on that card including my babi's first halloween, do you know if there is any way of getting these pics back?? i have not reformated the memory card yet?? anyone please??
Ellen Anon
2007-11-01 17:45:18
Valerie, that's exactly the scenario I described in the blog. The chances are good that the file directory got corrupted. Download a trial version of Photorescue ( and give it a go. More than likely you'll recover those pics.


2007-11-01 18:01:47
sorry i forgot to add my e-mail.
2007-11-01 18:03:08
thanks i'll give it a try.
2007-11-12 20:49:28
hi there, I'm hoping someone can help me. My memory card for my canon digital camera would not read through the computer nor my camera. when i try to download it on the computer, it gives me these wierd shapes and numbers. Also when i try looking at my pictures in my camera it says MEMORY ERROR. Please i dont know how to touch my camera so please help me.
Ellen Anon
2007-11-13 20:58:17
Shee, I suggest you download a copy of Photorescue ( and give it a try. If these are images that have been opened elsewhere, make certain the file extensions are correct - such as .jpeg or .jpg or whatever type file they are.
2007-11-23 19:43:21
I got a problem...i accidently formated my Canon memory card and as you know, but i didn't, deleted all my brothers US vacation pictures...Then few more pictures were taked on top by the same camera before we realised that pictures are deleted. Now i have downloaded diferent trail software, but nothing shows old pictures. Do you think there is anything that can help me to recover all the pictures???
Traci McIntyre
2007-11-25 08:13:04
Please help,yesterday while viewing pictures on my digital camera, I reformatted the memory card. Of course all of the images disappeared. However, a friend advised me to take the memory card to a local camera shop. They sent the memory card to a company in an attempt to recover the photo's. I was told that there was a slim chance that the images could be recovered. In the past, friends have told me when it comes to reformatting a memory card or disk, "what's gone is gone"
What are my chances?

Traci H. McIntyre

Ellen Anon
2007-11-25 12:04:47
Kristina and Traci, once you format the card it becomes quite a bit more difficult to retrieve images. Sometimes the various card manufacturers have software that are able to access at least some of the images, particularly if the card hasn't been used after the reformatting. Traci, I would have first tried using a program such as Photorescue to see if I had any luck before sending it out. I can't give you a numerical estimate of the chances of recovery, but if the pictures were important to you, it's worth a try. If you've reshot on top of the entire card after the reformatting, the chances of recovery are far less but you still might get some of the images.
2007-12-09 04:22:35
Tech Info: I have a Kingston 4 GB SDHC / SD4 Memory card for my new Canon SD850 IS Digital Camera. Problem: I filmed a 19 minute movie with my digital camera. I also took 20 pictures and two other movies that were under 3 minutes each. I was able to download the 20 pictures and two movies that were under 3 minutes. I can watch the 19 minute movie on my camera, but cannot download it onto my laptop (my card reader will only recognize 2GB cards or smaller). Nor can I download it from my camera using a USB cable to my laptop or my desktop and lastly, I cannot upload it from my older HP psc 2175 all in one scanner, printer, fax, card reader. Question: Will the: MicroMate for SDHC SDDR-113-A10 do the trick for reading and downloading my 4GB memory card. If you tell me yes, I will buy one right now. Reason: This 19 minute movie is my 5 year old daughters first play at school. Desperate Plea: Help! Thanks in advance, Adam