Using the best memory cards is a crucial part of a photographer or videographer's process. Without a decent card to store images and videos on, even the most sophisticated camera out there isn't going to perform at its best. But it's not just cameras that need these flash cards, they're also a critical component for phones, dash cams, security cameras, game consoles and drones.
You need a decent memory card for whatever kind of shots you plan to take. The card needs to have not only the storage to accommodate them, but also the ideal transfer speeds to keep up with the volumes of data involved. Need more information? Jump to the choosing the right memory card section.
All the best cameras and best camcorders are compatible with a variety of different types of memory card. The most popular type is the Secure Digital (SD) card, which is around the size of a postage stamp, while the second most common is the smaller type known as a microSD (about the size of a fingernail). While the best smartphones and drawing tablets with an expandable memory option usually favour the microSD card, dedicated cameras will tend to require an SD card.
But there are also other types to consider, also used by cameras. The CompactFlash (CF) card is about the size of an After Eight mint, and it's most often seen in older DSLR cameras. Its successor is the newer CFexpress and XQD formats, which were developed to handle the increased demand of the latest-generation cameras. This includes the well-regarded mirrorless cameras, like the Nikon Z6 and Nikon Z7, which shoot extremely high-resolution videos and images very quickly.
Best SD cards
Power users are advised to check out the Extreme PRO SDXC card from long standing card manufacturer SanDisk. Available in capacities from 64GB up to an impressive 1TB, this option offers a speed class three rating. The real practical advantage here is not only write speeds up to an impressive 90MB/s – which means that it is able to deal with rapid fire sequential shooting and in both JPEG and Raw – but an extremely fast transfer speed of up to 170MB/s, which will speed up the workflow of enthusiasts and pros. Aside from making it easier to capture a sequence of Raw photographs, the data crunching on offer here also makes it suitable for 4K video shooting. To sum up, this is one capable contender.
Available in a variety of capacities from 32GB to 1TB, the Lexar Professional 633x SDXC UHS-I is a card designed to undergo the rigours of professional use. Its transfer speeds are fast enough to handle both high volumes of photos and 4K video, so no matter what you plan to shoot, you can rest assured that the card can keep up. While the lower-capacity cards can be picked up for a pretty reasonable price these days, prices climb pretty quickly when you get up to the 1TB level, so do bear that in mind if budget is a concern. If you can stretch to it though, it's a great card that should reward you with many years' use.
Lexar has long been the go-to card for photography enthusiasts and professional shooters, and, despite disappearing from the market for a little while, it has bounced back with plenty of Lexar options still available. A solid choice for us is the Lexar Professional 16GB Class 10 UHS-II 1000x Speed, which deploys UHS-II tech to enable transfer speeds up to 300 MB/s and write speeds up to 260 MB/s. This ensures that, whether you’re recording full HD, 4K video, or shooting high-resolution Raw files, this card delivers the goods, even if maximum data capacity is 128GB, rather than the maximum 512GB offered by some rivals. A close alternative in terms of specification and performance would be SanDisk’s Extreme PRO SD UHS-II (also featured here), but you can't really go wrong with this one.
Missing that essential shot if you’re working as a pro photographer can be an expensive mistake, and is especially irritating if it’s because your card can’t keep up. Try and avoid the latter ever happening by investing in this ultra speedy, inevitably costlier, example from industry stalwart SanDisk – the SanDisk Extreme PRO SD UHS-II. In offering read speeds of up to 300 MB/s and write speeds of an equally impressive 260 MB/s, it's a class leader among memory cards.
The above specification makes it a must-have option for reportage, sports and wildlife photographers, shooting bursts of rapid fire stills, or videographers wanting the clarity of 4K resolution video, with the inevitable data hungriness that comes with it. As this is an SDXC (‘Extended Capacity’) card too, storage is impressive. Available card offerings are from 32GB up to 128GB, but truly the accent is on speed here.
The bigger the card’s data capacity, the higher the potential worry of losing hundreds, possibly thousands of precious image files should anything untoward happen. Purporting to eliminate some of that stress is the Sony Tough range, supplied in common-use SD format. While arguably no card can claim to be 100 per cent destruction–proof, these come with the boast of being dustproof and waterproof, while possessing 'bend proof' strength into the bargain – namely being able to withstand 18KG of exerted pressure (that’s 18 times greater than standard SD).
If you need more convincing still, Sony’s Tough has also been tested against drops from five metres in height, while the card can simply be washed clean of any grime that gets on it. Speed wise, a further bonus is the card’s ability to cope with the sequential capture of 241-compressed Raw or 362 JPEGs in 20fps burst shooting mode on the Sony A9. If you’re a pro shooter and have the budget, you’ll definitely want to check these out.
If it’s Raw files you primarily need to capture, then you’ll want a card that can cope with the highest quality imagery in sequential bursts – as well as one that provides a sufficient storage capacity to avoid having to swap out the media in use at that decisive moment. While the Transcend SDXC UHS-II U3's 64GB maximum capacity (the alternative being 32GB) may initially appear a little small when compared with other options here, the performance is anything but, via commendably quick read and write times of 285 MB/s and 180 MB/s respectively.
Obviously you will need UHS-II compatible DSLR or camcorder to be able to use this one – so check – but speeds of up to 3x faster than standard UHS-1 SD memory cards can be delivered. These Transcend branded cards are also shock and X-ray proof, thereby providing a degree of certainly for photo and video enthusiasts and pros.
Though there are plenty of budget priced card offerings bearing the US-based PNY brand, this Elite Performance series, with capacities from a useful 32GB up to a generous 512GB, currently tops the range. It offers not only a high capacity, but also an industry-standard read speed of 95MB per second from an SDXC format card. The ‘Elite’ moniker signifies that these Class 10 speed, UHS-1 compatible cards are not only suitable for shooting video on a DSLR with, but are also durable with it, being waterproof, shock proof, temperature proof and magnet proof. Thus the brand is able to claim that the Elite Performance range of cards are suitable for advanced photo enthusiasts and even professionals, as well as those recording 4K quality clips. Peace of mind of a lifetime-limited warranty is provided.
If you're looking for a great performing memory card with a decent amount of storage capacity, while keeping costs down, then the SandDisk Extreme card is a very good choice. Unlike the 'Pro' versions, this is a budget memory card, and it offers UHS Speed Class 3 compatibility, so if you're taking videos in 1080p – or even 4K – then this card will be plenty fast enough. Best of all, it features water, temperature and shock-proof technology, so you can take it out and about with you without worrying about it getting damaged.
Best microSD cards
The Samsung PRO Endurance is our pick for the best MicroSD card around right now. It does cost a little more to get a microSD card with larger SD card-sized adapters, although this series is still very reasonably priced.
The draw here includes the fact that the cards are claimed to be able to withstand harsh environments, are longer lasting and are particularly suited to use in action cameras. This is because they can continually record at high read/write speeds (100MB/s and 30MB/s, respectively). Also promised for the highest capacity card is an industry best of 43,800 hours of continuous video recording. Peace of mind comes courtesy of warranties of between two years for the lower capacity cards, to five years for maximum capacity cards.
Another microSDXC card and larger SD adapter combo for those prolific image makers sticking their cards in a variety of slots; here available in a variety of storage capacities ranging from 32GB all the way up to a whopping 1TB. Imagine that from solid state media the mere size of a fingernail. However, while read and write speeds for these cards are adequate, they’re not quite the quickest on the market at a read speed of ‘only’ 170MB/sec maximum and a write speed of up to 90MB/sec. If it’s speed you want rather than capacity, alternatively look at the same manufacturer’s UHS-II cards in the series, which max out at 128GB capacity, yet offer a transfer speed of a slightly more satisfying 275MB/sec.
Fingernail-sized microSD maybe small and slightly fiddly to insert and extract, they are increasingly mighty in terms of their functionality. Enter Lexar’s Professional microSDXC card range with 4K video shooting friendly transfer speeds of up to 270MB/sec and, currently, data capacities up to 128GB, which will facilitate an almost innumerable amount of smartphone selfies.
Arriving with us in 32GB, 64GB, 128GB, 256GB and 512GB capacities, these Class 10 microSD cards handily come with an SD adapter that allows them to be used in cameras just as easily as a smartphone or tablet. Costing less than £20 for the lowest 32GB capacity, this seems like good value considering they manage read speeds of 100 MB/s (albeit a modest write speed of 30MB/s). A bright red design also ensures this jack of all trades option from Samsung won’t readily get lost down the back of the sofa, despite being fingernail sized. Peace of mind also comes via a 10 year limited warranty, plus the fact that the cards are claimed as waterproof, temperature proof, X-ray proof and magnetic proof.
Other memory card types
CFexpress is the latest memory card format to hit the market – and these super-fast cards are being used in a wide number of top-end mirrorless cameras, DSLRs and professional camcorders such as the Canon EOS-1D X III, Nikon D6, Nikon Z7 and Panasonic Lumix S1. With a phenomenal 1400Mb/s write speed (in the case of this Sandisk Extreme Pro card), this is creating a new benchmark for camera performance - and for card reliability. The price a the moment for these cards is expensive – but for professional use it is well worth the investment. This is a CFexpress Type B card – in time there will also be a smaller Type A card, and a larger Type C card too.
The XQD format is not used in every camera, but has been adopted by Nikon for some of its DSLRs and recent Z-series full-frame mirrorless cameras (as well as Sony’s high-end video camcorders). The format is set to become redundant, as it uses the same form factor as the more recent CFexpress Type B cards – but this does mean that prices have started to become more reasonable.
Compact flash cards may be older and bulkier than the newer SD format alternative, but that doesn't mean they can't still deliver sufficient capacity and speed to satisfy today’s DSLR user. A case in point is SanDisk’s CompactFlash range, which offers capacities from a useful 16GB to a power user 256GB, so you don’t have to swap out media cards in the heat of the action.
Also impressive with this one is write speeds of up to 140MB/s at maximum 256GB capacity (otherwise it’s 150 MB/s for the 128GB and lower capacities), which also makes it just as suited to video use, particularly for those DSLRs also offering Full HD capture. In fact, with a minimum sustained write speed of 65MB/s, the claim by its manufacturer is that this one is class leading.
While it may not be as recognisable to the casual observer as competing card brands, Transcend is one of the longer-term players in the market – and, usefully, still makes many low-capacity cards, holding obvious appeal for those on tighter budget. However, even the higher capacity offerings that may appeal to semi pro DSLR users – such as this CompactFlash 800 series – are hardly expensive for what’s on offer.
Capacities run from a standard 32GB up to a slightly more impressive 256GB. Specification is also solid for a budget card; here we get read speeds of up to 120 MB/s and write speeds of 60 MB/s. Actual performance of course is affected by camera hardware and software, as is the case with any card. However, here there’s even a built-in error correcting code to detect and correct any transfer errors.
What's the difference?
All this means that when you're choosing the best memory card for your camera, smartphone or tablet, the first thing you'll need to do to is select one that actually physically fits it. Check with the manufacturer of your device if you're unsure; the information will be floating around somewhere. It's worth noting that microSD cards often come with an SD adapter, and so can be used with a camera that has an SD slot. This could be useful if you want to switch a memory card between your main camera and your smartphone.
SD or SDHC or SDXC?
Standard-sized SD cards come in three main types: SD, SDHC and SDXC. The standard SD type is no longer found in stores, so you typically have the choice between SDHC or SDXC. The older SDHC cards have a capacity of between 4GB and 32GB. SDXC cards have a capacity of at least 64GB, going up to 1TB. Some devices will only support cards up to a certain capacity.
Speed & capacity
Once this is sorted, it becomes a matter of what and how you shoot, which affects what kind of speed (read/write) and capacity (in megabytes or MB, but more commonly these days, in Gigabytes or GB) that you’ll need from your card. Shooting a lot of 4K video or extremely high-resolution images will require a lot of both.
Speed of the card is particularly important when shooting high-resolution video, or action motordrive sequences. It is measured by a number of different scales and standards, but the key one to look for on the card is the speed measured in MB/s (megabytes per second). Note that the read speed is often higher than the write speed.
UHS-I or UHS-II
The fastest SD and microSD cards available use the UHS-II bus standard - but to use the extra speed your camera needs to be UHS-II compatible. If your camera has two slots, one may be UHS-II and the other just UHS-I. UHS-I cards have a maximum bus speed of 104MB/s, while UHS-II cards have a maximum bus speed of 312MB/s.
If you’re shooting in more extreme outdoor conditions, it may be worth considering a more ‘destruction-proof’ card that can be dropped in water or the dirt, such as one from the Sony Tough range.
The general rule of thumb when buying a card is to go for the highest data storage capacity and the fastest write/read speed available for your budget and camera's capability. If you’re only shooting on an entry-level camera, with a modest resolution and a low frames-per-second shooting rate, you may not need to opt for whichever is currently the ‘top dog’ amongst memory cards, which can save you a bundle. Prices climb surprisingly high once you get to fast speeds and high capacities, which makes sense, as after all, these are professional tools.