What to do with your memory card after a file corruption incident

Almost every photographer has had a scare with file corruption on their memory card. Sometimes it's just one or two photos, sometimes it's the whole darn set. Sometimes they can be rescued, sometimes they can't. I hope you were in the lucky former category.

Either way, as the sun sets on that unpleasant experience, you are faced with a decision: what should you do with that memory card?

I suspect a lot of people panic and throw the card away. And I understand this - you've just had a traumatic experience. But in many cases it wasn't the card's fault. There can be a lot of different reasons for file corruption (but very difficult to diagnose).

So after you've finished (either successfully recovered the files or sadly exhausted all unsuccessful recovery options), format the card in your camera then take a few test shots. Load them onto your computer in the usual way and check them. Did they work ok?

If they're corrupt too, then yeah, throw the card in the trash.

But if they're perfectly fine, you can reasonably give the card another chance. The odds are strong that the corruption you experienced previously wasn't the card's fault, but the camera's, or the computer's, or yours.

Mark it

A wise person in my group once told me that they mark their card with a pen to remind them that it's on "probation". I think this is a great idea.

Exactly how you do this is up to you. I suggest that if you've had a major scare where all of the photos on the card were inaccessible, you should mark the card with a "P" to indicate it's to be used for personal photos only, not client ones.

But if you'd only had a minor scare of one or two bad files, there is no reason to stop using the card yet. Just mark it with a dot, and keep it in your regular rotation. There's a very good chance you'll never have a problem again. But if you do have a problem again, and it's a card with a dot, then you can discard it.

What if you have the same problem again in the future, but with a different card?

It might be unfortunate coincidence ... or it might be something more sinister. As I said at the beginning, there are lots of reasons files might corrupt, and they are notoriously difficult to diagnose. But if it happens to you repeatedly, maybe there is something wrong with your practices.

So I want to throw a few reminders and suggestions at you.

  • I hate to even hint at this, but maybe it's your camera's fault? It's unlikely, but possible. Check the forums to see if other owners of your camera model are reporting similar problems. If you have multiple cameras, try to observe if this problem is happening on only one of them.
  • Were you shooting too fast for the write speed of your camera or card? Remember that cards aren't all the same, and the card you can use fine for scenic photos is not necessarily the card you can use for sports action shots.
  • During shoots, avoid taking the card in and out of the camera any more than absolutely necessary.
  • If you do take the card out of the camera, for heaven's sake turn off the camera first!
  • But remember not to turn your camera off immediately after taking a shot. Give it a second or two to safely finish writing to the card.
  • Are you formatting the card in camera before each use? Brian tells that in-camera formatting is safer than in-computer formatting.
  • Are you taking care to do absolutely nothing else on your computer while files are transferring from the card? This is so important. Read more
  • Handle your cards with care. Never shove them roughly into a camera, a reader, or even your bag.
  • Have you tried a different card reader? They can sometimes be faulty.
  • Try not to put multiple shoots on one card. After each shoot, transfer the photos to your computer, check that they're all ok, back them up, then format the card (in camera) ready for the next session.
  • Whenever you buy a new card, I strongly suggest writing the purchase date on it. This way, you'll always know which are your newest cards; and you might choose to give them priority for important shoots.
  • Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't buy one enormous card and expect to shoot a whole wedding on it. Use multiple smaller cards, to minimise harm if one goes bad. To lose part of the ceremony would be regrettable, but to lose the entire wedding would be catastrophic.
  • Above all, never be complacent. File loss is just one misstep away. Take all the care you can.


If you have a question about this article, please feel free to post it in Ask Damien.