Now that you’ve bought the right camera (and maybe even a couple of lenses), you may think the SD card that actually stores the pictures is an afterthought — that, as long as you get something big enough to take a bunch of photos, you’ll be fine. But there’s actually a lot to consider. A low-quality SD card can slow down a great camera, causing you to miss a few of those fast-action shots on safari or at your kid’s baseball game. On the other hand, there’s no reason to waste money on a card that’s faster than what your camera can handle.
According to the experts we consulted, finding the right SD card is important. It’s also quite simple. You just can’t let yourself be intimidated by the nearly indecipherable symbols and numbers printed on each card. Instead, you should focus on two things: write speed and capacity. Write speed is how fast a card can create and write a file, and it’s measured in megabytes per second. Capacity is how much information your card can hold. It’s usually measured in gigabytes.
Buying an SD card with a ton of storage and a slow write speed is like buying a pickup truck with a tiny engine. You may be able to fit all sorts of things in the back, but it’s no good to you if it can’t drive up a hill. All of the photographers and other experts we consulted say write speed is much more important than the actual amount of storage space. For casual shooters, a minimum write speed of 30 MB/s is fine. However, according to George Muncey, a photographer and the creator of the popular YouTube photography channel, Negative Feedback, “if you shoot either burst images” — like you would with sports — “or high-quality 4K video, having a fast write speed is really important.” For that type of photography you will need a speed of 90 MB/s or higher.
As for capacity, the consensus among our experts was that a 64 GB SD card should be sufficient for most photographers, both casual and professional. Muncey considers 64 gigs to be “the optimum [balance] between price and storage space.” We asked him and five other experts to recommend the best SD cards for any type of photographer, whether that’s someone who only picks up their camera on birthdays, a hobbyist, or a pro headed to a shoot. Here are their picks.
Best overall SD card
Three of our experts mentioned the SanDisk Extreme Pro as their go-to for any photography project. (Fashion photographer Christopher Fenimore has five of them.) If you do find yourself shooting enough to fill a 64 GB card, Muncey and Joshua Kissi, a creative director and photographer, suggest buying multiple 64 GB cards instead of one large-capacity card. That way, if one fails, you haven’t lost everything. “The wedding photographer I used to work with would always use much smaller card capacities than what was available on the market, so that he could frequently change them to ensure the previous cards were stored safely,” Muncey says. Fenimore stresses that “every photographer should have backup equipment on a shoot. The wildest things can go wrong when you least expect it.”
The SanDisk Extreme Pro has a max write speed of up to 90 MB/s. It’s also shockproof, waterproof, and able to withstand temperatures between -13 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit.
Best budget SD card
Although the write speed of this card is only 30 MB/s, that is sufficient for most photographers, according to Joseph Palma at B&H Photo. James Dee, a technical-services specialist at Adorama, recommends this card from PNY and confirms that “the 30 MB/s speed is fine for most people.” And Palma, who is also a fan of PNY Technologies, says, “This card will work for most basic consumer camcorders, even 4K recording, along with lighter photo work when you are not shooting at the highest quality and need to keep up for fast motion.”
Best SD card for beginners
For a little extra money, SanDisk cards are always reliable, Palma says. Like the PNY card above, this one has a minimum write speed of 30 MB/s. And like the SanDisk Pro Extreme, it is also shockproof, waterproof, and can withstand extreme temperatures.
Best SD card for video
If you’re interested in shooting longer videos, “it’s important to have a card that’s fast enough to capture that video,” says Bob Sacha, a photographer and associate professor of video storytelling at the Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. You’ll just need to pay attention to a few more specs. Video speed is indicated by a speed class of 2, 4, 6, or 10. (This is the number on the front of the card that is surrounded by a semicircle.) A class 10 card is best for UHD or 4K video — that’s what Sacha always looks for — but if you’re shooting standard HD (1080p) a lower speed class is fine. Then there’s the Ultra High Speed class, a number from 1 to 3 marked inside a U-shaped symbol on the front of the card. A card with a 1 should be able to handle 1080p recording without any issues. If you want to record 4K, get a card with a 3. And finally, video class, which measures the minimum levels of write speed for recording video and ranges from V6 to V90, is noted next to a V on the front of the card. According to Palma, V30 (30 MB/s) should be good enough for 4K recording.
Best SD card for professionals
The Sony Tough Series and the Lexar Professional 2000x were recommended by both Kissi and Palma as the best pro options. Each card has a minimum write speed of 90 MB/s, V90 video class capabilities, and an Ultra High Speed class of 3, which means they can handle nearly everything. “Recording 4K at 400 MBps or shooting photos at high megapixels, you will need this kind of speed for the card to keep up,” Palma says. According to Dee, “The Sony Tough memory card is one of the toughest and fastest SD cards on the market. It is weather rated at IP66, which makes it waterproof and dustproof.”
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