How Long Do Memory Cards Last?

In Gear by Jim Harmer26 Comments

How long do memory cards for cameras last?

Another CF Memory Card Bites the Dust

In response to my article entitled “9 Things Photographers Need to Know About Memory Cards“, Richard Cole and Aloha Lavina sent in a question about memory cards and this post will serve as a response.

The Memory Card Reliability Question

How long do CF memory cards last?  Should I replace my old cards after a while, or will they still work reliably 5 years from now?

The Short Answer

While most memory cards can last for 5 years or more, there is some evidence suggesting that memory cards may be more reliable sometime after a few weeks of use and before 2 years of use.

The Technical Answer

Most of the time, memory cards will work reliably for longer than their technological shelf life.  I still own a few memory cards that are 6 years old.  They work just like new, but they are only 128 megabytes.  That would fit exactly 11 photos from my current camera.  Can you see the obvious problem?

This anecdote probably offers some insight into the question at hand, but I think the reader's question deserves more attention.  Many wedding photographers would be glad to spend $70 for a new memory card for even a slight reduction in the chances that an older memory card could fail.  But is this wisdom, or an old wive's tale?

The truth is that time has less to do with the longevity of a memory card than the number of write cycles.  That means that number of times that data is written to the card.  Industry insiders often refer to this as the number of “Program/Erase Cycles” or “P&E Cycles.”  Almost all modern memory cards can withstand at least 100,000 Program/Erase Cycles, and some cards can withstand as many as 10 times more cycles than standard cards.  What this all means is that, according to the card manufacturers, you could fill a memory card every day for a couple decades without having any problems.

This reliability is thanks to a technology in the controller of memory cards that tells the camera where to write the data in the card.  This technology spreads the data writes across all cells and blocks of the cards, and significantly reduces the wear and tear on certain areas of the card.  This technology is called “wear leveling.”

The Practical Longevity of Memory Cards

This is the technical answer discussed above may be convenient for a scientific analysis of the problem, but in practice it doesn't quite work so nicely.  In my own experience, the 2 year mark seems to put a target on the back of my memory cards.  While I have had cards last MUCH longer, I have seen a dozen or so cards go bad around the 2 or 2.5 year mark.

The problems arise from a few sources.  First, I am brutal with my memory cards.  I toss them in my bag of gear, take them in and out of the card reader multiple times per day, and occasionally blend them up in a smoothie for a little extra flavor.

This wear and tear has no effect on the card's internals, but it can chip off pieces of plastic on the outside of SD cards that get brittle after time, and can even bend the pins on a CF card.  I have also had cards fail when the tiny metal connectors became corroded from the humidity in Southwest Florida, USA.

I usually use cards until they die, but I never shoot weddings or other important shoots on a card that is two years or older.  I know that cards can easily last MUCH longer, but I've seen enough failures to know it's not worth the risk for me personally.

One last consideration is that brand new memory cards have a slightly higher failure rate.  In theory, they are tested before leaving the factory but I have seen many memory cards reported as being DOA.  Consequently, I'd use a card for a couple weeks before shooting something vitally important like a wedding.

Short Answer From Lexar

Just thought I should include this short answer from Jeff Cable, as well.  Jeff is a photographer and Lexar employee and wrote an answer to this question in a comment on the post from a few days ago.  Thought I should include it here as well…

“Every memory card does have a theoretical limitation to how many times it can be reformatted (less so on cheaper cards which use a lower quality of Flash Memory), but the number is huge. Unless you format your card 10 times a day, it should last a lifetime. And…of course…if you have a Lexar Professional card, it has a lifetime warranty and can be replaced if anything does go wrong.”


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. So if I am just using the Micro SD Card as storage (drop a movie or file onto the card as its permanent location) it should last for a very long time as I am not writing and erasing the files?
    I basically am converting some of my DVDs into a video file for my tablet and then loading them onto a Micro SD Card and leaving them there. When the card is filled I wont be erasing anything just reading from the card.
    Would this make them last longer?
    Sorry, I know it is the same question 2 times but I just wanted to make sure you understood the question.

  2. i think a branded CF will last for decades as long as you keep it in a super dry place all the time. since it has no moving parts, moisture is only its enemy and may rust the internal circuits. other than that, just dont ever drop it and store in its case all the time and it can be passed on to your son

  3. I’m having problems getting the correct color on items that I photograph. Example: A red Shirt comes out to be purple or
    orange. Gray is sometimes blue.
    Is this problem from my Sony Cyber-shot camera or my SanDisk? I take pictures all the time and when I download them, I delete them from the disc.
    My Sandisk is probably more than 2 years old.

  4. At a media facility we Have been using SolidState CF & CFast cards since they have came out. Using them in an audio, video, file format; out of 300 CF & CFast cards none of them have ever failed….. The 2 year failure that is stated in this blog is incorrect.. Some of these cards are as old as 1995 and still work fine… But ours are kept in storage cases in our media news room.

  5. My oldest card I still use for certain tasks is a 8MB PCMCIA card which I used in a Kodac DC40 still works. Oldest CF Card I have in use is a Lexar 128MB card from 2001 which still retains info and a variety of old SanDisk 256MB and up. — For most of my shooting, I’ve been using the Lexar Pro 1000x 32GB UDMA 7 card which has worked fine last 4 years but I am considering upgrading to a new one and retire that one for misc stuff. I wear out cameras before I do the cards. 🙂 I’ve had some bad ones, mostly counterfeit ones I got on a good deal and didn’t know they were such. Won’t do that again. (I hope).

    I photograph a lot of funerals for free for families of fallen heroes and am glad my camera allows for 2 different formats… so I always have an automatic backup which I’ve never had to rely on due to the card, just due to brain farts.

    As far as magnetic media, I still have floppy disk holding pics from my Sony Mavica. Storage plays a role there and quality of the floppies. 🙂 (Yes, they are also backed up to another format.)

    Feel free to mail me any old CF cards after you have wiped them. Ecspeially 8GB or smaller cards. I use them in old technology.

  6. “… even bend the pins on a CF card”

    Good trick, since the CF card has sockets, not pins… you may bend the pins on a cheap card READER, but you won’t bend pins on the card, because it doesn’t have any!

    I buy cheap CF cards, and have never had one fail. Of course, I don’t put ’em in the blender for a smoothie… 😉 Still, just about the only reason I replace them is because I usually get faster ones every few years as the prices come down.

  7. Hi there!

    I’m form Cambodia an I questions with is related to memory cards

    one of memory cards can be videos and photoed

    video is ok to be used but photos can not be used in

    in fact in my camera can see all photos that i have taken

    thanks
    pho

  8. I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT erasing, formatting, etc. I buy new ones for safe keeping photos. It seems there last longer then the collect of computers I have… but we have the cloud now so I guess I should reconsider, hmmm-nope… they appear to work well for filing years of work, love and passion.

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