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As photographers, we’ve all had experience with SD, or Secure Digital, cards. These thin memory sticks look like a smaller, modern cousin to the floppy disc, and have the power to hold thousands of high quality images or hours of movie quality video. SD cards come in a range of sizes, both physically and in terms of capacity, which can make choosing the right one for your needs a difficult task. Whether you’re looking for an SD card for your phone, GoPro or DSLR camera, this article will help ensure you purchase the perfect card to fit your shooting requirements.

SD cards technically come in three different sizes, but only two are commonly used today: SD and microSD cards. Regular SD cards measure in at about an inch long and a half inch wide, while microSD cards are only about the size of a fingernail. MicroSD cards are most commonly used in smaller devices, like phones, tablets, GoPros (including the new GoPro Hero 5) and other action sports cameras. They’re available in a variety of speeds and have memory capacities of up to 128GB. They also usually come with a regular sized SD card adapter, making it easy to transfer files to a computer.

Regular SD cards are generally used in larger and more high powered devices, like professional DSLRs, video recorders and audio equipment. Regular SDs also come in a range of speeds with memory capacities of up to 128GB.

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The first step in selecting the right SD card is to understand the kinds of files you’ll be recording onto it. For example, if you plan on recording audio files, a 4GB SD card will suit your needs perfectly, but if you’re shooting RAW images or HD video, you’ll want an SD card with at least 32GB capacity. Simply put, the larger the files, the more capacity you’ll need.

It’s also important to note that size isn’t everything. The other equally crucial factor in selecting an SD card is its speed. SD cards are available in six different speed classes: Class 2, Class 4, Class 6, Class 10, U1 and U3. The speed class determines how quickly the SD card can record and process the information being captured, making this an especially important factor for high speed sports photographers and anyone shooting 4K video.

Let’s break down the class system to give you a better idea of what each type of SD card will get you.

Class 2: This is the slowest speed class, making it also the cheapest option. These SD cards work great for audio recording on devices like the Sennheiser ew 100 G3 Wireless System with ME4 Lavalier Mic or the Zoom H4N Portable Digital Recorder, as well as with entry-level point and shoot cameras. If you plan on recording anything larger than small audio files or jpegs, you’ll have to up your SD card game. 

Classes 4 & 6: Both the Class 4 and Class 6 SD cards can handle larger files than the Class 2, but they still aren’t ideal for RAW files or 4K video. These moderately speedy cards work well with mid level cameras, like the Sony Cyber Shot DSC RX1R II or the Leica X-U (Typ 113) Digital Camera. That being said, these SD cards still work best shooting jpegs, rather than larger files, and can only handle minor video recording at 720p. 

Classes 10 and U1: If you’re a professional photographer or are looking to step your photo game up into the professional world, these are the SD cards for you. These exceptionally fast memory cards can record up to 10 MB per second, making them perfect for anyone shooting RAW images or HD video at 1080p. These are the kinds of SD cards you’ll want if you’re shooting with high caliber equipment, like the Fujifilm X-Pro2 Mirrorless Digital Camera, which can record HD video at up to 1080p, or the Canon EOS 80D Digital SLR.

U3: The U3 SD cards are the most powerful (and the most expensive) of the bunch, but are generally overkill if you’re just planning on shooting still images or even recording video at 1080p or below. These SD cards become necessary when you get into the 4K video territory because it’s the only SD card capable of properly writing and recording the information from these huge video files. Try these high powered SD cards out with an equally high powered camera capable of recording 4K video, like the Nikon D500 or the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Having the proper photo and video equipment doesn’t end with the camera body and lens. Because even the most powerful full frame body paired with the highest quality glass won’t amount to anything if the SD card isn’t up to snuff. So start paying attention to the information on those little pieces of plastic or risk losing precious photo and video files forever.

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