Found Files… (Or Why I Shoot Small capacity Memory Cards)

There are two approaches to the use of memory cards in the digital photography world.

  1. The most popular current one holds that the best plan is to get gigantic cards (32 gig, 64 gig and bigger if possible) so that you never have to change cards and lose a shot.  And
  2. That you should use smaller cards so that if something happens you only loose the shots on that card and not the whole shoot or trip.

I belong to the second group.  I still shoot just like I did when I tromped around with a 4×5 or 8×10 over my shoulder.  That is, I select the shot before-hand after analyzing it, “talking” to it, making sure it is what I want, relying on Minor White’s dictum that if your subject sees in you someone worthy of taking its picture it will wait for you.  I look AND SEE and try to anticipate clouds movement and light and work to get set up in time, sometimes having to sit and wait for that shaft of light I am sure will, if the wind pattern holds, illuminate my scene like a giant spotlight.

That means that I may come back from a week’s trip with 20 or less final views.  I may have taken more frames than that if I am doing mosaics, HDR, painting-with-light, etc. requiring multiple exposures per finished image, but not because I treat my camera as if it were a Ma Deuce on full automatic.  I generally use 1 – 8 gig cards, mostly the 2 and 4 gig versions.  Sometimes I may put a whole sequence of light painting or mosaic frames on a single card.  If something happens to it I only lose a single shot.  Much as I hate that idea I hate it less than the idea of losing a dozen shots!

Yet, I’ve never felt I missed a shot.  It does not take me nearly as much time to swap out a memory card as it did to change film rolls or holders, and sometimes, especially shooting a portrait, that film change allowed time for the subject to relax and me to plan the next version of the shot.

Perhaps if I shot sports I’d feel differently, but I don’t think so.  In the early days some incredibly exciting sports shots were taken with 4×5 press cameras by photographers who actually knew enough about what they were shooting to anticipate action.  Now camera operators simply rely on high frame rates and big buffers to sweep through an action sequence and hope the peak action did not happen between frames.  Sorry but I’m not overly impressed with that even if, by accident, they did happen to capture something cool.  They didn’t even know it till the smoke cleared and, in my opinion, could not personally take all that much credit for it; sadly, the credit belonged to the camera.

We used to shoot fashion, another modern “spray and pray” genre, with 12 shot Hasselblads and often even view cameras.  It worked because we had real models, real photographers, and, most of all, real concept visions to guide our work.  We did not blaze away and hope we found something in the thousands of frames that we or the client would like.

Ah, those days and that level of skills seem to be long gone.  But one issue remains: human error and the ability to lose or break small items.   Memory cards are pretty tough but they have little sheer strength and can snap like a cracker.  We think they last forever but all of them will sooner or later get a bad register then another and start corrupting the images – almost always exactly in the center of the main point of interest — making for some unfortunate and sometimes serious editing.   And sooner or later, if you do a lot of location shooting whether commercial work or fine art, you are going to misplace a card just like now and then every honest photographer will tell you they managed to misplace a roll of film or have the lab eat it and then try to blame the shooter.  That was related to size.  I misplaced more 35mm cassettes than 120 or 220 rolls which are bigger.  And I never misplaced a 4×5 or 8×10 film holder or film pack.  Memory cards, especially the little SD cards (which I hate because they are so tiny and easy to drop or lose) are smaller than any of those film types and I know myself well enough, and am sufficiently honest about that to accept that sooner or later I’ll misplace a card.

In fact “sooner” is the operative time frame.  Indeed I’m thinking of this because in starting to get things ready for the upcoming Death Valley Field Trip with my students I dug out one of my duffle bags and lo and behold there was a memory card in one of the pockets.   I had no idea from which trip it came since I know I’m missing cards from a couple of treks.  It turns out this card was from last Fall’s Alabama Hills trip and contained the late afternoon shooting on the first day.  I was using the low sun to light up the Rabbit Brush and other bushes around the old corral off of the Tuttle Creek Rd and the trees lining the creek around one of the older ranches off of Movie Rd.  I had remembered shooting these but could not find them on my exposed cards after the trip.  There was other stuff to work on and after time I forgot about them.

But here are a few of the shots on that lost card.  This first one was in late afternoon and the “golden hour” was living up to its name.  Driving down the Tuttle Creek road, the old gnarly brush caught my eye as it had been sculpted by the wind and now the light.

A wind and light-sculpted bush along Tuttle Creek road in the Alabama Hill near Lone Pine, CA.  Canon 5D MkII with Canon 8-15mm lens at 15mm.

A wind and light-sculpted bush along Tuttle Creek road in the Alabama Hill near Lone Pine, CA. Canon 5D MkII with Canon 8-15mm lens at 15mm.

On down a little further on the Tuttle Crk Road is the old corral I have shot nearly every time I’ve been here, always trying to see it fresh and visually “new” as it continues to age and disintegrate.  The Rabbit Bush had nearly overgrown the corral so I wanted to play with the idea that the corral was THERE to hold the bush.  So I put the fish eye back on and went into the corral.  The wind aloft was breaking up the clouds and creating wonderful sunbeams some of which seemed to be headed our way.  Good grief, this dynamic range REALLY now needed an HDR shot but I had not brought my tripod.  I set the camera to auto bracket for it and was composing the shot when the leading edge of the wind suddenly reached the corral.  It was not only blowing the bush it was blowing ME.  As I thought about trying to run back to the car for my tripod the beam of light hit the corral, there was no help for it but to shoot.  So here it is…

15mm Fisheye shot of Rabbit Bush in old corral on Tuttle Creek.

15mm Fisheye shot of Rabbit Bush in old corral on Tuttle Creek.

However if you click and zoom in on it you can see the ghosted double images in it.  It would be possible, though incredibly tedious, to fix it; but for now, here is a good example of why to NEVER get lazy and leave the tripod behind.

As the light faded and the sun slipped behind the Sierras, it tuned the dust and haze in the air into a brilliant pink color.  Along Movie Rd it also backlit some fall color and required of me one last shot before heading back into town for dinner.

Late afternoon light turns the haze in the sky to pink and brings a backlight glow to the fall colors along Movie Road in the Alabama hills near Lone Pine, CA.  Canon 5D MkII with Canon 85mm f1.8 @ f11 (handheld HDR)

Late afternoon light turns the haze and dust in the sky to pink and brings a backlight glow to the fall leaves  along Movie Road in the Alabama hills near Lone Pine, CA. Canon 5D MkII with Canon 85mm f1.8 @ f11 (handheld HDR)

I’m glad I found  the card with these shots! And really glad that card was not one of perhaps only two cards I had shot and contained half of the trip!

I know it takes a little more space to carry the extra cards.  Whine, whine… I’m so not impressed.  Do you have any idea how much space it took to carry a week’s worth of 120 rolls much less 4×5 film holders (and 8×10 holders nearly required their own cargo trailer…) I had a dedicated cooler that held the unexposed and exposed film.  It’s hard sides and closed lid made it a pretty safe place for the film.  I now can use that big cooler AS a cooler for snacks or lunches  but I have a small sealable case to put my shot cards in to keep them together and safe.

Now if I could just find the card from the Colorado trip.  Hmmm, I wonder if I looked in the parka pockets…???


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Found Files… (Or Why I Shoot Small capacity Memory Cards)

  1. LAURA LEE HUMES says:


    I love your Travels with Rocinante. The photographs are always stunning (even the food shots!), but it’s your writing that really touches my soul…candid, poignant, nostalgic, melancholy, wistful in all it’s synonyms and antonyms…what a capture of a uniquely gifted man with lessons of life under your belt worth sharing that others may learn from your hard earned wisdom. 

    The shots from your “lost” card are really striking. When in the Fall were you in Alabama Hills or maybe I should ask if there is a window that works for fall colors before the threat of snow.

    I submitted my images to the SD Fair so that’s done. Two shots were processed from the Alabama Hills and Bristlecone Pine trip from last June with your group. I knew when I made the trip I was facing surgery when I returned, but I was not expecting the complications that followed to last through September. When I finally got back on my feet and was motivated to find a treasure in my CF cards, I found 2-3 inspiring shots. Whether or not the judges concur is another matter. Frankly, I don’t care. Well, not exactly, but for me it’s all about breathing life into an image that speaks back to me with its own voice. 

    Warm regards,




    • ndking says:

      Good to hear from you Lauralee. I’m realy glad you are doing OK. Check out the upcoming Bristlecone pines trip. We’ll also do a Bodie/Mono lake trip and maybe one in late May or june on Painting With light at the transpo museum. Love to see you soo.

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