SD Cards VS. Compact Flash

Recently Toshiba made the news with their new Toshiba Exceria Pro Compact Flash cards claiming to be the fastest read/write speeds in the world and that got me thinking about how far we’ve come since CF (Compact Flash) cards were relevant.  At some point in your photography endeavors you’ll do a little research on which SD card is the best for your camera and you’ll come across CF cards and wonder this exact same thing.  Now if you are a pro then you have already got a pretty good idea what a CF card is because there is a good chance there is a slot for it right next to your SD card slot.

Recent Update Below (Dec. 26th, 2015)

[alert type=”info”]When I say SD card I’m referring to SD HC cards, the old SD cards with 2GB or less memory aren’t really relevant anymore.[/alert]

Compact Flash cards are a little larger than the SD cards and were the first to the scene with digital photography, SD cards didn’t come into play until down the road and they were considerably slower at first.  Then the SD card evolved and become just as fast as CF cards.  SD cards helped manufacturers make smaller cameras because of their smaller size.  The speed difference was negligible until now, the Toshiba Exceria Pro CF is said to be considerably faster than current SD cards.

The Good, the bad, and the CF Card.

Firstly, most of you probably don’t have the option for the CF card in your camera.  I certainly wouldn’t let that be a factor in your next camera purchase either.  CF cards are expensive (about $72 for the 16GB Toshiba discussed above).  A lot of CF vs SD card comparisons will tell you if you need more than 32GB of storage then your only option is a CF card but that is no longer true.  There are plenty of 64GB cards out there but why you’d use one I’ll never know.  Anything over 16GB tends to take forever to get to the photographs towards the back of the bunch.  Have you ever hooked up your 32GB card to your computer when the card was 3/4 full and sat there wondering when in the world all the photos would load so you can pick the ones you want to transfer to your computer?  I have, that very day I decided I’d never shoot on anything larger than a 16GB SD card, you’ll normally find me with an 8GB card (mainly b/c I prefer not to load a ton of pictures on one card in case I lose it and they are super cheap).

SD cards are like the tom boys of memory, they can fall down, get wet, and are x-ray and magnet proof.  What’s the point of having a camera that is shock proof and water-resistant (professional cameras with CF slots) when the memory card (CF) inside is not?

A valid argument for a CF card with the read/write times listed by Toshiba could be made by sports photographers shooting at 6+ fps in RAW.  That’s like aiming a fire hose at your memory card with 10 to 20 megabyte per photo 6+ times per second.  A class 10 SD card like the PNY 16 GB Class 10 SD Card is good enough for most and can be had for around $12.

There is a lot to say about compatibility as well, SD cards are becoming the standard as cameras get smaller and smaller.  Not to mention the droves of computers that come equipped with SD card slots for easy transfer of images from card to computer.  For the price of a CF card I can buy 5+ SD cards and back up my photo library.

So when does it matter?  Never really, it’s difficult to justify spending the extra $60+ for a CF card that is larger, slightly faster, and more delicate.

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12 replies on “SD Cards VS. Compact Flash”
    1. says: John Barbiaux

      The cf just stands for compact flash. It’s very similar to an SD card but is larger. The compact flash was the most popular (and still is with some professionals) memory card for cameras (still and video) but the SD cards are smaller. Check out if you’d like to learn a little more. There are different types of CF cards with different speeds and not enough room here to delve into it. Hope that helps.

  1. says: Jared Ribic

    The Compact Flash standard was better planned. They didn’t have to change things around each time memory capacity increased.

    With SD, you have SD, SDHC, SDXC.

    Older SD devices won’t recognize cards over 2GB, because they are a different standard.
    Older CF devices recognize any CF card.

    I’m only now beginning to use SD cards, and will be sad to see CF cards fade away, but it’s happening.

  2. says: Joe Hutton

    Apparently you haven’t run into the scenario when an SD card fails just from being inserted and removed repeatedly. I have, on much more than one occasion. The best reason for Compact Flash cards is their durability.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Hey, shooting professionally or recreationally I have not had that problem but I’m sure it has happened. I’m also sure that CF can fail as well. As can our cameras. The only way to safeguard from that is to shoot with a camera that has double SD card slots and allow one card to be used as a back up. You could also approach important projects with a new SD card to substantially decrease the odds of any issues. With that being said, I’ve shot over 9000 images in the last six months on the same two SD cards (Sandisk Extreme PRO cards), backing up to external hard drive and erasing after each outing and have not had a problem…. Though now I feel like I’ve jinxed myself so maybe I’ll retire them and start anew. Thank you for you feedback and I hope your memory (CF or otherwise) never fails. Take care!

  3. says: Rich needham

    I’ve been shooting digital and cf cards since 2004 using Nikon D100, D200, D300 and D810 cameras and have never had a cf failure. I can’t say that about ant type of Sd card. I shoot scenery and wildlife for the majority of my work and the durability issue is huge for me. I’e also shot a couple weddings an portraits, try telling the wedding couple you lost shots due to card failure and see what happens

  4. says: John

    The first CF card I inserted into my brand new Nikon D300 failed when it was half full the first time I used it. The data was unrecoverable by Sandisk, so I lost a day of street photos from New Orleans. I was advised to always format the card in the camera. Since then I’ve never had a problem with CF.

  5. says: Jeff Chastain

    Never had a CF failure. Had several SD fails. My Nikon d800 has a slot for both. I use the CF as the main card(RAW files) and use the SD as back up (jpegs).

  6. says: Scott

    Also never had a CF fail – but I’ve had two brand-new, out of the box SD’s that were bad and had to be returned/exchanged. I’ve heard of people losing, and personally heard a few stories of them being cracked. CF cards are certainly tougher, As long as performance is as good, I’ll spend a few bucks more for CF (they just feel more industrial).

  7. says: Marcie

    I have both and use both but prefer the CF card. While shooting a model yesterday who was moving I had my SD card in. The “wait” time to see the images seemed excruciatingly long compared to the CF. It may sound silly but with only a small window to shoot and a sunsetting, the little bit of time makes the difference. I prefer the actual bigger size of the CF card as well for handling. For the record, my SD cards are high speed Sans Disc.

    1. says: Jared Ribic

      If you’re using a Canon 5D Mk3, it will definitely be slow reading SD cards, no matter how fast your card is.
      Canon put in a cheap slow card reader, which cripples the SD capabilities.

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