The Best Way to Delete Photos From Your Memory Card

When it comes to photography, we spend most of our time thinking about taking photos – lighting, composition, exposure, and posing. Then, once the photo is taken, we may start to think about post-processing, gently nudging the photo along until it becomes exactly what we’ve pictured in our mind’s eye. Once that’s accomplished, we do it all over again.


Back in high school and college, I shot film. I can vividly remember running out of film, and sometimes having to wait weeks until I was able to buy more. Our public high school relied heavily on donations of film, and sometimes when there wasn’t any left, our teacher would have us walk around campus with our pointer fingers and thumbs shaped into a rectangle, pretending to take photographs. Now that digital cameras are on the scene and we’re using memory cards in lieu of film, with the capability to erase images and write over them again, the number of photographs that we can take in any given week or month is nearly endless.

You may have noticed that I said, “nearly” endless, and that’s because memory cards do have a lifespan, and will not last indefinitely. That said, there are a few things that we can do to maximize the lifespan of our memory cards, including making sure that we are deleting our photos off the memory card in the most efficient manner possible. This isn’t something that’s talked about all that often, but when it comes down to it, it is really simple:

Less Desirable Ways to Delete

Deleting each photo individually through the camera by using the “Delete” or Trashcan Button


Deleting all photos through the camera by using the “Delete All” option


Plugging the camera into the computer, and dragging photos into the computer’s recycle bin and/or allowing your import software to delete the files from the card once they’re uploaded.


Most Desirable Way to Delete

Using your camera’s Format function


In the end, all of the  above methods work toward the same end, in that they remove the images from your card. However, the first three ways to delete are actually more taxing to the memory card than using the card’s Format function. I’ve heard it explained like this:

Let’s pretend for a moment that your memory card has a shelf-life of 1,000 uses. Let’s say that you go out and take 500 photos, that’s 500 uses on your memory card. You then upload the photos to your computer, and then individually delete each photo using the delete button on your camera. Deleting each photo individually counts as another 500 uses on your card. So in all, you’ve just spent 1,000 uses of your memory card, leaving you with no uses left on that card.

Now, let’s pretend that you’ve uploaded your 500 photos, but instead of deleting them with your delete button, you use your camera’s Format function. Formatting works in a different way than deleting, and only deletes the directory files rather than the images themselves. This then allows the images to be overwritten the next time you take a picture. Because of this, formatting only counts as ONE use of your memory card, regardless of how many photos you’re deleting. So, in the scenario above, you’d have used only 501 of your memory card’s uses, as opposed to 1,000 with deleting manually. Certainly,  memory cards available today will be able to handle far more than 1,000 uses, but the illustration still rings true – formatting your card causes less wear and tear on your memory card than other ways of deleting images.

Additionally, because formatting only deletes the directory file instead of the images themselves, images on a card that has been formatted are typically much easier to recover (if needed) than those that are deleted manually, assuming that you did not overwrite them by taking more photos. Not a bad trick to have up your sleeve in case of emergencies, am I right?

I’d also like to add that I have personally seen a difference in both buffering time of the card, and also a decrease in the amount of corrupted images/cards that I’ve come across since I’ve been formatting cards rather than deleting in some other way. I’m not sure whether there’s an actual scientific basis there, but it definitely seems related in my book, and it is now pretty rare that I delete even a single image in any way other than formatting.

So, how often should you format? Some people like to wait until their card is totally full, and then format. Personally, I like to format my card before each new photo session. It just makes sense to me to start fresh each time, and be able to upload everything on the card to one location. This is really a matter of personal preference as far as I’m concerned. The one hard and fast suggestion that I do have when it comes to formatting cards is simply to be sure to format the card in whichever camera body you plan to use it in next.

How do you typically delete images, and why?

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