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Question of the Month

December 2010

Are the Latest Fast CF Cards worth the Expense?

gorilla 1

Recently, at the annual PSA convention in Charleston, SC, where I gave the opening program ‘Twenty Years in Africa,’ I met with a Canon representative where I had an opportunity to discuss or complain about some Canon camera features. I learned a lot from that conversation.
One of my points of contention was the relatively low buffer count on the cameras, as compared to the seemingly endless quest for cameras with higher and higher megapixels. The buffer for my Mark IV, I believe, is listed at 25 frames, but as the rep pointed out, this is CF card dependent. A fast card, like the Hoodman cards that have a 100mb/s transfer rate, will record more images, basically keeping up with the camera’s motor drive.
I didn’t believe him, so we borrowed a Hoodman CF card from Hunt’s Camera and Video’s booth, and I loaded the card into a Mark IV, set on RAW. I put the motor drive on high speed, and fired away, and although the card ‘buffered out’ with the frame-counter dropping to zero, but after a momentary pause, and I am talking about a second, I could fire again, and again, with the frame counter alternating between 0 and 1 remaining frames to the buffer, but the camera kept blasting. I stopped shooting when I got to 40 frames. The Canon rep  said he’s shot 90.

Later, I tried this test again with my camera and Hoodman CF card. I squeezed off the motor drive, firng at the highest frame rate of 10fps, and after I buffered out I had a slight pause, less than a second, before I could fire again, and again. After a hundred plus shots I stopped, and waited for my buffer to clear. I didn't time it, but it was fast, so I did it again, firing as fast as the camera would allow until I shot 110 shots - probably less than 15 seconds in total. The camera cleared, completely, in less than 8 seconds!

These results were really surprising to me, as I’d swear that I’ve been several shooting situations with my Mark IV where the camera buffered out and I waited, and waited, until the buffer cleared. However, in retrospect, I guessed that I may not have tried firing the camera after it buffered but instead simply watched the counter until the buffer began to clear. Because of this annoying problem, I found that I preferred shooting with my Canon 7D instead, as the slightly slower frame rate kept a better pace with my shooting, and I never buffered out.

However, that conclusion proved untrue. The key was the speed of the cards.

The Canon rep explained that the published frame rates are based on the faster, or perhaps even fastest, card available at the time, but by the time the camera actually appears on the market card technology may have increased sufficiently at the published, official rate is no longer valid, and the frame counter for the buffer should only be used as a rough guide.  That being the case, it makes perfect sense to buy the latest and fastest cards available, and the Hoodman brand may indeed be the fastest. I use them, and have had excellent results. How important that really is was illustrated on our latest Mountain Gorilla Photo Tour.

gorilla 2On our first day with Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda I discovered that my Mark IV was set on the second card slot, which for inexplicable reasons to me is an SD, not a CF, card. We were having an incredible experience, a truly unique opportunity where two different Mountain Gorillas were galloping across an open mountain meadow, sometimes mock-charging us, and certainly keeping us hopping as we constantly had to shift to get out of the gorillas’ path. I was continually running out of buffer, and losing shots as my card slowly cleared, and as it did so, in the heat of this action, I had a brief moment of clarity to wonder why my card was reading so slowly. I glanced at the card indicator, which showed that I was writing to the SD card and not to my CF card. When I switched to the Hoodman CF card I was back in business, and, fortunately, the action still continued.

Why Canon uses an SD card for its second card slot is a complete mystery to me, and one I forgot to question when I talked with Canon (or, the answer was so unmemorable that a month later I can’t recall the answer). Nikon, in contrast, has two CF slots for their pro-level cameras, so the technology certainly is there to do so.

lionessOn safari, on a couple of occasions I put an older card, either SanDisk Extreme III or Lexar 300x and once again the difference in writing speed was significant. Saying this, I’m not bashing these other cards, which would be perfectly adequate for fast shooting if continuous shooting beyond 20-25 shots is not required. If fast shooting and continous action is your thing, as it is mine, then fast writing cards that clear the camera’s buffer rapidly, like the Hoodman cards, are definitely worth the money. After these experiences, where I missed shots because I had a slower card in the camera, I made sure that I had the fast-writing Hoodman cards loaded, formatted and ready to go, at the start of every game drive.

To answer the question, the answer is absolutely YES. If you are shooting action, if you need to clear your camera's buffer quickly, there is no substitute. Yes, the fast CF cards, like the Hoodman, are definitely worth the money.

As usual, although I was giving one of the major presentations at the conference, the kind folks at the Canon booth elected to visit friends in the area and thus missed my program. As a photographer continually frustrated by Canon’s lack of any type of support, this was not unexpected. The only good I see from this is that I’m free to be perfectly honest with my comments and recommendations regarding Canon, but it still is quite annoying as some lecture appearances will only take place if a major sponsor, like Canon, pays the bill. Fortunately, Gary Farber from Hunt’s Camera did my PSA sponsorship and I thank him for that! Gary, and Hunt’s, has been the absolute leader in sponsoring photographers like myself for events such as these, thus furthering the education and advancement of photography. Thanks, Gary!

Questions of the Month

How does the 7D hold up in a recent shoot?
Which is the better camera, the Mark IV or the 7D?

Are there Mountain Lions (Pumas, Cougars) in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic States?

Why is bat photography so difficult?

What do I think of the Canon 1D Mark IV?

How do I deal with shaving weight for carrying my gear
Why do I advocate manual exposure so avidly?
Where can I find Depth of Field reference charts?

What is the Kiboko backpack? Is it the New Best Pack?
Is there a correct position for the upright on a Wimberley actionhead?

How, Who, and Why? The story behind our new web site.

Archived Questions of the Month
Most of my original Questions of the Month for the last several
years are available through this link. The 'look' is from my
original web site, although if I ever have enough time I might
redo these pages to match the new web site But that's not
a high priority.