Understanding Image Storage and Image File Formats

One very important part of your DSLR camera will be the method of image storage. Of course, you cannot even begin digital photography without the proper storage media. Many people who are used to a point and shoot camera may be a little confused in the beginning since the vast majority of DSLR cameras will not have any sort of internal storage. You will not be able to take pictures without some sort of storage card. Different cameras make use of a few different types of storage media, so you will need to understand your options in advance as well as advantages and disadvantages of each media.

The Storage Media

When you start getting into digital photography, you will find that there really are not that many different types of storage media. In fact, there are only two that are considered the frontrunners of the camera world: SD and CF. Occasionally, you will find a camera that makes use of something called a memory stick, but these models will generally also have a slot for a standard memory card as well. Just what are SD and CF? Which is the best? Which do you need?

SD stands for Secure Digital and it is the most common type of memory card that will be seen with a DSLR consumer grade camera. The card is quite small and easy to store and it is available in a few models.

  • SD
  • SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity)
  • SDXC (Secure Digital eXtended Capacity)

CF stands for Compact Flash. This type of memory card is almost exclusively reserved for professional level cameras.

Many people wonder the difference between the two and they may think that an SD card is not as good as CF. All in all, there is really not enough difference to matter for the average digital camera user. Here are a few of the minor differences between the two types of cards.

  • Size – The CF card is slightly larger but still easily portable.
  • Capacity – The SD card will have a slightly lower capacity
  • Writing Speed – CF cards can write the images at a slightly faster speed.

Overall, you most likely will not see any difference between the memory cards. CF cards are favored by pros simply because they are slightly faster and slightly higher in capacity, but for the average digital photography, it will not be different enough to matter.

Storage Media
Compass on the old world map via Shutterstock

Choosing the Right Memory Card

When you start shopping for memory cards, you will find that it seems like there are hundreds of them out there. How do you know which memory cards you need? It can be a little confusing. To help out, here are some things that you will want to think about.

The Camera. Of course, you need to determine what your camera uses. Your camera could use SD, CF or a memory stick. In addition, some cameras have two memory card slots for mixed media. If your camera uses CF cards, you will need to determine whether it uses Type I or Type II.

Capacity. You most certainly do not want to run out of space when you are taking pictures. That is why most photographers keep several memory cards in their camera bag. When you are shopping for memory cards, though, you will want to determine the capacity that you want for each single card. Some people prefer to buy several lower capacity cards while others choose to have only one or two high capacity cards. The advantage of having several cards is that it will not be the end of the world if one card gets damaged or lost.

Choosing the write speed will matter in a couple of different ways. Of course, if you need to take a number of images quickly, as with sports digital photography, then you will want to consider a faster speed memory card. In addition, when you are transferring the images to a computer, a faster speed card will transfer much faster as well.

Cost is a final factor. Some of the larger capacity, higher speed cards can be quite an investment. CF cards are slightly more expensive than SD cards as well.

Image File Format

One of the factors that you will need to consider when choosing the right storage media will be the image file format that you are choosing for your digital photography. There are a few different file formats that you can save your images in and they can vary slightly from one DSLR camera to the next. If you are new to digital photography, then you may be a little confused when you look at your camera’s options. Here is a little information on each file format and why you would want to choose it.


By far, this is the most common type of image file format used. It is most likely the one you are familiar with as well. JPEG is considered to be optimal for most situations because it combines quality images with smaller file sizes. However, since JPEG does compress the images slightly, it may not be ideal to pro or semi pro photographers who wish to work with their images after they are take.

TIFF (Tagged Image File Format)

You are unlikely to find a camera that offers images in TIFF simply because this format is quickly becoming archaic. This was one of the first types of formats for digital photography that was considered uncompressed or lossless. TIFF takes a great deal of time to write to disc, which is considered a disadvantage.


Considered the ideal for pro photographers, shooting in raw means not compressing the image at all. This gives the photographer the complete control over the image for processing. RAW is actually a proprietary image format, which means each brand of high end DSLR will have their own RAW file format. Some of the RAW image file names that you may see include the following:

  • .NEF (Nikon)
  • .CR2 (Canon)
  • .ORF (Olympus)
  • .SR2 or .SRF (Sony)
  • .3FR (Hassleblad)

Most cameras give you a choice between saving in JPEG only, RAW only or JPEG + RAW. Keep in mind that RAW files will take up a great deal more space on a memory card.

Understanding camera media storage and file formats can greatly enhance your digital photography. You will need to make sure you are choosing the right media card and you will need to choose a file format that works appropriately for you.