I was shooting a Kunqu Chinese opera some time ago and was at one point shadowed by someone using a nice midrange DSLR. He was copying my angles and at times I could hear the autofocus motor of his lens whining as it was right next to my head. It was also apparent that he was trying to shoot as many frames as possible by the way his shutter was machine gunning off a few shots… and then left to agonizingly wait as his camera’s storage buffer were being written to the camera’s memory card. I could hear him silently cursing under his breath. Was it at me?
At one point he gave me this incredulous look as to why I was able to continuously fire away. The only thing he asked me was whether or not I was shooting RAW images or not, and I nodded.
Of course he was skeptical and disbelieving, and then continued to mimic my shooting as best he could. I ended up shifting my location a few times and he could not keep up, as the advantage of the relative youth of my knees compared to his took its toll, and he stopped following me. Moving to a totally different side of the theater helped too, of course.
It’s Not The Camera Gear…
Afterwards I managed a quick glance at his gear. He had a Nikon D200. It is an outstanding crop-sensor DSLR with image output capabilities to compete head to head with the very best out there. His lens was most likely the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6D AF which may have been a bit on the slow side for the lighting of this particular event, but it is still an excellent lens regardless. The D200 is capable of firing off 5 frames per second, in a buffer 22 frames deep. Enabling in-camera noise reduction halves the frame buffer size to 11, but it is still enough to get the job done.
So if his camera body isn’t at fault, what was the deal?
Well most likely he was using discount, budget-basement memory cards. There is a real performance difference between a top-of-the line Sandisk Extreme and the NewEgg ‘Deal of the Day’. You really get what you pay for in terms of performance, as evidenced by some fairly thorough tests performed by Rob Galbraith on a variety of different camera bodies and memory cards here.
Performance Matters. 15MB/sec Versus 4MB/sec
For my camera body and the two memory card types that I own, there is a wide gulf in performance. I normally shoot with a Sandisk Extreme III 16GB card, which cost about $179 at the time. It has a write performance of just under 15MB/sec when shooting RAW. This concurs with Rob’s tests for that specific camera body and card here. I also keep a few Transcend 133x 16GB cards as backup or traveling storage as well. These cards tested out at 5.838MB/sec under Rob’s testing, but I could barely break the 4MB mark when running my own tests. These cards aren’t necessarily junk, or are unreliable, it’s just that they are SLOW. They cost me under $50 each at the time and served well as backup storage medium when I was on my honeymoon.
Don’t Be A Cheap Bastard
So what does all this mean? Simply put- if you’re going to spend a ton of cash on a nice DSLR camera body equipped with an equally expensive lens, don’t handicap it by cheaping out on your memory card. Get the fastest that you can afford, especially if you are doing higher frame rates of shooting, otherwise you’ll end up like my shadow- constantly staring at the little blinking red LED, hoping for it to go away already.