Erasing & formatting a memory card

Erase a memory card sample menuMany digital camera owners don’t understand the difference between erasing and formatting a memory card. Both methods of deleting images should be used, but for different reasons.

Before explaining the differences between the two, it should be pointed out that experts recommend formatting a brand new memory card in-camera prior to using the card for the very first time.

Erasing can be done whenever needed, such as when your card is at full capacity and you need more space on the card. You can erase all or individual image files.

A memory card should be formatted several times a year, particularly if its performance seems sluggish. Format more often if your camera is used frequently.

Before erasing or formatting a memory card

Make sure you back up any important photo and video files prior to erasing or formatting a card. While it’s possible to recover image files with special software after either process, you may only have a partial recovery, or recover no images at all.

Erasing a memory card

When erasing a memory card, individual photos are deleted from their directories on the card. You can erase one or more user selected images at a time, or erase all images at one time. However, any images that you’ve selected to be “protected” through another menu option will not be removed during the erasure process.

Formatting a memory card

Format a memory card sample menuFormatting, on the other hand, deletes all images from a memory card, even the ones that may have been protected. It recreates the file system including new directories and folders where images are saved on the card.

Unlike erasing, formatting improves the overall performance of a card.

Low level formatting

Some digital cameras offer a low level format in addition to the standard format option. With a low level format, all data on the card is deleted. New directories and folders are also recreated during this process.

A low-level format of a high speed memory card helps ensure smooth continuous shooting at a constant interval. For optimal video performance, it’s also recommended that a low level format be done sometime prior to recording.

In camera, not computer

Though opinions vary, many recommend formatting a memory card in a digital camera, not via a computer. If you plan to use a memory card that was previously used in another camera, format the card in the new camera before taking any shots.

SD Formatter: for Secure Digital memory cards

According the the Secure Digital Association, SD Formatter is the preferred way to format Secure Digital Cards. The utility, which offers three levels of formatting, was developed by the Association. You can read more about this free software here.

Check your camera manual

Formatting and erasing a memory card is done through the main Menu. The functions are generally accessed in Playback mode, though they can be accessed in other modes on some cameras.  Since the steps vary from camera to camera, check your manual for specific instructions.

Tip: When getting rid of a memory card, destroy it first so personal information can’t be recovered from the card.

If you’re having problems with your memory card not solved by the many suggestions posted below, check if the card capacity exceeds the maximum capacity specified in the camera manual. If not, contact the manufacturer of your memory card or digital camera for technical assistance.

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183 Responses

  1. Gail Bjork says:

    danielle, try SD Formatter, free software developed by the SD Association.

    If that doesn’t work, there is probably a problem with you camera. You need to call tech support to see if they can walk you through a fix. Because of the time constraints, you may need to make other arrangements such as buying or borrowing a camera, or asking someone else to take the wedding photos.

  2. danielle says:

    please help! my camera is saying that my sdhc card is not formatted. I have tried a few different cards in my camera and it says the same thing. I have tried the format button on my camera and it says unable to format remove card. Any suggestions? I am shooting a wedding in the morning!

  3. Chun says:

    I have a panasonic Lumix (DMZ-TZ10) digital camera with a Panasonic 16gb “Silver” SDHC. I have connected it to my laptop in the past and transferred files with no problem.
    However I recently tried connect the camera to my laptop and the “Panasonic PhotofunStudio” software tells me there is an unsupported media type inserted; also when I try to access the drive via windows explorer it tells me the disk needs to be formatted!

    I have not changed my memory card (its the same one that the previously recognised photos were saved to) so I’m not sure why it has stopped working. I have checked that the write-protect tab on the card is in the correct position too.

    Any ideas how I can resolve this problem without losing any of the photos currently on my memory card?

  4. Gail Bjork says:

    Virginie, check the settings of the software you use to download the images. It may “think” you’ve downloaded them already. Set the software so it downloads all images. If that doesn’t work, and since you can see the images on the card via the computer, try highlighting and dragging them to your desktop. If that works, then format your card to improve it’s performance. If that doesn’t work, call Lexar tech support for advice. If your card is damaged, it may be time to get a new one.

  5. Virginie says:


    I use a Lexar 4GB Compact Flash Platinum II 80x with my Nikon D70s. Lately, I’ve been having some problems uploading the files on my computer. It seems like there is no file recorded on my memory card, but still, I can access them unto my digital camera. What is even weirder is that when I check with my computer what is on my memory card, I can see old shots that I erased directly on my digital camera… I tried using a memory card reader, thinking that the problem might be my digital camera, and it still does not work properly.

    Do you have any ideas on how I could get my latest shots out of that memory card?


  6. buddy says:

    check the side of your chip there is a lock that slides if this is in lock it will show in security mode

  7. Gail Bjork says:

    Lea, make sure the lock on you memory card is in the UP (unlocked) position. You can find an explanation and illustration of this at the bottom of this article. If your card is unlocked, gently clean the contacts of the card with a pencil eraser.

    There may also be a switch inside the camera slot which may be locked. If so, very carefully slide the switch with a toothpick to the unlocked position. You can also try cleaning the card slot with canned air. You can also try resetting the camera.

    If these don’t work, your camera probably needs repair so call Canon Tech support.

  1. July 25, 2012

    […]   Deleting Images – Most DSLR cameras (if not all) have the option to “format card” within the menu settings. If possible, this option is better to remove images than simply reviewing them in the playback mode and erasing them all. Why, you might ask. Well, every time you delete all the images on your card they are technically still there in a protected form within the menu settings. If the card is never formatted,, the camera will become sluggish. That’s where formatting the card comes in handy. This option removes all files (protected and not) from the card and increases the functioning speed of the device. Professionals recommend formatting memory cards a few times a year (or more if you shoot frequently). For more information on this visit […]