A damaged SD card is a digital photographer’s worst nightmare. Are all those amazing photos ruined because a few 1s and 0s are in the wrong place? You might be able to recover your images from a corrupted card, but you don’t want to end up in that situation in the first place, which means you should know how to properly format SD cards.

RELATED: How to recover images from a damaged SD card

This also means that you have to work with high quality SD cards. At our sister site ReviewGeek, we’ve covered the best SD cards for your camera. Our pick is the 16GB SanDisk Extreme for just $11. There is no excuse for not using the best.

Removing VS Formatting

When your camera’s SD card is full, you’ll probably want to pop it into your computer, delete a few photos from it, and get back to shooting. Do not do that!

Simply deleting files from the SD card is a bad idea for several reasons:

  • All extra operations increase the chance of data corruption.
  • Deleting multiple photos is a very slow way to reclaim map space.
  • SD card performance degrades with use.

Instead, you should format your SD cards when you run out of free space (or when you really want to). Formatting clears the card and re-establishes the folder structure with digital camera image (DCIM). And it does all of this without the disadvantages of simply deleting things.

First, save and backup your photos

Now about everything in order. Do not format a card containing photos that you have not yet copied. Remember when it comes to data security: «One is not, but two is one».

RELATED: don’t just move photos to an external drive: it’s NOT a backup

I recommend that you import your photos into Lightroom and then save them to cloud storage like Dropbox or Google Photos. This way, your photos will be well organized and even if something happens to your computer or external drive, they are safe. Unless you’re shooting an incredible amount of RAW files, photos don’t take up as much space and cloud storage is very cheap.

RELATED: How to automatically upload photos from your digital camera

Reformat card to camera

Once you’ve made sure you have all the photos on your SD card and are fully backed up, it’s time to format the card.

I’m going to be honest here: I kind of recommend a bit of wisdom. There are other ways to format SD cards, and (as long as you’re not trying to change the format, add partitions, or do anything else weird), those will work too. But the standard advice from most photographers and all camera manufacturers is that the best way to format an SD card is to do it with the camera to minimize potential problems. It is also the fastest and most convenient way as you don’t have to search for any additional programs.

RELATED: How to «clean» your flash drive, SD card, or internal storage to fix partition and capacity issues

So, given that modern operating systems are good and you can format an SD card however you like (and do nothing but format it), our advice is to still stick to the manufacturer’s recommendations and do it with a camera.

The process is slightly different from camera to camera, but in general it should be something like this.

On a Canon camera, select Menu > Setup > Format Card. Select the card you want to format and click OK. Your camera will take a few minutes and then you will have a new SD card ready to go.

On your Nikon camera, select Menu > Setup > Format Memory Card. Select the card you want to format and click OK. In a few seconds, you will have a formatted SD card.

If for some reason you can’t find the option to format the card, check your camera’s user manual.


The likelihood of something going wrong with your SD cards is pretty low, but it can and does happen. Formatting your cards properly — and using high quality ones from the start — is the best way to prevent this.

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