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Is It Safe to Delete Images Directly from My Camera’s Menu?

This morning, I read an article over at Digital Photography School about thinning out your image collection by deleting all but the best photos. The author suggested a workflow for continuously winnowing down your shots until you’re left with a select few keepers. The first step that he suggested was to look through your images as you take them and delete the obvious rejects directly from the camera.

This elicited many responses in the comment section suggesting that it is unsafe to delete images from your camera’s menu and that doing so could lead to a corrupted SD card and lost photos. Hmm… is this true?

A lot of the comments made this claim without any real support to back it up. However, one user, Luke, stated…

While I agree very much with “deleting ruthlessly”, the in-camera delete function can sometimes lead to disaster. You run the risk of corrupting sectors on your memory card before getttng the chance to download/ingest the images you wish to keep. I have personally experienced this and have seen others endure the same problem.

I have spoken with reps from both Nikon and Canon regarding this issue and both have confirmed that it’s always better to completely download/ingest your imagery to your computer before deleting anything. Once this is done, place your memory card back in the camera use your “format” option to clear the card. This ensures that your card will be formated the way it’s supposed to be and the way your camera likes it.

Granted, I have not spoken with the same Nikon and Canon reps. However, based on my personal experience and looking for some documented evidence of this phenomena, I’m a bit skeptical.

First, we’ll go with experience. My students and I take a lot of pictures of events throughout the year. Over the last two years, we’ve probably shot somewhere upwards of 30,000 photos with my Canon t1i. When we’re taking pictures at an event, the first step to weeding out craptacular pictures is to delete them in camera and I/we do it regularly. In that time, I have never had an SD card that was formatted by my Canon t1i become corrupted and lose any data. I do, however, regularly format the cards – usually after we completely dump the images from the card to the computer and then back them up on an external hard drive.

However, I tried looking for some documentation to counter my experience. On page 30 of the Canon t3i manual, there is a section with some warnings about memory cards. This specifically warns not to remove the card while data is being written to it, lest you accidentally corrupt the data.

Page 224 to 225 of the same manual contains instructions for erasing images through the menu function. Nowhere is there a warning of any kind that erasing images in this way could lead to a corrupt SD card. [Note: The manual is available from the Canon website.]

I looked through the SanDisk website (a fairly reputable SD card manufacturer), and they had this to say on the topic of corrupted data:

Causes of file corruption:

  1. Taking pictures using a camera that is running low on batteries.
  2. Removing the card from the device during a read or write operation.
  3. Mishandling and subjecting the card to extreme conditions.

No mention here of deleting images piecemeal rather than formatting the card completely.

Finally, I found this thread on StackExchange. Coming from some fairly technical users, the consensus seems to be that formatting a memory card completely will free up all of the space and eliminate fragmentation. This should have some benefits as to access speed, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear agreement or proof that formatting the card versus deleting through the camera has any benefits regarding corruption.

Here’s my take:

  • When you start using a card, it’s a good idea to format it. Start with a clean slate, and make sure the card is working with a filesystem that works with your camera. I typically format my card every time I stick it in my camera and start shooting at an event/session.
  • Simply deleting an image in your camera is not dangerous, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that this leads to an increase in corruption of SD cards.
  • Excessive haphazard deletion may leave a card fragmented, and this may impact access speed but may or may not affect corruption.
To flat out refuse to delete an image in camera for fear that it will corrupt a memory card seems to me to be extremely paranoid. If this is in fact a real possibility, I’d like to see a real technical explanation for it that is based on the way the file system and the camera work, not just based on the gut feeling of a photographer (who may be an excellent photographer but who is nevertheless not a software engineer).

Filed Under: Digital Photo FAQs



Tell us what do you think.

  1. Isabel says: August 23, 2012

    Thank you for this.

    “I’d like to see a real technical explanation for it that is based on the way the file system and the camera work, not just based on the gut feeling of a photographer (who may be an excellent photographer but who is nevertheless not a software engineer).”

    ^ Well stated. I share the same sentiments.

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Digital Photography How To is intended to be a guide to people learning how to use their digital SLR cameras. Three years ago, I had never picked up a camera; now, I produce a yearbook every year and I moonlight as a professional photographer.

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Digital Photography How To is written by Brian Rock. In addition to being a photographer, he's an educator. He teaches high school history, he's the advisor of the school yearbook, and he trains his kids to do all of the photography for the yearbook.

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