SD cards are an essential accessory for your GoPro. You’re not going to get far without one. unlike some cameras, GoPros don’t have an internal memory that can be used to store images or video footage.1 I’ve put together some recommendations for the best SD cards for GoPro cameras separately. Here I’m focusing on how to free up space and prep the card for use in a GoPro camera to keep its filesystem healthy and ready for use.
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When you format your GoPro SD card, it does two things. It wipes all the data off the card to free up space for new photos and videos. It also prepares the card to be the way the camera wants it, including the appropriate filesystem and folder structure. A kind of conditioning, if you like. It helps prevent SD card errors that might lead to issues with the recording stopping or lost data.
Formatting is something you should do before you start using a new card—and you’ll get prompted by the camera to do it if the card isn’t ready. And then you should also keep doing it routinely after that each time you’ve downloaded all the images and footage of the card.
As a rule, it’s best to format the card in the camera. That’s true not just for GoPros but for any camera. It is possible to format SD cards using a computer, and I have more details on that below, but it’s good practice to always do it in the camera to minimize the risks of data corruption or some kind of formatting issue that could interfere with shooting.
It’s also worth doing regularly. That again maximizes the chance that the SD card’s filesystem is healthy. I do it whenever I’ve finished downloading the files to my computer after a shoot. Or you could do it after uploading the files to a cloud service such as the dedicated GoPro cloud service, which is a subscription service.
There are a few different ways to format an SD card in GoPro cameras. The process does vary a little between models, but the general approach is broadly similar across different GoPro models. And on some GoPros you can choose among more than one way of doing it. Some GoPros, for instance, give you the option of using the menu on the touchscreen, the buttons and the front status screen, or the GoPro mobile app. On other GoPros, only one or two of those options are available.
How to Format SD Card / GoPro Cameras with Built-in Screen & Menu
All of the GoPros that come with a built-in touchscreen have the formatting option as part of the menu system. The terminology isn’t always exactly the same, but in general, you want to go into settings and preferences and croll down to the option that refers to resetting the memory card.
Here are some examples:
- GoPro HERO9 Black / GoPro HERO8 Black / GoPro HERO7 Black: Preferences > Reset > Format SD Card
- GoPro HERO6 / HERO5 / HERO (2018): Preferences > Format SD Card > Delete
- GoPro HERO4 Silver: Setup > Delete > ALL/Format
How to Format SD Card / GoPro Cameras with Small Front Screen
On GoPros with only a small screen on the front, such as the HERO4 Black and the HERO3 and HERO3+ models, you can use a combination of the power button on the side and the shutter button on the top to navigate through the menu system to the format SD card function.
Some of the newer models, such as the HERO5 Black, HERO6 Black, HERO7 Black, or HERO (2018) also have a small front screen, but on those models, you can’t access the settings menu with it—it’s only for switching shooting modes.
- Press the power button a few times until you see a trashcan icon on the front screen.
- Press the shutter button to select that option.
- Press the power button until “ALL/Format” shows on the screen.
- Press the shutter button to select the “ALL/Format” function.
- Press the power button until “Yes” is highlighted.
- Press the shutter button to select “Yes.”
The camera then starts the formatting, and the camera’s light and the trashcan icon on the screen will both start blinking to denote that the formatting is in process. The blinking will stop once the process is complete.
How to Format SD Card / GoPro Cameras with Wireless Capabilities / GoPro Mobile App
The GoPro mobile app also includes the function to format the SD card.
Again, the terminology hasn’t always been completely consistent between versions of the app, and it’s not consistent between the camera’s menu and the app’s menu, but the current version of the GoPro app calls it “Delete All Files from SD Card”.
Formatting a GoPro’s SD Card Using a Computer
While it’s best practice to format the SD card in the GoPro camera itself, it is possible to format it using a computer. There are a couple of main options and some things to watch out for.
SD Card Formatter. The safest, most reliable, and simplest is to use the free app that the SD Association makes available specifically to set SD and microSD cards up to be fully compliant. It’s called SD Card Formatter, and you can download for free directly from the SD Association’s website.
There’s nothing complicated about using this app—the whole point is that it’s a foolproof way to use the appropriate format for the type of card—but I’ve put together a more detailed walk-thru here.
Operating System Disk Utilities. Another option is to use the operating system’s built-in disk utility. With Windows 10, go to Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Computer Management > Disk Management. On Mac, use Disk Utility.
As for the formatting type, there are some specific requirements according to the size of the storage capacity of your memory card. If it’s 32GB or smaller, choose FAT32, which conforms to the microSDHC standard. If it’s 64GB or larger, choose exFAT, which is what the microSDXC standard specifies.2
- Some GoPros do have an HDMI out port, in which case, as a technical matter, it is possible to shoot without a memory card by connecting the camera directly to an external recorder or display. But that’s not how most users shoot with their GoPro most of the time. ↩
- As a technical matter, it is possible to reverse these. That is, you can format a 32GB with exFAT or a 128GB with FAT32, for example, but doing so goes against the SD Association’s specs, as well as what the camera expects, and introduces added risk of the camera having a problem with the card. ↩
What to Do if Your GoPro Photos or Videos Go Missing From Your SD Card
There can be several reasons why photos and videos go missing from memory cards. But you can often recover at least some of them. I have a more detailed post on how to recover deleted GoPro videos and photos from SD cards, but here's the quick version:
- Stop using the SD card. This is important, because overwriting the data will make it harder to recover deleted files from it.
- Scan the memory card with the free trial versions of either Stellar Photo Recovery or Disk Drill. Both have Windows and Mac versions. The scan will show you whether any files can be found and recovered.
- Recover the files. If the apps can find the files, you can then decide whether to buy a full license to run the actual recovery process or to try one of the other options covered here.