Most cameras have a single function for formatting memory cards. But some have two: a quick format and a full format.
So what’s the difference? And which should you use?
If your camera only has a single option for formatting the memory card, it’s almost certainly a quick format.
And for most day-to-day operations, a quick format is what you want. It frees up space on the memory card so you can keep shooting. It’s quick. And it’s efficient.
But it doesn’t actually wipe the data. So the data can usually be recoverable. That might be a good thing, if you have need of a safety net of being able to recover accidentally deleted photos or videos from your memory card. Or it might be a bad thing if you’re images are sensitive and you want to make sure they don’t fall into the wrong hands.
Basically, a quick format wipes what’s known as the file allocation table, which functions as the index keeping track of what data is where on the card’s storage space. If you delete that index, the camera treats the memory card as empty even though the actual data is still there.
By comparison, a full format deletes the file allocation table and the actual data. That’s why it takes quite a lot longer.
It also means that the data is, in any practical sense, unrecoverable.
But it also has an important upside. And that is that it’s useful for keeping the memory card healthy. Over time, even NAND memory cards can slow down and become more efficient. And they can develop bad or unusable sectors.
Pros & Cons & When To Use Which Method
Use a quick format when:
- Day-to-day clearing of the memory card.
- Quick and easy. Quick formatting is much faster than full formatting, making it a convenient option when you need to free up space on your memory card quickly.
- Less wear and tear. Since quick format doesn’t check for bad sectors, it puts less strain on the memory card’s hardware, potentially prolonging its lifespan.
- Data recovery limitations. When you perform a quick format, the data on the memory card is not completely erased and can potentially be recovered using specialized software.
- Increased risk of file corruption. Since quick format doesn’t thoroughly check the card for errors, there is a higher chance of encountering file corruption issues in the future.
- Fragmented files. Without error checking and repair, the storage space might not be used efficiently.
Use a full format when:
- Using a new memory card for the first time.
- Switching cameras.
- Encountering errors or performance dropoff.
- You need the data on the card to be securely wiped.
- Complete data erasure. Full format ensures that all data on the memory card is permanently erased, providing a higher level of security if you need to dispose of or sell the card or are shooting sensitive subjects.
- Error detection. Full format checks for bad sectors and marks them, reducing the risk of encountering data storage issues in the future.
- Maximized card performance. By thoroughly scanning the card, full format can optimize its performance, ensuring smooth and reliable operation.
- Time-consuming. Full format takes significantly longer to complete compared to quick format, especially for larger-capacity memory cards. It’s not always a lot longer, but it can be.
- Increased wear and tear. The thorough scanning process involved in full format can put more strain on the memory card’s hardware, potentially reducing its lifespan.
How to Do a Full Format If Your Camera Doesn’t Have the Option
Not all cameras have both types of format operation available. So what do you do if your card needs a full format?
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to format memory cards in the camera that they’ll be used in. But this is an exception.
You can do a full format of your memory card in your computer. Of course, to do that, you’ll need a memory card reader (sometimes computers have SD slots built-in).
If you’re using SD cards or microSD cards, the SD Association makes available for free an SD Formatter app. It has options for quick format or overwrite format, which is what the full format is called in this case.
If you’re using a different type of memory card, there are baked-in features of computer operating systems that you can use.
On a Mac, you can find these tools in the built-in Disk Utility app. On Windows, you can right-click on the memory card in Windows Explorer and choose Format. Be sure to uncheck the “Quick Format” box.
Because there’s much more control on how this is done when using a computer, different aspects of the process are broken into individual pieces. So if your priority is securely wiping the data, you’ll need to specify that. If your priority is to repair a disk, use the disk repair options.
While it’s not strictly required, as a precaution I’d recommend following that up with a quick format in the camera. That will set up the folder system how the camera wants it and checks that the filesystem is the expected type.
More Advanced Memory Card Repair
If the full format hasn’t solved your memory card’s issues, it might be time to replace the card. But some cards are expensive, so you might not want to jump to that just yet.
There are some good options for more advanced repair. The disk repair functions built into Windows and Mac operating systems are good options.
You can also get more specialized tools. Here’s a couple I use and find to work well:
- LC Technology’s Digital Media Doctor. This is a paid app that can perform a variety of housekeeping tasks on memory cards.
- ProGrade Digital Recovery Pro. This only works with compatible Prograde Digital memory cards (it checks).
Not all cameras offer both types of formatting. If your camera does, most of the time, a quick format is what you want. It quickly frees up space on the memory card so you can keep shooting.
A full format is less commonly required. It’s useful when the memory card doesn’t seem to be performing as it should, in which case a full format is a good first step. (And if that doesn’t solve it, there are other, more advanced software options or, safer still, it’s probably time to replace the memory card.) There’s no hard and fast ratio of how often you should do a full format compared to a quick format, but maybe one in every 10 format operations seems like a good place to start.
A full format is also a good option when you want to ensure that photos and videos aren’t recoverable.