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Camera Buffer Basics

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography
 
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Buffer Overload

A reader asks…

“I love my digital camera, but sometimes when I take a lot of photos all at once it seems to ‘overload’. It gets to a point where it just won’t take any more pictures for a minute or so. It’s really annoying when I am trying to get a shot and the camera won’t work. Do you know what causes this?”

Yup, sure do. Your buffer is full.

For those who haven’t experienced the situation described above, let me tell you one of my buffer horror stories…

So, there I was taking pictures of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop getting awards. One girl after the other marched up on stage to receive their badges. The more they marched, the more maxed out my buffer got – till the camera finally had too much and needed to take a break to catch up.

I remember wanting to shout, “Hey! Wait a minute! My buffer is jammed with pixels!” Since my wife was sitting next to me and made me promise not to be a geek, I had to stay quiet. So, I did the best I could, missed some shots, and learned from the experience.

So, why does this happen and how does it work? Glad you asked :-)

When you snap a photo with your digital camera, it doesn’t instantly write that info to the memory card. Instead, your photo goes into a faster “buffer” area first and then the image gets transferred to your card.

Why not just go straight to the card and skip the buffer? Memory cards just aren’t fast enough to keep up. In fact, if it weren’t for your buffer, you would have to wait until the write was complete to the card before you could take the next photo – probably 5-15 seconds for most cameras (and it would feel a lot longer than that, trust me). That’s why the majority of digicams won’t let you shut them down immediately after taking a shot – they have to finish writing the image to the card from the buffer.

Buffer sizes vary widely from camera to camera. Some hold as little as one photo, others can hold up to 40. Most, however, hold between 5-10 full size images.

Here are three ways to help you avoid the buffer blues:

1. Get a camera with a better buffer (that twinge of pain you just felt was from your wallet). After all, it’s a photographic rule that every missed shot = a trip to the camera store :-)

2. Shoot at a lower resolution. Yeah, I know. I always say you should shoot at the highest resolution your camera has to offer, since that’s what you paid for. However, if you know you’re going to be in a situation where your buffer could fill up, you may need to rethink this.

See, the lower the resolution, the more pics you can cram into your buffer. Getting all the shots may be a better choice than only getting half of what you need.

3. The last solution is to try and let the buffer catch up. Try to be more selective as you shoot. I know that, depending on the situation, this is not always possible. However, if you keep in mind how fast you can shoot before the buffer fills, you may decide to hold back on a shot while you wait for an even better one.

The good news is that as these cameras get better, this problem will eventually become a thing of the past. A new pro camera was recently introduced that can take a whopping 40 shots at a time before the buffer was filled! And if memory serves, it took less than a minute to write the data from the buffer to the memory card.

So, hang tight—we’re getting there :-)

~ Steve

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