By Ellis Vener
How fast is fast enough? How big is large enough? If you shoot sports, fashion or just have a need for speed, and own a camera that can use CompactFlash UDMA media, the Lexar 300x UDMA 16GB CompactFlash (CF) is a super fast, large capacity card.
UDMA-capable cameras (as of 2008-09-09) include the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS 50D, Nikon D3 (used for these card tests), D300 and D700, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A900. If you are looking at medium-format digital backs, the PhaseOne P+ series and recent Hasselblad backs are also UDMA capable. UDMA cards will function in non UDMA-capable cameras, but will not be able to achieve the UDMA speed (can reach 133X or the fastest capability of the camera model up to 133X).
I also tested the new UDMA CompactFlash (CF) Firewire 800 card reader as part of this review. If your current card reader is not UDMA capable you’ll need to update that as well. Both the cameras listed and the new Lexar reader are backward-compatible with older Type I and Type II media.
I shot about 3,000 frames using the Lexar 16GB 300X card. Folks, this is one fast system. I was able to shoot at 11 frames per second (fps) with the Nikon D3 set to record at 14-bit per channel lossless compressed full-size NEFs. As the D3 has two separate CompactFlash media slots, I tested the Lexar 300x CF UDMA as a single card, and also combined with a second CF card using the Lexar as either the primary card or in the second slot as an in camera backup device and as an overflow card.
As you would expect, 16GB is a lot of storage capacity. Depending on the size of the RAW, JPEG or TIFF file generated by the camera, 16GB media can either hold a lot or an enormous number of images. The Nikon D3 and D700, for example, create 14-bit per channel losslessly compressed files averaging about 18.1MB each. Below is the result of the camera calculating capacity of a single Lexar 16GB 300x UDMA Compact Flash Card with a D3 configured in a variety of ways:
As a standard practice, media is best configured by the camera it will be used in. To test optimal capacity and write speed, I turned off the autofocus as subject motion and tracking added too many variables to the testing process. Tests were repeated 10 times, and the numbers tracked steadily through the testing:
Camera: Nikon D3 in full manual control mode
Exposure: 1/500 second, f/4, ISO 1600
Capture: Continuous high speed at 11 frames per second
File type: 14-bit lossless compressed NEFs
Image review, Active-D-Lighting, Vignette Control, long Exposure NR, High ISO NR, etc. OFF
Elapsed time for burst until camera buffer filled (camera stops shooting): 1.6 seconds
Number of frames in burst: 15
Elapsed time from beginning of burst until buffer has completed writing all frames to media (based on the indicator light on the camera going out: 13 seconds
When I set the D3 to shoot large/fine JPEGS, the only limitation I had was the fixed limit on the D3 of 130 frames in a single burst.
One of the advantages of the Nikon D3 is that when you are shooting you don’t have to put all of your eggs into one metaphoric basket; you can write to two CF cards simultaneously. I like the strategy of using this size media card as an in-camera backup while either swapping out multiple smaller cards or using an equal size card in the primary slot. If you are a heavy shooter, it's good to know that overflow mode and two of the Lexar 16GB UDMA cards your in camera will bring your capacity to right around 1,210 14-bit per channel losslesly compressed NEFS (calculating NEF files at about 18.2MB each).
My computer is not equipped with Firewire 800, so I can only report on the download speed using Firewire 400 via an 800 to 400 adapter cable.
Download of 605 14-bit per channel lossless compressed NEF files (18.2MB per file) via Firewire 400: 7 minutes, 20 seconds
It is fair to expect that Firewire 800 download times will be approximately twice as fast as Firewire 400.
The Lexar Professional CompactFlash Reader (Firewire 800) has two Firewire 800 ports to chain up to 4 of these readers simultaneously, and they are designed to lock together in a single stack. Lexar includes two Firewire 800 cables with the reader for this purpose.
If you have a UDMA capable camera and you are missing shots because your buffer isn’t emptying fast enough, this is definitely a system for you. If you are getting impatient waiting for your photos to download from the CF card to your computer, again, this card and reader combination will serve you well.
One thing I didn't like about the Lexar reader is that I felt like I really had to jam the CF cards deep into the body of the reader. That makes me worry about possible damage to the pins in the reader or the pinholes in the card itself, which could then possibly damage your camera.
MSRP: Lexar 300x UDMA 16GB CompactFlash (CF) $349.99; UDMA CompactFlash (CF) Firewire 800 card reader $99.99