The Basics of Transferring Digital Photos - dummies

By Robert Correll

Transferring (also known as downloading or uploading) photos and movies to your computer is a pretty simple process. You can transfer several different ways. Each has its pros and cons. Some methods require additional hardware, such as a card reader.


Before you start transferring photos to your computer, you have to make a connection. This connection can be between your camera and a computer or, if you’d rather use a memory card reader, between the card reader and your computer.

Built-in Wi-Fi

Some digital SLRs have built-in Wi-Fi, which allows you to wirelessly upload photos to your computer or a smart device via a dedicated app. So cool, and about time. Upsides: No wires, no readers, no mess.


  • Not all cameras have built-in Wi-Fi.
  • Those that do may not support file transfer.
  • Wi-Fi can be difficult to set up, understand, and accomplish. A Canon dSLR is paired with a computer in this image. This is just one of several involved steps required to get them to connect.
  • Wireless transfer uses battery power and may be slow, depending on your connection speed.
Pairing enables the camera to connect to the Canon software.

Direct USB connection

Directly connecting your camera to your computer is the most straightforward, easy method. Connect your camera using the USB terminal, which is probably on the left side of your camera. Upside: The only thing you need, besides your camera, is the USB cable that came with the camera.


  • Your camera has to be on. If your battery is low and you have no backup, recharge the battery a bit so your camera won’t die in the middle of a transfer. Should the camera power off, don’t panic. The files on the camera should still be there. Simply recharge the camera battery and then restart the transfer. While the battery is charging, check the files that were transferred to make sure they are viewable. Delete anything on the computer that didn’t transfer completely. If you were moving files, not simply copying them, you should check the file that was being moved for any damage by trying to view or edit it. The photos on either side of the power outage should be fine on both the camera and the computer.
  • When you put your camera on a table and connect it to a computer (see the following image) with a cord that can be snagged, tripped on, pulled, or yanked (by you, your kids, your cats, or your dogs), you risk pulling the camera off the table. That will ruin your day.

Secure your camera when it’s connected to a computer.

External USB card reader

External USB card readers take the camera out of the transfer equation. The card reader plugs into your computer. You feed the memory card into it and it handles the transfer. Upsides: You don’t have to use your camera’s battery and you don’t have to worry about running out of juice in the middle of the transfer. You aren’t endangering your camera. Also, if the card reader goes bad or gets broken, you can replace it quickly and cheaply.

Card readers that can use different card types are very helpful.


  • You have to either buy a card reader that handles multiple card types or buy a card reader for each type of memory card you have. (For example, the Sony A77 shown can use either Memory Stick PRO Duo or SD cards, and other cameras may use different types.)
  • External readers can litter your desktop. They also tend to fall off, forcing you to get on your hands and knees and look behind the computer to retrieve them.
  • If you have multiple computers to transfer files to, you must either buy more card readers or move the one you have back and forth.

Built-in card reader

Some computers and printers have built-in card readers. New iMac desktop computers, and MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops have built-in SD card slots. If you own a Windows computer, it might have come with an internal card reader. If not, you can install one. Upsides: Built-in models aren’t as slippery as portable card readers, and can’t fall off your desk.

Downside: Internal card readers aren’t portable, unless you’re using a portable computer.

Wireless file transfer adapters

For compatible cameras that don’t have Wi-Fi, Canon’s Wireless File Transmitter and Nikon’s Wireless Mobile Adapter let you wirelessly transfer files from your camera to a computer or smart device (such as an iPhone). Upside: Get files off your camera when you want without tripping over cords.


  • You have to buy more hardware.
  • Wireless transfer sucks up lots of battery power.

Wireless memory card technology

An Eye-Fi card transfers files from your camera to your computer. Upsides: It’s portable, doesn’t require additional hardware (beyond the memory card), is cool, and it gives you an unlimited amount of storage while you shoot.


  • Eye-Fi cards use your camera’s battery to transfer, are slower than the other methods, and require a wireless network.
  • You have to install and set up software.


After you’ve decided on a connection type, you choose a download method.

Automatic download

You can use a small computer program that automatically downloads the photos to the location you choose. Some are built into your computer’s operating system. Others are extra software applications that come with your camera (such as Canon EOS Utility) or part of your image editor applications (such as Adobe Bridge or Lightroom). These programs often run in the background. They’re ready to bounce into action the moment they sense a camera or card reader with a memory card has been connected. The programs normally have options for where photos are saved (plus folder names and whether to erase the photos from the card when you’re done).

To choose a method, you must select the program you want to handle things when you insert a memory card into an external card reader or connect your camera to the computer, as shown.

Choose an auto import option from the operating system.

The program you choose opens the next time you connect a memory card to your computer. As the figure shows, the choice of Adobe Bridge opens the Bridge Photo Downloader.

Automatically download photos with Bridge.

Manual download

You can download photos yourself.

  • Drag the folder from the card reader to your drive and rename it.
  • Create folders for photos using your operating system and then select the photos and drag them to the appropriate folder.