Purchasing an External Hard Drive

Because we are currently living in an age in which our photographs are simply stored as code that our cameras and computers can read, we need to ensure that we don’t loose our artwork due to a hardware failure or accident. I tell people (not to scare you) that EVERY computer hard drive WILL fail eventually. It could be one day after you buy it or after many years, but sometime it will go bad. Usually with little or no warning.

For this reason, I like to always have at least one backup of my images on another device, in this case an external hard drive. I personally like to store all of my images on two separate external hard drives. This way, my internal hard drive won’t be bogged down with the tens of thousands of images I have taken. Each external drive acts as a backup for the other, if one fails, you still have the second one with all your photos on it. Great!

External hard drives come in many shapes, sizes and specifications. In this article, I will be going through the different features and abilities and whether or not they are useful to photographers.

Capacity: The first thing to look at is “how many photos can I store?” This is where capacity and the kind of camera that you own comes into play. If you own a 21 megapixel camera, your files are going to be a lot larger than those from an 8 megapixel camera. For most people, I would recommend something around 500GB or larger. Any smaller and you would be filling up your hard drives very fast. If you are a tough editor and delete a lot of your shots, a 500GB should last for years.

Portable or Desktop: There are two main types of hard drives out there: portable and desktop. Portable drives can run solely on power from your computer, which means they only need to be plugged into your computer (not the wall). They are also quite a bit smaller than desktop drives. A desktop hard drive is slightly bigger, and must be plugged into both your computer AND the wall for power. These drives are usually cheaper. I personally own both. I have a desktop drive that stays on my desk and a couple of portable drives that come with me wherever I go. Which drive you purchase is totally up to you and depends on your needs. If you primarily work on your images on a desktop, then a desktop drive would be perfect. If you travel with a laptop, you might want a more compact, portable drive to bring with you.

Speed (RPM’s): Yes, here is another device where speed is a concern. The way I like to think of it is, the higher rpm, the better. For the most part, hard drives come in two speeds: 5,400 rpm and 7,200 rpm. Most portable hard drives are 5,400 rpm, but there are nicer ones that are 7,200 rpm. Most desktop drives are 7,200 rpm, with some reaching 15,000 rpm! If you will be storing your images, not just backing them up on external hard drives, it is nice to have a hard drive with at least 7,200 rpm.

Connectivity: Another thing to consider when choosing an external hard drive is how you go about connecting it to your computer. This really depends on the computer you currently own or are planning to buy. If you own or plan to own a Mac, the Firewire 800 connection would be great. Mac’s new Thunderbolt connection, which is much faster, can be found in some very new external hard drives. If you own a PC, you really have two options, depending on whether or not your computer has an eSATA or USB 3.0 connection. If it does, you can buy an external with eSATA or USB 3.0 connection options.  If your computer does not have the eSATA option, then USB 2.0 would be your best bet. Many external hard drive manufacturers are adding these new connection types to their devices, but there is nothing wrong with going with the old USB 2.0 connection. Basically, buy the fastest connection type that you can afford and make sure your computer can use the connection type you decide to purchase.

These are main concerns when looking for an external hard drive. Remember, we live in an age in which all of our photographs can disappear in an instant, make sure you have a backup of everything!

12 thoughts on “Purchasing an External Hard Drive

Sally Winter

I have looked for external drives, but would love to have you send to me the brand names and models of a few that would work for photos.

Thank you so much.

Ken Stolz

Great article Forest.

FWIW I have two 1 TB portable USB 3.0 drives (about $130 each) – one for all my most recent images (the “original originals”)and one for all photos imported into Lightroom as DNGs along with the Lightroom catalog, etc. I then back both of those up DAILY to two 3 TB desktop USB 3.0 drives (about $190 each). I take one of the big desktop drives home every night (they are the size of a hardback book) in case the office burns down, floods, is struck by lightning, etc. I frequently take the 2nd portable drive home to work on photos in Lightroom as well.

My portable drives are the Iomega eGo and my desktop drives are Western Digtal My Book Essential. I really like USB 3.0 because it’s fast – which REALLY helps late in the day when you want to go home and you want your backups done NOW! As Forest points out – Firewire/IEEE 394 (on some PCs, too) and eSATA are quick, too.

I buy them wherever they are cheapest – usually Amazon, but sometimes when they are on sale from the Dell Computers website (electronics and software tab).

Keep the good info coming Forest!


I like the LaCie D2 desktop drives, currently having 3 mirrored RAID pairs of 160GB, 250GB and 500GB. Each time a pair got near to full I’d get another pair about twice the size. As far as reliability goes I’ve just lost one of the 160GB pair after about 5 years of use, however as they are configured as RAID arrays there’s no issue and I’ll swap the physical drive this weekend and upgrade the units to 1 or 2 TB. 🙂

For portable drives the Toshiba Canvio drives are reasonably priced, compact and so far reliable – my oldest is about 18 months. If you are after something more robust LaCie do a “Rugged” drive. I have a pair of these in 350GB, one of which is a bootable clone of my laptops internal drive that I can work from if needs be.

All of the LaCie drives do USB2, FW400 and FW800, with the D2 Quadra desktop models also including eSata in the mix.

Off site storage is also a consideration, as it’s no use having multiple drives if they’re all in the same building when something happens to it, so I keep another Toshiba drive and a Western Digital drive locked in my desk at work.

I use Apple computers, so to keep all these drives current I use ChronoSync on both the desktop and laptop, with jobs set to do an automatic “bi-directional” sync when the drives connect, preserving all the timestamps and attributes of each file across all the copies on all drives.

Finally I keep my Lightroom library in a Dropbox account. This keeps it sync’d between my home computer and my laptop, so that any edit’s/additions I make on the road are automatically available when I get home with no additional work, whilst providing an up to date off site copy.

I’ve worked in IT for 25yrs and understand that 1 duplicate is good, 2 is better, but 4 or 5 in different places is the way to be SURE!

Ken Stolz

GREAT idea about Dropbox Martyn. Can you share a little more about how you set it up?

We have a LaCie 2big Quaudra Array (with a spare drive) and it just keeps hummin’ in the corner for all our critical office files and media files.


My systems are both Apple systems and this has been working for me for 2 years so far without any major issues. I have a paid Dropbox account at the 50GB level, of which my Lightroom libraries occupy about 10GB – this includes LR2 and LR3 versions along with backups.

I copied my Lightroom folder into my Dropbox folder and renamed the original Lightroom folder by adding “OLD” to the end. Then in the Terminal utility I made a symbolic link (using sudo) from the copy in the Dropbox folder back to the original location (without the “OLD” suffix). Once the Dropbox folder is sync’d on both systems you simply rename the Lightroom folder on the second system and make a symbolic link to the copy in your Dropbox.

Moving the entire has the benefit of including your previews along with all of the settings for modules, metadata and presets that you have already set up.

If a sync fails, or you accidentally have Lightroom running on both systems at the same time, Dropbox creates a “conflicted copy” of the LRCat so not all is lost.

This should be possible with Windows Vista or 7, however I have not tried it on the Windows OS’s so cannot say with certainty.

Alexander Smith

If the external hard drive is plugged into the computer and into the wall, won’t it crash just like the computer HD when a lightening strike occurs?If a storm is forecast and I am at home, I unplug the computer and accessories but if I am a few hours a way and a storm pops up that’s not always possible. Wouldn’t that argue more for off site storage?

Ken Stolz

FWIW my computer and hard drives in the office are on an uninterruptible power supply. And my Laptop at home is on a surge protector which is also turned off when away.

Kevin Porto

I use a Seagate GoFlex Pro 500 GB portable hard drive and am very happy with its performance. It’s extremely flexible. There are several connectors (3.0usb, eSATA, firewire 800)that you buy seperate from the drive. Being a PC user, I have the eSATA cable and I am impressed with the speed.


Patrick Bryson

External hard drives have been a learning experiance over the past 8 or so years. Finally I am down to using WD Western Digital. I have had nothing but great service. I have 1 500gb and two 1 tb and one 2 tb. I take a lot of picture and dont want to loose any. One time taught me. Early on I lost every thing. I thought it was the end of the world. Well now I dont worry life is goood. The worst thing to learn was to file them so I could find things. Light Room has been a great tool for that.

Pat Bryson


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