How to Format an External Hard Drive

January 27, 2009 | | Comments 176

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About the Author: David Marx teaches digital photography workshops and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom training classes. David is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and in Adobe Photoshop. David has lead workshops and seminars for the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, the American Society of Media Photographers, FirstLight Photography Workshops, and he teaches annually at the world-famous Blackberry Farm Resort. For more information on his Photoshop Lightroom training seminars and digital photography field workshops please visit You can also follow daily updates and see new images from David on Google+.

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  1. Kathy says:

    Dave…great info as always. But here’s a wrinkle for you…

    What if you have a Mac laptop but you run Bootcamp on it to make it act like a PC. Would you want your external hard drive formatted as if your laptop were a Mac or a PC? Would it matter if you’re using one of the software solutions you mention? Which one would apply or would you have to have both?

  2. […] forget that every external disk must be formatted properly before you put anything on it. See how to format an external drive for more details. GD Star Ratingloading… Share […]

  3. David Marx says:

    Dear Rahul,

    I think we need more information before we can help. What operating system are you using? How many partitions did you create on the external drive and what file structure (OS X, NTFS, FAT 32, etc) are you using on that drive?


  4. Rahul says:

    Showing 46 GB as Free space out of 465 GB after doing the formate to new external Hard disk.
    Why its showing such a less free space even though there is hardly 3GB data present on Hard disk?

  5. […] must be formatted properly for use with your operating system before you put anything on it. See how to format an external drive and please don’t forget to back everything up. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; […]

  6. Hey guys,

    Thanks for chiming in with your comments here. Unfortunately hard drive issues (both the hardware and software types of issues) are almost impossible to diagnose here.

    For those asking about the possibility of recovering data from a damaged or formatted hard drive, the answer is that it depends on how bad you want the information from those drives. If you absolutely must have the data (or as much of the data as possible) from the drive(s), then my suggestion is that you contact a professional data recovery company immediately. My choice is DriveSavers Data Recovery. If anyone can get your data back, they can. Here’s the catch: it’s expensive…usually really expensive. But…sometimes you can’t put a price on that kind of stuff.

    If you’d like to have your data back, but you’re not interested in shelling out the big bucks to have the professionals handle it, you can attempt to use a software-based recovery program. I’m not going to recommend any one program, but here are a few options at A brief word of warning: It’s possible that attempting to recover the data on your drive yourself (or doing any reading or writing to the drive in question) can lessen the chance of future data recovery. If you think you may be using a company like DriveSavers to recover your data, don’t attempt to run a software recovery first…just call DriveSavers and get their expert opinion.

    Wish I had better news or more to offer.

    Sorry folks.


  7. Akshay says:

    hello everyone…i have been using Transcend jetlite external hard disk mobile 320gb for over a year…now its showing that the the disk is not accessible error performing inpage operation…the thing is i have around 270gb of files in it and i don’t have a back up of it…..i tried some of the data recovery softwares only few worked and to recover all the files i don have so much of space in my comp…is there any software from which can recover the data and compress it and later after formatting my external hard drive can i put it all back???Help would be very much appreciated…

  8. kaydee says:

    I tried formatting a Toshiba MK4021GAS external hard drive via Disk Management with Windows XP SP3. I was following the tutorial you linked above: However, on step 6, I accidentally left Disk 1 checked (got step 5 and step 6 confused) which I assume “converted” my hard drive. Now I can’t get the drive to show up in the top part of Disk Management, but it does show up at the bottom with its full capacity as “free space”. It reads:

    Disk 1

    I tried plugging in the drive into a computer running Windows Vista and the normal pop up appears saying “Your device is ready to use.” But it still doesn’t show up in the top part of Disk Management. I’m trying to see if I can force the Intialize and Convert Disk Wizard to pop up again but no matter what I’ve tried I can’t seem to make it happen. Would anyone have any advice?

    • davem says:

      Dear Kaydee,

      I am not sure that I have the answer for you but I am wondering what would happen if you were to right-click on this external drive (Disk 1) in the Disk Management Window delete the existing partition and then select Format. I am wondering if you could start all over just by deleting the partition and reformatting. Obviously, this is going to wipe the disk completely clean so don’t try this experiment without taking protective measures if you there are now important files on the disk. Once formatted NTFS I don’t think you need to worry about the Initialize and Convert Wizard either.

      best of luck,


  9. Val says:

    Hi all,
    I recently bought a WB 300 Gb external drive because we were planning a month long trip and I needed a drive were download my photos while travelling. We have Mac at home but since usually in internet point or similar, PCs are more common I decided to format it in FAT32 to be able to save them using a PC and after transfer them in my home Mac before reformat it back for Mac.

    I tested before if the drive was working in both computers (I have a PC at work) and it did. While travelling I didn’t have any problem and I saved my photos in the drive. But when finally home and ready to download the photos on my iMac (snow leopard) the problems began.
    First I tried to import the photos directly using Lightroom, but it kind of jammed trying to read the information of the files and open the preview.
    So I tried to save the files on the computer before import them in the catalog. But just open the folder was really slow and I was not able to save all files. For some of them I get the “error 36” and an alert that the file couldn’t be read.
    I started to delete from the drive the files I was able to save thinking that maybe less memory occupied will have helped.
    After few days I get the message that I was not able to write on the drive anymore so no more deleting photos. I arrived to save 1100 photos one by one but I still have 850 that I can’t copy.
    Yesterday I tried on an old PC and I was able to delete all the copied photos and save other 10-15 files but still most of them are not readable.
    I’m desperate, you know it was our honeymoon trip….
    How I can recover those files??
    If I reformat the drive using the option “don’t erase data” I will be able to recover the files after? How? Is it safe to do it?
    What could be happened?

    Please help me!
    Thank you


    • davem says:

      Dear Val,

      I wish I could magically solve your troubles but sadly I cannot. A professional data recovery service like might be able to get your files back but it will be expensive. I am sure that you don’t want to hear this but this is danger you will always face when you put all your eggs in one basket. If we could do everything all over again I would have advised a plan b. For your honeymoon, plan B might have been something like copying the files off your memory cards to the hard drive while on vacation but then mailing the original card home. This way if the drive got lost or damaged you would still have the original files on the virtually indestructible memory card. Plan B might also have been something like loading the files onto two hard drives even while travelling. Sadly though all of this is too little too late. Bummer!


  10. Gence says:

    Thanks for your reply.
    I double checked the types of files and mp3 is in the list.
    I’m gonna try formatting the HD with NTFS.. lets see if it works then…
    Thanks very much

  11. David Marx says:

    Dear Gence,

    I don’t know anything about working with an AV receiver but I have two thoughts. A: If your drive isn’t formatted properly it makes good sense that the Pioneer can’t work with it. Check your owners manual to see what data format it accepts though I bet the answer is NTFS. B: What type of files are you trying to use with this device? I doubt that it will be able to display anything other than jpegs.

    best of luck,

  12. Gence says:

    I’ve recently purchased WD Elements 1TB desktop HD.
    I never formatted it and was able to upload all my music and pictures to it from my laptop. When it comes to connecting th HD to my USB device compatible AV reciever (Pioneer VSX-1019AH), it wasn’t recognized and got the error message “no device”.
    Is there anything I can do about it?

  13. Zerthios says:

    This may be a bit late but FAT32 cannot save files over 4gb which may or may not be a problem depending on the planned use for the hard drive

  14. hecbay says:

    I agree, RATS!

  15. Don says:

    Thank you David. I’ll take your advice.

  16. David says:

    Dear Don,

    You have two choices here:

    A. Buy a hard drive and format it NTFS. This drive will now work fine with any PC but to make it work properly with your iMac you will need to add Paragon NTFS for Mac.

    B. Buy a hard drive and format it for OS X (Mac) then add Mac Drive for Windows to the college’s PC.

    Personally, I would go with option A since Paragon is slightly less expensive and you won’t have to install anything on the school’s machine.

    Happy New Year,


  17. Don says:

    I have a new imac but I have to hook up an external hard drive to a PC with a projector at the college where I teach. If I buy a hard drive with the NTFS and use Paragon and MacDrive to load from my Mac, will the PC at the college then be able to read it? I know this is probably a dumb question, but I want to be sure that I am understanding what you guys have said so far. Thanks for any help you can give.

  18. David Marx says:

    Dear Novice,

    How did you connect the drive to the laptop? I’ve had trouble formating brand new drives connected via Firewire with XP so maybe that is the answer. If not, I suggest you contact LaCie’s tech support.

    hope this helps,


  19. novice says:

    Can anyone help pls…bought my friend a gift of a 1TB LaCie grand external hard disk We tried to install but the wizard told us it couldnt format. laptop runs on windows xp and has >600mb free space. Tried manual format via disk management but still not finding it. Any ideas? Thanks!

  20. Skip says:

    Thanks for the info everyone, this has been very helpful after trying to download new digital photos onto my new IMAC from pc formatted externals.

  21. jim says:

    So, if Fat32 is so flexible (minus the 32GB issue) then why hasn’t it been upgraded to work with today’s technology? I mean is there another way to seamlessly read and write files to one drive with both a Mac and PC?
    The only reason I can think of is that one does not want users using their files on the competition’s machine. Trying to monopolize the available platforms and formats is really holding our technology back in regards to both the machine and the software.

  22. Hi All
    Can anyone help me please? I bought a Laycie 1TB EXT HD,formatted it and uploaded all my things on it (photos, music, documents etc). My Computer crashed and it had to be put back to factory settings, now the computer won’t recognise the Lacie and is asking me to Format it.
    My PC system is Vista.
    This is incredibly frustrating and can not believe that it can only be used on the PC it was orginally formatted to. I would be gutted if I lost anything.
    If anyone can help I would REALLY appreciate it.

  23. Duct tape fixes everything, my friend.


  24. Jhon says:

    i need help i have cut my drive in haf and i dont know hoe to put them back together.

  25. Sage,

    As long as files are truly “burned” to the CD or DVD, then there is no disk format like NTFS or Mac, etc. When burning in Windows VIsta, particularly, it’s important to make sure that you “close the burning session” when finished. Otherwise, Windows will try to leave the disk available for you to add more files to later on. This will typically make it unreadable on a Mac.

    Once a disk is burned, though, it doesn’t have a Mac or PC format.

    Hope that helps,

  26. Sage says:

    Thanks to both Scott and David for the speedy replies and good advice!! I think the best buy guy was thinking more along the lines of Scott’s suggestion where I would use the time capsule drive as a server for both my mac and PC to access and write files to. I had considered using network but I think I agree with David on the effort and potential loss of speed when transferring large amounts of data. I didn’t mention that I often shoot raw and after a typical wedding I could have 7-10 GB of images that I transfer. I know thats a lot of space but after getting lightroom it became easier to work RAW into the workflow.

    What I will do is format using NTFS and get the Paragon for my Mac. I already use a 500GB external drive on my PC but I need more space to backup everything from both computers plus the external that I already have. I just purchased a 1.5T Western Digital My Book and a 500 GB portable which I was going to use for to back up and transfer images from my Mac. While on the WD website looking for the RPM rating for the 1.5T My Book (couldn’t find it on the site nor on the box..I assume its 5400 RPM) I noticed that they make a 2T/1T drive that has RAID capabilities. I think I am going return the drives I just bought and attempt to get a hold of a WD RAID drive and use it as my main external drive. Then just use another 1T drive to back it up and store off site some place safe. When my 1T RAID drives fill up I will just get another one.

    One last question…I know that a Jpeg is a Jpeg etc. either for Mac or PC but what is the format when an image is written to a CD-R or DVD disk or does NTFS or Mac formatting not exist for CD-R or DVD disks?


  27. David Marx says:

    Dear Sage,

    Sorry to jump in here after Scott but here is my advice. If I were you I would format my external hard drives with the NTFS format using your PC. Then I would add Paragon to your Mac so that it can read and write to an NTFS drive. Now your files will work with either computer and you won’t have to move or change anything. It’s that easy.

    Just to clarify though, files are files. A jpeg is a jpeg on mac or a pc. Same with a tif, a psd, a raw file, or a word document. The hard drive format doesn’t change the file itself. It only changes how the file is stored on the drive. From the factory, an ordinary Mac can read data off a NTFS formatted external but it cannot write data back. This is where Paragon steps in and teaches it something new.

    Fat32 is a data record style that either system (OS X or Windows) can use for both reading and writing. It’s like the lowest common denominator but it is a lousy choice for today’s huge external hard drives. I use FAT32 for thumb drives and other tiny media but not for a 250GB or larger disk.

    While I like Scott’s advice on using a wired network, it seems like a lot of work plus a huge loss of speed when all you really want is to move files from one disk to another.

    Hope this helps,


  28. Sage,

    I’m not sure what the Best Buy guy thought a Time Capsule would do for you. That doesn’t seem related to your problem at all.

    The solutions you mentioned would work (partitioning the external to accommodate both systems, etc), but I would try transferring using a wired network, if you have one set up.

    Plug your PC and Mac into your home network, share the PC drive with the Mac, and drag and drop the files directly from the Finder to the PC drive. If you aren’t using a wired network, that may not be the best solution, of course.

    You could just use those new external drives formatted at Fat32. Both the PC and Mac could read those. I believe that my colleague David will disagree with me on this and recommend the MacDrive solution.


  29. Sage says:

    In addition to the above post, I just bought 2 brand new external drives so I am starting fresh.

  30. Sage says:

    I currently use two computers, a macbook and a PC. While out on a shoot, I use my macbook pro to back up my CF cards from my camera. I will often do my sorting and “light” edits within lightroom on my macbook as well, since I can take it with me when traveling etc. After I figure out which images I want to keep, I have been transferring them to an NTFS formatted external hard drive on my PC (where I do my “heavier” editing) using a 40gb FAT32 formatted hard drive (which I didn’t realize was formatted FAT32 until now).

    I am trying to figure out how I can continue this process but instead of transferring the images via my 40gb FAT32, I would like to transfer them directly from my macbook to the external drive that my PC uses, so I can do my final editing on the PC. I use lightroom and I save the XMP info with the images when I transfer them. I understand the issues with reading and writing mac files to NTFS drives and vice versa and that this issue can be solved with the software mentioned above (MacDrive 7 and Paragon). I eventually want to get a mac tower and ditch the PC but I won’t be able to afford another mac for a while.

    My first question is…should I partition my external drive so both my computers can read and write to it and then just use the MacDrive7 software so my PC can use the mac files while editing on my PC? If I use the Paragon software for my mac, does it actually change the format of the mac files to NTFS when it writes images to a NTFS drive? Will I need both software programs to do what I am trying to accomplish? Paragon to write the mac files to the NTFS dirve and MacDrive7 for my PC to read them? I guess I am not clear on what exactly the software does to the files when it writes to an external drive with the opposite format. The final step to all of this is using a 2nd external drive to back up the 1st external drive so I can store the 2nd backup drive in a safe off site.

    How safe is this process and will I run into any issues? Do you know of a better way to do this? Do I even need to worry about partitioning my external drive into a mac half and a pc half? Sorry for the lengthy post I am just want to do this right the first time and I need to make sure that my images are safe. A guy at best buy told me that an Apple Time Capsule would be the best solution. I am not concerned about backing up the phyiscal drives on my computers for recovery…just my images.


  31. Mo,

    You’ll use the Disk Utility program located in the Utilities folder in your Applications folder. The link that David references in article above is quite helpful.

    Here is the link to that step-by-step article.

    On Step Four in the article above, select “Mac OS Extended (Journaled).”
    On Step Six choose “Don’t Erase Data.”

    Let us know if you have any questions.


  32. Marvelous Mo says:

    Hi everyone,

    I purchased my LaCie external hard drive when I had a PC. my PC crashed & had to restore it to factory settings. Fed up with PC, I bought a Mac & I love it. Thing is, my hard drive is now formatted in NTFS and I can’t modify it at all on my Mac.

    Is there a way I could reformat my external hard drive? I want to use it for my Mac. There isn’t much on the external hard drive, so I am not opposed to deleting my files off of it if it will help reformat my hard drive.

    Links to directions on how to do this would be fantastic. I’m caught in a rut here.

  33. Thanks, Astro. Since I use exclusively Mac for my work, I prefer to format Mac OS Extended (Journaled), but when going back and forth from platform to platform I do use FAT32.


  34. Astro~ says:

    Guyz- ALL the major external drive suppliers sell their disks formatted in Fat32, so they can go Mac or Windows. Their utilities go right by that barrier of size limitation. For example the 500Gb seagate now plugged into this Vista machine, is a Fat32. BUT, there are issues with lengthy drilled down folder trees and the character length of folder names, along with potential limitations of single file sizes.

  35. David says:

    If you are having trouble formatting a Western Digital drive on a Mac running OS X try the solution in this post.

  36. David Marx says:

    You only need to format the backup drive once. It must be configured properly before you use it for any purpose including backup. After that there is no harm in reformatting it nor is there any limit to how many times it can be reformatted but there is little benefit either. Each time that you reform it wipes the drive completely clean.

  37. Tom says:

    How oftern should an esteranl disk drive be reformateed when using the drive a sbackup storage.

  38. Scott says:


    I’ll jump in and answer for David because I know he’s quite busy today.

    Formatting a hard drive (or memory card) writes important little system files to the drive that the computer needs to organize information correctly on the device.

    Different computer systems (Mac/PC) write and read data from storage devices in slightly different ways. That’s where the need for different drive formats came from. If you’re feeling really geeky, here’s some information from Wikipedia about disk formatting.

    Hope that helps. The moral of the story is, just know that it’s important.


  39. ryan says:


    new to backup. why format? i used a lacie to backup some photos…which have been erased from my cf card and some from only on the backup hard drive…why is it so important to format the backup drive..may be dumb question…at a loss,


  40. David says:

    Brad- “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It sounds to me like your drives were formattted for Mac from the factory! If you go Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility you can click on each drive’s name and see how they are setup.

    It is probably worth checking. Are your drives setup for OS X Extended? If so, then you are all set. If, on the other hand, they are setup FAT32 (Ms-Dos) then we might want to swap things around.

  41. Brad says:

    I may have an issue then.. I bought one 500GB Firewire and 1TB USB for my Mac. I never formatted them because they had read write ability right out of the box. I’ve been using the 500GB for my main photo backup and the 1TB for Time Machine backups.

    Should I move the data off, format and move the data back? What is the risk of not formatting?


  42. Keith_Indy says:

    Thanks for the info. I’ll have to see what my laptop, w/ Vista (bleck,) will support.

  43. Scott says:

    A portable drive that I’ve been very happy with is the LaCie Rugged Drive.

    USB versus FireWire does make a difference, particularly if you have a computer that supports FireWire 800 (many Macs). USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 are similar in speed (though FireWire 400 is typically faster, in practice, than USB). FireWire 800 is much faster than the others.

    The speed of the drive is also important. Most drives come in a 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM speed. I prefer the 7200 RPM drives when I can get them.

    I just purchased my second LaCie Rugged drive, the LaCie 301438 320GB Rugged 7200rpm FireWire 800/FireWire 400/USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive, from Amazon, and I’m loving it!

    I use one drive for most of my working image library, one for portable random storage and backup, and one that’s a backup of my computer’s internal hard drive (using Time Machine).

    I also have a number (8 to 10) less portable hard drives at home for various geeky reasons.

  44. Keith_Indy says:

    Any recommendations on which external hard drives to get?

    I do travel and photograph quite a bit, so obviously something rugged. Do you guys have just one, or perhaps one for backing up cards on the road, and one for backing up where you work? I don’t often travel with my laptop.

    Also is there a big difference between the speed of firewire and USB external drives?

    I’ve got 2 computers setup right now, but mainly use my laptop now for doing photo editing, and cataloging. Since Lightroom can make the backup at the same time as it imports from a card, that sure smooths out the workflow, but I’m unsure which would be a better choice, working on the computers hard drive, or an external hard drive.

    Might be a big enough topic for another post.

    Also wanted to thank Scott and Dave for some excellent tips this past weekend. The RMSP Weekend has really re-energized my enthusiasm for getting my work out into the world. Now that I know how to use the tools I already had, it seems so easy now. And that was with just the barest introduction to Lightroom and it’s capabilities. Wish I had the time to come out for the whole course.

  45. Scott says:

    Hmmm….interesting info. I might want to rethink how I helped Bob with his hard drive troubles. :-(

  46. David says:

    Dear James and Scott,
    FAT32 is a perfectly good option for small storage devices: thumbdrives, memory cards, etc. But for big hard disk size storage FAT32 is definitely not the way to go. According to Wikipedia “the FAT32 formatting support in Windows 2000 and XP is limited to volumes of 32 GB, which effectively forces users of modern hard drives either to use NTFS, to partition the drive into smaller volumes (below 32 GB), or to format the drive using third party tools.”
    In addition, FAT formatted disks of all types are plagued with fragmentation issues. NTFS or HFS (OS X) is the better choice for hard drives and long term photo storage.

  47. Scott says:

    I typically format in FAT32, as well, if I feel like I’ll be sharing Mac to PC. I have a flash drive that I’ve formatted FAT32 (not for Lightroom purposes), and it seems to work well.

    Dave, have you run into any issues with this? Is there a reason that FAT32 is not the way to go here?

    Apple’s Disk Utility program (in the /Applications/Utilities/ folder of all Macs) will allow you to format FAT32.

    (Just to clarify, the vast majority of my drives are for Mac use only and are, therefore, formatted in Mac OS Extended.)

    Open to anyone’s thoughts you may have.

  48. James Fitzell says:

    Why don’t you format the drive as FAT32 and then it works in both OS’s?

    Unfortunately you do need access to a Windows 98SE system to do the formatting, but then it works with pretty much everything.