My Photo Storage System: External Hard Drives and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

May 07, 2009 | | Comments 195

Author’s Note: There are many different ways to put together a digital photography image storage system. Image storage is not a “one-size fits all” problem. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom allows for multiple solutions to the “image storage puzzle.” With Photoshop Lightroom, you are always free to choose where to store your digital images and where to store your Photoshop Lightroom Catalog database files. I urge you to carefully study this tutorial on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog Creation and Image Storage Fundamentals before proceeding on to the rest of this article. Please understand that the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog and image storage system that works wonders for me may not be the ideal solution for you.

My Image Storage Solution: External Hard Drives

Right now, I have 40,000+ digital images in my Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog. Among the 40,000+ images are photos that have been published in magazines, pictures that have been used in national advertisements, precious family photos, and important personal work. The hard drive space required to store all of these images, plus my Photoshop Lightroom Catalog database files, exceeds the total storage capacity of my MacBookPro’s internal hard drive. I considered replacing the hard drive in my laptop with a bigger disk, but more storage space is not my only need. After pondering the issue for a little while, I came up with this list that takes other issues into consideration.

My Image Storage Hardware Needs:

  1. I want to store all of my existing digital images, and my Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog, on a single hard drive.
  2. I need an image storage system that is easily expanded, or replaced, as I add more images into my holdings.
  3. I need an image storage system that is easy to backup before a disaster strikes.
  4. I need to be able to work with my images, and my Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog, using either my laptop or my desktop computer. I need a storage system that makes it easy for me to switch from one machine to another.
  5. Finally, I need an image storage system that is easy to transport from place to place since I am often out on the road teaching Adobe Photoshop Lightroom seminars and leading digital photography field workshops.

After careful analysis, the answer was clear that storing all of my images and my Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog on the right type of external hard drive is the best way to meet all of these demands. After much experimentation, I have come to rely on a professional-grade RAID-0 (stripped) external hard drive for my primary image storage.

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual Mini External Hard Drive

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual Mini RAID External Hard Drive

There is an enormous difference in performance between a professional-grade RAID-0 external drive, like the OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual Mini (7200rpm Version) that I use for my primary image storage, and the average low-cost consumer-grade USB external hard drive. Obviously, a “pocket-size” RAID-0 external hard drive is not the right storage solution for everyone, but this drive works well for me. Our article on brands and models of external hard drivesoffers more advice and specific recommendations on this topic.

My 1.5 terabyte external hard drive provides the enormous amount of storage space that I need to hold a decade’s worth of digital images. I splurged on the fancy RAID-0 external disk because it can read and write at a much faster rate then an ordinary hard drive. A FireWire 800 port is currently my fastest option, so this is the port that I use to connect my RAID-0 external hard drive to the main computer which gives it a bit of a performance boost. With newer hardware, I could get even more performance out of an eSATA or a Thunderbolt connector.

Another reason I chose to pay a premium for a “mini” external RAID-0 drive is because it fits beautifully in a waterproof, impact-resistant, military-grade protective Pelican 1200 Case . My drive draws its power from the Mac’s FireWire 800 port so I don’t need a separate power cord. This feature gives me peace of mind while traveling around the country with my entire image library.

Because all of my images and my Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog are on the external drive, my entire photographic library is portable. This is an important detail for me because I occasionally get phone calls, or frantic emails, from photo editors who want to license one of my images for immediate use in their publication. Due to the wonders of “Murphy’s Law,” I seem to only get these emergency phone calls when I am out on the road instead of when I am sitting at home with my main computer. Telling a potential buyer that I cannot deliver the file they want for weeks, or months, usually kills the deal. This was a major source of stress for me until I moved all of my images and my Lightroom Catalog over to the external hard drive. Now I can travel around teaching workshops and seminars without this fear. As long as I have my primary image storage disk with me, I have access to all of my images!

Using an external hard drive for my primary image storage also makes it easy for me to switch back and forth between multiple computers. I need to make it clear here that Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is not a network-ready application. You cannot use your Photoshop Lightroom Catalog with more than one machine at a time. This program is not designed for simultaneous use by multiple workstations, but this limitation is not a problem for me because I only need to use one computer at a time. If I can connect my RAID 0 drive to my desktop computer, then I have instant access to all of my photos and my Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog. When I connect this external disk to my laptop, I immediately enjoy the same capabilities.

Since I have the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom application installed on both computers, I can pick up right where I left off in my one Lightroom Catalog as soon as the RAID-0 disk is connected. I tried using separate Photoshop Lightroom Catalogs on each computer, but it was confusing, inefficient, and clumsy. Now I don’t need to deal with the confusion of multiple catalogs, or mess with sophisticated synchronization routines, to work with more than one computer because all of my photographic information is stored on one external drive and this makes my life much easier.

There is great danger lurking in my image storage system. If I don’t prepare for disaster, then I will lose everything when my RAID-0 external hard drive fails. My external hard drive, like all other hard drives, will eventually fail. Their meltdown is inevitable. Thus, part two of my image storage system is to plan and prepare for total disk failure. Sitting right beside my RAID-0 external hard drive are other lower-priced external disks. These disks, which work as my backup hard drives, do not need to be fancy RAID-0 drives. They are “clones” of my primary storage disk and my computer’s internal hard drives. I have Professional-Grade Backup Plans that I stick to everyday. Our storage systems may differ. Our hardware, software, and our style of photography may differ. What is universal, though, is the need for a backup system. Do not let the failure of one electronic device destroy a lifetime’s worth of precious photography.


Filed Under: (02) Lightroom SetupAdobe Photoshop Lightroom Tutorials


About the Author: David Marx is a digital photography instructor whose engaging teaching style inspires photographers of all skill levels. David is an Adobe Certified Lightroom Expert. To learn more about David's Adobe Photoshop Lightroom software training seminars and digital photography field workshops please visit or follow David Marx on Google+.