Recommended External Hard Drives

May 07, 2009 | | Comments 32

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and external hard drives are a perfect match for the serious digital photographer. Thanks to the low price of high-quality external hard disks, we now have an inexpensive way to store thousands of digital images and to make redundant backup copies of our precious work.

You can read all about how essential external hard drives are to my Lightroom workflow here but that’s not the purpose of this post. This post is all about which specific external drives are the most appropriate for our primary storage and backup disk needs. If you were to follow the above link, you would see that I use one external hard drive as my primary image storage and a separate pair of external drives for my backup disks. These backup disks is a mirror image of my primary storage drive that my backup software. Click here for more on my Professional-Grade Backup Plans.

While any set of external disks will work in my two drive system, I am recommending specific brands and models based on the following criteria:

1. Capacity: We photographers need drives with lots of storage space because we love to shoot a lot of pictures! Buy big drives because a: sooner or later you will always fill them up, b: a drives actual storage capacity is always smaller then what gets advertised on the box, and c: you always need to leave some empty space–some system headroom– on any drive or its performance will diminish.

2. Connectivity: Here is the list of data transfer speeds from fastest to slowest; eSATA, Firewire 800, Firewire 400, USB 2.0, and finally USB 1.0. Please buy drives that utilize your computer’s fastest port.

“Time is money.” Sitting around waiting for files to transfer over to your external hard drive is not a productive use of your time. In my opinion, external drives that connect only via USB are way too slow for professional digital photography. Most Apple computers, and lots of PC laptops, feature built in Firewire ports. Increasingly, we find eSATA ports being built into PC laptops and desktop towers at the factory. If needed you can easily add an eSATA card or a Firewire 800 connection into either a PC or Mac tower. Some PC laptop owners may need to purchase a Firewire 6-Pin to 4-Pin adapter, to use a high-speed drive, but again the time savings of eSATA or Firewire over USB is totally worth the money.

3. Rotational Speed: There is a spinning ceramic platter inside of a most external hard drives. The faster that this magnetic disk rotates the better. Rotational speeds are measured in rpm. If possible, please purchase a 7200rpm disk.

4. Reputable brand with a decent warranty and strong customer service track record: I am completely biased in favor of companies that have treated me well when I needed help in the past. Always remember though that no drive manufacturer will ever compensate you for your lost data when their disk fails. Hard drive warranties cover the hardware only. Their warranties do not cover the information that is stored on the disk hence the need for daily backups no matter what brand or model you purchase for your primary storage disk!

With these criteria in mind, let’s explore some options for our primary storage disk. As I see it, you have two choices for your primary drive. If you are looking for top performance then I strongly recommend purchasing a RAID 0 (Striped) disk system. A RAID 0 system can deliver a huge performance boost to your workflow especially when this drive is connect via eSATA or Firewire 800.

Please understand though that your risk of drive failure doubles with a RAID 0 setup since these systems are built with two separate platters spinning around inside of the same drive casing. If either platter fails then you will lose everything that the drive holds! Please don’t confuse a RAID 0 setup with a mirrored data protection configuration like RAID 1.

Primary (RAID 0):

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini External Hard Drive

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini RAID External Hard Drive

My primary photo storage disk is going to go everywhere that I go. I bring this drive to school with me everyday when I am teaching. I bring my primary disk with me when I am on the road and need access to my Lightroom index and all of my images. For the backup, a pair of high-capacity solid but inexpensive hard drive makes the most sense. The primary goes places with me, but my at least one of my backup disks always stays at home. Since the backup drive will rarely ever leave the house or office I don’t see any reason to use a pocket size disks or fancy redundant drive systems for my backup drives. For more on my primary storage and multiple drive backup system see Professional-Grade Backup Plans.

Backup (Single Disk):

LaCie Quadra  External Hard Drive

I hope that you found this advice useful. Remember that every external disk, regardless of brand, 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.


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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+.