When it comes to storing or backing up your photos, the search for the best external hard drive can seem positively overwhelming. There are hundreds of options available in all shapes and sizes, from SSDs and traditional hard disks to network-attached backups. While it’s difficult to make the wrong choice, some options are certainly better than others (depending on your unique situation and photographic needs), and that’s what I share in this article:
The 9 best external hard drives for photographers of all types.
External hard drives: key terminology
Before diving in too deep, it’s important to familiarize yourself with a few essential terms. The search for a hard drive is often fraught with acronyms, transfer speeds, cable specifications, and other technicalities that can quickly turn the purchase process into a major headache. Understanding what some of these terms mean can help you use your time wisely and more easily determine the right option for you. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Transfer speed – How fast data is sent back and forth between the drive and your computer. Faster is always better, but it’s also more expensive. For photo storage and editing, try to find a drive with transfer speeds of around 1000 MB/sec (megabytes per second). If your main concern is simply backing up photos, you’ll be fine with much slower transfer speeds of 200-500 MB/sec.
SSD – Solid-state drive; basically a tiny hard drive with no moving parts. You can also think of an SSD as a camera memory card on steroids. All modern laptops and most desktops use SSDs instead of traditional spinning hard disks, but external SSDs are still more expensive than their kinetic counterparts.
Hard disk – This was the de facto storage standard for decades but is becoming less common as SSDs increase in popularity and decrease in price. Hard disks have magnetic metal platters that spin around at 5400 or 7200 revolutions per minute. They are much less expensive than SSDs but are also prone to failure with repeated use over many years.
USB 3.1 and 3.2 – These essentially mean the same thing, and the numbers refer to how fast they can move data between devices. Nearly every decent hard drive is going to be USB 3.1 or 3.2. If you see any options that are USB 2, run for the hills and never look back. Those external drives are simply not worth considering.
USB-C – The history of USB connectors is awash with all manner of cables and connectors, and it’s all rather confusing. Thankfully, things are now coalescing around one simple standard: USB-C, which refers to the small oval plug that is found on most laptops and desktops.
RAID – Redundant array of independent disks. This technology lets you use multiple disks, usually traditional spinning hard drives, as a single drive while duplicating everything you put on them. RAID solutions are great for backing up data but are usually more expensive and a bit more complicated to configure than normal drives.
NAS – Networked attached storage. NAS systems are like full-fledged computers, but all the processing power is used to shuffle data around a bank of hard drives. NAS solutions are expensive, but they give you one central location for storing and backing up photos (as well as other data), which you can then access from anywhere within your home or even while you are away.
The best external hard drives for storing and editing photos
This list is broken up into two main categories. The first part recommends the best external hard drives for storing photos that you normally view and edit. All the drives in this category are suited for photographers who have anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of images that they might need to access at any moment. Some are faster, others are cheaper, but all are great options for different kinds of photographers depending on their specific needs.
There is one trait these drives all share: They are SSDs, not traditional spinning hard disks. While many photographers still use the latter in their daily workflow, I no longer recommend them due to their slower transfer speeds and higher failure rates compared to SSDs. All of these SSDs are considered portable, mostly due to their small size and lower power consumption. If you need a drive that can sit next to your laptop or desktop and will store all your photos, any of these will work great.
SanDisk knocked it out of the park with the Extreme Portable SSD. It’s small, fast, reliable, and can store hundreds of thousands of JPEG files or close to a hundred thousand RAW files. It has a durable outer case designed to keep all your pictures safe even if you drop the drive, and it even has a cutout for attaching a locking mechanism if you want to ensure it won’t get swiped from your desk. If you work from a laptop, this is an excellent choice since it’s easy to store in a bag or even a pocket.
This external drive hits the sweet spot and offers all the benefits that are important to today’s photographers: it’s small, has great transfer speeds, can take some physical abuse, and won’t break the bank. It’s not the fastest, cheapest, or most durable option, but it’s a drive that I can easily recommend to anyone who needs to add some storage to their photography workflow.
Crucial might not be as recognizable as some other names on this list, but make no mistake: It’s a heavy hitter in the storage and memory industry, and it offers outstanding options that are great for photographers. Crucial drives are made by a company named Micron, which has been manufacturing computer memory and other components since 1978. The Crucial X8 SSD is more expensive than its X6 counterpart, but you get a more durable body and an adapter for slower but more common USB-A cables.
Crucial is also highly regarded for its technical support. The X8 SSD has a three-year warranty, and based on my personal experience with various Crucial products over the years, it’s easy to get help via the website chat or by phone. Most people probably won’t need to contact customer service due to the high reliability of the X8 SSDs, but it’s nice to have that peace of mind.
One of the biggest advantages SSDs offer over traditional hard drives is speed. And if you want one of the fastest SSDs so you can transfer huge batches of RAW files in seconds, the Kingston XS2000 is the drive for you. Its form factor is roughly similar to the SanDisk SSD (above) but thicker, though you won’t find the same level of ruggedness or physical durability. However, for photographers who value speed above all else, it’s difficult to beat the Kingston XS2000.
Kingston boasts transfer speeds of 2000 MB/s, which is twice as fast as the SanDisk and Crucial drives on this list. Real-world results will vary depending on factors such as the speed of your USB ports and even the cable you use to plug in the drive, but there’s little doubt that it’s simply one of the fastest external SSDs available.
Most of the Samsung T7 Shield’s features aren’t going to turn heads; it’s a bit thicker than some of its peers, and it doesn’t boast blazing-fast transfer speeds (though it’s still plenty fast for your daily photography workflow). What it does offer, however, is something that could save your entire digital life: outstanding physical durability.
The outer casing of this SSD is built to withstand the elements as well as any drops, dings, or other incidental damage that might occur in your daily life. It has an IP65 rating, which means it’s protected against water and dust, so you can toss it in your backpack or a duffel bag without worrying about moisture or stray particles ruining your data. Laptop-based photographers will love it, especially those who do much of their work on the road. And if you do all your work from a desktop, while you might not think you need this level of ruggedness, it never hurts to be a bit overprepared!
The best external hard drive for backing up photos
The second category comprises hard drives that are ideal for backing up your photos. These drives don’t have the fastest specs and latest bells and whistles, but they are great for storing copies of your images. If anything happens to your main archive and you own one of these drives, you can get your pictures back quickly and easily. (Another backup solution is cloud storage, but it’s very different from backup hard drives.)
Most of the raw specifications on the Samsung T7 Touch are similar to its peers: a small size, fast transfer speeds, durable build quality, and other competitive features. However, it has one key advantage that no other SSD on this list offers: file encryption with a built-in fingerprint reader for added security. To unlock the drive, you must touch the little glowing square (see the photo above); it then authenticates you and allows you to access all your photos.
Fortunately, you don’t need to touch the drive every single time you look at your pictures – just when you unplug the drive and plug it into another computer. This makes it an ideal solution for mobile or desktop photographers looking to protect their photos should the drive ever get lost or stolen. I keep a backup copy of all my photos at an offsite location – I recommend you do the same! – and the built-in security of this drive is great to have. This SSD costs a little more than its peers, but for security-conscious photographers, it’s a price that’s easy to pay.
When it comes to backups, there’s a lot to like about traditional spinning hard drives: They are much cheaper than SSDs and you can fit far more files on a single drive. Whereas most SSDs max out at 4 TB, you can easily find larger traditional hard drives for a much more reasonable price. Granted, these drives are slower and take up more physical space than SSDs, but for backups, a traditional hard disk is still a great solution.
OWC isn’t a name most people recognize, but they have been crafting outstanding data-storage solutions for decades. Their Mercury Elite Pro line of drives is well-known for its reliability, and this model also includes shock protection to ensure data integrity even if the drive gets bumped or nudged accidentally. Thanks to a whopping 12 TB storage capacity, this drive can back up your photos – even if you shoot in RAW – without breaking a sweat. If you want the ultimate in a traditional hard drive backup solution, you can’t go wrong with an OWC Mercury Elite Pro.
The WD 4 TB Elements Portable sits on the opposite end of the spectrum as the OWC Mercury Elite Pro. It’s small, slow, and doesn’t store nearly as many pictures as its big brother. But it’s much cheaper, and it has an ace up its sleeve that makes it an excellent solution for photo backups: It’s extremely portable. Now, by most accounts, it would just make sense to get a 4 TB SSD instead of a traditional hard disk. However, as the discerning photographer might ask, “I own one hard drive, but do I need a second?”
And indeed, for a solid backup solution, you should really keep a second drive at an offsite location: at your office, at a friend’s house, or even with a family member who you only see a few times a year. If your only backup is in the same physical location as the rest of your photos, it only takes one fire, flood, or other catastrophic event for you to lose everything. I recommend this diminutive Western Digital drive because it’s so inexpensive; you can buy two or three for the same price as a single 4 TB SSD. Keep one at home and one offsite, and if disaster strikes, you’ll be up and running in no time.
There’s a common quip in many corners of the internet: “There is no cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer.” Whenever you store files, photos, or other data in the cloud, all you’re really doing is putting them on a hard drive in a giant warehouse somewhere else in the country or the world. This WD MyCloud drive offers an innovative solution positioned between traditional storage and cloud-based storage: You create your own so-called “cloud.”
The WD My Cloud EX2 drive is a great option for backing up your photos while also giving you access to them from any device, much like many subscription-based cloud-storage options. The 8 TB option uses two 4 TB drives and is ideal for photographers with years of RAW files and video clips. It’s also a fairly simple plug-and-play solution. Hook it up to your home network with an Ethernet cable, and you can configure it to back up data from multiple computers, which is great if you have pictures on more than one desktop or laptop. You can even configure it as a RAID drive for additional peace of mind. This essentially creates two copies of everything you put on it, so if one of the drives fails, you’ll still have all your photos and other data!
When it comes to network-attached storage solutions, Synology is one of the best in the world. The company caters to business clients with massive data needs but also offers great options for everyday people. This DiskStation DS220+ is awesome for photographers who want to back up all their photos but maintain easy access from everywhere. It’s a bit more complicated to set up than the WD MyCloud system (above), but if you are serious about getting a solid, reliable NAS with outstanding flexibility, it’s hard to go wrong with this device.
The first thing you might notice is that the Synology DiskStation doesn’t come with any hard drives. You have to buy them separately, which seems a bit counterintuitive until you realize that you can choose the drives that are right for you. Load your drives into the DiskStation, plug the system into your network with an Ethernet cable, and you’ll be off and running. Casual users might prefer the simplicity of a solution like WD MyCloud, but if you want a more advanced NAS that can handle photo backups and anything else you need, the Synology 2-Bay NAS DiskStation DS is an outstanding choice.
Honorable mention: Drobo 5D3
Drobo occupies an interesting space in the storage market. The company uses its own proprietary RAID solution to squeeze extra performance and flexibility out of your hard drives, which is both a benefit and a drawback. On the one hand, you can add additional drives to a Drobo 5D3 on the fly, meaning that if you run out of space, you can just stick in another drive and you’ll be all set. However, in order to accomplish this, Drobo uses its own proprietary method for storing data – so if something goes wrong and a drive fails, your data won’t be easy to recover.
Drobo drives are somewhat polarizing: People tend to really like them or really hate them. Therefore, I don’t exactly feel comfortable recommending them, but they should be brought up in any discussions about photo storage. Drobo’s website even has a tab specifically for photographers because their drives can work very well for those of us in the business of making images.
Which external hard drive should you choose?
Even after reading through all these options, it can still be overwhelming to choose a drive that’s right for you.
So to make everything simpler, here’s my recommendation: If you want an excellent option for storing tens of thousands of photos, get the SanDisk 2 TB Extreme Portable SSD. It’s reasonably priced, plenty fast for transferring photos, and pretty durable in case you drop it.
And if you need a backup solution, I recommend purchasing a few of the WD 4 TB Elements Portable drives – simply because they’re super cheap and you can easily keep one offsite. I use this solution and it works great. I keep one of these pocket-sized drives in a drawer at my office, and I swap it with the one at home about once a week. That way if my house burns down, all my photos are safely backed up.
You really can’t go wrong with any of the options on this list, and it all comes down to finding the external hard drive that’s best for you – even if it’s not what someone else would buy.
What external drive do you plan to use for storing or backing up your photos? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.