External hard drives are an inexpensive way to store our digital photos. For Mac users like me, external storage is often the only way to hold an image library that contains thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of digital images. Although any brand or model of external disk will suffice for image storage these devices are not all the same.
I use external hard drives for two very different purposes. For my primary image storage, meaning the copy of my images that I work on everyday with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic and Adobe Photoshop, drive performance matters. For my primary storage, for the drive that holds my Photos Go Here folder, I am willing to spend more for features like a faster rotational speed and Thunderbolt connectivity.
I am willing to spend a lot more for my primary photo storage disk because time is money. Sitting around waiting for this external hard drive to do something is not a productive use of my day. USB does not compare to Thunderbolt in terms of real-world drive performance. The read-write speeds that USB drive connections permit are less than ideal for professional-grade daily use for my primary image storage drive.
The opposite is true though for the series of external hard drives that I use to protect my work. For my backup system, high-speed connectivity do not matter at all. For my backup system, inexpensive USB external hard drives are just fine. Drive performance does not matter to me here since my backup software is scheduled to run automatically at hours when I am not awake or working at the computer.
Let’s briefly discuss one more issue before I suggest specific brands and models of hard drive; portability. The external hard drives that are the most portable, those little drives that fit easily in a shirt pocket and that do not require a separate power supply, are always more expensive than their full-size cousins. Small and light is wonderful but I would not choose to rely on this type of external hard drive unless you really are out on the road working all of the time. “Pocket” style drives are also more prone to errors and to overheating than their larger cousins.
With these distinctions in mind then here are the drives that I recommend for primary image storage and for use in a rotating external backup drive system.
Primary Storage (Thunderbolt 3 / Thunderbolt 2)
- LaCie d2 Thunderbolt-3 6TB Desktop External Hard Drive
- G-Technology G-Drive Thunderbolt-3 6TB Desktop External Hard Drive
- LaCie d2 Thunderbolt-2 6TB Desktop External Hard Drive
- G-Technology G-Drive Thunderbolt-2 4TB Desktop External Hard Drive
- G-Technology G-Drive Thunderbolt-2 1TB Portable External Hard Drive
- LaCie Thunderbolt-2 2TB Rugged Portable External Hard Drive
Backup Disks (USB-C / USB-3.0)
- G-Technology G-Drive 8TB USB-C Desktop External Hard Drive
- G-Technology G-Drive 4TB USB-C Desktop External Hard Drive
- G-Technology G-Drive 8TB USB 3.0 Desktop External Hard Drive
- G-Technology G-Drive 6TB USB 3.0 Desktop External Hard Drive
- Western Digital Elements USB 3.0 8TB Desktop External Hard Drive for Mac
- Western Digital Elements USB 3.0 6TB Desktop External Hard Drive
- LaCie 4TB Rugged USB-C / USB 3.0 Portable External Hard Drive
If needed, look into adapters like this Amazon Basics USB Type C to USB 3.0 Adapter to use older USB 3.0 / 2.0 devices with a computer that uses a new USB-C port. Likewise, many Mac users might find a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter essential for connecting to a brand new Mac.
You might notice that I have not included any RAID drive systems, or multi-drive enclosures, in this list. While I do believe that these high-end fancy systems have some value I don’t think that they are an appropriate choice for most photographers. In my opinion, devices like the Drobo backup system are way too expensive and complex for my storage / backup needs.
Remember that any external hard drive, regardless of the brand or model, must be formatted properly for use with the Mac Operating System before you put anything on to it. See how to format an external drive for more details.
Most of all, please don’t forget to back everything up. All hard drives will inevitably fail. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for your external drives. Sooner or later, all things electric will fail and no external hard drive manufacturer will ever compensate you for your lost data.
Hard drive warranties cover the cost of the hardware only. It is your job to properly prepare for the inevitable by building a robust on-site and off-site backup system to protect a lifetime’s worth of great photography.