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Everything You Need to Know About External Hard Drives

External hard drives are extremely useful to photographers, for two reasons. First, because they allow us to create a backup of our files, protecting us against situations in which we might lose the work prepared for a client before it has been delivered. Second, because photographs taken on modern DSLRs normally tend to be huge files, particularly when shot in raw formats, which means we need more storage space.

If you’ve heard the advice to get an external hard drive but have no idea where to start in getting one, here’s everything that you need to know to get started and choose your own.


What is an external hard drive?

Let’s start by figuring out exactly how this works. Normally, when shooting with your camera, you will use a memory card to store the data of your images and transfer them to a computer. You may also be familiar with USB sticks, also known as memory drives, which also store files and allow them to be moved around independently of a computer. You can’t do anything with the files on those cards and drives themselves: they need to be plugged into a computer for you to view them.

An external hard drive works in a very similar way. It’s an external storage facility which is disconnected from your computer and can be kept separately, just on a much bigger scale. You have to plug it into a computer to put files onto it, to take them off or edit them, or to view them – but the point is that all of that data can be stored elsewhere.

Why is this good for you? For the following reasons:

  • It creates a backup of your files in case the ones on your computer are accidentally deleted
  • After backing up your files on an external hard drive, you will be able to delete them from your computer and free up space there
  • Some external hard drives offer additional benefits, such as helping your computer to work more efficiently while plugged in
  • If something happens to your computer or laptop – such as a virus, damage by fire, flood, or other accident, or the hard drive fails, you have a backup of your files that you can restore to another machine, as the external hard drive will not be affected
  • Once you’ve purchased an external hard drive the space is always yours at no further cost – unlike cloud storage, where you may be forced to pay a monthly or annual subscription cost


Is an external hard drive the safest choice?

You might be wondering if an external hard drive is the way to go to ensure that your files are 100% safe and backed up. Unfortunately, the short answer is no. Realistically, there is no storage system that is 100% safe.

Where hard drives are concerned, there is a possibility that the device can malfunction – with a virus, for example, or simple as mechanical failure. It can become corrupted and prevent you from accessing your files. As it’s a physical storage option, it’s also susceptible to physical damage.

Having said all of that, an external hard drive is still a very safe option for backing up. If you’re worried, use a twin system in which two external hard drives both back up the same files just in case.


What size external hard drive should I get?

This is likely to be one of your most pressing questions. After all, when you search Amazon or other shopping sites for hard drives, you will see a wealth of options – and the biggest differentiator between them, especially in terms of price, is the size of storage available.

As you are a photographer and thus dealing with large file sizes, it would be recommended that you don’t go for anything less than 1 TB. A terabyte is a big volume of storage, but when your images are coming in at anything between 2 and 30 GB on average in the raw format, you will fill it up sooner than you expect. The good news for us is that, while a 1 TB hard drive would have been considered top of the range not too long ago, they are often now one of the cheaper options!

You can decide how much storage space you need based on how often you shoot, how big your files are, and how many images you take each time. In fact, you can calculate it based on your current storage on your computer. Go into a month, or a year, that you feel is representative of your busiest times, and count up the storage space used by that folder. You definitely want your external hard drive to last for a few years, so if it looks like you would go through a terabyte quicker than that, you should consider a larger size.

Where price is concerned, you will normally find that the bigger the size of the storage, the lower the cost per byte. Therefore, it makes sense to go for the bigger option and save yourself money down the line.


What extra features should I consider?

There are some external hard drives that really just come as standard: a space where you can store extra data, and nothing more. Others, though, have additional features to encourage you to make the purchase.

Some will help your computer to run more smoothly, as already mentioned. This can be great for processing large files. Others will have a rugged exterior that is cushioned against knocks and blows, which is fabulous for a working photographer who often has to back their files up on the go. Others can actually recharge the device they are plugged into, which is really useful if you want a device that can back up your smartphone as well as keeping it going!

You’ll also want to look for compatibility features, such as the following:

  • Mac/PC compatibility
  • USB type (3.0, 2.0)
  • Power adapter type
  • Any software that needs to be installed to run special features


With this in mind, you should be able to choose your first external hard drive. Happy hunting – and remember to get into the habit of regular backups once you have it!

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