The megapixel war in digital photography is back with a vengeance and has brought an unprecedented demand for storage with it. RAW files from these beasts are massive, but fortunately for us digital storage has never been cheaper. That doesn’t mean you should scrimp on quality though, so here’s our pick of the best external hard drive for photographers.
I can’t stress this enough – Do not go for the cheapest option out there. It might seem like a good deal at first, but when your data corrupts and you lose thousands of images that extra few dollars suddenly seems like a price worth paying.
It’s also worth mentioning that they make a great (and sensible) gift for photographers. You can never have too much storage!
Why do Photographers Need an External Hard Drive
There are two very important reasons for investing in an external hard drive:
- Peace of Mind – You should never rely on a single storage solution for your catalogue of images. Hard drives can (and regularly do) fail, and if that failure takes years of your hard-earned images with it it can be utterly devastating.
- Expanded Storage – This is pretty obvious. If you’ve been shooting for longer than a year or so you’ll definitely notice your hard drive’s available storage shrinking. Not having to worry about how much storage you have left takes the pressure off.
- Bonus Tip: Speed – It’s a well known fact among technological circles that a full and unoptimized hard drive is a major player when it comes to computer performance. Freeing up hard drive space by storing your images on a dedicated external hard drive will speed up your computer.
Alternatively, you can do what I did and replace your ageing internal hard drive with a shiny new SSD drive, then use your original hard drive as an external one for storage. Honestly, upgrading to a SSD made my computer feel brand new – My startup time went from about five minutes to under 10 seconds.
Best External Hard Drives for Photographers
There are two distinct types of external hard drive: The portable and the, erm, not-so-portable.
Which type to get is entirely dependant on your own needs. Do you travel a lot and want to back up your images on the move? A portable hard drive is definitely the way to go.
Or maybe you do all your work from home and just want the maximum storage capacity for the minimum cost? Looks like it’s a desktop external hard drive for your photography!
Best Portable External Hard Drives
SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD 1TB
- High speed transfers with up to 550MB/s read speeds let you move hi res Photos and videos fast (Based on internal testing; Performance may be lower depending on drive Capacity, host device, OS and application)
- Ruggedized, Water and dust resistant (IP55 rated) (IEC 60529 IP55: Tested to withstand Water flow (30 kPa) at 3 min; Limited dust contact Does Not interfere with operation. Must be clean and dry before use)
- Up to 550mb/s read/write speeds
- Extremely durable
I’ll cut right to the chase: This is what I use as my traveling storage companion. The SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD does what it says on the tin – it’s both water and dust resistant (IP55 rating) and shockproof from up to 2 metres. It also has a handy hole for clipping it to your bag, and comes ready to be used with both Mac and Windows, which many external hard drives don’t.
The quotes 550mb/s transfer speeds are somewhat ambitious though. I have hit up to 450mb/s, but generally it averages about 300-350mb/s when I’m transferring images. That’s still very fast, but not quite as fast as some of the competition.
Samsung Portable 1TB SSD T5
- SUPERFAST READ WRITE SPEEDS: SSD with V-NAND offers ultra-fast data transfer speeds of up to 540MB/s (up to 4.9x faster than external HDDs); Ideal for transferring large-sized data including 4K videos, high-resolution photos, games and more
- COMPACT AND PORTABLE DESIGN: Top to bottom shock resistant metal design fits in the palm of your hand and easily slides in your pocket or purse to take work and entertainment on the go
- Fast 540mb/s read/write speeds
- Extremely portable
- Relatively expensive
- No water / dust resistance
Samsung’s top of the line portable SSD may come at a relatively high cost, but it’s one of the most popular out there for a reason. It’s an extremely reliable hard drive, offers super-fast transfer speeds (as most SSDs do) and is small enough to slip into your pocket at just 74mm long.
The Samsung Portable SSD T5 is also the fastest external hard drive I tested, regularly averaging up to 400mb/s when reading images and generally sticking above 350mb/s for write speed. If outright speed is your main criteria, this is the one for you.
WD My Passport 1TB SSD
- Blazing-fast file transfers with read speeds up to 540 MB/s
- Password protection with hardware encryption
- Beautifully designed
- Included WD backup software
- Not as fast as rivals
- No rain or dust resistance
There’s no denying that the WD My Passport SSD is a beautiful looking beast, and the automatic backup software that comes with it is pretty handy too. However, considering it costs almost as much as the Samsung I found the speed to be quite underwhelming. It’s quoted as being 540mb/s read/write speeds, but on testing I was hitting somewhere in the region of 250mb/s write speeds and slightly faster read speeds when transferring my photos.
That being said, that’s still a lot faster than traditional HDDs, so if you want the best looking external hard drive but aren’t too bothered by it being the fastest then this is a great option.
G-Technology G-Drive 1TB SSD R-Series
- A durable design with IP67 water/dust resistance, 3M drop tested*, and 1000lb crush resistance
- Super fast transfer rates up to 560MB/s
- Extra durable design
- Up to 560mb/s transfer rate
- Not the most portable
- Needs formatting for use with Windows
This is one of the most durable designs around as far as external hard drives go, offering IP67 water and dust resistance as well being drop tested from 3m and having 1000lb of crush resistance. This is for the clumsy photographer.
The G-Technology G-Drive R-Series also boasts an impressive 560mb/s max transfer speed, although it’s worth noting that I never got close to this figure in my tests. I topped out at about 400mb/s, averaging closer to 340mb/s. Still, that’s second only to the Samsung Portable SSD T5, which doesn’t have the added durability of the G-Technology offering.
For me, the speed difference between this and the Samsung isn’t significant enough for me to ignore the durability benefits, especially since I’m prone to dropping things. The added inconvenience of having to reformat the drive for use with Windows was an annoyance though, although that will come as a blessing for you Mac users.
ADATA SD700 1TB SSD
- Read/write speed up to 440MB/s
- IP68 dust/water proof
- Very cheap for a SSD
- Tiny and durable
- Maximum capacity of 1TB
- Lower maximum transfer rate than other SSD offerings
It might not have the brand name of other offerings, but the ADATA SD700 SSD has plenty of advantages. Not only is it the cheapest SSD on this list, but it’s also water and dust resistant up to an IP68 rating and fits in the palm of your hand.
There are some compromises though. The maximum transfer rates are significantly down on the other SSDs here (440mb/s) and my results saw an average of between 200-250mb/s. The ADATA SD700 also doesn’t come in anything greater than 1TB.
LaCie Rugged Mini 1TB
- Travel with massive capacity of up to 1TB in an ultra compact portable external hard drive LaCie Rugged Mini
- For those who have a need for speed, seamlessly connect to USB 3.0 computers and transfer content fast with speeds of up to 130MB/s
- Very durable
- Not a SSD
- Expensive for a traditional HDD
Okay, let’s take a break from the high-end SSD external hard drives and look at something a little more budget-friendly. LaCie are synonymous with reliable storage, and this offering comes in the form of an ultra durable portable hard drive.
It’s not a Solid State Drive, and thus the transfer speeds are a lot slower (I averaged around 90mb/s), but if cost and durability are your major concerns it’s well worth looking at. They do offer this in SSD version, but it doesn’t quite stack up to the competition above in that respect.
The LaCie Rugged Mini is water, dust and shock resistant and also comes with a free month of Adobe Creative Cloud (learn all about Lightroom here). There have been some reports of dead drives being delivered, but my version was perfectly fine and every LaCie drive I’ve had in the past has been reliable to the core. That being said, consider that a warning.
WD My Passport 1TB
- Auto backup with Included WD Backup Software
- Password Protection with hardware encryption
- Very cheap
- WD reliability
- No water/dust/shock resistance
- Relatively slow transfer speeds
If you’re shopping for a new external hard drive on a budget, then the WD My Passport must come into serious consideration.
It’s vastly cheaper than its SSD-enabled brother, and is actually the cheapest hard drive we’re recommending here. WD don’t cut costs on the drive itself though, so you don’t have to worry about any reliability issued.
That being said, there have to be compromises. Its plastic construction means that it won’t stand up to any serious amounts of water, dust or impact. It’s also pretty slow when it comes to transferring images, averaging around 90mb/s in my tests.
The cost simply cannot be ignored though. You can get a 4TB version for around $100, so if you’re not planning on treating it harshly it’s an excellent choice.
G-Technology ArmorATD All-Terrain Drive 1TB
- Triple-layer shock resistance for added durability
- Rain-and dust-resistant (IP54) enclosure with a 1000lb crush rating
- Very durable
- Can get up to 5TB storage
- Quite large
- Expensive for an HDD
G-Technology bring us another contender for the best external hard drive for photographers with their rugged ArmorATD All-Terrain Drive. It offers IP54 rain and dust resistance as well as shock resistance and a 1000lb crush rating.
Just like the LaCie Rugged Mini, all this armor does bump the price up considerably, and it ends up quite expensive for something that isn’t a SSD drive. Still, for a traditional HDD it’s pretty fast when it comes to transferring, giving me around 115mb/s on average when writing images.
You can also get a 5TB version for all you photographers that just can’t bring yourself to delete anything!
Best Desktop External Hard Drives
WD My Book 10TB
- Auto backup with Included WD Backup Software and Time Machine Compatibility
- Password Protection with hardware encryption
- Loads of options to fit everyone’s need
- WD auto backup software included
First up is the ever reliable Western Digital entry, and the desktop HDD that I personally use. Like all these desktop external hard drives, the WD My Book requires external power and, for all intents and purposes, isn’t portable.
It comes in an array of cost effective options ranging from a modest 3TB all the way up to 12TB, and you can even get the Dual Drive version and go up to a monstrous 24TB.
It’s not a SSD, so the data transfer speed isn’t exactly mind blowing. Still, the 130mb/s I average is far from a snail’s pace. It also comes with WD’s auto backup software.
G-Technology G-Drive 10TB
- Dual Thunderbolt 3 ports and a single USB C port with support for USB 3.1 Gen 1
- Daisy chaining for up to 5 additional devices
- Fast transfer speeds
- Aluminium casing provides extra durability
If you want a little extra speed, the G-Technology G-Drive offers up to 250mb/s thanks to its 7200RPM hard drive. I didn’t quite achieve that figure, but clocking in at around 165mb/s it was noticeably faster than the WD My Book.
That extra speed comes at a price though – The G-Drive is much more expensive than the WD My Book. The extra outlay gets you sleek and stylish aesthetics and some extra functionality, including dual Thunderbolt ports and daisy chaining for up to five additional devices.
All things considered, the features are a bit overkill for photography itself, although if you want a centralized storage solution at home you could do far worse than the G-Drive.
LaCie d2 Quadra 4TB
- Cutting-edge interfaces for outstanding speed with universal connectivity
- Transfer files and back up faster; transfer a 700MB video file in less than 7 seconds with USB 3.0
- Fast and reliable
- Design makes it ultra quiet
- Small storage capacity
If money is no object and you just want the best performance going, the LaCie d2 Quadra offers 200mb/s transfer speeds and excellent reliability and durability.
The unique design implements a fan-free cooling system, making it ultra quiet even with the 7200RPM hard disk inside. This, the LaCie brand name, and the sleek styling do make this a very expensive option though, and one that doesn’t offer as much storage capacity as its rivals.
It does come with a free one-month subscription to the entire Adobe CC software suite though!
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.