Photo Backup: External Hard Drive

LaCie Hard Disks
Creative Commons License photo credit: pietel

In the last part of this series, we talked about internal hard drives as backup hardware. As promised, this time around, we’ll be exploring external hard drives for backing up your photos. Throughout these in-depth discussions of hardware solutions, I’ll try to keep the same format and flow so they’re easier to follow.


I would expect that many of you are familiar with external drives, but we’ll go through their various aspects, strengths, and weaknesses as it relates to backing up photo archives.


LaCie Hard Disks
Creative Commons License photo credit: pietel

An external hard drive is simply an internal drive that is housed in some type of case and connected to your computer via external data cables. Some external drives require auxiliary power, while others are powered by the data connection (such as some compact USB 2.0 drives). External drives serve as good backup hardware because of their storage capabilities and portability.

Like internal drives, external drives come in various shapes and sizes. Some are considered “compact” drives (typically housing a 2.5″ drive) while others are slightly larger (typically housing a standard 3.5″ drive). While the casing may look different between brands and models, most external drives have the same basic anatomy.

Also like internal drives, external drives may have several variations on the data connection interface — but these connections are different than those discussed on the internal drives. One typical connection type is USB, and most often USB 2.0. But external drives can also come with Firewire connections and even eSATA connections.

Again, my point is that you need to be aware of the capabilities of your computer(s) before purchasing an external hard drive. Maybe the one you’ve got your eye on is a Firewire drive, but your computer doesn’t have Firewire connections. This will result in you having to either return the hardware or purchase additional hardware in order to make it work.


Gears gears cogs bits n pieces
Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Just like with the internal drives, external drives will give you a few options for methods of backing up your data. There are two basic camps of people who use external drives: connected all the time, and connected only when backing up files.

If you decide to leave your external drive permanently connected to your computer, it may be possible to use the drive as a mirror, or RAID 1 configuration. Sometimes the software included with the drive will allow you to do this, while other times you’ll have to use third party software. If you’re interested in doing this, check the manufacturer’s website for RAID documentation prior to purchasing the hardware. The advantage to this method is that it’s easy and you get real-time backups. The disadvantage is that the drive is constantly running and constantly attached to your computer.

The other mentality of external drive users (including myself) is to only attach the drive when backing up photos or other data. This method would require that some type of backup schedule be adhered to, otherwise your backups can quickly become out of date and nearly useless. The advantage of this method is that you can store your external drive separately from your computer in a safe or off-site location. The disadvantage is that your backups may not be completely up to date on any given day.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Creative Commons License photo credit: d_vdm


External drives are fairly cheap, reliable, and portable. They don’t cost much more than internal hard drives, and they can have about the same life expectancy (possibly better if not constantly plugged in). But the real benefit of an external drive is the fact that it can be removed from the computer and stored elsewhere. Storing the drive in a fireproof safe or in an off-site location can add an extra layer of security to your backup solution.


New boots and a fake lacoste polo
Creative Commons License photo credit: assbach

External hard drives are still hard drives and they’re prone to the same failures as internal hard drives. The disk may just give up one day without warning or reason. And if you decide to leave the drive connected to the computer at all times, it essentially has the same weaknesses as your computer (lightning strikes, fire, theft, etc.). External drives also tend to be a target for other failure modes, such as being dropped or knocked off the desk. Hard drives don’t like that.


External hard drives can be great backup solutions, and many people utilize them for doing just this. I, myself, use an external drive to store one copy of my photos and other vital documents. The great thing about them is that they can be truly separate from your computer between backups.

And as with any backup solution, I’d suggest keeping more than one. So an external backup drive is good, but it’s not complete by itself. The next section of this series will discuss the infamous RAID tower, including the Drobo.


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19 thoughts on “Photo Backup: External Hard Drive

  1. Pingback: Photo Backup: Internal Hard Drive

  2. JIm

    Backup is the first thing every digital photographer should do before anything else. Even before the camera is picked up, or even purchased – the thought should be. “how am I going to back up?” I can’t count the times backups have saved me. It’s not IF your hard drive will fail, it’s WHEN.

  3. Don

    The most effective and trusted way to Backup is to have a Disaster Proof External Hard Drive that will protect your Data from Fire for up to 3 hours, an example is the “ProtectItSafe” a new product being released early November 2008. This will give Fire, Flood, Crush and Security protection.

  4. Dick Wood


    I use a portable hard drive exclusively to store all of my photos. they have gotten so inexpensive and are a lot easer than burning to a DVD. I am going to use one for each year, so thus far a 250 gig works for me. But as the mpix size increases and if I move to a full frame scnsor and get a 4×5 as I have promised my self, I just might need a large drive.

    Dick Wood

  5. Don

    Can I ask how you store your External Hard Drive, do you protect it from disaster? I know the chances are very small that something will happen but if there is the risk we need to ask ourselves can we afford to loose the Data!

  6. Air Jordans

    I feel like the biggest advantage of an external hardrive is portability. Sure you can save a few thousand pictures on your camera but when you travel for say a month to Mumbai, India to explore culture as well as take pictures – an external hardrive is a must!

    Plus it’s easy to backup daily incase your camera gets stolen by some wandering Brazilian near the favelas!

  7. libeco

    @ Don: I have a feeling these comments are spam. I’m most certainly not prepared to spend over $2000 even though it looks like a safe.

    I’m an amateur photographer who keeps backups, but there’s a limit in protecting yourself from any possible thing that can go wrong. Perhaps professional photographers might feel different about it…

  8. Don

    Certainly not Spam, my comments have been given as honest opinion to show the options that are available, sure a Fireproof Safe is not for everyone, but I ask the question can you afford to loose Data to a Disaster event?

  9. Pingback: Have You Ever Needed to Use Your Photo Backup?

  10. Pingback: Photo Backup: RAID Tower

  11. Lars

    @Don: the main advantage of the Drobo ist that it is fast enough (FW800 with the V2) to work directly from it. One backup is not enough, so additionally a network backup is done. If the Dropo burns, the data is still availabe on a remote location.

  12. Pingback: Photo Backup: Strategy

  13. Alex

    I find that the best way to decide on external hard drives is to look on customer feedback on Amazon. It’s remarkable how reliability varies between drives, much more so I suspect than with internal ones. Often the housing – especially the USB and power connectors – let down the drive.

  14. Mark

    Nice article!! But for me using an external HDD is unthinkable because I lost all my files on my external HDD when it was damaged. That’s when I started using Safecopy online backup,, to backup my files.

    With Safecopy I can backup all my files from both my Mac and Pc with just only one account. I can also backup my USB drives and share files as well. I’m very happy with and it’s worth checking it.

  15. Susan

    I use an external hard drive. There was a time when I tried a back up service, but I had an older computer and found that it slowed everything down terribly. My computer gets backed up every night, but I understand it’s not perfect.

    I might try another online backup service now that my computer is more up to date.

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