Can I store photos and videos on an external hard drive?

Yes, you can definitely store photos and videos on an external hard drive. An external hard drive provides a great way to free up space on your computer’s internal drive and keep your files safe in case your computer crashes. There are some things to keep in mind when using an external hard drive for photo and video storage, but overall it is a very common and useful practice.

Benefits of Storing Photos and Videos on an External Hard Drive

Here are some of the biggest benefits of using an external drive for photo and video storage:

  • Frees up space on your computer’s internal drive
  • Allows you to keep more files on hand and access them when needed
  • Keeps your files safely backed up in case your computer crashes
  • Allows you to easily transfer files between different computers
  • Provides extra privacy and security if you want to keep your files off your main computer

As digital cameras and smart phones continue to advance, photos and videos are only getting bigger and hogging more and more space. Offloading all of those large files to an external hard drive can quickly free up a ton of space on your computer’s internal drive.

How External Hard Drives Store Files

External hard drives use the same magnetic storage technology that is used for internal hard drives. An external drive is simply an internal hard drive enclosed in a protective plastic casing and connected to your computer via an external interface like USB or Firewire.

When you copy files from your computer onto an external hard drive, the drive stores those files magnetically on spinning metal disks called platters. These platters can store hundreds of gigabytes or even terabytes of data. The external drive uses tiny read/write heads to access and edit the data stored on the drive.

This storage technology provides reliable long-term storage for your files. As long as the drive is kept in proper working order, the data stored on it can remain intact for many years.

Types of External Hard Drives

There are a few different types of external hard drives to choose from:

  • Desktop external hard drives – These sit on your desk and are plugged into a power outlet to operate. They are designed to stay in one place and typically offer the largest storage capacities.
  • Portable external hard drives – These are small, lightweight and powered entirely by the USB cable. Portable drives allow you to take your data on the go.
  • Wireless external hard drives – These drives use WiFi to connect to your computer wirelessly, allowing you to place them anywhere within range of your WiFi network.

For storing your photos and videos, a desktop or portable external hard drive are the most popular choices. Wireless external drives provide more flexibility but are generally more expensive and don’t offer as much storage space.

Factors to Consider When Buying an External Hard Drive

If you’re in the market for a new external hard drive for photo and video storage, here are some key factors to consider:

  • Storage capacity – How much storage space do you need? Calculate the total file size of your photo and video libraries and buy accordingly.
  • File transfer speed – Faster USB/Firewire interfaces allow quicker file transfers.
  • Drive speed (RPM) – 7200 RPM drives are faster than 5400 RPM drives but use more power.
  • Portability – Desktop drives offer more storage while portable drives are smaller and don’t need power.
  • Durability – Solid state drives (SSDs) are better for frequent transport while traditional drives have moving parts.
  • Price – Larger drives and faster transfer/drive speeds raise the price.

Consider how you plan to use the drive when weighing these different factors to choose the best external hard drive for your needs and budget.

How to Use an External Hard Drive for Photos and Videos

Using an external hard drive for photo and video storage is very easy!

First, connect the external hard drive to your computer using the USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt or other data cable. Most external hard drives are plug-and-play devices, so your operating system will automatically detect the drive and install any necessary drivers. You may get a pop-up asking if you want to use the drive for backup.

Next, you’ll want to format the drive. Formatting prepares the drive to store your files. If you’re using a brand new external hard drive, it will most likely need to be formatted out of the box.

To format the drive on Windows:

  1. Open the File Explorer and right-click the external hard drive.
  2. Click “Format” and choose your desired file system (most likely NTFS).
  3. Give the drive a descriptive name if you want, such as “My Photos”.
  4. Click “Start” to begin the formatting process.

On Mac OS:

  1. Open Disk Utility and select your external hard drive.
  2. Click Erase and choose a name, file format (Mac OS Extended or APFS) and scheme.
  3. Click Erase to format the external drive.

Once your drive is formatted, you can begin transferring photos, videos, or any other files to it. To copy files:

  1. Select the files or folders you want to transfer from your computer.
  2. Click and drag the selected items to your external hard drive’s icon or folder window.
  3. The files will begin copying over. Wait until the transfer finishes.
  4. Eject the external hard drive safely before unplugging it from your computer.

And that’s it! You can now access, edit and manage the files on your external hard drive like you would on your computer. Just remember to safely eject the drive when you’re done working with it.

Ideal File Formats for Photos and Videos

When you’re transferring photos and videos to an external hard drive, it’s best practice to use file formats that are non-proprietary, widely supported, and designed for preservation.

For photos, your best choices are:

  • JPEG – This is the most widely supported photo format online. Photos saved as high-quality JPEGs will look great on websites and prints.
  • TIFF – TIFF is a lossless format that preserves image quality. The files are larger but provide archival-quality storage.
  • PNG – Like TIFF, PNG is a lossless compression format that preserves quality. PNGs support transparency like GIFs.
  • RAW – RAW files contain uncompressed image data straight from the camera sensor. They take up a lot of space but offer the most flexibility for editing.

For videos, ideal formats include:

  • MP4 – This is the most widely compatible video format and offers a great balance of quality and file size.
  • AVI – AVI is an older but still broadly supported format. The files are larger but quality is preserved.
  • MOV – Apple’s MOV format is great for high-quality videos but may not play on Windows.
  • MKV – MKV is an open-source option that supports advanced features like multiple audio tracks.

Avoid proprietary formats like PSD for photos or MOV files encoded with Apple ProRes for videos. While they offer high quality, you need special software to access those files if you ever switch operating systems.

How to Organize Photos and Videos on an External Hard Drive

Once you start storing more photos and videos, having an organizational system will help keep your external hard drive from turning into a disorganized mess of files.

Here are some tips for effectively organizing your photo and video collections on an external drive:

  • Create a folder hierarchy – Organize using folders for each year, event, person, or other categories.
  • Use descriptive folder and file names – Name folders and files so you know what they contain at a glance.
  • Add tags – Use your photo app’s tagging system to add details like locations, dates, people, and keywords.
  • Back up the originals – Keep your original high-quality photo and video masters in a separate folder.
  • Make working copies – Edit copies instead of originals to prevent accidental changes.
  • Add ratings – Rate or flag your favorite photos and videos for easier searching.
  • Use software to catalog – Use Lightroom or photo management software to catalog your library.

The right organizational system will make it easy to browse your entire media collection and quickly find specific photos and videos when you need them again.

Maintaining and Troubleshooting an External Hard Drive

To keep your photos and videos safe and accessible on an external hard drive, there are some maintenance tasks you should perform periodically:

  • Safely eject. Always use the “Safely Remove Hardware” option to eject the hard drive before unplugging it.
  • Create backups. Back up your external drive to protect against data loss if it fails.
  • Scan for errors. Occasionally scan for and correct errors using your computer’s error checking tool.
  • Defragment. Defragment your drive if it’s becoming slow to access files.
  • Check the health. Use your hard drive maker’s tools to check the drive’s health statistics.
  • Update the firmware. Keep your drive’s firmware up to date for optimal performance.

If your external hard drive stops working properly, here are some troubleshooting steps to try:

  1. Try a different USB port, cable, or computer if the drive isn’t being recognized.
  2. Check for physical damage or liquid spills that could be preventing the drive from working.
  3. Open Disk Management to see if the drive shows up there but not in File Explorer.
  4. Try plugging in the external power supply if you are running off USB power only.
  5. Use the drive manufacturer’s utilities to diagnose and fix errors.
  6. Look for errors caused by accidental disconnections and run chkdsk.
  7. If all else fails, consult a data recovery service to attempt retrieving your files.

Following best practices for storage, handling, and maintenance will help you avoid most external hard drive issues. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to your precious photo and video libraries.

Security Risks of External Hard Drives

While external hard drives provide a handy way to expand your storage capacity, there are some security risks to be aware of if you use one:

  • Physical theft or loss – External drives are small and portable, making them easy to misplace or steal.
  • Malware infections – Malware could spread from an infected computer to the external drive.
  • Data deletion – Files may be accidentally or intentionally deleted from the external drive.
  • Outdated backups – If backups aren’t updated regularly, you could lose new files.
  • Exposure of sensitive files – Someone could access personal photos and videos on the drive.

To keep your data safe:

  • Encrypt sensitive files and the entire drive.
  • Store drives in a secure location when not in use.
  • Perform regular virus scans.
  • Eject drives properly before removal.
  • Maintain up-to-date backups in multiple places.
  • Watch for signs of drive failure like corruption.

Being smart about drive security will help you get all the benefits of expanded external storage without introducing unnecessary new risks.

Should You Store Photos/Videos on External SSD Instead?

Solid state drives (SSDs) are a newer storage technology that stores data using flash memory chips rather than magnetic platters. Should you consider an external SSD rather than a traditional external hard drive for storing photos and videos?

Here’s a quick comparison of the advantages and disadvantages:

External SSD External Hard Drive
Much faster data transfer speeds Slower speeds but still adequate for photos/video
More compact and durable design Larger desktop drive with moving parts
More reliable with no moving parts Mechanical drives can fail from shocks/wear
Much more expensive per GB HDDs are cheaper for high capacity storage
Typically lower capacities available HDDs available up to 10-14TB

For most home users, an external hard drive offers the best value for money given the large media file sizes. But if speed, durability and reliability are your top concerns, an SSD is a great option despite the higher cost.


Storing your photos and videos on an external hard drive is one of the best ways to free up space on your computer while keeping your precious memories safe and backed up. Choose an external drive with plenty of capacity, use the ideal file formats like JPEG and MP4, and implement an organizing system to keep your media easy to access. With proper care and maintenance, your external hard drive can become a reliable long-term home for your ever-growing photo and video collections.