Is it better to store photos on flash drive or external hard drive?

As digital cameras become more advanced and photo files get larger, many photographers find themselves needing more storage space for all their pictures. Two popular options for increasing storage are flash drives and external hard drives. But which is better for storing photos – flash drives or external hard drives? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll compare the pros and cons of using flash drives versus external hard drives for storing digital photo files.

Quick Answer – Flash Drives vs External Hard Drives for Photos

For most users, an external hard drive is better for storing large photo libraries long-term. External hard drives have much more storage capacity than flash drives, are faster at transferring files, and are more durable for frequent handling. But flash drives can be useful for transferring smaller sets of photos or temporarily expanding storage. The best option depends on your specific needs.

Storage Capacity

One of the biggest factors when choosing a photo storage device is the capacity. How many photos do you need to store now, and how many more will you accumulate over time? Let’s compare the typical storage sizes available for each option:

  • Flash drives – Flash drives commonly range from 8GB up to 1TB, with 16GB, 32GB and 64GB sizes being most popular. A 64GB flash drive can hold around 16,000 average JPEG photos.
  • External hard drives – Desktop external hard drives start around 120GB but are more commonly in the 500GB to 16TB range. A 1TB drive can store about 250,000 JPEGs.

As you can see, the capacities for external hard drives are much higher than for flash drives. Hard drives have more room for expanding photo collections over several years. Professional photographers need at least 1TB or more to store their whole library.


How quickly can you transfer files to and from the storage device? Speed is especially important when you have a lot of large photos or groups of images to move around. Here’s how the two options compare:

  • Flash drives – Depending on the USB version, flash drive speeds range from 10-15MB/s for USB 2.0 up to around 250MB/s for high-end USB 3.2 models. This makes flash drives quick for small transfers, but slow when moving hundreds of photos.
  • External hard drives – USB 3.0 hard drives offer transfer rates between 100-200MB/s, while fast SSD models can reach 550MB/s. This makes hard drives much faster for transferring whole photo libraries.

The fast transfer rates of external hard drives save a lot of time when you need to move many large files around. Flash drives just can’t compete for speed with their much lower bandwidth caps.

Convenience and Portability

Being highly portable and compact, flash drives are extremely convenient for carrying around and temporarily expanding storage. External hard drives win out for capacity, but are bulkier to transport:

  • Flash drives – Flash drives are tiny enough to fit in your pocket and require no external power cables. You can easily take them anywhere and plug them into any computer. The portability makes them great for sharing smaller sets of photos.
  • External hard drives – Desktop external hard drives need to be plugged into a power outlet and are designed to stay in one place. Portable hard drives use USB power and are small enough to be carried in a bag, but are still bulkier than a tiny flash drive.

If you need massive photo storage to keep in your home or office, an external hard drive is fine. But for quick transfers or expanding storage on the go, flash drives can’t be beaten for convenience.

Durability and Reliability

To keep your photos safe, the storage device needs to be durable and reliable. Let’s see how flash drives and hard drives compare for day-to-day use:

  • Flash drives – While flash drives are physically compact, their small size also makes them easier to misplace or break. Fragile USB connectors can wear out after frequently plugging in and removing. Flash memory cells may malfunction after repeated rewriting.
  • External hard drives – Made to stay on your desk, external hard drives are designed for more rigouous long-term use. Enclosed in a sturdy case, the drive mechanisms are better protected and have a lower risk of failure from physical damage during everyday handling.

For reliability, hard drives tend to be the safer choice. But flash drives can be fairly robust if treated carefully – just be aware they are more delicate than an external hard drive.


How much you pay for ample photo storage depends on which device you choose:

  • Flash drives – Standard USB flash drives cost only $10-$30 for 16GB to 128GB. Very high capacities up to 1TB can cost around $100-$200.
  • External hard drives – Hard drives are priced anywhere from $60 for a 1TB portable model up to $800 or more for high-performance 8TB desktop drives. Match your capacity needs.

While very cheap for their small capacities, flash drives have a much higher cost per gigabyte at larger sizes. Larger external hard drives ultimately provide more value and economy for storing many photos.

Backup and Security

Preventing data loss if the device fails or is lost/stolen should be part of your plan. Here are factors to consider for each storage medium:

  • Flash drives – Flash drives are easily lost or misplaced due to their small size. No backup of your data may exist. But their simplicity means less to go wrong.
  • External hard drives – Allow for easier automated backups. But the more complex drive hardware is also more prone to technical failure. Set up redundant backups.

No device is immune to data loss. But external hard drives give you more options for comprehensive automated backup. The possibility of creating multiple copies of your photos should be part of your storage strategy.

Other Differences

Some other considerations when choosing between flash drives vs hard drives:

  • Flash drives are solid state with no moving parts, making them more rugged against drops/shocks.
  • External hard drives may include advanced features like encryption, backup software, and diagnostics.
  • Hard drives can get fragmented over time, slowing transfer speeds, so defragmentation software may be needed.
  • Flash drives are simpler plug-and-play devices that work on any computer.

Think about if any of these other differences are important for your usage needs when deciding on a photo storage solution.


So which is ideal for storing your pictures – flash drive or external hard drive? Here are some general recommendations based on usage scenarios:

  • For a professional or serious hobbyist photographer who needs to store tens of thousands of photos or more long-term, an external hard drive is the best option. Minimum 1TB or larger capacity. Make multiple backups.
  • For a casual photographer with a collection of less than 5000 photos, a mid-size flash drive around 128GB is sufficient. Or use a small portable hard drive for more room to grow.
  • For temporarily transferring or sharing small sets of photos, a flash drive like 32GB is handy for portability. Have another main storage location.
  • For a full system backup of a computer’s photo libraries, an external hard drive is necessary to hold the large data volume.

Try to anticipate your future needs – how many photos will you accumulate in the next 1-2 years? Plan your storage capacity accordingly. And always have multiple backups to protect your irreplaceable photos.

The Pros and Cons Summary

To recap, here is a comparison table outlining the key pros and cons when deciding between a flash drive or external hard drive for storing digital photos:

Flash Drive External Hard Drive
Storage Capacity Typically 8GB to 1TB. Limited capacity. Often 500GB to 10TB or more. Massive capacity.
Speed Reads/writes up to 250MB/s. Slow for big transfers. Up to 550MB/s speeds. Faster transfer rates.
Portability Extremely portable and compact. Convenient to carry. Larger and heavier. Portable drives still bulky.
Durability Risk of physical damage. Average reliability. Sturdy case. Made for continuous use.
Cost Cheap but poor GB value at high capacities. Higher upfront cost but better long-term value.
Backup/Security No backups. Easy to misplace. Allows for automated backups. Safer data.

As you can see, external hard drives excel for capacity, speed, durability and backups – making them the top choice for serious long-term photo storage needs. But flash drives have a place for quickly transferring small batches of files and expanding storage on the go.


When choosing between flash drives or external hard drives for storing your photo collection, external hard drives offer clear advantages for most users. Their generous capacity, fast transfer speeds and good reliability provide safe long-term storage that a flash drive can’t match. But flash drives still have a role for easily moving small numbers of photos around.

Ideally, use external hard drives as your primary photo repositories, with at least two backups. Then compliment that with a flash drive or two for portability when needed. This combination gives you speed, security and convenience for protecting your precious picture memories.