External Hard Disks for Photographers

I described my Workflow at the first session of a Lightroom course I led yesterday. An instrumental and very important part of that workflow is holding my Images and Catalog(s) on an external hard disk. In the long term (after and hopefully Adobe implements it in Lightroom) it might enable photographers with a tablet (which has a USB-C port that supports a sufficient USB file transfer speed) to use an external hard disk whilst travelling with a tablet, to enable later editing on the desktop or laptop when back at home. A use-case I’ve tested, but found to have flaws currently. A few provisos there then, but let’s just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best – then I might just be tempted to buy an iPad Pro.

For starters, here’s an article you might wish to look at to get you “in the mood” when considering external hard drives for your computer.

It’s important to know the ports you have on the machine(s) you might want to connect the disk to; it could be that Thunderbolt is not of interest to you but USB-C might well be. [Note: Currently Thunderbolt 3 delivered over USB-C will be the gold standard for Mac users.] Otherwise there are cheaper alternatives to the Lacie I’m using if the ports are just “standard USB-A” – the usual older ports which support USB 2 and USB 3 file transfer speeds.

This is a confusing subject, which I find it hard to get my head around anyway, so I’m attaching a link to an article that should help you identify what ports you have but be aware that the gold standard will one day be USB 4 which will replace the current leading standard USB 3.2, so looking at this article might help you clear the fog.

From this you’ll gather it’s important to know not just the physical port type – USB-A or USB-C, but also the speed of the connection (and cable) it supports – this could at best be USB 3.2 today, but most probably will be USB 3, or 3.1.

So you need to check the specification of your USB Port and the transfer speed it will support. A minefield I know, but it’s an important subject to try and understand to make sure you don’t get stuck with old technology which is being flogged on the cheap because the suppliers know it’s going to be superseded.

Here’s a review of the sort of external hard disks photographers should be looking at. Here’s a review of the disk I’m currently using  and which is pictured above. It’s a a Rugged 500Mb Thunderbolt Drive from Lacie (a Seagate company) which I got from Amazon. For the Mac user it has the advantage of using a fixed old-style Thunderbolt cable connection – which for my purposes was it’s USP until yesterday when I realised I was using the Thunderbolt port on the Mac for the video output; however the disk is also supplied with USB-C -> USB-C, and USB-C -> USB-A cables so you have future-proofing provided out-of-the-box.

It’s not a drive for long-term storage though as 500Gb will probably not be sufficient for that purpose, I just use it for my annual storage of photos and catalog(s). You should therefore always look to other external hard disks for long-term storage and/or backup. I particularly like the Western Digital My Passport drives for this purpose. These need not be SSD however, as fast read/write is not necessary.

A selection of Western Digital and Seagate external HDD drives, useful for long-term, or archiving purposes.

You can also build your own external disks and I’ve done that using both rugged and non-rugged enclosures.

The one on the left is a rugged enclosure from StarTech, the other one uses an enclosure from inateck – both have Crucial SSD’s installed in them. This is a much cheaper way of getting an external SSD drive. I have had no problem with them apart from cable connections occasionally.

Please note that you must always also consider the equipment and operating systems that you want to be able to read/write to and from the disk. If you want to read and write on both MacOS and Windows equipment it’s advisable to consider formatting the disk using the ExFAT format if you’re using Apple equipment, rather than the native Apple formats. This will not be as efficient in terms of read/write operations, but you will get the benefit of better connectivity across equipment. [Note: I don’t use ExFAT other than on USB Stick Drives, as I almost exclusively use Apple equipment.]

Second guessing what Apple will do next

Why I’m bothering with this post, I’ll never know. However, I know of at least one other person considering what to do when his iPhone 4s goes “end of life” this autumn and I guess there’s probably plenty of others. So this is just a “state of the Apple nation” post – where I am, what I’m thinking of, what needs to be done, and what can/should be done in an area where Apple never makes long-term decision-making easy.

So why the shiny MacBook as a featured image? Well … I’m betting on that being the future for Mac’s portable laptop range, so it needs some serious consideration as a replacement for Jenny’s aging (well, mine actually) 7+year old MBP. Even though we didn’t do the Yosemite upgrade it’s running slow, and now with Jenny’s increasing interest in photography and using Lightroom, a replacement needs to be considered.  So … she could have my mid-2012 MBP which is still screaming along and has just had a battery and top case (keyboard) replacement following the expensive coffee-spill episode, and I could take on a new MacBook … couldn’t I?

It’s got a lot going for it – light, retina-display, fast storage and sufficient RAM – and then it’s got a single USB-C port! Where did that come from? Thunderbolt and Lightning, very, very frightning. Out with the old, in with the new – this could very well be the future of expansion ports, and the demise of Apple’s proprietary ports. Well, actually the opposite. Apple appears to have invested in USB-C and made it a standard – it’s already to be found on Google’s Chromebooks and no doubt more will follow. The exciting thing (to me) is that it means that the accessory market, and the third-party hardware solutions will be opened up and Apple has acknowledged that by controlling the patents on the standard, it doesn’t need to control the interface. The accessories (like this USB-C hub) have already started to be advertised.

So in a nutshell – USB-C appears to be “a good idea”. One of the first accessories made available is this little beauty – the snapily titled USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adaptor. I quote from the website …

“The USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter lets you connect your MacBook with USB-C port to an HDMI display, while also connecting a standard USB device and a USB-C charging cable.

“This adapter allows you to mirror your MacBook display to your HDMI-enabled TV or display in up to 1080p at 60Hz or UHD (3840×2160) at 30Hz. It also outputs video content like films and captured video. Simply connect the adapter to the USB-C port on your MacBook and then to your TV or projector via an HDMI cable (sold separately).

“Use the standard USB port to connect devices such as your flash drive or camera, or a USB cable for syncing and charging your iPhone, iPad or iPod. You can also connect a charging cable to the USB-C port to charge your MacBook.”

This means I can have my external USB-3 WD My Passport Slim disk connected, with a charging cable all through a single port. I could even mirror the display to a TV at the same time – if I wanted to. That’s really quite neat! But then again this battery-powered WD My Passport Wireless with SD card drive is really itching to join the “Just thoughts” household – but I’ll leave that for another post!

So why am I getting excited about an expansion port, and what on earth has that got anything to do with an aging iPhone 4s, or indeed the equally aging iPad 2 I have, which I mistakenly upgraded to iOS 8; something I didn’t do to the iPhone 4s … thankfully, because the iPad is really painfully slow at times.

Well take a look at this set of rumours about an iPad Pro (or Plus) with a USB-C port and perhaps a stylus. I think that every Lightroom useer who’s interested in photography welcomed the arrival of Lightroom Mobile, but with my old iOS gear – it’s just not practical to consider using it. So … an upgrade to the iPhone/iPad must be on the cards, just from the photography side of things – even if they weren’t both about to go “end-of-life”. If an iPad witha USB-C port is launched that could be a really good alternative to a MacBook for Lightroom on the road, so to speak.

However … will the iPhone 6s (or 6s Plus) also have a USB-C connector replacing the Lightning port. Could I therefore consider not replacing the iPad and instead have a MacBook and iPhone 6s – now that might be very nice, and you can see where my thoughts are going … can you see any reasons why that’s not a good strategy, given that I have the iMac for my serious Lightroom work.

It all depends on USB-C you see!

[Update: A recent announcement that Apple is seeking to unify the USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt ports with its new USB-C port which is not available on the new MacBook …

“Because Thunderbolt 3 is compliant with the USB-C standard and USB 3.1 specification, the cabling will also simultaneously support DisplayPort 1.2, third-generation PCI Express, and power supply for recharging notebooks at up to 100 watts.”

Also …

“The next generation of the high-speed Thunderbolt specification was announced on Tuesday, ditching the legacy Mini DisplayPort connector for the new smaller, reversible USB-C standard, and offering transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps with high-end cables.”]