Photos for Mac isn’t a long term photo library option

Bradley Chambers, writing for 9to5Mac, about his photo library backup strategy:

If there is one thing I am obsessed with when it comes to technology, it’s my pictures. I keep them extremely organized and culled.

He then goes on to say, regarding his use of iCloud Photo Library as a sort of backup:

This service puts a copy of all of my media on Apple’s servers, and that means if I lose my iPhone, iPad, or MacBook Pro, I can sign into a new device using my iCloud account, and all my media will be there. One thing to remember is that iCloud Photo Library is a sync service. Syncing means that if you delete a photo on one device, it’ll be deleted elsewhere. For that reason, I don’t consider iCloud Photo Library a true backup.

If you want to use iCloud Photo Library to sync your photos between devices, and even use it as a way to have a full backup of your photos, I suppose you can. However, after doing that for a few years and then wanting to move away from it – I would not recommend Photos on Mac or iCloud Photo Library as a long term photo library solution.

The problem is a few fold, but here are the main points:

  • does not store photo metadata in a readable format or with the individual files at all
  • does not store photos in a directory structure that is human understandable
  • bloats your library’s size dramatically

I have well over 350GB of photos and videos. When I migrated away from Photos for Mac I thought that it must store these in a sane directory structure. When you view the Package Contents of your Photos Library file, it appears as though it does but it does not. Each photo is kept within layers of directories by date within directories by the date they are imported not taken. For me, a huge portion of my library was stored in the 2013 directory, even though most of the photos were not taken in that year. Using various Windows 10 tools I was able to read the file’s metadata to create a sane directory structure and put those files into their proper locations based on when they were taken. Even with automated tools it took me a few weeks to do this.

In addition, all the work you do tagging, face tagging, etc. of photos could end up being for naught. That hard work won’t leave Photos for Mac onto another platform. Perhaps you’re not worried about moving from Mac to Windows or from Photos to another library manager, but you should be. Apple has already killed iPhoto in favor of Photos for Mac and lost a lot of functionality when they did. Who is to say they won’t do that again? Or discontinue the Mac altogether some day?

I still have more work to do before I’m able to share my full workflow for storing, searching, syncing, and backing up my photo library – but this experience has taught me that I always want my library to be future proof, human readable, platform agnostic, and not be locked into any one company’s ecosystem. I’m close and I look forward to sharing my strategy in the near future.

    Danny Nicolas

    This gives me a bunch more to think about from another perspective.

    hmm.. didn’t realise that date structure in the package is when photos were imported and not taken – thanks for highlighting this.

    am going to script backup of icloud library package contents (date like dirs) into backblaze which is an improvement but not a meaningfully restorable backup – like you said, images will be there but not ordered or showing all the meta data.

    @EddieHinkle I hope to write it up within the next two weeks.

    @jeremycherfas Oh! I had never thought of that before. I keep everything in iCloud photos, and never thought about how it could be better. Looking forward to discovering other options.

    @vasta I do not use photos myself, but I am still in Aperture, and keeping a watchful eye out for something better that isn’t Adobe.

    @jeremycherfas I’ll have to do some digging to find out what others do. Can’t believe I’ve never even though of that before! Thanks for spurring the exploration.

    @jeremycherfas Thank you for surfacing this. I have major misgivings about Photos & iCloud for the reasons Colin outlines, but am grasping for a better solution. I wish Dropbox hadn’t discontinued Carousel.

    @schuth @vasta Don’t thank me, thank @colindevroe But yes, it is a problem going forward, for sure.

    I’ve never got over the loss of iView Media Pro.

    @schuth @schuth @vasta I’ve been looking for a solution I feel good about since I got my first digital camera, ca. 2001. Actually, before that because I scanned a lot of film, but the volume was orders of magnitude smaller. Currently I’m using a cobbled together combination of Lightroom, Photo Mechanic, and some Python scripts, which works ok but feels fragile and requires more maintenance than I’d like. (Fragile not in the sense that I can lose photos — job #1 is making sure that doesn’t happen, and I feel confident about that. But in the sense that the whole filing/syncing/searching process could break with any update, requiring me to do a bunch of work to ingest new photos or find existing ones.)

    @schuth I’m in the process of exporting my Photos library as original files to folders on an external drive. I’ll do that regularly. Those files will back up to Backblaze.

    @jeremycherfas I can recommend Capture One from Phase One. I loved Aperture, tried Lightroom, but wasn’t happy with where Adding ve was heading. Tried Capture One and so far enjoying it. For me, it sits in between Aperture and Lightroom, perhaps closer to Aperture on the likability scale. It has a non-subscription option, and comes from large enough company that I’m not worried about it’s future. It also stores most stuff in plain directory structure and sidecar files, so it’s easy to switch. They also have Aperture import tool, if I remember correctly, that will even import certain edits (it’s explained in the importer).


    Have you written up your process yet? Very interested in hearing it.

    Thanks for asking Erin. I _still_ haven’t done that. I mention it all the time in my posts. But I need to put it all in one spot. One part of it is Bulldozer. But I will be doing a more comprehensive post soon!


    Not only is the structure of the Photos library opaque, it keeps changing: Differs in Mojave, Catalina and Big Sur. Unless you are prepared to leave all the storage, display, metadata and other decisions about your photos to Apple and stay locked in, it’s sensible to look beyond. Creating a true backup isn’t hard: Photos Takeout app (Mac App Store) can export the Photos library in a folder hierarchy; with or without metadata; original unmodified or edited versions. This solves the storing and searching parts, and you can use those folders from Photos as well as other programs such as Lightbox. You do sacrifice the syncing bit, though: Linking this backup to Photos won’t do it because iCloud Photos Library doesn’t support as referenced files. Look forward to what solution you come up with.



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