How to Back Up Your Photos or iPhoto Library

Photos app on mac

Backing up and archiving your Photos or iPhoto Library, and all the images it holds can be one of the most critical tasks you need to regularly perform.

Digital photos are among the most important and meaningful files you keep on your computer, and as with any important files, you should maintain current backups of them. If you've imported some or all of your photos into either the Photos app (OS X Yosemite and later) or the iPhoto app (OS X Yosemite and earlier), then you should be backing up your Photos or iPhoto Library on a regular basis.

Image libraries are so important that we recommend maintaining multiple backups, using different backup methods, just to ensure you never lose really important memories.

Time Machine

If you use Apple's Time Machine, then the libraries used by Photos and iPhoto are automatically backed up as part of every Time Machine backup that is performed. While that's a good starting point, you may want to consider additional backups, and here’s why.

Why You Need Additional Image Library Backups

Time Machine does a great job of backing up photos, but it's not archival. By design, Time Machine favors removing the oldest files it contains to make room for newer ones. This isn't a concern for the normal use of Time Machine as a backup system, something used to restore your Mac to its present condition should something bad happen.

But it is a concern if you want to keep long-term copies of items, such as your photos. Modern photography has done away with the old-fashioned film negative or slide, which served as very good methods of archival storage of images. With digital cameras, the original is stored on the camera's flash storage device. Once the images are downloaded to your Mac, the flash storage device is more than likely erased to make room for a new batch of photos.

See the problem? The originals are on your Mac and nowhere else.

Assuming you use Photos or iPhoto as your image library app, then the library may hold every photo you've ever taken with a digital camera.

If you’re an avid photographer, your image library has the potential to be bursting at the seams with images you've taken over the years. More than likely, you've gone through your Photos or iPhoto Library a few times, and deleted images you decided you no longer needed.

This is where it's important to remember that you could very well be deleting the only version of an image that you have. After all, the original that was on the camera’s flash storage device is long gone, which means the image in your library may be the only one that exists.

We're not saying don’t delete images you no longer want, but we're just suggesting that your image library should probably have its own dedicated backup method. In addition to Time Machine, to ensure that one-of-a-kind photos are retained for the long term.

Back Up Your Photos or iPhoto Library Manually

You can manually back up the image libraries used by Photos or iPhoto to an external drive, including a USB flash drive, or you can use a backup application to perform the task for you. We'll start with manually making a copy.

The Photos or iPhoto Library is located at:

  1. You can also just open a Finder window and select Pictures from the sidebar.

  2. Inside the Pictures folder, you'll see a file called either Photos Library or iPhoto Library (you may have both if you're using both apps). Copy the Photos Library or iPhoto Library file to a location other than your hard drive, such as an external drive.

  3. Repeat this process whenever you import new photos into Photos or iPhoto, so you'll always have a current backup of each library. Do not, however, overwrite (replace) any existing backup as this would defeat the archival process. Instead, you will need to give each backup a unique name.

If you've created multiple iPhoto libraries, be sure to back up each iPhoto Library file.

What About Images Not Stored in the Photos Library?

Backing up the Photos Library isn't much different than the method used for the iPhoto Library, but there are a couple of extra considerations. First, just as with the iPhoto or Aperture app, Photos supports multiple libraries. If you've created additional libraries, they need to be backed up, just like the default Photos Library.

Additionally, Photos allows you to store images outside of the Photos Library; this is referred to as using reference files. Reference files are usually used to allow you to access images that you don’t wish to take up space on your Mac. In many cases, reference image files are stored on an external drive, a USB flash drive, or another device.

Reference files are convenient, but they present a problem when you back up. Since the reference images aren't stored within the Photos Library, they're not backed up when you copy the Photos Library. That means you need to remember where any reference files are located and make sure they're backed up as well.

If you would rather not have to deal with reference image files and would prefer to move them into your Photos Library, you can do so:

  1. Launch Photos, located in the /Applications folder.

  2. Select the photos that you wish to move to the Photos Library.

  3. Select File > Consolidate and then click the Copy button.

If you can’t remember which images are referenced, and which are already stored in the Photos Library, you can choose some or all of the images, and then select Consolidate from the File menu.

Once you have all the reference files consolidated to your Photos Library, you can use the same manual backup process as outlined in steps 1 through 4, above, for backing up your iPhoto Library. Just remember, the library is named Photos Library and not iPhoto Library.

Back Up Your Image Library With a Backup App

Another method for backing up those precious photos is to use a third-party backup app that can handle archives. Now, the word "archive" has different meanings depending on how it is used. In this case, we specifically mean the ability to maintain files on the destination drive that no longer appear on the source drive. This happens when you back up your Photos or iPhoto Library and then, before the next backup, delete a few images. The next time the backup is run, you want to ensure that the images you deleted from the library aren't also removed from the existing backup.

There are a number of backup apps that can handle this scenario, including Carbon Copy Cloner 4.x or later. Carbon Copy Cloner has an archive option that will protect files and folders that are exclusively located on the backup destination drive.

Add the archive feature to the ability to schedule backups, and you have a decent backup system that will protect all of your image libraries, including those used by Photos or iPhoto.