How to Back Up Your Photos or iPhoto Library

Don't take a chance with the irreplaceable images on your Mac

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

Digital photos are among the most meaningful files you keep on your computer, and as with any critically 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 regularly.

Image libraries are so important that multiple backups using different backup methods are needed to ensure you never lose your valuable memories.

Illustration of a person using their iMac to manage their photos
Lifewire / Derek Abella

Information in this article applies to Macs running macOS Catalina (10.15), macOS Mojave (10.14), macOS High Sierra (10.13), macOS Sierra (10.12), and OS X Leopard (10.05) through OS X El Capitan (10.11).

ICloud Photo Library

If you use the iCloud Photo Library service, all the images in your Photos or iPhoto Library are stored in iCloud, and any new photos you take with an iOS device are added to it and are accessible on all your devices that have iCloud Photos enabled. Despite this, the images and videos in your iCloud Photo Library should be backed up just like any drive. 

The best way to back up your iCloud Photo Library is to download all its content to your Mac. Your entire digital library is probably huge, so you may need a Mac with a massive drive to handle the volume. Otherwise, back up your iCloud Photo Library to an external drive attached to your Mac. 

How to Back Up iCloud Photo Library to a Mac

  1. Open the Photos app on your Mac by clicking its icon in the Dock.

    The Photos app icon in the Mac Dock
  2. Click Photos in the menu bar and select Preferences from the drop-down menu.

    Path to Photos Preferences on a Mac
  3. Choose the iCloud tab in the preferences screen.

    The Photos general preferences on a Mac
  4. Check the box in front of iCloud Photos.

    The iCloud photos preferences on a Mac
  5. Click the radio button next to Download Originals to this Mac to store your photos on your Mac as well as in iCloud. If you receive a message that you don't have enough room on your Mac for all your photos, click the radio button in front of Optimize Mac Storage to download lower-resolution images to your computer. You can opt to download full-resolution images from iCloud whenever you need them.

    Download originals to this Mac.

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 occurs. 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 used to restore your Mac to its present condition should something catastrophic happen.

However, it is a concern if you want to keep long-term copies of items, such as your photos. With digital cameras and smartphones, the original is stored on the camera's flash storage or mobile device. Once the images are transferred to your Mac, the flash storage device is erased to make room for a new batch of photos, and you may not keep every image on your mobile device.

The originals end up on your Mac and nowhere else.

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

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. Here's how to make a copy manually.

  1. Open a Finder window, select your home directory in the sidebar and choose Pictures.

    Finder window on Mac showing path to Pictures folder
  2. Inside the Pictures folder, you'll see a file called either Photos Library or iPhoto Library. You may have both. Copy the Photos Library or iPhoto Library file or files to a location other than your hard drive, such as an external drive.

    Selection of iPhoto Library and Photos Library
  3. Repeat this process whenever you import new photos into Photos or iPhoto, so you always have a current backup of each library. Do not, however, overwrite any existing backup as this would defeat the archival process. Instead, 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?

Photos supports multiple libraries. If you 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 want 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 in 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, you can move them into your Photos Library.

  1. Launch Photos located in the Applications folder or from the Dock.

    The Photos app icon in the Mac Dock
  2. Select the photos that you want to move to the Photos Library by clicking on each one.

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

    Selecting Consolidate.

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.

After you have all the reference files consolidated to your Photos Library, they are backed up whenever you back up your Photos Library.

Back Up Your Image Library With a Backup App

Another method for backing up your precious images is to use a third-party backup app that can handle archives. The word archive has different meanings depending on how it is used. In this case, it specifically refers to the ability to retain 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 runs, you want to be confident that the images you deleted from the library aren't also removed from the existing backup.

Several backup apps can handle this scenario, including Carbon Copy Cloner 4.x or later. Carbon Copy Cloner has an archive option that protects 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 protects all your image libraries.

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