Use Photos for OS X With Multiple Photo Libraries

Overhead view of photo editing equipment; graphic tablet, digital tablet, retro camera, smartphone and desktop computer
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Photos for OS X, introduced with OS X Yosemite 10.10.3 as a replacement for iPhoto, provides quite a few improvements, including a much faster process for working with and displaying image libraries. Just like iPhoto, Photos has the ability to work with multiple image libraries, although only one at a time.

Use Photos for OS X With Multiple Photo Libraries

Snow covered bridge in Vermont in Photos

With iPhoto, we often recommended breaking image libraries into multiple iPhoto Libraries, and only loading the library with which you intended to work. This was especially true if you had large photo libraries, which tend to bog down iPhoto and make it run slower than molasses.

Photos for OS X doesn’t suffer from this same problem; it can breeze through a large photo library with ease. But there are other reasons you may want to maintain multiple libraries with Photos, particularly if you plan to use Photos with the iCloud Photo Library.

If you select the iCloud Photo Library, Photos will upload your image library to iCloud, where you can keep multiple devices (Mac, iPhone, iPad) synced with your image library. You can also use the iCloud Photo Library to work on an image across multiple platforms. For example, you could capture images of your vacation with your iPhone, store them in the iCloud Photo Library, and edit them on your Mac. You might then sit down with family or friends, and use your iPad to treat them to a slideshow of your vacation. You can do all of this without having to import, export, or copy your vacation images from device to device. Instead, they're all stored in the cloud, ready for you to access at any time.

Sounds pretty good, until you get to the cost. Apple only offers 5 GB of free storage with iCloud; the iCloud Photo Library can quickly eat up every bit of that space. Even worse, Photos for OS X will upload all of the images from the Photos library to iCloud. If you have a big image library, you may end up with an equally big storage bill.

That’s why having multiple image libraries, as you did for iPhoto, may be a good idea. But this time, the reason for breaking up your image libraries is storage cost, not speed.

Create a New System Photo Library in Photos for OS X

Photos Choose Library dialog box
Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

You can use multiple photo libraries with Photos, but only one can be designated the System Photo Library.

The System Photo Library

What’s so special about the System Photo Library? It's the only image library that can be used with iCloud photo services, including the iCloud Photo Library, iCloud Photo Sharing, and My Photo Stream.

If you wish to keep iCloud storage costs to a minimum, or better yet, free, you can use two Photos libraries, one with your large collection of images, and a second, smaller library that will only be used for sharing images via iCloud's photo services.

There can be only one System Photo Library, and you can designate any of your Photos libraries to be the System Photo Library.

With that in mind, here are instructions for using a two-image-library system with Photos for OS X.

Create a New Photos Library

You probably already have Photos for OS X set up with a single image library because you allowed it to update your existing iPhoto library. Adding a second library only requires an extra keystroke when you start Photos.

  1. Hold down the option key on your Mac's keyboard, and then launch Photos.
  2. Once the Choose Library dialog box opens, you can release the option key.
  3. Click the Create New button at the bottom of the dialog box.
  4. In the sheet that drops down, enter a name for the new image library. In this example, the new image library will be used with iCloud photo services. We're going to use iCloudPhotosLibrary as the name and store it in the Pictures folder. Once you've entered a name and selected a location, click OK.
  5. Photos will open with its default Welcome screen. Since this currently empty library will be used for images that are shared via iCloud photo services, we need to turn on the iCloud option in Photos' preferences.
  6. Select Preferences from the Photos menu.
  7. Select the General tab in the preference window.
  8. Click the Use as System Photo Library button.
  9. Select the iCloud tab.
  10. Place a checkmark in the iCloud Photo Library box.
  11. Make sure the option to Download Originals to This Mac is selected. This will allow you to work with all of your images, even if you're not connected to the iCloud service.
  12. Placing a checkmark in the My Photo Stream box will import photos from the older Photo Stream syncing service.

How to Export Images From Photos for OS X

Export option in Photos
Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

Now that you have a specific Photo Library for iCloud sharing, you need to populate the library with some images. There are several ways to do this, including uploading images to your iCloud web account using a browser, but most of us will probably export images from another Photos library into the Photos Library for iCloud we just created.

Export Images From a Photos Library

  1. Quit Photos, if it is running.
  2. Launch Photos while holding down the option key.
  3. When the Choose Library dialog box opens, select the desired library to export images from; the original library is named Photos Library; you may have given your Photos library a different name.
  4. Select one or more images to export.
  5. From the File menu, select Export.
  6. At this point you have a choice to make; you can either export the selected images as they currently appear, that is, with any edits you've performed on them, such as changing white balance, cropping, or adjusting brightness or contrast; you get the idea. Or, you can choose to export the unmodified originals, which are the images as they appeared when you first added them to Photos. Either choice can make sense. Just remember that whichever selection you make for your exported images, they will become the new masters, and the basis for any edits you perform when you import the images into another library.
  7. Make your selection, either Export (number) Photos or Export unmodified originals.
  8. If you chose to Export (number) Photos, you can select the image file type (JPEG, TIFF, or PNG). You can also choose to include a title, keywords, and a description, as well as any location information contained in the image's metadata.
  9. Both export choices allow you to select the file naming convention to use.
  10. You can choose the current title, the current file name, or sequential, which allows you to select a file prefix, and then add a sequential number to each image.
  11. Since we intend to just move these images to another Photos library, use the File Name or Title option. If an image has no title, the file name will be used in its place.
  12. Make your selection for the export formats.
  13. You will now see a standard Save dialog box, where you can select a location for saving the exported images. If you're only exporting a handful of images, you can just select a convenient location, such as the desktop. But if you're exporting a number of pictures, say 15 or more, create a new folder to hold the exported images. To do this, in the Save dialog box, navigate to the location where you wish to create a new folder; once again the desktop is a good choice. Click the New Folder button, give the folder a name, and click the Create button. Once the location is ready, click the Export button.

Your photos will be saved as individual files in the selected location.

Import Images Into Photos for OS X Using This Simple Process

Photos Import Option
Screen shot courtesy Coyote Moon, Inc.

Now that we have a group of images exported from our original library, we can move them to the special Photos library we created for sharing them via iCloud. Remember, we're using two image libraries to keep the cost of iCloud storage down. We have one library where we store images we want to share via iCloud, and one library for images stored only on our Macs.

Import Images to the iCloudPhotosLibrary

  1. Quit Photos, if it is open.
  2. While holding down the option key, launch Photos.
  3. Once the Choose Library dialog box opens, you can release the option key.
  4. Select the iCloudPhotosLibrary library that we created. Also, note that the iCloudPhotosLibrary has (System Photo Library) appended to its name, so you'll see it displayed as iCloudPhotosLibrary (System Photo Library).
  5. Click the Choose Library button.
  6. Once Photos opens, select Import from the File menu.
  7. A standard Open dialog box will display.
  8. Navigate to where the images you exported.
  9. Select all the exported images (you can use the shift key to select multiple images), and then click the Review for Import button.
  10. The images will be added to Photos and placed in a temporary Import folder for you to review. You can select individual images to import or import the entire group. If you selected individual images, click the Import Selected button; otherwise, click the Import All New Photos button.

The new photos will be added to your iCloudPhotosLibrary. They will also be uploaded to the iCloud Photo Library, where you can access them from the iCloud website, or from your other Apple devices.

Managing the two Photos libraries is just a matter of getting used to using the option key when you launch Photos. This little keyboard trick lets you select the Photos library you wish to use. Photos will always use the same Photo library you chose the last time you launched the app; if you remember which library it was, and you want to use that library again, you can launch Photos normally. Otherwise, hold down the option key when you launch Photos.