Blog Post

The iPhoto Backup Dilemma

iphotoRecently, David tee’d up a great article about migrating from Aperture to iPhoto. And iPhoto (s aapl) is a great photo management application — it’s easy to use and extremely powerful. But the problem (for me at least) comes when trying to archive photos. I try to keep about 16 months worth of photos at any given time, but unfortunately because iPhoto stores everything in a tidy library file (rather than several individual ones), it doesn’t support this sort of backup.

So what happens when you want to incrementally back-up your iPhoto photographs? Although problems ensue, there are some ways to work around them.

The Problem

On one hand, it’s ideal to have a single mega iPhoto library where everything is stored. The downside of course, is that it quickly grows out of control — I get that. So I’ve taken to naming my iPhoto library files ‘monthyear-monthyear.’ (That way I can go back to that range of time and see how much hair I had. Ah, those were the days!) The problem arises if and when you want to only backup a portion of the current iPhoto library, and retain the rest locally. I’ve used a couple solutions, none of which are anywhere near as user friendly as everything else in iPhoto.

Some Sorta Solutions

One way to manage this scenario, is to select all the photos to backup from your current iPhoto library, and drag them to a temporary folder (say, on your Desktop). Now open the backup iPhoto library and drag all of those photos over to their new backup home. The first, and most obvious, issue is that this is a manual task. (I attempted an Automator workflow, but selecting images by time frame didn’t work.) Regular backup programs do everything on their own, so why would I want to do this by hand? The other issue is that the metadata, like facial recognition, has not always transferred accurately (for me at least).

You could opt to view the package contents of the iPhoto library file (right click the library for this option), and do a stare and compare, again, manually dragging all folders and files from the local library to the backup library. This is both more robust in transferring metadata accurately, and more time consuming. The downside is that you’re messing with some important data structures, and could potentially hose your backup (or local) library if you miss something.

I suppose the most obvious is just to get over my own desires to carry a rolling 16 month libray of photos. If I can get past this, then I could just backup the library each calendar year, and start from scratch each time. My issue with this is then I have no immediate access to my photos from even a few weeks ago, depending on the timing of that transition. So now all those images are unavailable to load to my iPhone, and show off at the drop of a hat. Bummer.

A Disappointing Verdict

There doesn’t seem to be an ideal solution to this dilemma. Worse yet, as you try to view older iPhoto libraries (assuming you keep up to date with the latest iLife updates) you then have to go through upgrading them prior to viewing. It would be great to see iPhoto given the ability to backup to a Vault type solution as Aperture boasts — but perhaps that’s just one of the ‘Pro’ features you’re paying for (unlike Faces and Places).

I’m hopeful that some of our sly readers have some great solutions to share that may solve this annoying problem. If you fit this description, please share!

28 Responses to “The iPhoto Backup Dilemma”

  1. Since i store music is 2-3 year incremental libraries, the current library is stored on Jungle disk.

    Of couse i backup each library to DVD and store in a FIREPROOF SAFE. I also keep a copy of the DVD’s offsite at work.

    Since only the current biyearly library is modified, i only need to worry about backing that up regularly.

    The moral of the story, its easiers to break up libraries to make them more managable. Also iPhoto works faster.

    I also should add i use iPhoto Library Manager to jump to the various libraries when needed. A cinch..

  2. I hope Apple creates a “home share” like they did for iTunes Music. That would solve part of the problem of multiple macs…

    For backup/archive, etc., I do what several here do. I have an iphoto library for each year. On an iMac at home, I also keep a “master library” of everything as this allows me to have photo “playlists” across different devices (ipod, iphone, appletv), and to use smart albums that can show me stuff across the years.

    I do not offsite backup the master album due to the size (100 GB) but do offsite backup each yearly library (using jungledisk).

    I run time machine to a NAS box.

    It’s a lot of work, but then again, you can’t replace the photos if they are lost.

  3. Justin NOel

    The real problem with this single package approach is multi-user / multi-computer functionality. Basically, it’s gone.

    I don’t have / nor want Time Machine. I like to keep all my important documents on DropBox. This automatically keeps all my computers in sync and stores a copy in the cloud. I wanted to do the same with iPhoto. Unfortunately, my ISP would kill me if I started shoving around 39GB files every time I touch a photo.

    Now, I’m stuck. I can only have iPhoto on one Mac – the home machine. When I’m on vacation, I can’t access it on my laptop unless I go through the ludicrous process of putting it on an external drive and lugging it along or transferring it temporarily to my laptop. What a pain.

    As for all the “just use Time Machine” solutions…. Unless your time machine is offsite, you risk kissing all your precious family photos goodbye in case of theft or fire.

  4. HELP!!!!!

    We traded our G4 Powerbook with another person for a semi newer iMac. Our powerbook had Leopard and so we used Time Machine with our external HD to back up our computer before we did the trade. After trading and cleaning out the HD on the imac and installing Tiger 10.4 and iLife 08 we tried to pull all of our pictures and music off of our external HD from our old powerbook. I thought it’d go smoothly but it didn’t. Apparently, I’m not able to access our iPhoto off of the external HD (it just says how big the file is and when I click on it, it brings up the current iPhoto off our iMac). We were really hoping to get those old photos back but have no idea how. I was wondering if I have to get a copy of Leopard or Snow Leopard so I can get Time Machine to hopefully locate these old files? Could anyone offer some expertise?

    • You should be able to explore the time machine volume through finder.

      Goto the volume in finder.
      There should be a folder Backups.backupdb/’computername’. In here there should be a folder called Latest. In here should be the folder for you old harddrive. Navigate to where iPhoto library was. Find the library file and CTRL click the iphoto library to “show package contents”. The picutures are in these subfolders.

  5. I use Iphoto Library Manager to manage4libraries, each containing separate annual albums. A library for the 80’s will have an album for each yearfrom 1980 to1989.

    All libraries are kept on an external raid 1 hard drive array. That way all photos and associated data is automatically saved in duplicate without cluttering up my boot drive.

    Since the bulk of my photos are slides, I am still scanning them into iPhoto,I’m about half done, nad my libraries now hold over 150GB of photos and data, all automatically backed up at the time of scanning.

  6. One great advantage of the iPhoto library file is that the end user cannot simply go in and start mucking around with file names and locations. Previous to iLife ’08, users could go to ~/Pictures and open the folder called iPhoto Library and then proceed to change names, delete folders, rearrange the locations of photos etc. Then, when they opened iPhoto, they see that all of the changes that they made have resulted in a damaged iPhoto Library, and that their photos are missing. In the worst cases, it would sometimes corrupt a l lot of the photos. This is something that I fixed a lot at the Apple Store while working as a Mac Genius at Willow Bend. The only solution was to go back to the iPhoto Library folder and fish out each and every photo and put them into a folder on the desktop, then delete the original iPhoto Library folder and reimport all of the recovered photos. This would result in creating a new, fresh iPhoto Library folder along with all of its data base files that mapped out the proper attributes of each photo. When iLife ’08 released, Apple solved this problem by packaging everything into an iPhoto Library file. You can still access it and get in side, but most end users won’t notice that so it forces them to make their changes inside of iPhoto instead of being adventurous with the iPhoto Library. For “power users” this feature can be annoying, but Mac Geniuses love it :) Time Machine “sees” into this iPhoto Library file and allows for restore of individual photos instead of just the entire iPhoto Library. What still amazes me after all the years that iPhoto has been out (2002), is that a lot of people still have never noticed the little “i” icon at the bottom left of the iPhoto window, that when pressed, allows them to rename the photo, add a rating, keywords, etc. Had they noticed this feature, the wouldn’t have thought that they needed to go into the iPhoto Library folder anyway.

  7. Many backup programs allow one to define a backup set of folders and documents.

    When defining your backup set, right-click the iPhone/Aperture library file, choose show contents, and then you have the guts of your photos.

    Drag and drop what you wish to backup to define your backup set or however it works with your backup program.

    • Howard Brazee

      I bought Chronosync to incrementally synchronize my wife’s iPhoto library with mine (Mine has a Time Machine disk). At first it appeared to work, but then I was missing stuff – I ran it by hand, and found it asking me what to do. I’m hoping to get it reliable in the future, but don’t know.

  8. I think many of the commenters are actually missing the point (of course, maybe *I’m* missing the point). This doesn’t seem to be about backing up, but about *archiving*. I understand, my iPhoto library recently broke the 10gb mark, which isn’t making my MBP’s 100gb hard drive (20gb of which is Windows) very happy.

    I’ve been using iPhoto Library Manager and smart folders to push older images out of my main library and onto archive libraries on my home server (which is backed up with Time Machine, for those of you still on the backup concept). I played around with iPhoto Buddy, which does beat iPLM on price (it’s free), but iPLM is generally more powerful and better suited to this kind of task. If you’re willing to pay for it.

    Although it’s not the fastest, I can open the archive libraries from my server with no issue.

  9. guy smiley

    Uh, use Time Machine, dude. iPhoto libraries are bundles, which are collections of files. Time Machine will back up your library incrementally, automatically, and even allow you to go back and pick out individual photos from different points in the past from within iPhoto.

    Your problems got solved two years ago, basically, and moreso.

  10. Adam Jackson

    My iPhoto Library is almost 100 Gigabytes. I’d love to buy a 128GB SSD (which is all I need) but that iPhoto Library puts me into the 256GB SSD Range (tripling the price of entry)

    But I like having at least the past year of photos with me so when i travel I can show them to friends and family.

    I’ve thought about getting a 256GB USB bus-powered HDD but when that might fail so IDK i’m just worried that for some extra space on my internal HDD I might risk losing the photos one day. It’s a complicated issue.

    iTunes runs fine on an external drive but iPhoto ores not.

  11. You are kidding, right?

    Step 1. Back up the entire library
    Step 2. Delete everything prior to your date of interest, *with iPhoto*.

    Rinse, repeat as often or as rarely as you like.

    No need to screw around inside the package files, or mess around with moving individual files.

  12. Whatever

    I just create an album with the photos from the time range I want then export/burn to DVD – then I delete them from my library.. Works well for me…

  13. Attila

    I use iPhoto Buddy with several iPhoto libraries and don’t have to use Option (what I would forget). It’s a free and nice tool, absolutely recommended.

  14. Yes I find this a real pain, especially as we have Linux, apple & windows pcs in our household. I keep all the photos on a nas (synology – brilliant device that shares them out to friends and family by built in website), this is automatically backed up to amazons s3 service nightly, so I have a backup even if the house burns down. I then import just as links (don’t copy to iphoto library). The only problem is that if you try to rotate a photo in iphoto it can DELETE it, (First time I had to resort to that s3 backup to retrieve it, so I now do all my rotations on my pc as when I tried to raise this on apples support forums I got told that to use this import option is unreliable!

  15. Just set up Timemachine, which will dive into the library and make incremential backups. THough on the other hand. Timemachine isn’t the most reliable thing for pro users.

    Or, backup the library seperately, say, once a month in its whole and keep the last 3 or so months for going back.

  16. Like ks said above, how bout making multiple iPhoto libraries? You can create a new iPhoto library by holding the option key while opening iPhoto.

  17. R.J. Gilmour

    This has been an ongoing problem with me for iPhoto. In the past I was able to copy the whole iPhoto directory onto a backup drive in order to have a backup copy but recently this no longer works. Everytime I try to do it I get an error message and would love to know an easy and quick way to ensure a safe backup.

  18. for starters, to have the easiest backup solution, you have to uncheck the option in iPhoto to add to the iPhoto’s Library, which is contrary to what you would think.

    what i do with lightroom 2 is have a Master catalog in a master catalog folder on an external and a master images folder on that same HD. then, i create separate catalogs for specific projects. the Key to this is keeping folder structure identical in regards to catalogs and images. then update the images, project catalogs and the Master catalog all at the same time.

    i was recently working with a client and they used iPhoto. what i did for them is copy their master catalog to their external HD, remove the iPhoto Library on their local drive and start up iPhoto. it asks which library to open or if you want to create a new one.
    i think this would work in the same way that Lightroom works and i know you can have Aperture work the same way as well.

    hope that made sense, heh ^_^

  19. I use jungle disk to backup my librarys.

    I have libraries called pre2004, 2004-2007, and 2007-2010.

    Basically 3 year increments.

    It makes incremental backups and only backs up new photos.

    I wish .mac backup would backup to dvd different iphoto libraries, but it only seems to find iphoto libraries in your home folder, and mine is on an external drive.

    Seems to work. What do you think?

  20. I agree-

    The iPhoto, Aperture and even Lightroom solutions are failures because they keep all pictures within a library or container. Although this makes for speedier searches and display of your photo information, it is less than ideal for both backup and using the information over multiple computers.

    My largest issue is that I primarily do everything on laptop, and wish to keep all of my pictures in a repository, like on a computer at home, which has a large enough hard drive to hold all of the pictures. But even connecting to the home computer from my laptop to edit photos is a pain, and I still want to reference photo thumbnails in the field with my laptop. Not sure why Apple does not address the large amount of photos in our databases with some new way of going about this process.