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Move photos library Mac to external hard drive

Just as photo taking has changed a lot in recent years, managing our photo collection has become a completely different field. We used to have a photo album where we kept our analogue shots, nowadays we easily capture almost everything. We have gone from a maximum of a hundred photos a year to sometimes more than a hundred photos a week.

You guessed it, below we’ll tell you all about moving your Photos library to an external drive. Every week these kinds of tips in your mailbox? Sign up now for our free newsletter!

With such a massive, fast-growing collection, a photo album is no longer enough. The Photos program offers a solution. This makes your photo collection clear. The only one that is less able to cope with an ever-expanding photo library is your Mac. A 200 gigabyte photo collection on a MacBook Air with (only) 128 gigabytes of storage space? That is not going to be him.

Photos on your internal storage, or your photo library on an external hard drive? It makes no difference to the program. Even if you work with iCloud Photo Library, Photos can work with an external drive! We’ll show you how. You have two options. The first is for when you’re not using iCloud Photos. If you do use Apple’s cloud service to store and sync Photos, go to option 2.

Before you start: make a backup!

You put your Photos library on an external drive with the ultimate goal of making space on your Mac. This means that you are going to throw away your original library. Do not do this until you are sure that the new library is complete and working. In any case, it never hurts to have all your photos still somewhere on a backup disk, be it via Time Machine or old-fashioned in folders. We will not throw away the library before we have it completely on the external drive. So you can also go through the steps to make a backup.

Option 1: Photos library (without iCloud) to external drive

Not using iCloud Photos? Then transferring your photo collection is a piece of cake. All you need is an external hard drive formatted to the “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” file format. We will not bother you with the technical details of this. Basically, Photos needs this file structure to work properly. We will explain in a few steps how to check this and then transfer your Photos library to an external hard drive.

1. Open Disk Utility

Connect the drive to your Mac and open the Disk Utility program. Select the external drive on the left and you will immediately see what structure it has. In our case, it is already on Mac OS Extended (journaled).

2. Format

If this is not the case for you, click the “Delete” button at the top of the window. Behind Structure choose “Mac OS Extended (journaled)” and click the Delete button. Note: Anything left on the disk will be erased.

3. Copy library

Then in Finder you go to the user folder and Pictures. Here you will find your Photos library. Also open the external drive in a Finder window and drag the library here.

4. Open library

After copying – this can take a while – double click on the library that is on the external drive. And voilà! Your photo collection will now be accessed from the external drive. If you don’t need Photos, you can safely remove and store the drive via Finder.

Option 2: Move your iCloud Photo Library to an external hard drive

If you use iCloud Photo Library, you are no doubt familiar with the handy storage optimization option. Photos cleverly replaces part of your collection with lower-resolution snaps, so you always have storage space. The full-size photos are then safely stored in the cloud.

Call us paranoid, but we still like having the original photos available on at least one device. Just old-fashioned offline. And you can do that by putting the iCloud Photo Library on an external hard drive.

This process is slightly more cumbersome than that of a Photos library without iCloud. iCloud Photos works with only one library, which is called the system library. If you move all of your photos as discussed above and set that library as a system library, your entire photo collection will be re-uploaded. Photos often realize that these snapshots are already in the cloud, but it can take days.

It is faster to create a whole new library and link it to iCloud. Then all your photos and videos will be restored from the cloud. To begin with, it is important that your entire photo collection is actually in iCloud. You can check this by scrolling all the way down in Photos. It says “Just updated” or “Last updated: […]Then you close Photos and get started with this workshop.

1. The correct file structure

Similar to a library without iCloud, open Disk Utility to see if the disk is in Mac OS Extended (Journaled). If not, go to “Delete”, choose this file format and click “Delete”.

2. Open Photos “Alt” alternative

Now open Photos, but hold down the Alt or Option key before the program appears. A window will appear where you can choose a library. Click on “Create New”.

3. Create library

In the Finder window that appears, select the external drive. If necessary, remove the number after “Photos library 2” – or choose a completely different name – and click “OK” to create the library.

4. System library

The new and currently empty library will be opened directly in Photos. First we name it system library. Go to “Photos> Preferences” and click “Use as System Library”.

5. Activate iCloud

Then go to the iCloud tab and activate iCloud Photos. Also make sure the option “Download originals to this Mac” is checked. This will download all source files to the external storage.

6. Be patient

Photos is busy downloading and updating your photo collection. Feel free to browse the rest of the internet as this process can take up to 24 hours. We’ll see you tomorrow.

7. Welcome back!

Your library is complete as “Just updated” or “Last updated” at the bottom of the Moments view: […]’ state. In principle, your old library on the Mac can now be removed. It is system library ready anyway.

8. Remove old library

Navigate to your old library in Finder. Drag it to the trash and then choose “Empty Trash”. A sea of ​​storage space opens right on your Mac.

9. Connected drive

Now your entire iCloud Photo Library is on an external hard drive. If you want, you can disconnect and store it. However, if you want to work with (your) Photos, don’t forget to reconnect the drive.

Tip: to work with multiple libraries

By creating multiple Photos libraries, you can possibly distinguish between your collection. For example, put all your snapshots taken in RAW together in a separate library. Mind you, you can only open one library at a time – and link only one to iCloud.

Issues with Photos on an external drive

Photos are slow

Photos will no longer access your entire library via the built-in storage, but from an external drive. As a result, the program may take a little longer to start up your library, load photos or make edits. We have our library running on such an old-fashioned hdd, with an actual spinning disk. We certainly notice some difference in speed. If you use a super fast SSD, without moving parts, Photos will immediately run a lot smoother.

My Photos library is not updating

This is also no stranger to us. Especially if it has been a while since we have been using Photos on the Mac – and have taken many photos with our iPhone in the meantime – it can be a bit of a puzzle to get the system library to work. We’ve always managed to fix sync issues with these tricks:

  • You can try adding an image to your Photos library, this can sometimes kickstart the sync.
  • Restart your Mac once in Safe Mode (hold Shift on startup) and all system caches will be deleted. Restart again, without pressing Shift, and open Photos. Note: your Mac may be a bit slower temporarily because all caches have to be rebuilt.
  • The last resort sounds a bit dangerous, but it is not. In Photos, go to “Settings> iCloud” and uncheck iCloud Photos and check it again. You will likely be notified that your current iCloud subscription is not sufficient because Photos thinks all of your already downloaded photos should be re-uploaded. Ignore this and choose your current subscription. Photos will automatically detect that much of your library has already been downloaded and the rest will sync.

Other problems or ask?

You may have encountered completely different problems, or you may have useful tips for using Photos on an external hard drive. Do not hesitate and leave a comment below.

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