iCloud Photos on external AND internal drives

I thought I’d share my solution to a photo management issue that I have been struggling with for a long time. Maybe this is a well known solution or maybe no one else has this problem but I have not found this solution anywhere online despite much googling for answers. Perhaps this post can help someone.

For a long time I have been searching for a way to physically backuo my iCloud Photo Library. My MacBook has a 256GB SSD which is not large enough to hold my entire library using the “download originals” setting. A common workaround is to simply drag the photo library to an larger external drive, however, I want to retain the ability to view my photo library on the “optimize storage” setting when my MacBook is not connected to the external drive (traveling, etc…).

Although you can create multiple photo libraries, iCloud Photo Library will only sync to one — the one set as your “system library”. Thus, you cannot create one external library set to “download originals” AND one internal library set to “optimize storage”. ICloud will only sync to one “system library”

You CAN have your cake (optimized internal library) and eat it too (physical backuo of all photos). The solution is user accounts — each user account gets its “system library”. So I created a second user account on my Mac, signed into my same iCloud account (I only turned on iCloud photos, not iCloud Drive or anything else) and created a new photos “system library” for that user. I then dragged that library to an external drive and set it to “download originals”.

Now, every Friday night I sign in to my alternative user account, connect my external drive and open the photos app. iCloud Photo Library then downloads all my new photos to the library on the external drive. The rest of the week I simply use the storage optimized version of iCloud Photo Library from my normal user account and keep the external drive somewhere safe as a backup. I hope this helps someone like me who has been trying to figure out a good solution for years.


TuneSpan might help. (Old review.)


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This may be a better piece of software. It is Power Photos from Fatcat Software. Here is the link https://www.fatcatsoftware.com/powerphotos/

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This is super interesting. Why not have your main iCloud photo library on your Mac and then a separate one of archived stuff that’s not needed all the time. Maybe I’m misguided on it’s intended usage. Personally I use iCloud Photo Library but also use Google Photos which allows me to pull stuff up quite easily. I wish that Apple would allow for greater solutions for people managing their photos, especially users with larger libraries.

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Thanks for the suggestions! One issue, however, would be that any photos in a separate “archive” library would not be synced to iCloud and not available on my iOS devices. Finding photos would also mean searching two separate libraries. Just using Google Photos when away from my external drive is a great solution, although, any changes or edits I make would not be synced to my main library, I would have to update my iCloud library by hand when I got back to it. My goal really is to maintain a single library with, as you say, more flexible storage solutions.

@Barry @bowline thanks for the suggestions! Is there a specific PowerPhotos feature that I should look at or is it just good a option for moving photos around? TuneSpan is any interesting idea, however, I think that any photos moved out of the library proper would be removed from iCloud and not available anywhere but the external.

It would be great if Apple would let you point a thumbnail at an external referenced file when available and at an iCloud image otherwise — or something like that.

As far as I know, TuneSpan is a program that lets you split up your iTunes files across multiple hard drives. I don’t think it was designed to work with photos and the metadata that goes with them. Disclaimer, I have never used TuneSpan.

PowerPhotos was designed to work with photos and more importantly it works with Apple Photos to keep all the metadata and any naming you give your photos in sync. I have read about PowerPhotos and the developer is responsive to customers and so far has kept the software up to date.

Now my BIG concern about splitting up any of your personal data (music, photos, documents) across external storage devices is to keep ALL the data BACKED UP. Keeping track of external storage devices can be a hassle. The right way to do this is to have multiple storage devices and rotate them so that one COMPLETE copy is offsite so all isn’t lost in the event of a flood, fire, etc.

Apple has an excellent solution with its iCloud services. Speaking for myself the $2.99 I pay a month for 200G to have my data online and available is dirt cheap insurance. I also use Time Machine, Carbon Copy Cloner, and BackBlaze.

Since this is the MPU forum there my be professional photographers that have terra bytes of photos and may need to look into using NAS solutions for home use or pay for a offsite cloud service.

Finding a solution for keeping up with personal data is an ever expanding issue and will consume time and money.

Thanks for the clarifications, Barry. I consider iCloud the “primary” location for my photos and this external download of my iCloud Photo Library a backuo. My external drives are also always paired in RAID 1 in case a drive dies. I don’t currently have a good offsite backuo solution (though my iCloud phots are technically offsite) but am considering BackBlaze.

Hi @Seanndaly, thanks for the post! I’ve been wondering how to best solve this problem for a long time. How long have you been using your solution of a different user on the computer? Any problems so far? Thanks!

You’re welcome @Viv ! It’s been about six months. So far the only problem I have run into is that Mojave added a requirement that your Photo Library be on an APFS formatted drive so I had to reformat and let my photos redownload. Since I was already reformatting I took the opportunity to switch to an external SSD as the external spinning drive I was using could be pretty slow to open the photo library. Samsung T5 SSD has been great so far.

Thank you for the reply!

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