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Mac photos library location

Where are your photos really stored on the Apple Mac's disk?

Photos does a great job of organising your digital photos and thanks to iCloud on the Mac and iPhone, you don't need to transfer them anymore. They sync, but where does Photos store them?

How do you access your photos outside of the Photos app? Mac apps can usually access the photos library without problems, but for various reasons you might want to access photos directly on the disk. One reason is to use an alternative photo editor. GIMP is a great free photo editor, but it cannot access the Photos library in the Mac way, it only has access to the disk.

Another reason is to make a copy of an image. Perhaps you want to upload some photos to a website, or incorporate them into other software. You can export a photo from the Photos app, but you might want to copy your whole photo collection to an external drive to make a backup.

You might want to access your photos with another app instead of Photos.  It can be useful to know where photos are stored and how to access them.

Related: Recover lost photos on your Mac's disk, external drives, cameras, devices

Store photographs on the Mac

Photographs could be stored on iCloud or on the Mac, so the first thing you need to do is to make sure they are on the Mac. Photos can occupy many gigabytes of disk space and if you have a lot of them, so bear this in mind.

Open the Photos app and then open Preferences. Select the iCloud tab. If you store photos in iCloud make sure to select the option to Download Originals to this Mac. This ensures that the photos are on the disk somewhere and we just have to find them.

Explore the Photos library

Open a Finder window and go to your home folder and then open the Pictures folder. You’ll see an item called Photos Library.photoslibrary. It does not look like it, but this is actually a folder on the drive. Double clicking it just opens the Photos app, so you must Ctrl+click it and select Show Package Contents.

Once that folder is open in Finder, you can then access to the photos in your Photos library. This is how it used to look in macOS Mojave, all nicely organised into separate files by year and month. You could easily find photos if you knew when they were taken. If months were missing, it just means that you didn't take any photos that month.

Then along came macOS Catalina and changed everything. For some reason this nice, easily understood file organization was abandoned and what we now have in the Photos library is this:

All the photos are stored in the originals folder in subfolders named 0 to F. These subfolders contain files with what looks like random filenames. The dates on the files do not correspond with anything, well, actually, you will probably find that a large number of photos are the date you installed Catalina. It seems that your whole photo collection was copied on that date, which means you cannot sort the photos by date to find one that was taken on a specific date.

It seems like Apple has done its best to prevent you from accessing photos directly by obscuring the names, dates and folder structure.

To be fair, you don't actually have to have access to the photos on the disk through Finder and photos can be dragged out of the Photos app and dropped on the desktop, in a folder or into a photo editor like GIMP. The Photos app is meant to be the way to access photos.

XnView MP photo browser

If you still want to access photos directly on the disk, one way to do it is using a freeware utility called XnView MP. After installing it, open System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Privacy tab > Full Disk Access and add XnView MP. This enables it to open the Photos Library.photoslibrary folder and go to originals where the photos are stored. On the right are thumbnail images of the photos.

Do not open any of the folders, instead, go to the View menu and select Show files in subfolder. You might need to leave it for five or 10 minutes the first time you do this because it scans the subfolders for photos and builds a catalog from them.

Once the catalog is built and the thumbnails appear, they can be sorted by going to the View menu and selecting Sort by > EXIF Date Taken. Give it a minute if you have thousands of photos. It is much faster the second time you use XnView MP and it has built up and sorted its catalog.

The result is all your photos shown as thumbnail images sorted by date. Select a thumbnail and the full EXIF information is shown in the bottom left corner and a larger thumbnail is in the bottom right corner.

Is it worth the effort? I am not sure. It could be a useful alternative to the Apple Photos app for some people and XnView MP has a lot of interesting features, like photo viewing, photo editing and batch conversion to other image file formats.


A Guide to Moving Your Mac Photos Library to an External Drive

The Photos app in macOS is a great place to save your memories and keep them safe. However, if you're like most users, your photo library may be an ever-expanding entity. After a while, the storage demands of your library may start to add up, causing a lack of storage on your Mac.

Professional photographers and videographers are even more prone to running into storage issues due to the size of their photo libraries.

One option to circumvent this issue is to move your Mac photo library to an external drive. We'll show you how to do that below.

First, Consider Backing Up Your Photos to iCloud Drive

Backing up your library to iCloud Drive allows you to store full-resolution versions in the cloud with lower-resolution versions saved locally to your Mac.

To enable Photos for iCloud Drive:

  1. Open up System Preferences on your Mac.
  2. Click Apple ID in the top section of the window.
  3. Select iCloud from the left-hand pane and enable Photos.

This will automatically back up all the media present in your default Photos library on your Mac. Once done, low-res photos will replace the high-res photos on your device (you can choose to download the full high-resolution photo at any time, if needed). This will automatically save some space on your Mac.

It is important to note that if you delete a photo taken on your iPhone, which is synced with iCloud, it will be deleted from the cloud as well. Thus, we recommend moving your Photos library from your Mac's internal storage to an external drive for better safeguarding.

Related: How to Access iCloud Photos

How to Choose an External Drive for Your Mac Photo Library

If you have a large photo library on your Mac, transferring the media to an external drive can save you valuable storage space. But there are some considerations you need to make to choose the best external drive to use.

What Type of Storage Should You Use?

Since accessing photos and media can be a data-intensive task, we recommend getting a fast external storage device. A USB 3.0, USB-C, or Thunderbolt hard drive may appeal, but if you intend to spend time using the Photos app editing the photos and so on, the best option would be to consider flash storage (an SSD). Check out our guides to the best external hard drives and what to consider while buying an SSD.

What External Drive Format Should You Use?

Before you begin, make sure the external drive you're going to use is formatted as Mac OS Extended (Journaled). We recommend formatting the drive before usage so that you don't encounter any issues. You can format your external drive directly from Disk Utility in macOS.

Transferring Your Mac Photos Library to An External Drive

The Photos app on macOS stores all your media in the form of a Photos "library." By default, the Photos library is present in the Pictures folder in your macOS Home folder. We'll be moving this library directly to an external drive, before telling the Photos app to load the library from the external drive by default.

Follow the steps below to do this.

Attach your external drive to your Mac, and make sure it is showing up in the Finder sidebar.

Open a new Finder window and press Cmd + Shift + H to go to your Home folder, then select Pictures. You should see the Photos Library file here.

We recommend making sure that you have enough free space for the library on the external drive. Control-click on the Photos Library file and select Get Info to check the storage size for the library.

Once verified, drag and drop the Photos Library icon onto the hard drive icon, either in Finder's sidebar or on your desktop. You can also simply copy (Cmd + C) and paste (Cmd + V) the Photos Library file onto your external hard drive. The copy may take some time depending on how large your library is.

Once finished, launch the Photos app on your Mac while holding the Option, prompting Photos to look for a new library location. Then select Other Library and navigate to the new location of your Photos Library file on the external drive. The Photos app should load the library (with all your photos) normally.

Once loaded, click on Preferences > General from the menu bar in Photos. Select Use as System Photo Library.

This step will make the Photos app use the library stored on the external drive as your System Photo Library.

Note: This also means that if you launch the Photos app without the external drive connected, the Photos app will ask you to select an alternate library to continue.

If you still wish to use iCloud Photo Library with your Mac, you'll have to re-enable it from System Preferences. Open up System Preferences on your Mac. Navigate to iCloud and enable Photos to turn iCloud back on for your Photos.

Removing the Old Library

Test the new library by disconnecting your external drive to ensure that the photos have indeed moved to it. Once reconnected, ensure that everything works correctly and all media is loading.

When you're sure all is well, you can navigate back to the Pictures folder on your Mac and move the old Photos Library file to the Trash. To immediately free up space on your internal hard disk, empty the Trash to permanently delete the old Photos library.

That's it! You've successfully moved your Photos library to an external drive, on which you can continue to view your photos and videos as usual.

Using Multiple Libraries in the Photos App

You can also choose to use multiple libraries in the Photos app. By creating multiple libraries, you can sort all your media according to type, occasion, or device and keep them in separate locations.

This is more helpful with an external drive, as you are not limited by the restrictions of your Mac's internal storage.

Here's how to create multiple libraries:

  1. To create a new library, simply hold down the Option key while launching Photos.
  2. Choose Create New.
  3. Select the location and name for your new library.

Do note that you can only use one library at a time in Photos. Whenever you want to use an alternate library, you will have to restart the app (keep Option pressed down while launching Photos) and select the library you'd like to open.

If you switch to a library other than the System Photo Library, the changes you make won't be reflected in iCloud Photos, as iCloud Photos only sync changes from your System Photo Library.

Backing Up Media Using Photos

Backing up your photos and videos using Photos on your Mac is a good idea. This can help free up storage on your portable device (such as an iPhone or iPad). Having a backup on an external drive allows you to save some much-needed storage space on your Mac, and you can even access your library on other computers if needed.

Where are photos and videos imported to Photos on Mac (macOS) located

The Photos application on Mac has a fairly large number of intricacies associated with storing and editing data. In this article, we will tell you where the Photo Library is stored, how files are located and sorted there, why changes in the files created in the application are not visible, and what nuances you need to know when working with it.

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♥ RELATED: How to resize multiple photos at once on Mac (macOS) without installing additional software.

How and where Photos on Mac stores photos and videos

Any images or videos you import into Photos are stored in the app's own Media Library. In fact, data is being copied, which is why after dragging media files into the Photos window and completing the import process, you can safely delete the folder with the originals in the Finder.

By default, the library is stored in the folder Pictures located in your macOS account (usually the path is: Macintosh HD → Users → → Pictures ) and it is called Media Library Photo. photoslibrary (Photos library.photolibrary). The library is presented as one single file in the Finder, but in fact it is just a specific item containing a set of physical folders.

To open the library Photo and view its contents right-click on the file and select the pop-up menu item " Show contents of package ". Explorer will show hidden directories and library files.

When you get to the library through the Finder and open the folder "Originals" (in older versions of macOS, this folder was called " Masters "), you can see subfolders with photos and videos. Keep in mind that the Finder will only display original images and videos, regardless of whether you have applied editing tools to them (cropping, filters, and other settings). We will describe this point in a separate chapter of this manual.

If there are no files in the "Originals" ( "Masters") folder, then you have disabled automatic copying of files to the Photo Library during import. You need to clear the library and re-drag the files into the program window.

ATTENTION! Never edit the files inside the library via Finder yourself! Otherwise, the Photos application may lose some changes or settings, or corrupt or completely delete the library with data.

The Photo Library can be moved to another location on the disk, or to another disk or Mac, copied using Time Machine, or backed up to any safe place. When moving to another drive, make sure it is formatted with the correct file system format, otherwise you will not be able to use iCloud Photo Library (iCloud Photo Library).

♥ BY TOPIC: How to download music from Vkontakte to a Mac and Windows computer - 3 ways.

The principle of non-destructive editing in Photos

The previous iPhoto photo manager, before editing images, created a copy of the original file and already performed all manipulations on it. Moreover, each new action, be it cropping or an applied filter, created a new copy of the file. Because of this, disk space was used irrationally. This was done for the sake of security - you could always rollback to any stage of editing or even get the original file.

A more advanced mechanism for saving disk space has been integrated into the Photos application without violating the principle of non-destructive image editing. Instead of creating a new copy of the file each time with the next change, the application saves all commands in a special script in AAE format. Such a file takes up a minimum amount of space.

See also:

  • The best viewer for Mac, or how to view photos on macOS - the best applications.
  • How to work with Levels in Photos on Mac.
  • How to change wallpapers automatically on Mac (macOS).

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Move your Photos library to save space on your Mac

To save space on your Mac, you can move your Photos library to another storage device.

Preparing storage device

Make sure the external storage device such as a USB flash drive or Thunderbolt drive is formatted for use with your Mac: APFS format or Mac OS Extended (Journaled) is required.

Library cannot be stored on the drive used for Time Machine backups. To prevent possible data loss, do not store your library on removable media such as SD cards or USB flash drives, or on devices that are shared over a network or the Internet, including cloud storage.

Move Photos library to storage device

  1. Close Photos.
  2. In the Finder, open the library folder. By default, the Photos app's library is stored in the Pictures folder in the user's folder. The user folder can be opened by selecting Go > Personal from the Finder menu.
  3. Drag the Photos library to the desired location on the external drive. Learn what to do if an error message is displayed.
  4. After the move is complete, double-click the Photos library in the new location.
  5. If you use iCloud Photos, make it your system photo library in the Photos app.

If you want to delete the original Photos library to save space on your Mac, you can drag it from its original location (from the Pictures folder in your user folder) to the Trash. Then empty the Recycle Bin.

Before opening the Photos app, always check if the storage device is turned on and available. If the Photos app can't find the device, the media library stored on the device stops being used.

If you want to open another Photos library

  1. Close the Photos application.
  2. Press and hold the Option key to open the Photos app.
  3. Highlight the desired library and click "Select Library". The Photos app will use this library until another one is open.

If you receive an error message when you move your Photos library

  1. Select your external storage device in the Finder, then choose File > Properties.

    Learn more

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