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Photos Everywhere—iCloud Photo Library & Local File Storage #1
MacMyDay's picture
by MacMyDay
January 2, 2017 - 10:49pm

I’ve got a big wish. It relates to iCloud Photo Library and lots of travel which means lots of photos. I know many on these forums have a distaste and distrust for iCloud Photo Library—I remain positive and hopeful.

Let me explain what I’m trying to do.

  • I travel for months at a time with my MacBook Pro, DSLR, point&shoot, and iPhone. 
  • I load all the photos taken with each camera into Apple Photos—I have iCloud Library turned on
  • I don’t have the space to keep full RAW or even JPEG files on the laptop, so I send everything to iCloud
  • I do this because I want access to all those photos on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad 
  • However, when I’m working with these photos, curating, deleting and ultimately editing those photos, I’m bogged down by the lethargic response of Photos when it tries to download the full-resolution file for me to edit. It can take 20 minutes or longer to make the photo available for editing — even simply with Apple Photos built-in tools. This costs me time and so much frustration I wrote a detailed blog post about the issue titled “My Love Hate Relationship With Apple Photos
  • To have immediate real-time access to my photos is to have my entire photos library with full-resolution and RAW images local on an external hard drive—connected via Thunderport or USB3 when I’m home. I don’t want to carry an this external drive when traveling. 
  • So how can I keep my iCloud Photo Library accessible through Photos on my MacBook Pro —and add photos to the ICPL when traveling, yet when I plug in that external drive have my photos sync (download new local copies) while providing me that real-time access to edit when I’m home or using that drive?
  • I understand how to have and access multiple Photos libraries—but that’s not really what I’m looking to do. I want the local drive stored photos library to be the same as the Photos library on my MacBook when the drive is not connected. The only difference would be that viewing Photos sans drive would simply show the photos from iCloud; and when the drive is connected it would show me the local photos—they should be the same and any photos not yet stored would be downloaded automatically from iCloud—thereby keeping everything in sync.


Has anyone tried anything like this? What is the best approach to achieving this?

ABC — Anything But CreativeCloud

PhotoJoseph's picture
by PhotoJoseph
January 3, 2017 - 12:22am

This is a great question and solution to be found. While certainly not many people travel for months on end, “the struggle is real”, as my teenager is fond of saying.

First, would you like to repost your article here? Probably get a few more eyeballs.

So, to recap. You want to import photos while on the road, and have them sync up to iCloud Photo Library so you can access them on all devices, but don't want to wait for them to download when you need them. A few things come to mind.

Clearly the only solution to have ALL your photos both local and on all devices is to enable “Download Originals on this Mac”. But you don't have enough space for that.

It's important to know that images stored externally, i.e. “referenced” in Aperture parlance, are NOT synced to iCloud Photo Library. So you could import photos as referenced, leaving the originals on the local drive in a folder or on an external drive (which you don't want to carry), at last until you're done editing them, and only then Consolidate them into the Photos library, thereby syncing them to iCPL. That way you'd have the full resolution images there, but be able to move them to the cloud at will. The obvious disadvantage is you wouldn't have access to those photos on your other devices until you decided to Consolidate them. And it's also worth noting that once you Consolidate, there's no going back to referenced. It's a one-way street.

iCPL is rubbish at keeping the latest, or most used images local. I've complained to Apple about it but haven't had any acknowledgement, which usually means “we know”. 

Would this work as a solution for you? If not, then I think a larger internal drive (or managed library on an external drive) with “download originals” enabled is the only way to go. Which honestly I feel is legit… the only thing that would make this better is better local management; i.e. being able to say “keep these original photos local and let these originals be removed once on iCPL”, but that'll never happen in Photos. Apple has in all fairness given you the solution you need; you just need a bigger drive to accommodate it.

— Have you signed up for the mailing list?

MacMyDay's picture
by MacMyDay
January 3, 2017 - 1:28am

Thanks Joseph…

Yep, the struggle is real.

First, sure I would be happy to repost the Photos article here—do you mean as a thread in the forum, or elsewhere ‘here’?

You’re right, Apple has supplied the solution and the limitation is the local SSD storage on my MBP—currently maxed out at the then limit of 1TB — I see that Samsung and probably others now offer 2.5” in 2TB and that’d be great; but do I want to throw $600-$800 into the mid-2014 MBP—maybe—could always swap it out if I do get a newer model later this year.

Alas, the solution where I simply import images as referenced, as I guess I’m doing now, and keep the original photos in a folder, edit at will then replace, or as you say consolidate, those edited images on iCloud—they too would now be referenced, right? It seems like a lot of work, but I think is almost the solution I was hoping would work. Just have the images in a separate Photos database on external drive—”Download Originals To This Mac”. It’s almost as if it were another Mac—maybe I could simply create another user on the Mac simply for managing and editing photos—again maybe too much.

Lots of things to consider—and if there was a 3TB 2.5” SSD for a few hundred bucks—I’m a buyer and problems solved…



Thanks for your help and insight!

ABC — Anything But CreativeCloud

pholcid's picture
by pholcid
January 3, 2017 - 4:42am

There are some good reasons to not trust iCloud (not just for photos, either)–not only does Apple (like everyone) make mistakes, but it’s all too easy to lose all of your copies, including the originals, by doing the wrong seemingly sensible thing, or by changing preferences in the wrong order. Apple’s design for iCloud services is that what’s on their servers is the ‘truth’.  If anything does goes wrong, it goes wrong for -all- connected devices at the speed of their connection.  There isn’t any way to make a guaranteed definitive local backup of the icloud version, which often has the only full copies.

Would it work if you got a used mac mini or other older mac to act as a server at home, and set it to grab the originals to it’s external disk library? Then when you got home the library would be there for you to connect to with your laptop. But keep in mind paragraph one, and be sure that the stay at home mac is well backed up.  You’d probably want someone trusted to be able to babysit it a bit in case it needs rebooting.

A bigger issue I see with your current scheme is that you have no backup at all while you’re on the road.  What happens if something corrupts your drive or someone steals your computer?

Compared to the value of what you could lose, carrying a 2.5” 2 TB drive (about $120+), partitioned in two–one for a bootable backup (using something like carbon copy cloner or chronosync, since 1 TB would be marginal for time machine)  and one for the Photos library–is very little hassle.  Two 2 TBs would let you use Time Machine and keep a bigger library.  They should be packed apart from the laptop and the cameras if possible in case of theft.  You could add or substitute a second non-syncing cloud service such as google drive for the photos and a cloud backup such as crashplan if you have decent network access often enough (but cloud backups aren’t bootable–a local bootable backup drive is still a Good Idea).

If you buy the drives and enclosures separately, you can save some money and choose an enclosure to suit (plastic is light).  If you get SSDs, it’s more expensive, but a little lighter, faster, and more robust on the road.  If you look for M.2 SSD interface, it will be smaller, though a bit more expensive, than the regular SATA interface.  For a premium price but the least fuss, OWC has some very compact SSD kits (the Envoy and Envoy Pro line) that go up to a TB, but they are quite expensive compared to an old style spinning HD.

How much it’s worth paying depends on why you’re traveling and why you’re shooting.  If either is for professional reasons, I’d go with several of the Envoy Pros, plus crashplan even if you have to pay for more net access.  At the lowest end, it might suffice to carry some flash drives (256 GB is about $50+), and make duplicate copies of at least important documents and the photos by hand, though that wouldn’t help with the iCPL situation.

MacMyDay's picture
by MacMyDay
January 4, 2017 - 2:55am

Thanks pholcid — 


The Mac Mini idea is intriguing. I’ve got the nice 27” display (VP2770-LED) that’d pair nicely. I’d want to use that Mac Mini as my production machine since it would be storing the original images. That means beefing up the spec to something that could keep up with the RAW images…HMMMM


Now, truth be told I’m toting a WD 2TB 2.5” little bugger which I do use as a back up; I just don’t use it to house the Photos database because it isn’t always with me and the laptop. I’m and it’s not perfect, but I try to cover myself—agreed. I used to let Aperture run and sync with my SmugMug account and I’d let SmugMug serve as a backup, too. 

There’s no extension now that allows export of Photos to SmugMug—and SmugMug says that the limitation is Apple—only allowing for a small number of exports at a time; so there’s resistance to develop something that’d merely frustrate users. 

I’ll have to look into the Envoy SSDs— as I’m not familiar—but I’m sold on SSDs and that’s why I paid to upgrade this MBP to the 1TB from Apple on a BTO. I had tested CrashPlan but perhaps I was too ambitious and was trying to store contents from a number of external drives. Perhaps I should revisit and simplify.

My whole aim these days is to simplify, but the more I learn and dig, the more I realize things get complicated and require more “stuff” — I want less stuff!!! But, yet—I want…

Thanks for the thoughts, and for making me think this through further! 


ABC — Anything But CreativeCloud

pholcid's picture
by pholcid
January 6, 2017 - 1:49am

Glad to hear that you are backing up!  How big would a Photos library be per trip, typically?  It occurred to me yesterday that you could carry a second mini-disk and load the new stuff in a non-icloud Photos library, then merge it in to your master library at home with Powerphotos ($30).  Once home, you should probably archive each library as additional backup for the master  library in case iCloud has a fit.

I have no clue how iCPL deals with mergers, though.

If you want to get a mini with enough oomph to do photography, you might want to go with a used i7 2011 model, if possible one with the real GPU (Radeon HD 6630M), though i7s are uncommon, and the Radeon is quite rare.  Unfortunately, they’ve held their value so well that the i7s cost nearly as much as they did new.  But you can upgrade the memory easily to 16GB, and the internal drive almost easily to an SSD and/or faster HD.  The 2012s can also be upgraded, but there was no option for better GPU aside from externally with thunderbolt.  Current minis are completely set in stone, and not much faster than the 2011s.  2011 can run sierra, and even if it can’t be upgraded to the next system, it should be able to keep doing the basic iCloud things as long as Sierra gets system updates, which should be another almost 3 years. 

IF you wanted a cheapish mini just for server use, internal disk size/speed doesn’t matter, but you should look for at least 8 GB ram.  4 is too minimal, and more likely to crash when you aren’t there to server sit.  The lowest end with the really slow processor is probably a bad bargain in the long run, especially if you ever want to use it as a file server.

I’m in the process of freeing up my 2011 mini from server duty to be the photography/Aperture computer (running el cap), and I don’t yet have a good idea of actual photo performance yet. But unless or until new non-iMac desktops arrive, I’m stuck with what I’ve got.

Crashplan has it’s problems, but patience is a virtue.  I’ve found that when you have a lot of stuff, start backing up the most important things, then gradually add in more to the backup set as it gets caught up.  You’ll also need to tell it to use more memory, or else it gets bogged down and becomes nearly comatose.  There’s a technote in the crashplan help site for how to do it; if you can’t find it let me know and I’ll dig it up.  

I sympathize with the aim to simplify–I’m trying to do that too, not very successfully.  One thing I need to lose is the reflex of ‘just add another old computer!’  I’d also love to be able to finish each thing before starting another, but I’ve given up on that one.

MacMyDay's picture
by MacMyDay
January 17, 2017 - 1:14am

Thanks for great info—typically a photo library for a trip could be 150-250 GB, I’m guessing. I’m not opposed to carrying small 2.5” drives, yet with the risk of an excessively large Photos database, I am being stubbornly obsessive about having one source. But this thread has me thinking. 

Though I want to simplify, I am entertaining the notion of adding another machine—going beyond the Mac Mini—and maybe finding a decent refurb’d or other non-current iMac. But then reality sets in.

I may revisit CrashPlan and if so, I’ll ping you back on that tip.


ABC — Anything But CreativeCloud

Keith's picture
by Keith
January 6, 2017 - 9:41pm

I have a primary user account that downloads originals from iCloud Photo Library. As a test, I just created a second temporarily account, connected it to my same iCloud account, and configured it to optimize versus downloading originals. It seems to be fine.

Like you started to suggest above, how about using a large/fast external drive for your main/home account and configure it to save originals. Then on the same machine, create a second “travel” account with a Photos library on the internal drive. Connect the travel account to your same iCloud account but set it to optimize.

When you travel, import into the travel account. You’ll have access to all your photos, but the download speed issue could remain. Continue with your same travel backup approaches. When you get home, use the home account again with the external drive and it will become fully updated with originals. With this approach, you wouldn’t need to purchase a Mac Mini or use it as your primary home machine for Photos.

I’m thinking I’ll also need to move to this approach once I run out of internal space for my Photos library (I have two 1TB SSDs in my 2012 15” MBP).

- Keith

MacMyDay's picture
by MacMyDay
January 17, 2017 - 1:25am


That sounds like a good idea—the travel account. And as I think logistics, given that I have a large iCloud Drive account (1TB) most of the documents that would be in my “primary home account” would be accessible through iCloud Drive—though there could be downloading issues on the road, but I’m not sure what I’d actually need. Typically smaller files, I guess, and therefore zippier downloads.

I would also have access to my full library on my MacBook Pro and all my devices. In a crunch, if I needed an image from a previous trip or otherwise that’s in the “cloud” — I could download and use it as needed. This would be the exception and not the rule.

So your test has this working almost flawlessly? So I should simply:

  • “move” the current library I have to the external drive
  • Option open Photos and navigate to the external drive and mark that as the principal “system” library
  • Change from optimize to download originals on that library
  • Create a second account on the MBP for travel and a system library for that account that will be set to Optimize

Then the two accounts will need time to propagate, download references for one and originals for the other?

Sounds like could be a good solution—and everything should sync in the end.



ABC — Anything But CreativeCloud

Keith's picture
by Keith
January 17, 2017 - 10:10pm

I haven’t moved a library using iCPL to an external drive myself but I believe it’s what you’ve stated. I’ve also read that certain changes could trigger Photos to re-upload/verify the local system library contents with iCPL, and that verification could take a long time (days) for a large library. Changes like signing out/in of iCloud, perhaps moving the library, and library repair (e.g., for repair, see note in

My travel account test was only ten minutes long so “almost flawlessly” might be a bit of a stretch. :)

You can create and test a second travel account without moving your primary library to an external drive so that might be worthwhile to expose workflow and document sharing issues with content in your primary account.  As long as you don’t expect to use Photos in your primary account while on travel, I would think you should be able to flexibly use either the home or travel accounts while on travel.

- Keith

pholcid's picture
by pholcid
January 18, 2017 - 6:05am

If it simplifies anything, newegg has a Seagate 2.5” 4TB external usb 3 HD on sale for $109 through sometime thursday.  It’s spinny, not SSD, but it seems like storage space is the biggest issue. 4TB would be enough space for Time Machine and a big photo library in one boxlet.  Only the Aluminum color is on sale, with the promo code in the web page. It comes with 200GB (1 year) of OneDrive storage, but that’s ignorable if you don’t want it.  [You do have to accept newegg junk email until they ship it :-).]  A friend of mine has one and likes it, so  I ordered one for a periodic offsite ransomware-proof backup.

Personally I trust hardware more than software these days (not just apple software; I suspect it’s all getting too complex for anyone to have good control over the ever increasing interactions).

Rickstr's picture
by Rickstr
November 29, 2017 - 9:32am

I solved this problem by putting my iCloud photos library on a larger external drive. I set my preferences to full resolution and the edits and originals are backed up and available everywhere. 

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