How to download your Flickr photo library and transfer it to Google Photos or iCloud Photo library

You can duplicate your Flickr library entirely, or even flee it and delete your account, but you'll leave a lot of data behind.

flick apple photos google
Credit: Yahoo/Apple/Google

After two massive password breaches, the precise future of Yahoo is uncertain from a couple of different angles. Reports indicate that its buyer, Verizon, may have second thoughts or be trying to renegotiate the multi-billion-dollar purchase price. But even if all goes ahead as planned—at whatever final price—Yahoo’s current set of businesses are unlikely to survive as they stand.

The most vulnerable and best loved, besides Tumblr, is the long-running Flickr photo-hosting and sharing service. Once a glimmer of a social network before such a term had been coined, many users have left for Google Photos, Apple’s Photos apps combined with iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive, and others. Flickr didn’t keep up with other photo services and never quite got the full-on social religion, even though it received a refresh a few years ago which came with 1TB of free storage per user.

Given that Flickr could morph into something else or shut down, if you have photos that remain there, you probably want to plan to download them and import them into other systems or local storage before you have a ticking deadline clock. In this article, I explain Flickr’s download tool and limitations and what you can expect when importing photos and videos into Google Photos and Photos for macOS.

Flickr exports media and metadata, but not user-entered information

Flickr added hooks for outside developers well before most sites thought of offering an API (application programmers interface), and for a long time, exporting your Flickr media required working through one of those outside firms. As Flickr’s popularity declined, many of these services shut down or shifted away from Flickr. I can’t find any active ones that allow for reliable bulk export of images and videos.

Fortunately, Flickr added its own direct export-via-download feature in early 2015. But the feature is very thin, effectively without documentation, and requires a lot of effort to deal with a large library. (Mine is over 12,000 images and a few hundred videos, about 32GB.)

Flickr export doesn’t include:

  • Image title, keywords, description, and licensing information unless present in the media when it is originally uploaded
  • Comments
  • Favorites (counts, by whom, and so forth)
  • Statistics (views by photo and related information)

It does include:

  • The full resolution of an image as uploaded
  • The encoded resolution of a video as processed after upload
  • EXIF metadata that was part of the media file, such as exposure, geotagging, and creation date

This is a huge bummer for anyone who has spent many hours tagging images and writing descriptions directly within Flickr or its associated apps. I switched a few years ago to adding metadata in iPhoto and then Photos as well as Adobe Lightroom, then using upload features. This tagging information survives a round trip, although I don’t precisely need to download those images, as I already have them in my libraries.

As far as I can tell, there’s no way around these metadata export limitation. The good news is that Google and Apple use object and facial recognition to let you tag people and search without keyword tags. But you’ll still miss any descriptions you entered and the titles of images, as well as the Flickr user comments.

How to create albums and download

In my testing in assembling exports, I found that while there’s no documented limit of images and videos, Flickr starts to choke at handling an album that comprises more than a few thousand. Flickr allows downloads from a number of places, including the Camera Roll view, but most of those areas don’t let you select a large number of media items at once.

With trial and error, I found the best approach was to create a series of non-overlapping albums, each of which contains no more than about 2,000 items, although I was able to get one album into the 3,000s without a problem, even though the Flickr web app hung. It completed the task behind the scenes, but I had to reload the page. (This was a frequent problem.)

Flickr doesn’t allow advanced searches by date that also let you select the set of results or turn the results into an album. However, I found that using the Organizer, one of the best buried Flickr features in the modern version, you can enter a year in the search field and Flickr matches against the year the photo was taken.

This can result in some overlaps, because if you have a title, keyword, filename, or other metadata that has the year in it or just the same digits (like IMG2016.dng), that item will become part of that search result, too. But you can remove duplicates later after importing.

I wouldn’t recommend selecting ranges manually within Organizer without using searches. When I tested this repeatedly, even though it seemed that I’d selected all media across the entire range in chunks, the albums totaled to 4,000 fewer items than my Flickr library!

Flickr doesn’t make downloading easy. An album that totals more than about a gigabyte is divided into multiple ZIP-compressed archives; the compression doesn’t save much data, but is used mostly to create a standard archive container. The largest archive size seems to be about 1.2GB, though most in my testing were smaller. You’ll download the ZIP archives, one at a time, and then decompress and de-archive the ZIP file (a single operation), requiring more space than the archive itself.

Before starting, make sure you have local storage on your Safari download target drive equal to at least double the total of your stored images plus some tens of gigabytes extra to give macOS some breathing room for its normal temporary files and caches.

Here’s the process I used to create my export albums.

Find the earliest year that you have photos stored a Flickr. The best way is to use its Camera Roll features, which shows at the left side the full range of dates from newest to oldest represented in your uploads. For me, the oldest year is 2005.

flickr camera roll IDG

Use the Camera Roll view in Flickr to determine your oldest images by year.

Go to the Organizer, and click the Album & Collections link at the top. This is where you’ll start searching and selecting photos, and then creates albums from them using this procedure:

flickr make archive album IDG

You can simulate year-by-year album selection in the Organizer: enter a year, press return, select results, and create an album.

  1. In the search field at the bottom, enter the oldest year, like 2005, and press return.
  2. The matching photos appear at the bottom. If the number is under a couple thousand, click Select All.
  3. In the upper left, after the “Create new” text, click the “album” link. This creates a new empty album.
  4. I named each album by year, so the one for 2005 was Archives 2005. Type that into the name field.
  5. Hold down on the images selected at the bottom and drag them into the empty album.
  6. Click Save.
  7. Wait for a while until the Saving message goes away, which should also close the album
flickr albums with download links IDG

Albums in Flickr each have a download link when you hover over the album thumbnail.

Sometimes step 7 hangs entirely and you have to reload the page. But I’ve found if I wait at least a few minutes, the album is completed even Flickr doesn’t exit the Saving message correctly.

Repeat those steps for each year. If you have a small number of photos in some years, you can add them to a combined album.

When you have all the albums created, go to the Albums view. For each album:

  1. Hover over the album.
  2. Click the Download link, which is a downward pointing arrow.
  3. A popover window appears that will probably say, “Wow, that’s a lot of photos!” (Thanks, Flickr.) Below that there are a series of numbered compressed archives and a Download button to the right of each. Click a Download button and wait for it to turn gray and the download to start.
  4. Repeat for each Download button.
flickr download zip dialog IDG

A pop-over dialog lets you click to download each piece of an album as individual ZIP archives containing hundreds of media items.

While the archives aren’t named in the popover window, the download archives are. Which is good, because I found even with a gigabit Internet connection, some of the downloads stalled. Clicking stop and reload in the Safari download list doesn’t work with Flickr, as it apparently doesn’t cache the download archives by URL in a persistent fashion.

When downloads complete or are stalled out, you’ll need to examine what Flickr managed to deliver to determine which failed, and then repeat the process for that album, selecting just the missing archive number. For my biggest archive, for instance, I was able to download parts 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8, and then had to go back and download 1 and 4.

To re-download or restart parts:

  1. In Safari, click the Download icon in the toolbar.
  2. Click the stop (x) button for each failed or stalled download that’s still in progress.
  3. In your Downloads folder, note which downloads didn’t complete, and throw the partial files in the trash.
  4. Use the steps above to get to the popover menu and just click the missing parts.
flickr downloads in progress IDG

Flickr’s method of downloading fails frequently and doesn’t report percentage complete.

In some cases, I had to quit and relaunch Safari after trying step 2, as the stalled downloads remained in the downloads list.

Once you have all the pieces downloaded, you can start extracting the ZIP archives: you should be able to just double click each ZIP file, and macOS will extract it in place to a folder with the same name minus the “.zip” extension. This can take a while, as each archive will have hundred of images and video files in it.

During testing for this article, I fear I broke Flickr at least temporarily. After downloading just a fraction of ZIP archives successfully, I was able to re-try and download a few. But after that, nothing I did resulted in a complete, successful archive download—sometimes hundreds of megabytes would get retrieved, and then it would stall.

Later, I tried again, and had success, but after an initial simultaneous speed of about 50 Mbps, Flickr either throttled back or had another problem, downloads slowed to well under 5 Mbps. Then two of the three downloads in progress failed.

Fortunately, the importing stage is much simpler.

Import into Photos for macOS

flickr macos photos import dialog IDG

The Import dialog in macOS lets you select images or import all of them, while bypassing already imported ones.

It’s impractical to import more than thousands of photos into Photos in iOS, so I recommend only performing mass migration via Photos for macOS. Flickr’s ZIP archives are relatively small, making the extracted folders good units to drag into Photos one at a time.

You can opt to copy images into the Photos library from wherever they reside, and then delete the originals; or, you can leave them in place, and use Photos > Preferences > General to uncheck the Copy Items to the Photos Library box next to Importing, and the originals are left alone.

You have to choose which import path you want to take:

  • Dragging a folder on top of the Photos library view immediately starts an import of all new images, with a prompt about any duplicates found.
  • Dragging a folder on top of the Photos icon in the Dock brings up an import view that shows all previously imported images and videos and any new ones.

If you’re having Photos copy the images into the library, be sure you have enough storage on the volume on which the library resides.

Once the import is complete, your media is immediately available, but you have to wait an indeterminate amount of time for object and facial analysis to complete in macOS Sierra. The People album should let you know how many images are left to scan, but it won’t tell you how long it will take.

If you have iCloud Photo Library enabled, remember that the photos and video will also upload to sync with iCloud, which can sometimes overwhelm your Internet connection if you have a lot of media data relative to your bandwidth.

While you may have lost descriptive data entered in Flickr, you can use Photos Moments to find images grouped by when they were taken, as well as searching by place if images had geotagging enabled, as with images taken from an iPhone or iPad. You can then retag images in groups with titles and keywords.

If you have descriptions you want to retain, I’d suggest opening a side-by-side Flickr browser window and Photos, and using the Organizer view in Flickr, which lets you double-click an image in the thumbnail view and then have editable fields appear for title, description, and keywords. You can copy and paste those from Flickr into Photos, switching back and forth. Tedious, but doable for a modest number of images.

Import into Google Photos in macOS

google photos select folders IDG

Google Photos macOS upload manager lets you select folder locations for photos.

As with Photos, macOS is your best option to upload into Google Photos. Using iOS or via its admittedly pretty decent Web app uploader, you’ll spend more time managing the upload than makes sense.

In macOS, you simply install Desktop Uploader and then point the app at the various directories in which you store images, including any you’ve selected for Flickr downloads. With Google Photos, images remain in place, and aren’t copied or moved within macOS.

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