How to make a lasting copy of a Photos Library before cleaning it out

Want to save your library before starting fresh? Here are a few ways to do it.

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A bulging Photos Library that consumes 30GB of iCloud storage has led Sante Kotturi to want to offload all their current images and videos, and start fresh. But Sante wants to store the existing media securely and for a long time.

I thought of just copying the Photos Library file in User/[me]/Pictures onto an external drive, but this runs into a problem if you try restoring it after changes to macOS Photos make the file format incompatible.

My next thought was to export all 7,000 photos and videos, and then delete all the photos. Wait for iCloud photos to sync, which will probably take the full 30 days for deleted photos to disappear.

Despite thousands of questions about Photos, no one has ever asked for advice on this particular combination of factors, so it deserves tailored set of answers.

Copying Photos Library and compatibility. I definitely see Sante’s concern here. You can simply copy the library file and then, whenever you want access to it, quit Photos, hold down the Option key while launching it, and then select that copied library. However, what if Apple changes the library format so much it’s unreadable in the future?

Over a several-year period, this seems unlikely to me. The Photos app can import iPhoto 8.0 and later libraries, and 8.0 shipped January 2009. That’s a long span. Conceivably, Photos 1.0 and later libraries will be readable for years to come, too. Even if the library file is unreadable, you can open it as a package (Control-click and select Show Package Contents) and retrieve full-resolution original images.

Exporting all images. I’d suggest doing this as a secondary move, rather than a primary one. When you export from Photos, you have to choose between unmodified and modified media. If you choose unmodified, any edits you’ve made to images and videos aren’t exported. If you choose modified media, you lose the full resolution of the original, especially with raw files. (You could export as two sets: one modified and one unmodified.)

Emptying the iCloud-linked library. Deleting everything isn’t a bad idea, because the deletions will be synced. However, you don’t have to wait. After deleting, select the Recently Deleted Album from the sidebar, and then click Delete All in the upper-right corner.

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