Tempted to muck about in media library folders for Apple apps like Photos? Don't do it

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Ross Millard wrote in with a complaint about Photos for macOS. He notes that he can’t easily find in which folders his images live on his computer when using Photos. He’s used to interacting directly with his media via Aperture, and having it directly accessible. iPhoto also made this easy.

Photos, like iTunes and iMovie, doesn’t have a great way for you to access the media and other items that it manages, but there are some workarounds.

Apple gradually changed its app design to rely on library “files,” which are a special kind of folder, called a package. To the Finder, and for the purposes of copying and moving items, the library is a single folder. Inside, it contains all the sausage-making ingredients used by the apps, including original media files, modified ones (in the cases of Photos), project components, and one or more databases that track what’s inside the library.

With Photos, when you modify an image, it retains the original and stores a modified version. With the introduction of the HEIF image file format in macOS High Sierra and iOS 11 later this year, it’s possible Apple will take advantage of that file format to incorporate modifications as a separate layer, just including differences or instructions on how to take the original image and produce the modified one. That should make images more portable, as they’ll be containers in themselves.

Once you buy into Apple’s model, you don’t need to know where files are, because you’re always working with their interface for manipulating files. That’s not the model Ross wants to use, so Photos is not exactly the right tool. In a pinch or for some kinds of backups, you can reach into the Photos library and extract or copy elements.

There is a sort of way around this. Photos doesn’t have to import media into the library in order to work with it. This makes your library less portable, and images and video that aren’t imported also don’t get synced with iCloud Photo Library. I explain how to use referenced images in this Mac 911 column, “Why Photos for macOS can’t find an imported image.”

With referenced images, you switch a preference in Photos, and then your images remain in their original location. They aren’t copied or re-organized. They appear with a special badge in the Photos app. The modified versions are stored within the Photos library, however.

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