Accidentally merged a set of photos in iCloud Photo Library? Here’s a fix

There are a couple of ways you can unmix a set of pictures in Apple’s Photos app.

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When everything works as expected in iCloud Photo Library, you not only have access to all your images and videos on every device logged into the same iCloud account, but they’re all backed up by Apple, too.

However, disorder can enter this perfect realm unintentionally. Macworld reader Jack and his girlfriend—let’s call her “Jill”—tripped into a situation when she logged into his Apple ID to install an app he’d purchased. (Sure, technically, that’s not how Apple wants you to share apps. It would rather people use Family Sharing, but that feature remains weak and inconsistent, and I understand when people are driven to use this alternate approach.)

Unfortunately, Jill remained logged in and had iCloud Photos turned on (in Settings > your account > iCloud > Photos). By the time they realized it, all of the media on her phone had uploaded and synced to iCloud Photo Library.

Jack is wondering how to return to the state before this all happened. There’s no way to put the photo toothpaste back into the iCloud tube, but I have a solution that might work. It requires a Mac—or rather, two, as you need one for each person’s account.

If Jack and Jill are lucky, they have never owned the same model of iPhone at the same time. Why is this important? Because the smart album feature in Photos for macOS only relevant filter works on camera model, including every model of iPhone. Apple doesn’t have any other characteristic, like using raw EXIF data or a device serial number, to help otherwise. But by camera, yes, indeed.

(If they’re not lucky, see below.)

You’ll need to do this for each person’s collection on their own Mac. Assuming you have a full-resolution downloads of media in Photos, backup the Photos library before proceeding so if you make an error, you can quit Photos, restore the old Photos library, and start over.

  1. In Photos for macOS select File > New Smart Album.
  2. Name the album something descriptive, like “Jill’s Photos.”
  3. In the criteria for Match the Following Condition, select Camera Model, Is, and then use the popup menu to scroll through to find “Jill’s” phone. (For instance, my wife has an iPhone SE, so I know all photos taken by that were imported from pictures she sent me.)
  4. For multiple phone models, click the plus (+) sign at the end of the first match item, choose All from the Match [blank] of the Following Condition menu at the top, and then fill out the new matching line with the next phone model. Repeat as needed.
  5. Click OK.
  6. Select the album in the sidebar.
  7. Choose Edit > Select All (or press Command-A).
  8. Control-click on any photo and select Delete [number] Photos and confirm when prompted. (The Delete key won’t work in a smart album.)
mac911 smart album jill photos IDG

A smart album can help you find media captured on another phone.

If Jack and Jill have owned the same model of phone at different times, you can add date boundaries to the smart album and create different smart albums for each range. You can also use the location map (select Places in the sidebar) to find places one person has been and the other hasn’t to select groups of photos and remove them.

So that’s the good scenario. The bad scenario is that Jack and Jill have had the same model of phone at the same time. In that case, it will unfortunately require a lot of tedious review. I’d suggest marking unwanted photos by each party in their own copies of Photos for macOS with a keyword (like “removeme”), which can be applied to many photos and videos at once via the Info pane (Window > Info).

You can then use the smart album feature to filter by that keyword. After following step 1 and 2 above, select criteria as Keyword, Is, and then find the keyword in the popup list. You can then follow steps 5 to 8 above.

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