How to selectively choose what photos sync in Photos for Mac

Referenced media doesn’t sync, but may be easier to manage on a Mac.

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Photos in iOS, iPadOS, and macOS combined with iCloud Photos is a great way to sync, and to create a kind of backup of all your photos from the moment after you capture or import them that they’re uploaded to your central iCloud storage. (Why a “kind” of backup? See later in the article.)

But what do you do if you want to use iCloud Photos selectively? You want some, but not all of the benefits.

In iOS and iPadOS, you don’t have a choice. If you have iCloud Photos enabled, every picture in Photos on your iPhone or iPad will upload to iCloud and every image there downloads (at least a thumbnail) to your device.

mac911 reference photos pref IDG

You can change a Photos pref to only reference, not import images.

However, in macOS, you can selectively choose what images sync. The trick is using the Referenced File feature. It’s not an option at the time of import, but rather a preference you can toggle at will.

In Photos > Preferences > General, you can check or uncheck the box next to Importing: Copy Items to the Photos Library. With iCloud Photos enabled, some smaller text makes sure you’re clear that items imported with this unchecked won’t be uploaded to iCloud Photos and, if you uncheck it, you also see a dialog box with the same message that you have to click OK to dismiss.

With the box unchecked, import images, and those that are added will get an extra badge overlaid that indicates the media file is referenced and not part of the Photos library.

mac911 reference badge highlighted IDG

Referenced files have a special overlaid badge (highlighted in red).

You might find this useful for several reasons:

  • You have a large set of photos and not enough internal storage. Use referenced files to keep tens or hundreds of gigabytes on an external drive. Referenced files do not have to always be available to be accessible, and Photos for macOS just stores a thumbnail and a pointer to the original.

  • You may have enough storage on your Mac, but don’t want to scroll though tens of thousands of images on your mobile devices.

  • You use a shared Apple ID with a partner or among family members. While this is inadvisable for a variety of reasons, it’s also common. This lets you avoid clogging up the other person or other people’s devices by letting you keep some images and video private, just on your Mac.

Because you can toggle the state of Importing, you can choose before each import batch or at any point in time whether you want to import or use references. Photos doesn’t warn you about the current state of that option, so you have to remember to keep track of it if it’s a feature you want to use.

If you decide to use referenced files, make sure you have a couple of other backups of your non-imported media—only your iCloud Photos-synced images are copied to iCloud! (See? I’m like Apple, and reminding you once again.)

A few more notes about referenced files:

  • The smart album feature includes “referenced” as a photo condition, letting you create a smart album that either includes or excludes all referenced files. (File > New Smart Album and set the condition to Photo, Is (or Is Not), Referenced.)

  • Unique to referenced media, you can find the image at its Finder location; imported files are always nestled within the Photos library. Click the Referenced File badge and then choose Show Referenced File in Finder.

  • If you change your mind later, select one or more images or videos, and choose File > Consolidate. This will import the images into Photos and remove the reference. It’s not reversible. (Likewise, if you import into iCloud Photos, you have to export your images, delete them from your library, and then re-import them with the Importing option disabled.)

  • Referenced files require a static location for the image or video. If you move it, the reference is broken. However, Photos displays a red slash through the Referenced File badge on an image, and you can click that and choose Locate Referenced File to re-link that media item. Photos should prompt you if it finds anything else in the image or video’s new location and wants to re-link those as well.

mac911 reference missing images IDG

Missing referenced files display like this and can be relinked.

Now about my comment above about iCloud not being quite a backup. Because Apple doesn’t let you separately access your media at for backup purposes—you can only view and search at—you’re relying entirely on the company for the integrity of your images and movies. I always recommend having a couple unique backups of your own, whether that’s at an online hosted backup that you can retrieved files from directly or your own disk drives.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Michael.

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