Why you might have a different count of images in Photos in different places

Referencing images on your Mac will prevent their upload, among other factors.

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With iCloud Photos enabled, your pictures and videos sync across all connected devices via iCloud, including retaining a set that’s accessible at icloud.com. However, readers frequently write in that they see a different count of media in the Photos app on an iPhone or iPad and Photos in macOS. The reason can stem from a couple of causes, but I have some bad news at the bottom of this article.

Photos for macOS has an option to either copy media into its library or reference a photo or movie from where it sits on a drive. iCloud Photos, however, will only sync media copied into the library and under control of Photos; referenced images are ignored. The setting to choose copy versus reference is in Photos > Preferences > General as “Copy items to the Photos library.” If unchecked, anything you import via a menu item or drag into Photos to import will effectively only maintain a thumbnail of.

As I’ve written about previously, you can create a smart album that lists all referenced images. If you want to make sure they all sync, you can then select everything in that smart album and choose File > Consolidate and follow prompts to copy them into the library.

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A smart album can show how many images are referenced but not copied into your library.

However, that doesn’t sweep in everything that might be missing. You can create another smart album to find media that has a problem uploading to iCloud Photos, and then diagnose why that’s the case:

  1. Choose File > New Smart Album.

  2. Choose Photo, Is, Unable to upload to iCloud Photos.

  3. Name it something descriptive, like “Unable to upload to iCloud,” and click OK.

Even before you click OK, you will see Photos summary of how many items match that condition. Apple has a step-by-step process to fix that state: You export the unmodified originals, losing any changes and metadata (like description and keywords, unless you copy that separately), then re-import and delete the media items that couldn’t upload.

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Create a smart album that shows problems with uploads.

Now for the bad news! The Photos apps and iCloud Photos never seem to agree on how many items exist in the library corpus. Even worse, Photos for macOS will display different numbers of images and videos and total items depending on where you look and how you search.

For instance, in my Photos library on the Mac on which I maintain a master set and download all full-resolution originals (per Photos > Preferences > iCloud), I see these totals:

  • At the bottom of the Photos view: “62,580 Photos, 2,780 Videos.” That’s a total of 65,360. This includes referenced items, so it’s natural to be a larger number than that at iCloud Photos.

  • Using smart albums to figure out which images and videos are referenced and which aren’t: 44,047 copied in the library and 21,734 referenced items. That adds up to 65,781! Where are the missing 3,201?

  • The Info palette (Window > Info): “62,978 Photos, 2,804 Videos”—a total of 65,782! One off from the previous.

  • Creating a smart album that shows photos and videos that can be uploaded to iCloud Photos: 40,229 items. A 3,818 item difference from the smart album “copied, not referenced” count.

  • At icloud.com, iCloud Photos displays this: 43,094 Photos, 953 Videos—which at least does add up to 44,407, or the number Photos for macOS believes via a smart album count are part of iCloud Photos.

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Why don’t these counts all add up correctly? You got me.

I’ve never been able to run down why these numbers are so different, and they don’t change if I repair the Photos library, so corruption or database errors are likely not the issue. It’s just a mystery none of us can solve.

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

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