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Apple says don’t use Time Machine if you take lots of photos

I know that’s a shocking headline, but that certainly seems to what they’re saying for a certain group of users (red emphasis added):

By default, your System Photo Library is stored in the Pictures folder on your Mac, but you can move it to another location on your Mac or store it on an external storage device.

WARNING: If a Photos library is located on an external drive, don’t back up the drive using Time Machine. The permissions for your Photos library may conflict with those for the Time Machine backup

That’s taken from the System Photo Library overview, part of Photos’ help. In a nutshell, Apple recommends that if you’ve moved the System Photo Library to an external drive—as nearly anyone who takes lots of pictures will have done, given space-limited solid-state internal drives—you do not use Time Machine on that drive. Not just “don’t back up the Photos Library folder with Time Machine,” but “don’t back up the entire drive with Time Machine.” Yikes!

Think about that for a bit…this affects anyone with limited internal storage space who has their photos stored on an external drive. And in today’s Mac world, that could be a lot of people—while you can configre some machines with up to 2TB of solid state storage (and iMacs with bigger Fusion drive), doing so is wildly expensive. So there are potentially a lot of Mac users with small internal drives who may be affected by this. Yikes again!

Apple’s writeup leaves me with a couple of critical questions…

  • What if I exclude the iPhoto Library folder from Time Machine—is that sufficient to prevent the permissions issues, such that I can use Time Machine for the rest of the drive?
  • How, exactly, am I supposed to back up my photos, if I can’t use Time Machine? (See update at end for Apple’s recommended solution.) Will SuperDuper or CarbonCopyCloner also run into permissions problems? I’m using a 1TB Flickr account and their upload tool as a backup method, but I have lots of upstream bandwidth, so it’s not bad…but not everyone is lucky enough to have fiber to the door.

I know Apple’s answer to the second question is “You shouldn’t be storing photos locally, they should all be in the cloud.” But if you have a huge collection of photos and videos, and/or if you’ve got slow or limited internet, this is not a realistic option.

My library is over 40,000 photos and 1,400+ videos, requiring in excess of 500GB of storage. At that level, I’d need the 2TB iCloud plan at $10 a month…versus Google and Amazon, both of which offer unlimited photo storage space for free (though Google has caps on image and video resolution). So if I have to go to the cloud for primary photo storage, I don’t think I’ll be using Apple’s solution (even though it’s obviously the best-integrated).

Seriously, Apple, tell me how to back up the 8TB external drive I’m using to hold my photos…there must be an Apple-accepted solution, right?

Update: Ed Mechem’s comment points out Apple’s Back up thew Photos library page, which recommends simply dragging your Photos library to another drive to back it up. Thanks Ed; that appears to address the second question. I don’t know if it’s OK to copy it to the Time Machine drive, just outside the Time Machine folder, or if you’d ideally need a third drive. You’d want to use an app like CarbonCopyCloner or similar to automate this process, obviously. Manual backups aren’t usually the best solution.

19 Comments

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  1. For what it’s worth – my Photos Library (390 gigs, 70k items, 18 years worth…) is on a *second internal SSD drive* (2011 MacBook Pro -> OWC data doubler bracket -> moved DVD drive to external enclosure) – and I recently had to do a complete restore from Time Machine, and it was ultimately fine, after Photos spent an hour ‘repairing’ (rebuilding the databases) the Library, upon first opening it.

    Dunno if this is what Apple’s support document is referring to, or whether – because my drive is still considered ‘internal’ vs. a true external — the problem is actually deeper and more grave, than what I experienced.

    Also for what it’s worth – a Samsung 1TB SSD in 2.5″ form factor is only $328 on Amazon at the moment, so… many of us (those of us with pre-retina laptops) can avoid the issue, as I have. Well, without even jumping thru the hoops of kicking out the DVD drive – just replacing the single HD with a SSD, that’s large enough (i.e. 1TB) to hold a huge Photos Library.

  2. 15″ Macbook Pro Storage:

    256GB PCIe-based onboard SSD
    Configurable to 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB SSD

    512GB PCIe-based onboard SSD
    Configurable to 1TB or 2TB SSD

  3. The essence of your comment is, of course, entirely correct. Crazy that external drives can’t be backed up by TM given that’s the only way to get substantial capacity.

  4. This is a terrible recommendation. There are two reasons why this could conceivably be a recommendation:

    1) the default for an external drive is [?} Ignore Ownership on this drive. The solution in that case is to manually change that setting, or to Install a version of MacOS on it, since Installing MacOS will change the setting to ‘owners enabled’. Then the permissions will be fine.

    2) with iPhoto, the entire database was backed up when any one Photo inside the database changed. That was supposed to be fixed with the change to Photos. If not, there are some simple changes that can be made to the file types and adding one Alias that can solve this problem

    The suggested work-arounds do not make sense. Address the tiny changes needed, and go ahead and use Time Machine. I am agog that Rob, a trusted commentator on technical issues, has encouraged this to become a controversy rather than proposing these minute changes and nipping this in the bud.

  5. What’s a terrible recommendation? I didn’t make any recommendations, I just repeated what Apple says you should do: Manually drag the Photos library to another drive.

    There are many reasons why you may not want permissions enabled on the external drive—it might be one that moves between users, for instance.

    As for your second recommendation, that’s a power-user-level fix that no typical Mac user will even attempt, much less find out about. I wouldn’t consider trying to walk someone through it as a way to back up their Photos database. I’d be inclined to just go with Apple’s suggestion of dragging the database to another drive.

    I am not trying to make this a controversy, I am trying to raise attention to the fact that there are probably a large number of Mac users—myself included—who are doing something Apple explicitly says not to do. While your workarounds would probably work, that doesn’t address the matter: Apple should provide an easy and reliable way to back up these most critical of things, our photos. (iPhoto’s database could be backed up by Time Machine, for instance. Why is Photos so poisonous to Time Machine?)

    regards;
    -rob.

  6. I’m simply disappointed that such a common configuration is dismissed so cavalierly in documentation. It would be about the same thing as if Colgate or Oral-B marketed a toothbrush with documentation stating that it was only meant to be used during normal business hours.

  7. I notice the linked support document says “macOS High Sierra” – is it possible this suggested backup protocol is newly specific to systems using APFS on their internal and/or external drives? Was it recommended practice in previous versions of the macOS? It is certainly news to me. The basic issue that they cite in their bold-faced WARNING – “conflicting permissions” – does not seem that it would cause problems only with a Photos library.

    1. and something of an irony given that upon releasing macOS Sierra Apple removed the ability to repair permissions…

  8. ugh. i just happened upon this. 400GB Photos library stored on a 1TB (APFS) SSD in an external thunderbolt enclosure. presumably if i uncheck “ignore ownership on this drive” Time Machine will play nicely when backing up my Photos library? unfortunately that’ll tie this drive lockstep with this single user account, but it’ll be worth it to simplify backups and ensure it works with Time Machine.

    1. In theory, yes. I haven’t yet tested it—I’m just now moving to Photos from iPhoto, and that’s going to be quite a process. Once it’s done, my plan is to dedicate a bare drive to the Photos backups. (I use a drop-in drive bay thing to mount them.) This will make the process manual, but the other alternative is worse, as my external is a 8TB RAID array and I’d rather not get it involved in any sort of thing that might mess it up.

      -rob.

  9. i can understand your wanting to go that route, Rob. this issue, its opacity, and Apple’s hamfisted handling of it, is just some bizarrely bananas behavior that i feel has become far too common in recent years, to be honest.

    right now my Photos library appears to be stuck “uploading” on my iMac. photos added on the Mac appear on iDevices, however, photos taken on iDevices are not propagating back to the Mac.

    1. As a Photos user with a huge library (390 gigs), I’ll just say that in my experience – the Mac needs to completely finish. You can also go to https://icloud.com/#photos and check the progress (sort of). Only after the Mac is completely done updating iCloud, will iCloud then integrate the pics taken by iDevices; then those pics will also propagate back to the Mac. I found that going to Photos Preferences, clicking “Pause for a day”, waiting for the UI to indicate that it’s paused, and then un-pausing, seemed to help the process. Also, the upload will eat up *all* (or almost all) of your upstream bandwidth. You might want to limit how much bandwidth that machine uses, so it doesn’t affect the responsiveness of all other devices on your LAN. I did this by using the Network Link Conditioner prefpane, that comes with some supplemental Xcode tools.

  10. thanks, Ed. the thing going wrong for me is that the Mac is not actually updating at all. it’s invariably stuck at something like “uploading 73,805 photos” and no pausing or unpausing the process seems to have any effect. this is confirmed via iStat Menus which shows negligible data traffic outbound or inbound.

    all photos are present and accounted for on iCloud, however. it’s insane that all this hubbub is waiting for the final (most recent) couple dozen to propagate back to the Mac.

  11. closing the loop on my own issue here in the hopes it may help someone else…

    relocated ~400GB (~93,000 photos & videos) System Photos library to external Thunderbolt SSD. first attempt i copied Photos library to TB SSD (left original in place and designated new System Photo Library in Photos.app prefs)… Photos.app “uploading” process kept failing/timing out repeatedly (days and days)… contacted Apple… third tier support (Photos specialist) put in request to engineering for clarification of Apple’s backup warning above… https://support.apple.com/en-gb/guide/photos/back-up-the-photos-library-pht6d60d10f … was also advised that System Photo Library MUST BE AT ROOT LEVEL OF EXTERNAL DRIVE… seemed pretty odd to me, but i made the change and restarted… Photos.app “uploading” process STILL kept failing/timing out repeatedly.

    started over, reformatted TB SSD, unchecked “Ignore Ownership on this Drive”, and MOVED original System Photo Library to (root level of) TB SSD. (at this point, i noticed that although i had previously designated the NEW Photos library on the TB SSD as the System Photo Library, Photos.app had continued to update the ORIGINAL library i’d left in place — maddening!) no real change in behavior: Photos.app “uploading” process STILL kept failing/timing out repeatedly; required a restart every few hours to get the process going again.

    took several days, but “uploading” process finally completed and all photos in place on all devices. had a follow-up with Apple support and was advised that:

    1) you CAN back up Photos library stored on external drive using Time Machine

    2) Time Machine backups will be fine IRRESPECTIVE of Ownership settings on external drive

    3) Apple documentation re: not backing up with Time Machine is IN ERROR and was actually intended to advise people not to store Photos library on SAME external drive as Time Machine backups

    ?!?!?! supposedly the Apple documentation will be edited to reflect all this, but i have serious doubts — on all counts.

    my take: Apple Support doesn’t really know what it’s talking about. the fact that Apple’s own documentation ( https://support.apple.com/en-gb/guide/photos/system-photo-library-overview-pht211de786 and https://support.apple.com/en-gb/guide/photos/back-up-the-photos-library-pht6d60d10f ) specifically calls out _permissions conflicts_ points pretty decidedly at the Ownership settings for the external drive as called out here in this thread. moreover, i am sure many of you are storing your library in a sub-directory — not at the root level — of your external drive, and i’m sure you’ve noticed no problems with that configuration.

    pretty frustrated with Apple here. High Sierra was largely a macOS maintenance update, but Photos.app was one of the few applications which received significant changes and attention. Apple is really dropping the ball here, and a fair number of its heavy users are being left in a lurch while it figures this mess out for itself.

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