How-To: Setup Photos and iCloud Photo Library with external storage + Time Machine backups
Over the weekend a good friend of mine shared a screenshot of a really scary error message from Photos for Mac. Every photo and video taken over the last two weeks failed to open, saying instead that ‘An error occurred while downloading a larger version of this video for editing.’ The solution? ‘Please try again later.’ and press OK. What’s worse is he was relying on the app’s Optimize Mac Storage setting to fit the library on his local storage and trusting iCloud not to screw things up along the way. And he didn’t have local copies backed up, a mistake he for obvious reasons regretted.
Stories like these aren’t rare, which is why my colleague Jeremy wrote earlier this year that “iCloud Photo Library still isn’t worth the hassles,” despite Apple lowering iCloud storage costs. But I still recommend Photos and iCloud Photo Library, new features that topped my “favorite new Apple things from 2015 that will last for years” list, just not with the default setup. As with any cloud service, the one major caveat is ensure you have a reliable local backup (followed by plenty of patience at the start).
While there’s no turning back data loss, I shared my personal Photos plus iCloud Photo Library setup with my friend, which he’s moving to now for a hopefully better experience. Below I’ll detail each step, which required a little research before I figured it all out, so you can hopefully have a positive experience with Photos and iCloud Photo Library as well.
iCloud Photo Library Benefits
First, let’s discuss the benefits of even bothering with Photos and iCloud Photo Library. Using iCloud Photo Library lets you shoot or import photos and videos from your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, or the web and have them all go to a single library that you manage.
Delete a photo or video from any signed-in device and it goes to a trash folder for 40 days and can be recovered from any device before it’s fully deleted. Edit a photo’s color or light or crop it and apply a filter and the changes appear everywhere and can be reversed.
Create an album from any signed-in device and it appears everywhere else without syncing with iTunes. Select the heart icon on any photo or video and it appears in a Favorites album on all your devices.
This is how I find the 200 photos that I really like the most out of 13,000 that I’ve taken over the years, which comes in handy when it’s time to make a Christmas calendar at the end of the year.
Finally, iCloud Photo Library (with a subscription to a proper storage tier) lets you access huge sets of photos and videos from iPhones and iPads (and Macs) which would otherwise have too low storage. Using the ‘Optimize Storage’ option lets you see thumbnails of your whole library and selectively download only the photos and videos you open.
My iPhone 6s Plus is 128GB and it can’t comfortably store my photo library plus apps and offline music; even using the free Photo Stream feature on a 16GB iPad Air meant installing very few apps to accommodate the storage needs. Turn on iCloud Photo Library and you may still see the occasional low storage warning, but Photos will respond in the background by removing full images and videos stored in iCloud to free up space.
iCloud Photo Library Risks
But any number of things could go wrong with iCloud Photo Library or your iCloud account in general. So I do not recommend using Photos and iCloud Photo Library with Optimize Storage turned on anywhere without a Mac using the Download Originals option somewhere.
The problem is your Mac may not have enough internal storage to hold your entire photo library either, but Photos on OS X lets move your Photos library from the default Photos folder to cheaper and higher capacity external storage with little work.
But even with photos and videos downloaded locally either internally or externally, it’s possible something could go wrong with iCloud Photo Library and even your local files could get hosed in the process. OS X features a system backup tool called Time Machine that “automatically makes hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for all previous months. The oldest backups are deleted when your backup drive is full.”
By default, external drives are excluded, but you can easily change this in the Time Machine settings within System Preferences.
Having at least one Mac with Photos setup to download original photos and videos that backup to Time Machine greatly minimizes the risk that something will get hosed in iCloud Photo Library. (I understand not using the service if you have a bad experience somewhere else along the way, but these steps should help iCloud Photo Library work for you.)
Here’s exactly what I use plus recommendations:
- Always-on Mac mini (this is my desktop setup, MacBooks, iMacs, and Mac Pros are fine too but being connected often is key)
- Samsung 840 EVO 250GB SSD internally to speed things up
- Seagate Expansion 2TB HDD externally to hold my Photos and iTunes libraries (although I’d opt for a Thunderbolt G-Drive if buying today)
- Apple AirPort Extreme + Seagate Expansion 5TB HDD for Time Machine backups (Apple also offers 2TB and 3TB Time Capsules which are Extremes with internal drives)
- 200GB iCloud storage for $3.99/month to sync my 13,080 photos and 1,015 videos and counting, plans go up to 1TB for $9.99/month.
The Mac is always on and regularly syncs and downloads my iCloud Photo Library to Photos even when the app is closed. I upgraded the slow hard disk drive that came with my Mac for a faster solid state drive (guide here), sacrificing storage for speed.
I keep a larger external drive connected over USB 3 which works fine, although a faster Thunderbolt drive will eventually replace that for me. Apple’s AirPort Extreme is pricey but I use Apple’s AirPort Utility app enough that it’s worth it for me, plus I connect a larger external drive to it to hold all my Mac’s Time Machine backups.
Finally, Apple’s $3.99/month plan gives me 200GB of iCloud storage and I’ve got about 80GB free so there’s room to grow for me. Your specific needs will vary, but you should get the general idea.
Once you’ve got all the pieces in place, there are a few settings that differ from the defaults you’ll want to know about. If you’re Photos library won’t fit on your internal drive, you can move it from the Pictures folder in Finder to your connected external drive.
The trick here is to remember to set the new location as your system library in the Preferences for Photos. Only the System Photo Library can sync with iCloud Photo Library, although you can create additional libraries stored internally or externally that backup if you have the need.
The Download Originals to this Mac option in the Preferences for Photos should be checked on for the whole process to ensure this is the true version of your photo collection. This means your photos and videos are fully saved locally and not relying on iCloud for access.
Next, if you’re responsibly using Time Machine backups, keep in mind that the default system setting is to ignore external drives. You can change this in the System Preferences app under Time Machine > Options > Select drive > click – (minus) > Save. This step is key and took some initial Googling on my part when I first had the thought to go this route.
Knowing I have my whole iCloud Photo Library saved locally and backed up with my desktop Mac allows me to use the Optimize Storage option on my MacBook, iPhone, and iPad, giving me full access to my photos and videos regardless of local without worrying about losing data.
Additionally, you could add online backup with services like Backblaze or CrashPlan for added peace of mind (just check how external drives are handled). If you’re Mac and external hard drives are stolen or destroyed in a fire, you’re back to relying on iCloud alone to recover your photo library. Budgets and bandwidths will vary, obviously, so consider this piece a non-essential add-on to the equation.
For me, I consider external storage and Time Machine backups essential to using iCloud Photo Library with Photos. No matter how good iCloud got at being a reliable cloud service, it’s solely my responsibility to ensure that my personal photo collection of my daughter growing up doesn’t disappear one day.
Have you own Photos and iCloud Photo Library setup that you trust? Let us know in the comments.
Filed under: How-To, iOS, Mac Tagged: iCloud Photo Library, iPad, iPhone, Mac, photos, Time Machine