Moving your iPhoto Library to the cloud

A friend recently asked me what my backup strategy is for the large number of photo’s I’ve taken since my daughters birth. I used to be pretty comfortable with ‘Time Capsule’ as an answer but with the falling cost of cloud storage and growing number of sync services, a pure Time Capsule strategy feels a little antiquated. If I were discussing this with a client, I’d point out the obvious omission of an offsite backup.

As such, I decided to move my iPhoto library to a cloud-based service.

First step was to check it was possible: A quick search showed many others have done this, and many have written guides. Great.


Next I checked the size of my iPhoto library – 40GB! How did that happen? I looked through the iPhoto folder structure to see if iPhoto was doing something crazy. I tallied the folder sizes in the Masters which seem like the right ball park, so ok, maybe I’ve been a touch overzealous with the shutter button. Fine, I’ll deal with this later.

Now I knew my space requirements, I needed to choose a service. I started by looking at Dropbox, who charge $9.99 per month for 100GB – this seemed a little pricey, so next port of call was Google Drive – 100GB for $4.99 a month? Done.

Now to get syncing! With a fresh installation of the Google Drive app on the Mac and quick file sync, all seemed as expected, so I followed the cautious advice of other bloggers and copied my iPhoto Library to Google Drive.

All seemed well at first, but after a while I noticed the nice animated icon in the Mac taskbar had stopped spinning. Umm, que? Mouse over the icon and I get the spinning beach ball. Forever. I restarted Google Drive and put it down to stage fright, but the same thing happened again. A search turned up several potential solutions to this, mostly blaming a Mac OS bug, but unable to find a resolution, I downgraded my Drive storage and switched to Dropbox.

I purchased the 100Gb from Dropbox, but bought a year in advance ($99 – 17% off) and also paid using my Paypal account, so it didn’t feel like real money anyways 🙂 Checked the Dropbox app – 103.1GB free. Right then!

With a greater confidence in Dropbox’s syncing capabilities, I threw caution aside and moved my iPhoto library into the Dropbox folder – much quicker than waiting for 40GB to copy across. What’s the worst that can happen? 

Note: I also switched the power settings on the Mac to never sleep the computer because I wanted it to sit there and do a complete sync.


Over the next few days I checked back on Dropbox’s progress – seemed to be progressing nicely at first, and then I started noticing that it was getting closer to the 40GB mark, but seemingly still had a high number of files to sync…strange. My first thought was that Mac OS filesystem was doing some kind of compression under the covers, but as I passed the 50GB, 60GB, 70GB mark, something was obviously wrong.

When the sync had finally finished, Dropbox was 80% utilised. So, what the huh happened there? The disk still says 40GB, but Dropbox says 80GB. A quick search, and I found the answer here. Was this originally an iPhoto 10 library? Yes. Was this upgraded to an iPhoto 11 library? Yes. Does Dropbox support Symlinks? No.

If you’re not au fait with the term, symlink is short for ‘Symbolic Link’, which is basically a file which points to another file or folder. When you open that symbolic link, you actually end up opening the file or folder it points to. They are good because you can use two different names for the same file or folder. But they’re bad if you’re cloud service doesn’t support them.

Fortunately, the aurelio article nicely summarises the workaround which removes the symbolic links, cleans up all that unnecessary Dropbox space and (hopefully) keeps iPhoto working in the process. As I’ve written this, I’ve been watching Dropbox gradually tidy itself up, with the percentage used slowly dropping down to the expected 40%. I’m at 68.1% and falling. Fingers crossed!


Wrap-up notes:

1. The top tip for anyone migrating an iPhoto library to a cloud service is to check, and fix, any symbolic links in their library before making the move – the engineer inside me shudders at the 40GB of duplicated data I created in my Dropbox account. Apparently this isn’t a problem if you started with iPhoto 11, but definitely check first anyways.

2. Whether the issues with Google Drive were related to my specific version of Mac OS X Mountain Lion, or whether they were actually related to the symlinks, I don’t know, but for the cost associated with Google Drive, I definitely wouldn’t suggest everyone rules it out.

3. Unless you want your iPhoto library downloaded onto every computer that you sync to, don’t forget to configure the Selective Sync settings everywhere else.

4. I’m only syncing my iPhoto library with one Mac and I don’t know how well this technique works if you’re syncing and modifying the library with two Macs. My gut says dragons be here.

5. If you use Time Capsule, I recommend switching it off whilst all this moving and symlink fixing activity is going on. I can imagine it would get quite irate at the types of changes I’ve made.

6. Google Drive isn’t very to-the-minute in reporting your free space. If you delete a bunch of files, it takes some time to update the available storage displayed. Strange.

7. Lifehacker have a great article comparing Google Drive and Dropbox. I’d read this if you’re trying to justify the additional spend.

8. Other guides rate this process as ‘Easy’. I’d actually bump that up to ‘Medium’ if you’re not a computer aficionado

Update: The Dropbox cleanup sync took about 5 hours in total, and following this my iPhoto library still works fine. Phew!

Update: I’ve since moved away from Dropbox for iPhoto backups, as detailed here.


13 thoughts on “Moving your iPhoto Library to the cloud

  1. Fede

    This is very interesting and I want to do it to.
    But my goal is to free up the space on my Mac hard drive, so is there a way to tell iPhoto to point to the library in Dropbox space in the cloud? So that i don’t have to have a local copy of the iPhoto library on my hard drive (in Dropbox folder)?

    1. simoncurd Post author

      Unfortunately not, as iPhoto needs a local copy of the iPhoto library, and Dropbox requires a local copy of your files. I’d recommend you get an external hard drive to store your iPhoto library if space on your Mac is an issue. Better still, a NAS drive (network attached storage) is more convenient, could offer better resiliency against failure, and you could still back this up to Dropbox.

  2. Pingback: Moving your iPhoto Library to the cloud Part 2 | Better Living Through Technology | Simon Curd

  3. Macchi

    Thanks Simon for the article. I will give on attempting to sync with Google Drive for the moment and will attempt to sync the iPhoto library with a NAS. Additionally I will have to find solutions for multiple Macs and larger libraries since I wish to consolidate the image libraries of three different MacBooks (I use machines with a variable degree of portability). Later I wish to be able to move the consolidated library to the cloud, but that may be a challenge.

    By the way, regarding storage space on Google Drive, remember that it stores different versions of each file and that deleted files are moved to the trash and have to be purged for releasing free space. Check

    1. simoncurd Post author

      Hi Macchi – for consolidating iPhoto libraries I’d definitely recommend iPhoto Library Manager – I used this actually to split my iPhoto library up, as iPhoto was getting very sluggish at 50GB. I’d definitely be wary of sharing an iPhoto library – there’s potential for library-wrecking conflicts. Good luck!

  4. Steve Hamkins

    Simon – at the bottom of your article you mention that you moved away from Dropbox for iPhoto backup and provide a link, but the link appears to point to this same page. I am thinking of moving my iPhoto library to Dropbox. Why did you move away? Thanks!

    1. Steve Hamkins

      Nevermind. I found your second post. Would Dropbox remained a viable solution for you had you not wanted to split your libraries?

      I’m hoping I can use Dropbox, then sync to two computers – mine and my wife’s. I just want one family-wide library. I have minimal needs other than to consolidate – don’t do much editing, etc.

      Any info is helpful.


      1. simoncurd Post author

        Hi Steve, until Dropbox provide proper support for symlinks (you can up vote this feature at the vote box site), I would steer clear of putting your iPhoto library on there. Symlinks aside, I’d be concerned about the potential for conflicts if syncing the library across two computers, which could break the library.

  5. Stefan

    Hey Simon, thanks for the good article.

    I am synching at the moment my 44GB iphoto library to drop box by moving the file into my drop box folder. As you described the synchronization takes mach more space in the cloud due to the described symlink problem.
    1) Do you recommend finishing the synchronization first before working on the symlink removal?
    2) The aurelio article refers to the iphoto library being not in the dropbox folder so I guess he is describing the removal of the symlinks before having made any synchronization (otherwise the iphoto library would be somewhere in the dropbox folder, right?) You think that makes a difference?
    3. He describes to identify the symlink-folders as little alias folder with a “little curly arrow overlay”. I can’t confirm this on my mac. If if have a look for the package contents all folder look the same. Any idea, why is that?
    4. Do you think I can follow the aurelio solution, although my library is already in the drop box folder and only 50% synched?

    Thanks for your hell in advance.


    1. simoncurd Post author

      Hey Stefan
      1. Hmm…Personally I left it to finish doing its thing for fear that interrupting would corrupt my iPhoto library, but you may enjoying living dangerously 🙂
      2. In the aurelio article, the situation described is the same as yours – iPhoto library is in your dropbox folder, so the technique is for fixing it deals with that. They do say that unless you’re brave, to duplicate the library before trying the changes they suggest
      3. No idea I’m afraid
      4. Again not sure.

      What I would say is that if I were you, I’d really just not use Dropbox until they support symlinks. Tinkering with the internals of your iPhoto library and keeping it working with Dropbox is just going to give you pain in the long term.

      What I did (as described in the follow-up post) is start using a dedicated backup solution that does support symlinks, and I’ve not looked back. It just works.

      Good luck!


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