I’ve Got Another Confession to Make

I am a fool.

When I linked to Josh Hill’s heartbreaking story of massive data loss in iCloud Photo Library, there was something I neglected to mention. Something I have been keeping secret for the past few years: my photo library outgrew my desktop Mac’s internal storage — the Mac I do all my photo editing on — and I did what nobody is supposed to do. I told Photos to optimize my Mac’s storage.

Yes, for the past few years, the only full copy of my photo library has been in iCloud and, yes, it has worried me just about every day since I changed that preference. This was a very stupid, very bad idea for someone who apparently cares about their photo library, and who has already experienced the pain of massive data loss.

We all have our flaws.

The day after I read Hill’s story, I ordered another external SSD, this time in a ghastly shade of blue — $90 seems like a steep price to pay for the more tasteful beige finish — and it arrived shortly thereafter. The two terabyte model gives me enough space for a local copy of my entire library, plus room to grow. I followed Apple’s documentation to move my photo library over and it was mostly straightforward. I do not need to bore you with tiny details. There are two things which surprised me:

  1. When you set a new photo library as the system default, you will see a warning message appear if you use iCloud features. It says “any photos and videos that have not been fully downloaded will be removed from this Mac”, which makes it feel like a destructive action is about to happen. But that media is, theoretically, in the cloud, so it will be re-downloaded later.

  2. After changing the system library location, Photos says “This Library isn’t searchable in Spotlight due to its location”. Apple says:

    The enhanced Spotlight Search can locate items in the System Photo Library. If you use other libraries, Spotlight does not locate items in those.

    So I assumed this message would disappear after my Mac figured out I had moved its library. A week later, it has not disappeared and images from Photos are, indeed, not searchable in Spotlight. Apple’s documentation implies Spotlight will work for whichever library is the system one, but the message in Photos implies that libraries stored on external drives will not be indexed.

I wish both of these things were clearer, but not as much as I do the status of media which has not been downloaded.

My Mac has been dutifully downloading tens of thousands of original media files from iCloud until earlier this week when it decided to stop. The only information I have is a message in Photos, saying there are 42 originals not yet downloaded — but which ones are missing is anyone’s guess. Photos has Smart Albums but, unlike Music, it does not have a filtering criteria for whether the original file has been downloaded. There does not appear to be any logging, nor any status window. While writing this paragraph, I can see the library file slowly increasing in size; however, the number of original files remaining to be downloaded has not budged.

Apple does not provide much guidance. If I have exhausted the steps in the iCloud Photos help document and the Photos for Mac guide, I can only try using the opaque library repair tool. Beyond Apple’s documentation, the only troubleshooting ideas I can find for this issue are time- and data-consuming. I am told I should try exporting all of my photos as original files which will force Photos to ensure all originals are downloaded, but this is impractical to do for an entire library. If that does not work, I can delete my local library, sign out of iCloud and then back in again, and trigger a library rebuild. None of these options makes much sense for a library of over 70,000 photos totalling 1.3 terabytes.

Happily, after repairing my library and waiting for it to reconcile with iCloud, it seems there were only 21 missing original media files which needed a local copy, and they seem to have downloaded. I still do not know what they were. I only have myself to blame for getting to this point. Even so, the lack of any way for me to figure out which items are only in iCloud and not on my local drive is a baffling omission. It is not quite a silent failure but it is in the spirit of one, where Apple seems to have assumed that its software will perform correctly and users should never need to intervene. In the real world, I just wanted to know what it was waiting on.

Today is apparently World Backup Day and I am happy to have a local copy — or nearly so — of my photo library. Not only does it mean these precious images are stored on my own drive, it also means they can be backed up — in my case, to Backblaze, like everything on my Mac.1 Automatic backups are critically important. My photo library was the only thing I was not truly backing up, and the past few years of having just one copy has been an unnecessary source of stress in my life. After reading this article, I imagine you may be feeling similarly worried about anything you have not backed up. Think of it this way: re-creating your most important documents and rebuilding your local music library would be time consuming at best, but remaking your photo library is impossible.

We have all heard it countless times, but it bears repeating: priorities reflect what we actually do with our time. Backups cost money, this is true. But seeing as most of our really important stuff is entirely digital and often hosted in someone else’s cloud, it is imperative that we have our own copies and we perform our own backups. Software and services need a warranty. Until they have one, we completely control how much we value our data. That is the best we can do.

  1. If you want to sign up for Backblaze, using my affiliate link will lower the cost of my subscription. ↥︎