I'm using iCloud Photo Library to store all my full size photos and keep everything synced between my laptop and iPhone. The laptop has a small SSD, so I use the optimize space feature to keep only low-res photos locally. This all works great, but I want to have a backup of the full-res photos on an external disk, in case the iCloud servers fail. Time Machine will only backup the low-res photos in the local library. I want to continue using the local Photo Library without having the external backup disk connected all the time.

One possibility is to create a second macOS user account, set it up with the same iCloud credentials, disable optimized storage, set its Photo Library location to the external disk, and login to this account weekly to do a backup. But this seems sort of clunky. What is the preferred "Apple way" of doing this?

  • Have you tried the answer in this question? It's not a direct duplicate but it's close.
    – fsb
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 20:01
  • @fsb, while I think that technically works to create a backup once, it won't really let you do regular backups while continuing to use the library locally on your small SSD (the key step is that you move the Photos Library to the external drive and then download the originals, but you then won't be able to move it back!) Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 13:23
  • Do you want to keep storing your photos on iCloud? I would enable high-res, drag the photos to an external drive and remove them from iCloud. For photos that you still want to have available: you could create an album for them. This would still require user interaction
    – Jules
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 20:45
  • @Jules yes I want to keep using iCloud to keep all photos synced between Max and iOS devices.
    – Elliott
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 6:01
  • @Elliott the storage of my Macbook Pro was also full. I bought a nifty minidrive (bynifty.com) with a 128gb sd card and placed my photo library on there
    – Jules
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 7:04

3 Answers 3


@Elliott: Do you have the option of creating regular backups of your external disks? If so, you could symlink your photo library to the external source, backup that source however often you like, all the while using your full res photos instead of the low res versions. The photos would not be stored on your Mac hard drive (thus freeing up that space), but would be stored on backed-up external drives instead.

I've successfully done this before using both iPhoto and iTunes (among other things), and now regularly move all my important things to external drives for safe keeping. Backups of your backups is key, but drive space is cheap!

Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

  • I don't think that will work, because I need to be able to view the photos without the external drive attached (using optimized versions or on-the-fly downloading for high-res). With your solution, I think that opening Photos without the drive attached would prompt me to create a new library.
    – Elliott
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 6:05
  • True if you're using USB drives, but networked drives are free of this restriction (even offsite if you're good at WAN configuration). For example, I use my MacBook Pro all over the house and never worry about manually connecting to my shared drives, I simply connect to them at login . If you have an Airport Extreme, you have most of the work done for you (a 5th gen or better works great, I recently picked one up on eBay for less than $25). From there, a USB drive plugged into it can share your photos, music, or anything across your network as though it exists on the local machine. Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 6:17
  • Forgot to mention a caveat - there can be a performance lag depending on your network traffic. The busier your network, the slower your photos will transfer/load. It shouldn't be that big of a deal, but to some it could be a problem. Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 6:22
  • True, that is a good option. The downside, as you say, is possible network lag. I really like Apple's "optimization" feature of keeping low-res copies on the laptop to avoid this issue.
    – Elliott
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 6:38
  • Not sure why the downvote, but okay. Best wishes to you! Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 6:40

Unfortunately, no, not for now. There is currently not an Apple way to do this.

Indeed, there can be at most one photo library connected to the iCloud Photo Library under each Mac user account. And that is simply called the system library. Hence, I believe the way you are doing it is the most feasible one. And this is also true for iTunes.

Apple just assumes that

  • They are a mass market brand whose customers purchase simple, intuitive, reliable and secure products. And the majority of their customers find the solution Apple provides is the easiest to get things sorted out. Therefore, they do not provide iCloud Photo Library access to third-party applications or services, like the way others do.

  • When you purchase any Apple product, you have your potential future storage needs clear in mind when selecting the storage configuration (as they are constantly notifying you on their website):

    Please note that the storage is built into the computer, so if you think you’ll need additional storage capacity in the future, it’s important to upgrade at the time of purchase. (Mac)

  • Their popular iCloud service is unlikely to be compromised. But they do suggest users to back up everything.

  • 1
    That makes sense, I guess Apple's view is that iCloud will never fail, so that's a good enough backup by itself for most users.
    – Elliott
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 16:39

Option(Alt) + left click on the photos.app icon, then there will pop up a window to choose which library to open. Now use whether you can set different iCloud settings for each library.


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