I have a large iCloud photo library of about 30,000 irreplaceable images and videos. It is entirely hosted on icloud - I am using the 'optimise iphone storage' setting and have no high res images stored locally on my laptop as the library is too large. I'm getting concerned that iCloud is the only place I have the full resolution images stored and I want to download a backup of the entire library to an external HDD (preferred), or a second cloud service (less preferable) to ensure I have a second copy. I am happy keeping my main library on icloud as it works well for me and allows me to sync all my different devices (iphone, macbook, 2x ipads), I'm just looking to make a second backup copy in case something goes wrong. I don't need to use or access these photos under normal circumstance.

I can't work out how to do this. The only options I seem to be able to find is to either download 1000 images at a time from iCloud to my external HDD (which is near impossible as I can't work out how to select 1000 at once), or download the entire library to my laptop, then backup from there - which I don't have space for on my laptop (photos library is 250GB, laptop entire SSD is 250GB).

I'm not especially concerned about preserving file structure or anything like that, I just want to make sure I have all the images in case anything ever goes wrong with iCloud. What is the most sensible option? I'll pay for 3rd party software if that's the only option, though happy to put in some legwork to do it manually if there is a sensible way to do it. I don't mind manually adding future pics to the backup.


4 Answers 4


I think you have two options here:

  1. Download the images and save them to your external hard drive
  2. Create a photo library on the external drive and use that one with iCloud enabled (however iCloud is not a backup service, only a syncing service, so you'd then also want to backup that drive)

For the first option there are multiple online guides:

I assume you are one a Mac. You should be able to simply hit cmd + a and be able to download all of the images. If not select an image, then scroll down as far as you want, hit shift and select the last image.

There is a download limit of 999 images in iCloud.com, so you'd need to select a certain range of images with shift. This will - for 30000 images - take quite some time but is technically possible.

I would however encourage you to pursue option two for multiple reasons. What you'd want to do:

  • get another external hard drive with at least the size of both your current external drive and the MacBooks internal drive combined
  • Create a new photos library on your MacBook, store it on the current external drive
  • Enable iCloud on that photos library (go into the photos app settings with this library opened and open the iCloud preference pane). After some wait time, you should have all the images synced across your iCloud devices, including the photos library stored on your external drive
  • Connect your newer and bigger hard drive as well and enable Time Machine in your mac settings including a backup of your external drive. That way you ensure you have both your Mac and your photos on the external drive backed up with history.
  • If you don't want a TM backup you could also open the library package (right click on the .photoslibrary file and the show package contents) and copy the images to somewhere else. All images excluding deleted ones are in the Master and originals folder inside the library package.

This article may also help you: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204264

Some advantages of option two:

  • both your Mac and the external drive are backed up
  • You can work with the photos app offline and don't need to use the web interface on your Mac
  • You get a backup history of your photoslibrary and mac files
  • If iCloud at some point fails, you can get the actual library back (including albums, face recognition data,...) and not only the raw images

I know that you would need to buy a second drive to achieve this, yet even multiple TBs of storage capacity these days often costs less than 100€. I just recently had to restore my photoslibrary due to some bug I suspect in macOS BigSur and - trust me - it is not worth it taking that risk.

Note: For option two you could theoretically also partition the one disk you have and use the second partition as backup partition, yet a phyiscal failure of that drive will mean you lose the data on the external drive, but not the data in iCloud, which includes the photos.

  • Thanks for the tips. Could you rexplain assuming I'm a bit more stupid, as I can't really work out what I actually need to do from your answer?!
    – Flipjango
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 11:13
  • Its up to you what you do. I encourage you to pursue option two, option one works too though. What exactly do you need help with? Is something in the answer unclear/not precise enough or do you need more general advice?
    – X_841
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 11:16
  • I have macbook air with internal SSD smaller than my icloud library, so no option to download the images there. Phone memory also smaller than photo library so no option there either. I've a Buffalo Linksys NAS with mirror disks, already being used for wireless time machine. It doesn't need to be partitioned as far as I can tell, and there's already a folder set up to use for the photo backup - I have about 1.5TB of space there so easily big enough. But can't work out how to use it for this? Please could you give me step by step instructions? Must ensure there is no risk of losing the photos!
    – Flipjango
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 11:20
  • You have to be more precise: How big (in GB) is the photos library. How big is your internal SSD and how much free space is there? Can't you download the images in parts? Please add that info and what you just mentioned in your comment to your question and I will update my answer :)
    – X_841
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 11:22
  • Photo/Video library is 245.1GB. Iphone is 64GB, with 21.73GB remaining. Macbook internal SSD is 250GB with 86GB remaining. I have 30,000 images and can only download 1000 images from icloud at a time, and I'd literally have to count them as there is no way of identifying 1000 on the icloud website.
    – Flipjango
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 12:01

I would move your Photos.app Library to a large external volume. Follow the steps in this Apple Support document:


(Broadly, quit Photos.app, then move your library in the Finder, then launch Photos and in the preferences point it to your new location. Designate the library as the 'system library'.)

Once you've done this, then you can make sure that everything is stored on the external volume.

You'll also need at least one other external volume to maintain a backup copy, of course.

  • 1
    I think I understand what you're saying, but I don't have close to enough volume left in my SSD to host the icloud in order to move it. The whole library is only stored in icloud, nothing hosted locally as its way too big. I'm paying for 1TB of icloud and it works well for me, so I don't really want to move it, i just want to back it up.
    – Flipjango
    Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 12:03
  • @Flipjango If the iPhotos library is on the external HD then the photos are not saved to the SSD - I ran like this (albeit a desktop) for several years until I upgraded
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Apr 5, 2021 at 9:07
  • 1
    Thanks. Another question then. I don’t want to keep the external HDD plugged in all the time. What happens if I open photos and it’s not plugged in? Photos would still be on iCloud. Will this cause an issue?
    – Flipjango
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 9:24
  • Please ask a new question, these comments are already very long and usually such extended discussions are not meant for comments. In general though, you shouldnt run into any problems.
    – X_841
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 9:54
  • Does copying the Photos Library actually copy over the full resolution photos? I'm guessing that the stored Photos Library file on the Mac only holds the "low res" versions synced from iCloud, per his likely photos app settings. He probably ought to make sure to first change preferences to "download full size originals to this Mac" before backing up the PhotosLibrary file from Finder. Commented May 4, 2021 at 5:25

Amazon Prime will also back up all of your photos in original format if you want an easy way to have a second copy


The previous responses suggest fairly comprehensive solutions for you. I would vote for Time machine, because it backs up automatically and incrementally. See this for step-by-step guidance. It describes a setup similar to yours where downloading everything from the iCloud library to Mac isn't possible due to space limitations. Basically, you will need two EHDs - One on which you'll have your Photos Library, and another with Time Machine. Move your Photos Library to EHD1, turn off Optimize Mac storage, and make it the system library. Once it has fully downloaded from iCloud (Will take time), set up Time Machine on EHD2, and override the default setting to ignore external drives by going to the System Preferences, and for Time Machine > Options > Select drive > click – (minus) > Save. With this, you'll have full resolution photos in iCloud, EHD1 as well as in Time Machine on EHD2.


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