To the best of my knowledge all Macs come with a 'Pictures' folder /Users/me/Pictures, which I have been using for years. For reasons I cannot explain, Photos App does not just simply read this folder in by default, but wants to 'import' either single photos or entire folders. I want to avoid duplicating all my photos because Photos App does not look into a folder I want it to look into. I also have organised my photos the way I like, and so, duplicates aside, I do not want to either recreate the tree or keep my photos inside a Photos App specific folder.

So, how do i go about telling Photos App that my photos are in /Users/me/Pictures/*, so that everything remains in /Users/me/Pictures/* and is NOT copied elsewhere, and NOTHING gets duplicated?

I was thinking of making symlinks if that is a way to do it, but before trying I thought of asking.

I do NOT use iCloud, if that matters, my question is 100% local SSD pertinent.

  • In case people want to know what I expect Photos App to do, is to do what Lightroom would, i.e. look into whatever fold I tell it to without duplicating its content Oct 16, 2023 at 13:15
  • Your ask is very reasonable. We might need a substantial edit of requirements or follow on question as a software recommendation to explain what you need your photos app to do past what Finder allows (tagging, open in preview for light editing, etc…) to suggest something other than the app I suggested which does exactly what Lightroom and Aperture used to do. Store files directly in place where it found them and import to a file system-friendly location and not a bundle.
    – bmike
    Oct 16, 2023 at 13:40
  • I am trying to use Darkroom, but it somehow seems to be only able to read files that are in Photos App, not actual files. I have otherwise no interest nor use for Photos App. Oct 16, 2023 at 15:05
  • 2
    Agreed - your intent is to avoid the core feature of photos app - it’s not compatible with your needs whatsoever.
    – bmike
    Oct 16, 2023 at 16:13
  • Lightroom would be a better choice than Darkroom for the way you want to work.
    – Gilby
    Oct 16, 2023 at 21:52

2 Answers 2


Photos defaults to copying photos into your library, however it is possible to use it with references instead.

Store imported files outside the Photos library

  1. In the Photos app on your Mac, choose Photos > Settings, then click General.

  2. Deselect the “Copy items to the Photos library” checkbox.

    Now, when you import photos or video, Photos leaves the files in their original location and accesses them as referenced files.

Note the caveats, however I assume you understand these:

If you store files outside the Photos library, keep in mind that:

  • If you use iCloud Photos, photos and videos that are outside the Photos library aren’t stored in iCloud and won’t be accessible to any other Mac or device that uses iCloud Photos.
  • If you disconnect the device where the files are located, or move or rename the files in the Finder, Photos won’t be able to locate them.
  • Referenced files aren’t automatically backed up along with the rest of your files when you back up your photo library—you must back them up manually.

Change where your files are stored in Photos on Mac

Note 1: This only applies to the originals. Photos never modifies originals, so you cannot see any edits outside of Photos. You have to export the photos with edits back to Finder to see them.

Note 2: If a photo is "Consolidated" into the Photo library bundle, or was copied into the bundle when it was originally imported, it cannot be moved outside the bundle.

  • I wonder how much space the duplicated thumbnail / proxy photos will take in this scenario. I’ve had people be burned by bugs in this “feature” and end up with duplicates but it’s a great option to try - especially if OP has a good backup and can undo this if space becomes immediately constrained on their SSD. Ideally this will work well.
    – bmike
    Oct 16, 2023 at 16:47
  • Those duplicates thumbnails shouldn't take up additional space then if they were native within the library, since Photos already generates them for regular photos
    – Ezekiel
    Oct 16, 2023 at 17:40
  • With raw or 20 megapixel and up photos I’ve seen the proxy images ( mostly full size but jpeg compressed) take up substantial space. Also, if you edit a photo - does photos squirrel away the original referenced photo or leave that alone and store the edited photo in the library?
    – bmike
    Oct 16, 2023 at 19:42
  • 1
    @bmike Photos never alters the original, so any editing (with or without copying to the library) generates new full-sized version of the photo and thumbnails
    – Ezekiel
    Oct 16, 2023 at 22:57
  • 1
    I accepted the answer because Photos App is not duplicating the photos, but, probably because of Darkroom, a new instance of the images if generated (with some minimal space saving), so you are technically right, but in practice it does not seem to work, most likely due to Darkroom Oct 17, 2023 at 5:53

You won’t bend photos app to work this way. It insists on managing a database and handling the several versions of each file and the non-destructive edits outside the view of the browsable file system.

Check out Photo Mechanic or another file system primary editor if you need to see the images in a hierarchical file system based view.

  • "You won’t bend photos app to work this way." +1 As a practical matter, I agree with you.
    – Seamus
    Oct 17, 2023 at 6:21
  • I know it’s a very strong statement, but the option to not import photos seems weak and not thoroughly thought out and tested by Apple. Over time it leads to disappointment for most people I know that tried it @Seamus but I wish everyone luck with that feature. It might be finally time for it to shine?
    – bmike
    Oct 17, 2023 at 16:18

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