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I have never used Photos before except some bad experiences with it 10 years ago. I would like to use Photos to index over 2Tb of photos (2.26Tb with 415'805 photos to be precise) on an external hard drive (WD MyPassport).

I have a 200Gb iCloud subscription that I do not wish to use for this, and a MacBook Pro 2019 with a 500Gb hard drive where I don't want and cannot import the photos.

Part of what I want to accomplish includes looking up locations on a map to see what photos were taken where, searching photos of the same person, searching for text inside photos, etc.

The 2Tb Photos folder on the external is split up into around 40 folders, roughly one for each year I’ve been alive, so I can break down the process but it's not exactly a user friendly workflow.

I have tried:

File > Import > Selecting the whole "Photos" folder from the HD

This crashes the Photos app because I assume the 2Tb folder is too large, and I have to force quit it (possibly damaging the .photoslibrary file in the process).

File > Import > One smaller folder at a time

This lists photos found in the folder in a window that looks like this (it takes between 10 to 30 minutes to complete listing all the photos in the folder), then I click “Import All New Items” and it takes up to a whole night to add all the photos to the Photos Library. I have never been able to complete the process because the Photos library ends up getting corrupted (Example One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six).

Dragging a folder into the Photos window

Usually results in an error message because some files it finds are not photos…

Deleting the .photoslibrary files

After a few failed attempts, I delete the file and try again and the app still doesn't seem to work as it's supposed to.

I have been trying to do this for two months now and “it just doesn’t work”.

How can I use Apple Photos to index/catalog large libraries on an external hard drive?

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  • The answer from @mmmmmm is spot-on, and should work.
    – nohillside
    Feb 11 at 8:01
  • Although I note that the Apple documentation seems to have removed the reference to spot light that I saw. So try nohillsides edit first and don't import to Photos
    – mmmmmm
    Feb 11 at 10:05
  • Thanks for the edit. Did you try the answer from @mmmmmm? What was the result?
    – nohillside
    Feb 12 at 19:28
  • @nohillside Currently trying it! It takes 3-6 hours per "small" folder lol... but so far so good. Feb 14 at 22:23
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    Shooting is for sure easier than deleting, I know the problem :-) But importing 20'000 at once is already a lot, I'm not surprised it's slow. Wonder how Photos handles the large library afterwards.
    – nohillside
    Feb 15 at 9:06

2 Answers 2

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Yes. I have had photos on an external drive.

The "Photos Library.photoslibrary" is the library for Photos. The default location is on the boot drive but you can change it to be on any drive.

First you need to create a .photosLibrary on the external drive. Close photos and either copy the existing .photosLibrary to the external dive or create a new one as per Apple documentation create Photos Library. Open the new .photoLibray by option-clicking Photos.app which then asks you where the library is.

Go to the Settings->General tab and choose to make that the system library if you want to have it indexed by Spotlight and be the one synced to iCloud. This is all documented in Apple's System Photo Library overview in Photos on Mac.

Important: If you don't wan't to duplicate your photos on your external drive, untick the "Copy items" option.

enter image description here

Then you can import your photos. Given the size of your library, I would do this in small steps (e.g. folder by folder), not with all of them at once.

WARNING: If you disconnect the external drive and then open Photos it will default to the original library and you have to repeat the option-opening of the Photos.app and reset the default library.

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  • Given the context of the OP, I don't think setting the library as the System Photo Library is required (or even useful), but I didn't want to edit it out. Not setting the library as the default would also solve the issue mentioned in the warning though :-)
    – nohillside
    Feb 11 at 8:06
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    @nohillside I was working from the last line of the question which asks for indexing - From the apple links in my answer spotlight only indexes the System photo library. However this might have been a bug and not true now - From talk.tidbits.com/t/opinions-on-external-photo-library/21306/4 - spotlight does not appear in the docs but does in a we search :(
    – mmmmmm
    Feb 11 at 10:01
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    Ah, right (Itotally read over the last line). OP could also have the Library stored on the internal drive if they don’t let Photos copy the files.
    – nohillside
    Feb 11 at 10:07
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I don't think iCloud will be of much help in this case, due to storage capacity limitations of the cloud. Although keeping a copy of just your "favorites" photo album there might be a good use of it - keeping within the storage constraints.

Unfortunately, Photos just isn't as stable or as performant, or as integrated with iCloud as it should be, considering how long it has been around and how much Apple likes to pride itself on the "it just works" mantra. I'm not saying you shouldn't use Photos, just that you should probably use it in limited scope and not rely on it too much. Some prefer Image Capture as an alternative for just copying photos over from your mobile devices. The important thing about Photos is that has a checkbox option for deleting photos from their device of origin once they've been successfully copied over. Make sure you're using this, or you won't be freeing up any space for new photos on your source devices (iPhone, iPad, etc).

That error message is due to memory (RAM), not storage issues. It may be caused by Photos, or it may be caused by some other app. Further probing is needed. But either way, it sounds like you've got problems with your Photos library that need to be resolved first.

One thing you can do instead of trying to open the corrupt library is navigate to your .photoslibrary file (it's actually a package, not a single file) in Finder and Show Package Contents. This will allow you to access your actual photos. They are contained in subfolders inside. This is one thing the designers of Photos got right - you can still access your photos as individual files.

Next launch Photos while holding down Option and when prompted to "Choose Library" click on "Create New...". Since you mentioned not wanting to store your photos on your Mac's internal hard drive, use an external one. Even if your MyPassport drive has the capacity for it, I recommend using a separate drive for this. Redundancy for the sake of backup is a very good idea.

Drag files or folders of your photos from the subfolders of your .photoslibrary onto the Photos icon on the Dock. This is similar to doing File → Import... from within Photos, except that when selecting files to Import, you cannot see inside a package. Dragging from Finder gets around this limitation. I expect many aspects of the structure of your old Photos library will not be preserved (such as favorites, albums, photo edit settings, face data, etc). But your photos themselves should be salvageable.

Why Photos libraries get so easily corrupted, I do not know. There are lots of aspects of the Photos app that could use improvement, as I mentioned. You might also explore whether there are tools that can "repair" a broken Photos library, but use caution. Pulling from the package contents and starting a fresh library is the surest bet, in my opinion.

Finally, moving forward, consider buying an additional drive to back up this new library you will presumably continue to add photos to.

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