Use referenced library in Photos for macOS

Photos for macOS

Apple’s Photos for macOS is an underrated gem. Many people ignore Photos for macOS mainly because they think it is a strip-down version of the professional image editing software Aperture, which Apple has discontinued a few years back. However, many Mac users use it despite the negative opinions. I am one of those users who use Photos as my main image management and editing software. One question that always pops up among its users is whether to use the managed library or referenced library. Most experts advise using the managed library instead of the referenced library. I would recommend otherwise. Here, I’ll tell you why you should use referenced library over the managed library.

My bad experience with the managed library in Photos for macOS

Let’s talk about my experience using image management software and editors. I was a die-hard fan of Adobe Lightroom. Lightroom was a perfect solution to almost all my needs. It has an excellent photo management system, with proper tagging and geotagging. It has industry standard raw editor, which is unparalleled among its rivals. Adobe Lightroom was and still is a perfect solution for those who want an all-in-one solution for their image management and raw processing. But sadly, Adobe introduced the much-hated subscription scheme for Lightroom. Gone was the single standalone Lightroom. And frankly speaking, I cannot afford the Lightroom subscription. That was when I decided to move to Apple Photos for my image management and raw processing.

At first glance, Photos was not a very impressive software, especially for someone who migrated from Lightroom. I had more than 50,000 image files when I started using Photos. It was quite time-consuming to import all my images into the Photos library. As I was only using the default settings when I created my first library, I ended up with a managed library. I wasn’t very comfortable with the managed files simply because I couldn’t access my images when not using Photos. I thought of migrating my library to referenced files. However, search on google discourages the use of referenced files and advises using the managed library instead.

An OS update corrupted my library

Using Photos for macOS was a delightful experience. I was still not very comfortable with the way I cannot access my files outside the Apple app system. The way a managed library operates is that it stores all the images and files in a single packaged file. You can still access the files inside by right-clicking and choosing “Reveal package contents” but this practice is not advisable. It can potentially damage your library and make it inaccessible.

Then came an operating system update. I don’t remember which OS version, but what I remember was that the update totally corrupted my library. Apple has extensively updated the Photos for macOS which involved extensive updates to the way it manages the library. It rearranged all the image and video files inside the library package and rename all image files. The files have also resorted into different folders. It took several hours to update the library, but when it nearly finished, the system returned an error stating the library was corrupt.

Now, I had a real problem. I now had more than 90,000 images and video files stored inside a single library package file, and Apple Photos cannot see them. By now, I was in a panic.

I tried to salvage whatever was available from the library package. It was a nightmare. However, miraculously, the issue resolved after a few days, and now I can open the library through updated Apple Photos. My guess is that my Mac continue repairing the damaged library package in the background and was successful. Anyway, I have learned the lesson.

Can you view the files stored in the managed library?

In order to see the contents of the library package, view the library file in the Finder window. Open the Photos App and click Photos on the menu. Choose Preference. In the preference pane under the General tab, click Show in Finder. Usually, this is in the Pictures folder, unless you choose a different location to store the library.

In the finder windows, right-click the library package (see below). Choose Show Package Contents. You will now be able to browse the files and folders inside the library in the Finder. Your images imported into the library are under Originals folder.

Right click and choose “Show package content” to see files in the library

Photos have renamed all my imported image files

I opened the library package to see if all my photos are OK. I clicked the Originals folder, and instead of subfolders arranged by years, months and dates, I saw 16 subfolders, from 0 to 9 and A to F. This was not the way Photos kept the image files. In the past, Photos stored the files in the year/month/date folder structure. Now, it stores all image and video files together in 16 folders without a sub-folder structure.

To make matters more confusing and complicated, open any of these subfolders, and instead of original filenames, all the image files have been renamed! The sorting into each folder also does not seem to be in chronological order. This is OK as long as your library is not corrupt. However, if it is corrupt like mine, you would find it almost impossible to resort the photos into the original order.

Photos for macOS rename all my image files

macOS Photos Referenced Library

Nowadays I use the referenced library instead of the recommended managed library. The main reason I switched to the referenced library in Photos is to ensure I still can access my photos in their respective folders on my hard drive. Because the original raw files are only referenced, the library itself is quite small now.

I bought a 512 GB Samsung external SSD drive, and store my Photos Library there. My images and videos would not fit on it so I keep all my original files (approximately 1.6 TB) on another external HDD (a traditional one). My library is now less than 200 GB, thus easily fit inside a 512 GB SSD drive. And it was very very fast now. Thumbnails load pretty fast on Photos. Editing tool only a few seconds. Everything was much quicker than when I was using the managed library. To be fair, I had to use a large volume external HDD to keep my old library while the new referenced library sits inside an external SSD drive.

Apple’s Photos for macOS does not show thumbnails in the map view

Why use the referenced library in Photos for macOS

Here are the points that favor the referenced library over managed library:

  1. Managed libraries can quickly get larger. As the whole library is considered a file, copying or backing up to other drives takes a long time to finish. And if something interrupts the copying, you need to start the copy process again from the beginning. My 1.6+ TB library file took more than an hour to copy to another external drive.
  2. You will be in big trouble, like me, if the managed library file is corrupt. It may not be possible to open the library file at all. You might even lose all the photos and videos stored in the library.
  3. With the referenced library, even with a huge number of photos in the library, the library file is fairly small (comparatively). You can keep the referenced library in a fast SSD drive, while the actual photos can stay in a slow HDD.
  4. Online backup services like iDrive don’t work well with the managed library. In my case, files in the library are backed up to the iDrive storage, but they are all backed up as individual files and folders. What this means is that if I want to restore my library from the online backup I cannot restore it as a single package. I will have to download them as individual files and folders. Because of the way Photos rename and rearrange the image files, it will become a nightmare to sort them into correct folders.
  5. It is easier to backup your image files if they are outside of the library. You can use any backup software to back up these files.
  6. You can sort your photos in whatever order you like. For example, you may want to store your photos based on location, or event. I keep all my photos in folders arranged into year and month.
  7. You can use other image editing software to edit these photos. I often use Pixelmator and Luminar photo editors to do some advanced editing if my needs are not met by Photos for macOS.
  8. If you have a huge number of photos, your library will become quite large. Mine is 1.6 TB. It doesn’t fit in a built-in SSD drive of my Mac. It also doesn’t fit in an external SSD until a few years back. I had to store the library in an external HDD. Accessing the library stored in a regular HDD is painfully slow. It takes an eternity to load and show the thumbnails. With the library now on the fast SSD drive, with original referenced files in another HDD, loading thumbnails is blazingly fast. The difference is quite dramatic.

Disadvantages of using the referenced library

Even though I prefer to use referenced library, there are certain disadvantages. The most obvious is that macOS Photos will upload and sync with iCloud only for the managed library files. Those in the referenced files are not uploaded or synced with iCloud drive. Therefore, if you rely on the iCloud to backup or store your photos, then you should probably stick with the managed library.

Another disadvantage is probably a bug because previous versions of macOS Photos did not have this problem. There is a tab on the left side pane called Places. This is where all your photos are shown in thumbnails on the world map. It really is a cool feature and also a very handy one. However, since the last major update of the macOS Photos, Places does not show up any thumbnails for the referenced files. There is no workaround and Apple doesn’t seem to care to correct this bug.

Final Verdict

If you have a fairly small collection of photos and videos, you could stick with Apple’s recommendation of using managed library. However, if you have a huge collection of images and videos, they I would recommend using referenced files instead. This will give you less headache in the future.

Also, don’t forget to keep multiple backups of your valuable images and videos.

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