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How to Move Photos Library to External Hard Drive (Easily!)

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Your Mac Photos Library is bursting with images from every photography adventure, family gathering, and random internet tutorial going if you are anything like us.

Whilst having an organised, searchable catalogue of your most outstanding work is handy, it can leave you with little or no space on your Mac. This article will take you through a few easy steps to move your Photos Library to an external Hard Drive, both freeing up space on your computer and improving its performance.

a screenshot of the mac photos library interface

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What You Will Need

A Photos Library

Photos Library is the folder where the Photos App stores the images you import, either directly from a camera or device or your iCloud photo library. Mac OS creates the library the first time you open Photos on your machine. It is considered good practice to keep large media type files on something other than your system drive.
A screenshot of the Mac Photos Library icon

An External Hard Drive or SSD

I use and would recommend an external Solid State Drive (SSD) such as the SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD. Available in sizes up to 4TB, these drives are super-fast, reliable, rugged and portable – perfect for your camera bag.
an image of a SanDisk external hard drive or SSD

Time to Complete the Transfer

If you are transferring an extensive Photos library, it can take some time. A few Gigabyte can transfer in a matter of minutes, but if your library is nearer 1TB (1,000GB), be prepared to leave it going overnight!

How to Copy Your Photos Library Files

Step 1: Connect Your External Storage Device

Connect your external drive to your machine. A USBC port will give you the fastest data transfer. Any APFS or Mac OS Extended format drive will work, but you cannot copy to a drive used for Time Machine Backup.

Step 2: Navigate to Your Pictures Folder

If your Pictures folder is not listed in your Finder window, you can use Finder Preferences to select what you see in your sidebar. Click on Finder > Preferences from the menu bar, select the Sidebar tab and check the folders you want to be displayed whenever you open a new Finder window.
a screeshot of the Mac Finder Preferences Sidebar tick window

Step 3: Drag Photos Library to the External Drive

Make sure you have quit Photos, then click and drag the Photos Library icon to your external drive, either in the sidebar or on the desktop. Wait for the data transfer to complete. This will copy, not move your Photos Library.
a screenshot of the Mac finders menu showing the pictures folder
If you encounter an error popup, select your external drive in the finder window, then choose File > Get Info (command + I). Under Sharing & Permissions: check the box that says then try again.
a screenshot from explaining to Ignore ownership on this volume for external hard drive or SSD
Just wanting to backup your Photos library to an External Storage Device? Stop here!
Repeat steps 1-3 whenever you want to backup. Renaming the copy of the library each time is an excellent way to know which backup is which.

Step 4: Open Your Copy of Photos Library

Browse to the created copy of your Photos Library and double click the file icon to open it.

Step 5: Set Your Photo Library Preferences

You can use many Photo libraries from external drives. Only one, however, can be set as your System Photo Library. This library shows up in other apps like iMovie, iCloud Photos, Shared Albums and Photo Stream (a fantastic screensaver on your Apple TV). This library will also synchronise with your other devices, so when you take a shot with your iPhone or edit on your iPad, the pictures automatically store themselves in iCloud and show up on your computer.

  • Choose Photos > Preferences from the menu
  • Select ‘General’
  • Click ‘Use as System Photo Library’

a screenshot of how to use as system photo library
You can further optimise your storage in the iCloud tab, choosing whether to store imported photos in the cloud and if you want to share with or subscribe to albums by other people.a screenshot of apple OS photos iCloud preferences

Now your copy is set up and working, and you can delete the original Photos Library file from your pictures folder. Drag the file to the bin, right-click and select empty bin. It is worth stating that you must connect your external hard drive each time you use the Photos App. Once you have deleted the library file from your pictures folder, your pictures will no longer be on your Mac.

Whenever you want to add more images or edit existing pictures in your library, plug in your external drive and open Photos – Any iCloud based images will automatically appear and download if you select them to edit. When you connect a camera or phone, you will import the photos straight to the external device, so you still save space on your Mac.

If you hold the option key and click the Photos app, you can select the library you wish to open from a list.
a screenshot of the option to click Photos choose library


Now you know how to move your photos library to an external hard drive, you can start managing your shoots like a pro.

I have a desk drawer full of external drives, each major shoot or event in its own library, each drive dedicated to a different kind of shoot (weddings, events, theatre…). My family album synchronises through my iCloud photo library and updates with each new adventure. This way, I do not have to wait for thousands of other shots to load or wade through hundreds of headshots to get to those images most important to me.

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