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How to Transfer Photos From A Macbook to an External Hard Drive

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If you’re like most people, you have a lot of photos on your computer. And if you’re like most people, you don’t back them up often enough. If your computer ever crashes or gets lost or stolen, all those photos will be gone forever.

But there’s an easy way to prevent that from happening: by transferring your photos to an external hard drive. An external hard drive is a great way to back up your photos, and it’s also handy for storing other files such as music and movies.

So how do you transfer photos from a Macbook to an external hard drive? It’s actually pretty simple: just follow these steps.

a screenshot of the mac photos library interface

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What You Need to Copy Photos Library to External Hard Drive

Here’s what you need to locate to move your images.

Apple Photos Library

Photos Library is the folder where the Photos App stores the images you import. This import is directly from a camera, device, or your iCloud photo library. Mac OS creates the library the first time you open Photos on your machine. Keeping large media-type files on something other than your system drive is considered good practice.

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 4 TB, 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 photo library, it can take some time. A few gigabytes can transfer in a matter of minutes. But if your library is closer to 1 TB (1,000 GB), be prepared to leave it overnight to finish!

How to Move Your Photos Library Files

Here is our step-by-step guide to transferring your files.

Step 1: Connect Your External Storage Device

Connect your external drive to your machine. A USB-C port gives you the fastest data transfer. Any APFS or Mac OS Extended format drive works. 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, 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 when 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. Put it 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 folderIf you encounter an error popup, select your external drive in the finder window, then choose File > Get Info (Command or Ctrl + 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 SSDDo you only want to back up your Photos library to an external storage device? Stop here! Repeat steps 1 to 3 whenever you want to back up images. Rename the copy of the library each time. This 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 appears in apps like iMovie, iCloud Photos, Shared Albums, and Photo Stream. (The latter is a fantastic screensaver on your Apple TV).

This library will also synchronize 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 they show up on your computer!

  1. Choose Photos > Preferences from the menu
  2. Select “General”
  3. Click “Use as System Photo Library”

a screenshot of how to use as system photo libraryYou can further optimize your storage in the iCloud tab. You can choose whether to store imported photos in the cloud. And you can decide if you want to share albums with other people or subscribe to their albums.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

Conclusion

Now you know how to copy Photos Library to external hard drive. You can start managing your shoots like a pro! (You can get off Auto mode and take stunning photos in real life with our Photography Unlocked course!)

I have a desk drawer full of external drives. Each major shoot or event is in its own library. Each drive is dedicated to a different kind of shoot (weddings, events, theatre…).

My family album synchronizes through my iCloud photo library and updates with photos from 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 most important images.

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