How to Get iPhoto to Store Your Photos Inside or Outside of the iPhoto Library (Managed vs. Referenced)

by Curtis Bisel
updated: May 29, 2017
Curtis Bisel
May 29, 2017

iphoto application iconIf you’re an iPhoto user, have you ever wondered to yourself where your original photo files are actually stored on your computer?

I mean, you know they’re stuffed in there somewhere. You just honestly haven’t really seen them with your own eyes in a long time.

I can’t think of anything that should be more important to an iPhoto user than knowing where they are really saved.

In fact, it’s so important that I decided to put together a nice little tutorial video explaining these basics.

This is the foundation of how iPhoto works.

Managed vs. Referenced Photos

I also included a little bit of “advanced” information that many of you long-time iPhoto users may not even know.

Like its big brother Aperture, iPhoto has a rarely talked about feature. When activated, it will enable you to keep your photos stored on your hard drive or Solid State Drive in any place you would like.

Yes! It’s true. You aren’t forced to keep all your photos inside of iPhoto if you don’t want to.

So if you use iPhoto, please check out this short 6-minute video.

(If for no other reason than it took me a long time to edit it! 😉 )

YouTube video

(Problems playing video? Click here)

[learn_more caption=”Transcription of Video::”]

I believe that the most important thing that everyone who uses iPhoto should know is where and how iPhoto stores all of your images and this is all controlled by one tiny little setting right here in the iPhoto preferences called “Copy items to the iPhoto Library”.

Hi. I’m Curtis Bisel from Scan Your Entire Life and the reason why this is the most important thing is because iPhoto is a non-destructive photo manager. It was built to hold and protect all of your important images.

I like to think of a photo manager like a house. You go through life acquiring things. And where do you keep these things? You keep them in your house. And iPhoto works the same way.

Now iPhoto is made up of two separate things. The first thing is the application itself.

If I go into my application folder, and my user settings and scroll down, you will see the application right here. And then the second thing is the iPhoto Library file, and this is the house that I spoke of. And typically this is stored in your pictures folder in your user settings.

Click right here in the Finder application. You will see the iPhoto Library.

Now this just happens to be a brand new iPhoto Library that I just created. And you can see it’s a really small 7.5 megabytes in size. In fact if I close this out, you will see how new this is because I have zero events and zero photos in this library. And because this is a new library, iPhoto gives you some help right here on how to bring in your first set of photos. So let’s do that.

I have two photos right here on my desktop that I’m going to bring in and the first way to bring them in is to highlight them and then click and drag them into the library. You could see it says “importing” and there they are. We have two photos inside of the library and for simplicity’s sake, I labeled them photo 1 and photo 2.

So here’s what I want you to understand. If we go back to the Finder application here on my main hard drive and click on the pictures folder that we were in before, you can see that the iPhoto Library is now larger. It’s now 16.6 megabytes and the reason for this is because these two photos were originally stored on my desktop and when we drug them into the iPhoto library, it copied them into the library. It duplicated them.

So now we have two copies of each photo. And the reason why that happened was because of that very important setting that we talked about earlier. If we go back in the iPhoto and the preferences under the Advanced tab, you will see that under Importing, there’s a check mark next to “Copy items to the iPhoto Library.”

And the reason why this is the default import settings in iPhoto is because Apple wants to protect all of your images. It knows that the average user doesn’t want to be responsible for the storage of all their photos. So inside of this iPhoto Library, it’s protecting your images for you. OK.

So then what would happen if we uncheck this little box? Think of it like storing some of your books or your furnishings or your jewelry outside on your front lawn. It’s still on your property but they’re not being protected inside of your locked house.

So let me show you how the second way of importing would work. I’m going to close this out and then go to these two images I have in a USB thumb drive I have connected to my computer. I’m going to drag these two files, images labeled “3” and “4” into iPhoto.

And now you can see these two photos were added to a separate event. So I have two events. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to merge these two together so I have just one event. Do you want to merge these events? Merge.

Now I’m going to go into the event and you will see all four photos. One, four, two, three, out of order. (Laughs) So I’m going to go to View, Sort Photos, By Title. And now they’re in order. And if we click on each of these photos, you will see that they seem to be working fine.

And here’s how life happens. I’m going to close that iPhoto and let’s say that you un-mount your USB thumb drive. Days go by. Weeks go by, and let’s just say you’ve lost that USB thumb drive. You can’t find it anywhere!

Then you load up iPhoto again. We will sort these photos again. This one seems fine. This one seems fine. Uh-oh! So here lies the potential problem for deselecting that default setting. You are now responsible for protecting all of your photos that you import when that setting is deselected.

iPhoto is no longer responsible for managing and protecting these photos. If you turn that setting off, it’s completely your responsibility to make sure that nothing happens to those photos that you import that way. You don’t want to accidentally move them or delete them, or iPhoto will no longer be able to find them.

You will get this message right here, the volume for such and such a photo cannot be found, and then you’re going to be asked to click on certain buttons here and locate these photos for it.

But I want you to understand that this is actually a really good thing. This gives people the option if they want using iPhoto, to store their photos wherever they like to.

You could have all of your photos spread across multiple external hard drives if you wanted, or you could just have them in multiple folders of your choice on your system hard drive. By deselecting this import option, that gives you a choice.

If you found this information helpful, and you’re serious about your digital photo collection, I would encourage you to come to my website and sign up for my mailing list. You will start to receive my free informational email series on the best ways to organize and share your digital as well as your scanned, print and slide collections.

Remember, I’m here to help. In fact, if you have any questions about the video you just watched, come to my webpage about this video at That’s YouTube video four, or click on the link I listed in the information below if you’re watching this video on

All right. Take care. Cheers!



So what did you think? Did you learn something new? 🙂

Let me know in the comments below.

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