How to Locate Your Missing Original iPhoto Library File On Your Computer

iPhoto Application Icon

When photos go missing from your iPhoto collection, it usually falls under two specific situations. You will need to work your way through both and figure out which one you are dealing with.

POSSIBLE ISSUE — When you launch the iPhoto application, it seems to load your photo collection just fine. But the problem is a few, or maybe even many of your individual photos don't seem to be there anymore. Click the button below to take you to the solution to this problem.

POSSIBLE ISSUE — Or, in the second situation, when you launch your iPhoto application, and a message comes up saying that it can't find your iPhoto library file, or in the window, you don't see the name of your library file listed, then this tells you that iPhoto is having a problem finding your entire photo collection. In this case, you will need to give iPhotos a little help in finding it.

If this sounds like your situation, the article you are reading will hopefully help you to find your missing collection, so just continue reading on.

My Entire iPhoto Photo Collection Is Missing!

What's Causing This Problem:

There are two things required to make your photo collection load in iPhoto.

iPhoto Application — the program developed by Apple that does the magic.

Photo Library File — a self-contained folder that looks like a single file in the Finder application. This contains all of your master images, preview and thumbnail versions of your images, and all of the database files that the iPhoto application reads and writes to know all the information about each of your images and how you have them organized.

The iPhoto application loads your Photo Library file after the application itself loads. You can have as many Photo Library files as you wish. By default, when you launch iPhoto, it loads whichever library file you had opened the last time you used iPhoto.

So the problem is, for whatever reason, your original library file with all of your master photos is missing — or iPhoto can no longer find it to load it up for you. Instead, it's loading either another library file you created at one time or, worse, it's created a new and, therefore, empty library file, so you are seeing no photos or events at all.

My Background Finding Missing Library Files:

Even though I have helped a lot of people with their missing iPhoto Photo Library files, I still have personally never experienced a corrupt or missing library file myself. 

So, like I tell everyone that I help, I still can't give you first-hand knowledge of how to deal with your problem since I've never even been able to reproduce the situation. And often, I never hear back from them, so I never find out exactly what fixed their particular problem. 

But, what I can tell you from everything that I've heard from people with these problems, and from those that I have helped, is that in a few rare cases, iPhoto libraries seem to go missing during upgrades of iPhoto library files when a major version of iPhoto was just installed, and when their iPhone is connected to their computers and is doing various kinds of syncs and imports. 

It's very strange. Coming from their stories, it's as if in these situations, when there is a problem, the software makes a decision to move the Library file somewhere else — possibly to the OSX trash bin!? And then iPhoto creates a whole new (and empty) library file. I, of course, easier not to believe all of this, but I've heard this story many times now, over and over, so I've had to accept that something strange is, in fact going on.

How We Can Fix This:

What you will now need to do is help iPhoto to find your missing original iPhoto Photo Library file. 

There isn't one single process I can tell you that is a sure way to find it. So, instead, I am going to list off the instructions for how to do all of the ones I know and recommend. 

If it's at all possible, you moved your missing library file to an external drive, be sure to attach it to your computer and turn it on so this drive can be part of the search routines we are going to try below. 

These search methods are listed in order of the way I would like you to try them. You are welcome to skip one if you would like to opt for a better one down the list. Just know the further down the list you go, the more difficult or time-consuming they become.

Search Methods to Try

Do these in order — fastest and cheapest to hardest and potentially most expensive

OSX Trash

First, I would look in the OSX trash can to see if it's in there. It's usually in your dock at the bottom. Sort by the file size column if you can’t find files this large in there easily. This will make large files like your library sort to the top or bottom to make it easier. Surprisingly, many people I’ve talked to have found it there. If you find it, you want to drag it out of the trash and return it where you originally had it. This is usually your “user > pictures” folder.

Very Important!

Even if you don't find your library file in the trash, I highly recommend that you do not empty your trash until you have found your original iPhoto library file. If your library file is in there, and for some reason, you overlooked it and later emptied the trash, your odds of recovering your entire photo collection are greatly reduced. 


“THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!! Your advice helped me find my iPhoto file!!!! It was in the trash!!!!UGHHHH!!!  So happy to get it back and I am going to back it up on an external drive ASAP!!”
Michelle Sisk
“Thank you for finally giving such a straightforward guide to follow. I felt so absolutely helpless and found my photo library in the trash!”
“I turned up my computer one day to find out my iphoto library had disappeared. It would tell me to ‘choose a library', but there was none anymore. I did everything you described here, included getting Apple support to remotely access my computer and search everywhere for it. We found nothing. 
Then I booked a visit to genius bar at an Apple store, as a last resource. The guy searched my computer beside me, found nothing. Then he asked permission to take the computer inside the store, spent 15 min in there, and came back with all my libraries perfectly back into place. He said it was in the trash, and could not explain how neither I, nor the apple support, nor the searching tools could see it there before. 
I am very happy to have my files back, but I would love to know how he found them. It was not visible on Trash, not even as an invisible file, since we tried that as well. If anyone looses their library, and can’t find it at all, I would suggest do not empty the trash and go to a store. Thank you for all your advice as well!”
“As someone has said here before, thank you, thank you, thank you! With your very first suggestion I located it in the trash and how it got there I have no idea I certainly didn’t delete it. When I dragged it out and put it on the desktop it said “there’s another iPhoto file elsewhere do you want to replace it with this older one or keep both”. 
Out of indecision I checked “keep both” which I hope won’t haunt me in the future. I was just about to embark on what a previous viewer had done, visit my nearest Apple’s Genius Bar (50 miles away) but you saved me that trip so my 85,000 photos dating back to 2001 are now intact. 
I had tried using Time Machine which should’ve worked but it didn’t. I also have Carbonite backup which I guess is nice but forget it trying to get that many photos back. I do have a 2 TB Western Digital external drive with the photos independent of everything else,but that would be my last resort and this worked out much easier thanks to you. (even the usual reliable Apple Community could not solve it like you did).”
“Dear Curtis, I can't thank you enough for your kindness in sharing the secrets of finding lost iPhoto libraries. I recently made an upgrade to El Capitan and I was horrified to see that my entire photo library had disappeared! 
I'm an illustrator and author and my photos are hugely important for my work – not to mention all the treasured, irreplaceable personal photos I had lost. So to find your website and finally find a solution (yep, there was my iPhoto, sitting in the trash) was such a relief to me. 
I can't tell you how happy I am. Thank you, Kind Sir! Thank you so much! All my best wishes to you, I think your site is bloody marvellous! You are bloody marvellous!”
Jan Fearnley – Limoges, France


If it’s not in the OSX trash bin, and you’re sure it’s not there, I would then move on to Spotlight (magnifying glass icon) at the top right of your screen in the menu bar to search for your original library.

Start typing in “iPhoto Library” in the search field. This is the default name that iPhoto gives a new Photo Library file. Type in something different if you know you've changed the name of your library file to something else.

Look all over your computer’s drive and external drives to see if you can locate it. I find that typing in “iPhoto Library” and then clicking on “Show all in Finder” works best. Now you can get a good look at all the results to find it.

Like in the trash suggestions above, be sure to sort by file size to help bring the largest files to the top. Your library file is likely 20+ gigs, so it will be very hard to miss in a sorted column of file sizes. It will either end up at the very top or the very bottom of the list, depending on how you have the file sizes sorted.


THANK YOU SO SO SO MUCH! I found it searching on the SPOTLIGHT!

Finder Application

Here’s an excellent way to find your Photo Library file using the Finder application built into the Mac operating system. I think this is even better than trying the “Spotlight” method above because it narrows the search to just a small number of possible candidates for your library file(s).

If the steps look tedious and daunting, please don't let them. To be safe and reassure me that I don't confuse some people, the steps required me to write out a lot of words.


Load the Finder application.

If you aren't sure what Finder is, it's an application that usually has a shortcut to it in your Dock. It looks like a square with a smiling face on it.


Bring up “Find” window

Hit Command-F for find or “File > Find” from the menu bar at the top of your screen. A search window will come up.


Change appropriate settings in “Find” window

Near the top middle area, in an oval pulldown item that’s probably labeled “Kind,” click it and change it to “File Size.” You probably won’t see it in the list, so choose “Other” from the bottom of the list, and then a new window slides down. Scroll way down until you get to “File Size” in the alphabetically organized list. Click on File Size in the list, and then click the “OK” button.


Change the next pulldown button from “Equals” (default) to “Is greater than.”

Near the top middle area, in an oval pulldown item that’s probably labeled “Kind,” click it and change it to “File Size.” You probably won’t see it in the list, so choose “Other” from the bottom of the list, and then a new window slides down. Scroll way down until you get to “File Size” in the alphabetically organized list. Click on File Size in the list, and then click the “OK” button.


Now choose “GB” (for gigabytes) from the next pulldown where it reads “KB” (Default)

In the window area below, you will start to see files populate that meet your chosen criteria. In my example, any file that is larger than 10GB’s will show up in the list. Only very few files should show up. Just large file-sized photo library files, video files, etc., will make the list.

Advanced Tip

This is very important. Make sure that at the top, next to “Search:,” you click on the right area of your computer to be sifting through. “This Mac” is selected by default, which should search all drives currently connected to your computer. If you select an item to the right of that, it becomes more specific to fewer areas of your computer — like just a single hard drive or just a single folder on a single hard drive, etc.

If you don’t see columns of information you need to see, like the file size, go up to “VIEW > SHOW VIEW OPTIONS” at the top (Command-J). Now you can put check marks next to missing information columns. The file size is just “Size” from this list. And you can drag and drop the columns at the top of the list to get the file size column closer to the name column if that helps you. This will really help to find any large files on your drives. In most cases, this should find an easily finable library file. If it finds a file you think could be it, you single-click on the file to highlight it (select it), and it will show you, at the bottom, the file path where the file is located.

Very Important!

If either of your external drives were formatted and you selected “Encrypted” with a password, this search method won’t work unless you selected to allow Finder to index your drive contents. I just tried a 10+ gig search, and some of my iPhoto libraries didn’t come up because they are on encrypted drives, and I didn’t select to allow Finder to index the drive when I formatted it.

“Deeper” Software Scanning

DaisyDisk icon
DaisyDisk by Software Ambience Corp.
Disk Inspector icon
“Disk Space Analyzer: Inspector” by Nektony

If you are still having problems locating your library file, you will need to then move on to a third-party program like “Disk Space Analyzer: Inspector” or “Daisydisk,” both of which are sold in the Mac App store.

These two programs, and ones like them, scan any and all of your hard drives (externals to if they’ve been hooked up recently) to analyze the types of data that are taking up space on your hard drive. If it sees a large amount of space taken up with photo files, it will show you that area, like a colored “piece” on a map. You just have to hover your mouse over the area (if memory serves correctly), and it will tell you where these photos are stored.

Both applications have a well-thought-out and beautiful interface, and I've used both of them and recommend them equally. Each offers a free trial if you download it directly from their company website:  Nektony and Software Ambience Corp.

I just had a guy write me to tell me he found his library file using “Disk Inspector.” He found it on an external drive. He remembered moving it to this location, but he probably didn’t double-click on the library to load this library file into iPhoto. So when he launched iPhoto, it couldn’t find his original library file (or any library file for that matter), so it created a new one.

I’m including a few screenshots that will show you how I was able to find one of my huge library files with it. I wrote out instructions on each step for you to follow. Note: these screenshots were made with an earlier version of the software when it was called “Disk Inspector.”

Disk Inspector — Step 1
Disk Inspector — Step 2
Disk Inspector — Step 3
Disk Inspector — Step 3


Thank you Curtis!
I had to go all the way to the Disk Inspector stage before I found my missing libraries and then, even though the Photos library was “revealed” in finder, it would not load? Fortunately the recovery of the iPhoto library went smoothly and I now have my 30,000 pictures back in place and accessible. 
I’m not sure how I got into this mess. When it happened I had photos in both programs and decided to migrate all of my iPhoto content to Photos. Obviously that’s what I will eventually have to do but I’ll be very careful the next time I try this exercise. 
Your guidance was clear, concise and easily understandable even for a senior like myself. My cardiologist will also appreciate that you got me out of what was a very stressful situation.
Gary Parker — Burlington, Ontario

“Data Recovery Software

Data Rescue 6 software - by Prosoft Engineering, Inc.
Data Rescue 6 software – by Prosoft Engineering, Inc.

If you have exhausted ALL of the methods above, the next option I would suggest is a data recovery application you could operate yourself.

The program I would recommend is the only data recovery program that Apple currently sells on its website and in its stores. It's called “Data Rescue” by Prosoft Engineering.

After clicking one of the above links, scroll down on the sales page you arrived on, and you will see a “Try before you buy” download link to download a demo version of their software for free (you will just need to provide your email address). You won't be able to recover your files for free, but you will at least be able to see if Data Rescue finds and believes it can recover the missing files before you make your purchase.

You might find less expensive data recovery software if you scour the internet for deals. But, I think in this case, you really will get what you pay for like the saying goes. And this is still way cheaper than hiring someone for their time and expertise to attempt a data recovery for you. The great thing is you will also receive email, chat, and phone technical support from Prosoft if you have any questions during your recovery process.

Keep in mind, data recovery software will usually only help if your iPhoto library file was “deleted” from your system — as your computer's operating system was told, it was okay to write over that information with something else. This happens when you empty the trash. If something is in the trash and you empty it, macOS now know it's okay to write over this data on your hard drive. So, recovery software can find that information and bring it back.

If however, enough time has passed, and macOS has now written new data on top of these old files “marked” for to be possibly written over, then the software is much less likely to be effective. Only what hasn't been written over can possibly be restored. 

So, if you are thinking about using any kind of recovery software, try not to wait very long while making up your mind. It's very important that you do this as soon as you can to ensure the recovery of as many files as possible.

Forensic Recovery Services

Your absolute last resort would be bringing your computer or your internal drive to a forensic recovery specialist. They can really be costly, especially if they have to take your drive into a clean room and take it apart. And, even with the cost, there is no guarantee they can recover all your missing or deleted files.

I personally haven't used any recovery services myself or know anyone that has. If you or someone you know has and can recommend one, please let me know through my contact form, so I can build a reputable list here for those needing one.

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