Q&A: Should I Store My Photo Collection in iPhoto or Elsewhere on My Computer? Or Should I Use Lightroom?
I have recently purchased a new camera and vowed to be better organized in the photo storage and processing department. A couple of questions:
1) Someone told me I should not store my albums in iPhoto but should create picture files elsewhere on my computer. What would you suggest?
2) I am currently using Photoshop Elements to process my photos. Do you have any thoughts on Lightroom as opposed to PE?
Thanks. I look forward to reading your newsletters.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Maria, it takes quite a commitment to yourself to be better organized since it’s not just a decision you have to make. It’s also the dedication to learning new things. So good for you for getting a new start now! 🙂
Storage Location of Photos in iPhoto
I can completely understand why an experienced user of iPhoto or another photo management software might tell you to avoid keeping your photos in iPhoto. And by “in iPhoto,” I don’t mean using iPhoto in general — because iPhoto is great! I mean keeping your photo files stored inside of the iPhoto photo library file.
By default, when you import photos inside, iPhoto operates kind of like an “overprotective mother.” I believe this is actually a good thing, though, and I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t an advanced user.
There are two main parts to iPhoto. There is the iPhoto application, which is stored in your “Application” folder. Then, there is the “photo library” file that is stored (by default) in your “Pictures” folder — also inside of your user folder.
What iPhoto does by default when you import a photo is that it makes a copy of your photo(s) and stores them inside of this “photo library” file (really a folder disguised as a file). iPhoto protects your photo inside of this “shell” so that you can’t accidentally move them or, worse, delete your master image files.
What your friend was warning you about is the fact that once your photos are imported in this default protective manner — called “managed” — it’s then a bit more challenging to get all of your photos out so that you can use them with, say, another photo editing program.
For example, if you ever wanted to stop using a Mac and start using a different photo manager on a Windows PC, it would be difficult. It wouldn’t be impossible, just difficult.
That’s because, again, your photo masters were imported as “managed” files and are being protected inside of this “photo library,” and very few programs have any kind of access inside of your library files.
The most obvious way to get all of your photos out of iPhoto so that you can, for example, start building your collection in another non-Apple photo manager like Adobe’s Photoshop Elements or Lightroom is to select all of your photos in iPhoto and then export them out so that it saves another copy of each of them to folders on your desktop or another place on one of your hard drives. From there, you can re-import all of these into another program of your choice.
All of this sounds like a lot of work — kind of a mess — and I suppose it is. It’s the reason I really advise people to choose their photo manager wisely from the beginning of this entire project of building your digital photo collection. It’s a fork in the road that can be quite challenging to come back to.
But, the thing to keep in mind is that most users of iPhoto will never need a major “evacuation plan” like this to get all their photos out of iPhoto. Most iPhoto users are very happy with iPhoto, and the only reason they have to get photos out is when they want to share their photos with their friends or family members. In that case, iPhoto makes it really easy — you select an image, hit the share button at the bottom of the application, and then choose how you want to share it.
A Possibly Better Way to Store Your Photos in iPhoto
With all of this being said, there most certainly is another way to use iPhoto, where you are able to store all of your photos anywhere on your hard drive you would like. Yes! You read that correctly — anywhere you would like!
If you use this second method, called “referencing,” it’s very important you keep in mind your master photos won’t be stored inside of a protective iPhoto library file, so it will be up to you to organize them in a good strategy of folders — like folders inside of folders, etc., and then protect them. If you move a photo accidentally, iPhoto may not be able to help you find it. And if you delete one, you could really be out of luck!
If we were comparing these methods to an automobile transmission, referencing would be a manual transmission and managed would be automatic.
Now, if you are at all confused by any of this, I would completely understand. It can be hard to grasp at first. But it’s really important that you understand how it works, so I made a short video below that does a much better job of explaining it here than with just text. I originally edited this video for a post called “How to Get iPhoto to Store Your Photos Inside or Outside of the iPhoto Library (Managed vs. Referenced).”
(Problems playing video? Click here)
The most important thing for you to take away from this video is that whether or not your photos in iPhoto are “managed” or “referenced” is not decided by how the “Copy items to the iPhoto library” setting is currently set in iPhoto. It’s instead determined by how this setting was set at the time the photos in question were imported into the library. And this could have happened years ago!
Some of the images in your collection can be managed, and some can be referenced — both at the same time. So, it’s not an “all with one” method or “the other” kind of deal.
And sadly, at the time of writing this, iPhoto still does not have any indication — no symbol or badge — that will tell you which photos were imported in which manner. (Hint: Aperture does, though)
Let’s Consider Some iPhoto Alternatives
Maria, if you have the option of using iPhoto, then this means you are using one of Apple’s Mac computers. And in your second question, you also asked my opinion on using the Mac version of either Adobe’s Photoshop Elements or their more advanced Lightroom application.
The photo managers I recommend for someone who is interested in building a really amazing digital photo collection to use as the primary place to store, manage, and edit all of their photos are iPhoto or Picasa (for those with basic goals), or Aperture or Lightroom (for those with advanced goals).
One of the main reasons I still don’t include Photoshop Elements in this list is because it’s still not a true Non-Destructive image manager. It’s my understanding that even the latest version is still very “hands-on” and requires you to fully understand and rely on the use of “layers” to make edits to your photos without overwriting the master images.
There is no doubt in my mind that Lightroom is fantastic. If you were to tell me you are a semi-pro or a professional photographer who is interested in some of the advanced features that are unique to Lightroom, I would be very motivated to have you try out Lightroom.
But, since you are a Mac user, it’s incredibly hard for me not to highly recommend you stay with the Apple iPhoto & Aperture dual-combo experience. Especially if there aren’t any specific features exclusive to Lightroom that you have to have. There are just so many advantages that a Mac user gets by utilizing the synergy of all of Apple’s software working together on their own hardware.
For example, here’s what’s so amazing about the latest versions of Apple’s iPhoto and Aperture. You can take your photo collection, either “managed” or “referenced” in iPhoto, and load it at any time in Apple’s more advanced featured application, Aperture. You can also load an Aperture library in iPhoto whenever you want.
They are now backward compatible. They are forward-compatible. However, you want to say it — you can go back and forth whenever you would like!
If you have a spouse who just wants to do a couple of basic things with your family’s photos, you can still have just one photo library for your entire collection. He can load the photo library in iPhoto to do the simpler things he likes to do, and then you can load the same library file in Aperture whenever you want to do more advanced tasks. It’s not only convenient and easy — it’s genius!
Why a Lightroom to Aperture Switch Won’t Work
So, let’s say you start out with a collection you’ve built in Lightroom. Even though Lightroom works by always referencing all of your photos (never by managing them inside of a library file), which makes it a lot easier now to move them all into another application, all of the edits you have done, like color correction and cropping in Lightroom won’t carry over to iPhoto or Aperture if you ever decide to switch. That’s because all of these non-destructive edits are stored in a database file that only Adobe’s Lightroom application can read and write. (This is the big trade-off to the amazing benefits of non-destructive image managing, and for most of us, it’s worth it.)
But, if you started out your collection with iPhoto, you can move to Aperture at any time you feel you are ready to learn the more advanced capabilities that it offers without losing any of your edits — these crops, color corrections, dust removal, healing “touch-ups” etc. All of these edits are stored in a database (inside a separate folder of your photo library file) that both of the Apple applications can read and write. This is one of those tremendous advantages of staying in the Apple ecosystem that I mentioned before.
Magically Turning Managed Libraries into Referenced
Something else you should know. If you start out with iPhoto and all of your photos are being “managed” — the default manner in which your photos are being protected inside of your library file — if you ever want some or even all of your photos to now be stored outside of your library file as “referenced” files, you can’t with iPhoto. Whichever method they are imported in is the way they stay if you are using just iPhoto.
However, if you open the same photo library file in Aperture, with just a few clicks, you can convert one or more photos in either direction — managed or referenced. It’s amazing, and it can be had for just $79!
For example, if you wanted to convert your entire “managed” collection of photos to being “referenced,” all you have to do is load your library file up in Aperture and then select all of your events (in Aperture, your events are called projects), and then you tell Aperture you want to “relocate” them to a location on one of your hard drives. Then, Aperture goes to work moving your master image files out of the (protective) library file to a folder structure of your choosing. This change is recognized by both programs. So, if you load your library back into iPhoto later, your photos will now be referenced there as well.
It’s very simple and satisfying knowing you can move your photos in and out of your “protective” library file whenever you would like.
So Maria, if you were on a Windows PC, and you showed signs of having advanced goals for your collection, I would recommend you start out with Lightroom and take your time learning it until you feel comfortable with it. If you are eventually going to go to Lightroom at some point, it would be better in many ways to start out in Lightroom, then try and move there later from Picasa down the road.
But, since you are on a Mac, and even though there is a version of Lightroom for the Mac, unless there is a feature in Lightroom that you can’t live without, I would highly recommend you stick with the Apple ecosystem and continue using iPhoto. Then I would suggest you try out Aperture whenever or if ever you decide you are ready for some more advanced features.
Photoshop Elements does have a few cool editing tricks that iPhoto and Aperture don’t currently do — like blending multiple shots of a group photo into one where everyone is smiling their best. So, consider using PSE whenever you have some unique edits, and it’s the best tool for the job.
Maria, I hope this helps you out.
Wow, Curtis, thanks so much for all the detailed advice. You made the architecture of the whole system much clearer for me.
Happy to hear about Aperture. I have not been happy with Elements and didn’t quite know why. I’m getting Aperture pronto.
Thanks so much.
If you have any additional questions after reading this, ask away in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them for you!