Q&A: Should I Store My Photo Collection in iPhoto or Elsewhere on My Computer? Or Should I Use Lightroom?

by Curtis Bisel
updated: February 10, 2024
Curtis Bisel
February 10, 2024

Hi Curtis,

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.

Maria Ricossa
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).”

YouTube video

(Problems playing video? Click here)

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 www.ScanYourEntireLife.com/YT4. That’s YouTube video four, or click on the link I listed in the information below if you’re watching this video on YouTube.com.

All right. Take care. Cheers!

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!

Mac photo library can open in iPhoto or aperture (graphic)
Your “Photo Library” on your Mac can be opened at any time in either iPhoto or the more feature-rich Aperture. The freedom is yours!

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!

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