Help with opening a large Apple Photos library

This isn’t a specifically iNaturalist question so apologies if it doesn’t fit on these forums. It does however affect my wife’s ability to post observations on iNaturalist and I wondered if someone here might be able to help.

My wife ( is the main nature photographer and iNaturailst user of the family, and uses an Apple iMac computer to manager her extensive photo collection. The computer is an older iMac - a 21.5 inch slim body iMac from 2015 I think. When the photo collection started getting too large for the internal hard drive (which is one terabyte) we moved it to an external USB hard drive which is 6 terabytes in size. This worked nicely if a bit slow.

Recently there was a problem, and the iMac did not boot up. We took it to the local Apple store and they were able to reinstall the operating system and restore files from the Time Machine backup. We then brought it home and plugged it in to the external photo storage hard drive to open up the photos library.

Problem is, my wife has a lot of photos. The photos library is some 4.7 Terabytes in size on the external drive. When we opened the Photos app and told it open the photos library on the external drive it went to a loading screen which told us what percentage of the photos library had loaded. This increased very slowly. In the first couple of days of this process we called Apple support several times and asked for advice but all they could tell us, after ensuring that we had the latest available system software for the computer, was to just leave it going and it would load up eventually.

We waited a month, and it got up to 68% loaded. Then the toaster tripped the power switch and we had to start over. Currently we are at 3%. So I have a few questions if there is anyone here who understands how Apple Photos works.

First, does anyone know why it is taking so long to update the library? I get that there are a lot of photos (4.7 terabytes worth, which would be tens or hundreds of thousands of individual photos) but taking weeks to load seems excessive. We think that the system restore gave us a newer version of iOS than we had before, could that be a factor? For the record, we currently have the Catalina version of iOS but are not certain what we had prior to that.

Second, is there some way to speed up the loading? If the Photos app has changed and is requiring updating the indexing of the library, is there some way to bypass that so that we can at least open the library and look at pictures? Does Photos allow us to open the library in safe mode or some such without reindexing?

Third, is there a way to bypass Photos and look at the photos directly? The photos library appears as a single very large file on the external drive; is it really a single file or is it directory that is made to look like a file? If the latter, can we use some other means to access the photos?

Fourth, for people here who use Macs to manage their photo collections, what sort of setup do you recommend? What software, what sort of hardware? Should we get a faster computer? A larger or faster external drive?

Any advice is welcome at this point. My wife is very frustrated because it has been a month since she has been able to add any new observations to iNaturalist, or review older photos and add more of her historical observations, and we really need to find a way to sort this out.


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First, sounds really frustrating. I grew frustrated with Apple Photos and other Apple programs recently, even though I live and breathe Apple products for work and home. So I switched to Adobe Lightroom. I have been much much much happier ever since. It took a while to convert my material to Lightroom but there are tools and guides to do that.

In terms of your Photos library there is a way to see the pics without opening the Photos program. If you go to the file with the library if you “control click” on it you can see some underlying folders. Here is how that works. Go to the file and press control and then click on the file. A menu should come up and one of the options in that menu should be “Show Package Contents”. If you select this it should then open a folder showing the underlying contents of the Photos library. There should be a few folders there but the pictures probably will be in one called “Masters”.

Apple does some weird things with naming and organizing folders in the Masters folders but the pics likely will be there. And when I have wanted to do anything to my Photos libraries I have usually backups up the library first but if your library is Tbs in size you may need another hard drive to do that.

So I would suggest trying this and seeing at least if you can see the underlying folders and maybe open some of the pics in the folders and see if things work. And then if you want you should be able to copy or move any of those. However, if you do change any of the underlying material (e.g., if you move pics instead of copying them) this could mess up some of the Photos library so I would suggest copying rather than moving anything.

Happy to touch base again once you try this.

Jonathan Eisen



Thank you that is good to know - I’ll try that when I get home from work. We’ve been wondering if the photos are available at all if we can’t persuade Photos to open the library.

So you would recommend Adobe Lightroom over Apple Photos. What are the advantages of that program compared to Photos? We are looking for something that can handle a very large library which will need to be on an external drive. Apple Photos has been OK up until now, but even before the latest problems Sylvia had been finding that it would take a long time to load the library. Is Lightroom faster?

We’re thinking that we’ll have to get a new external drive - the current one is several years old and bigger & faster ones shouldn’t be hard to find. Do you have any recommendations of what to look for?


If you do get access to your photos, I would recommend breaking them up into multiple libraries for the future. Accessing any one of those libraries will be much faster, and there’s less chance of losing the whole collection. I use a nice 3rd party program, PowerPhotos by Fat Cat Software, to manipulate the libraries and move images between them.

Sorry this is happening to you, and good luck.


I don’t know why Photos is taking so long! So frustrating. That is a lot of photos though! I wonder if the external drive is accurate or not. My husband is a video editor and has found that external drives aren’t the hardiest of equipment, so it might be worth getting a new one if it is from 2015.

My Mac is also from 2015, and it struggles a bit too. The best set up I have figured out for myself as of now…

I prefer to use Photos just for family photos and keep iNaturalist photos separate. I recently switched to Lightroom for my iNaturalist photos. I really like using it to crop and rotate my moth photos. This switch is also forcing me to start tagging photos and going through the collection and deleting photos I don’t need - a task I definitely had been putting off!

My computer got to a point that it wasn’t happy with anything, so I made an effort to get things off of the hard drive. I subscribed to storage on Apple iCloud, which costs me $9.99/month for 2TB. The cloud also keeps backups for Photos and our 8 household Apple devices. The cloud allows me to access my photos and documents from any device, which is very convenient. It is slower than I like, but provides a lot of storage that isn’t filling my up hard drive. I also run a backup on an external hard drive every once in a while.

I had issues with the Photos app on MacOS awhile back. Apple support recommended that I repair my photo library:

That worked for me but it may or may not be relevant to your issue. Hope this helps.

I’m on a Mac and use darktable ( for my photos. It took a while to get used to but I like it and it’s powerful. (I shifted to darktable after Apple abandoned Aperture because I didn’t like Photos.) One nice thing I like about Darktable (which I’m sure other apps like Lightroom do too) is I can access my entire photo library (of >332,000 photos) on my Macbook Air and search and browse through all of my photo thumbnails and their tags, even when the hard-drive with the original photos isn’t connected. I also like that darktable never modifies my original photos but instead stores a text file next to each one (an xmp sidecar file) that contains my edits and metadata. It’s certainly not for everyone (it’s about the most un-Apple app imaginable) but I’m very happy with it. Plus, it’s opensource and free to use.

I suspect if the Photos library is 4+ Terabytes that that is composed of large numbers of raw files from a DSLR. I had an analogous problem but my scale is much smaller: I still use small Canon PowerShot point-and-hope cameras which generate files on the order of “just” 5 to 10 megs apiece. Also, since I disliked many of the changes that Apple instituted with Photos compared to their old iPhoto program, I still use the latter. It got to a point where my iPhoto library took up a majority of my 1T hard drive and everything slowed down horribly. I had accumulated over 120,000 images in 1,000+ iPhoto “events”. I finally took the time to create a duplicate of the entire iPhoto Library on a 2T external drive (all by itself) and then began the process of deleting photos from the Library on my hard drive. I rest with the hope/knowledge that the entire photo collection is safe on the external when/if I ever want to access it (using Option-Click to launch iPhotos and choosing the external Library). By paring down the iPhoto library by about 1/3, that freed up enough hard drive space (and working memory) so that iPhoto and other programs are responding much more quickly.

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