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How to Manage Large Image Libraries with iPhoto 2

by Derrick Story, coauthor of iPhoto 2: The Missing Manual

A question that I hear often at iPhoto workshops and user group meetings is, "How can I manage large image catalogs with iPhoto?" It's widely known that iPhoto bogs down when picture libraries swell to multiple gigabytes in size. And since 4-megapixel cameras (and larger) are commonplace these days, it doesn't take long to top off your hard drive with pictures, especially since it's already brimming full of music and movies.

Fortunately iPhoto 2 includes a few key improvements to help manage large image catalogs. In this article, I'll show you how to combine these enhancements with some third-party applications to build a robust solution for handling mountains of snapshots, scans, and illustrations.

The Importance of Optical Media

You'll notice that when you're in Organize mode, you see the standard Apple Burn icon in the lower right corner of iPhoto 2. This new function is vital to my strategy for managing and archiving image libraries.

Prior to iPhoto 2, the only way you could burn a Photo Library to optical media was to do so at the Finder level. And once you did, iPhoto could not read your Photo Library directly from the CD or DVD. Therefore you had to copy the library back to your hard drive, rename it, then relaunch iPhoto. What a pain in the USB port that was.

But things have changed. You can burn entire libraries, or portions thereof, to CD and DVD from within the iPhoto application. And what's even better is that you can later use those libraries directly from the disc without having to copy them to your hard drive and relaunching iPhoto. Now your disc of images appears right beneath your Photo Library much in the same way a CD appears in iTunes.

Screen shot.
Figure 1. Typical view of the Photo Library that lives on your hard disc in iPhoto 2.

Screen shot.
Figure 2. When you insert a CD or DVD containing a Photo Library that you burned previously in iPhoto, it appears right beneath your existing Photo Library, much in the way music CDs appear in iTunes.

Screen shot.
Figure 3. Click on the triangle and all of your custom albums from the CD library are revealed and ready to use. They will be a different color than your existing Photo Library.

Before I explain any more about the strategy for managing massive volumes of pictures with iPhoto, I should say that if you're serious enough about digital photography to have this many images, you probably should get a Mac with a DVD burner built in or at least purchase a third-party unit that you can plug in. I find that the limited capacity of CDs (700 MB) is impractical for storing image files, especially compared to DVDs that are the same size, but hold 4.7 GB. The name of the game is efficiency, and DVDs are just better for digital photography.

Regardless of which type of optical media you use, I recommend that you take advantage of this new feature in iPhoto 2. You could store all of your Photo Libraries on a separate FireWire hard drive. In fact, that's exactly what I do. But those are strictly my working libraries. I also have all those images on DVDs for archiving purposes.

You don't want to risk losing all of your pictures to a hard drive crash. And if you want to share a particular library with someone else, or among your own machines, it's much easier to hand over a DVD than schlep around your massive FireWire drive (iPods being the notable exception). More on all of this later.

Limiting the Size of a Photo Library

If you have a DVD burner, you can let your Photo Library swell to a little over 4 GBs before archiving it to disc and cleaning it off your hard drive. But even with the most powerful Mac, that's too much information for iPhoto to handle with speedy efficiency, or even sluggish efficiency.

More powerful machines such as the current dual processors should be able to manage libraries up to 2 GBs. If you notice performance degradation with that many photos, then scale back the size of your library accordingly. All modern Macs should be able to handle at least 1 GB image libraries.

As your library grows, I recommend that you use intermediate back ups to a separate hard disc. Simply drag your iPhoto Library folder located inside your Pictures directory to the hard drive. If you're managing multiple libraries with iPhoto Library Manager, then be sure to keep them all backed up as you make changes to them. You can also burn parts of your library to CD, but that's a much slower process.

Once your Photo Library has reached the size where performance is beginning to lag, then use the burn function in iPhoto 2 to copy it to your archival media. I recommend that you make two copies: one for home and one for a remote location. If something unforeseen happens, you won't lose your entire image collection.

Figure 4. How can you tell the size of your Photo Library? Simply click on Photo Library to highlight it, then read the data displayed beneath the date at the bottom of the column.

Screen shot.
Figure 5. Adding picture information by creating custom albums and filling in the Comments field enables you to more easily track down photos later when the library no longer resides on your hard drive.

Add Metadata to Your Photo Libraries

As you'll see when I pull all the pieces together, a key part of this strategy is being able to search across discs to find the one containing the pictures you're looking for. The best way to create searchable data is to make custom albums, create unique names for your pictures, and add text to the comments field. This forces iPhoto to include this data within the Photo Library enabling you to catalog it for retrieval later.

As a related note, your camera creates lots of metadata on its own. Make sure your date and time are set correctly so that it records accurate information. For more on the value of camera metadata, see my article, Use Metadata to Improve Your Pictures.

Find Good Cataloging Software

Now the pieces of this strategy are starting to come together. You have iPhoto libraries full of searchable data stored on high volume DVDs (and possibly FireWire drives, too). When you want to find a particular photo on one of these discs, how do you do it?

Personally, I like CDFinder by Norbert Doerner for cataloging and retrieving my discs. The application will also catalog hard drives and other media, so it's quite versatile.

As with any search tool, the better information you've included with your images, the easier it will be to locate them. If nothing else, create custom albums for your various photo shoots. If you have time, add data to the Comments field too. By doing so, you give CDFinder, or whatever app you're using, a decent chance of returning accurate results from your search.

Pulling It All Together

OK, you have your tools in place, here's how to build your system:

  • Add lots of metadata to your picture libraries.

  • When your library size grows to the point that iPhoto performance begins to lag, click on Photo Library to highlight it, then click the Burn button (while in Organize mode).

  • Screen shot.
    Figure 6. Enter a name for your library disk.

    Enter a distinct name for your library disc in the Disc Name field. See Figure 6.

  • Click the Burn button again to begin the writing process. I recommend that you burn at least two discs and store one in a separate location.

  • Test all discs by inserting them into a computer with iPhoto launched. The disc should appear in iPhoto as shown in Figure 7. Note that in iPhoto the disc has the distinct name you gave it, but in the Finder it simply says iPhoto Disc.

  • Screen shot.
    Figure 7. Testing a new disk. Notice that the disc appears in the Finder as iPhoto Disc, but is labeled in your Photo Library with the distinct name you gave it before burning.

  • Catalog your newly burned disc with CDFinder or an application of your choice. As mentioned previously, the default name for the disc will be iPhoto Disc. Once it's cataloged, rename it in CDFinder to the custom name that appears in iPhoto.

  • Screen shot.
    Figure 8. Renaming the disk. When CDFinder first identifies the disc, it will label it with the "Finder" name, iPhoto Disc.

    Screen shot.
    Figure 9. To change the "catalog name" to match the name that iPhoto uses for the disc, just highlight it and retype.

  • Store the disc in a 3-ring binder with optical disc inserts. Make sure the binder and the discs themselves are clearly labeled with the same names you entered in CDFinder.

  • Quit iPhoto and drag the iPhoto Library folder (inside of your Pictures directory) to the trash. When you relaunch iPhoto, it will create a brand new iPhoto Library folder that you can populate with fresh pictures.

  • When you need to retrieve a photo, launch CDFinder and search using keywords that you likely used for album names or in the Comments field. This is where labeling your discs on the outside is important so you know which one to pull once CDFinder gives you the search results.

  • Pull the disc from your storage binder and insert it into a computer that has iPhoto launched.

  • Use the image as needed.

How to Handle Scanned Images

If your photo management process includes using scanned images, you can tweak the process I've outlined with just one minor adjustment.

I recommend that you organize your scanned images in the Finder and create folders for them with descriptive names. Then all you have to do is drag each folder to the Photo Library column in iPhoto, and the application will import the images and create a custom album with the same name as the folder containing the original images.

I usually burn those organized master images to DVD, just for an added measure of protection. For many this is overkill, but I like having these original scans that's never been touched by any application.

Final Thoughts

Many people seem surprised that I use iPhoto 2 for my photography business. I've tried different methods over the years, and of course I'm still keeping an eye on new applications to handle these tasks.

The reason why I've stuck with iPhoto is because I really like the variety of output options, such as web pages to my .mac account, client CDs using the BetterHTML plug-in, one-click print ordering, custom linen books, and QuickTime slideshows. I also like the iPhoto interface and am comfortable with the way it handles my picture metadata, both created by the camera and the additional information I enter via custom albums and the Comments field.

And now that iPhoto 2 is AppleScriptable (see my article, Automating iPhoto 2 with AppleScript for more details), iPhoto makes even more sense as the central repository for all of your digital images. I use an AppleScript to automate Photoshop adjustments to my iPhoto images. It works fabulously.

But no matter which system you use for archiving your digital images, please stay on top of it. Losing a Word document is bad enough, but letting a hard drive crash steal your precious photo memories is a heart-wrenching experience you'll want to avoid.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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