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Syncing an iPhoto Library to Another Mac

Take Control reader J.S. wrote in, asking if Take Control of Syncing Data in Snow Leopard explains how to sync an iPhoto library between an iMac and a Mac laptop. Although the ebook does not explain how to achieve this feat, the email exchange about the topic has some good suggestions. The suggestions build on one another, so read to the end before trying anything.

Tonya Engst: I wonder what would happen if you stored an iPhoto library in Dropbox! The mind boggles!

Adam Engst: It’s fine to sync photos between two libraries occasionally (best done via a general file syncing program like ChronoSync), but in general, I recommend that you figure out which Mac will be your main repository and do what you can to use the other one only when necessary, thus reducing the amount of time you’re moving files around.

Dropbox could conceivably work, though most iPhoto libraries are too large to use without paying a fair amount.

J.S.: Yes I do keep a master iPhoto library on my iMac, but use my laptop to take home to show my family, and I like to sync photos in it with the master occasionally.

Michael Cohen: Apple doesn’t have a solution for syncing whole iPhoto libraries. Apple does offer, as you know, various ways to share photos, and to sync individual collections of photos between devices (e.g., between your Mac and an Apple TV or iPod), but the company does not provide a way to perform a full sync between libraries. In addition, Apple’s walled-garden approach makes it difficult for third-parties to provide such a solution, because the internal format of the iPhoto library evolves from version to version, and third-parties then have to reverse-engineer that structure to update their utilities. Throw in things like the Faces database (the format of which, as far as I know, is an Apple proprietary secret), and third-party syncing solution providers have their hands full.

As Tonya suggests, putting the iPhoto library on a server accessible to several Macs is probably the best short-term solution, although I can imagine problems arising in terms of speed and reliability, especially for very large libraries.

Adam: Your best is probably a general file syncing app like ChronoSync, then… Sorry there isn’t a better answer!

Michael: One final thought: if you really just want a way to bring your library to your family occasionally, you might consider a cheap storage device if your library isn’t REALLY massive. A USB memory device with a few gigs of storage might be perfect for copying your library to for road trips, and probably wouldn’t cost much more than a third-party utility for syncing libraries. Added bonus: you have a backup of your library.

J.S.: I do have an external Passport HD for general backup, but I guess I would need to copy the entire file from my iMac (and replace) the one on my laptop to do so each time I update. Not a problem if this brings in all the data.

Michael: The iPhoto library is a package—that is, it looks and acts like a single file from the user’s point of view but is actually a whole folder hierarchy with all your photos, versions, thumbnails, projects, and associated metadata stored therein. So, yes, if you simply drag your iPhoto library to another device, all the information that your library comprises should make the journey intact.

And you can hold down Option when opening iPhoto to have it prompt you to choose a library to open. I frequently do this, because I have several libraries: one for general use, one for testing, and one for writing projects that involve iPhoto. So you wouldn’t have to replace the library on the laptop: just open the one on the Passport HD.

Adam: Yes, there’s no problem with copying the entire iPhoto Library package, but if it’s multiple gigabytes, it will take a while (and it will trigger Time Machine to back up the entire darn thing again). A syncing utility would be smart enough to copy only new data inside it.

In iPhoto ‘09 you can just double-click iPhoto library packages to open them—no need for the Option-launch trick any more!

Posted by Tonya Engst (Permalink)