How to Drastically Reduce an Overgrown iPhoto Library by Starting from Scratch

Note: Below are the steps I took to cleanup my personal iPhoto library.  Your mileage may vary, and as always, before doing something drastic like this, make sure you have a good backup.  Also, this was done using iPhoto ’11.  I don’t know if the same process works on previous versions.  Also, this tutorial only outlines how to save your photos and events.  I did not bother saving any albums or projects from my previous library.  I highly recommend reading through the steps prior to going to the process to ensure you are comfortable with everything that is required.

I’m looking forward to Apple’s OS X Lion upgrade that was released today.  I’m hoping to breathe some life back into my MacBook Pro by doing a clean install and then just importing and installing only the things I need as I need them.  In investigating what was using up the majority of my hard drive space I discovered that my iPhoto library was using up 24 GBs of space.

24 GB!  That was shocking to me as I don’t take that many pictures.  What I’ve determined is that over the years of iPhoto upgrades my library has collected a lot of cruft.  Thumbnails, iPod Sync Versions, Originals and who knows what else seem to be using up a ton of space.

It is possible to get into the guts of an iPhoto library and try to manually remove junk like the above, however, you are almost guaranteed to screw something up and I would recommend to just avoid this idea altogether.

My solution instead, was to export all my photos, wipe out my existing library and create a new one from scratch.  I was able to reduce my library down to about 11 GB.  That’s a 13 GB savings in space without the loss of any photos!  Below are the steps to do this.

1. Re-Title All the Photos in Your Library

The first frustrating thing about iPhoto’s export functionality is that it does not have an option to export your Events in bulk to corresponding folders.  If it did, this tutorial would be 2 steps.  Instead, I had to export all my photos into one folder and then use a script to file them into folders correctly based on their filename.

To get the filenames consistent, first select all of your events, and from the “Photos” menu choose “Batch Change…”.  Then tell it to “Set Title to Event Name”.

This will update the titles for all your photos to look something like “My Event – 0001″.

2. Export All Photos to a Folder

Create a folder somewhere in your system to export everything to.  I created a folder called “Photos_Current” in my Downloads folder.  Now, again, select all your events and from the “File” menu, choose “Export…”.

From the “File Export” tab we have a decision to make.  When you modify a photo in iPhoto it keeps the original version as well as the updated version.  This is nice if you ever want to roll back an image, but not nice if you are looking to clean up some space.  For me, I assume that if I modified a photo, say I cropped it down, straightened it or removed red-eye, the current one is the one I really care about.  If you prefer the original version then that’s fine to, it means you can skip step 2b below.

So next I set the “Kind” to “Current” and the “File Name” to “Use title”.

This export might take a bit of time depending on the size of your library.

2b. 

This step is optional, if you chose to export Original instead of Current in the previous step, or you do not have any videos in your library, you can move on to step 3.

When exporting Current iPhoto does not properly export videos.  They show up as single frame files rather than full videos.  To correct this, we have to do another export similar to the above, but choosing “Original” and exporting that into a different folder.

Once that export is complete, you will need to manually copy the video files (could be of many types, MOV, MPG, AVI, MP4, etc…) into the first export.  Once those are copied over, you can delete the rest of the second export.

3. Trash Your Old Library

Again, make sure you have a backup, but if you do, go ahead and close iPhoto and delete your library.  Usually this is called “iPhoto Library” in your “Pictures” folder.

4. Organize Your Photos Into Foldres

So at this point we have one folder with all our files export named after the Events they were a part of.  This is where things require a bit of technical know-how.  Luckily for us, someone out there has already written a script to do just that.

You can follow the instructions at http://hints.macworld.com/article.php?story=20081108132735425 to learn how to run this script.

Once it is complete, you should now have a series of folders named the same as your original Events.

5. Create a New iPhoto Library

Open iPhoto.  Its going to complain about a missing library (remember we deleted it).  Just choose “Create New” and you can create a new “iPhoto Library” wherever you want, though I suggest just putting it back in the “Pictures Folder”

6. Import Your Photos Back In

This step is easy, just select all the folders that were created by the script, and drag them into iPhoto.  It will automatically being the import process and when it is done, you will see that it has turned all the folders back into Events.

And that’s it.  Not too bad and you get a huge space savings, or at least I did.

- Greg Martin

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6 Comments on “How to Drastically Reduce an Overgrown iPhoto Library by Starting from Scratch”

  1. Mark Says:

    My iPhoto collection is around 24GB too – but I have a large number of small HD videos, around 20 seconds each. So it shouldn’t be so large. Your post will help hugely. However, with videos is there a way of retaining the title as metadata? Whenever I export as ‘original’ or simply drag and drop through Finder, the ‘unfriendly’ version of the filename (IMG0784.mov) as opposed to the actual title (daughter dancing around the potty) results. Any ideas?


  2. I tried this method but it fell over on step 2 because I got error messages of the type “unable to create volume”.
    So I gave up and tried iPhoto Library Manager and it managed to rebuild the library (for free), you only pay for the merging facility.
    I lost about 11GB from a 40Gb library – mostly from the IPod cache.


  3. [...] do you trim your iPhoto library (or libraries) to a manageable size? Discipline. Even if you're not OK starting from scratch, you still have to be willing to ruthlessly throw away memories. Allow yourself to curate your [...]

  4. Darrin Says:

    Great article, thanks for posting this! Just an update: as of Sept 25, 2012, iPhoto 11 with all updates has the ability to export to subfolders with event names. You may not need to rename the files anymore. Not sure when this feature was introduced, but it is here now.


  5. My two large iPhoto Librairies have about 170 GB each. They are bloated with thumbnails and originals and changes. I have exported and then deleted all movies (search for .mov, .avi, etc., save in folders, delete from iPhoto). I have run several duplicate finer apps and deleted duplicates. the process is lengthy, but the reduction from over 250 GB to 170 GB is close to 1/3. these processes require vigilance and care, rebuilding permissions and the DB. iPhoto Library Manager 4.0.3 returns size values for the two librairies as 90 GB and 124 GB. The Finder sees 162 GB and 187 GB. Mac OS 10.8.3 mismanages SWAP and RAM so dealing with either of these large files results in system freezes. I believe iLM 4.0 returns only the size of the original photos which is what you get when you export as this article recommends. Unfortunately once you upload the originals into iPhoto it will rebuild thumbnails and begin saving originals and duplicates and your library file we quickly return to the larger size


  6. Think before you take pictures: What are the pictures intended for?
    Do you really need 20 MP pictures? Mostly 5-6 MP are more than enough,also for a A4 / letter size print.


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