Apple Photos Isn't a Backup Solution

Much to my chagrin, I found out recently that Apple Photos isn’t as reliable as I might have hoped. Yes, I should have backed up my photos properly (and to a large extent I did). But as easy as it is to say you should back everything up – even if it’s synchronised in the cloud – with Photos it’s so impractical it’s virtually impossible.

Smaller camera and easy-peasy workflow with Apple Photos?

Around the end of 2017 I got myself a compact camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100) which is comparable in spec to my previous DSLRs. Not only did I want to de-bulk my camera physically, but also my workflow. Do I really need to adjust every single RAW in Lightroom? (Do I really need RAWs at all?)

Enter Apple Photos: as well as doing a nice job of organising and auto-adjusting RAWs, it synchronises photos to all Apple devices connected to the same iCloud account.

In my case, I was able to dump RAWs into Photos on my laptop, and – wifi permitting – they were on my iPhone or iPad pretty soon.

If you edit or delete photos, these changes are swiftly synchronised across your devices too. Sweet!

I imported all my old Aperture and iPhoto images, and a few besides. These were photos (RAWs and JPEGs) going back to 2004 in some cases.

You’d be forgiven for thinking all this is backed up off-site, so even if you have a fire, you’re covered. Well, not necessarily.

Photos disappearing

Sometime last autumn, I noticed a few photos going missing. I presumed it was a one-off, or my fault.

After a while, I noticed that ever more photos that I hadn’t deleted were disappearing. In iCloud, albums that were previously full were populated with grey squares.

The downside of everything being synched is that if it gets deleted on one device, it gets deleted everywhere.

Apple Support tried their best

I phoned up Apple Support, not expecting them to be able to do anything. At first, they were optimistic. They took detailed information, and passed it onto their developers. A total of 3-4 calls took half an hour each, and each time the situation seemed more and more grim.

Finally, I was told there was nothing they could do. If it weren’t for GDPR, they might have been able to restore an old backup of deleted files. I was very grateful for all the time the case worker took, but did say that it’s not really what I’d expect from Apple.

Yes, I should have backed them up fully, but I hadn’t got round to including Photos in my backup strategy and had blithely assumed they would be safe in the cloud.

How do you actually back up Apple Photos?

The guy on the other end of the line says the only way to back up Apple Photos is to download all your originals, then use a Time Machine backup to keep copies of them.

Fair play, this is what Apple says on their website (if you search for it).

However, in my case it wasn’t immediately clear that photos were going missing because they were historical. Time Machine stores a limited number of backups, going back as long as it has sufficient storage for, and I don’t think my 2GB external Time Machine drive would necessarily hold that many backup increments to make sure I could recover photos if I only realised they were gone several months later.

Then there’s a bigger problem. You can’t merge Photos libraries. Even if I could find an old version with the old photos in it, my only option would be to export the original (unedited) photos and import them into the new library, or vice versa.

Next, it’s very difficult to navigate Photos libraries on a Time Machine backup. So finding the latest version with the old photos could be painstaking. You either have to browse the photos on disk, or copy the entire library onto your local disk (assuming you have space) and import it into Photos. If it needs updating, this whole process can take hours.

So yes, it was my fault for not (fully) backing up my photos. But it’s also virtually impossible to back them up properly.

Lesson learned

I’ve learned my lesson and have turned my back on Photos. I’m quite sure that it was a one off, but I’ve lost confidence in the solution now. If it did happen again, I’m not sure what (practicable) backup strategy would protect against losing photos.

I had so many photos that it wasn’t a bad thing for a whole chunk of them to be thrown overboard. But given recent events, some of them I lost were of real sentimental value.

Back to Adobe Light Room

I’m just going to go back to Light Room for my “proper” (DSLR/RAW) photos, and periodically sync my iPhone photos with one of my Macs, which I’ll then back up with Time Machine. I’ll be avoiding Photos at all costs, because if something goes wrong it’s a dog’s breakfast.

Should I be wary of other cloud providers? It’s made me question my use of Google Drive/GSuite. I’ll have to take something like a monthly backup (using Take Out), and the same goes for Debitoor, which I use for book keeping.

Oh, the cloud: it has so much promise but is it just more work when things go wrong? Or are we simply living in times when we have to accept our digital possessions are ephemeral?