How to Upload a 4,000 Photo iCloud Photo Library into a 40,000 Photo macOS Photos Library to Free Up iCloud Drive Space

Today I discovered that I didn’t have enough iCloud storage space for a file I wanted to share.  In the past (apparently since sometime in 2015), I was able to find space here and there, but today, it appeared, I was out of options.  Actually, I don’t really use iCloud for much, storage-wise.  I upgraded my iCloud storage to the 50G plan, mainly just for backups for apps, email, and a few documents, but with all that extra space (coming from the free 5G plan), I had decided to turn on backups on my other iOS devices and… to turn on the iCloud Photo Library on my phone.  I didn’t really understand how it worked.  Apple always seems to be changing its photo synching services.  I had imagined it would be awfully nice if I didn’t have to physically connect my phone to my computer to upload my latest photos, because up until I activated the iCloud Photo Library, I would occasionally sync and select to remove photos from my phone after import.  So through some wishful thinking, my synching sessions got fewer and fewer and I noticed that it never seemed to free up much space.

Somewhere along the line, iPhoto gave way to the Photos app on macOS, and the “remove after import” checkbox went away and I figured they must have figured it out the way I’d previously imagined.  After each import, the photos would no longer be detected on the phone from the photos app, so I just hoped they were getting transferred.  I was confused that I still seemed to have photos on my phone – lots of them, but I still had space, so I just hoped everything was being magically handled.  Besides, I had other things to worry about, so I chose to ignore the problem and just hope that things were somehow magically and wirelessly getting to my computer.  I willfully put out of my mind and didn’t think about the fact that I had intentionally not turned on the iCloud Photo Library on my computer, because I knew I had 10 times as many photos there as I had on my phone.

Today however, I finally tallied the photos on iCloud, and it was over 20 gigs!  I tried synching my phone again.  I couldn’t tell where all the photos on my phone were being stored.  Why could I transfer some, and they would disappear, yet I had seemingly 3 years of photos on my phone.  Were the photos in the iCloud Photo Library also getting onto my computer?  It looked like some were in both places, but were they all?  I searched for a way to limit the space that photos would take up in iCloud.  I googled to find out whether I could safely delete photos from my phone(/iCloud?) and I got mixed messages.

The thing is, it’s not transparent where a particular photo is stored when I’m in the photos app and there’s no way to let my computer handle it the way it had in the past.  So I decided to recruit some help and called Apple.  I eventually got elevated to a Photos app expert (Jacob), and he explained things very well.  Here’s how I understood it:

  1. All the photos on my phone were being saved on iCloud, and only in iCloud.
  2. I had enabled “Optimize iPhone Storage” in the Photos Settings, which means that I only had compressed/smaller versions of the photos actually on my phone.  The full versions were in iCloud.
  3. When I synched my phone with my computer, I was only getting recent photos that hadn’t uploaded to iCloud yet.
  4. Those transferred photos weren’t removed from the phone, so they also ended up on iCloud (but anything that had uploaded to iCloud since the last time I synched, never made it onto my computer).
  5. The macOS Photos app does not synch the compressed/small versions of photos on my phone that were reduced after uploading to iCloud.

So I was faced with an issue.  Normally, one would just turn on the iCloud Photo Library on the computer and it would download all the high res photos, but doing that would be a 2-way synch and I had 10 times the amount of photos on my computer.  There wasn’t enough space in my iCloud drive to synch everything.  I could have bought more iCloud drive space, but I already have the photos on my laptop backed up on a NAS drive, so I’d prefer to just transfer the iCloud Photo Library to the computer.  So here’s how we did it…

  1. Quit the macOS Photos app.
  2. Start up the macOS Photos app while holding down the option key.
  3. Select to create a new photos library and name it something like “iCloud Photos”.
  4. Open System Preferences -> iCloud.
  5. Turn on Photos and click the options button.
  6. Turn on the iCloud Photo Library.
  7. In macOS Photos, click “Photos” at the top left.
  8. Scroll to the bottom and wait for the downloading message to change to “Updated Just Now”.
  9. Select all the photos and choose Export -> Export Unmodified Original…
  10. Save the photos in a new folder on the desktop.
  11. Quit macOS Photos.
  12. In System Preferences, turn off the iCloud Photo Library.
  13. Start up the macOS Photos app while holding down the option key.
  14. Select the original Photos Library.
  15. Select File -> Import…
  16. Select the folder you created on the desktop and click “Review for Import”.
  17. Wait for all the photos to be detected then select them and click “Import All New Items”.
  18. When the import is done, delete the folder you created on the desktop and the iCloud Photos Library that Photos created in your “Pictures” folder.
  19. [Proceed if you wish to remove the photos from iCloud, and thus your other devices…] Open System Preferences -> iCloud, then…
  20. Click the “manage” button at the bottom right.
  21. Click Photos, then click “Disable and Delete”

I never would have figured this out on my own and I imagine that many of you are just as bewildered as me, that is unless you started taking pictures after the iCloud Photos Library was created.

A couple things to note: 1. Photos you take in other apps (such as in the Messages app, whether they were taken and sent or received) are not in the iCloud Photos Library.  2. The macOS Photos app no longer detects duplicates, so importing photos that you previously synched (before they were uploaded to iCloud) may result in multiple duplicates.  There are apps available on the App Store for detecting and removing duplicates.