Friday, April 10, 2009

Time Machine doesn't back up iPhoto

I've confessed before to having a scary number of photographs in my iPhoto library. However, since Steve Jobs promised that iPhoto could handle "hundreds of thousands" and since I only have a measly 40,000 I get downright testy when folks from Apple say I have too many.

This happened the other day. First, Time Machine just stopped working. Up and failed. Said it couldn't find the external drive
I had just hooked up even though it had started running because said drive had just been hooked up.

I called Apple's tech support. The guy was nice and knowledgeable. Told me I had formatted the disk incorrectly, that instead of "Apple Partition Map" I should have used "GUID Partition Table" (because I have a MacBook with Intel processor). The only solution was reformatting the drive (using Disk Utility, selecting the drive, clicking the Partition tab, then clicking Options and choosing GUID).

"Why," I asked, "has it worked just fine for the last six months and today it decides it doesn't like that partition system?"

He said it was pretty random. OK, whatever. I reformat the drive.

I do a full backup, Time Machine seems much happier, but I notice that the backup file only takes up 150gb. How can that be if my iPhoto library alone takes up 162gb?

I call Apple up again. The new guy says, oh well, that sounds about right, you know, because of the compression.

But on Apple's site, it specifically says that Time Machine "copies every file exactly (without compression), skipping caches and other files that aren’t required to restore your Mac to its original state".

I point out this discrepancy and he puts me on hold as he goes to check it again.

While he's gone, I go into the backup file to see if my iPhoto Library is even there. Of course, it is not. (How could it be?)

When the Apple guy gets back on the phone, I tell him that Time Machine has not backed up my iPhoto Library at all and he says, with jaw-dropping alacrity:

"Well, it's not perfect."

I'm shocked. A backup program that skips my most important files is "not perfect".

He says, "Well, why don't you just drag the iPhoto Library to your external drive to back it up?"

Apart from the fact that it takes several hours to copy the entire library, and that this seems like a pretty lame workaround for updating the few photos that I might back up each day, I am just flabbergasted that he doesn't admit that the program has a fatal flaw. It doesn't do what it promises.

He offers no apology, no recognition that this is a big deal. I get off quickly before he can harangue me with "Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

I immediately call back and speak to Apple support guy #3. He gets that skipping my iPhoto Library is serious and has me send him my log file. He promises to get it to the engineers and get a response back within 3-5 days. It's been 3 and so far, no news.

Meanwhile, I can't not backup my iPhoto Library so I find another external drive, and copy the whole thing over. When I'm done, I decide to do one last test. I close iPhoto and try Time Machine again. This time it works, iPhoto Library and all.

So, the moral of the story is, first, make sure Time Machine is backing up your large important files. How? Open the drive where Time Machine stores the backups, open the folder "backups.backupdb", open the folder with your user name, open the folder of one of the dated backups, and go through your file structure until you find the files you're most interested in. (They should be in the same places as on your computer.)

Second, if you have a large iPhoto Library (and perhaps even a small one), make sure it's closed at least some of the time when Time Machine is running.

It unnerves me to no end to know that Time Machine may randomly decide not to back up certain files. If this is really the case, then I need a new backup program. I'll let you know what Apple says.


  1. What's really scary are the photosvof the baby animals and the fox

  2. @Anonymous :) Knock on wood, but I wouldn't worry about the lambs too much. They're with their big, doting mothers, who would be no match for a little fox. Coyotes, now they're another question altogether. But I'm pretty sure the fox had its sights set on the chickens... Just the same, I'll close them in carefully for the night!

  3. Has Apple talked to you yet? I had the same problem, but I was unlucky enough to loose all my photos, because I thought they were correctly backed up. I would really like to know what Apple says about this...

  4. Apart from Time Machine backing up my iPhoto Library in its entirety after installing iPhoto'09 (and recently doing it all again after I fiddled about inside the library), I just noticed that my latest Time Machine Backup does NOT include my latest photos added. It insists that the iPhoto Library was last modified two days ago, and a forced backup does not add my latest event to it.

    Maybe it will decide to do it later.

    Random, indeed.

  5. Today's MacInTouch reader report at makes it clear that Time Machine does not back up the iPhoto library if iPhoto is running.

  6. It's quite sad to hear that the Apple representative says things that aren't really true. I'm quite sure it souldn't matter at all that you use a drive formated as ”Apple Partition” for Time Machine on an Intel Mac — it's only when it comes to using it as a startup disk that this is important.

  7. Hi, I just had the same issue and lost photos since may of last year. I had a similar issue with the GUID scheme which required me to wipe the disk in order to update to 10.6. After the restore I was missing the photos. Apple was unable to help, and simply gave me the number for a data recovery service. Right now, I am trying to recover the data myself.

  8. Oh no! That's horrible. And so not right. I feel terrible for you. Spread the word: TimeMachine does not back up open files, including the iPhoto library.

  9. Hi Liz,

    I've been having this problem, too, so it's been great to run across this blog and feel like I'm not alone. In my case, iPhoto may have been open when Time Machine first ran back-ups against my recent photos, but it hasn't been open for the last several back-ups, and the recent photos *still* aren't getting backed up. I'm not sure what to an interim measure I'll have to do some kind of manual back-up as you did.

    I've also talked with Apple reps, and the two I talked to had never heard of this problem and were a little skeptical, sigh. You'd think that even if Apple didn't want to advertise the problem, they'd AT LEAST make sure their support staff was aware of it. Anyway, thanks for helping spread the word.

  10. Same thing here, just lost some birthday pictures (from February). I trusted the Timemachine software (with the Timecapsule) would at least backed it up once. It did not! How will the tweak work that you exactly can see what is on the drive when you have a Timecapsule which does not run SMB / NFS protocol (with other words is not accessible as network drive so no exploring here). Only the Timemachine interface can give some information which is not very clarifying in my opinion. 9 out of 10 times it is Iphoto that is active, so it is a real disturbing bug.

  11. Ihave just lost all my photos after thinking that time machine had backed it up, i'm not happy

  12. @Jonathan. I'm so sorry. That's why I've been trying to publicize this very real problem.

  13. It has happened to me too, I´ve lost some recent events (I don´t know about the older ones) and still can´t manage to back them up!!!


    Let us know if you have a reliable answer from apple. If that it´s not the case we should do something about it...

  14. Now I am worried - i need to clear up space on my hard drive badly. But i have about 25 gb iphoto library and both used time machine and dragged and dropped (which took hours) for good measure. In both cases the iphoto library on the external drive says its size is only 16gb. What accounts for the nearly 10gb that is missing from the copy of my library? Apple Genius bar guy doesn't know. But he told me it "should be okay" to erase the library on my hard drive. Now I'm afraid to. Can anyone figure out why my copy of the library turns out to be so much smaller than the original? My hard drive is really full so i have to put these photos somewhere but really don't want to loose them.

  15. Honestly, I don't know where the other 10gb is. How do you know it really should be 25gb? Do you copy it when it's closed? Have you posted on the Apple iPhoto support site?

  16. I took the computer and the drive to the Apple Genius bar and the guy checked. He too concluded that on my computer it was reporting a size of 25 gb and on the external drive 16 gb. I did copy when closed - i'm pretty sure - this happens even when time machine does the backup. i just spoke to the apple support specialist at best buy and he too is puzzled. I will post to apple iphoto support site now i didnt realize it existed, thanks

  17. This also has been happening to me, but I didn't realize it until my hard drive failed and I lost a few months of pictures. Why isn't Apple doing something about this bug!

  18. Thanks for the post.
    At least now I know that I should use GUID Partition Table for my MacBook, because it's with Intel processor.

  19. See this post here:

    I found that I could not see the original files on my TM disk but if I open iPhoto then enter TM i can see all my photos

  20. This happened to me yesterday. Then I tried to drag them to the hd but it was taken too long. Also all the that got backed up earlier was put in the trash automatically. I've been emptying the trash for almost 24 hours and still haven't finished.

  21. Indeed, this Apple is full of worms. Yet another over-hyped shit-box from Apple. I have lost several very important iPhoto projects to TM. Yes, they should have been printed through a real print source, but, that's not the point. The point is, TM breeds a wildly false sense of security. Run, don't walk from this Pinto (for you young'ns, that's a car reference, look it up) of Apple i-programs.


More of my books