Few things are worse than finding out you’re missing years’ worth of phone photos after you thought you backed them up correctly. I get some version of the “missing photo” question a lot for Lifehacker’s weekly tech Q&A column. And I’ll keep answering these as best I can, because I hate the idea of someone losing so many precious memories.
This week, Lifehacker reader Janise writes:
How I hope you can help! An Apple Support Chat tech told me he would be cruel to give false hope and that “something went catastrophically wrong” that needs FBI-grade recovery methods.
In December, my husband and I upgraded iPhones and to protect our photos before the trade-in, I manually imported all HIS photos to my Library for the first time. I couldn’t determine the import size but it was huge. I then copied the library to my Drobo with the intent to delete the massive file from my MAC. I did not get around to deleting because I first wanted to check the photos. This past weekend I noticed for the first time that many of my photos were missing. This ranges from 2012 onwards when my first was born and the loss is huge as I spend my days with my kids.
I use Time Machine but backup files stored on Drobo are simply missing between 2012-2019 – a date after the photo import! So far, I’ve copied the Library to Drobo again (it is 20 gigs less than the first copy) because I planned to delete it from MAC for space to restore a previous one from Time Machine. My iCloud seems to mimic the Library because even though iCloud is not active in Photos for backup, my iPhone automatically syncs when Photos is open. Another mystery is that some of the photos do show up in Albums, shared and otherwise?
I keep looking for a tech appointment but businesses in my area aren’t fully operational yet. I am pretty desperate to spend the $180/hr in the first place.
I confess, this one has me scratching my head a bit ” and if any Lifehacker readers have an immediate answer that calls out to them, please stop reading right now and go drop that in the comments. I’ll update the post with any of your suggestions that seem like good troubleshooting techniques.
Were I you, I’d make sure I held onto that first, initial copy of your Photos library that you made. Put it on your Drobo, at minimum, and don’t touch it. Copy it to an external drive, too, if you can ” have as many copies of this as you can make, in case any of your troubleshooting messes anything up. (I’m assuming that all of your photos are in your library somehow; if not, this is the best you’ll be able to do for now.)
I’d then do a more drastic step. I’d take whatever library is your primary library on your Mac, currently, and export every photo I have. First check your Recently Deleted folder to make sure there’s nothing in there that you accidentally removed.) Select all of your photos within Photos and go to File > Export. Fill out the following parameters however you want and select a location for the photos to go:
I’d then upload these photos to a different service entirely (for now) ” something like Google Photos, which can be a great, last-ditch backup location for your pictures in case anything goes wrong.
From there, quit Photos. We’ll now try a few techniques for uncovering whatever missing photos we can, but I’ll say upfront that I’m not convinced we’ll be able to do much given how much time has elapsed from when you did the import and when you traded in your old phone. (Had you only access to that hardware, this might be a little easier.)
Hold down the Option key and launch Photos again. It’s possible you might have a second library on your Mac that houses different photos than your first. I’m not convinced this is what’s happening, but it’s worth checking, at least.
If that didn’t turn up any results, let’s try again. Hold down Command + Option and relaunch Photos, which will now give you the opportunity to repair your library. I’m also not convinced this is going to turn up a whole swath of missing photos, but try it, nevertheless.
Finally, you can go inspect the library files on your Mac itself. Pull up Go > Computer and navigate to Users > [your name] > Pictures. Locate your Photos Library file (bonus points if you have extra ones), and then pull up the context menu (a two-finger click on your trackpad) and select Show Package Contents. Scan around the various folders (especially “Originals), and you might be able to turn up your missing pictures.
If not, I’m not sure these photos exist on your Mac anymore ” or possibly never made it there to begin with. And if that’s the case, I think your mission now expands to frantic recovery. Since you can’t access your old phones you traded in, are there any other places where your images might have been stored? iCloud photos? Another photo-synchronisation site? Some older device backup? Emails? Are there any other ways that your husband might have backed up his photos, even without knowing it, that you can now tap into? Does he use any other services he used that might have done this automatically, such as a cloud-storage service like Dropbox or OneDrive?
You mentioned that some of your old photos still show up in various albums and shared albums. The former would have definitely been covered by the exporting we did earlier. You should also be able to save photos from shared folders to your device. I recommend doing that, and then backing them up to multiple locations using the techniques I previously mentioned.
If you ever decide to copy and merge photo libraries again…
Next time you try to merge libraries like this ” if there is a next time ” I’d do two things. First, I’d back up every photo on my device (and any other devices) to the cloud. I’m not a Google loyalist, but its photos tool is incredibly useful and free for just this purpose. Even if you never actually use the service to view your images, at least they’ll be protected forever (and sharing them with others is easy, too).
Next, I’d use the Mac’s Image Capture app to rip everything off my device. Before doing so, though, I’d check my iPhone settings (Settings > Photos) to make sure I’ve enabled “Download and Keep Originals,” to ensure everything you’ve shot is actually on your device, not the cloud. (I’d also synchronise my photos with iCloud, if I have enough space for it, because you can never have enough backups.)
I’d then import the images I ripped into my Mac’s Photos library, and then connect my iPhone to sync them up ” or use iCloud Photos, if you prefer. Your choice. Finally, I’d make sure to run all of my backup solutions again (including Google Photos) to ensure everything is safe and protected in the cloud.
Don’t waste cash on data recovery
Finally, I wanted to quickly address one point. I’m not sure you need to spend $180/hr for some fancy data recovery expert to find your photos. I’m don’t think this is a case of a mysterious deletion, rather, you’re just dealing with missing photos that either exist or never made it to your computer in the first place. While it’s certainly plausible that you might have accidentally deleted a chunk of these photos somehow, it doesn’t feel like that is what happened. At least, I think you’d notice if you nuked multiple years’ worth of shots. (It’s not instantaneous, after all.)
I wish I could be a bit more helpful, but these are all the ideas I’ve come up with. Did I miss anything, astute Lifehacker readers?
Do you have a tech question keeping you up at night? Tired of troubleshooting your Windows or Mac? Looking for advice on apps, browser extensions, or utilities to accomplish a particular task? Let us know! Tell us in the comments below or email [email protected].
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