Limitations of iCloud Photos backup solutions

mobtkr20 May 2022Last Update : 1 month ago
Limitations of iCloud Photos backup solutions

iCloud Photos is a fantastic feature for syncing large libraries of photos and videos across all your devices. Do you have a 300 GB photo library? With an iCloud and Optimize Storage subscription, you don’t need a 512GB or 1TB iPhone to take your media with you. Nevertheless, iCloud Photos backups should not be ignored.

Keeping a local backup of your photo library is very important. iCloud Photos may look like a backup. It’s basically your photo library in one place, even if you’re not using Optimize Storage. iCloud Photos really doesn’t encourage methods of keeping separate, offline copies of photos and videos.

iCloud Photos Backups

The easiest way to keep an offline copy of your photo library is to…own a desktop Mac. That’s the thing with iCloud Photos. I’d bet the majority of users are on iPhones – Mac desktops probably rank last. iPad and MacBook exist in the middle.

My method from seven years ago is still the best strategy for desktop users today. Either you have enough internal storage or connect enough external storage so that all photos and videos are downloaded locally. The critical step is to keep a regularly updated Time Machine backup on a separate external drive. It’s not the most appealing method, but it’s a good hygienic backup for your memorabilia collection.

One thing has changed since 2015: storage limits on newer MacBooks have increased a lot. 1TB SSDs were super premium back then (and they’re still top tier for MacBooks), but newer machines come with options for 2TB, 4TB, and even 8TB SSDs. If you pay the price up front, you might be able to host your entire photo library locally and still back up to an external hard drive regularly with Time Machine.

iPhone and iPad problem

What about iPhone and iPad? You can pay top dollar for 1TB iPhones and iPads, but creating local backups on external storage isn’t really a thing. The advantage of local storage on Mac is that you can view your library offline and save it externally. the advantage of local storage on iPhone and iPad is instant access and offline access only.

iCloud Backup exists and makes your data recoverable from Apple’s servers. It’s just iCloud Photos without the sync component, though. Having your data on an Apple server is not the same as having your data on a hard drive in your possession.

My best advice for iPhone and iPad users who want a separate copy of their Photo Library outside of iCloud Photos is this: you can request a copy of your iCloud data, including photos and videos as of files. The request may take a few days to be fulfilled and requires downloading batches of 20 GB files from the web. Technically, it’s possible to upload these files to external storage that connects to your iPhone or iPad, but as Steve Jobs once said – it’s a bag of evil.

iPhone How to delete iCloud backups

Hybrid Solution

The solution to this problem isn’t obvious, which is likely why there’s no answer in 2022. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, though.

Currently, there are two options for managing iCloud Photos on Mac: download your entire library with local storage, or optimize storage and load full-resolution photos and videos on demand. This is what I consider an all-or-nothing approach; a hybrid approach that uses the best of both worlds would be ideal.

Here’s what I mean.

My solution for my MacBook Air is to have my entire photo library on an external hard drive, so it can be cloned or backed up with Time Machine. iCloud Photos is available as a web app when the hard drive is detached. This means using Safari for photo access instead of the Photos app (i.e. lower performance) – the upside is that it allows local backups without totally sacrificing library access .

backup drive - Market for Phones

Ideally, I could update and sync my local storage photo library whenever my external drive is connected. The Photos app can present a web view of my photo library when the drive is detached. Think of it as Optimize Storage Lite. Optimize Storage mode isn’t too different from how this mode would work; the feature uses available storage to keep full resolution photos and videos on your storage. Virtually unusable low-resolution versions of your library are used to browse and download photos and videos on demand.

The challenge is harder to solve on iPhone and iPad – I’ll leave that to more creative minds than mine.

take it from me

My hybrid mode may not be the best solution; it’s still clunky and doesn’t help iPhone and iPad users. iPads are used like MacBooks today, but there is no Time Machine for iPadOS. Maybe that needs to change.

Either way, there is no way to create local storage backups when using Optimize Storage. Believe me: it’s risky.

I’ve been much less diligent about creating offline backups since switching to a Mac laptop full-time in 2019. I’ve also been using iCloud Photos since day one with no issues. I still managed to burn myself at the end of last year.

iCloud Photos

I got too smart and decided to offload my collection of 40,000 photos and videos to an external drive – the goal was to create a new library and avoid seeing painful memories from a difficult time in my life . Easy enough! My original photo library lived on an external drive and my new local photo library on my Mac started from scratch.

It all went south when I decided to make the original library my iCloud Photos library later. I thought it would upload my photos and videos to iCloud again. Instead, iCloud thought it was supposed to sync the original large library to become the new small library.

Explaining what happened to Apple Support was quite difficult. “Have you looked in your recently deleted folder?” Eventually I contacted someone who figured out what had happened. The problem got worse, then the communication went cold. My backup plan was requesting my iCloud data from Apple. Unfortunately, too much time had passed for that to be useful.

The 9to5Mac take

Let’s just say there are regrets and it would have been a good idea to keep proper iCloud Photos backups. Moral of the story: keep copies of your important data in multiple places. Make sure one location cannot override the other location. If he can, keep a third place.

It’s also true that Apple should seriously consider ways to make Mac-level backups possible on iPhone and iPad. It’s quite common to use an iPhone or iPad without a Mac or PC. In the meantime, it’s important to take ownership of your photos and videos. Whichever way you do it, treat your iCloud photos like they might be gone tomorrow, and you don’t care because you have a clone somewhere else.

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