If you’re using iCloud Photo Library, Apple’s service for syncing all of your pictures across your devices, then you can choose whether to keep your images stored locally on your Mac, which is definitely the safe way to go. So how do you tell how yours is set up? And if you don’t have your pictures downloaded locally, what do you do to grab all of them or some of them? Gosh, so many possibilities! Let’s go over it all.
First of all, check what you’ve got configured under the Photos > Preferences menu item, within the “iCloud” tab.
The top choice there (“iCloud Photo Library”) will be on if you’re syncing your library across your devices. If yours is currently turned off and you’re thinking about turning it on, be sure you’ve got a backup first! And it’d be good to read the support article on it too.
The two other options—“Download Originals to this Mac” and “Optimize Mac Storage”—are fairly self-explanatory. The first’ll keep a copy of everything on your Mac; the second will manage your library automatically, only storing as many pictures as you have space for. Note that I strongly recommend using the “Download Originals to this Mac” option. That way, you could do things like offline editing, and you could also back up your library through Time Machine (or what have you) to be protected in case there’s a problem with iCloud that causes data loss. I never, ever suggest that folks think of syncing services as a backup, and especially not as their ONLY backup.
Anyway, if you’ve got “Optimize Mac Storage” on and you didn’t intend it to be, that may mean that some of your pictures are only living up in iCloud and aren’t on your Mac anymore. If you’ve got the storage to accommodate all of your stuff, you can just toggle that particular setting to “Download Originals to this Mac” instead, and then that re-downloading will begin. Depending on the number of affected items you have, the process could take a while.
So that’s how you’ll download everything, but what if you’re comfortable leaving most things up in the cloud and just want to download a subset to your Mac? Well, Apple sure didn’t make that too easy or obvious, but one way to do it is by configuring an album or a smart album with the pictures you want to pull down. Start setting this up underneath the “File” menu within Photos.
“New Album” and “New Empty Album” are both choices that you can use here, and if you pick either of those, you can then add items to be downloaded by following the process I outlined previously.
The “New Smart Album” option, though, is pretty handy too if the images you want to download meet criteria that you could configure using rules—for example, if all of them were between specific dates.
Once you’ve got your album or smart album set up, then, an easy way to download its contents is to first turn on Photos’ sidebar by choosing View > Show Sidebar or by pressing Option-Command-S; then you’ll right- or Control-click on your new album in the sidebar to pick the appropriate option from the contextual menu.
Um, whew. That was a lotta steps to get where we were going. But after the download is complete, you should have local copies of your pictures, and then you can back them up or do whatever you need to. And if you start having trouble, there’s another support article on troubleshooting your iCloud Photo Library. I mean, I know reading a support page isn’t going to be a great comfort in that situation, but I do what I can.