Dumpster Diving in iPhoto

More often than I'd like to see, I have students and clients, overtaken by uncontrollable fear and dread, contact me about photos that once lived in iPhoto having disappeared. Or, another common issue, they were editing a photo and then come to find that they accidentally cropped out Aunt Matilda, and that was their only copy.

Once I get over my consternation that perhaps I didn't instruct them sufficiently in my iPhoto classes, I ask them The Question: Did you back up your image files?

But, I am not here to talk about backups, I am sure we've all had enough of this on podcasts and tech blogs. It's just that I like to turn the tables on them, as they tend to blame the Mac or Apple or me! Once that is out of the way, I proceed to explain some facts about iPhoto. Now, it's your turn!

First of all, it is important to understand that in Apple's wisdom (paranoia?), they make it very difficult to accidentally - or even intentionally, come to think of it - delete images or edit them beyond a point of no return.

The iPhone Library icon.

When peeking inside my Home > Pictures folder, I see my iPhoto Library. It contains all my images and all my edits.

When you do a default style import of your photos into iPhoto from a camera or iOS device or from another location on disk, what actually happens is that original copies of your image files are safely ensconced within the iPhoto Library file which resides inside your Pictures folder, which is located inside your Home directory.

I hesitate to divulge the secret to getting into your iPhoto Library. Those of you who need to know, well…you just know. The rest of you—you don't want to go there. Apple purposefully makes it hard for the typical user to go about mucking around in there. A sure formula for disaster!

The side benefit of importing photos into iPhoto this way is that by doing so, you already have a "backup" consisting of your original image files on your camera memory card, iOS device, or on a hard disk. Don't just go and immediately delete these! I recommend that you decline if iPhoto asks if you want to delete photos from the Camera or iOS device after importing. Keep these around for a bit until you've gone through your standard backup cycle, and you are assured that all is backed up fine.

iPhoto dialog asking if photos should be deleted from the iPhone after import.

At the end of a photo import session, iPhoto will let you choose between deleting or keeping the photos on the device.

OK, so you have a set of your photos residing within your iPhoto Library. As soon as you enter into edit mode and make any change whatsoever to your picture - cropping, fixing red-eye, modifying the histogram, etc - iPhoto makes a new copy of your original photo. Let's call this the "modified version" of the photo. iPhoto places this copy into a special location within the iPhoto Library, and proceeds to apply your changes to it. The original remains intact where it was originally placed within the iPhoto Library file.

The reason for all this is simple: iPhoto lets you edit your images non-destructively. No matter what you do to your image, you can always revert back to the original. Depending on what version of iPhoto you are running, there are a couple of different ways to revert to the original image. The most common way is to first select the modified image, then choose Photos > Revert to Original. You will be warned that this cannot be undone. That's because that "modified version" of your image, the one that took all of your careless edits, is deleted and purged from your Mac permanently. You are back to square-one: your original image!

The dialog box warning that reverting to the original version will result in losing any changes made.

iPhoto will warn you that reverting back to the original image will result in losing any edits made to the image. This action IS permanent.

Sometimes after you edit a photo, you want to take a different approach to the editing. How can you keep the edited version and still revert back to the original so that you can explore some different ideas for how you ultimately want the image to appear? Simple, but often overlooked: select the original, then go to Photos > Duplicate. This will pop in a copy of your original into the photo browser. You can now edit this copy, and still retain the first edited version. This means you can also create a duplicate of edited copies if you want to branch out from your editing workflow to try different things.

Finally, Apple really tries hard to protect yourself from you! If you select a photo and delete it via delete key or via Photos > Move to Trash, in spite of all the dire warnings you are given, you still have a couple of chances to recover your accidentally deleted image.

The first landing spot for a deleted photo is iPhoto's built-in trash. Look at the "Recent" section in iPhoto's Sources panel on the left. You will see a trash can. If it has a number next to it, you have that number of images in the trash.


Listed in iPhoto's Sources panel you will find the iPhoto trash inside the Recent section.

Here's the thing… and something that I find many, perhaps most iPhoto users don't realize… the image files in iPhoto's trash never go away! And people wonder why they throw out thousands of files, and yet the used disk space never decreases!

You can pull the trashed photos out by first clicking on the Trash icon. You will be shown all your "deleted" images. To restore the images, simply drag them back to your Photos library or via Photos > Put Back.

By now, you might be wondering how you permanently delete images from iPhoto. Simply go to the iPhoto menu and select Empty iPhoto Trash. Gone forever!

But wait… are they really gone forever?

Of course not! You are given one more chance to restore the photos. That's because when you issue the final command to empty iPhoto's trash, your image files are simply deposited into your Mac's system trash. Open the trash from the Finder, and you'll see embedded within an "iPhoto" folder the images you deleted from iPhoto. Restore them back into iPhoto by first moving them out of the system trash, then importing them back into iPhoto. If you had done any edits, unless you duplicated them earlier, those edited versions are permanently gone. Once you empty the system trash, those image files are finally and irreversibly wiped out of existence.

I know, I know … there are still some forensic techniques that can continue with the recovery process, but that is beyond the scope of what the typical and/or novice Mac user can or wants to do.

An Apple logo and iPhoto Library icon inside a life preserver.

Apple does what it can to help you preserve your precious image files.

Should Apple be criticized for being overly cautious because of all the fail-safe mechanisms built into iPhoto? In my experience, I would say that for most novice users (both to the Mac and to computing) as well as for many veteran Mac users, Apple is providing a great service here. Ultimately, you decide! At least, you are now armed with the knowledge of how you can revert and/or restore your precious images.