All My Pictures in iPhoto Disappeared! How to Safely Get Them Back

graphic wall of missing images in iPhoto with new iPhoto library instructions

 

iPhoto is so good at protecting your precious photos, that in those very rare times when something actually does go wrong, it’s hard not to just freak out and think you really have lost all of your photos!

 

Luckily in situations like this, you are able to recall some clues that could make you realize your photos are actually still on your computer. It’s just that you can’t figure out how to get them to show up again in iPhoto.

This is exactly what happened to Abdullah who wrote me about his iPhoto collection:

Dear Curtis Bisel,

I have problem with iphoto.

I am using iphoto to store my pictures. One week ago the message comes up from iphoto and said something about I have to choose one of three choices. Unfortunately I did not recognized all the choices. I pressed one of them, and all my pictures disappear from iphoto, and the iphoto created new library.

Actually, I have tried to access to my old pictures but I could not. Somehow, I went to iphoto file than contents than thumbnails than the folders in years like folder name 2011, 2012, 2013, and each folder has one or two pictures, which is I have found all my old pictures there.

Now, I am very wary about my old pictures and I am looking to any help and way to restore them.

Thank you in advance.

Best Regards
Abdullah

Doing the Detective Work

Abdullah did a wonderful job of handling this stressful situation.

In a time like this, it’s very important that you try and stay calm, and try and visualize all of the steps you just went through that took your computer from working perfectly, to whatever state it’s in now.

All of these fairly detailed steps provided me with enough information that after reading his question, I was about 95% sure I knew what had happened.

Clue #1 — New Library Created

Abdullah mentioned he recalled that a message popped up in iPhoto and asked him to pick one of three choices. And he believes he chose the wrong one.

Apple keeps it simple, so there really aren’t that many windows that pop up in iPhoto. So that really narrows down what window he must have seen.

Additionally, he said some magic words that made me hear “bingo!” inside of my head —  “iPhoto created a new library.”

 

Let me take a second to point out that both iPhoto and Aperture work by accessing what Apple calls “photo library” files.

If it makes it easier to visualize, think of them like a big hall closet where you can safely and neatly store boxes (Events) full of photographs. The only thing is, in their current versions, both applications can only access one “closet” at a time. If you are looking inside of one “closet,” you can’t look at another at the same time.

iPhoto Photo Library file in a finder window
Here’s how your iPhoto Photo Library file will probably look in Finder. Note: by default, it’s usually stored in the “pictures” folder of your user account.

Clue #2 — Photo Library Contents Intact

Abdullah also told me that he was able to poke around in the “package contents” of the iPhoto “photo library” file. And after some time, he was able to find all of his photos inside.

Excellent! That’s relieves most of the tension from the situation because we now know:

 

  1. His iPhoto photo library file wasn’t deleted or overwritten.
  2. His master photos weren’t deleted or overwritten.

What Are the iPhoto Library Package Contents?

In case you are a bit confused by what Abdullah was talking about when he said he was still able to see all of his old photos in folders labeled by the years, let me briefly give you an idea.

iPhoto, by default, stores your master photo files deep within the “photo library” file. (Really it’s like a folder).

 

Have you heard how people with messy desks say it may look messy, but they could easily find anything on it if they wanted had to?

iPhoto feels the same way about its library file. It may look messy and confusing to you inside of there, but it’s very efficient for the software.

And if you were to step inside and delete — or even simply move something out of its original place, iPhoto may no longer be able to find anything — or work at all!

It’s delicate. It would be like setting a hat full of hamsters loose under a house of cards.

You laugh, but it’s true!

 

So, I am just giving you a friendly warning to be extremely careful if you dare go in there. What I mean is, if you don’t know what you are doing in there, it’s like not being a mechanic and taking a part out of an automobile engine. You will have to know how and where to put that part back, or you may have serious problems — like your engine won’t start again!

Apple puts a kind of “child-proof” like step in between you and the contents of your library file so that the majority of their users won’t accidentally go poking around in there.

Menu item to show package contents of iPhoto photo library
Right-click or control-click on your photo library file and select “Show Package Contents” from the list.
View of Photo Library folder contents inside of "show contents"
Your master photo files are stored in various numbered folders inside of the “masters” folder.

 

PLEASE KNOW:  I am not suggesting the solution for 99% of you is to manually go into your iPhoto library file, and into the contents folders, and manually extract your photos — should you find them. That would be an absolute last resort option for 1% of you that cannot find any way to get your library file loading correctly on its own again. That is your goal, to get your original library file working again without having to start over again with a new one. This step merely proves to you your photos still exist

 

For Abdullah, these clues that we just uncovered tells us that iPhoto apparently didn’t accidentally delete any photos. It’s just no longer showing his photos.

Which means our next question should be what could have happened that would cause this?

Here’s What Went Wrong in iPhoto

Whether he meant to or not, I was 95% sure Abdullah was holding down the “option” key on his keyboard when he clicked and loaded up the iPhoto application one day, or he clicked on “Switch to Library” under the “File” menu at the top of the application. 

When you do this, a “photo library” chooser window pops up and asks you to select one of three options. Abdullah said he didn’t recognize any of the choices, and in his case, he inadvertently pressed the wrong one.

iPhoto Photo Library chooser window in iPhoto'11 version 9
iPhoto “photo library” chooser. (iPhoto’11 v.9)
iPhoto "Choose Photo Library" window that asks you to "quit", "Create Library" or "Choose Library"
A similar but smaller window appears in older versions of iPhoto.

For the record, the correct button would have been the round red “x” button at the top left corner of the first window, or the “Quit” button from the second. This would have safely returned him back to the desktop, closing out the window, without any additional action being executed.

Instead, I believe what happened was he chose the button “Create New” / “Create Library.” iPhoto then constructed a whole new photo library (“closet”) for him to start storing a new collection of photographs in.

 

No harm done though! There’s certainly nothing wrong with creating a new library — even if you don’t plan on using it.

It’s just scary if you don’t know what you just did. Abdullah probably thought all of his photos in his “closet” were thrown out to the virtual curb for the garbage person to pick up because all he was seeing was an empty photo library!

Instead, iPhoto had just switched from his old photo library full or photos over to the new one that starts off completely empty until you import your first set of photos.

How a brand new and empty iPhoto "Photo Library" looks when it's first created. (iPhoto'11 v.9)
Here’s how a brand new and empty iPhoto “photo library” looks when it’s first created. You can imagine how scary that would be to someone used to seeing a window full of their life’s photos! (iPhoto’11 v.9)

The Solution: How to Safely Fix All This

The way to fix this is really quite simple. It’s just a matter of telling iPhoto that you would like to switch back to your original photo library file.

So, you basically want to redo the same step that got you in this situation in the first place. And you can do this in one of two ways.

1 Switch to Library
If you are using iPhoto v.9 or later, with iPhoto loaded and active, go up and click on “File” and then click on “Switch to Library” from the list that comes down.

"Switch to Library" file menu screenshot

2 [option] Launch iPhoto
If you are using an older version of iPhoto, or iPhoto isn’t already loaded, you can achieve the same results by pressing and holding down the “option” key while clicking and launching the iPhoto application.

 

After either of these methods, the “Library Chooser” window will pop up.

iPhoto Photo Library chooser window in iPhoto'11 version 9

The software now asks you, “Which photo library do you want iPhoto to use?”

Click on your original iPhoto photo library from the list of libraries that have already been created, and then click on the “Choose” button below.

That’s it!

iPhoto will briefly close and then relaunch with your original library file.

 

Additionally, it will now return as being the “default” iPhoto photo library. So with subsequent times loading iPhoto, your original library will continue to load.

If you would like to delete your new, empty and unneeded photo library, you are now free to.

 

Problems?

If more than one library has the same name, the way to tell the difference between them is to click on each one, and note the library name and path where the file is stored that shows up below the list.

The library marked “(default)” is the library file that will load when you launch iPhoto the next time. So, if you have 2 libraries in the list called “iPhoto Library,” and the wrong one keeps loading, then it’s probably safe to say the one that isn’t marked “(default)” is more than likely your original library.

 

If your original library isn’t in the list, click the “Other Library” button at the bottom and go through the Finder application paths and look through your hard drive(s) and folders until you find your old library file.

Or, if you are on an older version of iPhoto that doesn’t show a list in the window, you will need to click on the “Choose Library” button and locate your original photo library file.

iPhoto "Choose Photo Library" window that asks you to "quit", "Create Library" or "Choose Library"

 

 

I’m not always right — my wife will attest to that. But, in this case, I’m happy to share this message I later received from Abdullah:

 

Dear Curtis,

I am really appreciated your help and your time to responding to me.

Thank you so much for your help. You cannot imagine how I am a happy now to see my old pictures again.

Cheers
Abdullah

 

STILL NEED HELP?

If this tutorial doesn’t quite answer the problem you are having with your missing photos in iPhoto, I would urge you to look through the comments below.

I’ve easily spent close to 100 hours or more helping people with their individual situations and it’s very likely your situation will match one of them.

If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of material to sift through, consider hitting Command-F in your browser and search for a specific keyword or two that might be unique to your situation (like “iPhone” or “exclamation point”) that you can easily jump to down the page.

If you have any additional questions after reading this, ask away in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them for you!

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