How to make sure you don’t delete referenced images in Photos for macOS

With images and videos that you want to index, note, modify,
and manage, Photos for macOS has a powerful option that lets
you store that media in its original locations, rather than
copied into the Photos Library. In Photos > Preferences, in
the General tab, simply uncheck Copy Items to the Photos

Any media that’s referenced instead of copied will
appear with a special confusing little icon that looks like an
arrow pointing outside of a rectangle.

mac911 smart album with only ref images

A tiny icon on referenced images indicates they’re not
copied into the Photos library.

However, this can cause a problem: Macworld reader Angela wants
to clean up her Mac, and she’s concerned about losing images.

If I empty photos out of my Downloads folder, will that also
remove it from Photos? I am trying to clean up my downloads,
but do not want to throw away the photos.

I told Angela that she should make sure the box above isn’t
checked. If she’s only copied images into the Photos library,
the default option, she’s ok. (You should also make sure you’ve
already imported everything from that Downloads folder, too:
Photos will note when you drag images or a folder in to import
if it has already imported exactly the same file.)

If she hasn’t, there’s a relatively easy way to fix this

  1. In Photos, choose New > New Smart
  2. For the single criterion under Match the Following
    Condition, set it to Photo, Is, and
    Referenced. (In this case Photo means any
    media, so it includes videos, too.)
  3. Click OK. The resulting album contains only media
    not copied to the Photos library.
  4. Select all the items in the album.
  5. Select File > Consolidate to copy all
    that media into your Photos library.
mac911 smart album referenced images

A Smart Album can collect all your referenced images and

In step 5, you might be prompted to give Photos permission to
access certain folders on your drives. This is a macOS privacy
feature that prevents some apps from having arbitrary access to
private information. You might also be warned about missing
originals, which can then require hunting them down by
navigating around your folders, or deleting the referenced item
in your Photos library.

When you’re complete, you will have a full copy of everything
you imported instead of a mix of referenced and copied images.

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