Restoring Time Machine pictures with iPhoto on OS X Lion

Christopher Breen
23 September, 2012
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Macworld Australia reader Ian Martin has an issue with OS X Lion’s Time Machine, he says:

I’m running Lion and recently attempted to restore a picture I’d deleted using Time Machine. Instead of opening the iPhoto interface, where I could select a single photo, Time Machine showed me a Finder window. How am I supposed to restore individual iPhoto images? 

Under Lion, you can no longer enter the iPhoto interface with Time Machine. Instead, Apple tells us, you must restore your entire iPhoto library. Like you, we consider this a step backward, but Apple doesn’t do this kind of thing for the fun of it. If there wasn’t a problem with the old way in regard to Lion and Time Machine, we’re certain Apple wouldn’t have abandoned it.

So, you can do it Apple’s Way, which is to navigate to your user folder and then to your Pictures folder (the iPhoto library directory’s default location), fire up Time Machine and restore your whole iPhoto library. Or you can try the Sneaky Way.

First, we suggest that you first launch iPhoto and select its Trash folder. Unless you’ve explicitly emptied that trash, your image is still there. If you have emptied iPhoto’s trash and the image is truly gone, follow along.

Now, Control-click (or right-click) on the iPhoto library, choose Show Package Contents from the contextual menu, locate the Masters folder and navigate down through the nested folders to find the images for a particular date. (They’re in year/month/ date/nameofimagefolder; for example, 2011/June/12/Holiday.) Launch Time Machine and go back to a point before you tossed the images.

Locate the images you want (you can use Quick Look within Time Machine by selecting each image and pressing the Mac’s spacebar to ensure it’s the image you desire). Then restore them by clicking the Restore button.

Picturing time travel. You can restore photos with Time Machine, but only by digging into the iPhoto library.

When you return to iPhoto, your images won’t be there. You’ll have to dig into the newly updated Masters folder (this is the same folder where they originally resided) and locate the images you’ve restored. Pull them out of this folder and then add them back to iPhoto by dragging them into its library.

“But wait!” the sneakiest of you suggest, “Why not also restore all the files within the iPhoto package that have been updated? That way your iPhoto library will return to the state it was in when you first tossed the images!”

Nicely stated, and this could be a workable solution if you haven’t added any images to iPhoto since you deleted those now longed-for photographs. But if you have added images I can’t help but think that Bad Things could ensue if you’re working with an iPhoto library that has new images and an old database.

No, best to just leave it at recovering your deleted images and flinging them back into iPhoto as if you were adding new images.


2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Patrick says:

    This appears to be a helpful article, right up until the last paragraph which I don’t understand at all. Are you saying restore the entire iPhoto Library as Apple suggest? In which case what’s the point of the article?

  2. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    Good point, Patrick. Turns out the last two pars of the story were missing. All fixed now, and thanks for pointing it out.


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