Setting a photo's creation date to the date it was taken by Paulo Fierro

First a little back story.

The other day my mom called me up saying that her 11" MacBook Air was out of space and running slow wondering what we could do about it. Knowing that OS X runs pretty terribly without some free space I figured I'd run some of the Onyx cleanup scripts, check out where the space was being used up with Daisy Disk and get rid of some of the crap.

Onyx cleared a few gigs, and Daisy Disk said that iPhoto was the main culprit — the library being nearly 80GB,  67% of the total space on the disk.

Firing up iPhoto I created a Smart Album to see how much space videos were taking up.

The Smart Album conditions

Turns out there was nearly 10GB in videos, so I selected all of the items in the Movies album and exported them to an external disk. After removing these from the library, emptying the iPhoto trash and the actual Trash the disk had about 15GB free.


Not so fast

Of course not. After handing the laptop back my mom complained that iPhoto was running really sluggish. I got it back, checked it out and it was unusable. Scrolling had a 5-6 second lag and the UI responsiveness was generally pretty terrible.

My guess is that removing those videos screwed up the library somehow, so I opened up iPhoto holding down CMD+OPT to get the repair menu up and ran each item on the list (repairing permissions, rebuilding thumbnails, reindexing photos, repairing the library). Many, many hours later everything was still terrible so I decided to start from scratch.

My mom's iPhoto library is fairly large — nearly 15,000 photos. Initially I thought her 11" may not be able to handle that many photos so I figured exporting all of the photos and only importing the ones from the last two years would be a way of seeing if that was the case.

I left the laptop overnight exporting the 15,000 photos, backed up the library and deleted the original. Now I just had to find the photos taken within the last two years.

What should be easy...

Once again foiled. All of the exported photos had date of creation and modification set to yesterday. The sub-folders were all album names and not really indicative of when the photos were taken. I peeked inside the iPhoto library package contents to the Original and Modified folders where the photos live but found duplicates, terrible names and general cruft so I figured the actual exported photos had to be salvaged somehow.

Then I remembered EXIF data. Every photo you take contains metadata about what camera was used to take it, the model, ISO, exposure time, etc. One of those fields is the date it was taken. So if I could figure out how to read the date taken I could write a script to "fix" the photos.

ExifTool to the rescue!

With ExifTool in hand I went off to Automator and wrote some Ruby that would loop through a set of folders and change the date modified to the date the photo was taken as dictated by its EXIF data. It looked like so (download it here):

I tested this on a folder and it worked! I could follow along what was going on in Console.app and all was good.

Then I ran it on the main folder and encountered an interesting bug:

Run Shell Script failed - too many arguments.

Automator was passing in the path names to all of the photos to Ruby as arguments, but someone could only handle 4096 of these. Well below the 15,000 items I wanted to process.

Having spent enough time on this already I decided to be lazy and just run it a few times. Due to the logging to the Console I could see how far it had got and simply resume it from there with a next batch. There's also a bug where photos with single quotes or ampersands had to be renamed to be processed, which I could have fixed but again, lazy.

Now only the modified date was supposed to be changed, but I guess OS X doesn't allow a creation date to be later than its modified date so they both changed as a bonus.

Now for some Spotlight magic...

Now that the photos finally had their dates back I could make a simple search for files that were JPEGs and created in the last two years.

Importing these into a new iPhoto library took a while but once it was done scrolling was fluid and the app was generally responsive. Great! So I backed up this library and decided to try importing the rest of the photos.

A few hours later all of the photos were back in iPhoto and the app was still scrolling smoothly. What the fuck?

My guess is that removing the videos screwed up the original library in a way that iPhoto itself couldn't fix. Maybe deleting the video files themselves from the disk would have been better — leaving orphans in the iPhoto library. I have no idea.

In any case it was a learning experience and yet again proof that Automator is truly a hidden gem that I don't use enough.

You can download the Automator app (open it in Automator to edit it if you like), but remember you must have ExifTool installed first.