Photo Metadata and Search on MacOS

This article has been discussed on Hacker News.

Apple’s classifies pictures, identifying subjects such as “boat,” and “bicycle,” as well as settings like “cafe,” and “mountains.” It uses this capability to offer vastly better search than before.1

Unfortunately these improvements are neither visible to Spotlight, nor available in the Finder. This post documents a method of reconciling metadata with filesystem metadata, so that they are indexed by Spotlight.

  1. The Finder, Extended Attributes, and Spotlight.
  2. Metadata: A SQLite Adventure
  3. Reconciling Photos.db With Spotlight Indices

The Finder, Extended Attributes, and Spotlight.

Quite a bit of old information remains in circulation, about tagging and searching for documents in MacOS. The Finder seems to recognize a few extended attributes, for the purpose of associating tags and comments with files.2

To keep things simple, I will present only the method that has worked for me.

The xattr is used to associate a plist of tags with a file. Spotlight reads this xattr, and indexes its contents. To assign the tags “mountain,” and “alpine” to a file, for instance, you would create a plist:

 "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN"
<plist version="1.0">

To associate this $plist with a $file, invoke the xattr command, as shown below.

[...]$ xattr -w "" \
      "$plist" "$file"

At this point, you should be able to find the file, via the 🔎 icon, or the mdfind command, as shown below.

[...]$ mdfind tag:mountain
/path/to/another/matching/file Metadata: A SQLite Adventure does its accounting with a SQLite database, which we’ll call $photodb, and set thus:

[...]$ cd ~
[...]$ cd Pictures
[...]$ cd Photo\ Library.photoslibrary
[...]$ cd database
[...]$ photodb="$PWD/photos.db"

Unfortunately, $photodb is probably open, and locked.

[...]$ lsof "$photodb"
COMMAND     PID    USER   FD   TYPE DEVICE  [...snip...]
photolibr 15432 patrick    4u   REG    1,1  [...snip...]

The trouble with just killing photolibraryd, is that it will re-spawn, repeatedly. Undoubtedly, launchd can be told to disable photolibraryd, but the approved mechanism wasn’t immediately obvious to me.

Stop the photolibraryd service with launchctl

[...]$ launchctl stop photolibraryd

Instead,Initially, I opted for an egregious hack, which you can read about by copying the redacted text.In order to lock its database, photoslibraryd, need to be able to write to it. I simply removed write permisions.

[...]$ chmod -w "$photodb"
[...]$ lsof "$photodb" | 
  awk '{ print $2}'    | 
  egrep -v PID         | 
  xargs kill

Afterwards–but not yet–don’t forget to restore writepermissions3 to your photos database! You may want to restart your computer to ensure that photolibraryd, continues to work.

Now, it’s possible to open $photodb, and poke around.

[...]$ sqlite3 "$photodb"
SQLite version 3.14.0 2016-07-26 15:17:14
Enter ".help" for usage hints.

Review the schema with the .schema command. Quit by sending Ctrl-d, or with the .quit command. Tags (and a lot else) are kept in the RKVersion_stringNote table.

sqlite> .headers on
sqlite> SELECT * FROM RKVersion_stringNote;

We need to find the appropriate value of keyPath, since this will vary between systems. The following snippet, should suffice to find it:

[...]$ KEYPATH=$( sqlite3 "$photodb" .schema       | 
  grep 'RKVersion_stringNote_skIndexUpdateTrigger' | 
  grep -Eo '[0-9]{1,4}' )

Okay, but did it work?

[...] echo $KEYPATH

Now we can find the strings containing our tags, and associate them with filesystem paths. Be sure to substitute the value of $KEYPATH determined above, for the literal 719, below.

sqlite> SELECT RKMaster.imagePath, RKVersion_stringNote.value
FROM RKVersion_stringNote
ON RKVersion_stringNote.attachedToId = RKMaster.modelId
WHERE RKVersion_stringNote.keyPath = 719 /* !!! */

Records will resemble the following:

2015/04/25/20150425-035012/DSC00435.JPG|DSC00435.JPG  \
00435.JPG JPG October 2012 Outdoor Outside Outdoors   \
Outsides Land Lands Mountain Mounts Peak Sierra       \
Sierras Peaks Mountains Mount

Tags aren’t quoted, but always come last. The trouble is that its not obvious which are 1-grams, 2-grams, or n-grams. Various collisions are possible both between tags, and other substrings.

Reconciling metadata with filesystem metadata

Okay, lets put the pieces together. We need four things:

  1. a copy of photos.db in a write-able location.
  2. the system-specific value of $KEYPATH
  3. the path to our photos library $PHOTOLIB
  4. (listing here).

Start by getting an idea of what your library contains:

[...]$ ./ --stats \
  --db /path/to/copy/of/photos.db 
  --lib "~/Pictures/Photos\ Library.photoslibrary/"
  --keypath $KEYPATH
    16 Duds
    16 Clothing
    16 Accoutrements
    16 Accoutrement
    16 Clothings
    16 Apparels
    18 Insides
    18 Interior Rooms
    18 Inside
    18 Interior Room
    18 Indoors

By default, will make a dry run. Use the --write flag to modify fileystem metadata.

[...]$ ./ --stats \
  --db /path/to/copy/of/photos.db
  --lib	"~/Pictures/Photos\ Library.photoslibrary/"
  --keypath $KEYPATH

You should now be able to find photos using Spotlight, the Finder, or the related mdfind command. E.g.

[...]$ mdfind 'tag:Inside'


That’s it. Macs are easy, right?

Continue to Part 2.

  1. Google Photos does this too. It’s dramatically less tedious than manual tagging. ↩︎

  2. Both kMDItemFinderComment and kMDItemOMUserTags are commonly suggested, as well. As far as I can tell, the former is inappropriate, while the latter is disused, except by legacy applications. ↩︎

  3. [...]$ chmod u+w "$photodb" ↩︎