Mac OS X Desktop Background sets without iPhoto Albums

One of the pleasures of using Mac OS X is that Apple’s often-elegant UI makes the easy things easy and gracefully reveals the complexity of any complicated tasks you may wish to perform. Except when you want to do something out of the ordinary, of course, in which case things get complicated a bit more quicky. Thankfully, Apple doesn’t seem to go to any great lengths to cripple users, and this comes in handy time and time again.

While playing with my Desktop Backgrounds (computer “wallpapers”) the other day, I ran into an issue like this. I wanted to make sets of wallpaper images that overlapped one another. This is easily doable with Apple’s iPhoto, since all iPhoto albums appear as Desktop Background sets by default. I could simply put together a bunch of iPhoto Albums containing the images I wanted, including overlapping images, and be done with it. iPhoto takes care not to duplicate the photo into every album so space on my hard drive would not have been wasted.

But what if I didn’t want to use iPhoto? If I just have a bunch of image files on my disk in folders, how can I make overlapping sets? The solution is as simple as a Unix symbolic link—with a catch: only a symbolic link with an absolute path would work.

At first, I tried to simply use a standard Mac OS X “alias,” but that didn’t work. My MacBook Pro wouldn’t follow the alias file to the original file when trying to display the wallpaper. Then I tried a simple symlink from one file to another, but again it didn’t work.

Luckily, then I tried dragging the file into my terminal window, which automatically listed the full POSIX pathname of my image. This, surprisingly, worked. So it turns out that the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preference pane requires an absolute path to be specified if it’s to follow symlinks for creating wallpaper sets organized by folders. Go figure.