Thinking About Shared iCloud Photo Libraries 

I had a very rocky experience with iCloud Photo Library in late 2015:

I imported my photos and uploaded my 70GB photo library to iCloud. Everything went very smoothly, so I turned on iCloud Photo Library on my iPad.

Aaaaaand it all exploded.

Apple Support eventually got me up and running, but it took a while for me to fully trust the system.

The reality is that iCloud Photo Library is pretty great when everything is working smoothly.1 Photos show up on my devices quickly, regardless if I snapped them with my iPhone or imported them from an SD card on my iMac.

My wife has been using it for as long as I have, and she also enjoys the service. We’re both paying iCloud customers at this point, but like every other family using iCloud Photo Library, our sharing system is a bit of a mess.

If I take photos on my “nice camera,” I’ll import the RAW files to my iMac, edit them, then import them into both of our libraries. If either of have an iPhone photo we want to share, we AirDrop it, as Shared Photo Streams downsize images and video:

iCloud Photo Sharing supports JPEG, RAW, PNG, GIF, TIFF, and MP4, as well as special formats you capture with your iPhone, like slo-mo, time-lapse, 4K videos, and Live Photos. You can even share your Memory videos. When shared, photos taken with standard point-and-shoot cameras, SLR cameras, or iOS devices have up to 2048 pixels on the long edge. Panoramic photos can be up to 5400 pixels wide.

iCloud Photo Sharing supports both MP4 and QuickTime video file types, and H.264 and MPEG-4 Video file formats. Videos can be up to five minutes in length and are delivered at up to 720p resolution.

All of this leads to a lot of duplication between our libraries. Google recently introduced powerful new sharing tools, and as the guys on ATP spoke about this week, its time Apple step up to the plate with something new. Here’s Jason Snell on the subject:

My wife and I have wanted to pool our photo libraries for ages now—the alternative is for me to occasionally plug her iPhone into my Mac and import her photos, and for her to ask me to AirDrop photos I’ve taken to her when she wants to post them to Facebook. Google Photos will allow that now—and Apple needs to follow suit.

But, you’re saying to yourself, what if you want to share some but not all photos with a partner? Google’s announcement takes this extra step, letting you specify that certain sorts of photos—for example, photos of specific people—be shared, while others aren’t. While offering an all-or-nothing library sharing feature would be nice, it’s even better if sharing can have some granularity. Google’s headed there now. Will Apple follow?

In thinking about how Apple could add family sharing to iCloud Photo Library, two types of solutions come to mind.

Common Library

In this world, Apple would have a way to have multiple iCloud accounts have access to one big, centralized common photo library.

Users — let’s say a married couple — could both go in, create albums, make edits and more. Both people would have full read/write access to the library.

There are issues with this, of course. Would individuals have their own iCloud Photo Libraries and access to the big shared one? How would Photos.app display this? I think this sort of thing could be confusing, and I bet people would end up with photos in the wrong library pretty easily.

If users didn’t have their own personal libraries, I think many would be frustrated and sharing every single photo and screenshot they take.

In short, I don’t think a big, shared library is the way to go.

Library Access

This solution is what I would prefer. In it, my wife and I would continue to have our own libraries, tied to our own iCloud accounts, just like we do today.

However, we would be able to add each other as viewers to our libraries. Once access has been granted, her library would show up in the top-level of Photos.app as do things like People, Places, Videos, etc. I could tap her library to see all of her content, including albums, collections, etc. If I were to see something I wanted to add to my library, I could select it and tap “Add to My Library.” Doing so would prompt iCloud to add a full-resolution copy of that file to my personal library.

In this world, she would not be able to edit anything in my library, but pull any content from it she wants in hers. This would not take care of the duplication issue, but would be less confusing than having one big library.

WWDC is Coming

Last year, Photos.app and iCloud Photo Library saw a lot of love, but Apple needs to keep its foot on the gas to stay competitive in this space. I hope they do just that on June 5.


  1. It’s still not perfect; I recently had a whole bunch of photos adopt the same description. After some back and forth with Apple, my radar was marked as a duplicate and closed.