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Introduction to iCloud Photo Library

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iCloud Photo Library is Apple’s grand attempt at making all your photos and videos available on any device, at any time. Jeff Carlson shows you how to work with it in this chapter from Photos for OS X and iOS: Take, edit, and share photos in the Apple photography ecosystem.
This chapter is from the book

Over the years, iPhoto got to be pretty creaky and slow, which by itself is reason enough to overhaul the whole thing. But Apple’s work to replace iPhoto with the Photos for OS X app was, I believe, less about modernizing iPhoto’s code and more about making cloud synchronization work.

Here’s the problem: We have thousands of photos, and we also have mobile devices that can’t possibly store them all. Even though we rarely, if ever, need entire libraries on our iPhones, we also don’t like monkeying about with manual syncing.

iCloud Photo Library is Apple’s grand attempt at making all your photos and videos available on any device, at any time. It’s easy to set up, and has genuinely changed how I work with my library and also changed my expectations for how photos should work on mobile devices.

iCloud Photo Library Basics

Before I get into how to use iCloud Photo Library, let’s cover just what it is, what’s involved, and other important things to know before you decide to set it up.

iCloud Photo Library is not required

When Photos for OS X was first announced, Apple emphasized iCloud Photo Library to the extent that many people assumed (and still assume) it’s required to use the new software. The feature is entirely optional. In fact, in some cases you may not be able to use it.

If you own a Mac and have no interest in viewing photos on mobile devices, you can ignore this feature. If you do own an iPhone or iPad and want the photos you capture with those to transfer easily to your Mac, you can enable My Photo Stream (see the next item).

Telling Apple’s cloud photo services apart

Apple offers three separate, but sometimes linked, cloud photo services, which were introduced at separate times.

  • iCloud Photo Library: The most recent service makes your entire photo library available via iCloud to iOS devices and the Web (when you log in with your Apple ID).

  • iCloud Photo Sharing: This service lets you create shared albums to which other people subscribe. When new photos are added to an album, everyone receives the images. For example, I created a shared album of recent photos of my daughter so family members near and far get to stay current with what she’s up to. Subscribers can comment and like the photos, and in some cases contribute their own photos for everyone else to see.

  • My Photo Stream: Apple’s first foray into cloud-based photo sharing, this service automatically transfers photos you capture using an iOS device to the cloud. Within a few seconds, the photos appear on other iOS devices and in Photos for OS X (if enabled). You can do the same thing with iCloud Photo Library, but there are restrictions you need to be aware of (see “My Photo Stream,” later in this chapter).

How iCloud Photo Library works

The key component is iCloud—it’s the central hub from which photos and videos are propagated to your devices (4.1).


4.1 iCloud Photo Library is the hub for all photos created in or imported into the Photos apps on your devices.

The images in Photos for OS X and in Photos for iOS on your devices are uploaded to the iCloud servers and stored as your photo library. From there, images that appeared in one location but not the others, such as photos you capture using the iPhone’s camera, are copied to the other destinations.

The result is the same library—including the same albums—on every device.

Here we run into a conundrum: Not all devices have the same amount of storage. If your iPhone is a 16 GB model, but your photo library is larger than that, how does your entire library show up on the iPhone?

The Photos apps store compressed, low-resolution versions of your photos on the mobile devices—and optionally on the Macs—so you can access your entire library. When you want to view a photo, a higher-resolution version is downloaded as needed.

iCloud storage requirements

Depending on the size of your photo library, you’ll need to pay Apple for iCloud storage. A free iCloud account includes 5 GB of storage, but that amount is used by all iCloud services, such as iCloud Drive and iOS device backups (if you back up to iCloud). If your photo library is larger than that, you need to pony up for a paid service tier:

  • 20 GB for $0.99 a month

  • 200 GB for $3.99 a month

  • 500 GB for $9.99 a month

  • 1 TB for $19.99 a month

That 1 TB plan is the largest option available. If your library is larger than 1 TB, you can’t use iCloud Photo Library.

Also, if you bump up against the limit of your current plan (say, you import a bunch of photos that push you past 20 GB), the Photos apps will stop updating until you either delete photos to make room or move up to another paid tier.

To see how large your library is, do this:

  1. In Photos for OS X, go to the Photos tab and make sure no images are selected.

  2. Choose Window > Info and look at the size listed at the top (4.2).


    4.2 See how much storage your Photos library occupies.

Library must be the System Photo Library

If you have multiple Photos library files (such as if you converted old libraries or created separate ones; see Chapter 3), only one of them can be used as the iCloud Photo Library. To set this up, open the Photos preferences, click the General button, and then click Use as System Photo Library. If the option is grayed out, it means that library is already set as the System Photo Library (4.3).


4.3 Designate your System Photo Library.

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