iCloud Photos is probably one of the most impressive services that Apple is currently running. It’s built into every iOS, macOS, and tvOS device (and iCloud.com), and Apple has to be syncing billions and billions of photos and videos across its data centers. I’ve been using it since the early beta period of iOS 8, and I am happily (well unhappily) paying $10 per month for 2 TB of storage which includes my 300 GB library. By design, users are supposed to have individual iCloud accounts, but then link them in Family Sharing. Family Sharing allows families to share iCloud Storage (the 200 GB or higher plan) and Apple Music subscription (family plans). I also assume that Apple’s upcoming TV service will also be integrated into Apple’s family sharing set up as well. But for a lot of families, there is still a key section of Apple’s iOS and macOS experience that has not been integrated well into Family Sharing: iCloud Photos. It’s missing an easy way for families to keep their iCloud Photo libraries up to date with each other.
What’s Missing in iCloud Photos Family Sharing
While Apple does allow you to create shared albums in iCloud Photos, it doesn’t allow a way for families to create a single library for all of their family photos. I’ve talked to some friends who are really against this idea, and while I don’t think it should be the default, it needs to be an option.
I get at least five emails a week from people who are struggling with iCloud Photo Family Sharing. Right now, for families, they have to use a variety of workarounds to get their photo libraries in sync. You have to “designate” one person as the “master library” and then everyone else has to make sure to get their photos to them. iOS 12 did add a “smart sharing” feature, but that is really focused on events and trips (vs. everyday photos).
Keeping iCloud Photos Up to Date with Families
If you want to share your iCloud Photos with a family member now, you have use a variety of methods to do this like AirDrop or iMessage. The problem with these methods is they are manual, and you are likely to forget to keep the master library up to date. Another option (what I use), is I have my wife’s iPhone set to auto-upload her camera roll to Dropbox whenever she gets on Wi-Fi. I will take the uploaded photos (which download to my Mac) and then merge them into iCloud Photos. This method keeps all of our photos in one “master library” that can be run through my backup strategy. One thing I should mention is that I only import actual photos of our kids and other important things. If she took a random picture, I’ll discard it.
The problem with this method of mine is that my wife cannot see our photo library from her device (to edit, share to Instagram, order photos, etc). I get around this by uploading my library to Google Photos as well. I use the free version (but create albums too). When my wife wants to see our library, she launches the Google Photos app that is shared with her account. This method is a complete hack, but it’s the only way I can have our libraries into a single place and both of us have access.
How Apple Could Address iCloud Photo Family Sharing
While the iOS 13 rumor mill will be heating up in the coming weeks, I’ve heard nothing to indicate that Apple will be solving this problem anytime soon. I hope they do because Google Photos has solved this problem already. For families who are struggling to keep their libraries merged/up to date, switching to Google Photos would be an easy solution.
Sign into a Different iCloud Photo Account for Family Sharing Accounts
One little known feature of iOS is that you can use a different App Store account than your normal iCloud login. I take advantage of this because my main app purchase history is an old Gmail account that I’ve had before iCloud was even a product. This feature is actually hooked into family sharing as I am sharing purchases from this account to the rest of my family. Apple could allow users who want a single library to sign into a different iCloud Photo library than their main iCloud account. In my situation, I’d simply have my wife logged into my iCloud account for photos. While she might “junk” up my library with random photos, I could easily delete them to keep our family iCloud photo library cleaned up.
Sharing From Face Scanning
Another idea for solving these iCloud Photos family sharing problem would be to designate faces that I want from my wife’s library I want to save back automatically. Doing this would mean syncing face information across Family Sharing. How I envision this working would be that I could say I want any photos of these 5 people (my family) automatically added to my library over iCloud. The flaw with this solution is that I’d miss out on any other photos, and I’d also have to wait for her iPhone to do the face scanning (happens when iPhone is on the charger and Wi-Fi).
Read Only Access to iCloud Photos for Families
Apple could also allow members of a family to have “read-only” access to the other libraries connected with Family Sharing. Doing this would also allow parents to keep an eye on what their kids are doing. If this was enabled, I could go into my wife’s iCloud Photo library and copy anything she’s taken that I want to be saved back to my library. She could do the same thing if she wanted something I had taken to share on Instagram or send off to be printed. Of all the methods I’ve come up with for how Apple could enable families to share iCloud Photos, this is probably my favorite option. It gives me control over what’s in my library, and it allows me to do it from iOS.
Another way this helps is in the event of a death. I’ve long been paranoid about my wife losing access to our family photo library in the event of my death. I’ve got a shared note (password protected) on how to get into my devices and which friend to call to help make sure she’s got access to it all.
Whatever Apple does to address this problem, it’s got to be easy. My current method requires a third-party service to get the job done. When my wife upload’s to Dropbox, it strips away Live Photo data, but it’s better than the alternative of having to check her phone periodically and AirDropping them back to myself. We are also paying for storage. We are already connected with Family Sharing. It’s time for Apple to solve the problem of families sharing and syncing photos and videos which has been an issue since iPhoto version 1. If you want a fun trip down memory lane, check out this podcast episode from 2011 where John Siracusa lays out the problem we are still facing today. I hope that we get a resolution soon, as I get emails every week about the best way for families to share photos over iCloud.