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. As good as iCloud Photos is, it still lacks a proper family sharing feature to help families unify their photo libraries.
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. For many people, the iPhone is their primary camera, and therefore Apple needs a way to help family unify their photo library.
I get multiple emails a week from people who are struggling with iCloud Photo Family Sharing. Currently, families have to use various workarounds to get their photo libraries in ‘sync’ so they can see the entire master library. You have to “designate” one person’s iCloud account as the “main library,” and then everyone else has to make sure to get their photos to them. Even with that main library setup, it’s still a very manual process to keep the libraries updated. 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 to use various 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. I should mention that I only import actual photos of our kids and other important things. If she took a random picture of something at the store, I’d discard it.
The problem with this method is that my wife cannot see our photo library from her device (to edit, share to Instagram, order photos for Christmas cards, etc.). I had previously been using Google Photos as a secondary upload destination, but with the news that the free version is ending next year, I am not sure that I’ll want to pay for additional storage once I hit my 15GB free space. Until then, 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 in a single place, and both of us have access.
My wife is currently logging into my Google account to view our library, but even if she didn’t want to do that, Google has solved this problem through a feature called Partner Sharing.
You can share photos of specific people or share photos from a specific date onward. Photos will be shared automatically as they are backed up to your account.
As you can see from the photo below, Google has completely solved this problem with multiple sharing options. The sharing of photos of only specific people is very well done as Google’s face recognition software is top-notch.
How Apple Could Address iCloud Photo Family Sharing
While the iOS 15 rumor mill will be heating up in the coming months, I’ve heard nothing to indicate that Apple will be solving this problem anytime soon. Switching to Google Photos would be an easy solution for families who are struggling to keep their libraries merged/up to date. Still, it negates the benefits that iCloud Photos bring to someone using all Apple devices.
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 hooked into family sharing as I share 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 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 clean of photos we don’t need. I prefer this solution of having to process them all manually on my laptop.
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. 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 family members 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, allowing me to do it from iOS.
Another way this helps is in the event of 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. If she had read-access to my library with the ability to copy photos/videos back to her library, we would ensure someone would always have access.
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. Uploading my wife’s photos to Dropbox isn’t ideal, but it’s better than having to AirDrop them to myself. We are also paying for storage. We are already connected with Family Sharing. It’s time for Apple to solve 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 we get a resolution in 2021, as I get emails every week about the best way for families to share photos over iCloud.
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