I swear, sometimes it feels like Apple waits out for everyone to give up hope for a feature, only to deliver it on a silver platter the very next year. Cynically, better late than never. Practically, this is great news.
I love using the Photos app to scroll through years of images, edit and crop right on the phone, run photo screensavers on the family room Apple TV, and glance at relevant images in the Photos home screen widgets across my devices.
It all just works swimmingly … except for the rather crucial part about getting those photos collated in the first place. The strategy our family has adopted until now, which I assume is what everyone else does, was to assign one person’s account to be ‘primary’ and they are in charge of having all the photos. If others take pictures, they can send them to said person who saves them in the canonical archive.
This is obviously a clunky ‘solution’. The primary person takes on a lot of responsibility to manage the library, including doing all cropping and editing, and loses the ability to have a safe space for their own personal photos that they want to keep separate. A family member cannot see all the family pictures on their own phone unless they also keep copies on their own individual buckets of iCloud, something that is both annoying to manage manually and wastes gigabytes of our 2 TB storage plan with duplicated content. A particular pain point in our household is that this arrangement necessitates having the designated person’s account signed into the Apple TV, so that the Photos screensaver will work. Unfortunately, that means those Apple TVs are unable to participate in HomeKit because the HomeKit home configuration was set up on someone else’s account, and tvOS won’t let you sign in to both at the same time.
The newly announced iCloud Shared Photo Library codifies the impromptu approach we have all been using into an official feature, giving all the benefits without the aforementioned downsides. Photos can be saved to your personal library, or sent to the shared library — which all members can access and view. iOS will use machine learning to remind you to share images to the family library where appropriate, and can (optionally) do it automatically when it detects the family has gone a group trip together. Edits to the photos and metadata adjustments can be done by anyone, and automatically synchronise. It just works.
As Apple presented it, it seemed like the shared library would be tied to the Family Sharing system; the six users are the six people in your Family Sharing group. That would certainly be the Occam’s razor approach, removing the need for additional account management steps. However, apparently, that is not the case and the “up to six users” can include people that aren’t in your Family Sharing circle. That definitely opens up the feature to be useful to groups of people who want to share their photos but are not neatly contained into a single household, with just one shared payment method between them. It does raise some finicky questions, though, like how exactly does iCloud allocate the shared library’s storage. If someone contributes a photo, does the file size count against their personal iCloud storage quota, the person who created the shared library originally, or a wholly separate bucket altogether? Who pays for it, if you need more space? Who is in control of adding and removing people? Can you be removed from the shared library against your will, and if that happens, can you get a local copy of all the pictures of you before you lose access?