On Photo Management and the Transition to iCloud Photo Libraries

I’m concerned about the future of photo management. Years ago, before computers were the hub for all of our photos, photographs were typically kept in one or more of four places:

  1. Inside of frames for decorating
  2. Organized inside of photo albums
  3. Thrown in shoeboxes
  4. Left in the envelope that they came in from the local photo shop

This all changed when digital photography took over and tools like iPhoto allowed us to more easily organize and archive our photos. The metadata contained in digital images allowed for geographical location, date and time, and even what camera the photo was taken with to be saved for us automatically. No more taking film canisters to the local pharmacy, paying to have them developed, and then hand writing all of that information onto the back of the photo once you took them home.

Simply plug your camera into your computer over USB and click the import button. Everything else is taken care of. Your images could then be easily sorted into albums or smart albums, faces could be tagged, and you could even print photos to be framed or build and purchase photo books.

Everything seemed great until we all purchased smartphones and the thought of actually plugging our device into our computer started to feel archaic. We amassed huge collections of photos in our camera rolls and never took the time to archive them on our computers.

Apple has finally announced what appears to be a solution to this problem, iCloud Photo Libraries. Any photo taken on your iPhone is automatically archived on Apple’s servers and once Photos for OS X is released this spring you’ll be able to view your photos on a native application regardless of what device you’re using.

But, I still have one major concern with this notion of saving all of my photos on Apple’s servers. You see just over five years ago, my fiancée and I decided to merge our photo libraries into one master library. This way any photo taken by either one of us would end up on both of our devices. We don’t think about who actually took the photo because it belongs to both of us.

We both enjoy sharing photos with friends and family and often launch the Photos app on our iPhone to perrors the task. As of right now, everything works well. We connect our iPhones to our Mac from time to time and import our photos into iPhoto, then we sync both of our iPhones with iTunes and each of them have the most up to date photos on our devices regardless of who shot them.

This notion of saving all of our photos in an iCloud Photo Library sounds great — we’ll never have to worry about backups, we’ll never have to physically connect our devices to our Mac, and we’ll have all of our photos with us at all times. But, the problem with that last point is that the word “our” will be a lot less inclusive than it currently is. Right now, “our” means my photos and my fiancée’s photos combined. But, if we decide to use iCloud Photo Libraries, “our” means my photos on my devices and her photos on her devices.

There’s currently no way for more than one iCloud user to maintain a single iCloud Photo Library between them. Which means if your family keeps one master iPhoto library, like my fiancée and I do, your stuck wondering what upgrade path you should take.

We could continue managing our photos the way we do now. Importing pictures into Photos for OS X the way we currently do with iPhoto and then syncing them back to our devices with iTunes. But, I’d prefer the elegance of a cloud-based solution without the need for cables and syncing.

We could ignore the want to have one singular photo library and setup iCloud Photo Libraries for both of our iCloud accounts. This would mean we’d only have access to our own photos on our own devices and would need to go out of our way to share photos that we both want access to. Not a terrible option, but I don’t have any idea what we should do with the nearly 40GB of photos and videos we’ve amassed over the past decade together.

The most likely conclusion is that we continue managing photos the way we do now and hope that Apple comes up with a solution at some point in the future. We can’t be the only ones that maintain a master photo library and I hope Apple has, at the very least, thought about solutions to this problem.

If Apple was to tackle this problem I think there’s two possible solutions for them to implement:

  • Remove the iCloud Photo Library option from the iCloud preferences and replace it with a login screen inside Photo’s settings and a credentials prompt when you first launch Photos on each of your devices. This would allow multiple iCloud users to have an account shared amongst them that would be used for iCloud Photo Libraries. All other iCloud features would function as they do now, but the shared iCloud account would keep photos in sync for every member of the family or group.

This isn’t the most elegant solution as it requires you to sign up for a new iCloud account and would have you sharing the credentials to that account with everyone that wants to be in on the master library. But, it would at least give users the option and would allow us to make that decision for ourselves.

  • The other option would be for Apple to build in the ability to link multiple iCloud accounts to one another. You’d have the option to send an invitation to join in a group iCloud Photo Library to anyone in the family that is interested in it. Once they accept their photo library would be merged with the existing library and all photos and changes made by anyone in the group would be synced to everyone’s device. Any user would be able to leave the group at any time at which point iCloud would allow them to “fork” the photo library into their own branch with any new photos or changes only syncing with devices associated with their account. This would be especially useful when a teenager is ready to break away from their family’s library and start building their own.

This would be my preferred solution, but would take a considerable amount of development time on Apple’s part to get it working the way I think it should.

And with either option they choose, I’d like the ability to keep each device’s camera roll separate from the iCloud library. I take a lot of pictures during the day as notes that I refer back to (hand written lists, PLU numbers in the grocery store, etc.) and would like the photos in my camera roll to only be archived when I decide for them to be.

The workflow could be: tapping the “select” button in the upper right, tapping “Add To,” and choosing the iCloud Family Library. This would keep everyone in the group from seeing these photo notes or accidental (potentially embarrassing) photos and give you the ability to prune your pictures before they’re archived for everyone in the group to see.

I certainly hope that Apple is thinking about this for when iCloud Photo Library leaves beta. there must be plenty of families or couples that would prefer the One Master Library approach to photo management. I believe that having all of your family’s photos on your device at all times, regardless of who took them, is far superior to having to explicitly share photos with your significant other or family member in order for them to use it in a project or simply show it to a friend.