What Is iCloud Photo Library?
While Apple has offered some iCloud photo services such as Photo Streams for some time, iCloud Photo Library is a new service still in beta that moves the user's entire photo and video library into the cloud. The service is part of Apple's push to make it as easy as possible for users to switch among Mac and iOS devices throughout the day, making the user's photos are available on all of their devices and ensuring any changes get quickly synced across devices.
Initially planned to launch as part of iOS 8.0, Apple pushed the service back to beta ahead of the public release as the company continued to refine the service and work on cross-platform capabilities. The Mac portion was also not ready for the public release of OS X Yosemite last October, but with the new Photos app for Mac ready for launch, all of the pieces are falling into place for iCloud Photo Library.
Turning on iCloud Photo Library
- iOS 8.1 or later: Open the Settings app and head to the iCloud section. Make sure you're logged in, and access the Photos section, where you'll find a toggle for iCloud Photo Library. This option can also be accessed through the Photos & Camera section of Settings.
- OS X 10.10.3: Open System Preferences and head to the iCloud pane. If you're logged in, you'll see a list of the various iCloud services. Hit the "Options..." button next to Photos, and you'll see a window where you can turn on iCloud Photo Library. You can also manage settings within the Preferences section of the new Photos app directly.
- iCloud.com: Photos stored in iCloud Photo Library are also accessible through Apple's web-based iCloud.com service. Through the web interface, users can upload or download photos, browse via Moments and Albums view, print or email photos, and mark individual photos as favorites.
iCloud Photo Library Settings
The new Photos app for Mac that arrives with OS X 10.10.3 is built to work with iCloud Photo Library, although users can opt to use local photo libraries on their machines if they prefer. Users opting for iCloud Photo Library have the option of storing the original photos on their Mac, which is ideal for offline access, or a more flexible optimized arrangement that stores originals locally if you have enough storage space but uses lower-resolution versions if local storage is tight and only downloads the full-resolution versions from iCloud as needed.
Similar settings are available on iOS, where users can choose between storing full-resolution photos right on their devices or saving some space by storing lower-resolution versions onboard and keeping the full-resolution version in iCloud.
On iOS and OS X, users will also continue to see an option for My Photo Stream, which is Apple's existing service that allowed users to automatically sync their last 1,000 photos between devices. On devices where iCloud Photo Library is active, there will no longer be a separate My Photo Stream album, as all photos are now included in the main library stored in iCloud.
The My Photo Stream setting does, however, offer some level of integration between devices where iCloud Photo Library is enabled and those where it is disabled. Turning on My Photo Stream on a device with iCloud Photo Library is enabled allows the device to import Photo Stream photos from other non-iCloud devices and also send new photos out to My Photo Stream for display on those devices.
Using iCloud Photo Library
Once you understand that iCloud Photo Library stores and syncs photos across devices, usage is very straightforward and it behaves very much like a local photo library stored on the user's machine. Users can freely manage, edit, and save their photos as they have always done, with the added bonus of that work automatically appearing wherever they have iCloud Photo Library enabled. The original photos always remain stored in iCloud, making it easy to revert any edits made on a device.
As with a local photo library, users can include photos from any source, making iCloud Photo Library more than the familiar Photo Streams of images taken on their devices. Photos and videos of a wide range of types from any source can be added to the user's library on one device, and they will sync to all other devices.
One important consideration when deciding whether or not to use iCloud Photo Library is that it is an all-or-none proposition on a given device unless the user chooses to use multiple photo libraries on OS X. With a single photo library, there is no option to sync only some photos while the remainder remain stored only locally, so for example, users can not opt to have only their iOS device photos synced to their Mac via iCloud Photo Library but not have their full library of photos in the Photos app for Mac synced to iCloud and the user's other devices unless they want to manage multiple libraries.
iCloud Photo Library taps into a user's iCloud account storage, which is also used for iCloud Drive document storage, device backups, and more. iCloud users receive 5 GB of storage for free, but users who wish to back up their devices to iCloud frequently find they need more than that, and iCloud Photo Library will only increase the need for additional storage.
Apple offers several paid storage tiers for iCloud, priced on a monthly basis and ranging from 50 GB to 1 TB. The lowest paid plan at 50 GB costs $0.99/month in the U.S., with Apple also offering a 200 GB plan for $2.99/month and a 1 TB plan for $9.99/month. Even the high-end 1 TB plan may not be enough for some users who have a lot of photos, requiring them to either archive some photos outside of the service or simply opt to not use iCloud Photo Library at all.
If you fill up your iCloud storage allotment, new photos and videos will no longer be uploaded to iCloud, and libraries will no longer be synced across devices. In order to restore iCloud Photo Library functionality, users will need to either upgrade to a larger storage plan or reduce storage usage by manually deleting certain photos or other files from iCloud.
Turning Off iCloud Photo Library
So what if you've turned on iCloud Photo Library and later decide you don't want to use it anymore, either for a specific device or across all devices? On a specific device, iCloud Photo Library can be disabled the same it was turned on, through the iCloud portion of the Settings app on iOS device or System Preferences or Photos preferences on a Mac. If you are currently storing optimized versions of your photos, your system will give you the opportunity to download the full-resolution photos from iCloud, at which point you will have a complete local photo library on your device.
If you prefer to turn off iCloud Photo Library entirely, you can head to the Manage Storage section of iCloud settings either in the Settings app on an iOS device or System Preferences on a Mac. In that section, you can choose to Disable and Delete iCloud Photo Library, after which point you will have 30 days to download your library to at least one device before it is removed entirely.
iCloud Photo Library represents one of Apple's latest efforts to streamline the experience of using multiple devices, many of which have been bundled under the "Continuity" umbrella. While remaining separate, iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite integrate the user experience with features such as Handoff, which allows users to pick up right where they left off on composing an email, browsing the Internet, and more when switching devices; Instant Hotspot, which lets users easily tap into their iPhone's cellular connection to provide an Internet connection for an iPad or Mac with no configuration needed; and convenient features for answering phone calls and carrying on SMS conversations right from a Mac or iPad.
Many of these Continuity features tap into iCloud as a method for linking various devices, and iCloud Photo Library takes that one step further to ensure the users' photos are available regardless of which device they are currently on. After an extended beta testing period as Apple has put together the various pieces for iOS, OS X, and the web, iCloud Photo Library is nearly ready for its full public release.
This guide has been updated to reflect Apple's new iCloud pricing launched in September 2015.