iCloud Photo Library was designed to keep all your personal photos and videos safe, synced, and available on all of your devices.

That sounds simple, but the idea of a hybrid library, where our content seamlessly spans the internet and our iPhones, iPads, and Macs — where the line between online and offline blurs — can be tough to grasp.

For years many of us have manually, meticulously managed our photos and videos — transferring them from our camera and phones over cables and local networks, organizing them into folders, backing them up to drives, and hoping beyond hope each time that nothing would be damaged or lost.

Various online services have popped up to help, but often they're just as manual or they're attached to social networks whose views on privacy might not match our own.

iCloud Photo Library aims to solve all of that, by keeping all of our pictures and videos available, and doing it all automatically.

Online backup

iCloud Photo Library takes all the work and most of the risk out the primary backup process.

With iCloud Photo Library, every picture or video you take with your iPhone or iPad, or load into Photos for OS X, will be uploaded to Apple's servers. What's more, they'll be preserved in their original format, including any RAW files you may have imported.

That means all your pictures and videos are effectively backed up online, and if anything ever happens to your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, those pictures and videos won't be lost. They'll still be there, in your iCloud Photo Library, available and accessible for any replacement device you get. You can even access them from any web browser via iCloud.com.

Pictures and videos of our friends and families, of our children and pets, of the special events and occasions we enjoy together, are among the most precious, most irreplaceable of our possessions. Trusting them to a device we might lose, damage, or have stolen, or to a laborious transfer and backup system that might fail just when we need it the most, just isn't workable.

Likewise, having some old pictures and videos on your Mac and new ones on your iPhone or iPad — a hodgepodge of different files on different devices — is just as untenable.

That's why iCloud Photo Library won't just backup pictures or videos as you take them. It will backup all the pictures and videos on all your devices, new or old. That's all the pictures or videos you've taken and are in the Photos for iOS app on your iPhone or iPad, and all the iPhoto, Aperture, and file folder pictures and videos you've imported into Photos for OS X on your Mac. That's every picture or video you've been collecting, for as long as you've been collecting them.

In other words, iCloud Photo Library takes all the work and most of the risk out the primary backup process. One you enable it, whenever you're online, your pictures and videos are just backed up and your memories are kept safe.

Sync and state

iCloud Photo Library is, essentially, also a sync tool.

Once your photos and videos are in iCloud Photo Library, as long as you're signed into the same Apple ID (iTunes or iCloud account) and you've turned iCloud Library on, they're also available for on all your devices, including iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

That means iCloud Photo Library is, essentially, also a sync tool. It makes sure any picture you've taken or imported into Photos for iOS or Photos for OS X isn't just backed up online, but pushed back down to all of your devices.

Snap a picture or video on your iPhone and it'll show up on your Mac. Import some old pictures on your Mac and they'll be available on your iPad. It really is all your pictures and videos on all your devices.

What's more, iCloud Photo Library will propagate the "favorite" status of your pictures and videos. Hit the star one place, it shows up every place.

iCloud Photo Library will also preserve any edits you make to your pictures and videos. Any adjustments are stored separately from the picture and video itself but synced along with it, so if your brighten or saturate or crop a photo on your iPad, those changes will also show up on your iPhone or Mac. If you trim a video on your Mac, it'll trim on your iPhone or iPad. And since edits in Photos are non-destructive, you can change them again, or reverse any changes, and that will sync as well.

It's not just all your pictures and videos everywhere, it's all your pictures and videos everywhere, just the way you want them.

Storage savings

iCloud Photo Library does all the work, and you get to enjoy all your pictures and videos.

iPhones and iPads are currently limited to between 8 GB and 128 GB of storage, and many people have a 16 GB or 32 GB device. Yet in an age of 8 megapixel pictures and 1080p video, that fills up fast. Even a Mac with an SSD drive can storage constraints.

That's why keeping photos and videos all locally can be a problem — you can run out of space, and sometimes sooner rather than later.

It's especially frustrating if you're anxiously trying to take a picture or video of something amazing, or in a hurry to import something urgent, and you're told there's no space left and all you can do is try and figure out, under stress, what older pictures and videos you're willing to sacrifice to make room for the new.

Purely offloading all pictures and videos to the cloud isn't a perfect solution either. If they're all stored online and you end up with a slow, limited, or non-existent internet connection, you lose immediate access to any photos or videos not stored to your device.

It's just as frustrating to run into a friend or relative and want to show them that incredible picture or video and then run straight into zero bars and a blank screen.

Apple's solution to both problems is called "optimize storage" and what it does is smart. It takes a look at how much space is left on your device and then begins to intelligently manage it for you. To save on storage, it caches a manageable portion of photos and videos on your device — your most recent, favorite, and frequently accessed — and keeps the rest — older and seldom accessed — up in the cloud.

Moreover, for the photos that are cached locally, iCloud Photo Library optimizes them for the size of the display. If you're on an iPhone, you don't need the full sized RAW file, so you'll get an appropriately sized JPG. For photos that are on the cloud, you'll get a thumbnail, but can tap them at any time to download them locally.

The result is that you have instant access to all the pictures and videos that matter most to you, and one tap access — provided you're online — to your full archive of pictures and videos. It is, very literally, the best of both worlds.

Best of all, since it's automatic, you don't have to worry about cables or cards, files or folders, micromanaging or manually moving things around.

All you have to do is set it and forget it. iCloud Photo Library does all the work, and you get to enjoy all your pictures and videos.

iCloud plans

iCloud Photo Library counts towards your iCloud storage pool. Everyone with an Apple device gets 5 GB of storage for free. For most people, part of that space will be taken up by device backups, mail, and other data. How much that leaves for pictures and videos can vary. You can, however, buy more iCloud storage whenever you like. As online storage goes, it's not inexpensive, but Apple doesn't show ads against your pictures and videos, doesn't use them in ads, doesn't collect and broker your data for ads, or otherwise monetize your or your content. Everything has a price. Apple simply sticks to money (sometimes a lot of it) rather than data or attention.

Current monthly iCloud plan options include:

  • 20 GB: $0.99
  • 200 GB: $3.99
  • 500 GB: $9.99
  • 1 TB: $19.99

Security and privacy

iCloud Photo Library uses end-to-end AES 128 encryption to keep your pictures and videos secure during upload from your iPhone, iPad, and Mac and the servers, while being stored on the servers, and while being sent back down to your devices. And if there's ever anything you decide you don't want to keep, you can delete, with 30-days to change your mind, or immediately, so it's done and gone forever.

That lets iCloud Photo Library keep everything available, but also keep it private and secure.

The bottom line

iCloud Photo Library backs up all your pictures and videos, syncs them across all your devices, and intelligently manages your storage so you don't run out of space on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. It takes all of the problems typically associated with picture and offers a simple, efficient solution.

Professional photographers and videographers will likely still need to take care of libraries, but for most people, most of the time, iCloud Photo Library makes manual management a thing of the past, and brings us fully into the automatic future.