I've had a multi-Mac household pretty much since college, rocking a laptop and desktop in addition to miscellaneous iOS devices throughout the years. Dropbox and iCloud sync made most of the pains of using several Macs disappear, but iPhoto was always a problem. My laptop is tiny! My iPhoto library, not so much.
Thankfully, Photos for Mac — paired with iCloud Photo Library's Optimize Storage feature — makes working with and syncing multiple Macs a breeze. Here's how you can do it.
How to use Photos and iCloud Photo Library with multiple Macs
Here's a quick, simple breakdown on setting up your Macs to support Photos and iCloud Photo Library.
I recommend starting with your biggest iPhoto library; it'll usually be on your desktop Mac. When you open Photos for the first time, your library should import automatically; if it prompts you to create a new library, your Photos library may be stored in another location on your Mac, and you may need to manually open it.
Once you've imported your biggest library on your Mac, make sure iCloud Photo Library is turned on and syncing. You can do this by following these steps:
- Launch Photos on your Mac.
- Click Photos in the menu bar.
- Select Preferences (or do this quicker by pressing ⌘,).
- Click on the iCloud tab.
- Check off the box for iCloud Photos.
- You can also check off the box for Download Originals to this Mac if you have the space.
- You can check off Optimize Mac Storage to save space on your Mac by only saving a percentage of images and video locally — the rest will be thumbnails that you can click on to download when you want to.
Now, open your other Mac, and launch Photos. If you have an iPhoto library on that secondary Mac, follow the same steps as above — import your library, then turn on iCloud Photo Library. If you have duplicates of the same photo on each computer, iCloud should automatically resolve those conflicts when it syncs, providing you with just one version of your photos when the sync process finishes.
If you don't have an iPhoto library on your secondary Mac, create a new library in Photos and turn on iCloud Photo Library. If you want to save storage space on this secondary Mac, make sure Optimize Mac Storage is selected: This will save a certain percentage of images and video locally to your device, while providing thumbnails of all the others for you to download at your leisure.
After you've set up all your Macs with Photos and the sync process has finished, you're now good to go. From here on out, any time you add photos, they'll sync to every computer you've set up with Photos.
What syncs, what doesn't sync
Photos for Mac syncs a lot more than just your original photos and videos. According to a support document on Apple.com, here's what else you should expect to see sync:
- All folders and albums
- Smart Albums
- Searchable keywords
- Key photo selections
There are a few things iCloud Photo Library won't sync, however. Here's Apple's list:
- Books, cards, calendars, and slideshows
- Keyword shortcuts
- Unused keywords
- Last imported album on the Mac in question
- Names and faces in the People album
For those not using iCloud Photo Library
If you've chosen not to enable iCloud Photo Library, Apple still offers you free syncing of your last 1000 photos via My Photo Stream, which doesn't count toward your iCloud disk space.
This will sync and download images you've imported or taken on other devices, but you won't have the option to optimize your storage or sync your albums.
Octoober 2019: Updated for macOS Catalina.
Serenity Caldwell contributed to an earlier version of this guide.
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Christine Romero-Chan was formerly a Senior Editor for iMore. She has been writing about technology, specifically Apple, for over a decade at a variety of websites. She is currently part of the Digital Trends team, and has been using Apple’s smartphone since the original iPhone back in 2007. While her main speciality is the iPhone, she also covers Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac when needed.
When she isn’t writing about Apple, Christine can often be found at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as she is a passholder and obsessed with all things Disney, especially Star Wars. Christine also enjoys coffee, food, photography, mechanical keyboards, and spending as much time with her new daughter as possible.