Sharing photos with family is the one area where Apple's iCloud Photo Library still falls short

Icloud Photo Library Family Album
Icloud Photo Library Family Album (Image credit: Adam Oram / iMore)

Apple's cloud services have come a long way in recent years and very few aspects of iCloud are more impressive than iCloud Photo Library. Built into iOS, iPadOS, macOS, and tvOS, the service keeps your photo library perfectly in sync across all of your devices and it's pretty much rock-solid whether you're rocking the latest iPhone and iPad or not.

iCloud Photo Library is pretty much rock-solid... but sharing between family members leaves a lot to be desired.

Take a picture on your iPhone and it will appear on your iPad in seconds. Edit a photo on your Mac and those changes are reflected on your other devices straight away, too. But iCloud Photo Library, even after the announcements last month at WWDC, is still missing a huge feature: proper family iCloud photo sharing support.

It's strange to see this feature still lacking since Apple has improved and encouraged use of its Family Sharing feature more and more over time. Initially, it was just a function for allowing shared purchases, shared calendaring, and parental controls, but it has been extended to include shared subscriptions, like Apple Music, iCloud storage, and even the Apple One bundle.

Apple knows this lack of a proper, unified family photo library is a problem as it has come up with various workarounds in order to try and fix it without just merging libraries. For example, when Family Sharing is set up, a Family album in iCloud is automatically created but this requires family members to manually add photos and videos to it, and it's limited to 5,000 items.

"When you set up your family, a shared album is created automatically in the Photos app on all family members' devices. Everyone can add photos, videos, and comments to the album whenever they like and get notified when something new is added."

In the For You tab of the Photos app, you can also see Sharing Suggestions that prompt you to share a set of photos from a location or event with others that were also there in an effort to unify everyone's libraries. The recipient is even asked to use a feature called Share Back to throw some photos and videos the other way.

The problem is, this process still involves manually sending photos and videos to people, and choosing to save those down into your own library and duplicating them in the process. For many families, having multiple copies of the same photo is less than ideal and, at some point, you have to pick one person in the family who will hold the canonical photo library to avoid duplication.

Blue iMac (2021) Photo Editing

Blue iMac (2021) Photo Editing (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

I had hoped that Apple's latest updates to the Photos app at WWDC 2021 would address this problem once and for all. While Apple did take the wraps off a new Shared with You feature for different media types and an improved UI for photo sharing within Messages, the actual sharing of photos remains essentially unchanged.

What I'd love to see is an opt-in function that allows members of an iCloud family to automatically have their Photo Library kept in-sync together. I take a photo, it appears on my wife's iPad. She records a video, I can see it on my Mac. I turn a Live Photo into a looping gif, she sees that too. No AirDrop, no iMessage, just sync them together. All the time.

I understand this comes with privacy implications, and that's why I think this feature should be entirely opt-in, and perhaps even require an Apple ID password or Face ID/Touch ID authentication to set it up to avoid misuse, but I can't be alone in wanting this feature — it make sense for couples and allows families with children to get easy access to (and monitor) the photos they are taking.

It also comes with the potential problem of clutter in the Photos app, but the feature could be engineered to filter out things like screenshots and memes so these don't sync across everyone's devices. I'd also rather risk a little bit of clutter and save the time of manually importing everyone photos into one place and being solely responsible for the (lack of) upkeep of the family album.

What do you think? Do you wish there was better family sharing with photos? Let us know in the comments.

Adam Oram

Adam Oram is a Senior Writer at iMore. He studied Media at Newcastle University and has been writing about technology since 2013. He previously worked as an Apple Genius and as a Deals Editor at Thrifter. His spare time is spent watching football (both kinds), playing Pokémon games, and eating vegan food. Follow him on Twitter at @adamoram.