Apple's online service, iCloud Photo Library, lets you seamlessly access, manage, edit, and share pictures and video from your iPhone, iPad, and your Mac.
It's free to use — though if you want to store any real amount of data, you're going to have to pony up for a paid iCloud plan. With Photos for Mac, I've had a lot of people ask me whether they should turn on iCloud Photo Library: Is it safe? Is it secure? Is the cost of an iCloud plan worth it?
What is iCloud Photo Library?
We've got a much more thorough piece on this matter linked below, but essentially: iCloud Photo Library is a separate service you can enable in both Photos for Mac and Photos for iOS that uploads every image you've taken or have stored on your iPhone or Mac's library to iCloud. That includes iPhone or iPad photos and screenshots, along with any imported DSLR or other photos you've added to your Photos library on your Mac.
You don't need to use iCloud Photo Library to use Photos for Mac or iOS, but if you choose not to, you won't get any of its benefits: your images won't sync across devices, you can't optimize storage for your devices to save disk space, and you'll have to manually back up your photos elsewhere.
After several months with Photos for Mac, iOS, and iCloud Photo Library, I'm pretty familiar with its ups and downs. Thankfully, there are far more ups and downs, at least in my experience.
It just works — really!
Perhaps the biggest bullet point in iCloud Photo Library's "pro" column for me is that, for once, Apple's iCloud team has a rock-solid "it just works" sync product. Even during my early beta-testing days, I had no issues with iCloud losing or dropping images from my library.
I had only one sync error, which came from accidentally turning iCloud off on my MacBook before it had finished syncing up that library; as a result, those half-uploaded photos disappeared from my other devices. But they remained on my MacBook and repopulated on my iPhone and other Macs as soon as I re-enabled iCloud sync.
You really can access your photos from anywhere — and manage them, too
With iCloud Photo Library, my images are accessible everywhere — and when I'm offline, I can still view low-resolution thumbnails of any pictures I haven't downloaded locally to my machine. I can even manage my library while offline: Delete an image while you're away from internet access, or add it to an album, and all of that syncs when you pop back online.
In addition, iCloud Photo Library solves one of my oldest iPhone photo management irritations: I can manage albums on my Mac and have them sync to my iPhone, and vice versa.
Additionally, with macOS High Sierra and iOS 11, managing photos with people in them will get a lot easier. The People album, which automatically finds faces in photos that you can then identify as people you know, will sync all of its data across your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, meaning that you will no longer need to enter any data manually on each individual device.
Your edits also sync across your devices
Forget having to make multiple copies of your images to edit them: iCloud Photo Library syncs your non-destructive image edits across your devices, meaning that you can start editing an image on your iPhone, finish the touchup on your Mac, or undo it all on your iPad!
All hail optimized storage
iCloud Photo Library's Optimize Storage option automatically and smartly takes a percentage of your device's storage space for high-resolution versions of your photos; any images or video that can't fit in that space are stored as low-resolution thumbnails. This space is variable, too — it doesn't take up every speck of free space you have, instead appropriating a portion of your free space to photo storage, and it adjusts smartly on the fly.
If you need to download an image stored on iCloud, you need merely to tap it; your older downloaded images will be removed from the device to make room for the new ones.
This is awesome not only for small-storage iOS devices but also for laptops: I love being able to carry around my "entire" library on my Mac without also having to lug a 500GB external drive for that library's full-resolution Raw photos.
Secure, strong backups
While iCloud Photo Library's primary goal may be to provide you with the same library on all your devices, it also keeps a copy of that library safe and secure in iCloud using Apple's CloudKit framework. In the unlikely event of a hard drive malfunction, waterlogged iPhone, or other hardware disaster, your images will be safe and sound and ready to re-download.
For all that I like about iCloud Photo Library, it still has its flaws: For me, they aren't deal breakers, but they might be depending on your needs.
The iCloud storage cost
The cost of Apple's iCloud storage offerings has improved greatly over time, with $10 per month now netting you 2TB of storage for your photos and other items that you might want to sync. However, while Apple's $10 a month plan now outdoes Dropbox, it still hasn't been able to match Google Photos' unlimited free storage for photos with resolutions of 16 megapixels and under.
While 2TB is going to be enough for a lot of people and iCloud Photo Library works fantastically, that's still $10 each month, and Google's offer is going to look awfully tempting for many, especially when most photos taken on an iPhone come in below 16MP.
You can't choose not to sync certain photos
CloudKit is incredibly secure, but even so, there may be some images you'd prefer stay offline — whether for professional or personal reasons. Unfortunately, iCloud Photo Library is an all-or-nothing affair: If you want those photos offline, you'll have to move them out of Photos for Mac or iOS to do so.
It's tied into Photos for Mac and iOS
If you're a die-hard Lightroom user, iCloud Photo Library won't help you — it's dependent on Photos for iOS and Photos for Mac. However, Photos for Mac will be getting improved support for external image editors like Photoshop and Pixelmator in macOS High Sierra, with edits made in those apps able to sync back to Photos. With that being said, using Photos on all of your Apple devices is still an essential part of iCloud Photo Library.
There's also the question of reference libraries: Officially, iCloud Photo Library doesn't support syncing with a referenced (external) Photos for Mac library, because of the potential for sync conflicts. There is a (cumbersome) workaround that involves multiple libraries and turning iCloud Photo Library on and off, but it may not be worth it for people who regularly need access to referenced images.
For me, iCloud Photo Library is an excellent way to bring my images and video to all my devices, albeit a slightly-more-expensive one. It boasts impressive sync capabilities, offline photo access, and easy management and backup, even for gigantic libraries. But it also has a few caveats that, while not deal breakers for me, may be for others. For those unsure what camp they're in, hopefully I've cleared up iCloud Photo Library's pros and cons to help you make the decision that's right for your workflow.
Update July, 2017: Added updated information about iCloud storage plans and pricing, added some information about Google Photos storage, as well as information about changes coming to iCloud Photo Library and Photos with macOS High Sierra and iOS 11.
- Should you use it?
- iCloud Photo Library and Photo Stream: What's the difference?
- Which storage plan should you choose?
- How to use it on iPhone and iPad
- How to use it on your Mac or PC
- How to access it on the web
- How to view images while offline
- How to use Family Sharing with iCloud
- How to free up storage space on your iPhone
- How to transfer photos from your Mac or PC
- How to recover deleted images and video
- How to back up iCloud Photo Library
- Troubleshooting iCloud Photo Library