September 26, 2023

This new iOS feature lets you share entire image libraries. Here’s how to set it up.

With the launch of iOS 16.1, Apple introduced a new way to share pics and videos with a small group of people. It’s called iCloud Shared Library and you can use it straight from your iPhone, but it’s also accessible from iPads and Mac computers.

The old way of sharing photos and videos, Shared Albums, hasn’t gone away, but iCloud Shared Library is a more comprehensive option. It’ll give people the ability to not only see an image collection but also curate and edit it. It’s also ideal for when you want to stop bombarding the group chat with an endless string of photos of your toddler. 

Starting an iCloud Shared Photo Library

Before you can use iCloud Shared Photo Library on your iPhone, make sure it’s running iOS 16.1 or later. You should also have iCloud Photos in your Apple account enabled, which you can check on your phone by going to Settings, tapping on your name at the top, and then choosing iCloud and Photos. Once that housekeeping is done, from Settings, tap Photos, choose Shared Library, and Get Started.

The system will then move these photos and videos out of your personal library and into the shared library, so they’ll show up somewhere different in the Photos app. You’ll be able to preview the shared library before continuing, and then you can invite other participants through Messages or via a link you can paste into any app you like.

Finally, iOS will ask you if photos and videos you take in the future will go to your shared or personal library by default. You can switch between them on a case-by-case basis inside the camera app by tapping the library button: it’s the icon showing two silhouettes, top right in portrait mode. You can also change the default destination of your images at any time via Photos, Shared Library, and Sharing from Camera in Settings.

Using an iCloud Shared Photo Library

When you’ve set up an iCloud Shared Photo Library, you’ll have that and your existing personal library in the Photos app. To switch between them from the Library view, tap the three dots (top right) then choose Personal Library, Shared Library, or Both Libraries. To make it easier to tell which items are in which library, you can enable the Shared Library Badge option. This will overlay an icon (showing two silhouettes) on images and videos that belong to your shared library.

Every participant in the shared library will have full curation permissions and the same options in their Photos app, allowing them to add and remove items, as well as edit them. The only privileged member of a shared library will be the person who created it in the first place: they’re the only ones who can kick out members or add new ones by going to Photos then Shared Library in their phone’s Settings. From this screen, the administrator can also delete the shared library, and if you’re a guest, you can use this menu to leave.

Shared libraries also show up in the Photos apps on iPadOS and macOS. If you’re on a Mac, launch Photos and you’ll see a drop-down menu at the top, just to the right of the main navigation pane. Click on it to switch between Personal Library, Shared Library, and Both Libraries, and right-click on any image or video to move it between your personal and shared library, and vice versa.

Note that, by default,  the photos and videos inside an iCloud Shared Photo Library will count against the storage quota of the person who created the library, but not of those who’ve been invited to share it. So if you’re expecting to create a large image collection, it’s probably a good idea to have someone paying for extra iCloud storage to host the library.  

How Shared Albums compare

Compared with the Shared Albums feature, an iCloud Shared Photo Library is designed to give fewer people greater access to photos and videos. Think of parents sharing photos of their kids, for example, or a group of friends gathering photos and videos from a shared vacation.

You can have up to 200 Shared Albums at a time, each one with a maximum of 100 participants who can add photos and videos, but not edit them. Meanwhile, you can only have one iCloud Shared Library at a time, which you can only share with up to six participants, everyone with full control over the collection. Shared libraries are more spacious as well: they can have as many photos and videos as your iCloud storage will allow, whereas shared albums can only include up to 5,000 items.

There’s also the tighter integration shared libraries have with the Camera app on the iPhone—the ability to send photos and videos directly to an iCloud Shared Photo Library is really convenient. But to take full advantage of this feature, your shared library should be a space you’ll be using a lot, rather than a bunch of photos and videos you only check back on occasionally.

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