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iOS 16 iCloud Shared Photo Library — what it is and how it works

iOS 16
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iOS 16 introduces a new way of sharing photos with friends and family. With iCloud Shared Photo Library, coming to the iPhone this fall with the iOS 16 software update, you'll be able to pool all your photos in one place, exchanging memories with an audience of your choosing.

"Doesn't iOS already support shared albums?" you might be asking. And indeed it does. But iCloud Shared Photo Library handles things differently, looking to take the work out of managing and uploading folders into that shared library. Plus, the people you're sharing with have equal powers to you, with the ability to add, delete and even edit photos that are being shared.

The iCloud Shared Photo Library was a recent arrival to the iOS 16 beta, only appearing as of the iOS 16 developer beta 3 released this past week. But because Apple included this top iOS 16 feature during its preview back in June, we know a little bit about how the new Shared Photo Library works in advance of the iOS 16 public beta release this month.

How to Set Up an iCloud Shared Photo Library

One way the iCloud Shared Photo Library differs from existing shared libraries in the current version of iOS is how you set things up. Standard shared libraries are created in the Photos app on your iPhone. But according to people who used the iOS 16 developer beta, you create your iCloud Shared Photo Library from within the Settings app, adjusting one of the Photos settings.

iOS 16 iCloud Shared Photo Library

(Image credit: Apple)

Launching your iCloud Shared Photo Library is as simple as toggling on a switch. From there, you're prompted to add people to share photos with — up to six people can be part of a shared library.

Once you've settled on who you'll share with, it's a matter of deciding what you'll be sharing. You can include your entire photos library, if you want, but there's also an option to choose by people features in photos or photos from a set range of dates (or both, if you prefer). 

iOS 16 iCloud Shared Photo Library

(Image credit: Apple)

Those selection options really leverage the Photos app's facial recognition features as well as the metadata on your images to take a lot of the manual labor out of adding images to a shared library (though you do have the option of adding photos manually if you prefer.)

Shared Library vs. personal library in Photos

From what I can tell so far, there's really no separate album or section of the Photos app that houses your iCloud Shared Photo Library. All the photos you've shared to iCloud just exist in your library alongside the photos you're keeping to yourself. This is a bit of a departure from how iOS currently handles things where the Albums tab in Photos has a dedicated Shared Albums area.

iOS 16 iCloud Shared Photo Library

(Image credit: Apple)

Instead, in iOS 16, there are now going to be filters at top of the Library tab that allow you to display your personal photos, your shared photos or both of those libraries at once. It's unclear if there will be a visual designation for shared photos the same way there is for Photos in your library that have arrived on your iPhone via Messages. (Those photos have a little word bubble in the lower left corner.)

Since shared albums are already an ingrained concept, the idea that personal and shared photos live side by side in a single tab may be hard for some iOS users to wrap their brains around. We're going to have to spend some time with iOS 16 once the beta arrives to see just how seamless and natural this feels.

How sharing works with an iCloud Shared Photo Library

Besides the sharing that takes place when you set up your iCloud Shared Photo Library, you'll find some other neat tricks for adding photos as you capture them. You'll have the option in the Camera app of adding the photos you take directly with the people who are part of your shared library. 

Apple says you'll be able to toggle back to shooting images that are only stored in your personal library, but how helpful this feature is will depend on how seamless it will be to switch back and forth in the camera app.

iOS 16 iCloud Shared Photo Library

(Image credit: Apple)

An even cooler way to share photos involves proximity-based sharing that occurs when you're around the people who are part of your iCloud Shared Photo Library — say at a party or family vacation. 

In those instances, the photos you take will be automatically added to the shared library, though presumably this will require the people who are near to you to also be using iPhones running iOS 16.

The For You tab in Photos looks like another area where you'll find suggested images for your iCloud Shared Photo Library. That tab currently serves up collections of photos called Memories — one of my favorite additions in iOS 15 Photos — and now it will include pictures of the people included in your shared library. You'll be able to add them with a tap.

Editing shared photos in your iCloud Shared Photo Library

One of the things about current shared libraries is that they're pretty static — you can make edits to the photos stored on your device, but unless you add them to the shared folder, everyone else will still see the same shot.

iOS 16 iCloud Shared Photo Library

(Image credit: Apple)

That's not the case with iCloud Shared Photo Libraries, where everyone gets the right to edit a photo. And that's not just doing touch-up work — shared folder participants can edit captions, keywords and other metadata, too. They can even delete photos, though you'll get a notification and the ability to keep the photo in your own library when that happens.

iCloud Shared Photo Library outlook

As noted above, this is a feature we'll have to test thoroughly to see if it's a true improvement over how shared photos work now. The ability for everyone to edit and manage photos seems like a solid addition, but the fact that shared photos are stored alongside your personal library feels like something that could trip people up.

Apple's goal with the iCloud Shared Photo Library is to remove the remaining barriers that are keeping you from sharing photos with friends and family by making the process virtually automatic. We'll see how well they've delivered on that promise once we get more time with the iOS 16 public beta.

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.