We Can't Remember It For You Wholesale

I’ve been putting together some notes on my upgrade experience across watchOS, iOS and Sierra, but prompted by recent developments when helping out family and friends with 16GB devices I decided to tackle head on a glaring, recurrent flaw across Apple‘s software that causes me a lot of frustration – photo management.

I am quite happy with the new face and scene recognition features, find the auto-generated “Moments” pseudo-albums quite attractive and like the way Photos remains (mostly) speedy and responsive across both platforms, but cannot, for the life of me, understand why Apple does such a poor job at helping us manage photos at scale – and by that I don’t mean iOS storage optimization.

The Elephant In The Cloud

No, I mean helping us actually manage tens and hundreds of gigabytes of photos over the years. The piddling amount of storage space older iOS devices have isn’t magically going away with iOS 10, and even on larger devices (like my 64GB iPhone) I find that I need to archive stuff off iCloud to be able to use Photos effectively – if not for performance and storage concerns, then at least to remove the 80% of photos that are good enough to keep for posterity, but pointless to have with me all the time.

iOS storage optimization is neat, mostly transparent to apps, and it does a mostly adequate job of offloading photo storage to the cloud and making sure you can pull up originals on demand.

That is, as long as you don’t run out of iCloud storage space – which is what happens to everyone in my circle of acquaintances every week or so, because 5GB of free iCloud storage is barely enough for a single device backup and a couple month’s worth of shots.

The easy way out of that is, obviously enough, to just pay Apple for more cloud storage, which I’m sure they’ll be grateful for.

I do that (I’m currently on their 200GB plan, which was the only sane option back when I subscribed1), but that is only half the problem, and nowhere near a real solution over time.

All or Nothing

The real problem is that using Photos (with or without iCloud) is, like iPhoto before it, an all or nothing proposition because Apple assumes you’ll want to keep all your photos inside it for evermore.

You either adhere to canon and try to store everything in Photos and iCloud (which invariably forces you to buy more cloud storage space), or… nothing.

That is simply myopic and unrealistic. I currently have 26GB of photos in my iCloud library alone – which represents only 6% of the total amount of photos I have on my home NAS – and have recently been forced to cull that because it was just too much for Photos just to handle browsing through them.

This situation is way outside most people’s experience judging by my interactions with friends and family, but it further compounds the point I want to make – i.e., that Apple has never given any serious thought to long-term archival, either because they don’t provide a simple way to get your photos off iCloud or because Photos itself simply doesn’t scale.

We Can’t Remember It For You Wholesale

But let’s go back to the average use case (that of people with 5GB of iCloud storage and no more room for photos in the cloud). And let’s assume those people also have a computer that syncs with iCloud (which, I’m sure, is not a given for most new iOS users these days).

There is just no sane way to archive iCloud photos on your Mac once you’ve gone past the baseline 5GB2. None whatsoever. Zip. Nada.

Photos, like iPhoto before it, remains stubbornly autistic where it regards managing multiple photo libraries – it’s possible, but fiddly, error-prone and utterly incomprehensible to the average user.

And, more to the point, there is no way to move photos directly from one library to another. This last bit, as far as I’m concerned, is inexcusable.

Right now, the only sane way to cope seems to setup a smart folder inside Photos for items older than a given threshold and manually export (and then delete) originals from that – which renders all of your nice metadata useless.

You can and then re-import them into another library – a ghastly, medieval (and hard to automate) process entailing option-launching the app and picking a new library.

Or, if you’re like me, just file everything out of Photos in a chronological archive and forget about all the nice features that Apple simple doesn’t how to scale beyond their little sandbox – and we’re not talking about cloud services here, this is exactly the same problem we’ve been having with their photo management tools since the dawn of macOS.

The workarounds I’m suggesting to my friends and family mostly revolve around moving their stuff to OneDrive, Dropbox or Google temporarily – a frustrating, error-prone and time-consuming process for those without laptops because it involves manually downloading originals off iCloud and onto their iPhone/iPad, and then manually uploading them or waiting until the relevant app picks them up3.

Most people just delete their photos, in a slow, agonizing, hunt-and peck analogue of Darwinian selection.

What Would Make Sense

Apple ought to build in to Photos an archival feature that allowed me to export items from my iCloud library to an archival one on my Mac, prompting me to do so upon reaching, say, 75% of my iCloud capacity (or another set threshold) to make things easier for the average user.

That archival process would create, say, an archive bundle per year, and copy across all the metadata and album associations you’ve painstakingly defined in Photos.

You’d then be free to move those around to backup storage at will, and clicking upon an archive would launch Photos with the archive temporarily open in the sidebar4 so you could move things back and forth.

A good side benefit from that is that Photos would actually work much faster over time for people like myself, not to mention save me the time to point out this sort of shortcomings in what is shaping up to be well over 1200 words.

Do I have any hope of this ever getting fixed?

Honestly, no. This has been going on for ages, and the only “fix” for it was Aperture, which by targeting pro users had to tackle things like multiple libraries head on.

Photos (like iPhoto before it) is a consumer tool, and Apple‘s consumer stories fall too short of real life for me to expect this to get fixed in their mainstream offering.

So yes, all those neat, magic features like face detection and Moments will turn out to be pretty much useless in real life – if not for me, then surely for the millions of people about to run out of iCloud storage and realize they have no easy, practical way to safe-keep their photos.


Update: Gruber thinks I’m conflating two issues – that of limited cloud storage and that of large photo libraries (which is a legitmate viewpoint).

I’d say it was mostly a matter of having to cope with both at the same time, repeatedly, over the past couple of weeks, sure, and that the way less than five gigabytes of useful photo storage are indeed a classic “freemium abuse” problem. But I reiterate that the need to split off and archive libraries is still valid regardless of their size, if only for the sake of sanity – and backups.

And while we’re discussing sanity, it has come to my attention that some people object to my use of the word “autistic”. I feel the word is warranted in this context, and as someone within the spectrum and lacking a certain amount of innate empathy, would like to apologize for failing to conform to their politically correct – and ultimately, judgmental – worldview.

  1. There’s also still no way to set up a family account to share storage, which is not completely beside the point here but enough of a detour that I’ll skip that for the moment – Apple‘s autistic handling of family features is certainly worth more than just a follow-up post, but I simply don’t have the time these days. ↩︎

  2. Which is actually around 3GB for photos if you backup your iOS devices to iCloud↩︎

  3. My kids use OneDrive, since the Office 365 subscription I got before changing jobs comes with 1TB of storage for each user, and I download and archive the stuff worth keeping. ↩︎

  4. Yes, there’s still a sidebar, although it’s been off by default for a while. ↩︎

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