Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

In October 2004, Apple released the first iPod with a color screen, and with this also introduced the ability for users to carry more than just audio content on their iPod.  This new model, dubbed the “iPod photo” also provided the ability to transfer and store pictures on the iPod itself, which could be viewed from the iPod, transferred to other computers, and even displayed as a slideshow on a TV screen through the use of a video accessory cable.

Since then, the ability to display photos has become a standard iPod feature, and little has changed in terms of managing and synchronizing photo content on the iPod. The iPhone and iPod touch now include features for displaying photos as well, and although the interface on these newer touchscreen devices is significantly different, the process of synchronizing and managing photo content has remained much the same.

Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

An updated version of our earlier December 2004 tutorial, The Complete Guide to iPod photo Pictures, we will begin by reviewing the basics of getting your photo collection onto your device, and then move on to discuss more detail on how photos are stored on the iPod and iPhone and some of the comparisons between the different iPod models and iPhone in terms of photo quality and storage requirements.

Synchronizing Photo Content

As Apple’s lineup of hardware media devices has expanded, iTunes has remained the core management application for all things related to managing and transferring media content to these devices.  As with any other type of content on the iPod, simply copying photos on in “Disk Mode” does not work—these must be transferred via iTunes.

When the iPod photo was first released it seemed odd that iTunes would be used to synchronize photos to an iPod. However, the evolution of iTunes into a full media-management application since that time has been significant, now encompassing content ranging from the traditional music and other audio files into the realm of movies, TV shows, music videos, podcasts, and even games.

Unfortunately, despite these changes, photo management and synchronization remains a very limited feature within iTunes. No photo management capabilities are built in to iTunes itself, rather the role of iTunes is simply to transfer an existing library of photo content onto your iPod.

In its simplest form, this library of photo content may be little more than a series of folders on your computer. However, iTunes will also integrate directly with iPhoto or Aperture (on the Mac), or Adobe Photoshop Album or Photoshop Elements (on Windows XP), allowing you to select photo content based on your albums or collections within these applications.

It should also be noted that there is no “manual mode” for transferring photos to the iPod. Your photo library music be transferred through automatic synchronization. Basically, you point iTunes at a library of photos, optionally select which folders or albums to synchronize, and iTunes converts and transfers them to the device. If you remove a photo from a folder or album, iTunes will remove it from your device during the next synchronization.  This means that you must maintain your photo collection on your computer in order to synchronize with your iPod or iPhone.

Setting it up in iTunes

For users who are setting up their iPod for the first time, iTunes will offer the ability to automatically synchronize photo content as part of the iPod Setup Assistant that appears when you connect a new iPod:

To synchronize your photo content, simply check the appropriate box, and iTunes will attempt to synchronize as many of your photos as it can fit onto your iPod. For Mac users, iTunes will simply use your iPhoto library, while Windows users can select a synchronization option from the drop-down list that appears at the bottom of the iPod Setup Assistant, which normally defaults to “My Pictures” unless Adobe Photoshop Album or Photoshop Elements has been installed.


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

For users with a small photo library, selecting this initial option to automatically sync photos will probably suffice. However, it is important to keep in mind that photos are the lowest priority of all content that is synchronized to an iPod or iPhone. This means that if you are also automatically synchronizing music or video content, you may not have room for your entire photo collection. In this case, iTunes will simply synchronize as many photos as will fit into the remaining space on the iPod/iPhone after all other types of content have been synchronized.

Further, users with a large photo library may prefer to synchronize their content more selectively. This initial setup option does not allow for this, in which case it is probably a good idea to not select this option, and simply configure the photo synchronization options directly.

Photo synchronization is managed in iTunes in the same way as synchronizing other types of content to an Apple device. With your iPod or iPhone connected to your computer, select it in the iTunes source pane on the left-hand side of the iTunes screen, and you will see a number of tabs representing the different types of content that you can sync to that particular device.


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

To manage photo synchronization, simply select the”Photos” tab, and you will be presented with your options for photo synchronization. If you originally selected to automatically sync your entire photo library, this option will already be enabled. Otherwise, it is disabled by default until you enable it and select which content you would like to sync.


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

Once you enable synchronization, you can choose the source of your photo collection from the drop-down box.


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

Selecting “My Pictures” (Windows) or “Pictures” (Mac) will tell iTunes to simply synchronize photos from your user profile’s default pictures folder. Alternatively, you can select “Choose Folder” and select an alternate folder from anywhere else on your computer.

Windows users who have Adobe Photoshop Album or Photoshop Elements installed can also synchronize with their photo collections in these software packages.

For Mac users, the default is to synchronize with iPhoto if it is installed (all recent-model Mac computers come with iPhoto pre-installed). In the event that iPhoto is not installed, iTunes will default to synchronizing with the “Pictures” folder, as described above.

Mac users who use Apple’s Aperture application can choose to sync with their Aperture library instead of their iPhoto library.

Once you’ve selected the source of your photos, you will be shown a list of photo “albums” that iTunes has found in the specified source.  For a “My Pictures” folder, this will be a list of the first level of folders—any sub-folders below the first level are simply grouped together in each top-level folder as a single album.

For Adobe Photoshop Album/Elements, iPhoto or Aperture, this will instead be a list of your named photo collections/albums within those applications.

If you have more albums than will fit in the list, you can naturally scroll up and down to see them all.  You’ll also note that iTunes conveniently gives you a count of how many pictures are in each album, as well as the total number of photos in your entire collection.

In much the same way that you would manage synchronization of music to your iPod, you are given the option to synchronize “All photos and albums” or “Selected albums.”  If you choose to synchronize selected albums only, then you are presented with a series of checkboxes for your albums where you can select or deselect each album for synchronization.


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)
Note that iPhoto 7 users now have an additional option on this screen as of iTunes 7.5: Events. This option is only available when syncing with iPhoto, and allows you to take advantage of iPhoto 7’s new Events feature by automatically synchronizing all events or only a selected number of recent events from your iPhoto library. In this case, photos on the iPod/iPhone will be grouped by the iPhoto event names rather than iPhoto album names.

Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

This option is presently only available for the iPod and iPhone, not the Apple TV.

You will note also that iTunes keeps a running count beside each option as to how many photos are selected for synchronization, which can be useful for estimating how much storage your photos will take up. While an actual Megabyte or Gigabyte estimate would be far more useful here, it is possible to calculate the storage requirements based on the number of photos. More on this a bit further on.

Note that the albums will by default show up in the Photos list on your device in the order shown in the album list in iTunes. To change this order, simply drag the albums in the list up and down to re-order them.

For users synchronizing from a folder, it should be noted that iTunes will only provide album names for the first level of photo folders. If you have additional sub-folders, these will be included within the selected top-level folder, but they will not be separately categorized. Using the example above, if there were three sub-folders under “Christmas 2005”, pictures from all sub-folders would be grouped on the device under the main “Christmas 2005” category, rather than grouped into a sub-folder.

Once you’ve made your selections, you can simply click the “Apply” button and the photos will be transferred to your iPod.

If this is the first time you have synchronized these particular photos to your iPod or iPhone, iTunes will first go through an “Optimizing” process to resize each photo into resolutions appropriate for the device that you are synchronizing with, storing the resized thumbnails in a cache on your hard drive.


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

Depending on how many photos you have selected, this process could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, so allow some extra time for your first sync if you are transferring a lot of photos.  If you find it’s taking too long, you can always click on the small X that appears in the status window, which will stop the process, leaving the untransferred photos queued for your next synchronization.

Once this process has completed, the photos will be transfered to your device.


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

Photo Optimization and Storage Requirements

As noted above, iTunes resizes and indexes your photos during the transfer process.  By default, it creates multiple versions of each photo: one for each resolution that the photo will be displayed in, generally including a version for the thumbnail view, a version for the full-screen view, and a version for output to a TV. 

This pre-processing eliminates the need for the iPod or iPhone itself to re-size photos on-the-fly, making the on-device experience smoother and more efficient. The original iPod photo and fifth-generation iPod performed no dynamic resizing on the device itself.  The newer 2007 iPod models and the iPhone do perform some on-device resizing, but optimized thumbnails are still stored for the purpose of efficiency.

This pre-processing also helps to save space on your iPod or iPhone for other things, since if all you ever intend to do is view your pictures or show them on a TV, you don’t need a bunch of five or eight-megapixel pictures taking up more storage space than necessary. 

Further, since all photos are pre-sized to specific resolutions, each photo will take up the exact same amount of space, regardless of the original resolution or photo format. The following table illustrates the storage requirements per photo for each model of iPod:


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

For example, on an iPod classic, each photo will take up 983 KB of storage.

Therefore, to sync 100 photos, approximately 98 MB of storage would be required on the device.

Note that when syncing photos to the Apple TV, no preprocessing is performed.  The original full-resolution photos are transferred to the Apple TV as-is.

Full Resolution Photos

The transfer process optimizes photos for display on the iPod’s screen or output to a TV. These are stored in an internal iPod thumbnail database format that is not readily user-accessible even via disk mode.

However, if you do want to carry around the original pictures – perhaps for transferring to other computers, or printing – you can do this by selecting the option in iTunes to “Include full-resolution photos.”


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

This will tell iTunes to sync the original-sized photo as an extra file on the iPod that can later be retrieved through the iPod’s disk mode. This will take up additional space above and beyond the optimized version described above. The amount of additional space will be entirely dependent upon the size and resolution of the original photo, since this simply creates an exact copy of each image.

Note that this feature is not available on the iPhone or Apple TV, as these devices do not have a “Disk mode” that can be used to retrieve the photos.

Adding and Removing Albums

If you simply want to add or remove whole photo albums from your iPod, a quick trip back to the iTunes Photo Sync preferences described above will allow you to select or unselect photo albums to be added or removed at the next sync.  Reordering your photo albums is done in pretty much the same way – drag your album up and down the list to reorder it.

Synchronizing the removal and/or reordering of photo albums is pretty quick, but be forewarned that each addition of new photo content to your iPod will require an optimization process for that new content.  Allow yourself some time for this process to complete, especially if you’re adding several hundred photos.

Adding or Removing Individual Photos

If you want to change the content of a specific album, such as to add or remove pictures from within that album, you’ll need to open the appropriate application (iPhoto, Aperture, Photoshop Album/Elements, Windows Explorer or the Mac OS X Finder if you’re using a folder).

The process is pretty straightforward.  Simply modify the content of your photo collections/folders as you normally would in those applications, and iTunes will pick up these changes on the next synchronization and update your iPod accordingly.

Disabling Synchronization

If you turn synchronization OFF completely in the photo tab, you will be provided with the option of either removing all of your photos from the iPod or iPhone, or leaving them in place and simply disabling automatic synchronization of photo content:


Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (11/2007)

Although this can obviously be used to remove all photos entirely, this is also a useful option for users who want to keep a large static library of photos on their iPod but not have those photos occupying space on their computer. Once synchronization has been disabled, any photos left on the iPod will remain in place as they were before, but any changes to the photos on your computer, or addition of new content, will not be reflected on the iPod, since content is no longer being synchronized.

This effectively creates a static library on the iPod/iPhone itself without having to maintain content on your computer to synchronize with. Note, however, that the iPod/iPhone should definitely not be your only repository of photos, since unless you are synchronizing full resolution photos, you will not have sufficiently high resolution photos to recover, and of course the iPod itself can still be lost or damaged.  However, for users with limited online disk space and their photo library backed up to CD/DVD, this can be of some benefit.  As an added bonus, the iPod Photo Cache (described further on) can also be removed in this case to save additional disk space on your computer.

Note that to add any new photo content, you will need to turn synchronization back on, and you will need to have your entire original library in place, so this is not a viable solution for users who plan to add new content to their iPod even on an infrequent basis.


Unfortunately, there is one big limitation to the way that iTunes handles your photo albums.  You can manually reorder the albums, but you cannot sort the content within them unless you’re on using iPhoto (Mac users only). Otherwise, iTunes stores the photos within each album chronologically.  Even though you can re-order your photos within Photoshop Album or Photoshop Elements, iTunes ignores the order and simply sorts the photos chronologically. 

Knowing this, however, if you really want your photos sorted in a different order, there are a number of applications out there that will allow you to modify the timestamps of these photos – in fact, Photoshop Elements allows you to do this.  As expected, if you change the timestamps, you will change the sort order. 

Under the Hood:  How it’s all stored

As mentioned earlier, storing photos onto your iPod is much like storing music and video on your iPod.  You can’t just drag-and-drop pictures to the iPod in disk mode and view them on the iPod, as iTunes has to pre-process and index them first.

If you look at your iPod in disk mode, you’ll find a “Photos” folder right under the main folder.  Immediately under this folder is the “Photo Database” that iTunes creates, and one or two subfolders, depending on your configuration:

THUMBS:   This will always be present if you’ve synced any photo to your iPod.  Within this directory are a series of thumbnail collections of the photos that are on your iPod.  You don’t really need to worry too much about these files, as you can’t do much with them. There are some third-party tools available that can recover photos from these files, but this is generally only useful in a situation where your original photo library has been lost or destroyed, as the recovered photos will almost always be of a significantly lower resolution than your original photos. Information on how you can recover your photos can be found in our article, Copying Content from your iPod to your Computer.

FULL RESOLUTION:   If you’ve selected “Include Full Resolution Photos” in your iTunes preferences, you will have this second folder, containing copies of all of the photos you have synced onto your iPod.  These files are simply copies of the original photos, and are not modified in any way.  In fact, you’ll find that even the timestamps are maintained from the original files.

However, although the original filenames and timestamps are maintained, the folder structure is not.  Instead, iTunes organizes your full resolution photos in a folder structure based on year, month, and date.  So a picture taken on June 17, 2007 would be in a folder called Photos\Full Resolution\2007\6\17.  While this may make some sense if you know when the picture you’re looking for was taken, there is no direct correlation to the albums that are actually on your iPod, making it difficult to cross-reference these full resolution photos against the iPod’s photo application.

The full resolution photos stored in this directory will only be retained as long as the appropriate photo or album is on your iPod.  If you remove a photo, or deselect an album for synchronization, the corresponding full resolution photos are also removed.

If you turn off the option to “Include Full Resolution Photos” in iTunes, this folder will be emptied and removed from your iPod on your next sync.

On your computer

Your photos can be stored pretty much anywhere on your computer that is accessible to iTunes, even on a network with shared directories.  Unlike your music, there is no concept of an iTunes library of your photos and the options in iTunes to copy or consolidate your music do not apply to your pictures.

Note that the optimizing process that occurs when you sync photos to your iPod or iPhone creates a cache of all of the photos that are being synced.  This cache only includes the resized images, not the full-resolution photos, but despite that fact, it can get rather large. Further, if you are syncing photos to different models of iPod or the iPhone, this cache may grow even larger, as optimized photos for each model of iPod (or the iPhone) are stored in this cache (although some models do share the same photo formats, such as the iPod classic and iPod nano (video), and the iPhone and iPod touch).