Editor’s Note
The Complete Guide to iPod photo Pictures (2004)

A new version of this article is now available. 

Please see our new The Complete Guide to Displaying Photos on iPod + iPhone (2007).

If you’re reading this, you either have a brand new iPod photo or are thinking about getting one. In either case, you’re probably excited about carrying your entire digital photo collection in your pocket, and want to make the most of the new hardware’s abilities.

While an impressive evolution of the music-only iPod, the iPod photo isn’t all things to all people. It’s best suited to people who want to carry around a whole bunch of pictures to view or show to family and friends, and has some shortcomings that may limit its appeal to serious photographers. We’ll consider its features and limitations below.

This tutorial will start with some of the basics of getting your photo collection onto your iPod photo, and then delve into some of the more advanced things that you can do once it’s on there.

iTunes?  For pictures?

This first thing that may come as a bit of a surprise is that you actually use iTunes to get pictures onto your iPod photo.  You’ll need at least version 4.7 of iTunes to accomplish this feat.

Just like music on the iPod, you can’t just copy photos directly onto the iPod hard drive and expect them to be usable on the device.  Believe it or not, this can be seen as a good thing, since iTunes takes care of resizing and indexing your photos prior to transferring them to your iPod.  In other words, it does the work so your iPod doesn’t have to.

Unfortunately, iTunes can’t manage your photo library.  You’ll have to use other software, such as iPhoto (on Mac OS X) or Adobe Photoshop Album or PhotoShop Elements (on Windows 2000/XP), each of which integrate with iTunes.  If you don’t have one of these applications, you can still synchronize the contents from any folder on your computer (i.e. the “My Pictures” folder on Windows).

iTunes takes any photo library that you’ve already collected (and preferably organized), and provides the mechanism for you to transfer those photos onto your iPod.

Setting it up in iTunes

We start in the main iTunes Preferences screen.  If and only if you have an iPod photo connected, you’ll see this “Photos” button or tab in your iPod Preferences:
You’ll see that this setting is turned off by default.  Unless you tell it to do so, iTunes will not synchronize any pictures to your iPod; you need to tell it where your pictures are.

Once you enable synchronization, you can choose the source of your photo collection(s) from the drop-down box. “My Pictures” refers to a Windows “My Pictures” folder, and should always be available on a PC. (A Macintosh with iPhoto installed will default to synchronizing with iPhoto’s entire imported collection, or let you pick between the last Roll and/or 12 months of imported photos. Without iPhoto, it will synchronize with the “Pictures” folder.) “Photoshop Album” or “Photoshop Elements” will only appear if you have those applications installed.

Note also that if you have your pictures stored somewhere else, you can select “Choose Folder” and select any directory. pic
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 sub-folders.  For Adobe Photoshop Album/Elements or iPhoto, this will be a list of your named photo collections. pic
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 “Copy all photos and albums” or “Copy selected albums only.”  If you choose to copy selected albums only, then you are presented with a checkbox beside each album, where you can select or deselect that album for synchronization. pic
iTunes keeps a running count at the bottom of the screen of the total number of photos that you have selected for synchronization – somewhat useful if you’ve put lots of music on your iPod and need to roughly estimate how many pictures you can fit in the space you have left. (A Megabyte or Gigabyte estimate would be even more handy here.)

Once you’ve made your selections, you can simply click OK and the albums will be transferred to your iPod.

Note that the albums will by default show up in the Photos list on your iPod in the order shown in the album list in iTunes.  However, you can drag the albums in the list to different positions to manually re-order them as you prefer.

Another important thing to note here is that iTunes will only provide album names for the top level of photo folders or albums, so if you have sub-folders within an album, these will be included within the selected album, but they will not be separately categorized. Using the example above, if there were three sub-folders under “Christmas 2003”, pictures from all sub-folders would show up on the iPod under the main “Christmas 2003” category.

As noted above, iTunes resizes and indexes your photos during the transfer process.  By default, it creates three versions of each photo: two for viewing on the iPod photo’s screen (one for thumbnail mode and one for full-screen mode), and one suitable for viewing on a TV screen (through composite or S-Video).  This pre-processing creates photos that look very sharp on the iPod screen even in the smallest thumbnail view.

This also helps to save space on your iPod 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 space on your drive.  Even without the full resolution photos, each photo requires approximately 776kb of storage.

But 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 to “Include full-resolution photos.” pic
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. More on this feature later.

Your First Photo Sync

Once you’ve selected photo albums to synchronize with your iPod, it’s time to actually do the sync.  If your iPod is connected, this will happen as soon as you click OK after adjusting your Photo preferences in iTunes.

The photo synchronization occurs in two stages.  First, iTunes will resize all of the photos for your iPod, storing the resized thumbnails in a cache on your hard drive. pic
Depending on how many photos you have selected, this process could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, so give yourself lots of time for this first sync.  If you find it’s taking too long, you can always hit the “Skip” button, which will stop the process, leaving the untransferred photos queued for your next synchronization.

Once this has been done, iTunes then copies the images to the iPod, including the full resolution copies of the photos if you have that option selected. pic
On the iPod:  Displaying your Photo Albums

Once synchronized, your pictures can be found on your iPod under the Photos option from the main menu.  Simply select your album and you will be presented with a series of small thumbnails of your pictures which you can browse and select.  Use the Click Wheel to highlight a thumbnail, and then press the center Action button to make the image appear on the full iPod screen. pic
When viewing an image on the full screen, the Click Wheel will browse through the other images in the current album.  Even moreso than on the iPod’s other menus, the highlighting marker moves pretty quickly, and it can sometimes be hard to select a specific picture.  The Previous and Next buttons also work in this screen to advance or reverse one image at a time.


Pressing the Action button while in full screen view will start a slideshow – a combination of a timed photo-by-photo display with musical accompaniment of your choice.

Back in the main photo screen, at the top of the list of photo albums, you’ll find a menu item for your slideshow settings. pic
Time Per Slide: You can set the amount of time each picture will remain on screen during a slideshow.  There is also an option for manual advance.

Music:   Select a playlist of music to play during your slideshow.  If no playlist is selected, no music will be played during your slideshow. And if something is already playing, it will be stopped.

Repeat:   Just as with music playback, Repeat allows you to select whether your slideshow will repeat at the end or play through only once.  Note that if repeat is OFF, the slideshow will stop at the last picture and leave it displayed, as opposed to showing a blank screen.

Shuffle:   Again, Shuffle works the same here as it does in music playback.  By default, your images will be displayed during the slideshow in chronological order.  Turning shuffle on will display your images from the current album/slideshow in random order.

Transitions:   This option will transition between slides in a simple and clean Star Wars-style wipe.

TV Out:   This setting determines whether the slideshow will be shown on the iPod screen or whether the TV output will be used.  There are three options for this.  OFF, ON, and ASK. 

TV Signal:   Options here are NTSC and PAL.  Generally, if you’re in North America or Japan you’ll select NTSC, and if you’re in Europe you’ll select PAL.

When starting a slideshow, if you have “TV Out” set to ASK, you’ll be prompted whether you want to use the TV output or not: pic
If you opt to have the TV output OFF, your slideshow will be shown on the iPod display in full screen mode, with transitions, if selected.

If you turn the TV output ON, you will instead see a slideshow preview and control screen similar to the following: pic
This will show you which slide you are on, the time before the next slide auto-displays (if not set to manual), as well as thumbnails of the previously displayed slide, and which slide is coming up next.  The central slide will be displayed on your TV screen, using either the composite output (if you’re using the video cable), or the S-Video output (if you’re using the iPod photo Dock).

Organizing your Photo Albums

So you have some of your photos synced with your iPod, but now you decide that you want to change or re-order the existing content.  Fortunately, like everything else with your iPod, this is fairly simple.

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 > iPod > Photo Preferences dialog 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, Photoshop, Windows Explorer if you’re using “My Pictures”, or the Mac OS X Finder if you’re using “Pictures”).

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.

The Bad News:  Sorting

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 – iTunes stores the photos within each album chronologically.  Even though you can re-order your photos within, say, 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 on your iPod.  You can’t just drag-and-drop pictures to the iPod in hard drive mode and view them through the iPod photo, because iTunes does all of that pre-processing.

If you look at your iPod in hard drive mode, you’ll actually 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 anything with them.

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 December 4, 2004 would be in a folder called PhotosFull Resolution2004124.  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 photo/s browser.

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.

It’s also important to note that 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 for now, 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 creates a cache of all of the photos that are being synced.  This cache only includes the thumbnails (not the full-size photos), but despite that fact, it can get rather large.  Where this cache is stored will depend largely on the application you’re using for your photo management.  The folder is named “iPod photo Cache” and will normally live in a directory somewhere relative to your photo source application.

For instance, on Windows, if you’re using a folder as your photo source, it will simply be placed directly under that folder.  If you’re using Adobe Photoshop Album or Elements, it actually lives in C:Documents and SettingsAll UsersAdobeCatalogs. If you’re using iPhoto, it will be in your Pictures and iPhoto Library folders.

You’ll want to ensure you have some extra space, as this folder can get quite large depending on how many photos you are synchronizing. Our PC and Mac caches showed a cache almost the same size as our photo libraries – just over 2Gb for a 2,800 photo collection, and just over 1GB for a 1,400 photo collection.  You can delete these files, but iTunes will simply regenerate the cache on your next sync.

Note as well that images are only removed from this cache if they are permanently removed from your photo collection (taken out of a photo album), or if you change your photo source completely (by, say, moving from “My Pictures” to Adobe Photoshop).  Simply deselecting an album for synchronization doesn’t remove it from the cache.

Caveats, Problems, and other miscellaneous “Gotchas”

In addition to some of the limitations mentioned above, there are a few other important things to note about the iPod photo that might not work the way you’d expect.

  • Belkin sells a couple of neat digital photo accessories that iLounge has reviewed:  the Media Reader and Digital Camera Link.  Both of these accessories are designed to allow you to dump photos from your digital camera media cards onto your iPod.  It’s important to note, however, that the iPod photo does nothing with these photos except to store them – it simply dumps them into a DCIM directory off your iPod’s root folder for later transferring or processing by your computer.  In other words, you cannot copy your digital camera content onto your iPod photo and expect to view it immediately.  For this purpose, the Belkin accessories work no differently with an iPod photo than they would work with any other 3G or 4G iPod, which is disappointing given the other photo functionality of the more expensive iPod photo hardware.
  • Currently, the only way to get photo content onto your iPod photo is to use iTunes v4.7.  While there are a number of other cool third-party applications for managing your iPod music content, as of this writing, none of them provide any support for the photo capabilities.  Using these applications shouldn’t harm your photo collection, but you’ll still need iTunes installed as well if you want to store viewable photos on your iPod photo.
  • Remember to allow yourself extra time and disk space when synchronizing a large photo collection to your iPod.  Our tests have taken long times – in one case, it took 90 minutes to do our first Mac-to-iPod transfer of 2,500 photos, and in another, 2,000 photos took about 30 minutes to optimize and transfer.  Optimization and transferring will depend on the format and size of your pictures. Transferring Full Resolution photos should naturally take a little bit of extra time.
  • If you change your photo source (from Adobe Photoshop to My Pictures, for instance), your entire photo collection will be removed from your iPod and re-synced from scratch, regardless of whether these photos have been transferred to your iPod before.  This includes the optimization stage.
  • To play music during your slideshows you must select a specific playlist under “Slideshow Options” to do so.  The iPod will stop playing any currently playing music when you start a slideshow in favour of the assigned playlist.  If you do not have a playlist assigned to a slideshow, the iPod will simply stop playing music at all.  The good news, though, is that this only applies to actual slideshows, so you can still browse and view your pictures manually without stopping your current playlist.
  • In some cases, larger photo albums may load and display more slowly.  For best performance, individual photo albums should contain no more than 200-300 photos.
  • There may be a hard limit of 25,000 or 30,000 photos that can be stored on the iPod photo, which has nothing to do with disk space (on a 60Gb iPod photo you should be able to hold quite a bit more), but is rather based on the maximum size of the Photo Database. There may also be limitations in separate management programs such as iPhoto, which has a problem processing huge collections of photos – you may well be unable to get it to import even 10,000 photos at once without crashing.
  • Sometimes if you have two iPods connected to your PC at the same time, and one of them is not an iPod photo, you’ll be missing the Photo tab in iTunes preferences – even if the iPod photo’s plugged in.  Just disconnect and reconnect your iPod photo and the Photo options should appear.
  • Unlike music, there is no manual synchronization of photos at this point.  You either have to synchronize your entire photo collection, or selected albums, and you can’t really manage the individual photo content through iTunes. But as noted, additions/deletions made in your photo library will synchronize to your iPod.
  • The iPod photo isn’t very efficient at storing smaller image files.  In our testing, it appeared that every photo synced to the iPod requires an additional 776kb of storage, regardless of the original source image size.  For photos from most digital cameras, this is only a slight reduction in size, but for other simple JPEG files (from PowerPoint presentations, etc)., this can be quite a bit larger.  This extra storage hit is probably due to the need to store three different versions of each photo.
  • The iPod photo also stores and displays album art.  However, these images are stored in a completely different location from the photo library, so you can’t view them directly unless you’re listening to the associated album.
  • You can export Keynote and PowerPoint slideshows to your iPod photo by saving them as JPEG files and syncing them to your iPod as you would any other photo album.  They can then be displayed in slideshow mode, making the iPod photo a handy solution to give basic presentations.  Note, however, that any audio, animation, and transition effects will be lost, since all you’re doing is syncing a bunch of raw JPEG files.
  • Don’t expect to use a remote control (Navipod, RemoteRemote2, Apple Remote) to control your slideshows.  The Prev/Next/Pause commands sent through the remote control port aren’t recognized by the iPod’s photo application.  Hopefully Apple will address this in a future firmware update, since it would make the iPod photo more useful as a presentation device.
  • Users of the Macintosh application iPhoto Buddy can usefully manage multiple iPhoto libraries at once on their computers, but the iPod photo can only access one of these libraries at a time. Additionally, iTunes will be confused by the presence of the multiple libraries and will only let you synchronize whichever library you’ve last accessed in iPhoto, so be sure to load your most recent library into iPhoto (and quit) before synchronizing your iPod photo; otherwise you’ll get a confusing message that will suggest that you re-sync your entire photo collection.
  • You can’t display movies from your digital camera on the iPod photo’s screen. The closest you can come is to create slideshows of photographs and flip quickly through them – a very, very weak (and almost pointless) alternative. Parting Thoughts

    The whole concept of portable photo storage is a new one to Apple and the iPod, and there are naturally a few things left to be worked out.  Hopefully future versions of iTunes will provide more complete photo management, and some of Apple’s third-party developers will jump on the bandwagon and start adding photo capabilities to some of the other great iPod management software that is already out there.

    Despite these few limitations, however, the new iPod photo is a great evolution of the iPod concept.  While power users may be disappointed by its rather basic features, it fits the iPod’s model very well – that of allowing you to carry your digital life around in your pocket. Jesse David Hollington is a contributor to iLounge and lives in Toronto, Canada.  When he’s not listening to his iPod, he’s usually tweaking his music and photo collection, working with air cadets or running his IT consultancy.


Jesse Hollington was a Senior Editor at iLounge. He's written about Apple technology for nearly a decade and had been covering the industry since the early days of iLounge. In his role at iLounge, he provided daily news coverage, wrote and edited features and reviews, and was responsible for the overall quality of the site's content.