iCloud Photo Library or Photo Stream?

iCloud is Apple’s online service that allows you to back up your files in the cloud, that is, over the internet to an Apple server. You get 5 GB of free space with your iTunes account. That’s not much as we’ll see later. You’re probably using your free space right now to back up important content from your iPad or iPhone. (You do have iCloud Backup turned on, right?)

icloud Backup

iCloud Photo Library
Turning on iCloud Photo Library will automatically back up all the photos and videos from your device at full resolution (highest quality) to iCloud. These photo and video files will soon use up that 5 GB of free space. Most likely you’ll need to buy more storage from Apple to accommodate your Photo Library. For example, Apple will increase your total iCloud storage to 50 GB for 99 cents per month in the U.S. My wife and I have each have this plan and find it to be plenty for our needs. This 50 GB of online storage can also be used for storing files you create with Apple and third-party apps. So you can use it for much more than keeping images and videos.

Photo Library setting

Photo Library works automatically on all your Apple tech including iPhone, iPad, Mac and iCloud.com. You can view your photos on any device that has iCloud Photo Library turned on because the collection is synced across your devices. This also means deleting a photo from the library on any device deletes it from all devices.

Go to Settings > Photos & Camera > iCloud Photo Library

Photo stream settings

My Photo Stream
My Photo Stream is the older of the Apple photo services. This tool syncs all photos (not videos) you take to a My Photo Stream folder or album inside your Photos app. It stores up to 1000 of your most recent photos or the last 30 days of images, whichever is greater. Note that this does not count against your iCloud storage. So it is possible to have Photo Stream active and perhaps make do with that free 5 GB. My Photo Stream is best for people who don’t take many photos or who don’t need to access them across all of their devices.

Go to Settings > Photos & Camera > My Photo Stream

If you have Photo Stream turned on, but then decide to use iCloud Photo Library, your Photo Stream on that device will disappear. However, photos are not lost. They should be added (after a few minutes) to your iCloud Photo Library. You can now find them in the All Photos album inside the Photos app on your device. You can see any of these photos on any device with iCloud Photo Library activated. Remember that any photo you delete on one device is deleted from all devices.

My Photo Stream and iCloud Photo Library are convenient and reliable. But to be sure you keep your images safe you should consider alternatives. For example, if you are a member of Amazon Prime, one of your benefits is unlimited, free storage space with Prime Photos. I discovered Prime Photos recently while researching my own options for photo backups. Google offers a similar service.

My Photo Stream doesn’t count against your iCloud storage, but it doesn’t give you access to all of your photos across all your devices. Your most recent 30 days of photos are stored, up to 1000 images. Videos are not stored or synced. However, if you use another cloud service to store your photos (Amazon, Google, Dropbox, etc.) you may be able to get by with Photo Stream. If you have photos and videos you want to access across your devices, you should use iCloud Photo Library. You will need to pay a small amount for more iCloud storage. You can use both iCloud Photo Library and Photo Stream, but you’ll find this confusing.

How and where you choose to manage your photos is up to you. I pay Apple $.99 per month and use iCloud Photo Library on my devices. I also now back up all my photos to Amazon Prime Photos. Please note that before I made any changes to my backup method, I was copying photos to my Mac, using the Image Capture program. This collection was then saved to an external hard drive. Yes, I’m a bit nuts about backups.

If you are just starting out with a new device, adding iCloud storage and using iCloud Photo Library across all devices may be your best bet. That way, every device stays in sync and the contents of the Photos app should look the same across devices. Please proceed carefully if you decide to activate or switch to a new photo backup scheme. Keep those precious memories safe!

Apple has more on these topics here

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About Andy Brovey

Dr. Andy Brovey, The Portable Prof, teaches about digital tools through his work, websites and social media. In 2007, Apple Inc. recognized his work and named him an Apple Distinguished Educator. He started this iPad Academy website shortly after the first iPad went on sale. On his Freelance Teaching site you'll find the resources you need to teach like a smart entrepreneur.