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What you need to know about syncing photos in iCloud

What you need to know about syncing photos in iCloud
Zuzanna Blaszkiewicz

Zuzanna Blaszkiewicz

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What happens when you sync your photos using Photo Stream, the new iCloud Photo Library, or iCloud backup? Where do they go, what happens if you stop syncing, and what are your options?

Apple’s known for its generally easy to use OS X and iOS operating systems, but services like iCloud Backup, your Photo Stream, and the most recently added iCloud Photo Library (still in beta) can be a bit of a grey area for many iPhone owners (especially celebrities, apparently).

Sure, they may be useful features, but you might not want to save every photo you take in the cloud. Recent celebrity attacks may have come from a vulnerability in iCloud (albeit one that Apple already patched), but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have some control over where your photos are going when they’re being sent to the ominous sounding ‘cloud’. Consider Photo Stream, iCloud Backup, and iOS 8.1’s newest addition, iCloud Photo Library, along with the alternatives, to see what’ll work best for you.

Photo Stream

First thing to note: Apple is hoping you’ll replace your Photo Stream and Camera Roll with the consolidated iCloud Photo Library (I’ll explain more below), but it’s not mandatory. Secondly, your Photo Stream and Camera Roll are not the same thing. Your Camera Roll is in your iPhone’s local storage, while your Photo Stream contains photos synced across all your iOS devices via iCloud. Delete a photo from your Camera Roll, and it sticks around in your Photo Stream. The same is true for the reverse.

Your Photo Stream isn’t necessarily a traditional back-up though: if you have multiple iOS devices, you’ll be able to access your photos from every device, as long as your Photo Stream is turned on for both.

Photo Stream

What some people might not know, is that you can access your photos via desktop too. If you’re using Windows, you’ll have to download the iCloud Control Panel, while Mac users can access their photos in a forthcoming OS x Yosemite update that’ll include a new photo app, a replacement for the soon to be discontinued iPhoto and Aperture.


In your Photo Stream, your photos aren’t stored in the traditional sense of a cloud service with one central, online hub. Rather, photos are available only between devices and your desktop computer. Notably, your Photo Stream doesn’t save all your photos, only 1000 at a time, deleting older ones as space fills up.

iCloud Photo Library

With iCloud Photo Library (which is still in beta), you can now automatically sync all your photos from what was previously your Photo Stream and Camera Roll. The iCloud Photo Library will sync your photos across all your Apple devices, like Photo Stream. But unlike Photo Stream, which you can only access through the iCloud Control Panel, the iCloud Photo Library automatically stores the original, high-res photos in iCloud and resizes them for every device, making them accessible through Again, it’ll also be accessible to Mac users through the forthcoming photos app. Another bonus is that any edit you make on one device will be automatically saved on all other devices.

You can activate the iCloud Photo Library by going to Settings > Photos and making sure it’s turned on.

iCloud Photo Library

It seems like the perfect solution, considering that the Camera Roll doesn’t automatically sync photos, and Photo Stream only keeps up to 1000 photos or for 30 days, whichever comes first. The biggest caveat, of course, is that your iCloud backup only comes with 5GB of free storage, so if you have more than that and want to automatically backup all your photos, you’ll have to pay for additional storage.

Another downside is that it makes it more difficult to curate your photos because they’re all automatically backed up.

Storage & Backup

Backing up your device using iCloud is more comprehensive than simply the Photo Stream, letting you backup your accounts, documents, and basically your entire iPhone’s settings.

To access Storage & Backup, go to Settings, and then to iCloud. Keep scrolling until you reach Storage & Backup. If you scroll down, you’ll see the option for iCloud Backup, which automatically backs up your files and settings when your iPhone is charging and connected to Wi-Fi. To turn it off, simply swipe left.

iCloud Storage

Curiously, the iCloud Backup is actually less accessible than the iCloud Photo Library or Photo Stream. There’s no online resource for you to access the data that’s been backed up; it’s only accessible when you restore an iPhone and log into your iCloud account.

Doing an iCloud backup of your phone is not to be confused with the newly introduced iCloud Drive, which similar to other cloud storage services, can be accessed online and only saves files, documents, and photos, not the entirety of your iPhone’s apps and settings.

Notably, your iCloud Backup and your Photo Stream can be used independently of each other. You can turn on your Photo Stream without having the iCloud Backup enabled and access your photos, while turning on your iCloud Backup and turning off your Photo Stream will still give you backups of your photos, although it’ll be the ones from your Camera Roll. Using the iCloud Photo Library means they’ll sync and save everywhere. Either way, there is still cloud access to your photos.

Alternative solutions

I must admit, I don’t think iCloud is the best backup service for me, mainly because I’m limited to 5GB of free space, which barely scrapes the surface of my Camera Roll.

Still, whether you insist on using iCloud or not, there are ways to protect the photos on your iOS device.

Two-Step verification

Apple ID offers two-step verification, which sends an SMS code to your mobile device in order to manage your account. Setting it up can do wonders for your protection.

iTunes Backup

It may not be as easy or convenient as the cloud, but the old classic iTunes backup is always a good option. It might be easy to forget (I learned the hard way after getting into the habit of using an external charger without plugging my iPhone into my computer, forgetting to do a backup before attempting (and failing) to update to iOS 7.1.1, and subsequently getting all my data wiped without having done an iTunes backup in 4 months), but getting into the habit of plugging your phone into your computer and setting up automatic backup upon connection is definitely worth it. There’s also the option of setting up Wi-Fi Sync between your iPhone and PC connected on the same network.

Third-party storage services

Most notably, Carousel by Dropbox will automatically sync all the photos from your Camera Roll. All you have to do is turn on the photo permissions for the app to have all your photos sync, giving you an actual storage space for your photos that can be accessed online. For added safety, you can encrypt files in cloud storage with services like Boxcryptor and Cloudfogger.


Curate your photos

It’s not hard to understand why many people prefer the cloud as a storage space. It’s convenient, usually syncs automatically, can be accessed from almost anywhere, and can provide huge amounts of storage space at little or no cost. Despite known targeted celebrity attacks, it’s also generally safe.

Regardless, the best thing you can do is manage your personal collection of photos and where they’re stored. If you don’t want something out there in some hypothetical cloud, delete if from you Photo Stream, turn off your iCloud backup, or use two-step verification. That, or just use Snapchat.

If you want to know about cloud storage services, check out our article on creating the best backups for you.

Original article published on September 2nd, 2014.

Follow me on Twitter @suzieblaszqwicz

Zuzanna Blaszkiewicz

Zuzanna Blaszkiewicz

Latest from Zuzanna Blaszkiewicz

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