How to Stay in Control of Your iCloud Photo Stream

I remember the days of film cameras. Yes, I am that old...

Each roll of 35-millimeter film would give us 12, 24, or 36 images. After taking the photos, the film would typically be dropped off at the photo desk at a local pharmacy or supermarket. Then, the wait – and sometimes the sweating – would begin. Before a new era ushered in one-hour photo processing, it would take several days before the expensive prints or slides would be available for pickup. Then, back to the house to cull through the shots with trepidation, only to then often be banished to shoeboxes and binders, never to be looked at again. Try to imagine what it would be like to take photos at a critically important event or a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, and having to wonder if the photos turned out.

Today, all this is just an unpleasant memory. The digital age epitomizes "instant gratification" as it relates to photography. Now we shoot, we chimp (the act of checking the shot on the camera's display, and making chimpanzee-like squeals of delight), and we shoot some more. Before the days of iPhone, we saved our digital images onto memory cards. We transferred images from the cards or cameras via USB to our Mac, and iPhoto would import them to our Photo Libraries for organization, sharing and backing up.

Enter iCloud and…Photo Stream. It's truly a beautiful thing!

Photo Stream (more accurately known now as the My Photo Stream service) lets you view your recent photos on all of your Apple devices – which includes your Mac. You take a picture with your iPhone, and within seconds, it shows up on your other devices. Additionally, you can now also share selected photos with people you choose via Shared Photo Streams.

OK. Let's talk Photo Stream. Hopefully, this article will help you understand it better and control it more effectively.

First of all, it's important to understand that there are certain limitations imposed by Apple. Your Photo Stream can contain up to 1000 photos. When you add a new photo to your Photo Stream after you reach the 1000-photo limit, the oldest photo is removed.

Once an image enters your Photo Stream, and iCloud pushes your images to all your devices, it stores your Photo Stream for 30 days. The photos are removed automatically as they hit the 30-day mark.

While there is no limit to the number of photos you can upload to Photo Stream over time, iCloud limits the number of photos that can be uploaded within a given hour (1,000), day (10,000), or month (25,000) to prevent unintended or excessive use. Similar limits are also imposed on the new Shared Photo Streams service. For more information about these limitations, see Article HT4858 – iCloud: Photo Stream Limits on Apple Support's knowledge base.

An understanding of these restrictions is particularly important if you regularly import tons of images to an iPad using Apple's Camera Connection Kit. Images are stored directly to iPad's Camera Roll. As we'll soon see, any images that are placed into your iDevice's Camera Roll automatically get injected into your Photo Stream. So, if Photo Stream is enabled, and you are connected to a wireless network, you could potentially reach any of the limits listed above in practically no time. To avoid this issue in the iPad Camera Connection Kit scenario – particularly for DSLR shooters who use iPad as an image storage and organization platform – disable Photo Stream when importing photos to iPad when using the Camera Connection Kit. 

Of similar concern, if you import large numbers of photos to either iPhoto or Aperture on your Mac, you could potentially  and fairly quickly reach any of the limits listed above if you have selected Automatic Upload in the Photo Stream preferences in these applications. Note that both iPhoto and Aperture will pause uploading to Photo Stream once the maximum has been reached. Uploading will automatically restart at the next hour, day, or month, depending on which limit was reached.

On to specifics: let's look at the controls you have to help you reign-in your Photo Stream.

Turning On Your Photo Stream

Of course, for Photo Stream to even work, you must first have an iCloud account, and it needs to be enabled on your Mac and/or iOS devices.

On your Mac, go to System Preferences > iCloud and enable Photo Stream. Consider this to be your Mac's Photo Stream "Master Switch." Next, click the Options button to verify that My Photo Stream is enabled.

The iCloud preferences panel on the Mac.

Photo Stream's on/off switch is located in the Mac's System Preferences > iCloud. Clicking on Options allows you to enable the individual Photo Stream services available.

Open iPhoto or Aperture to confirm that My Photo Stream is turned on in the application you want to use with your Photo Stream. You can also adjust your Photo Stream settings in iPhoto or Aperture Preferences.

iPhoto's Preferences panel and the Photo Stream pane.

On the Mac, you control iPhoto's Photo Stream services in iPhoto's Preferences panel.

On your iOS devices, go to Settings > iCloud > Photo Stream, and enable My Photo Stream.

The Photo Stream pane in the iCloud Settings panel in iOS.

The switches for the Photo Stream services in iOS are located in the Photo Stream pane within the iCloud Settings panel.

Which Photos Get Automatically Added to Your Photo Stream?

  • Photos taken with an iOS device with My Photo Stream turned on,
  • Photos saved to the device’s Camera Roll. Typically, these are the photos you take with the device's camera, but also include screen captures and processed images saved as output from numerous photography apps. Incidentally, think of the Camera Roll as the permanent storage for the pictures you take with the same device. It's like a traditional flash memory card you put into a point-and-shoot camera. You can’t manually add photos from your device’s Camera Roll to your photo stream.
  • Photos imported to an iPad using the Apple Camera Connection Kit, and
  • Photos newly imported into your Mac's iPhoto Library, if Automatic Upload is enabled in iPhoto's Preferences (see second illustration above).

Adding Photos Manually from iPhoto to Your Photo Stream

When considering the iPhoto library on your Mac, if you prefer to manually choose which photos from library are added to your Photo Stream – as long as Automatic Upload is disabled as described above – simply drag photos to Photo Stream, located in iPhoto's Source list in the sidebar.

Storing Photos in Your Photo Stream

The pictures in your Photo Stream will be transmitted immediately, as long as you are connected via WiFi. If you do not have a connection – even if connected only via a cellular data network – the images will be queued up for transmission later when a WiFi network is available.

Since your Mac has more storage than your iOS devices, you can choose to have all of your Photo Stream photos automatically downloaded into iPhoto. In the Preferences panel for iPhoto or Aperture on your Mac, be sure to select Photo Stream > My Photo Stream > Automatic Import. All of your photo stream photos will be imported into your Events, Projects, Photos, Faces, and Places folders in iPhoto or Aperture.

Consider your Mac to be your backup for all the photos you take "in the field" with your iOS devices. As long as your Mac back at your home or office stays on, or starts-up periodically if you are away for an extended period (especially over 30 days, given Apple's limitations), you will be confident in knowing that your images will be safely stored back home thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Apple's iCloud, your Photo Stream service, and your home or office WiFi network. Of course, it goes without saying that you should also have the necessary backup strategy in place for your Mac's image files and other data.

By the way, photos uploaded to either the My Photo Stream or Shared Photo Streams do not count against your iCloud storage quota.

Deleting Photos from Your Photo Stream

You can delete photos from your Photo Stream the same way you delete other photos from your iOS devices or from iPhoto on your Mac: simply select the photos you want to remove, and tap the trash can icon or click Delete. When you delete a photo from your Photo Stream on one device, the iCloud service will automatically delete it from the your Photo Stream album or view on your other devices. Be sure to check your versions, because deleting individual photos from Photo Stream is only supported by iOS 5.1 or later, iPhoto 9.2.2 or later, and Aperture 3.2.3 or later.

A page of Photo Stream Album photo thumbnails on the iPhone. Four photos are selected by tapping on them, then tapping the red Delete button.

In the iOS Photos app, select the Photo Stream Album, press the Edit button, then select photos to delete by tapping on them, finally tap on the Delete button.

In discussing how to delete an image from your photo stream in iPhoto, you first need to select Photo Stream in the iPhoto's Source list in the sidebar, then if applicable, double-click My Photo Stream, and do any of the following:

  • Select the photo or photos you want to delete, and press the Delete key,
  • Select the photo or photos you want to delete, and choose Photos > Delete from Photo Stream.
  • Right-click (or Control-click) the photo or photos you want to delete, and choose Delete from Photo Stream from the shortcut popup menu,
  • Drag the photo or photos you want to delete to iPhoto's Trash located in the Source list.

Photos that have already been imported from your photo stream into Events or Albums in your iPhoto library are not deleted from those locations.

Turning Off Photo Stream in iPhoto

If you turn off the My Photo Stream service in iPhoto on your Mac, the following happens:

  • Your photo stream photos are removed from the Photo Stream view in iPhoto.
  • New photos taken with iOS devices in your photo stream continue to be uploaded to iCloud, but aren’t pushed to iPhoto on this Mac.
  • New photos you import into iPhoto on this Mac no longer appear in your Photo Stream on your iOS devices.
  • As already discussed, your Photo Stream photos remain in iCloud for 30 days, and then they’re removed automatically. If you turn the My Photo Stream service back on in iPhoto, any photos that haven’t been removed from iCloud reappear in the Photo Stream view in iPhoto on this Mac.
  • Your Photo Stream photos continue to appear on your iOS devices until the photos are removed from iCloud, unless you disable My Photo Stream on a device.

To turn off My Photo Stream in iPhoto on your Mac, choose iPhoto > Preferences, and click Photo Stream. Then deselect My Photo Stream, and click Turn Off.

Turning Off My Photo Stream on an iOS Device

If you turn off My Photo Stream on an iOS device all of your Photo Stream photos will be removed from the device except for photos that have been saved to the device’s Camera Roll or to an album. If you turn off My Photo Stream on a device but don’t turn it off in iPhoto on your Mac, your Photo Stream continues to work with iPhoto as well as your other devices.

To turn off My Photo Stream on your iOS device, go to Settings > Photos & Camera, and tap to turn off My Photo Stream.

In conclusion, I just want to state for that record that, for me, Photo Stream works almost flawlessly. It's fast. It's awesome! Even after using iCloud since it's introduction over a year ago, and considering I have been engaged in photography for more than 40 years, I am still in awe of Photo Stream.