How to Understand & Work with Your iCloud Photo Stream

iPhoneography – capturing unique moments of time every day and every place with an iPhone. It goes without saying that your photos are important to you. Many are irreplaceable.

Let's say you are visiting family while vacationing in Italy. You're using your iPhone to record the memorable family events that are bound to ensue. The photos you take are priceless. Can you imagine losing forever those pictures of you and cousin Guido doing the tarantella while juggling grandma's meatballs? What a tragic loss that would be! Why? Because they are so special to not only you, but to Grandma, too!

Apple developed iCloud in order to address several issues. Two of these include solutions for painless image transfers and ad-hoc backups.

If you established a free iCloud account for yourself, and you configured it on your iPhone and other devices (including Macs and PCs), you can jump in and exploit all that the My Photo Stream service has to offer. This is the iCloud service that wirelessly uploads and stores your photos and automatically pushes (synchronizes or "syncs") them to all your iOS devices and computers. Photo Stream lets you view all your recent photos on all your devices without having to manually transfer them – all you have to do is turn the service on.

An illustration depicting how photo stream wirelessly synchronizes photos between between devices on iCloud.

Thanks to iCloud, Photo Stream wirelessly synchronizes your photos with all your devices.

For me, Photo Stream works flawlessly, for the most part. It makes taking photos an even more pleasurable experience. I can concentrate more on my photography as I am confident in the knowledge that my photos are being copied wirelessly elsewhere – an ad hoc backup of my treasured moments.

To get started gaining a firm understanding of how your Photo Stream works, you should first confirm that the service is enabled on your devices. 

In iOS, go to Settings > iCloud > Photo Stream, and turn on My Photo Stream.

The Photo Stream Settings panel in iOS.

On iOS devices, this is the Photo Stream master switch.

On your Mac, go to System Preferences > iCloud > Photo Stream. Click on the Options button and enable My Photo Stream. Next, verify that iPhoto or Aperture are properly configured to work with Photo Stream. This will be explained further into the article.

This is the Photo Stream master switch in OS X.

This is the Photo Stream master switch in OS X.

A question asked frequently has to do with photo transfer limits. Many iOS users hear, and often get confused about, some Photo Stream limitations imposed by Apple. I am specifically talking about the so-called "30-day" and the"1000-photo" rules. Hopefully, I can help clear this up for you.

First, it's important to realize that, while there is no limit to the number of photos you can upload to Photo Stream over time, iCloud does limit the number of photos that can be uploaded within a given hour to 1000 images, within a given day to 10,000 images, or within any given month to 25,000 images. These limits were established in order to prevent unintended or excessive use.

If you exceed one of these limits, your uploads to your Photo Stream will be paused temporarily, and you may see a notification message on your device. However, your uploads will resume automatically once you no longer exceed one of the limits (such as the following hour or day).

I suspect that most – if not all – of our readers are unlikely to exceed these limits. I know I am always well within those limits – and I take lots of photos!

The limitations – or rules – we should all be more concerned about are the two aforementioned ones, which are more in line with what the typical iPhoneographer is likely to encounter: the 30-day limit and the1000-photo limit – the latter having nothing to do with iCloud.

The 30-day rule stipulates that the photos you upload to your Photo Stream are stored in your iCloud account for 30 days. Apple explains that the reason for this is to give your other devices, including your Mac, plenty of time to connect and download the photos.

For instance, you take a photo on your iPhone on day-one. It is automatically injected into your Photo Stream, uploaded to iCloud and synced down to your other devices participating in your Photo Stream. At the end of day-thirty, your photo will automatically be deleted from your Photo Stream, unless you deleted it manually within that 30-day period.

The 30-day limit is a very important consideration for those who are away from home for more than thirty days. More on this in a bit.

As for the1000-photo rule, each of your iOS devices (not iCloud) keep a rolling collection of your last 1000 photos in the My Photo Stream album. This is done so that you don't run out of space on your device. From there, you can browse your recent photos or, for other devices' photos downloaded from your Photo Stream, you can save/move the ones you like to your device's Camera Roll or to another album. Doing so allows you to store these photos on your device as long as you want.

The My Photo Stream Album in the iOS Photos App.

In iOS 6, the Photos App has a button that shows you your Photo Stream album.

Since your Mac has more storage than your iOS devices, you can, and should, choose to have all of your My Photo Stream photos – which may include those from more than one of your devices – automatically downloaded. This is particularly important while photographing during your travels: you need to turn on certain important settings that are disabled by default.

On the Mac, your iPhoto or Aperture are the primary apps used to manage the your incoming Photo Stream. These apps can be set up to permanently store your incoming images – no matter what happens to your iCloud account.

The Photo Stream Preferences pane in iPhoto.

The Photo Stream Preferences pane in iPhoto.

In iPhoto or Aperture go to the app's Preferences > Photo Stream > My Photo Stream and enable Automatic Import. All of your Photo Stream photos will now be imported and permanently stored into your Events, Projects, Photos, Faces, and Places folders in iPhoto or Aperture on your Mac. By the way, for this to occur successfully, these apps must be running; in the background is fine.

By way of summary, let's revisit travel photography. Here's how you deal with your Photo Stream during your adventures away from home while photographing with your iPhone:

Assuming you have a continuous or occasional Wi-Fi connection during your travel, let's consider two travel photography scenarios.

Scenario 1: You will be away from home more than thirty consecutive days

As you approach the 30th day of your splendid trip, be aware that your photos will start being deleted from your iCloud account as each of your oldest ones reach their 30-day-old mark. They also begin dropping off your My Photo Stream album on your iPhone as you sync with iCloud.

This is important: photos you take with your iPhone DO NOT get deleted from its Camera Roll. On the other hand, any photos taken on other devices and entered into your stream and downloaded to your iPhone will be subject to deletion on your iPhone in accordance with the two rules mentioned previously.

As you approach 1000 images taken with your iPhone, the oldest will begin to be removed from your Photo Stream Album on your iPhone, not your Camera Roll.

As your photos begin to be eliminated from your Photo Stream, you need to think ahead and develop a way to ensure that those photos will have been backed up or stored permanently somewhere. 

One way is to have your home Mac configured to sync regularly to your Photo Stream via iPhoto or Aperture while you are away.

Here's an idea to try: go into System Preferences > Energy Saver, click on the Schedule button and set up times for when your Mac will wake and sleep every day.

The Energy Saver Preferences pane in OS X, highlighting the Scheduling function.

In OS X, you can schedule times for waking and sleeping your Mac.

For this to work, be sure that iPhoto or Aperture are already open so that your Photo Stream will refresh and your travel photos get permanently stored to your Mac. Don't forget to configure iPhoto or Aperture properly as detailed previously. 

Of course, there are other solutions, but the idea here is for you to be constantly aware if – and how – the photos you are capturing with your iPhone are being backed up.

iPhoneography Scenario 2: You will be away from home less than thirty days

Not much of a concern with Photo Stream. If you can, be sure to confirm that your travel photos are syncing successfully to your Mac as well as to any other devices linked to your Photo Stream.

While you're at it, why not check your Time Machine and/or your other backup mechanisms to ascertain your Mac's backup strategy is purring along just fine.

Some final points to ponder:

You already know that photos which you capture with your iOS device are injected into your Photo Stream. There are three other occasions when photos are put into your Photo Stream. One is when you import photos into an iOS device, such as when transferring photos from an iPhone to an iPad via the iPad Camera Connection Kit. Another is when you perform a screen capture in iOS [done by pressing both the Sleep/Wake button and the Home button simultaneously]. The third one is when you edit photos in third-party photography apps because most will offer the option to save edited photos to your device's Camera Roll. Doing so then puts them into your Photo Stream.

If you are concerned that your Photo Stream might exhaust your iCloud storage quota, don't be. Photos uploaded to your Photo Stream do not count against your iCloud storage. You can rest easy.

Finally, remember that Photo Stream does not push photos over cellular connections; it's Wi-Fi only. Believe me, this is for your own good! While traveling, if you are able to connect to a Wi-Fi network on a fairly regular basis, this shouldn’t be a problem. When offline, your photos will be queued up for later syncing with iCloud when Wi-Fi becomes available.

Photo Stream is yet another example of technology stepping up to make our lives simpler – or perhaps not. Just kidding… it is. However, as with many wonderful features Apple gives us, there's more to it than meets the eye. There are behind-the-scenes settings to set, switches to switch and sliders to slide in order to ensure that everything works like a well-oiled machine when it comes to the safekeeping of your precious photos.