Apple Photos, iCloud Photos, and My Photo Stream: Figuring out what to use

What’s stored where and for how long is a tangled question.

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When online and local storage were scarcer, Apple added an interesting option to let you have access to recent photos captured or imported across all your mobile and desktop devices. What’s now called My Photo Stream, when enabled, would feed newly taken photos (but not videos) to all other connected devices, so you could view them on your iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV.

The service at introduction and today keeps up to 1,000 images for up to 30 days. It only starts removing the oldest images when the set of photos from the 30 days exceeds 1,000 or when an image is more than 30 days old. The space occupied by My Photo Stream doesn’t count against iCloud storage. Images are never deleted from their source devices—only from the copy in the stream.

But you may no longer have a reason keep My Photo Stream turned on. In fact, it might be storing images permanently that you never intended to collect in that fashion.

With iCloud Photos Enabled

If you’re using iCloud Photos on your devices, you don’t need My Photo Stream at all. iCloud Photos sync all photos and videos across all devices logged into the same iCloud account and which have iCloud Photos enabled (in Photos > Preferences > iCloud in macOS and in Settings > account name > iCloud > Photos in iOS and IPadOS).

iCloud storage is now cheap enough—at $2.99 per month for 200GB and $9.99 for 2TB—that it’s the best option to ensure automatic synchronization. It’s also the only way to include videos. (Don’t let iCloud Photos in the cloud be your only copy, though—I explain why here.)

The only possible reason to keep My Photo Stream enabled? If you want a stream of recent images that display on your Apple TV. In that case, pick one device, like your Mac, and activate it there.

With iCloud Photos Disabled

If you manage all your visual media syncing and backups for each device—including using iTunes in Mojave or earlier or the Finder in Catalina and later for syncing albums—My Photo Stream can still be useful, as it ensures that each devices can see images captured on the others. With iCloud Photos turned off, you have an option on what’s stored.

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On the Mac, iCloud Photos and My Photo Stream settings are in the preferences of the Photos app.

Enable My Photo Stream Photos > Preferences > iCloud in macOS and in Settings > account name > iCloud > Photos in iOS and IPadOS. On any device using the same iCloud account, a My Photo Stream album appears in the Photos app that shows the collective image feed from any other devices that have shared images into it.

In iOS and iPadOS, images persist only as long as they remain in My Photo Stream. There’s no way to retain them when iCloud removes them from that feed.

In macOS, you can choose whether to retain My Photo Stream images or not, but you rely on a global setting that affects all imported images in Photos for macOS. In Photos > Preferences > General, the “Copy items to the Photos library” checkbox includes any items downloaded via My Photo Stream. This allows macOS to be the repository of any mobile devices’ streamed images.

But if you deselect the Copy option, none of your imported images will be duplicated inside the Photos library; instead, they will all be referenced from the location they were at when imported.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Brooke.

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