Apple iCloud: Photo Library vs My Photo Stream vs Photo Sharing

When photo management consisted of taking pictures on your digital camera and uploading them to your Mac for use with iPhoto, things were pretty simple. But then along came iPhones and iPads and Apple’s cloud services. I recall getting confused as to how in the heck Apple’s cloud solutions worked for photos, and to make matters more confusing they were a moving target as they evolved over iOS releases.

Things seem to have stabilized now. So here is an overview of what you need to know.

In iOS 11 when you go into iCloud settings (Settings->Your Name->iCloud) you’ll see three sharing choices under Photos:

  1. iCloud Photo Library: Automatically upload and store your entire library in iCloud to access photos and videos from all your devices.
  2. My Photo Stream: Automatically upload new photos and send them to all of your iCloud devices when connected to Wi-Fi
  3. iCloud Photo Sharing: Create albums to share with other people, or subscribe to other people’s shared albums.

OK — those descriptions help, but how do these impact my iCloud storage capacity? What are the limitations? How are they used in practice? Why wouldn’t I just turn them all on?

iCloud Storage

As of this writing you get 5GB of free iCloud storage when you create your iCloud account. That’s enough for backing up your phone, and storing your contacts, calendars and some documents. But it isn’t enough for any significant number of photos and videos. You can bump that storage to 50GB for $0.99 a month. That is large enough for modest photo libraries. Apple, of course, is happy to sell you more capacity.

So how do the above plans use iCloud storage?

  1. iCloud Photo Library: uses iCloud Storage
  2. My Photo Stream: does NOT use iCloud Storage
  3. iCloud Photo Sharing: does NOT use iCloud Storage

So only iCloud Photo Library will consume your iCloud Storage. Great! Of course that means there must be some limitations to Photo Stream and Photo Sharing.

So, what do each of these plans provide?

Summary of Features and Limitations

Uses Storage  Limitations  Best For
Photo Library Yes Your storage quota Access to all your photos everywhere and a safe backup of all your photos.
Photo Stream No 1,000 photos or 30 days. There are additional upload limits Easy access to recent photos on all devices
Photo Sharing No 5,000 photos. There are additional sharing limits Sharing photos with friends



If you want to have access to all of your photos everywhere and want to have a safe backup of your photos then enable iCloud Photo Library. But be aware that this will use your iCloud Storage, and you will likely need to purchase additional storage.

If you just want easy access to your recent photos on all your devices then turn on My Photo Stream. It costs nothing. But keep in mind this does not ensure all your photos are backed up. You might have some duplicate copies (for example your iMac might have some stored locally) but that is not guaranteed.

If you want to share photos with friends then enable iCloud Photo Sharing. It costs nothing and lets you share photos with other Apple device users. There is even a way to share through a web site. Note that these shared photos are essentially backed up onto Apple’s servers. So you can consider creating a shared folder just to store your important photos (if you don’t enable Photo Library).


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