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No, iCloud Isn’t Backing Them All Up: How to Manage Photos on Your iPhone or iPad

iphone 5s camera

Are the photos you take with your iPhone or iPad backed up in case you lose your device? If you’re just relying on iCloud to manage your important memories, your photos may not be backed up at all.

Apple’s iCloud has a photo-syncing feature in the form of “Photo Stream,” but Photo Stream doesn’t actually perform any long-term backups of your photos.

iCloud’s Photo Backup Limitations

Assuming you’ve set up iCloud on your iPhone or iPad, your device is using a feature called “Photo Stream” to automatically upload the photos you take to your iCloud storage and sync them across your devices. Unfortunately, there are some big limitations here.

  • 1000 Photos: Photo Stream only backs up the latest 1000 photos. Do you have 1500 photos in your Camera Roll folder on your phone? If so, only the latest 1000 photos are stored in your iCloud account online. If you don’t have those photos backed up elsewhere, you’ll lose them when you lose your phone. If you have 1000 photos and take one more, the oldest photo will be removed from your iCloud Photo Stream.
  • 30 Days: Apple also states that photos in your Photo Stream will be automatically deleted after 30 days “to give your devices plenty of time to connect and download them.” Some people report photos aren’t deleted after 30 days, but it’s clear you shouldn’t rely on iCloud for more than 30 days of storage.
  • iCloud Storage Limits: Apple only gives you 5 GB of iCloud storage space for free, and this is shared between backups, documents, and all other iCloud data. This 5 GB can fill up pretty quickly. If your iCloud storage is full and you haven’t purchased any more storage more from Apple, your photos aren’t being backed up.
  • Videos Aren’t Included: Photo Stream doesn’t include videos, so any videos you take aren’t automatically backed up.

It’s clear that iCloud’s Photo Stream isn’t designed as a long-term way to store your photos, just a convenient way to access recent photos on all your devices before you back them up for real.

1 ios photo stream camera roll

iCloud’s Photo Stream is Designed for Desktop Backups

If you have a Mac, you can launch iPhoto and enable the Automatic Import option under Photo Stream in its preferences pane. Assuming your Mac is on and connected to the Internet, iPhoto will automatically download photos from your photo stream and make local backups of them on your hard drive. You’ll then have to back up your photos manually so you don’t lose them if your Mac’s hard drive ever fails.

If you have a Windows PC, you can install the iCloud Control Panel, which will create a Photo Stream folder on your PC. Your photos will be automatically downloaded to this folder and stored in it. You’ll want to back up your photos so you don’t lose them if your PC’s hard drive ever fails.

2 icloud control panel photo stream

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Photo Stream is clearly designed to be used along with a desktop application. Photo Stream temporarily backs up your photos to iCloud so iPhoto or iCloud Control Panel can download them to your Mac or PC and make a local backup before they’re deleted. You could also use iTunes to sync your photos from your device to your PC or Mac, but we don’t really recommend it — you should never have to use iTunes.

How to Actually Back Up All Your Photos Online

So Photo Stream is actually pretty inconvenient — or, at least, it’s just a way to temporarily sync photos between your devices without storing them long-term. But what if you actually want to automatically back up your photos online without them being deleted automatically?

The solution here is a third-party app that does this for you, offering the automatic photo uploads with long-term storage. There are several good services with apps in the App Store:

  • Dropbox: Dropbox’s Camera Upload feature allows you to automatically upload the photos — and videos — you take to your Dropbox account. They’ll be easily accessible anywhere there’s a Dropbox app and you can get much more free Dropbox storage than you can iCloud storage. Dropbox will never automatically delete your old photos.
  • Google+: Google+ offers photo and video backups with its Auto Upload feature, too. Photos will be stored in your Google+ Photos — formerly Picasa Web Albums — and will be marked as private by default so no one else can view them. Full-size photos will count against your free 15 GB of Google account storage space, but you can also choose to upload an unlimited amount of photos at a smaller resolution.
  • Flickr: The Flickr app is no longer a mess. Flickr offers an Auto Upload feature for uploading full-size photos you take and free Flickr accounts offer a massive 1 TB of storage for you to store your photos. The massive amount of free storage alone makes Flickr worth a look.

3 google+ auto backup ios

Use any of these services and you’ll get an online, automatic photo backup solution you can rely on. You’ll get a good chunk of free space, your photos will never be automatically deleted, and you can easily access them from any device. You won’t have to worry about storing local copies of your photos and backing them up manually.


Apple should fix this mess and offer a better solution for long-term photo backup, especially considering the limitations aren’t immediately obvious to users. Until they do, third-party apps are ready to step in and take their place.

You can also automatically back up your photos to the web on Android with Google+’s Auto Upload or Dropbox’s Camera Upload.

Image Credit: Simon Yeo on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 11/11/13

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