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Keeping your family photos safe from device failure is the primary reason backups exist. iCloud claims to back up all your photos “in the cloud,” but the way it works varies depending on what settings you have enabled.

My Photo Stream vs. iCloud Photos

iCloud photos options

“iCloud Photos” does what you’d expect—it stores all your photos in iCloud. Whenever you take a picture on your iPhone, it immediately uploads to iCloud where it’s backed up even if you break your phone. iCloud Photos will also send all the photos you’ve taken to your Mac, and any other device you have connected to iCloud so that everything is synced up. This is assuming everything is connected to the internet, and you haven’t turned off iCloud Photo Library using cellular data.

iCloud Photos is great but has a major issue: storage space. The free iCloud data plan only gives you 5 GB of storage, which is extremely small, even compared to other free storage plans from services like Google Drive. You can fit about 1600 pictures in 5 GB of space, but that doesn’t include videos and everything else you have stored in iCloud.

When your storage is full, iCloud Photos will stop working. It fills up fast, and when it does, you’ll be pestered with notifications asking you to upgrade.

annoying iCloud Storage is Full notification

“My Photo Stream” tries to solve this issue. It will only store the first 1000 pictures taken in the last month, and remove old pictures from your Photo Stream. This gives your Mac or other devices enough time to sync with iCloud, backing up your pictures on your other devices. Your pictures won’t be stored in the cloud, but you won’t have to back them up to your computer manually. If one of your devices breaks, you’ll still have all your photos on your other devices.

So as long as you don’t break all of your devices at once, My Photo Stream will still ensure you have copies of your photos. The main problem with it is that when you get a new device or upgrade your phone, your pictures won’t automatically download to that device, because My Photo Stream only stores the most recent photos. You’ll have to manually load the photos onto your new phone from your Mac, and if you don’t have a Mac, you’re out of luck unless you have enough space in iCloud to turn on iCloud Photos.

Which Should You Use?

If you’re fine with paying $0.99 per month for iCloud’s 50 GB tier, use iCloud Photos. It’s a much better solution, and it’s less of a hassle than My Photo Stream. And If you’re really worried about losing your photos, go with this option, as all your photos will be backed up as long as you have your iCloud account.

If you have multiple devices and take a lot of pictures, Photo Stream is fine to use. It does a good job of syncing photos between devices; as long as you use both devices regularly, your pictures will be backed up on each device you have. You will run into a bit of trouble when it comes time to upgrade, having to move your pictures to a new device manually, so it’s not the greatest option. Also, it’s best to look into getting a backup plan for your Mac, just to ensure everything is safe.

If you don’t take a lot of pictures, or use iCloud that much, you can keep iCloud Photos on until your 5 GB fills up. When it does, you’ll have to decide whether to pay for more space or switch to Photo Stream.

Do not use Photo Stream if you only have a single device, or if you aren’t regularly using your second device and syncing it to iCloud. Your old photos will be gone if you break your main device. If you have a single device and have more than 5 GB of pictures, you’ll have to pay for more space or move your photos to a storage service like Google Drive.

You have other options for automatically backing up your iPhone’s photos, too. For example, you can use Google Photos to store an unlimited amount of photos.

RELATED: The Best Ways to Automatically Back Up the Photos on Your Smartphone

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Anthony Heddings is the resident cloud engineer for LifeSavvy Media, a technical writer, programmer, and an expert at Amazon's AWS platform. He's written hundreds of articles for How-To Geek and CloudSavvy IT that have been read millions of times.
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