Apple does many things very well with all of its products. Photo taking and viewing in particular across its iOS devices is great. However there’s one little thing that has flummoxed us in the past, and perhaps has confused you too: what is the difference between iCloud Photo Library and My Photo Stream? Read next: How to use iCloud

Is there even a difference, and why does Apple give you both options?

Both services are quite similar, so we will break down the differences for you to help decide which suits you best, and whether you actually need to consider using both.

But bear in mind throughout - both methods are not a full back up solution. You should always back up physical files to avoid heartbreak. Here is our guide to backing up photos, messages and more.

iCloud Photo Library

  • A simple online backup of all your photos taken on iPhone or iPad
  • Backs up all your photos and videos to your iCloud online account (you may have to pay for more storage – here’s our guide)
  • Works automatically across iPhone, iPad, Mac and iCloud.com
  • All photos are collated in date order and can be viewed on any device with iCloud Photo Library toggled on, provided there is enough physical storage space
  • All files stored are full resolution
  • You need to toggle it on all iOS devices manually:
  • Go to Settings > Photos & Camera > iCloud Photo Library:

iCloud Photo Library toggled on on an iPhone

This is the newer of the two services and is the (slightly) easier to understand. iCloud is Apple’s online service that allows you to back up all your files in the cloud (i.e. on the internet). By turning on iCloud Photo Library on your iPhone, for example, all your photos taken on your phone will be automatically backed up to iCloud.

Turning the service on on your iPhone and iPad will sync pictures from both devices into the Photo Library of both devices.

My Photo Stream

  • Syncs all photos (not videos) taken on iOS devices to the My Photo Stream folder
  • It stores either the most recent 1000 photos or the last 30 days of images – whichever is greater wins out
  • Doesn’t use up iCloud storage
  • Syncs across iPhone, iPad and Mac and iCloud.com
  • Go to Settings > Photos & Camera > My Photo Stream:

My Photo Stream toggled on on an iPad

This service has been around for longer, and Apple has allowed it to run alongside iCloud Photo Library, hence some confusion. One thing that has caught us out in the past is if you have My Photo Stream enabled and not iCloud Photo Library, but then turn the latter on – your Photo Stream on that device will disappear.

Now, hopefully this means you won’t lose any images – but read on:

Technically they should simply file into your now fully backed up Photos library, accessible in the All Photos folder on your iOS device, the Photos app on Mac or on iCloud.com. All that’s happened is the last 1000 photos/30 days record of My Photo Stream is now gone. They are all now in date order in the All Photos folder.

Should you turn on My Photo Stream again, the stream will find the latest 1000 photos/30 days of photos and sync them.

Be careful when switching on iCloud Photo Library

The only reason images would be lost is if your Photo Stream was holding images from an iOS device you no longer own, with copies of photos that aren’t backed up to iCloud. This happened to us when we upgraded iPhone, wiped our old one, but didn’t back up the photos.

If this is the case, the photos only existed as temporary copies in My Photo Stream, where they sat on our iPad. When we turned on iCloud Photo Library on the iPad some time later, those photos were lost forever.

Turning on iCloud Photo Library will wipe My Photo Stream, try to find the old photos to add to the All Photos folder and fail, and unfortunately those photos are unrecoverable (it’s happened to us, and it sucks).

The confusing nature of the whole process is a testament to always backing up. Our advice, to avoid despair, is to toggle on iCloud Photo Library on every iOS device you own from Day One of ownership – particularly on iPhone – and then paying for enough iCloud storage space to back everything up.

It’s a bit of a pain to pay, but it’s not much and it’s far better than losing those precious memories.

Anything else?

If you have, say, an iPhone with 128GB storage and take the majority of your photos on it, then turning on iCloud Photo Library on your, say, 16GB iPad will cause issues.

You can tell we are speaking from experience.

The lower storage device (iPad in this case) will immediately fill with photos from the higher storage device (iPhone in this case) and be completely full. So watch out.

Also, if you use the more reliable back up method of iCloud Photo Library, you can’t sync photos via iTunes from your Mac or PC. Everything is cloud based, and it won’t allow you to manually move files.

Using just My Photo Stream allows you to manually move files, though. It’s just not a method of back up we recommend using on its own. The best way to use My Photo Stream is a way to keep photos across devices temporarily, as long as you manually back up your photos regularly to a Mac, PC or hard drive.

Finally, be aware that if you delete images taken on your iPhone, from your iPhone, thinking that they are backed up in iCloud Photo Library or My Photo Stream, they aren’t. Delete them on that device and they are deleted form all devices. So neither iCloud Photo Library or My Photo Stream are a single solution for backing up.

They are more temporary and easy to toggle-on saving solutions.

Here is our guide to backing up photos, messages and more.

If you have any tips, things to avoid or observations, please let us know – the confusion and frustration caused by these two services is no doubt shared by some of you.