For quite a few years, Apple enabled users to download their iPhone or iPad photos to their Macs with a service called My Photo Stream. It wasn’t perfect, but it was free, and it did a decent job of ensuring that photos you took on your iPhone or iPad would end up on your Mac.
Then Apple introduced iCloud Photo Library, later renamed to iCloud Photos, which is a full-featured cloud-based photo syncing service. However, because it stores all your photos in the cloud, most people need to purchase more storage from Apple to use it.
As a result, Apple has kept My Photo Stream around, at least for most existing users. (The company says, “If you recently created your Apple ID, My Photo Stream might not be available. If My Photo Stream isn’t available, use iCloud Photos to keep your photos and videos in iCloud.” Huh.) For those who have a choice, which should you use? (On the Mac, you make that choice in Photos > Preferences > iCloud; in iOS, look in Settings > Photos.)
Cost and Storage Details
The key advantages of My Photo Stream over iCloud Photos are that My Photo Stream is completely free and the storage it uses doesn’t count against your iCloud limits.
In contrast, Apple gives every iCloud user 5 GB of free storage, but that’s shared among all your iCloud services, like iCloud Drive and icloud.com email, so it disappears quickly. Most of us have more than 5 GB of photos anyway. You can purchase 50 GB for $0.99 per month, 200 GB for $2.99 per month, or 2 TB for $9.99 per month (prices vary slightly in other countries).
On a pure price basis then, My Photo Stream wins. However, it suffers from other limitations that make it less compelling:
My Photo Stream stores your photos on your iOS devices in a lower resolution to save space and transmission time. On the Mac, however, your photos download in full resolution. In contrast, iCloud Photos lets you choose on each device whether you want original images or optimized versions to save space—full-resolution originals are always stored in iCloud itself.
My Photo Stream manages only the last 30 days of photos and only the last 1000 photos. That’s fine for just transferring photos from your iPhone to your Mac for permanent storage, but your other devices will be able to display only your most recent photos. iCloud Photos stores all your photos as long as you have sufficient space.
When you edit a photo while using My Photo Stream, the edits apply only to the photo you edited, not to versions synced with other devices. With iCloud Photos, all edits you make—on any of your devices—sync to all the rest of your devices.
There’s another big gotcha with My Photo Stream. It supports only photos and images in JPEG, PNG, and TIFF formats, plus most raw formats. That doesn’t sound terrible until you realize that it doesn’t include Live Photos or any video formats. That’s right—My Photo Stream won’t sync your Live Photos or videos from your iPhone to your Mac at all! You’ll have to move them over manually in some other way.
In comparison, iCloud Photos supports the same still image formats as My Photo Stream and adds GIF, HEIF, and more raw formats, along with Live Photos. Plus, it supports MP4 and HEVC videos. In other words, iCloud Photos will sync all your images and videos, regardless of format.
Finally, My Photo Stream works on the Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV, and with Windows-based PCs. iCloud Photos extends that list to include the Apple Watch and the iCloud.com Web site. Apple Watch support likely isn’t a dealbreaker for most people, but it can be useful to be able to see all your photos in a Web browser on any computer.
Making the Choice
Technically speaking, you can have both My Photo Stream and iCloud Photos turned on. However, if you’re using iCloud Photos, My Photo Stream doesn’t get you anything, so you should turn it off.
If you’re trying to save money and have more than 5 GB of photos, My Photo Stream works to bring most of your iPhone photos down to your Mac for permanent storage in the Photos app. Just beware that it won’t sync your Live Photos or videos, and any other iOS devices you have will be limited to seeing the last 30 days or 1000 photos.
For most people, though, iCloud Photos is the way to go. It’s easily worth $12 or $36 per year for 50 GB or 200 GB of storage, it syncs all your photos and videos among all your devices, and it even syncs edits.
If your Mac is anything like ours, it’s suffering from an infestation of menu bar icons. Sure, the Wi-Fi menu is essential, and many others can be helpful. But if you have too many, or they’re in random order, finding one when you need it can be frustrating. You can employ two techniques to increase the accessibility of your menu bar icons:
Delete any Apple-provided status icon you don’t use by holding down the Command key and dragging it off the menu bar. (To put it back, select the “Show icon-name status in menu bar” checkbox in the associated System Preference pane.) Command-dragging to delete won’t work for most apps with a menu bar icon; for them, look for a preference in the app itself.
Rearrange the menu bar icons in an order that makes sense to you by Command-dragging them around. You can’t move the Notification Center icon or put anything to its right, but every other icon is movable.
Historically, picking a new Wi-Fi network has required you to open the Settings app and tap Wi-Fi, forcing you to unlock your iPhone or switch away from what you were doing. In iOS 13, however, Apple added a better way to connect to a new Wi-Fi network. Open Control Center (swipe down from the upper-right corner on an iPhone X or later or an iPad; or up from the bottom on an earlier iPhone), press and hold on the network settings card in the upper-left corner to expand it, and then press and hold on the Wi-Fi icon to reveal a list of Wi-Fi networks. Tap one to switch to it.
If you’ve resisted requiring a password on your Mac after it wakes up or comes out of the screen saver because it’s too much work to enter repeatedly, an Apple Watch can make authentication much easier. In previous versions of macOS, just wearing an unlocked Apple Watch is enough to enter your Mac’s password; in Catalina, the Apple Watch can also enter your password when prompted by apps. First, make sure your Apple Watch has a passcode (in Watch > Passcode), is on your wrist, and is unlocked. Then, in System Preferences > Security & Privacy > General, select “Use your Apple Watch to unlock apps and your Mac.” From then on, most of the time your Mac or an app wants your password, your Apple Watch will provide it automatically. (This feature requires that the Mac dates from mid-2013 or later, that all devices use the same iCloud account, and that the Apple ID uses two-factor authentication instead of two-step verification.)
For many of us, voicemail replaced answering machines, so we don’t think of voicemail messages as being something we can save or share. But on the iPhone, every voicemail message is just an audio file. If you want to retain a message for posterity or share one with a friend or colleague, you can do that easily. While viewing a voicemail message, tap the share icon to bring up an activity sheet. In it, you can save the file to any app that can handle audio files, or share the file with AirDrop, Messages, Mail, or the like.
Digital cameras have been around long enough that people have stopped making snarky comments about how hard it is to find anything in a shoebox filled with hundreds of unorganized photos. But given the tens of thousands of photos many of us now have, it’s hard to be smug about the ease of finding any given image. Luckily, Apple has provided us with numerous tools in the Photos app to help. Some of these organization systems you have to set up and maintain, but others work silently for you in the background. Let’s start with the automatic methods.
It’s impossible to miss how Photos automatically organizes your photo library by date, particularly in macOS 10.15 Catalina, where the Photos view lets you drill down by Year, Month, and Day. One tip: Day view doesn’t necessarily show you all the pictures taken on a particular day; to see them, click All Photos.
If you don’t want to browse, you can also search (choose Edit > Find) on things like “2015” or “January 2015.” The utility of such searches is that they filter the displayed images to just those taken in that year or month. You can even search on “January” to find all photos taken in January of any year.
With a little training of its facial recognition algorithms, Photos can automatically create and maintain collections of photos of particular people. Click People in the sidebar to see the faces that Photos has identified automatically, and if any of them currently lack names, click the Name button for a photo you want to identify, enter a name, and either press Return or select from the suggestions. Although it may not happen immediately, Photos will scan all photos for other pictures of each person and add them; if you get a banner in the toolbar asking you to review additional photos, click Review and then deselect any photos that aren’t that person in the next dialog.
Whenever you’re looking for a photo of a particular person, the fastest way may be to focus on just those photos that contain their face. Click People in the sidebar and double-click the desired person’s box to see their photos. Make sure to click Show More to see all the matched photos, rather than just those Photos deems the best.
By default, the Camera app tags every iPhone or iPad photo with the location where you took the picture. That enables you to search for images on a map. Click Places in the sidebar, and then pan and zoom the map to find the desired location. Click any photo thumbnail to show just the photos taken in that spot. If you know the name of the location, you can also search for it directly—Photos knows the names of all geotagged locations.
Location-based searching could be a godsend for real-estate agents, builders, and others who need to collect images by address. No need to use keywords or other metadata, since the geotagging provides all the necessary information.
AI Object Search
In the last few releases of Photos, Apple has added object searching, which finds photos based on their contents. Looking for photos of cows, or beaches, or oak trees? Just type what you want to find into the Photos search field, and Photos might find it.
Although it’s magic when this approach works, don’t put too much stock in it. Searching for “cow” also brought up images of pigs, goats, and horses for us. Close, in that they’re all four-legged farm animals, but no cigar.
Sometimes, what you want to find is already categorized by its media type. If you want to find a selfie, for instance, or a panorama, look no further than the Media Types collection in the Photos sidebar. It includes dedicated albums that automatically update themselves to contain videos, selfies, Live Photos, Portrait-mode photos, panoramas, time-lapse movies, slo-mo movies, bursts, screenshots, and animated GIFs.
Albums and Smart Albums
With the categorization techniques so far, you don’t have to do much, if anything. With albums, however, all organization is entirely manual. Creating a new album is easy—select some photos and then choose File > New Album with Selection. After the fact, you can add more photos to the album by dragging them from the main window to the album in the sidebar. And, of course, clicking the album in the sidebar displays all the photos.
Smart albums are entirely different from albums—they are essentially saved searches. To create one, choose File > New Smart Album and then define the matching criteria. Photos provides oodles of options, making it easy to create a smart album that, for instance, holds photos of a particular person taken with one specific camera over a certain time frame.
An aspect of working with albums and smart albums that can be confusing is how to delete photos. When you remove a photo from a regular album, you’re just taking it out of that album, not deleting it from your library. (To actually delete a photo from your library, click Photos in the sidebar before selecting the photo and pressing the Delete key.) The only way to remove a photo from a smart album is to ensure that it no longer matches the smart album’s criteria, either by changing the conditions or by modifying the photo’s metadata, which isn’t always possible.
If you want to tag individual images in a way that makes them easy to find later, keywords are an excellent option. Choose Window > Keyword Manager to display the floating Keywords window, and click Edit Keywords to open the editing view where you can click + to add a keyword (complete with a one-letter shortcut, which also puts it at the top of the Keywords window). Click – to remove a keyword (from the list and from any photos to which it’s assigned). Click OK to switch back to the main keyword view.
To assign a keyword, select a set of photos or just focus on the current one. Either click the keyword in the Keywords window or press its associated letter shortcut. Clicking or pressing the shortcut again removes the keyword.
You can see what keywords are attached to an image by making sure View > Metadata > Keywords is chosen and then clicking the badge that Photos adds to keyworded images. To find everything with a particular keyword, though, you’ll have to do a search and, if necessary, look at the Keywords collection at the bottom of the search results.
Titles and Descriptions
Another way to find photos manually is to give them titles or descriptions and then search for words in those bits of metadata. Applying consistent titles and descriptions manually would be onerous, but you can do multiple selected images as easily as one. Select some pictures, choose Window > Info, and in the Info window, enter a title or description. Close the Info window to save.
To see (and edit) the title under each image, make sure View > Metadata > Titles is chosen. To find included words, you need to do a search, just like with keywords.
Choosing the Best Approach for Your Needs
So many choices! Here’s our advice about which should you use:
When possible, stick with the approaches (date, People, Places, object search, media types) that require little or no additional tagging work. People and Places are particularly useful that way.
If you can construct a smart album that finds all the images you want, do it. However, it may not be useful (or possible) unless you’re looking for a subset of photos that already are in an album, have a keyword, or are attached to a person.
Use albums for quick, ad-hoc collections or for collections of related photos. They’re easy to make and use, and to delete if you no longer need them. An album would be good for collecting all the photos from your summer vacation.
Use keywords to identify general aspects of images throughout your entire photo library that you’re happy to access only by searching or via a smart album. Keywords would be useful for tagging all the photos you take of lecture slides, or that relate to your hobby.
Avoid relying on titles and descriptions if you can. It’s too easy to make mistakes such that later you can’t find items you’ve titled or described. Albums and keywords are better for organization. Leave the titles and descriptions for actually titling and describing individual images.
Next time you think, “I wish I could find all my photos that…,” take a minute and think through these options to decide which will best serve your needs.