Photo Stream, why so complicated?

Stuck between the Dropbox that was and the iCloud that isn't yet

Since the day I got my first Mac, I have greatly disliked iPhoto. In theory, it's an excellent application, but in practice, it's a slow unstable mess. The Mac, iPhone, and iPad are all excellent devices for viewing and editing photos in and of themselves, but why is it nearly impossible for all three of them to work together? And, more importantly, what should Apple do to improve the experience?

In theory, iPhoto for Mac is an incredible app. With it, you can organize your photos by Faces, Places, or Events and create albums. You can edit your photos with professional tools and apply effects. You can also share you photos directly to email, Facebook, and Flickr, create slideshows, and design books and cards to printed and delivered to your front door. And if you enable Photo Steam on your iPhone and iPad, all your photos will magically appear on your Mac.

Sounds amazing, right? Unfortunately, not quite.

I can go into great detail about how iPhoto for Mac always requires me to force quit upon initial launch; how Events makes my head spin; how Faces doesn't work as good as I'd like, and how I get confused about whether I need to import photos off my iPhone if I have a bunch of Photo Stream albums. Oh, and how iPhoto is the laggiest app on my Mac.

I could tell you all about these things, but instead I want to focus on iPhoto and Photo Stream in relation to all three devices: iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and how they don't work nearly as well together as they should.

On the surface, Photo Stream is awesome. All the photos I take with an iOS device automagically appear on my iPhone, iPads, and Macs. It makes sense, then, that since iPhoto is installed on all my devices, that those libraries should stay in sync through Photo Stream, right? Wrong.

Then there's the confusion of having both Camera Roll and Photo Stream. I understand that the Camera Roll stores all the photos taken locally with that device, but why do it this way? It gets confusing having the same photos in two places (or more, if you create albums), and it's even more confusing when it's time to import those photos into iPhoto on your Mac. Did Photo Stream already bring them to my Mac? And what about videos? Wait, Photo Stream doesn't stream videos. Bummer.

I believe the biggest hurdle that Apple would need to overcome to change this is the restriction of 1000 photos in Photo Stream at any given time. I already pay for more iCloud storage, so why not include iPhoto storage in that? I'd even be willing to pay an additional subscription for unlimited photo storage that worked seamlessly on all my Apple devices through iPhoto.

Developer and entrepreneur Peter Nixey shares the same sentiment as me and has come up with some great solutions for Apple. These include to store a canonical copy of iPhoto library in the cloud and and to charge for this service, to merge Camera Roll and Photo Stream into a single stream, to create an API for iCloud camera roll that can be connected to any camera, and to bring the iTunes magic to iPhoto; make it fast; make it clever; make it magical.

I completely agree.

What about you? Are you satisfied with how Photo Stream and iPhoto currently work, or do you want more? What would you like to see apple do with Photo Stream and iPhoto?

Source: Peter Nixey

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Leanna Lofte

Former app and photography editor at iMore, Leanna has since moved on to other endeavors. Mother, wife, mathamagician, even though she no longer writes for iMore you can still follow her on Twitter @llofte.

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Reader comments

Photo Stream, why so complicated?


"and how I get confused about whether I need to import photos off my iPhone if I have a bunch of Photo Stream albums. "
This is my question too. What is the right answer

You don't need to import photos off your iPhone if you have photostream albums. The only caveat that I would add is that some apps e.g. Facebook Pages, do not allow you to navigate to your photostream albums. Hope that helps!

The biggest problem with Photo Stream in my mind is the fact that the photos in Photo Stream do not get imported into my iPhoto Event library which is where I go to search for photos. Also, since Photo Stream is limited to 1000 photos, won't I eventually lose all of these non-imported photos from my iPhoto library once it gets above 1000? I have the "Automatic Import" option checked in iPhoto on my Mac, but it does NOT import them into Events, Photos, Faces or Places. I just tested this out again by taking a photo on my iPhone5. It shows up in Photo Stream everywhere, but when I connect my iPhone to my Mac, it says all of the photos have already been imported into iPhoto. But they aren't in my Events. This is super annoying! Does anyone know the work around aside from turning OFF Photo Stream?

Another missing feature relates to shared Photostreams. While the sharing works pretty well, it's annoying that other people can only view the stream. Why not allow them to contribute pics to it too?

When it comes to paying for storage space, I don't think it's fair that someone who buys an iPod Touch gets the same 5GB for free as someone like me who owns an iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. I have more need for backup space, after all!

Also as an owner of 16GB model of iPhone, it would be nice if photos could get 'Archived' into the cloud, but still show up (low res) in photos, the full image could downloaded when accessed (like iTunes Match, kind of). Currently I have my photostream folder on my PC inside my dropbox folder to achieve this long term archival, but it would nice if it was all integrated.

So going by your 1st paragraph, I should get more free storage space than you bc I own a 64g 4S, a 64g retina iPad, a 32g Mini & a few iPods compared to your 16g iPhone/pad/pod??

Not a terrible idea actually, considering Apple makes gobs more money off of the 32gb models and obscene amounts on the 64gb models. Plus obviously people who are buying the higher storage amounts have more stuff. It actually makes alot of sense, and could add value to the fact you are paying $100 more for literally a few dollars worth of extra flash memory.

Photo stream on my iPad is the second biggest hog of my 16 GB storage, after music. I like the concept, but would like to lower the stream to 500 or so pictures.

@patrick Photostream albums shouldn't take up any space on your iOS device. You can turn off the "my photostream", which stores local copies from all your iOS devices using photostream.

Photostream is design to protect your pictures using iCloud. Those that look at Photostream as a management tool are stretching it beyond its intentions. Photostream only accounts for the last 1000 pictures on iOS but on a Mac there's no functional limit.

Once you realize that Photostream is more of a lightweight protection service it becomes more clear why it needs to be separate from your camera roll.

Still being new to OS X, I've been trying to either track down or figure out how to make a complete Automator script which will rename and move photos from Photo Stream on my MBP to an external hard drive so I don't keep forgetting about that 1000 photo limit...

yeah i cut it off. i don't want everyone seeing my pics. i got instagram for that. And it didn't confuse me at all. it's easy to know what's private and what isn't, who you follow and who you don't.

I find lots of things apple does needlessly illogical. Parts of icloud i found counter intuitive. Dropbox makes sense to me.

I am a teacher who sometimes saves images from the net (like fraction discs) onto my ipad to insert into apps like educreations for my lessons. In theory, if I had sensitive or inappropriate photos on my ipad (which I don't) as well, my pupils may see them as I am importing them from the app, since my ipad is being mirrored to the smartboard.

why doesn't apple save all photos in photo stream to iPhoto on a computer automatically? This way when photos are kicked out of photo stream at least they aren't lost forever. They should auto-save to a device

It's possible to import from Photo Stream. Each month's stream is saved as an event. But then that overrides any other sorting system you have unless you are willing to manually re-sort them.

Thank god, I was thinking I was the only one that thought that photo management across the Apple platform was a mess.

The biggest problem that is not mentioned here is that Photo Stream automatically greatly reduces the resolution of your pictures which makes it pretty useless as an archiving tool and totally unusable for editing images. iTunes also reduces your file sizes. At present the best thing to use is back up directly to Dropbox and separately also to iPhoto or Aperture on your Mac, both directly from your camera roll and switch off Photo Stream! Apple are being very slow at showing true support for the growing community of iPhoneographers it has created! Such a shame.

I love having a back up for my photos but I just wish it didn't have to come with an instruction manual to use it. Why can't apple make it simple to use and easy to move photos off of it. Dropbox and Flickr are straightforward. Here's your photos, what do you want to do with them? Here's your files do what you want. Why is photo stream so complex?

What I would like to know (only slightly off topic) is why I have absolutely no control over Photo Library on my iPhone. I can't delete the photos or the album on the phone and neither the photos or the album show up when it's connected to my computer. I'm not even sure how or why these images ended up in this particular album. Anyone have a solution?

Are these photos that you have synced through iTunes? I'm a bit confused why you can't edit or delete albums.

I'm not sure if you are using a PC or not but, I had a similar issue. I decided to try connecting the iPhone to a different PC and voilà. There were all my photos, exactly where they should've been.

I am fairly new to Mac. However, my iPhone wirelessly syncs to iPhoto when it is opened. The photo stream automatically adds the photos to my library. (you can either delete from your phone or keep the photos there) The library is then backed up automatically to Time Machine, a spare PC in another part of the house (wirelessly) and to the CrashPlan cloud. Essentially, I open iPhoto and the rest takes care of itself.

No, they are already the simplest they can be. Camera Roll has photos taken on your device. Photo Stream stores all photos taken on all of your devices. And it only stores up to the most recent 1000 photos, hence making it a 'stream'.

I don't need anymore storage. They all work ok together for me. I mean sooner or later you get nickeled and dimed to death. What is so important , unless your making a living, using these services that photos can't wait to get uploaded to your other devices at a later time or date. Photo stream only works through a wifi connection. Do we really want it to upload all our pics over our data plan? good night man your limit would be up in no time. I think we all have gotten a little carried away with all this stuff and expect to much instant gratification . Deep breath everyone!!!

Photo Stream is a train wreck the way it's currently implemented. Now photos take up twice the space on the iPhone - thanks Apple! Additionally, on Windows, it usually just stops working after a few weeks. Whenever I want to look at my Photo Stream on my Windows computer, most of the time I have to find out that the newest photo it downloaded is from quite a while ago. I then have to go to the iCloud Control Panel, deactivate Photo Stream, activate it again, and reboot the computer. Then it will start working again. Great...

i use windows (until new macbooks come out) but my family all use macs. i've used iphoto.

i struggle not having a file system. Or if there was one i couldn't find it. Because i started with a jpg. i saved it as a jpg. i hate that.
Also all that syncing and streaming and stuff isn't what i want. i want to save the jpg in on spot. i don't need syncing across ever device. fine that they have it but i don't want it. Another reason i didn't like photostream. And the language is strange because photostream is part of icloud which is already like a confusing dropbox. But it doesn't do what drop box does cause, what, no file system. I'm not even big on file systems but it's nice to know where a master file is saved. my photos are archived on a hard drive and backed up on sky drive. it's a file in a file system in those places. If photo stream duplicated instagram's services in terms of social networking i think it would be more straightforward. And the whole "albums" thing is strange. Why can't i just have one damn photo and move it around or duplicate it. And why can't i just drag an add photos in itunes? No. i have to direct it to a single folder and the only way to sync two folders are to make sub folders. That's a pain in the ass cause they are already stored on a drive in folders. Now apple wants me to move them from their folders into subfolders just to sync. Why the hell can't i just, one drag one image file to my iphone, two just pick multiple folders. And maybe i don't want to "sync" where it may force delete image folders on your iphone you want to keep. Normally i just want to add a photo. That whole photo handling on all platforms is simply cumbersome & illogical to me. Needlessly.

"On the surface, Photo Stream is awesome. All the photos I take with an iOS device automagically appear on my iPhone, iPads, and Macs." I don't even want that. i normally will take 30 or 40 pics (cause i suck at photography) hoping one looks good. i don't want all of them taking data trying to sync stuff i'm eventually not gonna want.

I don't see what the problem is. I think it works exactly how they say it does. I still manually import photos from my phone so that its full resolution and I delete unwanted pictures out of my camera roll but just in case they are still in my photostream. If I want a photo on my mac without plugging my phone in, photostream makes that easy. i do agree shared streams need to be shared from all parties, not just the person who created it. That's my only issue though. I love taking a pic with my iPhone 5 and editing with my iPad. Quickly and easily. The difference between the camera roll and photostream is pretty easy to figure out. Don't see why people are confused.

I still find Photostream to be erratic - sometimes my photos are uploaded there without any problem. Other times it only uploads some, missing others. Very frustrating......

I wish I shared your experience. I find Photo Stream to be pretty much unusable. I'm working on a project as I write this - having taken a photo 3 hours ago that I'd like to edit into another photo. No sign of it in Photo Stream on my Mac. I've even sent to a Photo Stream album entitled I Don't Know Why I Should Have to Do This, but it's not appeared. If I go and shoot a dozen out of focus pictures in the yard that I'm never going to use, eventually most of them show up in Photo Stream.
I've been an avid Mac evangelist since 1986, but, sorry, Apple is clueless when it comes to software. It's almost like Johnny Ive has never used any of their stuff, other than iOS.

To me, the main use of photostream is really just for quickly getting photos from one IOS device to another. For example, I take shots with my iphone, and can then view them on my ipad without needing to do anything else. Since I am not an avid photographer, my IOS devices are not really flooded with photos, so those in my photostream tend to stay available for quite some time.

That said, shared photostream is surprisingly simple and elegant in its function. Just last week, my colleague was wondering how to disseminate some photos of a zoo excursion with her pupils (8 years old) for a project. We had no network drive, she wasn't in favour of flickr, and flash drives would take too long.

I got the pictures from her, and within a few minutes, a shared photostream was created from iphoto on my macbook. She shared the link with her pupils, and that was one less logistical issue she had to deal with.

For the next upcoming excursion, one teacher with an iphone is going to be in charge of taking photos for the entire level. :D

OMG this. iPhoto has been a mess for ages. Another issue: when bringing in photos via photostream, instead of just putting the photos in time order, all of the photos for a given month are lumped together, meaning I'm never quite sure where to find them.

Everyone here seems to be trying to manage their photos from photo stream. That's not what it's designed to do. At all. Being efficient at something means, understanding what something is designed to do. What you want it to do. And understanding the limitations. If anyone is trying to manage their photos trough photostream, they don't understand the purpose of photostream.

If you're semi-serious about photos. I don't understand why you're using iPhoto. Aperture is much better and $100 isn't that much if you care about your photos. For the more serious, Lightroom is fantastic.

I have a MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPhone and I don't have an issue with photo stream. iPhoto works just fine for me even on my 4 year old mac, and I don't find managing my photos difficult at all. Not really sure what the fuss is about, it's pretty self explanatory!

My two major issues with photostream are user interaction and the lack of the ability to have a collaborative photostream. Meaning more than the creator can add photos to this photostream. The UI for comments and likes is atrocious.

Other than that I find it very useful. Also, being able to browse photostreams I created and that were shared with me would also be a huge addition.

I'm a long time PC (laptop) user struggling to make sense of iPad mini. It takes nice photos and videos but I am struggling with how to get them onto my primary machine - the laptop (not a MAC). The laptop is for business and personal use, the iPad is purely for fun stuff. The file formats on iPad don't allow for a simple drag and drop as they do in Windows - I thought Apple was supposed to be easy, plug and play - what a lie that is! Getting photos from my iPad is challenging. I had to buy more space to do a backup to an iCloud even though I was backing up to my PC. I had to download iCloud software to control it. It does back up to iCloud now (so what). After following very explicit directions to the letter, my contacts and calendar (from Outlook) show up on my iPad (a small victory) but the photos remain stuck on the iPad. The only way to get them over to PC is to email them - very clunky and far from "elegant" as Apple likes to be known. The new Photostream icon on my PC doesn't produce anything but a grayed out icon. Clicking on it reveals "no files". Videos - no better. I am not impressed and despite all the mess MicroSoft is making out of Windows, it still works far better and gives me far more control - at least there I can find things that I'm looking for. When will Apple finally get it right? Anyway, has anyone else got iCloud to work with photos in transferring to a PC? If so, how did you do it?

Maybe I am not fully understanding your issue with transferring iDevice photos to your PC but I will offer this solution:

If you connect your iDevice to your PC using the USB cable, Windows should treat your iDevice like a camera that has been connected. It will install the appropriate drivers. Next, Windows will ask you what you would like to do when this device is connected. You would select to import photos and videos. (There is also an option to check a box to always do this when the device is connected.) Once selected, Windows will ask you how the photos should be labeled and you can choose the location where the photos will be stored.

SpiceRak2, In theory that is exactly what it should do. In reality, plugging in an iDevice to a PC does open the Windows box... however you have to dig through a complicated/locked-down folder system that defies all logic and it has duplicates files/images inside the folders, plus you can't even see folders you have added. Here is what it is limited to.... "Internal Storage" -> "DCIM" -> and then the folders available to me "823WGTMA", "860OKMZO", "917LSGWD" and "965YOKDJ". What are these; data encryption, product-keys, passwords, missile launch codes??? Where are my folders I have established to hold pictures per my organizational structure?

Having to email an image to yourself, open it, then saving it.... in order to see it on your device in Camera Roll is absolutely absurd. Let alone being limited to where you can then share it to. A current WTF?! experience I'm trying to work out, and what brought me to this discussion a second time after 2 months (I turned off Photo Stream after first reading this).... Why can't I access my folders on my iDevice from Instagram? Nope, only those in Camera Roll are available!!!!

I agree. I find it too confusing if I take a bunch of photos using my iPhone they appear in my camera roll as well as my photo stream which then shares them with my ipad & my macbook. if i then create an album using those same photos on my iPad they are now in 3 seperate places. i recently wanted to back up my ipad to my macbook pro & ended up with the photos importing 3 times as they all had different IDs. I have just tried to delete a bunch of photos on my ipad photostream & they haven't deleted on my iphone. any ideas?

A good read... I've read all the comments too. But my issue is slightly different. I have a windows laptop and I don't use streaming for backing up or syncing photos to the laptop, I do that manually as I want the full size version of the photo. It's nice to have that backup of course but its not how I use streaming.
I, and my family, use it to share photos from our iPhones (and mum's iPad) because we all live hours from each other... we love that we can like and comment on pictures, it keeps us in touch.
Like our own private Facebook!

But, we all have 400+ photos in our respective streams now, and even when we wipe our camera rolls to make space on our own phones, the streams are still there and iTunes tells us that there are still tons of photos on there. Which of course there are!

We can begin deleting from the top of our own shared streams, and if we all manage our own one regularly then that should free up space on all our phones, but before we do that is there a way that I can save my family's streams onto my laptop, I'd hate to lose them...
I know I can manually copy individual photos to my camera roll and from there onto laptop, but I'm talking about 3 streams with hundreds on each. Is there a shortcut?
I don't need to save my own stream as they're all in my camera roll backup on my laptop...


I agree that photo management in iOS and Mac is getting increasingly difficult. Adding more apps like iPhoto for iOS doesn't help. Since I started using shared PhotoStreams in iOS I now have duplicates and triplicates of many photos, and I never know which one is my source photo.

Apple need to treat photo management across devices like they do with contact and calendar syncing across the Apple ecosystem. A photo is a unique object, which may have edit(s) applied to it as a delta. The photo + edits should be synced across devices, using iCloud as king. All apps / devices update themselves via the web, including the device that originally created the file.

In this model, the 1000 photo limit is a hindrance, and Apple should remove it or start charging for space. Flickr can give you 1TB of free photo storage - why not the folks from Cupertino?

As more and more people use their iOS devices as their primary cameras, this issue starts to become more urgent, in my opinion.
In the short term, I'd like to see Apple come up with an app or an addition to iPhoto or Photos to help you locate the original of each photo which is now duplicating and triplicating around your iCloud world.

Conforming to the "Apple Ecosystem" (as I saw someone put it) is amazingly annoying... especially if you only operate in a partial system, i.e., only one Apple device. Although many OS & software companies tend to be implementing programs that are "supposed to make everything easier" for their users (think bundled programs that started coming out with all printers 10ish years ago), it seems to me, Apple is the only one that forces and locks their users into using it.

Why is it, if I only have a single iPhone5 (which I do love) do I have to have iTunes (which I despise) in order to access my non-program related files (pictures, music, videos, etc.)? I thought I found a work around with iTools to jettison iTunes, but even iTools needs iTunes sitting on a PC to operate.

Android products incorporated & allowed access to DCIM folders just like all their precursors, the digital cameras, did and continue to do when storing on removable storage units, but Apple has to do something different (I've not even tried to understand the "Apple Ecosystem" folder naming convention). But alas, that's probably the problem, the Apple "Scam of the Century" not offering removable storage, so they can charge you up front at $100 increments to double storage capacity on their devices, regardless to true/real costs of advancing storage technology.

I'm trying to think of any other product lines in modern history that do not allow for expandable storage, and I can't other than iDevices. There are even crock pots now that you can plug into another for expansions. Yes, you read that correctly... CROCK POTS. But not Apple.

Just because you take a picture(s) with a device, doesn't mean you want to keep that file on that device (or the Apple Ecosystem) for life. Think pictures for work, personal or professional, for example. We each have our own file naming convention, and it can vary depending on the picture's end use (personal/professional/etc.). In almost all cases, I want these pictures off the device, to be named and stored by whatever appropriate convention I choose. Some of which I would like to return to my device to be "kept forever/life" accessible on the go, but alas... herein lies another Apple Ecosystem failure and annoyance, they don't go back into the CameraRoll or PhotoStream, rather being in a folder of the user's choice/naming, their accessibility for sharing etc., is limited or non-existent on the device from which you want to access them!!! [Grinds teeth heavily!]

Yes, the iCloud backup is nice... so you will never lose a picture/file again. But just because that was common in the past (some important document one spent weeks working on disappearing into the ether), the general reaction to this decreasingly common problem is way overblown.

Syncing again is a nice feature, but it is very touchy and in practice very difficult to achieve. PhotoStream is overbearing in this regard. It shouldn't be "opt-out", it should be "opt-in", after of course one can name and store files/pictures/videos in the convention the user wants.

For all I love & enjoy my iPhone5 (I finally migrated 3 months ago, based on a very calculated decision and hearing how amazing/easy it was to use)... there are so many limits, annoyances and the "Apple Zombies" responses to new users' frustrations, "if you don't like it, go back to your X, Y, Z 'Ecosystem'", that it is very hard to buy in to expanding into a full Apple Ecosystem.

I'm fed up with Apple and i-anything. Sometimes the import works when I connect to my laptop from my ipad mini but sometimes it doesn't. The icloud I paid for to facilitate all this was a total waste of money - it does not do anything I want, only what Apple (or some other idiot programmer) decides it should do. Down with Apple!

Today I couldn't even get it to log onto my office network - something it has been doing well since I bought it. What's up with that? I haven't the time or inclination to get it fixed either. This ipad mini will be a target in a shooting range or a fishing weight pretty soon.

Was also thinking of switching phones from BB to something more "smart". Apple was top of list until I ran into all this. Now it's rock bottom. Samsung seems pretty good after speaking with some friends who use it a lot. Apple's locked down system has managed to lock me out. Bye bye "i"...

very true UptimeJim... iPhone was top of my list for months of agonizing decisions-making and researching, and I don't regret finally getting it for stability, ruggedness, wifi connect-ability easy, and a great camera.... but file management & ease of use? That bite out of the Apple logo, long since rotting in the landfill, is how I would rate it.

oh PS and a bit off topic, except for it further demonstrates Apple's "We Know What's Best for You" mindset and their well known delays and failures to address real user problems, iCalendar and its cluster eff management of Time Zones. The number of work-arounds (that truly don't work) I've heard about is unbelievable. For any frequent traveler/slash appointment driven business person (not something uncommon), I am completely shocked and aghast there is a single professional out there that uses Apple & their ecosystem any more, it is truly that bad. If anyone cared to delve into that issue and the exhaustive discussion.... google this... "HT4576 Time Zone Support is STUPID!!!!!"