iPhone Photos Explained

Click to Launch the Photos AppA couple weeks ago I finally made the switch from my Blackberry to the new iPhone 4S. While most of the user interface is intuitive, the “Photos” iPhone application left me with a few questions. I already have folders for Camera Roll, Photo Stream, Photo Library, and a couple albums in there. So what are these folders in my iPhone’s photo app, and how do they work?

Camera Roll

This folder will always be present. Any photos or screenshots taken with the iPhone will appear in this folder. All saved images will also be put here first.

The iPhone’s Camera Roll is similar to the “playback” feature on a digital camera. The most recently saved items are at the bottom of this screen. Any image in here can be added to an album, synced with the computer through the Photo Library, or pushed to iCloud via Photo Stream.

Photo Library

If you have paired the iPhone with iTunes and selected Sync Photos, this folder will be present.

When Sync Photos is enabled, it can either mirror all photos and albums on the computer or just a select few. Starting with iOS 5, you no longer are required to set up and use iTunes with the iPhone. However it does make backups and synchronization, among other things, much easier.

The Photo Library may have also appeared if your cell phone carrier transferred photos over from your existing smart phone.

Photo Stream

This folder will be present if Photo Stream is enabled in the iPhone’s settings.

Here is where things get interesting. Photo Stream is a feature added in iOS 5, and is part of Apple’s new iCloud synchronization service. With it enabled, any new photos in your Camera Roll are pushed up to iCloud and then are accessible on your Mac’s iPhoto application or any other iOS device registered with the same Apple ID.

Individual Images In Photo Stream Cannot Be Deleted

I came across an interesting behavior in my testing. After I took a photo, it would appear in my iPhone’s Camera Roll and be pushed up to Photo Stream as expected. But then when I deleted the photo from my Camera Roll, it was still in my Photo Stream. No other folders behave this manner.

I triPhone Photo Streamied to delete the copy on Photo Stream. After tinkering with the iPhone app and checking out the Photo Stream on iPhoto, I could not remove the image. I found an iPhone related thread over at Mac Rumors forum about this issue and was rather surprised.

You cannot select an individual photo to be deleted from Photo Stream. While it is possible to delete your entire Photo Stream, you have little control from pushing every picture you take to iCloud if it is enabled.

This may be desirable or terrifying, depending on your point of view. Here are two scenarios I just thought up:

  • Good: You’re business man and you use your iPhone’s camera to document your trip and take photos of your expenses. If set up correctly, your camera could essentially send real-time reports back to the office.
  • Bad: You finally get the courage to start looking for engagement rings, hoping to propose to your girlfriend in just a few weeks. Day one is going well, and you snapped a bunch of pictures on the iPhone to help give you ideas. Unfortunately when you get home, your wife-to-be already saw the pictures of every ring you took. Opps.

Toggling Photo Stream on the iPhone

To enable or disable the iPhone from pushing new pictures to Photo Stream, follow the instructions below. Note that if you disable Photo Stream, previous pictures will still remain on iCloud.

  1. In the iPhone Home screen, tap Settings.
  2. Go to iCloud.
  3. Scroll down to Photo Stream, and toggle it accordingly.

Permanently Deleting Photo Stream

If you want to completely delete all past images on Photo Stream, perform the following:

  1. Log in to iCloud.com using your Apple ID
  2. Click your name in the top-right corner of the page.
  3. Select “Advanced”
  4. Finally, click “Reset Photo Stream.”

All the images on Photo Stream should be purged. If your intention is to delete any past images and prevent future ones from being pushed to iCloud, be sure to toggle Photo Stream off in the iPhone settings as well.

Is the iPhone Storing Duplicate Photos?

iTunes PlaylistNo it is not. Seeing the same image in multiple locations might be misleading at first. For example, if a photo in the Camera Roll has been assigned to an album, it will be listed in both locations.

If you have ever used iTunes or a similar music management application, you might be familiar with playlists. When a song is added to a playlist, it is not duplicated on the machine. Instead, it creates a tiny alias that forms the relationship. It doesn’t matter if the song is a member of one or 100 playlists, it will not take up any more space.

A similar thing is happening here with the Photos app. The iPhone is simply creating many pointers to the same image. One photo may be in the Camera Roll, Photo Stream, and an album, but the iPhone will only store one copy.

Final Thoughts

Aside from myself, many of my friends and family have switched over to the iPhone in the last few weeks. This was a common recurring question that I received, and one that I did not initially have the answer to. After about an hour worth of testing and some Googling, I was able to compile my results.

I hope this answers any questions regarding this behavior of the iPhone’s Photos application. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or exceptions feel free to post them in the comments.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    nice article! I have been a iPhone user for a few years now, and iCloud was definitely something that is welcomed! Though I did notice the same thing’s you brought up in the post, and wonder how/if Apple will modify how the Photostream feature works, along with some other very minor confusions. Thanks for the information!

    • Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      You’re welcome Chris. I really like some of the features of iCloud, but I wish Apple allowed some more control in with Photo Stream. Since Apple prides themselves on the usability of their products, I would be surprised if they don’t add the ability to delete individual photos from Photo Stream at a later date. Nothing has been confirmed or denied though, so I guess we will just have to wait and see. Thanks for reading!

      • diane
        Posted July 9, 2012 at 12:02 am | Permalink

        I bought the iPhone 4s specifically for the camera and photo stream. I love it except for one thing. I have some photos that go to the camera roll and not into photo stream so I cannot use them in iPhoto on my mac. There is nothing different about which photo goes and which does not. I take them all about the same time (within seconds of each other). I usually loose about 2 in a batch of 7 or 8 vacation type photos. Any suggestions on the best way to get the missing ones to my mac? Thanks for your help.

  2. Juanita
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    So even though I delete the photo from my camera’s photo stream, it is still in the stream in the sky. Correct?
    Also, why is my phone syncing the same photos in a photo library and a file that I selected. I can’t delete either one from my 4s phone without take both off by using the iTunes. Irritating beyond words. I don’t need 2 copies of the same photos on my phone.

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