How to Access Your iCloud Photos

Apple's first attempt at photo sharing was called Photo Stream, and while it had its perks, it wasn't very friendly to non-Apple devices. Apple got it right with iCloud Photo Library, which provides a way to store  photos and videos on the cloud and access them from iOS devices, Macs and even Windows-based PCs.

The iCloud Photo Library is a great backup for your photos. It also works a little different than cloud storage services like Dropbox or Box. Instead of automatically downloading all of the photos to all of your devices, you can choose to download optimized versions on your iPhone or iPad, which can save a lot of storage space.

How to Access Your iCloud Photos on Your iPhone and iPad

iCloud on various apple devices
iCloud Drive was announced during Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference. Apple Inc.

It's no surprise that accessing your iCloud Photo Library on your iPhone or iPad is as simple as launching the Photos app. You will need iCloud Photo Library turned on for your device, but once the switch is pulled, iCloud photos show up alongside photos on your device in the Collections view and in the All Photos album.

But here's where it gets good: Photos is a great app for viewing your images or making video memories out of them, but in reality, it's a big document directory that you can use to send your photos and videos to other devices. You can use the Share button when viewing a photo to copy it to an email message, text message, send it to a nearby device using AirDrop or even save it to other cloud-based services like Dropbox or Google.

This feature goes hand-in-hand with the new Files app. If you choose to "Save to files..." in the Share menu, you can save it to any service you have set up in Files, and you can save multiple files at the same time. If you have an iPad, you can even multitask to bring up Files and Photos at the same time and drag-and-drop images from Photos to Files.

How to Access Your iCloud Photos on Your Mac

Apple, Inc.

The beauty of owning an iPhone, iPad and a Mac is how well all of the devices work together. The Photos application on the Mac is the quickest way to view photos in your iCloud Photo Library. The images are kept in collections similar to how they are organized in the Photos app on your iPhone or iPad, and you can even watch the Memories created from the images and videos.

And similar to Photos on your iOS device, the Photos application on your Mac acts like a document repository. You can drag-and-drop images from the Photos app to any other folder on your Mac, and you can even drop them into other applications like Microsoft Word or Apple's Pages word processor.

If you don't see your iCloud Photo Library images in the Photos application on your Mac, ensure that you have the feature turned on in settings. 

  • Click on the Apple icon at the top-left corner of the Mac's screen in the menu bar area.
  • Choose System Preferences from the list.
  • Click on iCloud from the main System Preferences menu.
  • If Photos does not have a check mark next to it, check it. You may be asked to sign into your iCloud account if you haven't already done so. You may also be asked to verify your iCloud settings.
  • Click the Options button to the right of Photos. This will bring you to a screen where you can turn on iCloud Photo Library, My Photo Stream and iCloud Photo Sharing by clicking the checkboxes next to these options. The iCloud Photo Library option must be checked for your iCloud Photos to show up in the Photos app.

How to Access Your iCloud Photos in Windows

Screenshot of Windows 10

If you have a Windows-based laptop or desktop, don't worry. It's actually quite simple to get to your iCloud Photo Library in Windows, but you will first need iCloud installed on your PC. Many of us installed this along with iTunes, but if you have trouble accessing your iCloud photos, you can follow Apple's directions on downloading iCloud.  

With iCloud set up on your Windows computer, you can access your iCloud photos by opening a file explorer window. This is the same as you would do to access any other documents or files on your PC.  Near the top, under Desktop, you will see iCloud Photos. This folder divides iCloud Photos into three categories:

  • Downloads are the photos you took on your iPhone or iPad. These should automatically download to your PC.
  • Uploads is a folder you an use to upload photos to your iOS device. Any photo you copy here will be available on your iPhone or iPad.
  • Shared gives you access to any Shared Photo Albums available on iCloud. Shared photo albums are great because you can share them with friends and family.

How to Access Your iCloud Photos on any Web Browser

The iCloud web interface will be instantly recognizable to iPhone and iPad users. Screenshot of iCloud.com

Your iCloud Photo Library is also available on the web, which is great if you don't want to install the iCloud app onto your Windows PC. You can also use the web version to access your iCloud photos on a friend's PC. This method is also compatible with many Chromebooks.

  • Sign in to your iCloud account at www.icloud.com.
  • The iCloud website works similar to an iPhone or iPad. Simply tap on the Photos icon to launch a web-based version of the app.
  • You can view your entire iCloud Photo Library online, including videos.
  • You can upload photos by clicking the button that looks like a cloud with an arrow pointing into the cloud.

How to Access iCloud Photos on an Android Smartphone/Tablet

Screenshot of Chrome browser

Unfortunately, the iCloud website isn't compatible with Android devices. There is a workaround to this, but it only gives you very limited access to your photos. For this trick, you will need to be using Chrome, which is the default browser on most Android devices.

  • Navigate Chrome to www.icloud.com.
  • You will see a message about the browser not being supported. Tap the menu button at the top-right corner of the Chrome screen. It is the button with three vertical dots.
  • Tap Desktop site.
  • The iCloud website will reload and you will be able to log in as normal.
  • You can access some photos by tapping the Photos icon, but unfortunately, this part of the website doesn't work well on Android. You can see the main window, but you cannot scroll the area with the photos. This limits you to the photo albums and the photos on the screen. How many photos you can see and how well this workaround works will depend on your specific Android device.
  • One trick to see specific photos is to create an album on your iPhone or iPad and move those photos into it. And then on the Android device, simply choose the newly created album.