Wanna Delete Photos From iPhone But Keep Them In iCloud?

Ryan IsbelliOS, iPad, iPhone, Tips and Tricks

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How Can I Delete Photos From My iPhone But Keep Them in iCloud?

by Jesse Hollington

The short answer is that you can’t easily do this – at least not in any way that’s practical for normal use.  You can hide photos so that they won’t be displayed in your main timeline (the “Photos” section), although they’ll still appear in “Album” views, but you can’t actually permanently delete them from your device while still leaving the originals in iCloud.

Some of the answers here are somewhat outdated, as this question goes back about three years, and Apple only rolled out iCloud Photo Library last fall, and even then it was in beta for about six months before it became ready for prime-time. That said, I’ll try to describe each of the iCloud photo-related services and how this would apply to each.

iCloud Photo Library

This is the newest and most practical service for keeping all of your photos in iCloud, and in fact is the only service that does this on a permanent and somewhat automatic basis.

The catch is that iCloud Photo Library is designed to mirror your library on all of your devices. Once this feature is enabled, you no longer have a separate “Camera Roll” in the way that you used to on iOS, and in fact if you go into the Albums view, you’ll even see the name changes to “All Photos,” indicating that you’re seeing everything in one big collected library. At this point, everything you do to a photo on your iOS device is mirrored to iCloud and to any other iOS devices or Macs that have the library enabled. This includes organizing photos in albums as well as editing them and of course deleting them. Your iPhone essentially becomes an extension of the master library.

User‘s solution to turn off iCloud Photo Library entirely is the only way to accomplish what’s being asked, however it’s not a realistic solution for day-to-day use — it’s only applicable if you want to basically separate your two libraries permanently, or for an extended period of time. It’s also not necessarily straightforward, depending on the nature of your photo library that’s already stored in iCloud.

Optimizing Photos

The first thing to keep in mind is that iCloud Photo Library, by default, stores original, full-resolution versions in iCloud, but doesn’t necessarily do so on your iOS device. This is dependent on the “Optimize iPhone Storage” setting found under Settings, Photos & Camera or Settings, iCloud, Photos. When this option is selected, most of the photos that are kept in local storage on your iPhone will be thumbnails or scaled-down versions appropriate for viewing on your iPhone screen. When you open a photo to view it, a higher-resolution version is downloaded from iCloud, however the original full-resolution version isn’t re-downloaded again unless you choose to edit it in the Photos app, or unless you access it from some third-party app that wants to request the original photo for posting or editing purposes.

iOS tries to manage this storage itself, so you won’t find any specific settings related to it — if you have enough space on your iOS device, about two weeks of full resolution photos (and videos) will be stored on your device, with the rest being the lower-resolution versions. If you’re tight on space, iOS will narrow that window as needed, removing locally-stored full-resolution versions in favour of thumbnails. This means that if you’re enabled the “Optimize” setting, in a sense iOS is already “deleting” photos from your iPhone in that the actual original versions are only going to be stored in iCloud. If your concern is merely preserving space on your iPhone, this may be sufficient to answer the question.

However, since the question implies a desire to permanently remove all traces of a photo, perhaps for privacy purposes or to maintain a cleaner library view in the Photos app, the situation gets a bit more complicated.

Disabling iCloud Photo Library

If you disable iCloud Photo Library in Settings, you will be presented with the choice to either download the originals to your device or remove them, and this is where things get a bit sticky. Remember that if you’ve enabled the “Optimize” setting, then only smaller, lower-resolution photos are stored on your device. This means that if you have a large photo library and you choose to download the originals to your device, not only will this take some time, but you may actually run out of space as all of the full-resolution photos are once again transferred to your device. Of course, once you’ve downloaded them and “disconnected” from iCloud Photo Library, you can delete them with impunity, but if you ever turn ON iCloud Photo Library again you’ll get them all back (local deletions won’t propagate back up to iCloud unless iCloud Photo Library is enabled when the photos are deleted).

If you choose instead to remove photos from iCloud Photo Library, they’ll be taken out of local storage and kept in iCloud. You won’t risk taking up any space on the device with new photos that weren’t there before, and the optimized copies will also in fact disappear, saving you even more space. You’ll be left with any photos for which full-resolution versions were downloaded, either because they’re recent of they’re older photos that you’ve recently accessed. These can then be deleted manually in the same manner as above, however again you’ll get these back if you re-enable iCloud Photo Library later.

It’s also worth mentioning that this process is far from instantaneous — it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a day or two depending on the size of your photo library. I have 35,000 photos and videos in mine, going back about 15 years, and whenever I switch iCloud Photo Library on or off it takes about 24 hours to either clean up what’s already there or re-download everything. Clearly not a practical solution for casual use unless you have a really small library, and it’s also not something that Apple expects people to do frequently, so I wouldn’t be surprised if database and synchronization problems occur if people do this repeatedly.

iCloud Photo Stream

Prior to the advent of iCloud Photo Library, the only way to wirelessly transfer photos to your iOS device was using iCloud Photo Stream. This provides a bit more flexibility, as photos in the iCloud Photo Stream are handled separately from the “Camera Roll.” If you delete the photos from the “Photos” timeline, both versions will be removed, but if you go to the “Albums” view and select “Camera Roll” you can delete only the local version while preserving the Photo Stream version.

That said, as others have already pointed out, Photo Stream is not permanent iCloud storage. Photos remain in the Photo Stream for only 30 days, to a maximum of 1,000 photos. It’s essentially designed to facilitate the transfer of photos to your Mac or PC for permanent storage. Ergo, it doesn’t really pertain to the question since you wouldn’t be “keeping” photos in iCloud.

Photo Stream also doesn’t support videos at all; if you’re using Photo Stream you’ll need to transfer videos to your computer using some other method, such as a wired USB connection or a third-party app.

iCloud Photo Sharing

The third iCloud photo-related service is iCloud Photo Sharing, which is designed primarily to allow you to create albums that can be shared with other iOS users, or even publicly on the web if you so choose. Photos and videos are kept in this portion of iCloud permanently, but they have to be added manually.

If you upload a photo to a Shared Photo Stream, you can remove it from your Camera Roll or  iCloud Photo Library without removing it from the shared stream. You’ll still technically have a copy “on” your device, however, but it won’t be displayed in the normal photo timeline, only in the “Shared” view.

Shared Photo Streams also don’t count against your iCloud storage allocation, although they have their own limits; see My Photo Stream and iCloud Photo Sharing limits for specific details. There’s a big catch here, however, that many users aren’t aware of: Photos and videos added to Shared Photo Streams are not originals. Since the goal of iCloud Photo Sharing is to allow others to view your photos, they’re downscaled into resolutions appropriate for viewing on most devices: 2048 pixels on the long edge for photos, 720p for videos. See iCloud Photo Sharing FAQ for more specific details on this.

Ergo, Shared Photo Streams do not necessarily solve the problem either, in that you will not be storing your actual, original photos in iCloud, nor are you really “deleting” them from your device, although they will have disappeared from your main “Photos” timeline, they’ll still be shown in the “Shared” album. Plus, you have to add the manually, which makes this solutions somewhat cumbersome.

Hiding Photos

As discussed above, if the objective is simply to save on local storage, in most cases the “Optimize Photos” option will address this. If you want to declutter your photo timeline, or are concerned about keeping more private photos out of view, then “Hiding” photos might suffice. Tapping and holding on a photo in the timeline in the Photos app will present a “Hide” option, and selecting this will remove that photo from your timeline view, although it will remain visible in the “All Photos” view, any albums you’ve manually placed it into, and the “All Photos” album. The photo – or an optimized version of it – is still stored on your device, but it’s taken out of your timeline view.

Photos can be unhidden in the same manner. iOS 9 makes this process a bit easier as well, allowing you to select multiple photos to hide all at once, rather than working on a photo-by-photo basis.

If you’re using iCloud Photo Library, the photo will be hidden on all of your devices, including the OS X Photos app, but it will remain stored on each of your devices where iCloud Photo Library is enabled.

See Hiding Photos in the iOS 8 Photo Library for more specific details.

Third-Party Solutions

If storage is really at a premium, or you really don’t want these photos appearing anywhere on your device, then the only other option is to give up on iCloud’s photo solutions and look to a third-party cloud service to store your photos.

The recently released Google Photos app does this quite elegantly by allowing you to manually delete the on-device copy while leaving the Google Photos copy intact. The photo will disappear entirely from the iOS Photos app, but will remain displayed in the Google Photos app. Sadly, Google Photos does not provide any way to “hide” photos. Google also provides unlimited storage for free as long as you keep your photos under 16MP and don’t mind them being recompressed. Unless you’re a purist who demands your exact original photos be retained, this is generally more than acceptable — visual comparisons have been done between original iPhone Camera Roll photos and the version stored in Google Photos and they’re indistinguishable without getting into analytical software or blowing them up and studying individual pixels.

via quora