Are permanently deleted photos permanently?

With the prevalence of smartphones and cloud storage, many of us now have an unprecedented number of photos stored digitally. However, storage space is not infinite, and there may come a time when you want to permanently delete photos you no longer need or want. But are permanently deleted photos really gone forever?

In this article, we’ll look at whether photos are truly permanently deleted when you delete them from your phone’s gallery or cloud services. We’ll examine how photo deletion normally works, comparing standard deletion with factory resetting your device. We’ll also look at recovery options after deletion and best practices for ensuring photos are permanently gone.

How Photo Deletion Normally Works

The normal photo deletion process on phones and cloud services like Google Photos is to first move the photos to a “trash” or “recently deleted” folder before permanently deleting them after a set period of time.

On iPhones, when you delete a photo it goes to the Recently Deleted album for 30 days before being permanently deleted (Source:

On Android phones, deleted photos go to the Trash folder in Google Photos where they stay for 60 days before being deleted. You can restore photos from the Trash during this time (Source:

Thistrash/deleted photos folder acts as a buffer so you have a window of time to recover accidentally deleted photos before they are gone forever.

Photo Deletion vs Factory Reset

Deleting photos manually through your device’s gallery only removes pointers to those photos, but does not actually erase the data. The photos still exist on your device’s storage until overwritten by new data. A factory reset goes a step further by wiping all personal data on your device, including photos (Source).

When you delete photos normally, the device simply marks the storage space used by those photos as available for new data. The actual photo data remains intact until new files physically overwrite it. A factory reset, in contrast, deliberately writes over all previous user data with blank data or special reset codes. This ensures your photos and other personal files cannot be recovered (Source).

Therefore, a factory reset provides a much more comprehensive level of photo deletion that makes recovery extremely difficult, if not impossible. Just manually deleting photos simply marks them for future overwriting, which still leaves open the possibility of recovery until they are overwritten. Only a full factory reset can give you confidence your photos are truly gone for good (Source).

Photo Deletion on Different Services

How photo deletion works can vary greatly depending on the online service. There are some key differences in how iCloud, Google Photos, Facebook, and others handle deleting photos.

With iCloud, deleting a photo will remove it from all synced devices and iCloud storage. iCloud uses two-way syncing, so any deletion is mirrored across devices. According to Apple Support, “When you delete a photo or video from the Photos app on one device, it’s deleted from your iCloud Photos library and all your devices.”

Google Photos works differently. It uses one-way syncing from device to the cloud. As discussed on Google Support forums, “Deleting pictures from Google Photos only deletes it from Google Photos. Google has no way of interacting with your iCloud.” So deleting from Google Photos will not remove the photo from iCloud or devices.

Facebook takes a hybrid approach. It will delete a photo from all synced devices if deleted directly on Facebook. However, deleting from a device does not remove it from Facebook storage according to Facebook Help. So it partially mirrors iCloud’s two-way sync for deletions initiated on Facebook itself.

In summary, iCloud’s two-way sync leads to true deletion across the board. Google Photos and Facebook only delete photos from their own storage when removed directly there, not when deleted on a local device.

Recovering Recently Deleted Photos

There are a few techniques you can use to try recovering recently deleted photos on both Android and iPhone devices. The key is to act quickly before the photos are permanently overwritten.

On Android devices, the Google Photos app saves deleted photos in the trash for 60 days before permanent removal. You can open the Google Photos app, select Library > Trash, and restore photos from there ([1]).

For iPhones, deleted photos are stored in the Recently Deleted album within the Photos app for 30 days. Open the Photos app, select the Albums tab, open Recently Deleted, select the photos, and choose Recover to restore them ([2]).

Third-party apps like DiskDigger Photo Recovery or iMyFone D-Back can also scan your device and find recently deleted photos that can still be recovered. But acting quickly using the built-in photo apps is often the easiest route.

Recovering After a Factory Reset

Recovering photos after a factory reset can be very difficult, if not impossible in some cases. A factory reset erases all data, settings, and installed apps on an Android device, restoring it to its original out-of-the-box state. This process overwrites the existing data on the phone’s internal storage with zeros or random data to prevent recovery.

Once a factory reset is completed, the original photo files are no longer accessible through normal means. The only way to recover them is using special data recovery software that can scan the phone’s storage for traces of deleted data. However, the success rate depends on several factors:

  • How much new data has been saved to the device since the reset – The more new data is written, the more it overwrites deleted photo remnants.
  • Whether advanced encryption was enabled – Encryption makes recovery exponentially harder.
  • The specific recovery software used – More advanced forensic tools have better data carving capabilities.
  • The storage type – Internal storage vs SD card.
  • How soon recovery is attempted after reset – The longer the wait, the lower the chance.

For the best chance of recovering photos post factory reset, using professional software immediately after reset is recommended. However, there is no guarantee of recovering all or any data. As this guide states, only 30% of photos may be recoverable in a best case scenario.

Forensic Data Recovery

Forensic data recovery is an expensive, specialized service that may be able to recover deleted photos and data even after a factory reset or when standard recovery methods fail. Forensic recovery aims to extract data from damaged drives and devices in a forensically sound manner that maintains a chain of custody for potential legal proceedings [1]. Forensic recovery services are used by law enforcement, corporations, and individuals.

Some forensic data recovery services, such as Magnet Forensics, AccessData, and Wondershare Recoverit, can recover deleted photos, documents, call logs, and more from phones, computers, and storage devices, even if they have been factory reset or reformatted. This level of recovery is expensive, often starting around $500-$1000 and going into the thousands of dollars depending on the device and extent of damage [2].

Forensic recovery works by scanning a device’s entire raw storage at the lowest level to extract remnants of deleted data. Even if a factory reset or reformatting has occurred, portions of files often still reside on the drive and can be resurrected. However, no method of data deletion is 100% foolproof if an adversary has direct access to the storage medium.

Data Remnants After Deletion

Even after photos are deleted from a device or online service, fragments of the photo data may still remain in the system’s memory or storage. When a photo is “deleted” on a device, the operating system simply marks the space where that photo data resides as available for overwrite. The actual 1s and 0s that make up the photo data are not immediately erased. Those leftover data fragments remain until they are eventually overwritten by new data.

Forensic data recovery experts are often able to recover deleted photos by scanning a device’s memory or storage for these photo data remnants. With the right tools and expertise, they can reconstruct partially overwritten photo files by piecing together the fragments that still remain. For example, in a study by Quora, professional photo recovery was able to restore photos even after they were permanently deleted.

The likelihood of recovering deleted photo fragments depends on how quickly and how many times the storage space is reused and overwritten. The more a device is used after deletion, the less likely forensic recovery becomes. However, with fast storage technology and large capacity, some data remnants may remain for extended periods before being fully overwritten.

Best Practices for Permanent Deletion

If you want to permanently delete photos beyond any chance of recovery, here are some best practices to follow:

On an Android device, don’t just delete photos from the Gallery app. This will send them to the trash where they can still be recovered. Instead, use a file manager app to find the actual photo files stored on your device and delete them. Going into the DCIM and Pictures folders is a good start (source).

Do a factory reset on your phone. This will wipe all data, including photos that may be cached in different apps and storage. Just be sure to backup anything important first (source).

If you used an online cloud storage service like Google Photos, deleting photos there doesn’t permanently erase them right away. You’ll need to clear your trash folder and then contact customer support to request permanent deletion (source).

For maximum deletion, use a secure delete app or tool that overwrites photo data multiple times to prevent forensic recovery. You can find apps like this for both Android and iOS devices.

The more storage locations you can wipe clean, the better chance you have of permanent deletion. So be thorough and take the extra steps to manually remove photos from all possible sources on your devices and online services.


In summary, while deleted photos may seem to vanish instantly, the reality is more complex. When you delete a photo from your device or an online service, it isn’t necessarily erased right away. The photo data may continue to exist until it is overwritten by new data.

With the right forensic recovery tools, recently deleted photos can often be salvaged from your device’s storage or cloud backups. The more time passes, the lower the odds of recovery become. For the average user, a factory reset or deleting cloud storage makes photo recovery unlikely but not impossible.

The only way to ensure photos are permanently deleted is to use a secure deletion tool that overwrites the storage space multiple times. Even then, fragments of data could remain and be pieced together forensically.

For most purposes, simply deleting a photo and letting time pass will make that photo inaccessible. But for highly sensitive images, advanced deletion methods and physical destruction of storage media may be warranted.

In the end, while deleted photos are not necessarily gone forever, for typical users they become permanently inaccessible in a practical sense in most scenarios. But with effort and expertise, digital data is often recoverable.