What happens to my photos if I free up space?

With photo and video storage needs increasing all the time, many people find themselves needing to free up space on their devices. When storage space starts running low, one of the first things many people consider is deleting or moving photos and videos to external storage. But what actually happens to your photos and videos when you choose to “free up space”? Here’s an overview of what you need to know.

How Photos Are Stored on Your Devices

To understand what happens when you free up space, it helps to first look at how photos and videos are stored on your devices. When you take a photo or video, the actual image or video file is saved in your device’s storage. This could be internal storage like the hard drive on a computer or the flash memory on a smartphone. Or it could be external storage like an SD card in a camera or a USB drive plugged into a computer.

In addition to the actual image/video file, your device also stores metadata or data about the file. This includes things like the date and time it was taken, camera settings used, file size, and so on. The metadata stays connected with the file to keep that contextual information.

Your device’s operating system keeps track of where all your files are saved on the storage drive. When you go to view your photos and videos in an app like Photos or Gallery, you’re not actually seeing the saved files themselves. Instead, you’re viewing a representation of them that the app generates by reading the image file and metadata. The actual files stay put in your storage unless you delete them or move them.

What Happens When You Delete Photos

Now that we’ve seen how photos are stored, what happens when you go to free up space by deleting photos and videos? The process depends on whether you delete files permanently or just remove them from active storage.

Permanently Deleting Files

If you permanently delete photos/videos, either by deleting them from within your photo app or directly deleting the files themselves, the operating system removes them from the storage drive itself. This frees up the space that was occupied by the files.

Specifically, when you permanently delete a file, the operating system:

  • Removes the file’s entry from its file system table, so it no longer tracks the file
  • Marks the space on the drive previously occupied by the file as available for new data
  • Overwrites the file’s actual data on the drive by adding new files saved to the drive

Once fully overwritten, the deleted file is no longer recoverable. Permanently deleting files is an effective way to free up storage space.

Archiving or Offloading Files

In some cases, you may want to remove photos from active storage without permanently deleting the files. For example:

  • You can archive files by moving them to cloud storage or an external drive.
  • On many smartphones, you can offload photos to cloud storage to take them off the device while retaining a small thumbnail locally.

When you archive or offload files like this, the full-size photo files are copied to the new storage location. Depending on the app or operating system, it may retain metadata and help keep photos organized. The original is then typically deleted from the original device/drive.

This effectively removes photos from your local storage to free up space. But since the files are copied to cloud or external storage, you retain access to them if needed. You can download archived copies back to your device any time.

What Happens When You Use Storage Manager Tools

Some operating systems include built-in storage manager tools to help automatically free up space when storage is full. These work by analyzing your files and removing items that can be deleted or archived.

For example, iOS and Android include tools that can:

  • Delete unused apps
  • Offload little used photos/videos to cloud storage
  • Remove temporary system files
  • Compress rarely opened files

Storage manager utilities like these use a combination of permanently deleting unneeded files and archiving files like photos to cloud storage.

The advantage is that they happen automatically in the background. The downside is that you usually have less control over exactly which items are removed or archived.

What About Your Photo Library and Albums?

When you permanently delete photos or offload them to cloud storage, what happens to the overall photo library and related albums or folders?

It depends on the app or operating system, but typically:

  • The library and folder views are updated to remove deleted files
  • Album covers featuring deleted photos may change
  • Deleted items are removed from Memories/Rediscover features
  • Date-based views like Years and Months change

However, the structure of the library and albums often remains intact. For example, you may still have a folder titled “Vacation 2022” even if you deleted all the photos it contained.

Some apps allow you to merge or delete empty albums. But overall, most apps and OS try to preserve the overall organizational structure as much as possible after deletions.

Can You Recover Deleted Photos?

If you end up deleting photos you want to keep, is it possible to get them back? The options depend on how exactly you deleted them.

If Deleted from Cloud Storage

If you delete photos from cloud storage like Google Photos or iCloud, they may go to a trash or recycle bin where you can easily restore them:

  • Google Photos – Deleted items stay in trash for 60 days
  • iCloud Photos – Deleted items stay in Recently Deleted album for 30 days

If too much time has passed, you may be able to contact customer support to restore deleted photos in some cases.

If Deleted from Devices

If you permanently delete photos/videos directly from your device storage, recovery becomes much harder. However, apps can sometimes help:

  • iPhone/iPad – Use dedicated undelete apps to scan storage for deleted files.
  • Android – Some file manager apps include a recycle bin to recover deleted files.
  • Windows PC – Try recovery software to rescue deleted files from hard drive.

The sooner you act after deletion, the higher your chances of recovery. If files have been overwritten by new data, undeletion likely won’t work.

Ways to Free up Space for Photos

Rather than simply deleting photos to make space, you can also use these smart strategies to open up storage:

1. Back Up and Sync Photos to Cloud Storage

Storing photos in the cloud allows you to remove them from local devices while keeping them safe and available online. Options like Google Photos, iCloud and Amazon Photos give you free cloud storage for photos.

2. Use Smaller or Optimized Image Formats

Choose smaller size JPEG photos in your camera settings instead of giant RAW files. Also enable storage optimizations like HEIF compression on iOS or JPEG quality adjustment on Android.

3. Shrink Image Dimensions

Use image editing tools to reduce pixel dimensions of overflowing photos. For example, resize pictures from 12 megapixels down to a more manageable 4 megapixels.

4. Store Photos on External Drives

Keep photos and videos on a large external drive and sync them to cloud storage for backups. Plug the drive in when you need to access them.

5. Regularly Remove Unneeded Photos

Delete blurry photos, accidental duplicates, screenshots and other images you don’t need. Also clear cached and temporary image files.

6. Use Alt Photo Storage from Another Device

If one device gets full, start storing new photos primarily on a computer, tablet or other device with ample free space.

Keeping Your Photos Safe

When freeing up space for photos, it’s important to do so in a way that keeps your images safe and avoids permanent loss:

  • Back up irreplaceable photos – Ensure they’re saved in at least 2-3 places before deleting anywhere.
  • Double check before deleting – When in doubt, archive rather than permanent deletion.
  • Manage deletions carefully – Avoid automated deletions by tools; review and delete consciously.

With some care when removing photos and a smart overall backup strategy, you can free up plenty of space while keeping your photo memories safe and sound.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do deleted photos stay on your phone?

When you permanently delete photos from your smartphone’s internal storage, the files are removed and that space is freed up. However, with cloud-syncing photo services, deleted photos may stay in a cloud recycle bin for a period of time before being completely removed.

Where do photos go when you delete them from iCloud?

On an iPhone or iPad, photos deleted from iCloud Photos go to the Recently Deleted folder for 30 days before being permanently deleted. You can restore photos from Recently Deleted during that time. On iCloud.com, there is a Photos trash bin where deleted items are stored.

Can you recover permanently deleted photos?

It’s difficult but sometimes possible to recover permanently deleted photos immediately after deletion using specialized undelete software. However, the more time passes and data is overwritten, the lower your chances. Backing up photos is better than relying on recovery.

Is it safe to delete photos from iCloud storage?

Yes, it’s generally safe to delete photos from iCloud storage as long as you have backups elsewhere. Deleted iCloud photos are recoverable from the Recently Deleted folder for 30 days. Just be cautious before deleting photos you don’t have saved or backed up in any other locations.

Do deleted photos count against iCloud storage?

What is the best way to free up space on Android phone?

Some good ways to free up space on an Android phone include deleting unneeded apps and files, offloading photos/videos to the cloud, moving files to an SD card, adjusting camera photo quality, clearing app cache and data, and using the built-in storage manager utility.

Should I delete photos from my phone or storage them in the cloud?

For the best photo backup approach, you should aim to store photos both on your phone/device and in the cloud. Keep your current favorites on your phone, while uploading all images to cloud storage like Google Photos or iCloud. That way you get the benefit of local access but also have cloud backups.

How do I recover storage space on my Android?

To regain storage space on an Android device, use the built-in Files or Phone Manager app to delete unneeded files and photos. Also offload photos and videos to the cloud, move files to an SD card, uninstall unused apps and games, and clear any app caches and data you no longer need.

Is it safe to delete photos from Google Photos trash?

Yes, it’s generally safe to empty your Google Photos trash folder as long as you have backup copies of those photos stored elsewhere, such as on your local device storage or in another cloud storage service. The trash provides an extra level of protection but deletes are permanent after 60 days.


Freeing up space by removing photos doesn’t have to be worrisome if done carefully. Know where your files are stored, back them up to the cloud and external drives, and avoid automatically deleting anything irreplaceable. With a sound strategy, you can comfortably delete photos when needed and rest assured they are still safe and accessible if required.