Where do old photos go on iCloud?

When you store photos in iCloud, they don’t necessarily stay there forever. Apple gives you a limited amount of free iCloud storage space, and once you hit that limit, your older photos can end up being deleted from iCloud to make room for new ones. So where exactly do those old photos go when they’re removed from iCloud?

How iCloud Photo Library works

To understand what happens to your photos when they’re removed from iCloud, it helps to first understand how iCloud Photo Library works.

With iCloud Photo Library enabled on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, every photo and video you take gets automatically uploaded and stored in iCloud. This includes photos imported from DSLR cameras or SD cards as well.

iCloud Photo Library keeps all your photos and videos in sync across your devices. Any edits or deletions you make on one device are reflected everywhere else.

By default, all your full-resolution photos and videos are stored in iCloud in their original quality. Apple provides 5GB of free iCloud storage, but most users need more than that for their photo libraries.

Upgrading to a paid iCloud storage plan gives you more space to store photos and videos at their full resolution. The current pricing is:

iCloud storage tier Price per month Storage amount
50GB $0.99 50GB
200GB $2.99 200GB
2TB $9.99 2TB

If at any point your photos and videos exceed the storage you’ve paid for, iCloud will start automatically managing your storage space.

What happens when you exceed your iCloud storage

When your iCloud storage fills up, your device gets a warning that your storage is almost full. At this point, iCloud will only upload low-resolution thumbnails of your photos, not the full images.

If you don’t upgrade your iCloud storage plan, iCloud will eventually delete the full-resolution originals of your older photos to make space for new content. It replaces the originals with smaller thumbnail versions.

The process works like this:

1. iCloud Photo Library uploads new photos and videos you take in low resolution. The originals remain only on your device.

2. After 30 days, if you still haven’t upgraded your iCloud storage, iCloud starts deleting the full-resolution originals of your older photos. It keeps the low-res thumbnails.

3. Photos removed from iCloud in this way remain stored locally on your device if you’ve enabled the “Download and Keep Originals” option in iCloud settings.

4. If “Download and Keep Originals” is disabled, the photos are deleted from your device as well when removed from iCloud.

5. You can still download the original versions of any photos stored as thumbnails by upgrading your iCloud storage at any time. The originals will download from iCloud after upgrading.

So in summary, when your iCloud storage fills up, your oldest full-resolution photos get replaced by low-res thumbnails after 30 days. But the originals aren’t totally deleted from Apple’s servers immediately. You have the opportunity to save them by upgrading your storage.

Where exactly do the deleted photos go?

When iCloud deletes the full-resolution originals of your older photos to save space, where do they go?

The photos aren’t completely erased right away. They go into a grace period where they’re no longer accessible through iCloud, but still reside in Apple’s servers.

During this grace period, if you upgrade your iCloud storage, the original versions will get downloaded from Apple’s servers again.

If you don’t upgrade, Apple will permanently delete the originals after a period of 40 days. So you have about a month and a half from the time the photos are removed from your iCloud library to save them by upgrading.

It’s only after those 40 days expire that the originals are completely deleted from Apple’s servers and become unrecoverable through iCloud.

What if you have iCloud backup enabled?

If you have iCloud backups enabled, the situation gets a bit more complicated.

iCloud backups provide a way to restore your device from the cloud in case you ever need to wipe it and restore from a backup. These backups include photos and videos.

When your iCloud storage fills up, your device will stop doing iCloud backups until you free up space.

If you already have backups in iCloud that include the photos removed from your iCloud Photo Library, those backups will remain available even after the photos are deleted.

So if you restored one of those backups, it could potentially restore the deleted photos back to your device as they were at the time of the backup.

However, iCloud automatically deletes old backups over time as new ones are created. So those backups containing the deleted photos won’t remain available forever.

Apple only keeps a limited number of backups:

– On iPhone and iPad, your last 3 backups are saved.
– On Mac, your last 2 backups are saved.

Any older backups automatically get deleted by iCloud as new ones are made.

So to summarize:

– Photos removed from your iCloud Photo Library can temporarily remain stored in an iCloud backup.
– But old backups get deleted automatically over time.
– Restoring from a backup is the only way to recover the deleted photos.
– Once the backup containing the photos is deleted, the photos are gone for good.

How to download photos before they’re deleted

If you don’t want your photos to ever be permanently deleted from iCloud, the best solution is to upgrade your iCloud storage plan to ensure you always have enough room for your entire library.

But if you don’t want to pay for more storage, you can also manually download all your original photos to your device before they get removed from iCloud:

– On iPhone/iPad, go to Settings > [your name] > iCloud > Photos and enable “Download and Keep Originals”. This will download the original versions of all your iCloud photos to your device so they’re not lost when removed from iCloud. Just make sure you have enough local storage.

– On Mac, open Photos, go to Preferences > iCloud and enable “Download Originals to this Mac”. Then click “Download” to download all originals.

– You can also use image downloading software to pull all your photos from iCloud to your computer for backup before they are deleted.

The key is to act before the 30-day grace period when iCloud replacement of originals with thumbnails begins. Once thumbnails replace the originals, it’s too late to recover the originals unless you restore an iCloud backup containing them.

Other ways photos and videos can be deleted

In addition to your iCloud storage filling up, there are a couple other scenarios in which photos may be deleted:

– **Turning off iCloud Photo Library:** If you disable iCloud Photo Library on a device, any photos that were stored only in iCloud and not locally will be deleted from that device after turning off syncing. The photos will continue to be available in iCloud on your other synced devices on which you leave iCloud Photo Library enabled.

– **Deleting photos:** If you manually delete photos or videos from your iCloud Photo Library or Mac Photos app, they will be deleted from all your synced devices and iCloud after 30 days. Your Recently Deleted folder will keep them for 30 days before permanent deletion.

– **Removing a device:** If you stop using an iOS device or Mac that was synced to iCloud Photo Library, removing it from your account will delete any photos it contained after 30 days if they were not also stored on your other devices.

So in summary, besides exceeding your storage limit, disabling syncing, manually deleting, and unlinking devices can all result in photos being removed after 30 days.

Third-party apps and iCloud Photo Library

If you use any third-party apps to manage, edit, or back up your photos, things work a bit differently when integrated with iCloud Photo Library:

– **Photo editing apps:** Apps like Pixelmator, Photoshop Express, and Lightroom allow editing photos stored in iCloud Photo Library non-destructively. Your originals stay intact in iCloud while edits get saved as metadata instructions.

– **Backup apps:** Apps like Google Photos can create non-iCloud backups of your photos. But they need local or third-party cloud access to see and back up photos deleted from or never stored in iCloud.

– **Sync apps:** Dropbox, OneDrive, etc can Sync folders containing iCloud Photo Library content across devices. But deleting through these apps instead of Photos can cause conflicts.

The takeaway is third-party apps generally do not have direct access to photos that have been deleted from or were only ever stored in iCloud. For full backup, you need local or additional cloud storage besides just iCloud.

Should you be concerned about losing photos?

For most users, there’s no need to be concerned about losing photos due to the way iCloud Photo Library manages your storage. Here are a few reasons not to worry:

– It takes at least 30 days from the time your storage fills up until any photos are deleted. You have plenty of warning.

– You have up to 40 days from deletion to recover originals by upgrading storage.

– As long as you have one device backing up originals locally, the photos are not lost even if deleted from iCloud.

– If you downloaded originals to an external hard drive before deletion, you also have a backup.

– Apple will never delete any photos or videos still stored in local device storage. Only iCloud copies get removed.

– If you regularly manage your storage by deleting unwanted content first, you likely will never hit your limit.

So unless you ignore all the warnings for months and have no other backups, your photos are most likely safe even if iCloud removes some versions after your storage fills up. Just make sure to monitor your storage usage and keep backups.


To recap, here’s what happens when photos get deleted from iCloud:

– They get replaced with low-res thumbnails when you hit your storage limit after 30 days.

– The originals go into a grace period for 40 days where they can still be recovered if you upgrade storage.

– Any iCloud backups containing the originals will also have them temporarily until old backups get deleted automatically.

– After 40 days total since initial removal, the originals are permanently deleted from Apple’s servers if you haven’t recovered them.

– You can download originals to your devices or external storage before the 40-day deletion timeframe to keep them safe.

– As long as you have local or third-party backups, monitor your storage, and recover originals when warned, you are unlikely to ever permanently lose photos.

So in summary, while the photos are removed from direct accessibility in iCloud, they are not immediately gone for good if you act within the grace period to save them elsewhere. This system aims to balance keeping your library available across devices while managing limited storage capacity.

Leave a Comment