Why Has ICloud Deleted All My Photos?

We’re changing our objectivity for Tech 911 this week. Lifehacker managing editor Virginia Smith posed a question on our internal Slack channel, which sharply abbreviates: “It’s safe to delete photos from my iPhone, isn’t it?”

The answer is a little more complicated than you think, and can be disastrous if you’re wrong.

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It is incredibly safe to delete photos from iPhone. If space on your iPhone is running low, if you don’t like the composition of your shot, or if you’ve uploaded your photos to another service or storage device, delete them. Your smartphone won’t mind.

Of course, when you say “safe,” you are actually asking a question like the Prestige , “I am deleting the copy or deleting the original.” And, as with the movie, the answer gets a little tricky. If you have set up iCloud on your iPhone and automatically upload photos to Apple service like below:

then it is very important to understand that your “sync” is not a one-way street. Delete the photo on your iPhone and you will delete it from iCloud the next time your device has an internet connection. Apple warns you of this when you delete a photo or video in the Photos app, noting that deleting an item will remove it from iCloud Photos “on all your devices.” It is implied that this removes it from iCloud as well, but Apple could be more explicit given the apparent confusion. (Virginia isn’t the only one baffled by this wording.)

The same logic applies if you sync iCloud Photos on your Mac. Delete the photo there and the item will disappear from your connected iPhone, iPad, and iCloud itself the next time your Mac connects to the network.

Of course, if you’ve deleted the photo from your iPhone and didn’t intend to delete it from everything else, the process is easy to change. Just find the Recently Deleted album under Other Albums in the iOS Photos app, in the left sidebar under Library in the macOS Photos app, or in the list of albums on iCloud.com . Don’t hesitate; you only have 40 days before your photos and videos disappear forever.

If many of your Apple devices have iCloud Photo sync set up, you can recover deleted photos from any of those devices. For example, you don’t need to have the real iPhone that you used to delete the photo initially.

Apple’s appeal to iCloud is confusing isn’t what Apple has done. Rather, the point is that many cloud services, such as Google Photos, have different attitudes towards syncing photos. This is to be expected, but I think some people assume that every service does the same thing. They don’t.

For example, when you back up photos to the cloud using Google Photos on iPhone, you can delete those photos with no problem using the iOS Photos app. Your photos will still be stored in the Google Cloud unless you delete them in the Google Photos app or photos.google.com .

This is the main reason why Google’s “Free Up Space” feature is so convenient. Once you have uploaded your photos to Google, you can safely delete them from your device without losing them permanently if you use the dedicated feature in the Google Photos app, as shown below:

Now, if you were to delete these photos directly from the Google Photos app stream, you would delete them from the cloud as well. This “Free up space” option deletes your device’s photos – and only your device’s photos – when you press this button. Delete photos in the usual way, and you delete them from the cloud and Google app, but not from your device. Clear?

If you want Google Photos to delete the item on your iOS device as well (which removes it from the iOS Photos and iCloud app), you will need to select the option after deleting a photo or video in the Google Photos app:

And since I’m just focusing on iOS to answer Virginia’s question, I must point out that the process is more streamlined if you’re using an Android device with Google Photos as your primary photo storage app – Google Pixel 2 for example. Delete the photo file there. and it goes to the device and goes to your cloud storage, unless you restore it through the trash in the app or online site . (And you can still use the Free Up Space feature on Android; Google won’t delete the same photos and videos from the cloud, don’t worry.)


  • When you delete items in the Photos app, they are deleted from iCloud if you’re signed in and sync, or from any other device that’s configured the same way.
  • Deleting items in the Photos app will not remove them from Google Photos if you’ve already uploaded them to Google Cloud Storage.
  • Deleting items in the Google Photos app will delete them from the Google cloud storage and any other device that also uses Google Photos, but only in the Google Photos app.
  • Deleting items in the Google Photos app will not delete them from your iOS device unless you explicitly tell Google Photos to do so when you delete the item.
  • Maybe … consider making regular backups of your device’s photos to an external hard drive (or uploading to another cloud service ) in case this gets too confusing .


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