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Feature Request: iCloud Photo Library needs a purge downloads button à la Google Photos

iCloud Photo Library Photos Mac 16-9

I’ve been all in on iCloud Photo Library since Apple replaced iPhoto with the new Photos app on the Mac last year and I haven’t looked back since. I pay $2.99/month to sync my 13,206 photos and 1,087 videos (plus iOS device backups) with iCloud, and this allows me to take or save photos and videos from any device and have them appear across the others including the web, edits, albums, and all. I even have a system to help ensure to if something in the cloud gets hosed that everything will be fine at home (and if the house burns down hopefully the cloud is still there).

This also enables me to access my 155 GB photos library in the Photos apps on iPhones and iPads that otherwise couldn’t fit that much content. Thumbnail previews are available at all times, and full resolution versions download on the fly as needed. When you’re iPhone, iPad, or Mac needs more local storage, Photos can remove full-res images and downloaded videos to make more space using an optimize storage option. This works pretty well especially on higher capacity devices, but there’s one problem…

Photo and video purging happens automatically as needed with iOS and OS X deciding when the time is right, but it’s not perfect at knowing. Google Photos (which is free but uses its own app) takes a different approach by putting a great big button in the settings section that lets you free up storage on the spot by purging downloads that are already in the cloud.

iOS lets you remove all downloaded songs and movies from the Music and Videos apps, but there’s no similar action for manually removing downloaded photos and videos from the Photos app in a single step.

Here’s a real world scenario where that’s a problem and a button like Google’s would come in handy. My iPhone is 128GB and my iPad has 32GB of storage. The iPhone’s a better video camera with 4K capture, but the iPads a better video editor with a larger display and faster processor.

While I was away from reliable Wi-Fi last week at CES, I tried AirDropping a short 4K video from my iPhone to the iPad to edit it with iMovie, but the file transfer failed with an insufficient storage warning. Photos was the single app taking up the most amount of space even with optimize storage turned on because there were local downloads lingering around, and iOS didn’t know to purge them and make room for the AirDropped video.

iCloud Photo Library iPad

Every single photo and video stored locally on the iPad was already synced to iCloud and saved locally at home on my Mac, so the solution was to fully disable iCloud Photo Library on the iPad to remove those large files. Okay, nothing lost but time. Once I was back home on reliable Wi-Fi, I just had to re-enable iCloud Photo Library on my iPad to continue having access to the photos and videos that I shoot on my iPhone but with a much larger display.

I could switch to alternative solutions that bring me to the same place, but I really like Photos and iCloud Photo Library and just want to see this one tiny feature added to improve the experience. The solution here is a pretty easy fix and one I hope we see with iOS 10 and OS X 10.12 later this year.

If you’re a Photos user or iCloud Photo Library user, are there any simple features you’d like to see added as well? As ever, let us know in the comments!

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  1. This is by far my biggest pet peeve with iOS. I have an iCloud Photo Library that’s 20+ GB and they all were downloaded on my phone so Google Photos could back them up – but the only way to get that space back is to turn off iCloud photo library, delete the photos and then re-add them. Very frustrating.

  2. blachblah - 7 years ago

    For the love of god, all I want them to do is add a dedicated Live Photos album to the OS X Photos app so I can see all my Live Photos easily in one place without having to search through my library. I mean, they have a Screenshots album; why not Live Photos?

  3. Marcos Detry (@mdetry) - 7 years ago

    Another pending issue is that the tagged Faces sync through iCloud. At the moment the faces the you tag do not sync and are only available in the device you tag them.

    • Zac Hall - 7 years ago

      Ugh, I agree. I think this is privacy related but I’d love to opt in. Even managing faces between two Macs is impossible.

  4. Jazzy Nidam - 7 years ago

    I agree, “purge” button is very much needed, photo library constantly getting bigger, when i delete apps, photos take additional space.
    I wish there was a “maximum Space” or purge button, either will be awesome. besides that, i very much love the photos App

  5. cody1213 - 7 years ago

    I’d also like a “purge non-camera images” feature. My library is littered with screenshots and images I made or downloaded for one-off purposes. Once they’re backed up to iCloud, they also have a way of reappearing even after I delete them off my phone.

    • rnc - 7 years ago

      There’s an album called “screenshots” that gets automatically filled with screenshots.

  6. uniszuurmond - 7 years ago

    Like so many other products, iCloud Photo/Photos App just doesn’t work as advertised. I’ve had the following issues:

    1. I lost all photos from 2011 to 2014. Before and after that, they’re all there. I’ve had some very special memories captured during this period, and cannot forgive them for this.

    2. When I plug in my devices into my MacBook (as opposed to syncing), I’m often getting duplicates, sometimes even triplicates in iPhoto, which must then be removed manually.

    3. A select number of photos captured on my devices lost their dates, resulting in being shown as the most recent captures, even if they date from 2011 or before.

    So my biggest feature request is to fix iCloud Photo/Photos App.

  7. I prefer seeing Apple fix the purge issue instead of offering a purge all option “a la Google”… The same goes for the much requested “kill all” apps in application switcher…

    • Greg Kaplan (@kaplag) - 7 years ago

      Right, one of Apple’s idea’s is that “users shouldn’t have to manage computer stuff.” It’s why the battery pack doesn’t have an on off switch. Often it’s because the computer knows better.

      Give people a purge all and next thing you know they are using it to free up space all the time. Then they’ll complain how nothing loads fast enough and how all of their data was used up when they where trying to show their friends pictures from last week.

      • Aunty T (@AuntyTroll) - 7 years ago

        And there in lies the issue. Apple’s idea is that “users shouldn’t have to manage computer stuff”.

        It’s about CHOICE. It’s about being able to do anything you want to do with the piece of tech you have spent a fortune on not being dictated to by the biggest control freak on the planet.

        If I drop $2500 on a 5k iMac, I want to do whatever the hell I want with it. If I drop $900 on an iPhone, I want to do whatever the hell I want with it. I’m not a child. I am capable of independent thought. I can make mistakes and learn from them without having my hand held like a toddler.

        If my friend bricks his Android phone because he was stupid enough to download apps from a dodgy Chinese website then that is his fault. BUT AT LEAST HE HAD THE CHOICE TO DO IT.

        If I delete all of my photos from iCloud because I was stupid enough to purge everything then that is my fault for being a dick. BUT AT LEAST I HAD THE CHOICE TO DO IT.

        It’s about giving people CHOICE and OPTIONS, not treating them like idiots.

      • Jake Becker - 7 years ago

        He mad ^

  8. Daryl Martin (@gumbymac) - 7 years ago

    I wish the iCloud Photos on the web was as fast as Google Photos. Also, being able to search my Google photos for “snow pictures in Paris” or “Corgi” works eerily well.

  9. Doug Aalseth - 7 years ago

    A simple feature to make iCloud Photo Library more useful?
    That’s easy: No more all or nothing. Let me decide what parts of my local library get uploaded. Right now you have to agree to pushing your whole library up the line to Apple’s servers. I neither need, nor want, nor have the network capacity to do that. If they let me set “all photos after this date” I’d be there with bells on. Right now this one limitation is keeping me off of iCloud Photo Library even though I’d love to use it.

  10. greenbelt2csp - 7 years ago

    I think iCloud Photos just needs to be more aware when extra storage is needed and purge the local copies or the oldest/least viewed images automatically. It doesn’t need yet another option, it just needs a little more intelligence. Did you try it a second time? Sometimes it takes longer to remove photos so trying a second time succeeds.

  11. Tom Charvat - 7 years ago

    Here is another fix… Add Back the ability to be able to Group Title and Number. When I create an album, I do not want to title each photo most of the time.
    But I want a title and number to be able to easily look for that photo under search. i.e. 2016 Hawaii Vacation 1, 2016 Hawaii Vacation 2 etc
    This was a major lose having 45,000 photo’s. At least the transfer from iPhoto to Photo saved my old Albums, but many titles were dropped?

  12. Steve Guttbinder - 7 years ago

    I’d like to see the ability to choose a set of photos to temporarily download a set of photos. It’s extremely annoying to show photos from say, a few months ago, and then have each and every photo start blurry and then load 5 seconds later (and we’re on a stupidly fast internet connection) – Apple Support says that doesn’t matter though as it’s their media servers which are are bottlenecked with regard to having those photos download faster.

  13. maisonpulaski - 7 years ago

    Coming from Android to iOS I found the Photos situation confusing. I am still not sure I have wrapped my head around it. I really enjoy my 6s btw.

    But do I understand correctly; if I delete local photo files they also get deleted from iCloud? Because that behavior makes absolutely no sense (to me). I have iCloud because I want 10,000 photos saved in the cloud – but not on my device.

    Am I missing something?

    This is not a troll either. I am being dead serious and honestly asking.

    • Jake Becker - 7 years ago

      They do, but if you have Optimize Storage switched on on your iPhone (Settings > Photos & Camera), all of the full size files are stored in iCloud and you just have the tiny version on your iPhone in Photos; the full version is then downloaded for a short time for you once you choose a photo. That’s because that facet of iCloud is really all about syncing – you can see your library to pick and choose but between your originals in iCloud and your optimized ones, there’s many GB a difference. Your deletions, edits and more sync the same across iOS and OS X via the Photos app. iCloud Photo Library is a feature that I can’t imagine being without ever since I implemented it.

      Now, if you just need to store them away period and want to use iCloud to do so, that would be something you would regulate to iCloud Drive or Dropbox. The issue with iCloud Drive is although I think it certainly has potential to be a superior cloud storage service (and should be for Apple users), you can’t currently upload photos or documents directly from iPhone to iCloud Drive. You can do so in Finder on a Mac or from any source on a PC when logged in to iCloud, yet not from the iOS device, and they need to correct that….

  14. AbsarokaSheriff - 7 years ago

    I would like to see better handling of duplicates. I just deleted 20K of duplicated images because of multiple iPhoto libraries uploaded to iCloud.

  15. David Q - 7 years ago

    I’d also really love a duplicate photo detector. When I imported all of my photos, I had a bunch of duplicates-mostly because I imported some things twice. I can go in and find them and there is an App Store app that can help too but I’d love to see it as a native feature.

  16. stevelawrence - 7 years ago

    Yes. Yes. This. I have a 120GB photo library and a 16GB iPhone. Even with the optimised option turned on, the library takes up all available space on my phone. And the promise of it self-managing its size does not match reality. With the library sucking up 9GB of my 16GB, I might at any time only have a few hundred MB of space left. Does the photo library suddenly “self-manage” when I need to shoot a video? No. My device simply runs out of space. When these services are Apple’s justification for the continued base configuration of 16GB it’s unacceptable. The way things stand now, I cannot consider using iCloud Photo Library with anything less than a 64GB phone.

    And yet, the exact same photo library in Flickr takes up a mere few hundred MB of space. Go figure.

  17. Tom Charvat - 7 years ago

    I thought of another annoying thing ( I wrote previously ). The scaling method on iPhoto vs. Photo direct to Apple Mail was much better in the past.
    This new method of Small, Medium, Large or Original makes to many dramatic jumps. Selecting photos and groups of any size, that add up to a file size was much better. The method now needs the other option to return.

  18. Prayudi Satriyo N (@psn) - 7 years ago

    I wish there is a “pause backup” button for iOS (there is one for mac, though).
    Right now when I’m on the road, my iPod Touch keeps eating all the metered bandwidth from my mobile WiFi, which is really expensive.

  19. patnas - 7 years ago

    In iPhoto when you moved images to albums, the image would only be in that album. Now with Photos when you move images to a album the image is in the album as well as the “All Photos” section of the program.

  20. I want a separate camera roll. If I could move photos from my camera roll into an album from any device, that’d be great. I like to import photos then see which I haven’t bothered importing so I can delete them, or see which I’ve forgotten to file. Having ‘All Photos’ that has everything from my oldest photo in Photos to the latest photo snapped on my phone is more than my organised brain can stand.

  21. Steve V. Kass - 7 years ago

    First off, I HATE …….. sorry, “dislike” Photos and the whole iCloud Photo craziness that drives me nuts – I do use iCloud, but for other things. I believe it is worst than iPhoto – at least the last few updates to iPhoto were pretty good. Yes it has some better editing options…. blah blah blah, but I really don’t care for that as I preferred my photos to be “just as” – as it appears in REAL life. What I DO NOT get is, WHY on earth is there a white background when everyone knows a dark (black) background is so much better for viewing thumbnails and in full screen……???? So stupid.

  22. therealjoco - 7 years ago

    One thing that I really miss from iPhoto is that it showed you what photos weren’t in an album. I have 1500 photos/pictures and I would really like for them all to be in an album so that I can find them easily. I have no way of telling whether I have added all of my photos to an album.

  23. sstba11 - 7 years ago

    I wish for better organisation in general. I wish I could set the shared photo stream based on a keyword to other people. I wish I could mark the pictures to be shown on the Apple TV screensaver, instead of using all. I want to only use the best pictures as an Apple TV screensaver … And definitely not the family pictures.

  24. jrelder - 7 years ago

    I would like to see a sync photos button (I can’t find one if it’s there?). Sometimes I take a photo with my iPhone and I immediately want to use it on my Mac, but the iPhone can take 15mins or so to sync my photos to iCloud so I resort to sending the photo to myself by iMessage or email or by using the USB to manually sync.

  25. dailycardoodle - 7 years ago

    I’m confused by Photo’s, maybe it’s my age. I’ve always 2 versions of recent photos on my iPhone, one deletable and one not. Not sure why.

  26. pdixon1986 - 7 years ago

    I had the issue of transferring photos to my laptop from my iphone using the import only to find iphotos to start uploading to the cloud… i didnt realise it did it automatically, i thought i was only transferring to my computer – i was using my phones internet via tethering, so i certainly didnt want to be uploading to icloud on my phones data :-(

    Worse was that the writing was really small at the bottom that said it was uploading… it really needs a button, and more visible…

  27. Seika - 7 years ago

    Mostly its about organizing

    1. A tiny icon to mark photo that’s “optimized” (a.k.a thumbnail only) just like the little cloud icon on new photo that are still downloading from iCloud. Could be expanded into an option for selective purging.
    2. Optimize and resize option to reduce file size. File from digital camera
    3. Let us delete those RAW files from camera imported by Camera Connection Kit. Now that they allow it to be used in iPhone, might as well take care of the space hogging yet inaccessible files issue.

    4. Detail view to filter and see all the albums a photo is placed in. The filter should allow advanced queries such as pictures not in Album, or in one album but not in the others.
    5. Ask if user want to Delete from Album or Delete from Library. Currently deleting file in Album seems to only remove it from Album.

    6. A sort by date option to rearrange content of an Album (had an app screwed an album with thousands of pics, too lazy to rearrange them one by one).
    7. Prioritize Photo Taken timestamp over File Created or Last Modified timestamp when sorting.

  28. The whole photos app behaviour in regards of file syncing seems to be poorly designed. Even with iCloud disabled, I cannot get iTunes to delete the photos after import. I have to do this manually, then I tried to export 22.000 images from the photos app, and after the whole process finished, I received a pop up saying that 900 files could not be exported and that only the first 100 where shown. Which files failed to export in a 22k library? Who knows, but Apple is not doing anything simple. It’s very frustrating…

  29. One thing that the App seems to be missing is the possibility to manually and massively add information to the exif data, directly on the original file.

  30. Jamie Vidamour - 6 years ago

    i have a 190GB photo library on icloud and even using only thumbnails i can’t acess it from my 32GB ipad. A bigger issue is that photo’s on the iphone just seems to have issues managing 200,000+ images. Opening up the camera or photos is really slow, even on new iphone 7. I know i’m probably an edge case, but if there was some way i could archive everything up to the end of last year, kind of like in mail where it only shows you a certain number of messages before going off to the server to get the next batch, i would be the happiest man on earth


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Zac covers Apple news, hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour podcast, and created