Don’t use iCloud to backup your photos

Mar 15, 2022

Jefferson Graham

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Don’t use iCloud to backup your photos

Mar 15, 2022

Jefferson Graham

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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My friend Bill just returned from a family vacation in Costa Rica and shot lots of photos and video on his iPhone, including some killer shots of breakfasts with local monkeys.

No surprise that once he got home, he checked his iPhone storage and found that it was 98% full. Just a few more snaps, and he’d be totally out of room.

His solution? “I’ll just put them all on iCloud, and then delete them off my iPhone,” he told me.

NO, NO, NO!

That’s the worst thing he could do. Because once they’re uploaded to iCloud, the next time it scans his phone for an automatic backup, it will notice that the Costa Rica pix are gone and in turn delete them from the cloud backup as well.

Ever notice the fine print when you try to delete a photo? “This item will be deleted from iCloud Photos on all your devices.”

For pure photo backup, because of these weird, arcane rules, Apple’s iCloud is about the worst place to go. Apple’s help support reps told me over several calls that iCloud is meant for backup of your devices, not just your photo library, and as a way to have the same data available on all your Apple devices, not just the iPhone.

As Apple puts it: “Automatically upload and safely store all your photos and videos in iCloud so you can browse, search and share from any of your devices.” Notice the word backup doesn’t appear there anywhere?

How Apple wants the process to work:

Remember the old Apple ad asking us to “Think Different?” It’s the same thing when it comes to backup. Apple just does it differently. In Apple’s world, you don’t delete images off the phone, you just convert them to low-resolution copies, and download the high-resolution originals from iCloud.

You can make the switch from high to low by clicking “optimize” in the Settings section, under your name at the top of the screen.

We’re all taking more photos and videos than ever before, in higher resolution, and the fact is, we outgrow our phone’s storage all the time. All of us needs to pay more attention to backup strategies. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and SmugMug have different plans (they all charge) that don’t involve deleting your cloud photos if you’ve gotten rid of them from your phone.

There is no free storage available anywhere for more than a handful of photos and videos. And no, Facebook and Instagram don’t count, as images are ground down to super low-resolution and you’ll never get the full res version back.

(Note: SmugMug is sponsoring the upcoming fourth season of my #PhotowalksTV streaming series.)

What Bill should do

If he insists on sticking with iCloud, there is a workaround, but it will take more work.

Obviously, first he could convert all his iPhone photos to low-resolution, upload them and leave the copies on his phone.

Option 2, the workaround way.

Upload the images to iCloud. And double the effort by backing up the same images somewhere else as well. The easiest is a small portable hard drive. A LaCie Rugged drive with 4 terabytes of storage costs around $150, or about $50 more than 1 year of 2 TB service from Apple.

Now that we’re backed up twice, confirm that all the Costa Rica images are there. Then in the iCloud settings, TURN OFF iCloud backup.

This way, iCloud won’t be able to do a sweep of the phone and mirror what it sees—i.e., no Costa Rica pix.

After Bill takes a bunch more new images on his phone, he can manually put them into iCloud by putting iCloud Backup on again.

This isn’t the proper or ideal way to back up photos, however. Nor is it a long-term solution: Apple will actually delete your files from its cloud 180 days after you turn off iCloud backup, so be aware of that.

The Safer Way

Dropbox and Microsoft charge $9.99 monthly for 1 TB of storage, Google $9.99 for 2 TB of storage and SmugMug starts at $9 monthly with unlimited storage. Amazon also offers unlimited photo (but not video) backup at no charge to subscribers of the $139 yearly Amazon Prime shipping and entertainment service. Pure, no-gimmicks online photo backup + at least one hard drive on the desk makes me feel more comfortable. Better would be one drive on the desk, one drive offsite and online backup.

And in case you’re wondering, I have 8 drives on my desk, several more in the closet and I subscribe to SmugMug, Google One and Amazon.

About the Author

Jefferson Graham is a Los Angeles-based writer-photographer, the host of the “Photowalks” travel photography series on YouTube, and co-host of the iPhone Photo Show podcast, a former USA TODAY tech columnist and working photographer. You can find more of Jeff’s work on his websiteFacebookInstagramYouTube, and Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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18 responses to “Don’t use iCloud to backup your photos”

  1. chrbal Avatar
    chrbal

    Please do not turn off iCloud Backup (which the author advises). This will disable the backup of your entire device! If you want to disable only iCloud Photos, you can do that with the on/off switch at the top of the 2nd screenshot for iCloud Photos.
    The author seems to think that iCloud and iCloud Photos are synonymous. There’s also iCloud Drive (just like his suggested alternative file cloud services) among many other iCloud services.
    The author is trying to come up with ham fisted (and regarding disabling device backup, dangerous) ways to try and force iCloud Photos to emulate “delete on phone but keep on cloud” behavior. This will never work. iCloud Photos is a synchronization service, not a backup service. It’s designed to keep things in sync.
    The setting you want is indeed “Optimize iPhone Storage” which will keep a much smaller photo around, and then will just go get the big/original version when/if needed. The original is safe and sound in the cloud, and your phone gets tons of space free’d up with a pretty good local copy.
    iCloud is great for keeping and backing up photos!
    If you want to (have to) manually manage what’s on your phone vs what’s in the cloud, then you should probably just switch to something like Google Photos. But, if you want it to just work, then just turn on “Optimize iPhone Storage”, don’t try to force it to behave like another service temporarily by disabling the backup of your entire device to fruitlessly disable sync for a while (yeesh!), and just go take some photos. Enjoy.

  2. JO_QWERTY Avatar
    JO_QWERTY

    Made the mistake of using icloud photos. I then cleared them to my mac to free space on my phone because I didn’t want to downgrade the resolution. It then uploaded them to icloud into the files section and left “marker” files where they were. I then backed up to an external hard drive, not realising it had done that. My backup overwrote the viable files on the external. Leaving me with the files in the cloud. Thinking that I had backed up, I then deleted the cloud copies. Result: ALL gone with dud files on my external. Fortunately I had the good sense to have an old copy on Dropbox which actually has an unerase function. Moral of the story : DO NOT trust icloud.

    1. chrbal Avatar
      chrbal

      iCloud is super trustworthy. First of all, it doesn’t “downgrade the resolution”. The original is ALWAYS there, safe and sound. IF you have enabled the “Optimize iPhone Storage” option on your phone, then if space is needed on your phone, it will leave a smaller copy (copy!) on your phone as a kind of placeholder. If you take some action that requires the big original (like “Edit”, or “Export Original”, etc.), then it will go snag the original from the cloud back to your phone (transparently in the background) and you go on your merry way. It just works.

      I can’t even follow what you did, but you tried to over think it all while not understanding what was happening.

      If you want an additional copy somewhere else for safe keeping, just export originals to that file-based location. If you want them out of iCloud Photos all together, then you have to make one export to be the new original location, create a back up of that new original location, and then delete from iCloud Photos. But that seems like a lot of work. The only time I do something similar is if I take a lot of Apple ProRAW files and want to edit and manage them with desktop (non-mobile) Lightroom only.

      1. LAknight Avatar
        LAknight

        100%

      2. Bob Lawblaw ESQ Avatar
        Bob Lawblaw ESQ

        Seems like the common theme among folks with iCloud problems is they are trying to work around the system and features. I use it as you do, and have never had a problem. Thanks for responding with good info.

    2. Tom78737 Avatar
      Tom78737

      Folks… You can trust iCloud. Just don’t trust what JO_QWERTY tried to do. He doesn’t understand the process.

  3. John Beatty Avatar
    John Beatty

    Yes, a big difference with “backup” and “storage”. Usually with a backup it is to do just that. Icloud is like a live backup. Storage is a place to put things no matter how much. Use storage to store data and you decide if it is getting full to dump some or get more storage.
    As a photographer, we know one, don’t put photos in one place and sometimes two. Second, use backups of our storage, don’t treat them as the same.
    Third, dump Apple and go Android. Android give you control of all you devices and you decide what to do. plus all android devices as seen as an external hard drive on a PC.

  4. LAknight Avatar
    LAknight

    Terrible article full of holes and out right false info.

    Backups are never made to delete files to safe space any backup overwrites the oldest files eventually.

    You do not understand backups and syncing and should not be writing articles about things you obviously don’t understand.

    This article is terrible advice

    iCloud works just fine.

  5. Jurij Avatar
    Jurij

    Bad article written just to advertise to other companies. I don’t see where the problem is. iCloud, as the author of the article writes, never mentions the word Backup and always as written by the author, it is reported big and big through a banner that the photos will be deleted from every connected device. So where is the problem?

  6. Steve Jobs Avatar
    Steve Jobs

    Imagine being too dumb to use iCloud and advising people to disable it…

  7. Walt D in LV Avatar
    Walt D in LV

    I’m another person claiming this article is horrible advice.
    1. It doesn’t say to turn off iCloud Photos backup. It says turn off iCloud backup altogether. Oh my goodness! How else would your phone be easily backed up?! (Yes, you can definitely back up your iPhone to your computer, but that can be lengthy time-wise, plus if one is on vacation, one may not have their computer with them)
    2. When you have Optimize Storage on, for photos, if and when your phone starts to get full, your phone will only keep a lower quality version of your photos. The original high-quality version will remain available on iCloud. You can download or use it any time you’d like. This fees up a ridiculous amount of space.

    1. LAknight Avatar
      LAknight

      Exactly!

      100%

  8. Chris Avatar
    Chris

    iCloud is a ridiculous and antiquated system.

    1. LAknight Avatar
      LAknight

      It works just fine obviously you don’t use it because if you did you wouldn’t make such a silly comment.

      1. Chris Avatar
        Chris

        I can make a statement like that because I’ve used it. Why would anyone give an opinion if they haven’t used it? That’s absurd.

        1. m4k3m3 Avatar
          m4k3m3

          What exactly makes it antiquated? It does what it’s supposed to do much better than pretty much all of the other options available. Sure, it is a pain to use if you insist on using it wrong (like the author of this article) but that doesn’t mean the service is bad, just that the user is clueless. I don’t even need to repeat the right way to do it as dozens of people in these threads have already done it. It’s not rocket science.

  9. Raja Zakwan Avatar
    Raja Zakwan

    This is why i don’t use iCloud at all on my iphone. How ridiculous it is to be unable to clear your phone of everything you have safely backed up

    1. LAknight Avatar
      LAknight

      It downloads a smaller version to your phone to save space and it keeps the original high-quality version in iCloud do you not understand how it works that’s not how back ups work no back up on the planet is going to allow you to delete something because the next time you delete it it’s gone from the back up.