tl;dr this long post goes into specifics of (1) how to fully delete all photos from Google Photos storage, and (2) how to re-upload your photos to take advantage of Pixel free storage tier.
Read this if you
- are an advanced user,
- use Google Photos,
- don’t want to pay for extra Google Storage,
- want to download all your photos,
- or want to delete all your photos.
- and want to re-upload everything via a Google Pixel phone.
If you don’t want to get your hands dirty or get into complicated settings, I strongly recommend you upgrade to a higher tier Google Drive storage. Go to https://drive.google.com/settings/storage and select the 100 Gb or 1 Tb storage options. They are very good and you get to upload a ton of files for backup, sharing and collaboration. I feel that Google storage tiers are way more worth it than iCloud or Dropbox storage. Please use this. Also, safe and secure backup for your most important documents is way better than what most home users are able to do at home.
Google Pixel’s free photo storage
So I have a new Google Pixel 2 phone, which is absolutely awesome and I would highly recommend to everybody. This phone comes with free unlimited Original quality Google Photos storage to encourage you to take advantage of the super awesome camera. Standard tier by Google only offers free High Quality storage which means the image file is compressed and resized by their special algorithm. If you are a photogeek and love your original files dearly, you would want to avoid this. Although I will also recommend turning on the standard High Quality storage for all your family members if they do not have any other storage or backup available. It is a lifesaver for people who lose their phones or break their phones. The only reason ever to disable this is if you know it is a totally disposable phone or they have bandwidth/wifi issues. Otherwise, backup always on.
Photos from other sources
One interesting thing about the Pixel free storage is that any photos/videos uploaded through the Pixel phone is considered as eligible. This means that photo doesn’t have to be taken by the Pixel. It can be via your DSLR/hand held camera/other phones/previous phones etc etc. What if you have a ton of photos uploaded previously via other phones or uploaded via the web? They will still count as paid storage, unless…
So my plan is to download all my photo/video files out of Google Photos, and then reupload them via my Pixel phone. Fairly simple in theory, but rather tedious by hand, with caveats. I can understand why Google wouldn’t want to make this too easy with just a click of a button, but I guess the extra work I put into it is a fair sacrifice for this policy loophole they have left in place. Thanks Google. And really, the free storage is worth a fair bit of money as you’ll never get this with Apple or Dropbox. Google Photos is fully backed up, redundant storage, global fast availability, plus AI/ML features.
I will now explain through the steps to take, and things to watch out for. Depending on the amount of files you have, your timing and effort will vary considerably.
Step 1. Check current storage:
Go to https://drive.google.com/settings/storage
Log in under your Google account and see how much Total Storage you used. If you have plenty of free space, you might want to skip this whole exercise. Again, this is an advanced class.
Click on View Details. You will see a breakdown of Drive, Gmail and Photos storage. That’s as much information as you’ll get. Drive storage is Google Drives files, you can manage that from drive.google.com, Gmail storage are your email files, you can trim your emails if need be. Finally Google Photos storage shows the number are we are looking for here. I started out with 130 Gigabytes used by Google Photos, which is way over the usual free 15 Gb for normal Google accounts.
(note that my final downloaded amount was higher than what was shown in storage used. I believe that’s due to extra files that were stored for free and didn’t count towards storage.)
Step 2. Download all your photos
We have to retrieve the original sized files, in order to re-upload them. There are some ways to do this.
Option A. Use Google Takeout
This is a fairly convenient way that Google created to allow people to take out all their info if they want to leave Google services forever.
- Click “Select None”
- Choose “Google Photos”
- Choose “All Albums”
- Go down to the bottom, click “Next”
- Click through the options – you can usually leave it to defaults
(If you know what you are doing, you might want to select larger file sizes if your computer can manage it, makes it a bit easier to work with. I had almost 20 x 10Gb files.)
Option B. Use Google Drive
Under Google Drive, you can select to enable to show the Photos shortcut. This enables you to see your Google Photos files inside Drive. It’s sorted by year, but not much more is visible. But it is sufficient to run downloads.
I selected one year at a time, and ran the download. I actually found this method better than using Takeout as I get more manageable files for this purpose. For huge years, I selected 3 months at a time to make the files smaller. Note that it splits into 2gb files by default, you cannot change this.
I still kept both Takeout and Drive downloads as I was afraid of losing files. Make sure to have sufficient hard disk space to do all this. If you had to choose one, I would go with Drive download. Make sure all the years are showing up though.
Option C. Use web photos
You should be able to select entire months for download. I had 11 years worth to download, so I did not want to select 11*12 times, I prefer to use Option B.
Step 3. Delete all current files on Google Photos.
Option A. Delete via Drive
Some people suggest deleting it via Drive. That did not seem to work for me. While the folders seem to disappear, the photos still keep showing up both on photos.google.com and on my Android app. Not Recommended.
Option B. Delete on web photos.google.com
In the web, there’s no super shortcut to do this, but some people suggest click-n-drag to select all photos and delete. You can do this to a certain extent – probably to hundreds or something, but it wasn’t good enough for me. It could not handle 1000s or 5000s reliably. Not Recommended.
Option C. On web.
You can also select Full Days at a time. While browsing the photos, click on the date field and it will show a selector. This is a good way to delete Entire Days.
Option D. On Android App.
On the app, you can do a few things: select days, ‘click n drag’, and also select full months. Unfortunately you cannot select full years, but selecting full months works well for me. Caveat: if you have huge months with eg 2000 photos from a trip, it won’t seem to delete fully. This is either due to caching or trash size limit or cap of 500 photos per delete or something else.
To get around this, I find it more reliable to use option C’s deletion of entire days to be better for heavy days. Overall I used a mix of C and D to fully clear all my photos. Keep emptying the trash / recycle bin as well. It takes hours to do this for 11 years worth of photos. Oh Google why do you do this to people.
It’s kind of rare you would ever want to fully delete all your precious photos though.
Step 4. Check
For me, there were still remaining files. I left it overnight to see if the servers were still syncing, but it was still there next morning. I really do not see any more photos under web or Android app. I concluded that the remaining images must be from Google Maps Review contributions or Google Maps Local Guides contributions or Google StreetView contributions. Depending on how you do the upload, these might ‘cost’ you real storage. (If you want to get really into this, go to the Local Guides forums where they will explain to you in excruciating detail).
So what do I do? I didn’t want to remove those photos, even if I wanted, it’s too tedious. The easiest way to do this is to ask Google Photos to compress all your existing remaining media into free High Quality version. That’s plenty good enough for free contributions that I’m not paid for. To do this, go to web/android Google Photos and find the compress function. It will convert all original full sized images into free storage images. It took 2-3 hours for me, and it was a long time before my storage showed a decreasing amount. Check back after awhile and it should now show that Google Photos is using 0 Gb of storage. Note that this is a one-time thing, it should not affect future uploads. Future uploads are determined by the upload quality and you should use Original Quality for Pixel uploads.
Step 5. Re-upload all your photos
Here’s another tedious bit with multiple steps. This takes a lot of time too.
5A. Expand/Extract/Unzip your downloaded files.
5B. Copy them onto your Pixel phone, into the DCIM folder. You can use Windows Explorer. (if you’re more advanced you can use ADB to do this. “adb push origin destination works” well)
You can probably copy them into other folders too, if you wish. I actually created DCIM\Upload in order to not confuse them with newer photos in DCIM\Camera
I recommend you copy like 10 to 20 Gb max at a time, let the phone digest it, upload it, then remove it and copy the next batch. Too many and Photos will strain. Try to limit it to 2000 items too. The upload speed isn’t terribly fast, I recommend leaving a batch of 2-3000 photos overnight to upload, on unlimited home wifi so you don’t get a hefty bill or drained battery.
5C. Let it scan
The reason is that when Google Photos see a huge new batch of files, it will immediately get to work by scanning all the new files, indexing it, checking which files are already backed up, preparing for upload, and then starting the upload. You can see this in the status bar on the top of the photo stream. It’s not as super charged as the web uploader, or the desktop backup uploader. After all, this is designed to run on the phone and not kill your mobile data or battery. So don’t overload it or it will likely hang. I tried a batch of 10,000 photos, with some duplicated folders, and maxed out my phone storage. It didn’t run. I had to delete and redo.
(Edit: I recommend batches of 1000 to 2000 photos at a time, which I feel is a reasonable amount for a Pixel 2 XL. I had success up to 4-6000 photos, but it took really really long to parse and upload (~12 hours or more), which was quite disturbing. )
If you’re unsure or stuck, you can Clear Data on the photos app. This helps a bit, but avoid doing this too much it takes a lot of time to re-cache.
5D. Wait till gphotos app shows backup completed
5E. Run Google Photos Android app > “Free up my storage”. This will help you to clear off files quickly.
5F. Checked for missed files.
I discovered there were some files left over after the “free up my storage”, and I wasn’t sure whether there were uploaded successfully. Simplest way for me is to move them into another separate folder, which triggers their auto upload again.
5G. Delete remaining files and folders as required.
5H. Repeat next batch
So the routine is:
Select batch 1 folders > Transfer to Pixel > Let it scan and upload > Wait until it shows Backup complete > Run Google Photos “Free up my storage” > and then check for files that did not upload. > Delete completed files or folder as necessary > repeat next batch.
After this, you should have 0 Gb used in Photos, as long as all future images go through the Pixel phone. I expect this will take me 1 week to complete the whole exercise. Make sure you have a lot of unlimited high bandwidth wifi to do this.
Edit: It took me about 2 weeks from start to end, doing all the above steps in part each day. It might be faster for you if you didn’t have to redo some wrong steps like I did, or if your files are fewer. If your storage space is running out soon, you might want to start early. If your gdrive space is 100% filled, you might have difficulty receiving emails.
You’ll probably need to redo your albums, and sort out your new old files after all the re-uploading. You will receive a huge amount of auto-awesome creations – do turn off gphotos notifications otherwise you’ll be spammed.
Extra tip, you can turn off wifi on your phone while you are copying files from PC to phone, that will stop gphotos from trying to upload immediately. I don’t like the phone processor and file storage trying to do two heavy tasks at the same time.
P.S. So it took me 1.5 months total to do all of that and get all my photos uploaded. Whew!