Out of storage? Can’t take a photo? Use Optimize Storage to free up space on your iPhone

Free up space on your iPhone or iPad with these iCloud Photo Library tricks.

Pictures and video take up a ton of storage space, and for good reason — all that data is what makes your photographs and snaps look phenomenal. But if you’re hitting that pesky “out of storage” error while trying to take pictures on a 16GB iPhone, phenomenal photos become less of a delight — you’d settle for being able to take any photo, at that point.

Luckily, you don’t have to compromise: Apple’s iCloud Photo Library lets you store all your images and video online, freeing valuable storage space on your device. And if you’re still having trouble, we’ve got a few other tips to help get you back to image snapping glory.

How to enable iCloud Photo Library and free up storage space

By default, when you take a photo with your iPhone or iPad, it gets stored on that device. Snap a selfie? Shoot a video? All of it gets locally saved. But photos and videos take up valuable storage space — and it can be a pain to constantly remember to move old photos to your computer (or delete old images) so that you can take new ones.

Instead, Apple offers iCloud Photo Library: If you’ve ever used Dropbox before, it’s like that —When you turn on iCloud Photo Library and are on Wi-Fi, Apple will automatically and securely upload all images and video from your iPhone or iPad to your iCloud account, where it can then be redownloaded and synced to your Mac, iPad, iPhone, or the web via iCloud.com; any piece of tech that has iCloud Photo Library enabled will receive any photo or video present on your other synced devices.

This is a pretty nice sync and backup system to ensure that all your images are on all your devices, but it doesn’t solve the problem about having too many images on your iPhone or iPad: When you delete an image locally, it will try and delete it everywhere if iCloud Photo Library is enabled. Not exactly what the average user wants.

Instead, Apple offers an option called Optimize Storage: When checked, your iPhone or iPad will locally store only the latest images and video you’ve shot or viewed; the others live up in iCloud, ready to be downloaded when you need them — and not taking up storage space when you don’t.

When you try to view or edit an image you haven’t downloaded yet, you’ll see a low-resolution thumbnail along with a white circle in the bottom right corner; as long as you have an internet connection, that image will then download locally to your device, where it can be shared or edited at full resolution. Once you download a certain number of images and video, your device will intelligently sync the oldest ones you’ve viewed back up to iCloud and then delete them from local storage, thus preventing you from having to do manual image and video pruning.

If you think this sounds like a good deal for your iPhone, you’re right: It keeps your local storage happy and saves you from having to delete adorable baby pictures of your cousin.

Here’s how you go about setting up iCloud Photo Library and Optimize Storage.

  1. Make sure you’re on Wi-Fi.
  2. Enable iCloud Photo Library.
  3. Launch the Settings app.
  4. Tap Photos & Camera.
  5. Select Optimize Storage.

Once you do so, iCloud will automatically remove full-resolution versions of older images from your device, storing only the most recent images locally.

The rest of those images and video will continue to be stored safely in iCloud at full resolution and in their native format — JPG, PNG, MOV, or RAW — and continue to be downloaded to all other devices where you’ve selected the “Download and Keep Originals” option. (I highly encourage enabling this full storage option on a device like a desktop Mac, so you always have a full offline backup of your photos.)

It may take a while for these changes to take place, especially if you’re on a slower Wi-Fi network, so don’t despair if your storage space doesn’t initially free up.

Note: Make sure you have enough iCloud storage

By default, Apple gives all users 5GB of free online storage space for your backups, synced data, and photos. But as you might be well aware when trying to clear physical space on your iPhone, 5GB is not a lot of storage. If you truly want to free up space on your iPhone, you’re going to need to increase it in iCloud, as well.

The easiest way is to pay for more iCloud storage, but there are a few other options.

Option A: Clean up your image library: There are a few places in the Photos app you can visit to help spring clean your iCloud Photo Library and reduce its size. First, it’s helpful to browse through your most recent images; if you have any extra selfies or extraneous video you no longer want to keep, that can help. You can even visit their dedicated folders in Photos > Albums: You can find storage space offenders in Selfies, Videos, Slo-Mo, Time-lapse, Bursts, Screenshots, and Panoramas.

Note: You can’t currently delete files solely from iCloud or solely from your device — delete a photo or video from your iPhone, and it’s gone everywhere. Instead, Apple intelligently manages what gets stored on your device and iCloud versus what only gets stored in iCloud.

Once you’ve done your initial sprucing, check the Recently Deleted album; it stores any images you’ve initially deleted for 30 days before getting rid of them for good — in case you’ve had a change of heart. If you just want those pictures gone, however, you can press Select, then Delete All to remove them from iCloud Photo Library.

Option B: Delete your old device backups: In addition to storing your images and video, iCloud is designed to store your iPhone and iPad backups — and if you’ve been using an iPhone for awhile, chances are you might have some old backups taking up valuable space. Here’s the fix as it appears in iOS 10.3 or later:

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Go to General > Storage & iCloud Usage.
  3. Under iCloud, select Manage Storage.
  4. Under the Backups section, select an out of date or old device backups.
  5. Press the Delete Backup button.
  6. Confirm by pressing Delete again. (If your device is still active, you’ll be asked to disable backups for it by pressing Turn Off & Delete.)
  7. Repeat steps 6-8 for any other extraneous backups.

This should help relieve your iCloud account of any extraneous backup files.

Option B: Buy more iCloud storage: If you don’t want to worry about managing your images, and you have a few bucks to spare, I highly recommend ponying up a few bucks a month to increase your storage space.

By default, you get 5GB on iCloud, but you can upgrade to 50GB by paying $0.99/month — enough to save smartphone photos and videos for the typical user — or higher-priced 200GB/$2.99 and 1TB/$9.99 plans. Here’s how you can upgrade.

How to free up more space on your iPhone to take photos

If you have a 16GB or 32GB iPhone, turning on iCloud Photo Library might not be enough — you may need to do some more sprucing on your iPhone to make your Camera happy. Here are a few tips I’ve found that work well to quickly clear up space.

1. See what’s taking up space

Not sure what’s clogging up room on your iPhone? You can check your available space at any time by going to Settings > General > Storage & iCloud Usage > Manage Storage.

Tap Storage & iCloud Usage. You can see the storage near the top of the screen

2. Delete apps

From the storage management section, you can see exactly what apps are hogging your iPhone or iPad’s available space — and, if you want to, delete them right then and there by tapping on the app and pressing Delete App. Be warned, however, that if you delete certain apps, you may delete any saved or stored data, as well.

3. Prune your Messages

By default, the Messages app saves all the gifs, stickers, videos, and other multimedia you share with your friends directly to your device: To get rid of it, you have to manually delete threads from the Messages app. ?But you can prevent clogging from happening in the future: In Settings > Messages, you can reduce the largesse of your messages files by changing how long you Keep Messages (30 days, a year, or forever) and by turning on Low Quality Image Mode, which automatically reduces the file size of potentially gigantic gifs and other photos.

4. Prune your Music

If you don’t use Apple Music (or even if you do but have songs saved offline), your local music library can quickly overwhelm your iPhone. To keep your Adele songs from choking your selfie game, go to Settings > General > Storage & iCloud Usage > Manage Storage > Music, then swipe left on any artist entry you wish to delete.

And if you have an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscription, you can further reduce your storage costs by turning on Optimize Storage in Settings > Music.