How to delete photos from Mac but not iCloud

Apple’s tools for storing, sharing, editing, and syncing photos have undergone numerous changes over the years, and it can be hard to keep up with them. From iPhoto and Aperture to the Photo Streams that allowed you to sync recent photos and all the way through to Photos and iCloud Photo, it’s not just the names that have changed. Many of the changes have been brought about to better align Mac and iOS photo tools, and now that they are aligned, there should be some stability. However, if you regularly take photos on your iPhone and have noticed that they eat up space on your Mac, you may be wondering how you can delete those photos from your Mac but not from iCloud. We’ll show you how to do that.

What is iCloud Photo?

iCloud Photo is the syncing tool that allows photos you take on an iPhone or iPad (or screenshots on your Mac) to appear on all your devices. That’s usually very helpful because it saves you from having to transfer them manually. However, it can also mean that the photos end up taking up lots of space on your Mac, even if you hardly ever use Photos. Thankfully, Apple provides a few options to allow you some control over how photos sync, and by using those, you can minimize the space they take up on your Mac.

How to free up space on your Mac without deleting photos

If the reason you want to delete photos from your Mac is to free up space on your startup disk, there are other options. For example, did you know that your Mac accumulates junk files at a remarkable rate as you use it? These junk files include temporary files that should have been deleted automatically but weren’t, cache files, files left behind by applications you removed, and language files for languages you don’t need.

Another excellent way to free up space is to move the largest files on your Mac, as well as those you haven’t opened in a long time, to an external drive. Tracking down all these files and moving them manually is time-consuming and laborious. However, you don’t have to do it manually.

CleanMyMac X’s System Junk and Large & Old Files modules can do it for you. They’ll track down all the junk files, along with the largest files and the oldest ones on your Mac, and allow you to delete them with a click or review what it has found and choose what to delete yourself. You can download CleanMyMac X for free here and try it for yourself. Just follow these steps:

  1. Open CleanMyMac X.
  2. From the sidebar, click System Junk > Scan. You can now select files for removal by clicking Review Details or hit Clean right away, and the app will delete what it has smartly selected.
  3. Now, go to Large & Old Files > Scan.
  4. Select files for deletion, choose the removal type, and click Remove.
CleanMyMac X - System junk scan complete

How to delete all photos from Mac but not iCloud

There are several ways you can delete photos from your Mac but not from iCloud, and we’ll show them all. The first two methods we’ll show you will remove photos from your Mac completely. The third method retains low-resolution versions but frees up space by removing high-resolution photos. You can then download high resolution versions when you need them.

1. Turn off syncing

The first method is to turn off syncing. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Click on the Apple menu, choose System Settings, and then click your name in the sidebar.
  2. Choose iCloud.
  3. Scroll down to Photos and select it.
  4. Turn off ‘Sync this Mac’ and quit System Settings.

Now that you have turned off syncing, changes you make in Photos on your Mac won’t be synced with iCloud, so you can safely delete photos.

  1. Open the Photos app.
  2. Click the Edit menu and choose Select All, or press Command-A.
  3. Click Delete, or right-click on a photo and choose Delete ‘xxxxx’ Items.
  4. Click Recently Deleted in the sidebar, then authorize with your password or Touch ID if requested.
  5. Click Delete All in the top right corner of the window.

2. Move your Photos library

The second option is to move your Photos Library to an external disk. You can then continue syncing with iCloud, but the photos will not be on your Mac’s hard drive. When you want to use Photos on your Mac, just plug in the external drive. It’s important you don’t use Photos without the drive connected, though, because your Mac will create a new Photos library and sync with iCloud.

  1. Choose an external USB or Thunderbolt drive with enough space for your Photos library and make sure it’s formatted as APFS or macOS Extended (Journaled).
  2. Connect the drive to your Mac.
  3. Go to your Pictures folder in your Home folder (or wherever your Photos Library is stored).
  4. Drag the Photos Library from there to the external drive.
  5. When it’s finished copying, drag the original Photos Library to the Trash and empty it.
  6. Hold down the Option key and click on Photos in the Dock to open it.
  7. When prompted, choose the Photos Library on the external disk.
  8. When Photos has opened and you can see your Library, click the Photos menu and choose Settings.
  9. In the General section, click Use as System Library. If the button is grayed out, the Library is already designated as your system library.

Now, whenever you open Photos, it will open that Library and sync with iCloud. But the photos will no longer be stored on your Mac.

3. Optimize space on your Mac

This method doesn’t delete photos from your Mac, but it does delete the high-resolution versions, keeping only low-resolution copies. That will free up lots of space on your Mac and mean you can still use Photos without moving the Library to an external disk. You can then download high-resolution versions when you need to edit them. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Open Photos, click on the Photos menu, and choose Settings.
  2. Go to the iCloud tab.
  3. Select the box labeled ‘Optimize Mac Storage.’
  4. Quit Settings.

Your Photos Library can take up a lot of space on your Mac, and knowing how to delete all photos from MacBook but not iCloud will help if you decide to free up that space. Follow the steps above to do that, or choose one of the other options for clearing space.

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