Archiving Google Photos offline to free up space

April 2, 2023

Note: updated on December 30, 2023.

If you backup your phone photos to Google Photos automatically, and you don’t pay for some kind of Google One subscription, you’ll run sooner or later into the 15 GB storage limit of your Google account.

15 GB is not a lot, especially when you consider than my Pixel 6a takes pictures that are easily 3 to 5 MB each. 😬

To be fair, if you want convenience and you value your time, Google One’s $20/year for 100 GB is a pretty damn good deal. Same goes for the higher options with more storage if you need.

But if you don’t like recurring bills like me, and you find it overkill to keep that many old photos in the cloud, read on.

My protocol for archiving photos away from Google

In order to save space, I’ll periodically archive my old photos outside of Google Photos.

This protocol is designed to archive photos from the phone that are backed up to Google Photos, but preserving the phone’s original arborescence. Google Photos doesn’t have the path information, only the filename, so backing up from Google Photos directly would not work for this use case.

The downside is that this doesn’t cover the case where you have photos in Google Photos that are not on your phone.

Also it’s designed for a single phone backing up to a Google Photos account that’s used solely for that device. Multiple devices sharing the same Google Photos is not supported.

With that said, here’s how I do it.

1. Sync phone to computer

First, I use Syncthing to sync the contents of my phone to a hard drive connected to my computer.

I configure Syncthing as “send only” on my phone, and “receive only” on my computer, and I configure it to sync the root directory of my phone (which can be tricky, but possible).

After the sync is complete, I turn off Syncthing from my computer, to make sure no incremental updates will happen during the archive process.

2. Copy synced folder to archive

For this example, let’s assume I synced my phone to a /Volumes/Syncthing/Phone directory, and I want to archive my old photos in /Volumes/Archive/Phone.

I’ll run the following command to copy the phone contents to my archive directory (but copying from Finder also works):

cp -a /Volumes/Syncthing/Phone/ /Volumes/Archive/Phone/

Note: the reason I copy the whole phone contents is because I want to catch all photos and videos that are backed up to Google Photos. Typically, apps like Messenger, Whats App, Signal, etc. all store photos in different directories, so syncing only DCIM/Camera would not be enough.

If the target directory already exists, this will append new files to it (and overwrite them if a file already exists there)!

Also if the directory already exists, the trailing slashes are important.

Note: if both directories are on the same filesystem, and you’re not appending to an existing archive, you may use mv instead, but then make sure to recreate the Syncthing directory and put back its .stfolder (required for Syncthing to recognize it) and .stignore if you have one!

3. Double check I’m not missing anything

If you have photos that are only on Google Photos but not stored on your phone storage, the previous step didn’t archive them. You need to make sure to download them from Google Photos in the first place.

Because there’s no way from Google Photos to find all photos that are not locally saved to a specific device (other than going through them one by one), that’s where I use the Google Photos API to make sure I’m not missing anything.

This will get technical, so if you don’t care about this part, feel free to skip to the next step.

First, we need a Google OAuth token with access to Google Photos. We’ll reuse my script from this other article for this, just replacing the scope with Put it in a token.mjs file and run it with node token.mjs, this will go through the OAuth process and after you complete the authentication, will log the access token that we’ll use in the next script.

The following script can go in photos.mjs and be run with node photos.mjs, reusing the token from the previous step.

import fs from 'node:fs/promises'

const accessToken = 'YOUR_ACCESS_TOKEN'

let pageToken = ''
let pages = []

do {
  const url = '' + encodeURIComponent(pageToken)


  const response = await fetch(url, {
    headers: {
      'Authorization': `Bearer ${accessToken}`

  const json = await response.json()


  pageToken = json.nextPageToken
} while (pageToken)

await fs.writeFile('pages.json', JSON.stringify(pages, null, 2))

This will fetch all pages from the Google Photos API and dump them in a pages.json file.

From there, I like to use jq to extract the filenames:

cat pages.json | jq -r '.[].mediaItems[].filename' > filenames

Then I use the following script to check that each filename is indeed present in my archive:

cat filenames | while read file; do find /Volumes/Archive/Phone -name "$file" | grep -q . || echo "Missing $file"; done

This will print the name of every file that’s on Google Photos and not part of the backup. If any, you can find more details in pages.json including a Google Photos link to find out what photo it is that needs to be downloaded.

Once everything is confirmed backed up, we can continue.

4. Delete everything from Google Photos

Not necessarily everything, but well, everything you want to delete to free up space.

You can do it from your phone, or from Google Photos on your computer, or on the web, although in my experience, I would recommend doing it from the phone.

When deleting a lot of photos from the web version, this tends to confuse the phone’s syncing algorithm and I’ve ended up with a bunch of photos being re-uploaded and somehow duplicated and it was kind of a mess to clean up.

It tends to just work when deleting from the phone. The only downside is that the app doesn’t make it easy to select a whole bunch of photos at once, I just have to hold my thumb for a minute with the super slow scroll until everything is selected.

Note: at that point I like to take note of how many photos I deleted, so I can double check the number in a later step.

5. Sync phone to computer again

Again with Syncthing in my case, I do a sync following the deletion.

Note: you may want to exclude .trashed-* files in your .stignore, otherwise the photos you deleted will still be synced while they’re in the trash.

Now in our example, /Volumes/Syncthing/Phone contains just the photos we decided to keep around in Google Photos, while /Volumes/Archive/Phone contains all the photos (also including the ones we kept around).

On top of that, both directories contains all other files from the phone, that are not managed by Google Photos.

Note: this process is not very efficient if you have a lot of files that are not photos and videos, e.g. music and downloads. You may want to ignore those directories in the earlier steps to avoid copying them around unnecessarily!

6. Remove the overlap

To avoid that duplication, we can remove all files from the archive that are still in the Syncthing directory. That is, all the photos/videos we kept, as well as all the files in the phone storage that are not managed by Google Photos.

(cd /Volumes/Syncthing/Phone && find . -type f) | while read f; do rm -v "/Volumes/Archive/Phone/$f"; done

Now, the archive directory only contains what we removed from Google Photos (and from the phone), but there’s no duplicates!

Bonus: we can remove all empty directories with:

find /Volumes/Archive/Phone -type d -empty -delete

At that point, I also count the number of files from the backup and makes sure it matches the number of files I deleted from Google Photos earlier:

find /Volumes/Archive/Phone -type f | grep -v DS_Store | wc -l

7. Profit!

You can now enjoy all the space you freed up by archiving your photos and videos away from Google Photos!

Repeat every time you’re close to running out of storage. 😉

What about motion photos?

Google’s motion photos are the equivalent of Apple’s live photos: a photo that also contains a short video of the “moment” it was captured.

What happens to those during our archival process? Well, it’s complicated.

In short, don’t worry, they’re backed up and the little video that goes with the motion photo is not going to be lost, but you won’t be able to watch the “live” part anymore, you’ll only see the still picture.

The reason is that Google stores the MP4 video part at the end of the JPEG file. This doesn’t prevent displaying the image, but there’s currently no photo viewer other than Google Photos that knows to extract that MP4 section following the JPEG data, and display it properly.

So if you want to see the live part of a motion photo, you’ll have to re-import it to Google Photos.

Alternatively, you can extract the MP4 part of the motion photo to a different file, which you can do by using a script like detailed in this post.

Note: if you use the script from the above post on macOS, you’ll need GNU grep in order find the byte offset of the MP4 header.

This means you’ll have to brew install coreutils and replace grep by ggrep in the script for it to work.


Archiving photos away from Google Photos is not trivial, but possible.

If you care about not losing any of your photos, I recommend double checking at every step that you’re not accidentally forgetting any file.

When done well, this allows to periodically free up some space from your Google account without actually having to get rid of your photos and videos! They’ll still be available on your archive hard drive if you want to. Your old photos are not as handy as if they were in the cloud, but you know you can access them if needed.

Overall, you’re probably better off just paying Google to increase your storage, but if you’re really motivated, I hope you can find inspiration in the process I described in this post.

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