iOS Photos – The Dropbox Middleman Method


A common issue with cell phones today is running out of storage space. For many people, the thing that takes up the most space on their phones is photos and videos. On Android phones, you can easily save these to a micro SD card and offload them to a computer. On iOS, the process is a bit trickier. There are many ways to keep your storage usage under control, but I’ll describe the method that I use, the Dropbox middleman method. This method also ensures that if your phone is lost, stolen, or otherwise destroyed, your photos are safe and sound on Dropbox and/or your computer.

The following instructions were last updated for iOS version 9.3.1 on April 6, 2016. To check your version of iOS, open the Settings app and tap on “General,” then tap on “About.” To update, go back to “General” and tap on “Software Update.”

To check what apps are using the most space on an iOS device, go to the Settings app, tap on “General,” then tap on “Storage & iCloud Usage.” Now, under “Storage” (not “iCloud Storage), tap on “Manage Storage.” It will take a while to calculate, but the information is usually useful. At the top of the screen, it will show the Storage Available and the Storage Used. Then below, it will break down the usage by apps.


An Overview

Once a photo or video is taken on an iOS device (iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch), it sits in the Camera Roll taking up space. Depending on your settings, you may also have it in Photo Stream and backed up in iCloud. I don’t use either of these last two features; they’re both disabled on my phone. I find them useless because they take away all of the user’s control, which often results in duplicate photos or, even worse, photos that aren’t backed up properly. A recent article describes how iCloud backs up your photos, but if you ever delete the photo off of your iPhone, it removes it from the iCloud server as well. This makes using iCloud for relieving your iPhone’s storage completely useless. We need a solution that allows us to move the photos off of the phone onto the computer in an easy, quick, semi-automated fashion, but also gives us control over which photos we want to remain on the iPhone even though they are backed up already.

I use Dropbox to easily and automatically copy the photos from the Camera Roll to my Dropbox account, which then syncs with my computer. Once they’re on my computer, I can move them out of the Dropbox folder (because it, too, has a limited amount of storage space) into a more convenient final resting place. Note that once they are in this final resting place, you still should be using regular backups (to either an external hard drive or an online backup service like MozyCarbonite, Crash Plan, or Backblaze). Once they’re in the final resting place, I can go back and clear them out of Dropbox to free up its space, and clear them out of my iOS device’s Camera Roll to free up its space. As you can see, Dropbox is merely a middle man—a convenient way to get the photos from my phone onto my computer.

The Nitty Gritty

Creating a Dropbox account and installing Dropbox on the computer and iOS device

The first thing you’ll need is a Dropbox account. You can get one at Once created, you’ll need to install Dropbox on your computer, and you’ll need to download the Dropbox app onto your iOS device from the app store. If you already have Dropbox, you’ll want to make sure you have at least 1 GB of free space in it; you’ll see why in a bit. I won’t go into the exact step-by-step of installing Dropbox on your computer and your phone, but you can essentially use all the default settings during both installs.

Once you install the Dropbox App on your iOS device, you may be asked if you want to enable “Camera Uploads.” Tap yes.

If you don’t see that prompt, it’s OK. Just open the Dropbox app. Then tap Settings. Then tap Camera Upload. Turn on Camera Upload, and turn on Background Uploading, which requires location services.

One benefit of using the Camera Uploads feature is Dropbox may give you extra free space (on top of the 2 GB or so you get when you create a new Dropbox account). This should give you enough room to start your camera uploads, even if your Dropbox account is already full with other stuff.

On an iPhone:


On an iPad:

Beginning Uploads

Here is what it looks like while it’s uploading:

Also, if you have more photos and videos in you Camera Roll than you have free space in Dropbox, Dropbox will fill up, and the upload process will stop. When this happens, you’ll have to move photos and videos out of Dropbox (covered in the next step), and then go back into the app and resume the upload process.

Copying photos from Dropbox to elsewhere on the computer

Once the upload process has finished (either because all the photos and videos have uploaded, or because Dropbox is full), you will need to go to your Camera Uploads folder in Dropbox on your computer. Select all of the photos (Control+A on Windows; Command+A on Mac; or right click and click “select all”). Once selected, copy them (Control+C on Windows; Command+C on Mac; or right click on them and click “copy”). Now go to the folder you keep all your other photos in on your computer. In Windows, this may be under C:\Users\User_Name\My Photos\. Create a new folder (Control+Shift+N on Windows; or right click and click “New -> Folder”), and name it “iOS Photos and Videos.” Open that folder, and paste the items previously copied (Control+V on Windows; Command+V on Mac; or right click and click “paste”). This will place all the photos and video that were in you Dropbox\Camera Uploads folder into this new folder that’s not in Dropbox.

Deleting photos from Dropbox

Once all those items finish pasting, you can go back into Dropbox\Camera Uploads and delete everything by selecting all and pressing the delete key. This will free up space in Dropbox. If your upload process on your iOS device paused before due to Dropbox’s being full, go back into the app on that device, and it should resume uploading the remainder of the photos. Once that finishes, copy them and paste them into the “iOS Photos and Videos” folder as described above.

Deleting photos off of iOS device

Now that the photos are safely on your computer in a folder that’s not in Dropbox, you can delete them off your iOS device. You don’t need 2,000 photos with you all the time, but you also don’t have to delete every single photo off of it. I keep the important photos that I like to look at from time to time, as well as recent photos that aren’t important, but that I may need to reference in the near future. Photos older than a couple months that I don’t think I’ll need to pull up at a moment’s notice get deleted.

When you delete a photo in the Photos app, it doesn’t actually delete it right away. It holds onto it in case you didn’t mean to delete it. So to fully delete a photo (or a bunch of photos), after deleting them the regular way, tap Albums in the bottom of the screen, then tap Recently Deleted. Tap Select in the top right, then in the top left, tap Delete All. Finally, tap Delete Photos. Now the photos should be fully deleted off your iOS device, and you should have a little more storage available.

From Here On Out

Now that you’ve completed the initial set up, it will be smoother sailing from here. The iOS Dropbox app is supposed to upload the photos automatically as you take them, but sometimes it doesn’t notice that you’ve taken new photos. I recommend opening the Dropbox app once every few days. When you open the app, it will check the Camera Roll for new photos and videos that have not yet been uploaded, and it will upload them. Doing this regularly will ensure that it only needs to upload a handful of photos and videos, rather than hundreds or thousands.

As Dropbox fills up, copy everything in the Dropbox\Camera Uploads folder into the other “iOS Photos and Videos” folder, and clear out the Dropbox\Camera Uploads folder. Depending on how many photos (and, really, videos) you take, you should only have to do this once every few weeks. If your iOS device starts to get full, or if you need to install a new version of iOS and it says there’s not enough space, make sure all your new photos are uploaded to Dropbox, and then delete the unimportant ones off your device.

Remember, a one-minute video on an iPhone 5 (1080p quality) is about 100 MB, whereas a full res photo on an iPhone 5 is only 2 MB. So deleting a few videos will go a lot further than deleting lots of pictures.