If you have iCloud Photo Library activated, every photo you take with your iPhone or iPad, and every image you upload to Photos on your Mac from a camera, will appear on all your devices. This may sound appealing but you may eventually come to the conclusion that you aren't prepared to pay for the iCloud storage required, or maybe you are getting a new phone that isn't an iPhone (!) 

There are a few reasons why you might want to download photos from iCloud:

  • You may want to remove photos from your iPhone but when you try to delete them it says they will be removed from iCloud and all your devices and you don't want to do that!
  • You might want to download copies of your iCloud photos to your Mac so that you can back them up - perhaps because you need to reclaim some of the space currently given to your Photo library by archiving old images.
  • Perhaps you want to use a full-resolution version of a photo in a presentation, or to send to a friend or family member. In order for your photos not to take up gigabytes of space on your devices, Apple uploads a full-res version to iCloud while showing a low-res version of on your device. In other words, you may be able to view your photos on your Mac, but if you wanted a high-resolution version you might need to download it from iCloud.
  • You may want to grab a photo from your iCloud Photo Library but you aren't on your Mac. In fact, you could even be on a PC.
  • You want to download full resolution versions of your photos for access when offline.
  • You want to do a full back up of your Photo library (bearing in mind that if you stop using iCloud Photo Library, or paying for iCloud storage, you will want to download your photos first).

In this article we show how to download the images stored in Apple's iCloud to your Mac, whether you want to grab individual or selected photos, make a backup of photos so you can delete them from your iPhone, or download the whole lot in one go so that you can back them up. (We have a full tutorial on backing up your iPhone Photo Library here.)

We'll walk through a variety of ways to get your iCloud photos onto your Mac below.

How to download iCloud photos to your Mac using Photos

If you just want to make sure that you have a full-res copy of a photo on your Mac before deleting it from your iPhone, you can download the photo onto your Mac.

These steps assume you are using iCloud Photo Library and that you have it set up in Photos on your Mac.

To check, go to: Photos > Preferences > iCloud. There should be a tick in the box beside iCloud Photo Library.

If you have iCloud Photo Library turned on, all your photos taken on your iPhone (and iPad) will appear in Photos on your Mac.

  1. Find the photo (or photos) you want to save onto your Mac.
  2. Click on the photo(s) and drag it to your desktop (or into a folder somewhere else on your Mac).  

Now that you have a backup of the photo you can delete the original(s) from iCloud. 

How to download iCloud photos to Mac: Photos app

How to download individual photos from iCloud.com

You can download images from your iCloud on to any Mac or PC, just by logging into your iCloud in a web browser. Here's how:  

  1. Go to iCloud.com on a Mac browser and log in with your usual Apple ID and password. You'll see the usual array of iCloud apps, including Mail, Contacts, Calendar and so on.
  2. Click on Photos to see all the images that are saved in iCloud.

    How to download photos from iCloud to Mac: iCloud.com

  3. Browse to the photo you want to download, and either click (to highlight) or double-click (to open it).How to download photos from iCloud to Mac
  4. Either way, at the top-right you'll see various icons: from left to right, these signify favourite, add to album, share, download and delete. Click the download icon (the cloud with a downward arrow).
  5. Check your downloads folder: the selected image will have appeared there.

How to download photos from iCloud to Mac: Downloads folder

How to download all your iCloud photos to your Mac

As we said above, one of the benefits of using iCloud Photo Library is that it makes it possible to view all your photos on all of your devices. Obviously, it wouldn't be ideal if this meant that you needed a few hundred gigabytes of space available on all your devices. Luckily, you don't need a lot of space to benefit from iCloud Photo Library because you can set it to show low-res versions of your photos while keeping the full-res version safe in iCloud.

However, if you have a lot of storage available on your Mac you might like to have full-res versions of your iCloud photos stored in Photos where they can be backed up for your own peace of mind. In fact, you don't even need a lot of storage on your Mac if you move your Photo library to a separate storage device (we explain how to move your Photo Library to an external hard drive here.)

  1. Open Photos on your Mac.
  2. Click on Photos > Preferences.
  3. Check the box beside Download Originals To This Mac.

Now every time you open Photos on your Mac the full-res versions of photos you have taken will be downloaded on to your Mac.

Note that it's also possible to select all your photos on iCloud and manage or delete them in the usual way.