Google Photos & gray squares after deleting images

Updated: December 23, 2020

Several weeks ago, I encountered a weird little problem on my One Zoom running Android 10. I copied a bunch of photos from the DCIM folders onto a PC - as I don't use the cloud backup, and I like to keep things clean and tidy. Then, as always, I deleted the photos from the phone, except an old reference image that I always keep in the folder. So far so good.

Then, when I opened Google Photos, instead of its usual routine - whereby it sort of "cleans" itself up, and removes the thumbnails for all the deleted images, I got a canvas full of gray squares. These were not clickable, they never turned into thumbnails (of the deleted photos), or went away. So I set about exploring, trying to find a way to fix this buglet.

Gray squares

Cache and data cleanup

As you can surmise from the subtitle, this is an action we're going to take. Before that, I looked into seemingly less destructive ways to restore normal functionality. This included a fair deal of reading. From what I see, most people who have experienced this problem were actually seeing gray squares for undeleted photos, including those stored in the cloud. In their case, this was the matter of actual (and probably valuable) content missing. In my case, I actually wanted the content gone - no cloud, photos deleting, only the gray squares remaining.

Another point worth making - the reference photo was showing under Sep 19, 2020 - but the actual correct date for this particular photo is December, 2016 - roughly four years ago. Seems like metadata gone wonky and shoddy and whatnot.

So I did the following sequence:

Clear cache

Here, I encountered another inconsistency. Google Photos warmed me that I would lose ALL my content, including photos, settings, whatnot. So for someone who actually has real photos missing, this could be a really bad action. But since I had nothing to lose, I went ahead.

Rebuilding index Index rebuild complete

The issue was fixed. However, none of my other content was deleted. The reference photo was still there. The settings were all correctly preserved and set to their original privacy-happy values. I did have to toggle off a few more things, but these were new features added to the Google Photos application, which I've not tweaked, and have nothing to do with the gray scales or the data cleanup.

Settings 1 Settings 2

There was the usual overload of unnecessary stuff, memories, suggestions, whatnot.

Settings 3 Settings 4

Small technical problems are always a good way to revisit your security and privacy baseline. For example, I've purposefully set Hide photo location data to on - and yet I get a suggestion to add this, because it's supposedly easier to organize and search photos. How so? Of course, if a person never bothers to actually download their images and catalog them the human way, crude location sorting might to do the trick. Similarly, partner account. What? Why? What am I missing here? Share what?

All this feels like buggy code - the photo dashboard showed wrong info, and then the cleanup didn't do what it said it would do. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that nothing was deleted or changed - and after a brief scan of the filesystem, Google Photos re-added the various images and screenshots back into its gallery - but this goes against its own warning message. Maybe it's there so people don't get all indignant if something does get deleted.

Conclusion

The solution to this issues isn't novel, unique or mindblowing in any way. I'm not proud of the fix, but if it helps you, hey, I earned my plum brandy. What is rather interesting is that the problem manifests even with zero cloud integration, and it only affected me after the full Android version upgrade (might not be related) and after file deletion, contrary to pretty much 100% other threads I found online. Furthermore, the dire warning that my storage will be deleted resulted in zero harm, which is good and alarming at the same time.

If you do happen to have large photo collections, you might not be so casual about the deletion function. In that case, my recommendation is - perform frequent manual offline data backups - copy your files to a hard disk, a second computer, whatever, don't just rely on whatever mechanisms and systems the phone provider has made available for you. If your files are safe, you can then safely experiment. And that would be all for this time, folks.

Cheers.

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