Have you ever seen what is in your Uploads folder?

Have you ever looked inside your “uploads” folder, the place where all your media such as images get stored with each upload? I’m about to show & tell what happens when you upload images to your media library with default WordPress media settings in place. You might be shocked at what you see…

However, before I get into the details of this topic, I should note that this will mostly apply to people who do not need multiple thumbnail sizes for their website, but unaware of what happens if you don’t change your Media Settings.

Media Settings

Let’s talk about media settings that are found in your WordPress dashboard. Most will know what and where they are, but if you don’t, you can find them by going to Settings >> Media.

Once you arrive there, you will probably see something like this:

media settings

These are the default media (thumbnail) sizes that will be applied to every single image you upload to your website. This will of course depend on the size of your original image being uploaded. For example, if you upload a photo that is at least 1200 pixels, WordPress will auto-generate thumbnails of that photo in the sizes that you see in the settings. In total, you will get 4 sets:

  1. The original size photo
  2. 150×150 pixel thumbnail
  3. 300×300 pixel thumbnail
  4. 1024×1024 pixel thumbnail

Another example is if you upload an 800×800 photo, you will get each thumbnail created, except the 1024 pixels versio because thumbnails are not resized to be bigger than the original.

Let’s Look in Our Uploads Folder

I will take you through a couple of scenarios based on the user and how they setup their WordPress website in relation to media settings. We will also take in account that the user uploads many images on a regular basis. If you are wondering where this folder is, you can find it here by logging in with your FTP or File Manager from your hosting panel and going to where your WordPress installed files are. Look for something that has this path in it:


Note You might see additional folders that go deeper if your media is organized in dated directories.

Scenario 1

This person left their media settings intact and when they upload 10 photos, a thumbnail of varying sizes are created. Photos that this person uploads are usually for featured images, images for inserting into post content, images used for pages, widgets, image and slider plugins. But let’s look at what happens with these 10 photos…

media settings thumbnails

Scenario 2

Now let’s look at another person who updated the media settings by making each one zero(0) before they start to upload photos to the media library. This person also uploads 10 photos.

media settings thumbnails2

As you can see in both scenarios, the first person gets many more images while the second person only has the original photos they uploaded.

The Problem with Multiple Unused Thumbnails

This will depend on what someone needs because you might need extra thumbnail sizes for your website while others don’t. There are many people who are unaware of what is happening behind the scenes and could create potential problems. Let’s examine a few of them…

  • Limited Disk Space – You may have a hosting package that has a limit on disk space, so filling up your site with thumbnails that will never be used will mean getting a nice message or email from your host saying you need to upgrade your package…or worse, you get billed for the overage of space without knowing it.
  • Backing Up Website – Just like your web host disk space, when you perform website backups (which you should be doing), your backup file is going to get HUGE over time.
  • Looking for an Image – Not everyone does this, but some will go into their uploads folder to find something specific, or to simply clean house of rogue images; you want to make sure you would only remove those and not one that is being used. Looking through a sea of thumbnails could become a monstrous job.

When are Auto Generated Thumbnails Useful?

As previously mentioned, there may be times that you will require multiple thumbnails. I doubt you need more than a couple, but here are a few reasons some may need them.

  • Galleries – You like to create galleries and need thumbnails to be a specific size (using the Crop thumbnails to exact dimensions setting).
  • Image Layout – There may be specific layouts your page requires, such as a “grid layout”.
  • Having Options – When inserting images into a post or page, you may want to have the option of choosing the size of photo without having to crop, size, and upload each one you use.
  • Custom Post Type – You might be using a custom post type plugin that needs the thumbnail options.

I should also mention that some themes will be coded to add new or additional thumbnails. My Aberration and Senses themes will create at least one new thumbnail size for the blog grid and gallery post format layouts. They also include the option to enable or disable that functionality.

Managing Your Media Library of Images

There are advantages and disadvantages of using (or not using) the media settings; you will have that choice. Should you require thumbnails to be auto generated, I would recommend that you think carefully as to what sizes you will be consistently using. When you’ve made your decision, then “only” set that size in your media settings. Just because there are three sets to fill out, you don’t have to fill in all three.

If you don’t need any thumbnails generated, visit the media settings and make them all zeros (0). Once done, create the thumbnail size yourself and then upload it.

What if You Already Have a Massive Set of Thumbnails?

If you are one who discovers a massive archive of thumbnails and want to get rid of all those that are not being used or they are not needed, you have a few options to clean house:

  1. Manually remove your images from the Media Library by deleting them
  2. Using a plugin that will let you regenerate thumbnails with the images you need. Some may even give you the option to customize the sizes you want.
  3. Using a plugin for cleaning up your media library
  4. Of course, there’s always the option of not allowing the extra thumbnails to be created from the start 🙂

Before you ask what plugins I can recommend for this, I did a quick look online as I was writing this, and although there are some, none stood out as exceptional. I would suggest searching the WordPress.org website for plugins that handle media library image clean up or management.

Create Your Own Thumbnails

Although I prefer to make my own thumbnails, I like to make my own by cropping, sizing, and uploading them as I need them. This gives you more control when you create your own thumbnails.

What About the Two Checkboxes in Media Settings?

Aside from the media settings for creating the different sizes, you will find two checkboxes:

  1. Crop thumbnail to exact dimensions (normally thumbnails are proportional)
  2. Organise my uploads into month- and year-based folders

The first one is if you need your “Thumbnail Size” to be cropped to the exact dimensions you set. This only applies to the thumbnail size setting, not the others. If you want the thumbnail to be proportional, then uncheck the box. Be aware that when you enable this, your thumbnail will have cropped areas removed from the image and could affect the overall subject matter of your photo.

The second checkbox is one that I always uncheck. I prefer all of my images and media to be placed in one location only. This makes it much easier to go in to one folder instead of a deep set of folders (directories). Having my media in one folder only makes it easier to find images when I set my explorer or FTP to show as thumbnails, or just a text based list of files.

IMPORTANT If and when you manage anything with your Media Library, make sure you create a full site backup first! If something goes wrong, you’re safe.


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