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Photos in macOS Catalina

The Photos app in macOS Catalina underwent a major upgrade, bringing many iOS 13 Photos features to the Mac OS. And while Photos retains much of the same user interface as recent versions, the entire app feels snappier, while supporting many new features.

Photos Icon

In this Rocket Yard guide, we’re going to take a look at the Photos app included with macOS Catalina.

What’s New in Photos

The new features in Photos run the gamut from minor tweaks to the user interface to the use of machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence that concentrates on data analysis to build analytical models. The models allow the Photos app to identify patterns and make basic decisions. Apple is using machine learning in some interesting ways to bring new capabilities to the Photos app.

Photos Curated with Machine Learning

Photos you take that correspond to an event, such as a birthday party, a vacation, a garden harvest, or a first trip to the beach, are automatically highlighted by the new machine learning system built into the Photos app. Events are sorted both chronologically and geographically. Once sorted, Photos creates a cover photo by picking an image, which it then crops, and sets magnification. These cover photos seem to feature people, faces, or pets, depending on the event. Cover photos can also use video or Live Photos.

The intelligence system Photos uses when making the choices for the cover photo images as well as photo previews (see below) appears to be spot on, at least in testing on my relatively small image library. 

Photos Tab

In previous versions of Photos the Photo category displayed images by the time they were taken, and further sorted them by location. This allowed Photos to keep together images that were taken at one location during a single day.

The Photos category also provides access to a tab that allows you to further refine the view by Years, Collections, Moments, and Photos. The macOS Catalina version of Photos has updated the Photos tab to provide viewing options by Years, Months, Days, and All Photos. 

The new Photos tab in the Photos app.
The Photos item in the sidebar displays your image library content by days, months, or years.

Selecting one of the tabs, such as Years, changes how the images are displayed. As an example, you may find a birthday collection containing all the birthday images taken for each year.

Images can contain Live Photos and videos, which will come to life as you scroll through the collections.

  • Years: View all the images you have taken, organized by year.
  • Months: Images, memories, and locations grouped together by month.
  • Days: Your best photos, Live Photos, and videos from each day.

The Years, Months, or Days categories make use of animations and transitions to separate the timeline. You can use these separations to switch between the available views while keeping your place in the timeline.

All Photos View

Use the All Photos view to display your images and videos on a grid. You can zoom in to see large previews of each image or zoom out to see most, if not all, of your image collection. Images on the grid can be displayed in a square format, with machine learning choosing how to crop the images, or they can be viewed in the original format. 

Live Photos and Videos

Live Photos, as well as videos that are included in your image library, auto-play when they come into view. This produces a dynamic display that can be slightly different each time you open the Photos app.

The Photos preferences is where you can enable autoplay of Live Photos and videos.
You can enable or disable the autoplay of videos and Live Photos in your Photos library from the Photos preferences.

Memory Movies

Memory Movies makes the transition to the Mac. You can view Memory Movies you created on your iOS device, and edit the run time, mood, and title. You can sync changes you make to your iOS devices if you’re using iCloud Photos.

Only the Best Shots

Well, not really; all your shots are available to you, but Photos intelligence is used to pick the best shots in a sequence, hide duplicates while showing the best one, and generally help you keep your image library well organized.

Who’s In That Photo?

Machine learning helps Photos recognize who is in a photo and what is happening in the picture. This allows Photos to create collections, such as Memories, that may highlight a person, event, or both.

Photos User Interface

On the surface, not a lot has changed in the user interface; the same overall structure is present. However, the way images are displayed has changed, producing a much more dynamic and interesting visual representation of your image library.

The Photos sidebar is where you will find most of the options for how your library is viewed. Not all of the sidebar items are present at all times; the following are the most common:

Photos: We mentioned the Photos category in the What’s New section, above. This category gives you direct access to your image library, organized by Years, Months, Days, or All Photos.

Memories: Photos scans your library in the background to gather related photos and images into “memories.” Memories let you rediscover past events you may have forgotten about. Photos will create up to three memories a day, depending on the size of the image library.

You can also curate your own memories from photos in a moment, collection, or album.

Screenshot of Photos Memories view
Photos displays collections of images it creates, producing new memories for you to see on a daily basis.

People: Photos scans your image library for pictures that contain people. When the scan is complete (and just a warning: the first time your library is scanned, it can take quite a while), you can open the People collection and see all of your photos that contain friends, family, or loved ones. You can add names to the people Photos found, and the app will know who’s who as you add more images over time.

When you add new images to the library, Photos scans the images looking for people it already knows and adds them to its collection. You can manually identify photos or make corrections if Photos misidentifies someone.

Places: Photos knows about geography, or perhaps it’s better to say Photos can read GPS information that’s part of an image’s metadata. If your camera is GPS capable (iPhones fit this category), or you’ve added GPS information manually to your images, Photos can display thumbnails on a map, giving you a bird’s eye view of where you took each picture.

You can move around the map, zoom in or out, and change how the map is displayed; as a street/terrain map, satellite map, or grid.

Screenshot of Photos map view
Use Places to display your geotagged images on a map.

Imports: View images you imported into Photos, organized by time.

Recently Deleted: This is your Photos trash. Images you’ve removed will be available here should you wish to recover them.

Shared: This sidebar section will contain albums you’ve shared with others.

Albums: This sidebar section will contain albums you or Photos create. Use Albums as an organizational aid to bring similar photos and videos together. Images can be placed in more than one album, and you can create Smart Albums that automatically include images that match the criteria you set.

Projects: If you’re creating photo books, calendars, cards, collages, or other projects involving images from your Photos library, this is the place to keep track of them. Projects supports the use of third-party apps, many of which are available from the App Store.

Photos Library Tips

You’re not stuck with a single Photos library; you can have multiple libraries although only one can be in use at any one time. Multiple Photos libraries can be helpful for organizing images, allowing you to have separate libraries for home, business, projects, and other categories.

Screenshot of Photos Choose Library window
Photos can still open your Aperture libraries even though the Aperture app no longer works in Catalina.

You can also use the ability of Photos to open libraries to gain access to Aperture libraries that can no longer be used in macOS Catalina. Apple has been warning Aperture users that the non-supported app will soon stop working. With the release of macOS Catalina, that day has finally come. There are a few replacement apps available, but often overlooked is the Photos app.

If you just upgraded to macOS Catalina, Photos may be the app to use to regain access to your Aperture library and all the images it may hold. If you exported your Aperture library before you updated to Catalina, you can use the Photos Import feature to add your Aperture images to your Photos library.

If you didn’t export your Aperture library, you can use Photos to open the Aperture library and then either work with your images or export them for use in another app. Once exported, you can also consolidate the images into a different Photos library.

You can find instructions for opening Aperture libraries as well as combining libraries in the Rocket Yard guide:

How to Combine Multiple Photos Libraries Into a Single Library

Where to Keep Your Photos Library

Photos likes to keep your image library on the same drive as your startup disk. But, that’s just the default. You can store your image library wherever you wish: on the startup drive, on a separate partition, or on an external drive. You can find details in the Rocket Yard guide:

How to Manage, Move Your Photos Library to an External Drive

Just One More Shot

That’s our first look at the Photos app included with macOS Catalina, but it won’t be our last. You can look forward to future guides that look at Photos and other image library apps to help you manage your ever-increasing collection of exciting images, and the not-so-exciting ones, too.

If you use the Photos app, let us know what you think of the macOS Catalina version by leaving a note in the comments section below.

Tom Nelson
the authorTom Nelson
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187 Comments

  • Just got 2020 MacBook Pro and decided to put ALL my photos on an external drive (4TB LaCie). I have 85,000 pics, some 20MB or so.
    1- can I safely keep my external drive attached and MacBook on, since I look at or add pics almost every day?
    2 – PROBLEM – edited pics don’t show up as thumbnail or in my library until I push edit. Then I can see them?
    3 – PROBLEM – “Get Info”, does not allow me to type text to label my shots? Tries to show cursor for typing, but disappears. Sometimes I can paste a title created in another program.
    4 – what happened to “Version 2” label on shots I duplicate? Seems to just create another pic labeled as a number???
    5 – How do I see title of pic under pic in thumbnails? I really liked that!
    6- Does everyone store their entire library in pictures? Sometimes I have to export pics to “Pictures” separately to do some applications.
    7 – How do I migrate a small library made on my new MacBook before I made my main library available in Photos from my external drive? If I just migrate, will it separate the 800 iPhoto shots on it by date or just clump them as one. The rest of the pics total about 20 duplicated and edited from originals. Will they migrate and go next to originals?

    Thank you for your time.

  • I too find it most irritating that Apple keeps changing the way its apps work every time there is an update! For example Photos requires one to go to “Export” to change the format of a photo, where most other apps use “Save As.” Sometimes on the iPhone, the same action requires touching a different part of the screen to accomplish the same thing in different window environments. Why is that a problem? Can you always see the screen in every lighting condition or with/without glasses?

    When the digital world finally matures (not in my lifetime!!) perhaps there will be some standardization for certain actions.

  • Just updated to MacOS Catalina 10.15.7 with Photos v5.0 and now can’t change the Title of photos as i am used to in info window. when i place my cursor in existing title name and press a key the photo opens instead of changing the text. Any help would be appreciated. i have many scans that need titles. Thanks for any help!

    • my problem too! I also would like when I duplicate a pic, that it label it as version 2, 3, 4 etc.
      I have noticed that I can initially add a title after first rebooting my external hard drive, but doesn’t last???
      ARE YOU USING and external hard drive?
      I also cannot see (blank white) edited pics?? Then, when I go to the individual pic and hit edit, the pic comes back???
      Thanks☺️

  • I like to organise my albums into folders, they are easier to find that way. Now I can’t make a new folder, as the option is greyed out. Why? Does anyone have a fix for this? Adding photos to an album is a lot more clunky too. Not impressed, I preferred the previous app.

    • Had the same problem. After fiddling around with it now I have empty (Album) folders in iCloud photos, and the “Shared” folders have disappeared. Tried to upload 12,000 old photos for weeks now and all it does is “sit and spin.” Ready to give up.

    • You’re not the only one, Jane. I have all mine in month folders, within date folders and keep the whole collection an an external drive. I wouldn’t get near the PHOTOS app with my originals!!

  • The update was a surprise to me, and I’m annoyed to find a number of photos missing from the photos displayed: all the photos I took of the reverse side of old pictures with identifying names and dates! Where are those pictures? How do I get them back and associated with the original? Fortunately It didn’t remove such pics from ones taken a few years ago, but the recent ones are gone, somewhere. Hope somebody can help me with this!

  • Sorry for used rough expression, but Apple Pictures general concept is s***, both in macOS and iOS!

    On Mac the necessity to import pictures to the app is a “feature” from the last century and the the mishmash with jpg’s and raw’s.

    On iOS on other hand the missing possibility to Move a picture to an album makes the app unusable for users with some few tousends of pictures. The Add to album is not solving the situation as the picture sits in Camera Roll (now called Recent, why?) and in an Album. There is no marking weather a picture is in an album or not!

    On other hand the apps are fine for editing pictures satisfying even advanced amateurs and compared to other editors with mandatory subscriptions, the Apple Pictures are free!

  • No one at Apple is using Apple Photos. How else can one explain a glaring bug that has lingered at least since the release of MacOS Catalina?

    When selecting groups of photos under Imports for placement into albums, Photos fails internally to deselect previous groups of selected photos. User selects N photos, then File > New Album. The new album then contains not N but N + every o + p + q… photos selected for the previous albums thus created. The selection accumulates until something yet mysterious is done to deselect them. One way is to close and reopen Photos but that seems a bit drastic in the modern age, especially for an Apple app. Another way is to select every photo in the new album, then deselect the new photos, then remove the remaining selected photos from the album. It’s often faster just to close and relaunch Photos.

    • If it is such a problem, then what other app is a substitute for Photos, especially one that will sync with iPhone, iPad, if that is even possible!?
      I’m so angry with Apple for messing up (prefer a different adjective starting with “f”) photos.
      I’d appreciate any suggestions

  • I would like to know how to email photos from the photos app on an iMac, and include the photo’s title and description in the email. I can do that on iPhoto but cannot see how to do it in photo

    • Hi Peter I regularly have to email images with their titles. I do it from the Desktop. Maybe I’m stating the obvious but this is what I do …..

      select the image(s) in Photos,
      go to File then Export,
      set the quality options etc,
      check the box if you want Description etc included,
      then make sure Use Title is set and not Use File Name,
      then Share to Mail.

      Maybe there’s a quicker way …. if so, would be handy to know :-)

      Hope this helps.
      Mary

  • Iphoto won’t accept either screen shots or jpegs, it’s useless and the only people who defend Apple now are the cool-aid drinkers and those who make money off convincing people that Apple is still what it was, plug and play, hassle free etc. Well it’s not, I have a ton of problems with my overpriced and pretty useless macair and will not be buying any Apple products again. I am stock pilling my money, so I can get rid or all Apple tech and replace it with another brand and platform.

  • Actually, I am satisfied with the Photos app itself. My problem is with storing the photos in Apple’s iCloud. My understanding has been that an internet connect would mean that photos on one or the other of my MacBook or my iMac would appear in iCloud and be shared per the latest modification. That isn’t happening and many prhotos never upmost to iCloud and my second computer.

  • OS Catalina has completely ruined my photos experience. Hopefully this is fixed soon.

    May be time to go to microsoft! Apple just stumbles on itself and continually lands on its own face.

  • SO now ALL my photos turn white when I edit them I have to UNdo then REdo. NOW I can’t print some of those photos and NOW blogger and FB don’t SEE those edited photos so I can’t upload them. Come on Apple get it together. This is extremely annoying.

  • App is good , it needs to bug free

    Bug that hit me is

    I use to sync my personal collection of photos in my Mac(school days , some phots are as old as I was not born ) , and I use to sync it using finder sync option , after catalina this feature is not working ( option is there but not working )

  • Does the Photos app give me access to the metadata so that i can add/delete or alter some of the IPTC core data?

    • No, you can’t add or alter IPTC metadata in Photos app. You can add Title, Description, Keywords etc. by right clicking a photo and then Get Info, but these don’t update IPTC or EXIF metadata. You need a metadata editor app e.g. SnipTag or Lightroom.

  • I don’t need artificial “intelligence” to do anything to my photos library. I have intelligence and I can use it to organize MY own photos.

    • Well, that makes the apple application “Photos” useless for image professionals as IPTC & EXIF are critically important when doing anything except a quick view on the iPhone for friends: “Hey Look!: — “Oh Wow” (& that’s it!!)

  • I hate Photos and it’s the primary reason I am staying with the Sierra OS. iPhoto was a better product for those of us who need to save and catalog many, many photos and it would be even better if Apple hadn’t abandoned it. For years Apple made it near impossible to export iPhoto content and metadata to other apps that would have had a better long term support commitment. And all in the name of making the Mac “IOS-compliant.” Those of us who are serious users laugh at the idea of making the iphone our primary platform.

    Now Apple is forcing the issue. In my case, for the long term, I am looking to the very tedious task of manually sorting, re-labeling and exporting over 100,000 photos into traditional folders and formats that I’ll store in a traditional digital asset management directory that is not device or vendor specific.

    This is one of many examples of how Apple has abandoned its early creative user community.

    • Agree by taking user control out of user hand , now user have to believe apple’s photo DB don’t break and continue to work . The day it break , we loose maximum photos or there order. As of now even export has only two option , if user want to sort them using only yyyy-mm-dd, there is no option . I don’t know why Apple is stared screwing up more

  • In the slideshow it no longer plays out videos. Videos play the length photos are shown. The Original slideshow selection does play out videos.

  • I would like to have the sidebar permanently open in photos.
    A real hassle to have to open every time.
    Also I would like to store my photos in folders and not have photos where they are now.

  • when adding a photo from facebook photos opens and it never used to. I cant find anywhere to turn this function off