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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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  • I DO NOT use iCloud for my photos. I have many albums in Photos/Mojave, what will happen to my albums when I upgrade to Catalina? Will they still be there?

  • I hate the new photos. I want to look at all my photos separated by month and then day. I do not want my computer deciding which of my photos I can see and putting them in a cutesy design. How can I get it back to the old format (pre Catalina)?

  • Since I uploaded Catalina my new photos don’t go into my already there ‘all photos’
    To share in groups or on my page in fb I can’t seem to use the ‘share photo’ button as they don’t come up.
    Please help

  • PHOTOS SUCKS – I can’t edit my photos they white out so I have to go back and DELETE all my edits in order to get my photos back. PHOTOS closes intermittenly for no reason. PHOTOS deletes photos off my card AND THE DELETE PHOTOS IS NOT CHECKED. I have jumped through all the hoops to fix it including establishing a new library and I still have white out photos when edited. It also changes the name an album I establish. ON MACBOOK PRO. Canon Camera.

  • I have been taking pictures digitally since 1998 and have put them in albums by locations or by subject matter. I have also digitized a lot of slides or B/W photos and also grouped them in the same categories .
    Now if I want to see pictures from Hagerstown,MD I cannot find them!!! Thank God my method of arranging my photos is the same on my iPad and I can find my pictures!!!! How can I fix this on my Mac mini

  • I have been going through some of my photos and adding titles and descriptions. For some photos which belong to a group I want to be able to add the same description, but find I can no longer cut and paste into the description box. This is very frustrating. It means anything I want to cut and paste has to go into the title box, which makes the titles far too long. It would be great if I could cut and paste into the description box as I could earlier.

  • I upgraded to Catalina and now Im having a hard time Downloading my photos to the photos app on my Mac.

    Please help….

  • As our iPhones get better cameras and wanting to utilize that feature takes more space so we get more storage space on our phones to store better resolution images/videos. The storage on Macs also needs to be increased to allow us to backup all our clicks…but no matter what we do using the Photos app is still a MESS!
    1. If we only backup to one library – that has to be stored on the local drive of the Mac so that takes up a lot or almost all of our available space with time.
    2. If we backup to external drives and separate libraries, its still a pain to sit and find the one photo we’re looking for when we need it.
    iCloud Photos is not an option as it took me a long while to retrieve my full resolution images back … very often there are multiple users for our iPads hence we cannot turn on iCloud Photos and the Mac storage space eventually gets limited no matter what we get.
    Google Photos is an excellent option as we can see and download what we need..better yet we can share from google photos to messages without downloading the image onto our phones.
    OneDrive + Dropbox are also great for storing additional backups of our images folder wise or date wise.
    But rest assured Mac OS needs a better Photos app to handle multiple libraries or folders on external storage devices and not freeze up with good high speed configuration Macs and the high res images!!!

  • Can somebody help me how to upload from the Photos app in macOS Catalina to Facebook. I don’t wanna export photos to my drive then upload because there are too many photos i wanna upload. I went to the photo section under the media file(where you can access the Photos app) but not everything (photos) is on there. Is there anyway I can do this directly from the Photos app?

  • I am not happy with how Catalina decided how to display my photos. I used to be able to display all the photos I took ON A GIVEN DAY with ease. The were all displayed on the same line with the date at the left of the display window. Now with Catalina when I use the “Days” sort method at the top center of the Photos screen, most of the time my photos will be displayed with a range of dates, such as March 14 to 24, 2020. Then it is a pain to try to find exactly what date the photos in that date range were taken, such as right clicking on each photo and then clicking on Get Info at the top of the pop-up window that appears. Clicking on “All Photos” at the top center of the Photos screen does not help either, since they still are not sorted by exact date. Seems like Apple wanted to fix something that was not broken and now it is.

    • Hi
      I have upgraded to Catalina…and in Photos ,i,m still seeing photos in recent and imports..even tho I,ve named them and put them in albums

      what havent I done??
      any help appreciated

  • I tried to leave a comment concerning my opinion of Catalina Photos and wasn’t allowed to because they said I had already posted that comment. I cannot find where I posted a similar comment and do not remember leaving a comment on this site anyway. I did not see a comment similar to mine on any of the comments people had posted. Why am I not able to post my comment?

  • I am disappointed in the organization options available in Photos compared to what was offered in Aperture. I would like to see the sorting options of color coding and 1-5 stars included in Photos. I would like to be able to nest albums within albums using different wording. For instance, one album showing all photos for a long project with the ability to nest other subalbums within the large album. You would be able to see all photos in the first album and then have sub albums nested within that large album for a specific segment of photos. In editing, I would like to see the Aperture brush option allowing the ability to lighten the face of a person in shadow without lightning the entire photo.

  • As an avid photographer, I hate the new release. I don’t want to store my photos by location or memory! I want to import, select and save my photos by my own category! I usually name and add the date as key in the file name.

    This new version scrambles my photos into places unknown to me! it is difficult to find images. And every time I have tried to import from my camera, sandisk card, it imports the images into 2 seperate places! What’s with that! It matters when you import 300 Photos after a single shoot and images are both jpg and raw files!

    The work flow is also not intuitive. I could go on, but enough is enough. Hate this version. Hate that it never works simply.

    • I agree, the current Photo application is overblown – far too overcomplicated for general everyday Mac users – the software designer appears to know little about photography or O&M. iPhoto was fine – brilliant, and easy to use and understand. What Mac users are lumbered with now is nothing short of a nightmare. One master file list, with subfolders created at the behest of the user, is all that’s needed.

  • Upgraded to Catalina on my iMac. Photos says “uploading 100 items” – for the last 5 days. As far as I can tell it’s doing nothing. Additionally, it has 43 less photos in it’s library than my other iMac (also running catalina for 3 months). No clue what to do next.
    Catalina so far has given me more grief than function. very sad. There used to be a time when I looked forward to new MacOS releases. not any more. Just scared now of what they will break with each release.

    • Tim cook has served up Apple. what do expect from a supply side guy with no computer background. Steve did not choose wisely.

  • The thing that p*sses me off the most about macOS Photos is the way each new version of the OS requires your Photos Libraries to be updated which then no longer work in the previous version! Given I have a Mac Pro (2010), which cannot run Catalina, and a MBP which can, my Photos Libraries are now in limbo between 2 Operating Systems!

    I’m guessing this is Apple’s way of forcing hardware upgrades to an otherwise perfectly good Mac Pro!! And – have you seen the costs of the NEW Mac Pro!!!!!!

  • I had a iMac for ten years, loved it. It finally failed to power on. I got a new iMac and it no longer worked with my iPod, had to get a new micro soft office. Had to delete tons of stuff off my new iMac because it was not comparable. I no longer know how to sync my iPhone, I no longer know how to use my photo library. I have to to get a new hard disc backup if that is what you call it as my machine now does not accept discs. So far I hate my new iMac and who ever designed the new app for apps make it look like a small child designed it. Thank God the have excellent customer service reps because I have to call them almost everyday. I speak to them more than my family. If the make a book to to guide me thru things I would buy it. Hate my iMac.

    • I just blew 5k on a MB and I hate it. This is awful! I have to steel myself before making the next tech support call or waste away researching myself, just to realize its what they are serving now.
      Sorry your having this experience too

  • Still struggling to be as good as iPhoto for the non social media photographer…Still hate this App after years of waiting for it to improve

  • I agree with the other correspondents that the current Apple MacBookAir Photo App on Catalina is a totally rubbish system. I have images completely disorganised, (and not by my doing). With different sets of photos on ‘Photo’ and ‘Finder’, and some completely missing. The old iPhoto app was not broken, so why ‘fix it’? Everything could be found before, but not now with the over-duplication & over-complication of the latest Photo app. It seems Apple is over-staffed with software designers, and the old adage that ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’ appears to be the case. Please bring back the option to revert my MacBook to iPhoto, it is sadly missed, and I’m wasting hours of valuable time trying to deal with the ‘latest’ Photo app.

  • Using IMAGE in the menu, the date & time can be changed to rearrange the pic’s in Photos. But if you create a separate album, you should be able to just click, move, and drop a picture to put it in a different place.

  • Importing photos from an SD card:
    Catalina hangs when autoimporting photos directly into autoimporter at the point where it says: ‘preparing for import’.
    I use my Imac for work and do not want thousands of work photos stored via ‘Photos’.
    Any idea why it’s not allowing autoimport?

  • My photos have triplicates and Catalina identifies and hides duplicates, it sounds like. Can we remove duplicates now with Catalina? Or triplicates

  • Since I have Catalina the photo app refuses to sync my photos with the IPhone or IPad. Why don’t you fix this problem?

  • automatic , in the background scans, seem to start and stop in an unrecognized patern and leave people albums not able to open. I find no way to tell photos to finish the scan. Am I missing a step? Sometimes a note is displayed scan will finish when photos is in background. List steps to allow recognition of being in the background. I have a library with 110,000 photos and a tab to tell photos to restart the face recognition scan would be great.

  • For some reason I lost all the albums that were created prior to purchasing my Mac. They were all migrated automatically to my Mac from my PC and saved under a file called Pictures and I was able to create new albums after purchasing my Mac. I was about create a new folder with our pictures from our recent trip and the next thing I know all the Picture albums were gone. I was always able to go into the Pictures file and see all of them and use them as a screen show or with my TV. Now they are all gone. Did Catalina decide not to support the Pictures file any longer? I am really aggravated because all my photos were segregated into appropriate folders for ease of viewing, even the ones I took and downloaded from my Canon 35mm camera. These albums took me hours and hours to create. I am pretty sure the photos are there because they seem to have been grouped by year when I click on the Photos, but the albums are gone.

  • I have a hard time locating all of my pictures, especially ones from years ago. Catalina has caused my mac mini to slow down to the point where it is practically unusable at times. Apple told me a 200GB cloud account would hold all of my pictures, the machine ran for over three full days supposedly uploading my pictures to the cloud but my photos are nowhere to be found in the cloud. My Hp printer scanner fax also quit working with this release, what a pain.

  • where are the original files stored? I have OS 10.15 Catalina and I am unable to locate any information regarding the master (original) photo files.

  • Andy,

    This topic has been discussed at length on this Apple Community form.


    There are work arounds – such as creating duplicate Albums or Smart Albums at the root level of the Photos Library – leaving your original nested folder intact. Use a USB cable to sync and turn off wifi syncing.

    I have used this technique with 100% success on all of my mobile devices with my iMac and Catalina.

    Hopefully Apple will fix this syncing issue.

  • I’ve always loved the simplicity with which you can share your albums from Photo ( or iPhoto before that), across your devices,.

    Then along came Catalina………

    I have spent many hours a day of the past week trying to get my photo albums to sync across my mobile devices, using the ‘ new and improved’ method that comes as a result of running Catalina. Gone are the days where iTunes is used to sync your media ( it was clearly too user friendly for Apple to want to leave it alone) – and instead we are to sync our devices through finder. All sounds good and simple – except for one thing…. IT DOESN”T WORK.

    Several hours on the phone to Apple Support didn’t manage to come up with the goods – in fact, all I managed was to delete all of the photo albums that had happily resided in the Photo app on my devices for many, many years..

    Today I trooped off to the Genius Bar, and a very helpful Apple Chap told me that Catalina has been plagued with problems with regard to syncing photos/ music – and the best thing to do was to roll back to Mojave…. of course that entails wiping all the data.

    So tonight, fortified by a bottle of wine, and a bag of chips, I am reloading all my data back onto my Mac…. back to exactly where I was before I upgraded to Catalina 3 months ago.

    • I too spent hours and hours and more hours on the phone with Apple, was escalated, then there were diagnostics pulled from my Mac, all to find out that “engineering” was already aware of the problem. The syncing between Catalina and iphone or ipad is really screwed up. I inevitably have to remove all photos from the device and then put them all back on. Sometimes it takes several tries for this not to sync some truly random number of photos and get them all to actually sync. If they’d just told me at the beginning that this was something they were trying to fix, I would have saved about seven or eight hours of time wasted.

  • I am miserable with it. I can’t post to Facebook. Moving a photo to create an album is no longer simple and obvious. Give me back the old Photos. I don’t need all the extra stuff you tout.

  • My computer was recently upgraded to Catalina. Now when I plug in my external drive and try to move pictures from photo onto that drive it won’t import. What should i do?

  • Worst photo app I’ve used. Apple needs to scrap this the way it did iPhoto. It’s intrusive and has needlessly complicated and awkward workflow.

  • When I am on a site on the internet and “save image to photos”, my computer automatically goes back to the photo app, even if the photo app is off.
    This is very frustrating when you’re trying to save several pictures to photos and you have to stop and go back into the site with each picture that was saved.

  • I HATE LOATHE AND DESPISE MOST THINGS ABOUT iPHOTO. Right now, I can’t post photos. the “OPEN” button is faded out and does not provide a function any more. I hate iphoto’s album system, it’s UTTERLY STUPID to click put these in an album and never ever move them from the general listings. TAKE OFF THE DATE, THE FACES, THE PLACES, IT IS NOT YOUR RIGHT TO CATEGORIZE MY PHOTOS OR TO LABEL THE CATEGORIES. I want to put photos into an album and not see it anywhere but that album. I hate that deleting a photo from my phone deletes it from my mac. I hate that YOU HAVE ALL CONTROL OF MY PHOTOS AND I HAVE NO CONTROL. For photos alone I am buying PC and screw apple for all things photo. Great cameras on the phone, the worst damned photo storage ever. Give all the control to the user, what the hell do you need control of my photos for anyway?

    • Agree whole heartedly!!! Can’t believe Apple stands by this huge mistake. It’s photo management program designed by software engineers primarily and secondarily by photographers. The software engineers won! Yes, you are correct about control and putting the software in control of image management/organization. But the kicker that Photos was designed not for photography but to keep Apples coffers filled with iCloud income users contribute for photo storage!! Making money is good for all of us when useful services are provided. Apple falls too far short in this regard. Keep up the fight a decent photo management software from tone deaf Apple!

    • Right click on your iPhoto library, click ‘show package contents’.
      All your original photos are in the ‘masters’ folder.

  • trying since several days, after hours with apple tech, to move a photos library from High Sierra to Catalina.

    unable to upgrade the library, tried tens of time, stuck with an error at about 5% :(

    • Apple should drop Photos the way it did iPhoto and start over. My photo management/editing workflow uses Adobe Bridge (a powerful graphic image file viewer)-Lightroom (an advanced editor)-PhotoshopCC-Smugmug for all my photo management/photo editing/cloud storage tasks. It is far from idea.. But it allows me accomplish photo tasks in a way Photos never could. Photos is a top down program where decisions reside with the software. My workflow keeps me in charge of all photo tasks. That means I control outcomes. Photos is the opposite and gives control to the software.

  • Photos is now rubbish.
    I have latest Catalina, brand new Mac. I have 50 000 pics on 8TB external drive.
    It has been ‘curating’ for over a week now with no progress or end in sight.

    Apple have tried during chat session, but iyt is still stuck in the loop.
    For an Apple product, it is not good enough – but fine if it were Windows :-)

  • What is the current version of Photos? Is anyone reporting difficulties in face recognition and making new Key photos?

  • It is a pain in the ass having to use my iPhone to post photos to FaceBook as you can no longer share to Facebook through Photos!

    • I spent hours with Apple support a week ago and they said they are working on it. I would imagine FB is upset also. Apple Support did show me an easy workaround: download Google’s Chrome browser as this still works well to download photos to Facebook.

  • I upgraded to macOS Catalina. However the ‘media’ file with Photos no longer appears when I try to put a photo in my Kijiji ad, etc. How does this get fixed?

  • thanks for the article!
    Since upgrading to Catalina I notice that photos uploaded from my mac to google photos (using Googles backup and sync app) have a very strange alphanumeric filename eg:

    Upon investigation, I found that Apple Photos has created this filename, you find it when exploring the photo library in finder in the “originals” directory. Although you still see the original correct filename when looking at the photo in the Apple Photos app itself.

    Do you know what is going on with the filenames stored within the photo library?

  • One thing that I don’t like is that the editing options on IOS now are different from Mac OS, and this cause me confusion when I need to edit photos on both.
    Just 2 examples:

    on IOS you have a “Vividness” slide, totally absent from Mac OS.
    on IOS, once applied a filter, you can select the “strength” of the filter (a very useful option actually!). Absent from Mac OS.

    I can understand IOS having less controls than Mac OS, but not the opposite!

    Hope they fix this discrepancy.

  • The best thing about photos in Catalina is the ability to be able to search by exact date now! Before it was only by month and year.

  • when I import photos from my camera pictures get stuck in import and recent added folder and are not transferred to photos folder, why?
    I’m using Catalina on my MacBook Pro

  • The Catalina update has removed many face names from my photos.
    Before the update I had manually given face names for ALL my faces, all persons.
    Now, many are missing and I have to go through my whole 20,000 photo library again.
    Is there a way to force the name recognition, or get all my names back?
    Using my Time Machine to go back in time will not help because Catalina will “curate” all those pictures with face names all over again.
    What do you suggest? Just live with it and do the work again?

  • Hi, congrats about your text, let me know about one question, in old version in finder i open to show package and make alias to masters, then i can access all “jpg” from finder. now this options not show the masters, there is a way to do this ?????