Understanding the Basics of Apple Photos

If you’re a Mac user like me and take pictures with your iPhone, then you probably have some of your photos stored on your computer in the Photos app.

Photos for macOS, or Apple Photos, is the photo library for Mac users. When you upload your photos to Apple Photos, you can view, edit, organize, and share them — all in one place.

When I’m working with my own photos, I prefer using the Apple Photos app over any other photo library system. It’s my favorite app because:

  • Apple Photos is a convenient library system that stores everything in one place.
  • Your photos reside in a closed environment, housed within your own account. No one can mine your photo data containing your personal information to use in marketing and advertising.
  • Apple Photos syncs with all of your devices. You can use it on your phones, tablets, and computers.
  • Photos for macOS is a secure system. You can set up two-factor authentication to control which devices have approval to access your iCloud account.

If you feel like your knowledge of Apple Photos is limited, read on for some tips on understanding what’s inside this powerful app.

The following information assumes you have iOS11 on your devices, the latest operating system (macOS Yosemite 10.10.3 or High Sierra) on your computer, and version 3.0 of Apple Photos.

Tips for Using the Tools at the Top

Before we dive in to Apple’s photo views, it’s helpful to get a quick understanding of the tools at the top of the window.

On the left is a slider bar used to adjust the size of the image thumbnails. Slide to the left to make images smaller and to the right to make them larger.

On the far right are several tool icons. Double click on a photo, then click one of the following:

Information – a pop-up box displays photo information such as date, time, location, image source, and image type. You can also add a photo title in this box.

Share – a drop-down menu lets you immediately share the photo via text message, email, social media, etc.

Favorite – highlight the heart icon and the image is added to your favorites. Another way to mark a photo as a favorite it to hover over the image and click the heart icon on the bottom left corner.

Rotate – click this icon to rotate the image to its correct orientation.

Auto-Enhance – one click of this button will automatically adjust brightness and color.

Edit – Click this button to open the photo editing tools. Instructions and tips for editing your photos can be found here.

Top Menus

How Apple Photos Automatically Organizes Your Photos

Apple has made life easier by organizing your photos for you, while also giving you the ability to personalize some of your own organization.

That means once you understand the Photos menus, it’s easy to find the images you’re looking for. From there, you can create and share your own albums and projects.

For now, we will focus on navigating Apple Photos menus to find and view your photos.

1. Basic Photo Views
Apple Photos provides two easy-to-find menus, one at the top bar containing four buttons (Photos, Moments, Collections, and Years), the other in a panel on the left side of the screen. If you prefer dropdown menus, then click “View” at the very top of your screen to see the same choices.

Different View Menus

To see your entire photo collection, click on “Photos” either at the top of the window, or at the top of the left menu panel.

You can also view your photos in Apple’s pre-set categories of Moments, Collections, or Years.

Moments are groups of photos taken around the same place and time (for example: Photos taken on our son Sam’s wedding day).

Collections are groups of photos with related moments in the same time frame (for example: Photos of our son Sam’s entire wedding weekend celebration).

The Years view is all of your photos from the same calendar year grouped together.

Keep in mind that the Photos app categorizes images using the date the photo was added. You can change the date and time of an image by clicking on it, then from the top drop-down menu, choose “Image > Adjust Date and Time.” Click here to learn how to change other information about a photo.

2. Viewing Your Collection in Apple Photos’ Library Menu
Another way Apple Photos organizes your images for you is to group photos into libraries. Find these libraries in the left menu under “Library,” or click “View > Library” to see the drop-down list of choices.

Memories are mini-collections created when the app scans and groups your photos from a timeframe or event. Photos creates up to three new Memories a day, depending on the size of your entire photo collection. Double click to view the photos or click the play button in the upper toolbar to view the Memory as a slideshow.

Favorites are all of the images and videos you’ve marked with a highlighted heart icon.

People uses face recognition to group photos containing the same faces. More information on how to name people can be found here.

Places groups all photos with location identification and places them on a map for you. Click on the first photo in that group and see all photos from that location.

Imports are photos uploaded to Apple Photos app from another source such as your phone or a camera card and are listed by the import date.

Recently Deleted show the days that remain until the photos are permanently deleted. If you change your mind, you can select any photo in the group and click the “Recover” button in the top right corner to put the photo back into your library.

3. Viewing Your Photos by Media Type
Apple’s storage system can also categorize your images or videos by Media Type. Images and videos uploaded from your phone (i.e., Selfies, Screenshots, or Panoramas) can be found along the left menu under “Media Types.”

A couple of other examples include:

Live Photos – When iPhone cameras are set to take Live photos, they capture 1.5 seconds of video when you snap a picture. Read more about the benefits of Live photos (and find out how to take them) in this post.

Bursts are a rapid series of images taken with the iPhone. You may not be aware you’ve taken any burst images, but they occur when the shutter is held down too long. If your sound is on, you might hear multiple clicks of the shutter opening several times.

All of the images from a burst will upload to your photo library. The Apple Photos app allows you to select just one photo from a burst:

  1. Go to the Bursts album in the left menu.
  2. Double click on the photo to open.
  3. Find “Make a Selection” in the upper right corner of the image, and you will see a film strip of all the photos you’ve taken in that burst.
  4. Use the mouse or arrow keys to move through each image.
  5. Click on the circle at the bottom of the individual image you want to keep, and click Done.
  6. Then you can choose “Cancel,” “Keep Everything,” or “Keep Only That Selection” in the upper right corner of your screen to return to viewing your photos.

Mastering Apple Photos 101

Learning more about the Apple Photos app will empower you to take charge of your photo collection, and help you know exactly what you have and how to find it quickly.

I recommend spending some time in the different views in Photos, as well as experimenting with photo information, and/or naming people in your photos. This will help you find and organize images more quickly if you decide to create your own albums or projects in the future. It’s also a great way to browse through your images!

6 thoughts on “Understanding the Basics of Apple Photos

  1. I’ve “used” Phot since it cam out, since I was using IPhoto previously. I could really use some help understanding for starters the relationship of the main file – Library Recents, Imports and My Photostream. I’m sure I messed up somewhere. The interactions and duplication of photos in these 3 “folders” I find confusing,

    1. Hi Joseph,

      Each of these items that you are wondering about are views within the library. Library is a view of the whole collection in date order. Recents are the newest photos just added to the library by your iPhone or iPad. Imports are the files just imported from outside an Apple device and were transferred from a camera or a folder. My Photostream is really an obsolete view and isn’t used for the most recent versions of the Photos app. But it was a small subset of the collection – about 1000 of the most recently added photos to the library.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Was searching for a way to tame the Shared Photo streams from my family. The Shared Photo stream has over 50 separate streams. Would love to find a way to reduce the long list of shared photos. Is there a way, like a folder to move older streams out of the way. The only alternative is to UNSubscribe to the streams. I just want to move older streams out of the way

    1. Hi Mark,

      I think you are referring to Shared Albums? If so, the sort defaults to newest first. I wonder are all of them active? So that each member of the shared album regularly shares to them? I’m guessing that some of your older shared albums aren’t really active so no one is adding photos to could be added to your photo library. Then you can unsubscribe to them. Keeping the active ones might help you pare down the list of them.

      Hope that helps!

  3. I am in the process of switching from Lightroom to Photo. I am doing this as I find Lightroom very confusing and overwhelming, and the monthly subscription for something I am not enjoying is a waste. It also has way more options than I need. But I have a problem. Within my Lightroom files are many duplicates. Is there a way to have duplicates identified and give me the option to delete? One factor I have found is that a series of shots may look the same, but eyes may be shut or the head tilted or with a series of polar bear images on snow they appear to be the same, but they are not. So, is there a way to isolate duplicates or what appear to be duplicates and give me the option to delete? Also, is there a guide to switching from Lightroom to Photo?

    1. Hi Ron,

      It sounds like you are seeking to find all the photos of series of shots. Many duplicate removal programs have settings that will mark groupings like these. If you are working within Apple Photos, I recommend using Photo Sweeper.

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