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.


  • 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!

  • How can I recover photos from old iPhoto?

  • 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?

  • What happened to “Sort by newest ” in sorting photos? I prefer my newest at the top of the window.

  • 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?

  • Photos can’t open “Aperture Library”. (4302)

  • 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 ?????

  • lost my ability to edit scanned photos and documents. Won’t even allow me to crop a scanned item.