six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This week's sponsor

Six Colors Shirt! Our official (six-color) t-shirt is back on sale for a limited time.

By Jason Snell

What’s new in Photos for macOS High Sierra

One of the major areas of improvement in macOS High Sierra is to the Photos app, which is only a couple of years old and has plenty of room to grow. I literally wrote the book on Photos, so it’s been interesting to watch Apple’s replacement for iPhoto as it has grown and changed. Here’s a look at the changes and new features in Photos for Mac on macOS High Sierra.

New image formats. Beginning with iOS 11, the iPhone 7 and later and the latest generation of iPad Pro models no longer capture photos and video in the JPEG and H.264 formats they’ve previously used—at least by default. Instead, they use the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) for video and HEIF (pronounced “heef”) for photos. Photos for High Sierra supports these formats natively, as you’d expect. If you share your photos (or drag them into the Finder), Photos will transcode them to JPEG and H.264, because Apple realizes that many devices can’t yet understand the formats.

(Because these formats are not supported on Sierra, Macs that are still back on Sierra will be able to view low-resolution derivative files synced via iCloud Photo Library, but not edit them.)

Portrait mode support. Photos for High Sierra supports the same portrait effects supported in iOS 11. This means that if you edit a photo taken in portrait mode on an iPhone 7 Plus, 8 Plus, or X running iOS 11, you can edit the portrait effects. (This is all aided by the fact that unlike JPEG, the HEIF format allows Apple to embed multiple images and depth-sensing data inside the HEIF file, so all that data carries along with the file up to iCloud Photo Library and back down to the Mac.)

Photo editing upgrade. Perhaps the biggest changes in Photos are in the editing pane. Previously, when you decided to edit a photo, you’d be presented with a sidebar containing seven icons: Enhance, Rotate, Crop, Filters, Adjust, Retouch, and Extensions. You could click through to any of them to reveal a subset of editing tools—or in the case of Enhance, do a one-click global enhancement to your photo.

There are nine new filter presets, replacing the older ones.

With Photos on High Sierra, when you edit a photo you’re taken to an interface with a sidebar as well as a toolbar. Tabs at the top let you toggle between three different editing views: Adjust, Filters, and Crop. (One-click Enhance is now an icon at the top right of the screen, next to the Done button.) Clicking the Crop tab will bring up the Crop functions of Photos, largely unchanged; clicking Filters will bring up a revamped set of nine pre-built image filter presets, three variations each on three different styles (Vivid, Dramatic, and black and white).

Every advanced editing tool now lives under the Adjust tab, including the new Curves and Selective Color tools.

Everything else—all the more advanced editing tools—now live under the Adjust tab. Instead of having to hunt for them, they’re all there in the sidebar together. You can click disclosure triangles to show additional editing options, or hide them away entirely. It’s certainly more cluttered than the old approach, but you no longer have to remember if a particular effect is in the Filters, Adjust, or Retouch section.

There are also two new editing tools, though they’ll be familiar to users of other editing tools, including Apple’s discontinued Aperture: Curves and Selective Color.

Support for third-party edits. In the transition from iPhoto to Photos, the ability to edit a photo in an outside app and then save it back into your photo library was lost.1 It’s back now, and it’s better than it ever was in iPhoto.

In Photos on High Sierra, you can open any photo in an external image editor via the Edit With command under the Image menu. Under the Edit With menu will be a list of all the apps on your Mac that have been updated to take advantage of this feature of Photos, meaning you don’t need to pick a single external editor—you can choose different apps as you see fit.

Once an image has been opened in an external editor, you can do pretty much anything you want to it. Once you save in the app, the adjustments you’ve made come back to Photos right where you left it. You can make further edits on that photo if you want, and as with any photo in Photos, the original image is stored so you can revert back at any time.

One caveat: If an image is shot in the Raw file format, the Raw file is not sent to the external editor; instead, a JPEG version is transferred. (The Raw original is always saved and can be reverted to later, of course.)

Browsing adjustments. In previous versions of photos, the interface focused on tabs at the top of the screen—which you could optionally swap for a more iPhoto-like sidebar pane. On High Sierra, Photos has fully embraced that sidebar—it’s always visible when you’re browsing photos. (As someone who always ran Photos with the sidebar on, I applaud this move.)

The selection counter (top) and a quick-filter pop-up (bottom) are additions to the Photos interface.

The contents of the sidebar have been reorganized into sections. The Library section contains different views of your library—auto-generated Memories, all of your Favorites, the People who appear in your images, the Places you took your pictures. And, in a new feature, all the photos you imported—organized by when you imported them. (This is the new import-history feature, so if you remember you imported a bunch of photos a few weeks ago, you can scroll back and see everything that came into your library from that batch.)

The Albums section of the sidebar now contains two two-level items, Media Types and My Albums. Media Types contains automatically-generated views of your library filtered by media type—Selfies, Live Photos, Panoramas, and so on. My Albums contains every album and Smart Album you create manually.

Another new feature in the image-browsing interface is the selection counter in the upper right. As you select images, the selection counter keeps count. Select 18 images and it will helpfully tell you, “18 photos selected.” The image counter is also a draggable proxy for your images—drag the image counter to your desktop or into an album, and the selected images will go there, too.

Just below the selection counter is a new quick filtering option that lets you quickly narrow the view to show only favorites, edited items, photos, or videos.

Speaking of albums, in macOS Sierra you can now import photos directly into an album—either an existing one or a new one. If you’re someone who always organizes photos by album, this will save you a step or two, since you will no longer need to import photos, make a new album, and then drag the imported items into the album.

Improvements to Memories and People. Memories, introduce to Photos last year, is a feature that looks for commonalities in the photos in your library and gathers them together into collections. Think of them as computer-generated albums that are meant to surprise and delight you with images from the past.

In High Sierra and iOS 11, Photos has increased the number of ways it parses your library looking for commonalities. According to Apple, among the new types of Memories are ones for pets, kids, hiking, diving, winter sports, nights out, and meals with friends.

In High Sierra and iOS 11, Memories is also better at picking photos from particular events, using image analysis to try to pick the best image out of many—the best smile or one where nobody’s blinking.

The People interface, which uses facial recognition software to lets you view all the images of a particular person, has been updated in High Sierra. It’s a more attractive design, and the face-recognition engine has been upgraded (Apple says it’s as much as twice as accurate) with the ability to make educated guesses about who is in a photo based on a face’s relationship to the other faces in a photo. For example, if a child is frequently in pictures with another child, the algorithm can use that to improve its confidence in its ability to assign a face to a particular person. And when you identify a photo as containing a particular person, that data is synced along with the photo, which aids your other devices in identifying that person themselves.

Transform Live Photos with the Long Exposure effect.

Live Photos improvements. Apple’s Live Photos format was introduced two years ago, and in this version of Photos, there are finally much better controls for editing Live Photos. You can manually change the Live Photo’s representative image to a different segment of the video, trim Live Photos video, and set one of three effects: a traditional live photo, a back-and-forth bouncing effect, or a Long Exposure image that processes the stack of images to create the equivalent of a photo with the shutter left open for a long time. Think about streams and waterfalls going from freeze-framed reality to a luminous, fuzzy fantasy.

Third-party projects. For years, Apple’s photography apps have made it easy to design and order printed versions of your photos—books, calendars, prints, and more. Those still exist, but in High Sierra, Photos allows third-party developers to integrate directly with Photos to create new projects. There’s a new third-party app interface that lets companies build Mac apps—there’s a special category in the Mac App Store for them, linked to from within the Photos app—that connect to Photos and allow you to order products or integrate with outside services from directly within Photos.

Apple’s announced several partners who will support this feature, including photo printers Shutterfly, Whitewall, Mimeo, iFolor, Mpix, slideshow builder Animoto, and web-hosting service Wix.

What’s not here. With every new version of any app, there are inevitably the wish-list items that didn’t get crossed off. I’m disappointed that Apple hasn’t made machine-learning-generated metadata syncing available across devices, so that every device you own doesn’t have to re-scan every photo in your library. Photos on iOS has the ability to auto-generate a movie for every Memory, but the Mac still lacks this feature. Smart Albums don’t have access to the categories generated by machine-learning scans, making it impossible to automatically combine two categories together.

And, of course, the big one: There’s still no way for members of a family to opt in to automatically sharing some or all of their photo libraries with one another, something my wife and I have been wanting for quite a while now—and a feature that Google is adding to Google Photos. Still, there’s no denying that this update to Photos is a big stride forward on several fronts.

Updated September 2017 for the final version of macOS High Sierra.


  1. Apps could previously provide Extensions that ran inside a Photos window, which some apps used as a gateway to then open the image themselves. This new approach is direct, requiring no intermediate extension window. ↩

[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]