How to make sense of the Apple Photos interface

We already asked, can Apple Photos replace Aperture?, and no, it can’t, but it’s still a very good tool for managing your family photo collection, where the ability to capture, find and share pictures simply is the key. To anyone used to a full-on image-cataloguing tool, though, or even the old iPhoto, it feels like being dropped into a very strange place.

Apple Photos doesn’t look and behave like regular photo organising applications. In most programs you click on a container, such as a folder or an album, and you see all the pictures it contains as thumbnail images. It’s all very straightforward. But in Apple Photos you’re dropped straight into this confusing hierarchy of Years, Collections and Moments. It’s as if Apple has invented a whole new way of looking at Photos but it’s only Apple that understands it.

But there is a system, and once you grasp how it works, you can start finding your way around your photo library much more quickly. It’s even possible to see why Apple has done it this way – it’s because regular folk don’t organise and browse images in the same rigorous, controlled way that serious photographers do. The average person wants to take some pictures, have the phone or computer take care of them, and then be able to find them again later.

How Apple Photos organises your pictures

Photographers are pretty organised about how and where they store their photos, but most people aren’t – so Apple Photos tries to do it for them. It uses the date information embedded in the photo’s EXIF data (a very good reason for setting your camera’s date correctly, by the way) and, if you used an iPhone or iPad to take the picture, the location information too.

With this information, it organises photos into its own three-level hierarchy. At the top level is Years – your photos are grouped into the year they were taken, and in this view you see a giant patchwork of tiny thumbnails for each year.

In this screenshot, you can see that Photos has added many of the places visited in that year – it has this information because many of them where shot on an iPhone, which embeds location information in each shot.

Once you’ve found the Year you want, you can click on it to view Collections. Here, your photos are organised into smaller time slots which may be a few weeks long if you didn’t take many photos, a few days if it looks like you went on a trip, or just a single day if you went on an isolated day out or to a single family event.

So here in its list of Collections from 2015, it’s created one from a single location (Switzerland & France) across a date rate (5-8 Sep 2015).

This is where you start to understand what Apple has done. You haven’t had to do any manual organising, and yet you can skim through all these Collections and very quickly find the pictures, event or places you’re looking for. Once you’ve found the right Collection you can click again (or tap, if you’re using the iOS Photos app) and your photos are split up into Moments, or individual days.


So that’s what’s happened here. I’ve clicked on a Collection and now I can see individual Moments – this one is from Exmoor National Park on 24 Mar.

What you need to keep in mind through all of this is that Years, Collections and Moments aren’t ‘containers’ for your photos in the same way that folders and albums are. They’re actually three different ‘zoom’ settings for looking at your photo collection at different levels of detail. So even if you click through to look at an individual Moment, you can still scroll the screen up and down to see all the Moments before and since.

So zooming in through these three levels of detail is easy enough, but how do you zoom back out again? You do it with two forward/back buttons in the top left corner of the screen. They’re easy to miss, and without them it’s easy to get lost in this apparently chaotic sea of photos.

This is the ‘back’ button (circled) that helps you make sense of the whole Years-Collections-Moments system.

If you’re looking at a Moment you click the back button once to get back to Collections, and again to get back to Years. Apple needs to make this more prominent because this is the key to understanding its whole organisational system.

Albums and Smart Albums

Apple Photos can also organise your photos in the old-fashioned iPhoto way, and in the same way as other photo organising tools, using Albums and Smart Albums. So where its Years, Collections and Moments are its automated organising tools, Albums are where you can introduce a system of your own. You’re not moving any of your photos, you’re just storing them in your own ‘virtual’ containers.

There’s a button for displaying Albums or, if you’re using the desktop app, you can use the View > Show Sidebar command to see them in a vertical panel on the left of the screen, just like iPhoto used to.

If you want the desktop version of Apple Photos to look more like iPhoto, all you need to do is display the sidebar from the View menu.

Right at the top of this sidebar is a Photos button. Use this to see the Years/Collections/Moments view. Below this are sections for Shared albums (I’ll come back to these in another tutorial) and regular Albums.

These Albums can be populated manually – you just create an Album and drag pictures into it – or you can use Smart Albums which use search criteria to show matching images.

For example, Photos will create Smart Albums for Selfies shot with your iPhone’s front-facing camera, Panoramas, Videos, Slo-mo videos, Time-lapse videos and Bursts shot with an iPhone. Whatever you think of Apple’s tightly-controlled hardware-software-photos ecosystem, this is undeniably handy. Besides, the iPhone does have a great camera.

You can create your own Smart Albums, but there is a catch – these will only work in the desktop app. They don’t migrate to the web version or the iOS app. Maybe that’s something that Apple will fix in the future.

How to view photos and the handy Split View

To view an image at its full size, you double-click it. Normally, this means it takes over the whole window and you have to click the back arrow at the top left of the screen to get back to the Moment or Album you were looking at.

But how do you see all the other photos in this group while still keeping the current one open? If you’re using the desktop app there’s a very handy option for this on the menus – View > Split View. This displays a vertical panel to the left of the photo showing all the other images in that Album or Moment as thumbnails. To look at another one, click its thumbnail. Now that really is useful.

The Split View is easily overlooked, but really useful! It lets you look at a bunch of photos as a group and click on them individually to see a full size version alongside.
The Split View is easily overlooked, but really useful! It lets you look at a bunch of photos as a group and click on them individually to see a full size version alongside.

So that’s a quick guide to the Apple Photos interface. Hopefully, it makes it easier to understand what Apple has done and why – and how you can still use your own manual organisation system if you want to.

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