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The Power of Preview: Pulling Files into Preview

So much criticism has been heaped on the likes of iTunes and Photos that it can be easy to forget the software that Apple gets right — apps that are both simple and powerful. There may be no better example of this than Preview, which has been built into OS X from the beginning.

On the surface, Preview is a simple image and PDF document viewer, although it can also open iWork and Microsoft Office files. Beyond that veneer of simplicity, though, Preview can do so much more. To get a taste of Preview’s power, let’s take a look at how you open images and documents in Preview, starting with the obvious ways and moving on to things you may not know.

Of course, if Preview is your default app for images and PDFs, you can open those files by double-clicking them or selecting them in the Finder and pressing Command-O. Or drag a file to the Preview icon, either in the Finder or in the Dock. Nothing new there.

Slightly more subtle is opening files through Quick Look, which we covered in detail in “OS X Hidden Treasures: Quick Look,” (12 February 2016). In the Finder, select an image or PDF file and press the Space bar or Command-Y to open it in Quick Look. Then click the Open With Preview button at the upper right.

Although Preview is the default app for most image types and for PDFs, it’s possible that another app, like Adobe Reader, has taken over for Preview. If you want to change the default app for a file type, here’s how to do that:

  1. Select a file of the desired type in the Finder.

  2. Choose File > Get Info (or press Command-I) to open the Info window.

  3. Under Open With, choose Preview from the pop-up menu (highlighted in red in the screenshot below). If necessary, click the arrow to the left of Open With to expand that section.

  4. Click Change All to make Preview the default viewer for all files of that type.

But that’s all Mac 101. Let’s look at Preview’s more interesting import options.

Import from the Clipboard -- Since Preview is primarily seen as an image viewer, you’ve probably never looked closely at the File menu. Do that and you’ll notice that Preview doesn’t have a plain New command, but instead one titled New from Clipboard. That command does just what its name implies: it creates a new Untitled document containing the contents of the clipboard. It’s also often dimmed, because it can work only when the clipboard contains image or PDF data.

To test this, copy an image from anywhere on the Mac (try Control-clicking an image on a Web page in Safari and choosing Copy Image). Then switch to Preview and choose File > New from Clipboard. You’ll get an Untitled document containing the image.

It’s less common to copy a PDF, but if you open a PDF in Preview, select a thumbnail in the sidebar, and press Command-C, you’ll get that page in the clipboard, and choosing File > New from Clipboard will create a new Untitled PDF document with that page.

Here’s another neat trick: if you select a file in the Finder, choose Edit > Copy (or press Command-C), and then invoke Preview’s New from Clipboard command, it creates a new document containing all sizes and resolutions of that file’s icon. It’s a great way to snag an application or document icon!

Using Preview’s New from Clipboard command is far from the only way to create a new document containing an image or PDF page, but it’s handy on occasion.

Import from Cameras -- Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Preview can import images directly from cameras and scanners. Better yet, in Preview’s eyes, your iPhone or iPad counts as a camera.

To import pictures from a camera, connect it to your Mac via a USB cable, open Preview, and choose Import from CameraName (for instance, Import from iPhone).

A window appears displaying thumbnails of the photos on that camera, largely mirroring the look and features of Apple’s Image Capture utility (which lives in the Utilities folder inside your Applications folder). By default, Preview displays the photos in a list, with EXIF information like the date and time the picture was taken, file size, resolution, GPS coordinates, aperture size, whether the flash was fired, and more. Even if you don’t want to use Preview to import your photos, it’s a handy way to view all that data.

In the lower left, there are buttons to rotate photos, view photos as a list, or view photos as a grid. To rotate a photo, select it and click the curvy arrow. You can also adjust thumbnail size with the slider in the lower right.

When you want to import the photos, you have two options in the lower right. You can click Import All to get everything or select a few photos and click Import. Decide where to save the images and click Choose Destination to put the pictures there.

Import from Scanners -- If you have a compatible scanner attached to your Mac, you can use Preview to import images and documents from it. Perhaps not surprisingly, the interface is also nearly identical to Image Capture’s. It’s also similar to the window that appears when you click Open Scanner from the Printers & Scanners pane of System Preferences. If your scanner doesn’t appear, you may need to set it up first from within the Printers & Scanners preference pane. Once there, you can also set Preview to open automatically when you press the Scan button on your scanner, assuming it has one.

With the scanner attached and turned on, choose File > Import from ScannerName in Preview. If the details pane isn’t showing already, click Show Details to display a wide variety of controls for resolution, size, rotation, format, and image correction. You’ll probably want to choose a resolution higher than 50 dpi (300 dpi is safe if you’re planning to print the scanned document; you might want to go higher for photos).

Pay special attention to the Auto Selection pop-up menu, which has three settings: Off, Detect Separate Items, and Detect Enclosing Box. Preview defaults to Detect Separate Items, which is appropriate for scanning multiple photos at once but isn’t right for scanning a single sheet of paper. For full-page scanning, choose Detect Enclosing Box, which tries to detect the edges of the paper and lets you adjust the scanned area by dragging the selection rectangle’s handles. If neither does quite what you want, you can select the portion of the document to scan manually by dragging out a rectangle, moving it around, and resizing it with its handles. For an easier approach when scanning full pages, choose Edit > Select All (Command-A), and then resize the selection.

When everything is set to your liking, click Scan. Preview scans the document and opens it in a new Untitled window. If it doesn’t meet your needs — this is where you realize that you forgot to reset the resolution menu from 50 dpi to 300 dpi — close it without saving. Otherwise, save and name the document to keep it. If you put multiple items in the scanner, Preview scans them to separate files, all of which are shown in a single Preview window.

One last thing. While viewing a PDF, you can add additional pages to it by choosing Edit > Insert > Page from Scanner. The scanning interface here is simpler, with only a checkbox to use the scanner’s document feeder, if available; a Rescan button for trying again; and an Add To Document button. It’s not clear how Preview chooses resolution in this scenario, but it seems to be relatively high. The page is inserted after the currently selected page, though you can also drag it around within Preview’s thumbnail sidebar.

Take Screenshots -- Those who write about technology have memorized Apple’s keyboard shortcuts to take Mac screenshots. Normal people who need to take a screenshot only a few times a year should turn to Preview instead. Just as the previous features also appeared in Apple’s Image Capture utility, the screenshot capabilities are mirrored in Apple’s Grab utility (also stored in the Utilities folder).

In Preview, choose File > Take Screenshot. There you find three options:

  • From Selection: After choosing this command, your cursor becomes a crosshair. Click and drag the crosshair over the screen area you wish to capture.

  • From Window: Choose this command, and your cursor becomes a camera. Move the camera cursor over a window and the window turns blue to indicate that it’s selected. Click to take a screenshot of that window. By default, your window screenshots come with a large shadow; to remove it, Option-click the selected window.

  • From Entire Screen: When you choose this command, a 10-second countdown begins, which you can cancel by pressing the Esc key. Once the countdown finishes, Preview takes a screenshot of your entire screen. If you have multiple screens, Preview creates screenshots for each one. The timer is useful when you need to set up the screen in such a way that wouldn’t be possible with an instantaneous screenshot. Although it won’t appear in the final screenshot regardless, you can move the countdown timer bar around to get it out of your way.

Unlike OS X’s screenshot shortcuts, which dump the screenshots on your Desktop, Preview opens each new screenshot as a PNG file in an Untitled window, where you can make any modifications you like before saving it. Simple, but effective.

Wait, modifications? Yes, that’s right, Preview is also a surprisingly full-featured graphic editor too. But that’s a topic for a future article. Preview may seem unassuming, but it’s packed with useful capabilities, and we’ll be looking at more of them in the future.


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Comments about The Power of Preview: Pulling Files into Preview
(Comments are closed.)

Peter Meyer  2016-02-25 10:30
These are great articles!! I am starting to look forward to them each week. I am an experienced OSX user,and even with my years of messing around and finding things, this stuff is great for me. Thank you.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-25 13:26
Thank you so much! Preview is probably my favorite Apple app, so I'm ecstatic to write about it for TidBITS.
Gerrie Shults  2016-02-25 12:47
You should add that Preview scanner import works through Bonjour, too—doesn't have to be USB-connected.

I'll also second @Peter Meyer's comment. It's all true for me, too.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-25 13:31
Thanks, we hadn't considered that!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-25 13:51
How do you see this working? I have an Epson AcuLaser multi-function printer/scanner, and it appears only if I connect it directly to my Mac, and not if it's connected to an AirPort Express, which is how we normally use it. What's the setup for a Bonjour connection to work?
Bruce Blakely  2016-03-15 16:38
I can't speak to how this works for the commenter above, but I scan into Preview from a networked Brother multi-function. This also works from Image Capture, which has essentially the same scan interface as Preview. I can also open Printers & Scanners (in System Prefs), select the device on the left, select Scan on the right, then click Open Scanner, and I end up in a slightly-different-from-Preview-&-ImageCapture interface. Printers & Scanners tells me the connection to the device is via Bonjour (all via ethernet or Wi-Fi, no USB involved) and that I am using a Brother CUPS driver. I'm running Mavericks, but this has all worked since at least OS X cat-of-2002.
When you say you are connecting your multi-function to an AirPort Express, do you mean via USB? If this works for Bonjour printing but not scanning, I would guess that you need a different driver to get the scanning to work via Bonjour. I seem to recall that most printers/multi-functions that I use have different drivers for direct connect USB vs. a network connection but I've never used an Airport device as a USB intermediary so I'm not sure which flavor of driver would come into play in that situation.
David Redfearn  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2016-02-25 13:50
Great article but when I open it, I see two copies - one repeated after the other. I also see: <<<<<<< .mine at the top of the document.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-25 14:05
Thanks - we hit an SVN conflict at some point. Fixed now!
Devesh   2016-02-25 14:13
It's great that preview can let me grab one, or any number of images from my iPhone more easily than most other programs I use, but one feature not mentioned that is a huge time saver is the ability to *delete* images as well, and in much less time than any other way I've found.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-25 14:23
That's cool - we'll have to check that out and add it to the article!
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-26 16:19
Hi Devesh, how are you deleting iPhone photos from Preview? Adam and I both tried Command-Delete, Command-Shift Delete, and even dragging photos to the trash, but none of those work. We're stumped.
Steve Nicholson  2016-02-27 23:40
I have a Delete button in the lower left corner of the window.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-28 13:20
Fascinating. I don't get that button. I wonder if it's because I'm using iCloud Photo Library rather than iTunes for syncing photos? We'll play more.
Steve Nicholson  2016-02-28 20:41
Yeah, I'm not using any cloud stuff for music or photos because of my rural 300kbps upload speeds. I figure by the time I can use that in 5-7 years Apple should have all the glitches worked out!
Devesh   2016-03-01 03:50
I select, command select, or shift select the images to delete and the click on the Delete button Steve described. FWIW, I am living in the past using 10.6.8 and also not using iCloud.
J. Scholtes  2016-02-25 14:12
unfortunately Preview doesn't support Adobe Livecycle Designer PDF's, which used a lot in my company.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-25 14:24
Interesting - I hadn't been aware of them. I'm not too surprised, in reading up on them, since it looks like they're really pushing what PDFs can do. Preview also can't handle video or JavaScript in PDFs, for instance, which we're a little bummed about, since it would enable richer ebooks.
David Grant  2016-03-01 10:22
Preview also won't open (at least some of) the fillable PDF forms created by Acrobat or the PDFs created by (at least) one US govt granting agency (NIFA). In both cases Preview simply says something like it can't open this kind of document.
Bruce Blakely  2016-03-15 16:41
I have on a few occasions found that Preview allows me to fill in PDF forms that Acrobat will not let me fill in.
Christopher Plummer  2016-02-27 16:54
Helpful, well-written, chock full of good information about what I used to call the "Overlooked and Underused". Thanks guys!

How do I go to the enclosing folder, of the photo I am viewing, straight from Preview?
Steve Nicholson  2016-02-27 23:33
Command-click the document's icon in the title bar. You'll get a drop-down menu of the enclosing folders all the way up beyond the hard drive to the computer. Click any item in the menu to go to that folder or device.
Thank you so much, that was driving me crazy. Did not even notice the tiny icon in the title bar!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-28 13:21
Yep, that's a standard Mac thing that works in most apps (including in Finder windows).
Steve Nicholson  2016-02-27 23:35
I'm with you that Preview is the unsung and under-used star of OS X's built-in programs. My favorite Preview feature is the ability to use the computer's camera to read a signature for signing documents. I'm sure you'll cover that in the editing installment.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-28 13:22
Definitely - we came up with all sorts of things it could do, and the hardest part was splitting them into article-sized chunks and figuring out a reasonable order.
scutchen  2016-02-29 01:47
For the next installment: Got an image you want to edit? An image from a web page you want? Copy it to the clipboard, open Preview and hit Command-N. This opens the image in Preview. Now you can edit it using the Tools menu. Adjust size, color... Crop... lots of stuff. Then Save, Save As, or simply Select All and Copy to put the edited version back on the clipboard for subsequent use.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-29 10:15
Doh! Of course, that clipboard trick should be in this article, not a future one.
Simon Woodward  2016-02-29 20:00
Not to mention, using 'option-save' to 'Save As', and then adopt Quartz Filter options, including 'Reduce File Size'
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-03-01 08:56
Yes, that's a topic for a future installment. That said, I generally warn against using the Reduce File Size Quartz filter on PDFs, since it destroys a PDF that has bookmarks or other niceties - it messes up our books big time, for instance. It's useful only for a scanned PDF where you're just trying to drop the image size.
Tom McIntosh  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2016-02-29 23:07
Preview does a lot and in the past, I used it to organize a collection of PDFs and review photo shoots - Delete the bad ones and crop and colour correct the others that need it. This recent version seems to have problems with the scroll bar on the thumbnails / sidebar. The length of the bar does not match the items being displayed. It corrects itself if I use the arrow keys to change selections.
howard867  2016-02-29 23:29
One thing I've found about Preview has saved me a lot of paper. I've had occasion to develop Postscript programs. Used to be that to test the program, I had to print it. With Preview, I can just open the file, Preview translates it, and I'm good. This is likely not a feature many are using, but I really like it.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-03-01 08:57
That's interesting - so you're using your Postscript program to output EPS and then viewing in Preview?
Emily L. Ferguson  2016-03-01 23:34
Preview is my go-to app for getting photos off my iPhone 5s. But it does have one problem. Half the time it can't see the iPhone. Sometimes it can't see my Epson all-in-one as well, sometimes it sees the Epson but not the phone, sometimes it sees both. The cure is really tiresome as well. Shut down and restart the phone, quit all applications and shut down and restart the Mac. Then about 70% of the time Preview is fine until I go out and shoot something else with the phone and I start all over again with the problem. ElCap. 2012 15" MacBook Pro. Oh, and when Preview can't find the phone, Image Capture can't either.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-03-02 10:32
That's frustrating - sounds like a low-level communication issue! Do you need to do ALL that restarting, or might only part of it be necessary? I'd think that the Mac would be the main thing that would need a kick. Can iTunes see the phone when Image Capture and Preview can't?
Great article; I had no idea about the icon-grabbing trick. Would be helpful though if you noted what version you're working with. I'm still on 6.0, and there are no Import features, alas.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-03-10 16:32
For the sake of our own sanity, everything we write is now based around OS X 10.11 El Capitan, unless otherwise noted.
Bruce Blakely  2016-03-15 16:45
For a few of these features my first thought was "will this work in Mavericks" (Preview 7)? I would suggest noting the version somewhere in the article as someone is going to find this article and read it after Apple has moved on to OS X Half Dome.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-03-15 16:47
Preview hasn't changed a whole lot in a long time, so I'd expect most of these features to work at least one or two OS versions back. But yes, we should get the words El Capitan in there somewhere for the future.
Yashodhan Khare  2016-03-14 00:40
I can't see the "New from Clipboard", it is there but it is greyed, not highlighted. I tried copying images and PDF data to the clipboard - no luck. What could it be?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-03-14 10:43
It has to be an image - try opening an image in Preview, dragging out a selection, hitting Cmd-C, and then invoking New From Clipboard.