macOS Photos has analysed all your photos and here’s what it found

Finding photos on the Apple Mac has never been easier. The Photos app can now tell what is in a photo by analysing the content

The Photos app in macOS Sierra is often updated and improved. Changes in the last year have introduced a much better search facility that is more powerful and can even tell what is in your photos. What can it find?

I looked at the improved search facilities in Google Photos here and found it to be very good at finding photos by analysing the contents and automatically detecting the scenes and objects they contain.

The Photos app in macOS Sierra is equally good at finding photos based on the content and the search facility is just as impressive. In some ways it is even more impressive than Google Photos, although there are also some minor irritations.

The Apple Photos app analyses every photo you have ever taken and stored in the library on your Mac or online in iCloud. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Mac runs so slowly in the hours following the upgrade to macOS Sierra. Conspiracy theorists might say Apple knows what is in all your photos anf that it has analysed them all, but it is nothing to be concerned about.

Using AI to detect the contents of photos is useful and it saves us having to manually add tags to photos, like beach, dog, landscape, and so on.

The Photos app is said to be able to detect over 4,000 objects and scenes in photographs, so if you search for ‘owl’, ‘cat’ or ‘horse’ for example, it is able to show you all the photos containing owls, cats and horses. Type ‘beach’ and it shows you all the photos you have taken at the beach. No tags needed.

Search for the content in photos using the Photos app on the Apple Mac
Photos found the horse even with busy backgrounds

Search for the content in photos using the Photos app on the Apple Mac
Photos found beach scenes in photographs

This is a brilliant feature and the search results are instantaneous. How does it do this?

It appears to scan all your photos and categorise them and list the objects they contain, the scene, the location, and so on. The information is stored in a database, so each photo is assigned one or more keywords. You can't see these anywhere, but it is pretty obvious it has done this.

When you start typing into the search box in the Photos app, with each letter you type, a list of matching results is displayed. You can continue to type or just click one of the suggestions.

Start typing ‘a’ for example and all the categories, objects and scenes that contain the letter ‘a’ are listed. You can carry on and type ‘animal’ or click the ‘Animal’ category to see all the photos you have taken that contain animals. (There are subcategories like cat, owl, horse and so on.)

Search for the content in photos using the Photos app on the Apple Mac
Type a letter and see the search suggestions appear below

If you try searching, you will quickly realise that you cannot search for anything you want. you can only search for items that were found when the photos were analysed. If no cats were detected in your photos, you cannot search for them because the category doesn’t exist.

This doesn’t mean there are no cat photos and clever though Photos is, it is not perfect at analysing the contents of images and correctly identifying the contents.

Add keywords and descriptions to your photographs in the Photos app on the Apple Mac
Open a photos and press Command+I to add your own keywords and description

A useful trick is to go through the alphabet typing ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and so on into the search box. Just see what it comes up with. The results can be surprising. I had forgotten I had photos of horses, but the Photos app had found them and categorised them, so they popped up when searched. Don't forget that you can still add your own keywords and descriptions to photographs, but the Photos app knows what is in most of them anyway.

This is a great feature in the the Photos app and one that is sure to be used a lot.

Apple Photos search not working

Some people have found that the search function does not work after upgrading to macOS High Sierra. As you can see from the screenshots above, the search used to work fine on this Mac, but now it does not. A search returns nothing.

If you are having problems with the Photos search not working, try this: Hold down Option + Command and click the Photos icon in the Dock.

Repair the Photos library on the Apple Mac

This accesses a hidden Repair Library feature. Click Repair and wait for it to finish. The Photos app appears as normal afterwards. It is a good idea to restart your Mac.

This should kickstart the analysis of the Photos library. It will take many hours for a large library so leave your Mac running and try the search feature later or tomorrow.

Repairing the library has not worked for everyone though. Some people have had to create a new Photos Library and then import all their photos. Hold down Option and click the Photos icon in the Dock to create a new library or to choose the library.



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