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ATPM 14.09
September 2008


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Making Preview Useful Again

Every installation of Mac OS X includes an array of applications in addition to the core OS. Some of these applications are useful from the beginning, and others only prove useful after a little experience and experimentation. In fact, I’ve previously nominated Activity Monitor, for example, as one of OS X’s most under-appreciated applications.

Whether or not I fully appreciate a program depends heavily on how much I use that program. Take, for example, my experiences with Preview. Over time my impression of this program shifted from indispensable, to being on the verge of deletion, to remaining very handy if you know a few tricks. Let’s look at how my use of Preview has changed over time as I understand its capabilities.

The Start of a Great Relationship

In the beginning I used Preview any time I needed a quick look at a graphic file. Remember that graphic on your hard drive with the cryptic name? If all you need to do is look at the file, don’t wait for a full-blown graphics application to open—Preview to the rescue. It can’t read everything, but most of the graphics I handle regularly are JPEG or TIFF, and Preview handles them with ease. Usually, in the time it took larger applications to launch I already had the file open. Sometimes I would even perform a basic file conversion all from within Preview. Life was good.

With the advent of Leopard, Apple introduced Quick Look. Now viewing a file was as simple as selecting it and tapping the spacebar. On the surface this was a brilliant addition to the OS, but it had a downside. After the first few days with Quick Look I found myself using Preview less often. By the beginning of the summer, Preview was my primary PDF reader and was used for little else. It was starting to look like this was the beginning of the end of my daily relationship with Preview. By the end of the summer Preview was not the dominant viewer it had been, but it was proving useful. Its abilities hadn’t changed but my understanding of its abilities had. I’ll pass on some of the things I’ve learned in hopes that it will rekindle your appreciation of Preview.

Summer of Discovery

At the beginning of the summer I was using Photoshop to restore some family photos. Using my usual “poke at it till you get something you like” method, the photo I was working on looked much better than the original. One side effect is that I had several copies of the file on my hard drive. Time for a little housecleaning. The problem is, before you clean house you must know what to throw away and what to keep. Although the files didn’t have the same names or modification dates that was no help. I wasn’t sure the most recent file was the best. If you are a regular reader you know by now that my experiments don’t always work out as well as I intended.

Side By Side Comparisons Using Preview

As intelligent readers of ATPM you may already know this, but I didn’t. It’s possible to easily do a sort of side by side comparison of graphics files using Preview. Open Preview’s preferences and look at the Images tab. In the section marked “When opening images” choose “Open all images in one window” and Preview will do just that. Now that Preview is ready, perform the following steps:

  1. Select a group of graphics and right-click them. Choose to open them with Preview in the contextual menu that appears. If you try double-clicking the files, they will open in the program you have chosen for that file rather than in Preview.
  2. A thumbnail of each image appears in Preview’s sidebar with the first image occupying the window. Getting a full view of the other pictures is as simple as clicking a thumbnail. This makes it easy to do a quick comparison of the files. I had never discovered this feature because I have always had Preview set to open each image in its own window.

After I discovered this method of doing quick comparisons I started to wonder if there were an easy way to delete one of the files—without accidentally selecting the wrong one of course. Long time Mac users have probably already guessed the easy solution. Right-click the thumbnail for the image you want to get rid of, and miraculously one of the options in the contextual menu is to move the selected file to the trash. (You can also press the Delete key.) From the same contextual menu one can close the selected file, without closing the entire window, or move the selected file to a new window.

Combining Files Using Preview

I knew OS X had some pretty good PDF creation capabilities, but I had not really put them to the test very much until I read this Mac OSG thread. It turns out that a series of graphic images can be combined into a single PDF file. Preview comes to the rescue again if you do a little preparation first. First, check Preview’s preferences and make sure the Image tab is set to open all images in a single window. Now open the group of files. I often open the first file and drag others into the sidebar. You can rearrange the files as needed by moving the thumbnails in the sidebar. When everything is in order, choose Save As and save the file as a PDF.

Later in the summer I was doing a little online research before making a purchase. When I am in one of those moods I usually save the relevant Web pages as PDFs to read when it’s more convenient. The problem is I usually end up with several Web pages all stored in the same folder. Even if I create separate subfolders with the PDFs for each model I’m interested in that’s not as convenient as I would like. Wouldn’t it be nice if Preview could combine several PDFs into a single document? Oh, and while we are wishing for things, wouldn’t it be nice if you could re-order the pages before saving the separate PDFs into a single file?

If you have looked carefully at Preview’s preferences you may have noticed that there is no option to open several PDFs in a single window. Preview wants to open each PDF in its own window. Initially that lead me to believe that it was impossible to combine several PDFs into one file using Preview. In fact, I said as much on Mac OSG Podcast episode 112. Well I was wrong. Former Mac OSG Podcast Tips and Tricks guru Rick Prather told me the secret. Combining multiple PDFs into a single file is easy If you follow this process:

  1. Open the first PDF and make sure the sidebar is showing.
  2. Drag other PDFs that you want to combine into the sidebar.
  3. Once all the files are in the sidebar drag the thumbnails into any order you like. Clicking on a thumbnail shows that file’s contents in the main window just in case you need a peek.
  4. Once all of the files are in order, choose Save As and save the file.

The trick for combining PDFs has proven reliable for me. This process seems to work fine even if some of the files already have their own Table of Contents. Personally I find it easier to add those files last and then move them where I need them to be just before saving the file.

Final Thoughts

I’ve only scratched the surface of Preview’s capabilities. In the last few months I have also used it to perform some basic color correction just to test an idea or two. The color correction sliders may not be as precise as editors which allow one to enter numerical values, but they were fine for the quick and dirty corrections I wanted to test. It is also a great way to apply some basic filters to an image just to see the effect. Spend a little more time with Preview in the near future. I bet you will be pleasantly surprised.

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Reader Comments (3)

Charles Parnot · September 3, 2008 - 01:08 EST #1
1. Another trick I use all the time is cmd-N after copying whatever from wherever. That gets you an image with what you had in the clipboard, now save as pdf, png, tiff,...

2. Another useful pdf manipulation: Crop works too.
Gregory Tetrault · September 4, 2008 - 13:46 EST #2
I have not found any manuals for Preview. I'd love to convince Apple or someone else to create a power user manual for Preview. I keep learning more about it, but always in dribs and drabs. Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual by David Pogue has a section on Preview, but it is less than nine pages long. A recent UsingMac article covers some Preview power features, but the nicely illustrated web page is far from comprehensive.

Could a Preview manual be profitable? Are there many users who would pay $10-$15 for a Preview manual?
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · September 4, 2008 - 13:51 EST #3
Personally, I wouldn't pay that for a manual, but then I'm already fairly savvy with figuring out such things. And, if I'm not, I search around online and find it.

I do agree that Preview could benefit from some write-up, but would that write-up be worth $10-15 when there are other graphic utilities that don't cost much more, but do more and include user manuals?

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