How to Get the Most from Preview in OS X: Annotating

| How-To

Preview on the Mac. Elegant, powerful, unpretentious, highly useful, free.

Preview is an application that comes pre-installed on every Mac. Technically, it's a browser/viewer for images and PDF files. However, Preview can do quite a bit more than simply let you view pictures and documents.

Here on TMO, Melissa Holt and Jim Tanous have covered several features available in Preview, such as "Filling out PDF Forms with Preview", "How to Combine Multiple PDFs Using Preview", and "How to Take Mac OS X Screenshots With Preview." As we'll see, there is certainly more to say about this gem.

I am one of those learners who benefits the most from annotating my reading material. You know – underlining, highlighting, drawing arrows, surrounding important passages with ovals and squares, the occasional marginal notes, and even attaching sticky notes. All of the aforementioned in different colors and thicknesses, too. True, it's highly unlikely that I will ever go back and refer to my annotations, but the act alone of highlighting, underlining, note-taking, yes... even doodling, actually helps me understand and retain the material being read.

So, let's talk about a feature in Preview that I wager many readers are not aware exists: annotating PDF documents. This is my most favorite feature in Preview.

There are several excellent third-party apps – both for OS X and iOS – that can do all that Preview can do, and then some. Annotating PDFs is no exception. However, before investing in software, you should take a good look at Preview because you may just find that it does exactly what you need without having to spend a cent. As I've pointed out in past articles, Apple has this habit of quietly including lots of useful software with tons of features in OS X. The only thing, is that you have to know where to find it so you can go explore.

The universal red

Say "No!" to Adobe Acrobat Reader. Say "Yes!" to Preview.

First, it's important to understand that, by default, a Mac running OS X will load a PDF file into Preview when you double click on the file. Many people believe – or are led to believe – that Adobe Acrobat Reader is needed to view PDFs. No. With a couple of minor exceptions, there is nothing that Acrobat Reader can do that Preview can't. Actually, Preview does more! And, when using Acrobat Reader, technical and security issues abound, as well as the many inevitable updates. I tossed out Acrobat Reader several years ago. I don't miss it. Do yourself a favor: if you have Adobe Acrobat Reader, consider deleting it from your Mac and using Preview instead for your PDF viewing – and editing – pleasure.

Open a PDF document in Preview. If you need to get to the application itself, it is located in your Applications folder. You can also make a spot for it on your Dock. For illustration, I have opened the iPad user manual (FYI, Apple manuals in PDF format are available at Take a look at Preview's toolbar at the top of any open document.

The default toolbar in Preview, highlighting two buttons: Markup and Edit.

This is the default configuration for Preview's toolbar. Notice two buttons: Markup and Edit.

Referring to the illustration below, I would like to highlight (a.k.a. Markup) some text on this page; here's what I do:

First, I select the text first, e.g.; the text, "Using apps". Next, I choose the type of markup from the Markup pop-up menu which appears when clicking on the Markup Button. Notice that I can choose to Strikethrough or Underline the selected text. However, to Highlight the text, I choose a desired color from the pop-up menu. This activates the highlighter tool.

The markup selection pop-up menu appears when clicking on the Markup Tool in Preview's toolbar.

From the Markup Tool pop-up menu you can choose to markup your text by highlighting with a choice of colors, strikethrough or underline.

You can see that when I made my markup selection, the little icon displays the tool in use (highlight, strikethrough or underline). If the icon is blue (as opposed to dark gray), this indicates that the tool is in Active Mode. This is very handy because once the tool is active, all you need do is go through the document, select the text you want to markup, and the markup is immediately applied. This mimics traditional marking up text on paper with a highlighter or writing implement. To deactivate the Markup tool, just click on its button. The icon goes back to its gray, inactive state.

There's more to annotation besides text markup. In Preview, other kinds of annotation are available by activating the Edit Toolbar. You can do this either via the View menu or by clicking on the Edit Button on the standard toolbar.

Clicking on the Edit button in the toolbar, or via the View menu, will activate the Edit Toolbar which provides a number of additional annotation tools.

Several additional annotation tools are available in the Edit Toolbar, which is activated by clicking on the Edit button.

Look at all the annotation tools available to you.

On your PDF, you can draw rectangles, ovals, lines, and arrows and each in different colors and line attributes. Think of the possibilities. You also have tools to add text in boxes, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and even sticky notes in a panoply of colors. It's a beautiful thing!

Remember to File > Save (or Duplicate/Save As) your PDF when done with your annotating. Next time you open the file, ta-da... there are your wonderfully crafted and colorful annotations. And, you can edit, move or delete your old annotations.

Preview will also keep track of all your annotations in an index. This facilitates finding specific annotations later when you need to go back for a review of the document. Perusing through your list of annotations is done via the Annotations Inspector. The Inspector panel is summoned via View > Show Inspector or the keyboard shortcut, Command-I.

The Annotations Inspector panel lists all your annotations and allows you to navigate to them quickly.

The Annotations Inspector panel lists all your annotations and allows you to navigate to them quickly.

Before concluding, there are a few other considerations regarding Preview. All the annotation features we've looked at are also available via Preview's Tools menu. Oh, and for you keyboard shortcut mavens, you will certainly not be disappointed.

Additionally, it's important to note that your annotated PDF files are generally compatible with other PDF apps on both OS X and iOS. Your annotations are even editable in other PDF utilities. I read and edit my annotated PDFs interchangeably between my devices. (I used GoodReader on my iPad).

As you can see, annotations in Preview is powerful and easy-to-use. All of Preview's features definitely make this application a glad-that-we-have-it productivity tool in your software arsenal. What's more, there are improvements to Preview with each major OS X update, and all this at no additional cost!

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When using Preview for PDF files how are you saving them. What software are you using to be opened on multiple devises?


I’ve been using and loving Preview annotations for some time.  I’ve noticed that my annotations don’t always show up on Windows machines that use Adobe Reader.  I’m guessing that Preview is adding layers on the file and Adobe isn’t correctly rendering the additional layers.  But that’s ok, when I annotate I’m marking the pdf in a way that I want permanent.  If this is the case just select Print -> Save as pdf in Preview.  This will generate a new pdf with your annotations “burned in.”  They become part of the pdf and are not layered, and can be seen by everyone regardless of OS or pdf viewer app.


Dave, that’s a good tip about saving as a new PDF. I ran into the problem of Acrobat not reading Preview’s annotations when suitting a job application… not cool.

One thing though…I can’t get rid of Reader as it does not render every PDF correctly, particularly complicated ones generated by Adobe programs with layers… it always shows all layers, even if some layers were turned off when the PDF was made. Not cool. And, not able to dump Reader because of this.


Preview does have these nice features, but when you work in an environment that uses Acrobat forms and is a predominantly Windows shop, Preview falls short.  As one commenter noted, the annotations in preview are incorrectly rendered in Acrobat.  I have also found that items entered into the fillable fields of a PDF form (made in Acrobat Pro) are not readable on Windows.  In fact, even forms that are edited in Acrobat Pro sometimes are not readable by the Windows version.  I suppose that blame should be placed on Adobe because the Portable Document Format is not truly portable.  Nevertheless, I pay for Acrobat Pro X on Mac OS X so that I can work with colleagues using Windows.  Preview doesn’t play well with Windows.

scott mc laughlin

One infuriating thing I’e found is that if I use annotations in Preview then I lose the ability to copy text from that PDF. Once there are annotations then the whole PDF (even non-annotated sections) becomes gibberish when copied (select text and cmd+c) and pasted into a text editor. I’d appreciate any workarounds for this, or if this is even still a problem on later OSs, I’m still on Snow Leopard FWIW.


@Scott Mc Laughlin - I just tried a quick test on a pdf that I can copy/paste from.  I typed in some annotated text and drew a couple lines.  I was still able to copy/paste the underlying text afterward.  Your issue may have been corrected with an updated version of the software.  I’m running Preview 5.5.3 on 10.7.5.

John Prieur

I have a different question. I love Preview and am sold on using it as my PDF editor on my Mac. I’m about to go back to school at night to try to move up in my career, and many of the readings are in PDF that I’d like to mark up.

During the day, I’ll be at work on a Windows machine with Acrobat Pro installed. I would really like the ability to occasionally do some of my readings there (including annotations), which I could then save to my Dropbox and transfer to my Mac at home to study.

I’ve heard folks talk about the fonts transferring, and that type of stuff. Do you know about how the annotations from Acrobat transfer or render in Preview? I’m only talking about features that both editors have - highlight, notes, etc.

Clancy Vincent Barrett

I used to be able to create arrows of different colours, now I am unable. I am running 10.9.2 and have done every possible update.

Why have Apple removed this function? Preview now feels more fiddly as well.

Vince Nigel

Here is another way for that, edit PDF text and images, markup PDF content with highlight, underline, strikethrough, etc.

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