Unlock the Hidden Power of Preview to Better Manage PDF Files [Mac]

PDFs have fast become the de facto standard for sharing documents. One benefit is that they’re not easily editable, meaning your recipient sees the same thing you sent. One downside is that they’re not easily editable, making even simple adjustments seem needlessly complex.

You might think you need Adobe software to manipulate PDFs, but MacOS’s included PDF and image viewer, Preview, is much more powerful than it seems at first glance, and there are a number of hidden features that might save your trip into Acrobat.

1. Signing Documents

Forgetting printing out documents to sign them – if you save your signature in Preview once, you’ll be able to add it to documents forever.

1. Sign your name on a piece of plain white paper in pen. Make sure you leave a reasonable amount of white space around your signature.

2. Reveal the Markup toolbar under the View menu.


3. Click the signature icon in the toolbar.


4. Click the camera tab in the drop-down that appears.


5. Hold your signed paper up to your computer’s camera. Try to align the signature preview with the the blue line on the screen, but don’t aim for perfection. You’ll probably need to crane your neck to see around your paper.


6. When it looks good, click “Done” to save the signature.

7. Navigate to the page you need to sign and click the signature icon again. You’ll see your recently created signature here. Click on it to insert it.


8. Resize and place your signature on the page using the blue handles. It will insert at maximum size and in the center of the page by default, so you’ll also need to downsize and move it a bit.


9. Save or Export the PDF under the File menu. If you save the PDF, you’ll overwrite the original. If you export, you’ll get a new file.


2. Combining PDFs

If you need to stick two PDFs together, Preview has you covered.

1. Open both of your PDFs in Preview.

2. Turn on the Thumbnails sidebar from the sidebar icon.


3. Drag and drop the thumbnails of one PDF onto the thumbnails of the second. You can drag some or all of the pages and place them anywhere after the first or before the last page. If you’re adding to a one-page PDF, be sure to drop the new pages directly on top of the thumbnail.


4. Save or Export the PDF under the File menu.

3. Changing Page Order in PDFs

This trick also uses the thumbnails sidebar.

1. With your PDF open, turn on the Thumbnails sidebar.

2. Drag and drop pages in the sidebar until they are in the correct order. You can select multiple pages by holding the “Command” key as you click.


3. Save or Export the PDF.

4. Annotating PDFs and Images

This trick also works with images and relies on the Markup toolbar, which is not visible by default.

1. With your image or PDF open, click on the Markup Toolbar icon (or press “Command + Shift + A”).


2. Insert shapes by clicking on the shapes dropdown and choosing the shape you’d like to insert.


3. Adjust the border and fill colors in the Markup toolbar. If you want to circle something in red, set the border color to red and the fill color to blank (represented by a square with a red diagonal line through it).


4. Add text by clicking the Text icon. This will automatically place a text box in the middle of the page.


5. Type your text in the resulting text box.


6. Use the Markup toolbar to change the text color and size.


5. Highlighting Text

If you’re studying from a PDF, highlighting text can be invaluable. Note that this will only work in a PDF with live text.

1. With your PDF open in Preview, click on the Markup Toolbar icon (or press “Command + Shift + A”).

2. Make sure you have Text Selection activated in the Markup Toolbar.


3. Select the text you want to highlight with your cursor.

4. Click the highlighter icon in the main toolbar. If you want to select a color, click the drop-down arrow next to the icon.


5. Save the PDF when you’re done, or your highlighting will be erased.

Bonus: Fill in PDF Forms

Even if the PDF form you need to fill out hasn’t been saved as a form, you can still fill it out with Preview.

1. Once you have your PDF open, hover your cursor over one of the form’s fields and click.


2. An empty text box will appear. Begin typing and the text will automatically stick to the form line.


3. To change the size of the text, first select it. Then, reveal the Markup toolbar and use the adjustment options there.



Despite its basic appearance, Preview has more built-in functionality than it seems. Next time you need to fill out a PDF form, don’t bother with Adobe – check out what you already have on board.

Alexander Fox
Alexander Fox

Alexander Fox is a tech and science writer based in Philadelphia, PA with one cat, three Macs and more USB cables than he could ever use.

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