Why do some Mac Mail attachments appear as icons but others don’t?

Updated September 29th, 2020.

The Mac Mail app shows all attachments as icons– unless the attachment is a single-page PDF or image. For example, if you attach a Word document to an email, it shows up as an icon.

Mac Mail message with Word document attached
Mac Mail message with Word document attached

If you attach a Pages document to an email it’s the same thing: an icon.

Attachment as an icon
Attachment as an icon

If you attach a sound file, or a movie, or an Excel spreadsheet, or a text file, it shows up as an icon.

Mac Mail message with Sound, Movie, Excel, and Text documents attached
Mac Mail message with Sound, Movie, Excel, and Text documents attached

But… if you attach a single-page image, or a single-page PDF, you will see the attachment “in place” in the body of the Mail message (that is, it won’t be an icon– it will show the actual image). Like this:

Mac Mail message with single-page image attached
Mac Mail message with single-page image attached

The key is “single-page.” All of the standard graphics formats are single-page: JPEG, PNG, TIFF, BMP, PSD– all single-page. Any attachment in one of those formats will display the attachment in line.

PDFs are the one tricky case because a PDF can be multi-page. The rule is, if the PDF is one page, it’s going to show up “in place,” but if it’s multi-page, it’s going to show up as an icon.

Here’s an email with a single-page PDF attached:

Mac Mail message with single-page PDF attached
Mac Mail message with single-page PDF attached

Here’s an email with a multi-page PDF attached (it’s a book):

Mac Mail message with multi-page PDF attached
Mac Mail message with multi-page PDF attached

How to make your single-page images and PDFs display as icons

If you want a single-page image attachment or a single-page PDF attachment to appear as an icon rather than “in place” just control-click on the attachment (after you’ve attached them) and choose “View as icon.”

Control-clicking on the attached image produces this menu
Control-clicking on the attached image produces this menu– if it’s a single-pager

Then your email looks like this:

Mac Mail message with single page JPEG attached, viewed as icon
Mac Mail message with single page JPEG attached, viewed as icon thanks to a control-click

(This is the Mail message we saw previously, with the deer picture in it. Now the image is an icon.)

If you change your mind just control-click on the icon and select “View in Place.”

Control-clicking on the attached image, when it's a single-page image or a single-page PDF currently displayed as an icon, produces this menu
Control-clicking on the attached image, when it’s a single-page image or a single-page PDF currently displayed as an icon, produces this menu

Note: none of this matters to the recipient. It’s all for your benefit. When you send an email you can control how it looks to YOU but you can’t control how it looks to the recipient. Some email programs are set up to show attachments as icons no matter what. Some email programs are set to show attachments “in place” if the attachment is a single page image. Some offer a choice. You, the sender, don’t control how things look to the recipient. Something to keep in mind!

Copyright 2008-2021 Christian Boyce. All rights reserved.

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19 thoughts on “Why do some Mac Mail attachments appear as icons but others don’t?

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  1. Sounds good, but when the email with one page image reaches the recipient the “view as icon” instruction is no longer valid and the image shows “in place”. Very messy.

    1. Correct, assuming the person is using an email program that chooses to do it that way. In the end, what you do at your end with an email doesn’t define what happens at the other end.

    1. It is all up to the program that the person at the other end is using. If they’re using gmail in a browser, they’ll see a totally different thing than if they are using Apple Mail on an iPhone. Outlook on the Mac displays things differently than Mail on the Mac, and so on. Regardless, the mail and the attachment do arrive, and whether the image shows as an icon or inline, the item can be downloaded and saved.

  2. if you receive multiple attachments, some of which are single-page, others multiple-pages, the window is really messy. Apple should allow the customers to set the preference.

  3. How do you change this so it is permanent – all PDF’s show as icon instead of image? It’s so annoying to have to do it image by image.

    1. Best I can do is Select All in the body of the message and then control-click to View as Icon. Of course that isn’t what you’re asking for but it will help if you have multiple images in one message.

  4. To make Mail.app always use an icon for single page attachments you need to paste the following into Terminal.app:

    defaults write com.apple.mail DisableInlineAttachmentViewing -bool yes

    So quit Mail.app, open Terminal.app, paste in the above line, and re-open Mail.app. Viola.

    Note that you may also need to give Terminal.app Full Disk Access in Security and Privacy in System Preferences. I needed to. This is because the defaults command is writing the change to (I assume) a preferences plist file in your ~/Library folder. You can always revoke the Full Disk Access after you’ve run the command. Without providing Full Disk Access the command will run without error but the change won’t actually occur.

    You can undo the change by doing the same thing in Terminal.app but firstly you must change “-bool yes” to “-bool no”

  5. Excellent Scott, many thanks. I had read about the line to be changed in terminal.app, but it hadn’t worked. You’re the first one I’ve found who explains that the full access permissions need to be changed first. Great job!

  6. Many thanks Scott. I was tearing my hair out! Six drafts later I found your solution and it worked a charm. I tried the Terminal solution – didn’t work for me unfortunately. I was also able to restore a single page PDF I RECEIVED to icon format so that I could open it in Adobe. What a relief. Thank you so much for your well explained, simple solution. I’m going to stick my hair back in now.

  7. Scott: I gave Terminal full disk access in System Preferences, and ran the command in Terminal, and it simply isn’t working. I’m on Catalina, in case that makes any difference.

    This has been the most infuriating thing for me, as one who comes from the Windows world where attachments always behaved as attachments. I know it doesn’t affect the other person — whether recipient or sender — but I can’t stand seeing these PDFs or images inline when they aren’t intended to be. Sorry to vent. Thanks!

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