iMovie for Mac: The ultimate guide

We’re breaking down this surprisingly complex app


The latest Macs are renowned for their incredible power and energy efficiency, making them ideal for creative work. One of the popular video editors on macOS is iMovie, which Apple offers its users for free. To make the most out of it, however, you must first familiarize yourself with its features and user interface. To get you started, we’ve broken down iMovie for Mac through this ultimate guide.

How to download and install iMovie on macOS

First things first, to use iMovie, you have to download it. It usually comes pre-installed on macOS Sonoma, but if you’ve deleted it or can’t find it for whatever reason, follow the steps below:

  1. Launch the App Store on your Mac.
  2. Click on the Search field in the top left corner.
  3. Type iMovie.
  4. Hit the Return key.
  5. Select the iMovie app in the search result.
  6. Click on the Get or Download button, and wait for it to finish installation.
    iMovie listing on the Mac App Store

Alternatively, you can:

  1. Click this link on your Mac.
  2. Hit the Get or Download button and wait for it to finish installation.

iMovie basics

When you launch iMovie for the very first time:

  1. Allow iMovie to access your photo library.
    photos permission on iMovie for macOS
  2. Go through the welcome screens by hitting Continue.
    iMovie on macOS splash screen
  3. Hit on iMovie in the menu bar, followed by Settings (or Preferences on older macOS versions).
    iMovie preferences in menu bar
  4. Adjust the settings if the defaults don’t match your needs, then exit that page.
    iMovie settings page on macOS
  5. On the main screen you will find two main sections — Media and Projects.
  6. In Media you will be able to view your photo and video library stored in the Photos app.
    media tab on iMovie for Mac
  7. As for Projects, that’s where our focus will be. It’s where the magic begins.

How to use Trailers

The Trailers feature, as its name suggests, allows you to create Hollywood-style movie trailers with your videos. Apple provides you with over two dozen templates for various genres to pick from.

  1. In the Projects section, click on Create New.
  2. Choose Trailer.
    choosing to create a movie or trailer on the iMovie main screen
  3. Click on a template with a genre that matches the vibe you’re aiming at. Under each template, you will also find a timestamp of how long it is, and you can click on it to watch a preview.
    trailers templates in iMovie
  4. Once you’ve decided, click on Create in the bottom right corner, and you will be taken to the editor.
  5. In the bottom half of the screen, you will find the Outline, Storyboard, and Shot List.
  6. In the top bar, you will find My Media — where we’re currently working — and other sections.
  7. The Audio section allows you to import music or use Apple’s sound effects. However, trailers come with background music already — it’s only there for additional audio customizations.
    audio section of iMovie trailer
  8. In the Titles section, you can choose the style of your trailer’s title.
    titles section of iMovie trailer
  9. Under Backgrounds, you get to choose the main background for your project.
    backgrounds section of iMovie trailer
  10. Transitions let you decide how the animation looks when one video ends and another starts playing.
    transitons section of iMovie trailer
  11. In My Media, click on Photos in the sidebar.
  12. Enter the Videos folder to import a clip to the project.
  13. Once you have a video in mind, drag it to the Project Media section in the sidebar to import it.
    dragging a video to the sidebar to import it
  14. From the Storyboard you get to pick a segment from the video you’ve imported to apply it to a certain part of the trailer.
  15. Then, you can move on to the next section of the trailer. Fill them all in, and always remember you can import more videos from your photo library to use.
    choosing the footage for an imovie trailer
  16. Continue to customize the trailer using the tools we’ve covered here.
    storyboard section of iMovie trailer
  17. Once you’re ready to export your project, hit on the Projects button in the top left corner.
    projects button in iMovie trailer
  18. Give your project a name and press OK.
    giving the iMovie trailer a name
  19. From the Projects screen you can then export your trailer and share it with other apps or services.
    share project button in iMovie

How to use Movies

The Movies feature provides more sophisticated video editing tools for larger projects.

  1. To create a movie project, choose Movie after clicking Create New in the Projects screen.
    choosing to create a movie on the main imovie page
  2. You will find a layout similar to that of the Trailer editor, particularly the upper left corner of the screen.
    the main screen in a movie on iMovie
  3. Import videos from your photo library, similar to how it’s done for trailers, and drop them in the bottom section.
    dragging and dropping in a movie to import videos
  4. Keep on adding all of the videos you want to include in your movie.
    dragging and dropping more videos to import to movie

How to use the Movies toolbar

In the top right corner, you will find a toolbar.

  1. The first two options are Color Balance and Color Corrections, which let you tweak the colors in your video.
    color balance section in movie on iMovie
  2. Cropping is the third option, which lets you crop and rotate your video as you see fit.
    section in movie on iMovie
  3. Stabilization is the fourth option, which lets you stabilize shaky footage.
    stabilization section in movie on iMovie
  4. The fifth option is Volume, which allows you to mute or lower the volume of the original video added to your movie.
    volume section in movie on iMovie
  5. Then comes Noise Reduction and Equalizer, which helps reduce background noise.
    noise reduction and equalizer section in movie on iMovie
  6. After that, there’s Speed, which allows you to slow-mo a video, make it faster, freeze a frame, reverse, and more.
    speed section in movie on iMovie
  7. The following option is for color and audio filters, with dozens to choose from.
    audio effects section in movie on iMovie
  8. And finally there’s the Clip Information button that displays its name and date.
    clip info section in movie on iMovie
  9. In the Audio section, you can add music to your movie if you want to replace or combine it with the original soundtrack.
  10. Just drag and drop from Apple’s Sound Effects library or import your own audio.
    dragging and dropping an audio file to add to movie
  11. There, you can see the audio track right below the video footage, so you can move the audio around in reference to the events happening in your video.
  12. In the Title section in the top-left, you can drag a title of your choice to the video footage in the bottom half of the screen and control its font, color, size, and more.
    adding a title to the movie
  13. The Backgrounds section of the top left bar allows you to add cool animations and backgrounds to your movie, such as a world map where you hop from one location to another. This would be perfect if your movie is shot in different cities and you want to visualize your traveling route.
    adding a background to the movie
  14. Finally, in Transitions, similar to that in Trailers, you get to choose the animation when one video footage ends and another starts.
    choosing a transtition effect for a movie
  15. Once you’ve finalized editing your movie, click on the Projects button in the top left corner, similar to that in Trailers.
  16. Give your movie a name and click OK.
    renaming a movie
  17. You can then export it to another app or service from the Projects menu.
    movie share options

iMovie on Mac: The bottom line

MacBook Pro M3 showing video editing software

Whether you’re documenting your travels for social media, working on something as a school assignment, or just curious about stitching footage together and adding soundtracks to their backgrounds for fun, the possibilities are endless on iMovie. It’s both simple and complex — easy to learn but also capable of building something with professional-grade quality. Now, we obviously can’t compare it to Final Cut Pro, which costs $299, but it’s still a very powerful tool for people who don’t want to spend a buck. It’s a great way to test the waters of video editing, and if you feel the need to have more options and customizations, then you can consider buying Apple’s Pro tool.

iMovie works on iPhone, iPad, and Mac, so you can save projects to iCloud and pick them up on other Apple devices. You can also use AirDrop if you work on large projects on a limited or slow data plan. For example, an iPad’s touchscreen can make dragging and dropping items easier, but your Mac can handle more intensive tasks and projects. This handy app is actively getting updated by Apple, so the latest camera technologies are being supported in real time. So, make sure to update it whenever an upgrade is available to take advantage of the newest features.

Personally, I love the Trailers builder, even though I’m in no way a video editor, because it can create suspenseful short clips of humorous moments I shoot in my daily life. Sharing them with friends is hilarious, and they’re kept securely on iCloud, so I can look back at them in the future and giggle at their ridiculousness.

Apple includes plenty of genres to choose from, so you can use a thriller-themed template for something suspenseful or a documentary one for more serious footage of nature. Again, the possibilities are endless, and it’s up to you to be creative and develop original ideas. Apple has provided you with the canvas and brushes; bring your paint and dig right in!