Late-night screen use and insomnia go together like blue light and disrupted circadian rhythms. (This type of light is particularly bad for convincing our brains it's still daytime.) It can also cause eyestrain, tiredness and stress. For these reasons many software companies have worked on ways to adjust computer, tablet and smartphone interfaces for evening or nighttime use.

Some devices have a special 'Dark Mode' which is designed to kick in during the evening hours. For example, Apple created a Dark Mode for its Apple TV, while iPadOS and iOS 13 brought a Dark Mode to iPhone and iPad.

It's true that turning the brightness down on your Mac's screen (usually by pressing the F1 key) might be sufficient to stop you from straining your eyes too much, but there are certain elements of the interface - for example, the fact that most apps have white backgrounds - that are likely to have you reaching for the sunglasses.

So, what options do you have to make your Mac screen easier on the eye?

In macOS Mojave (which arrived back in September 2018) Apple introduced a new Dark Mode that could change the interface of your Mac so that all elements were darker and easier on the eye. This continues in macOS Catalina, and we'll tell you how to enable the feature below.

Prior to Mojave there were two options available to you: you could turn on Night Shift and you could use a dark menu bar and dock. Both settings were available via System Preferences. For those who have yet to update to Catalina, we'll explain where to find the settings below.

What is Dark Mode?

Dark Mode is a feature that allows Mac users to switch to a completely different darker interface that adjusts everything, system-wide.

With Dark Mode on, the Calendar app will revert to a black background and type will be a similar tone to the colour of the box, Messages bubbles will turn grey with white text, and the Finder background will be black, as shown in the image at the top of this article.

How to use Dark Mode on Mac: Calendar

How to turn on Dark Mode in Catalina

Catalina (and Mojave) users can choose to turn on Dark Mode during the setup process when they first install the OS. If you chose not to, to turn on Dark Mode follow these steps:

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Click on General.
  3. Click on Dark.
  4. Select an accent colour for parts of the menu and a colour for when text is highlighted.

How to use Dark Mode on Mac: System Preferences

Use Auto Dark Mode instead

You may have noticed a third option in the Dark Mode settings - Auto. This is a clever idea that automatically adjusts from Light to Dark across the day so that you have a bright display when there's plenty of sunlight and then the darker mode to save your eyes once the night arrives.

How to get dark wallpaper in Catalina

Apple also offers a feature called Dynamic Desktop that perfectly accompanies Auto mode. With this setting the backdrop to your screen will change throughout the day, so as the sun goes down, your wallpaper will get darker.

To set this up go to System Preferences > Desktop & Screen Saver then select the Desktop tab at the top and choose a wallpaper from the Dynamic Desktop section.

You'll see there are dropdown menu to the right of the image at the top of the window. This allows you to select from three different modes. The wallpapers can either be Light or Dark all the time, but if you choose the Dynamic option then macOS will subtly adjust them throughout the day.

How to use Dark Mode on Mac: Dynamic Desktop

How to get Dark Mode in Safari

The Safari interface itself uses the new Dark Mode once it's enabled on macOS, but normal web pages aren't going to appear darker when using it - after all, the web designer has dictated how they will appear, and if the page's background is white then it will remain white. However, there is a way you can view web pages in Safari in a Dark Mode.

Turn on Reader mode by clicking the stack of lines to the left of the URL.

How to use Dark Mode on Mac: Reader Mode

Note that you won't see this option on every web page.

Once in Reader mode you will view a dark web page without adverts and other distractions.

How to use Dark Mode on Mac: Reader

(It's also possible to get a dark mode in Chrome if you use that browser.)

How to get Dark Mode in Pages

You might have thought that if you turned on Dark Mode your Pages documents would have a dark background and perhaps white type, instead of black type on a white page.

Unfortunately this isn't the case because Pages is designed to show you on the page what you would see if you printed or PDFed the page. This makes sense, but if you're never going to print the page, you might prefer a more easy-on-the-eye appearance.

This might be possible if you were to create a template with a dark background image that you can use when you want a dark appearance in Pages. However, we think it might just be easier to use Notes, which will assume a dark background in Dark Mode.

Other ways to darken your Mac

Here are some other changes you can make to darken your Mac.

Invert Colours

You can create your own Dark Mode by turning on Inverted Colours. You do this in System Preferences:

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Click on Accessibility.
  3. Click on Display.
  4. Choose Invert Colours - this will turn the white backgrounds to your windows black, and the black type white. (It's not possible to screenshot this, so you'll have to take our word for it!)
  5. Similarly, you could choose Use grayscale and you'd turn your interface black and white.

How to turn on Night Shift on a Mac (pre-Mojave)

Apple introduced Night Shift to the Mac in macOS Sierra. Night Shift adjusts the colour of your display after sunset, toning down that bright-blue light in favour of warmer light that's easier on the eyes.

  1. To turn on Night Shift open System Preferences > Displays and click on the Night Shift tab.
  2. Click on the box beside Schedule and choose Sunrise to Sunset, or custom, if you'd like to choose your own timings.
  3. You can also adjust the Colour Temperature here to manually override the settings if you want to, or choose Turn On Until Sunrise.

How to turn on dark menu bar and dock (pre-Mojave)

The closest Apple had come to introducing a Dark Mode on the Mac was when it added the ability to use dark menu bars and dock in macOS El Capitan. This was a step towards making things a little less bright, although it wasn't the Dark Mode everyone had been hoping for.

  1. To turn this feature on, go to System Preferences > General and put a tick next to 'Use dark menu bar and Dock'.
  2. Remove the tick from Use Dark Menu Bar and Dock to return to standard mode.

As you can see, once 'dark menu bar' mode is switched on, the interface is subtly, but not drastically, different. As the option name suggests, it changes the look of only the menu bar (at the top of the macOS interface) and the dock (at the bottom).

How to enable Dark Mode: Safari

Here are some things to look out for in this mode:

  • The dock: the pale translucent background becomes much darker. It remains translucent, however, and if you move windows behind the dock the lightness shows through.
  • The menu bar. The dropdown menus across macOS are dark and again, the lightness of any windows underneath shines through.
  • App support. Support for 'dark menu bar' mode (pre-Mojave) is limited to Apple's own apps. Apps made by a third party display a dark menu, but it does not have the see-through effect.
  • Dark Mode does not affect other translucent parts of the macOS interface. Safari, for example, features a translucent sidebar.