Three ways to use mask DENSITY for more natural edits in Photoshop

Layer masks are the key to nearly all great images created with Photoshop. They let you make targeted adjustments, blend images, composite, work non-destructively, and are probably the most important component of using layers. Masks have two properties which are designed to help you get more natural-looking results. You may already be familiar with mask feathering, which allows you to soften the edges of your mask for a more gradual result. But the other property, “density“, is one that I almost never see other photographers take advantage of. It’s incredibly useful in certain scenarios, but it isn’t obvious and most photographers never realize it can help improve their images.

We’ll cover several great ways you can use density, but it’s important to first understand what it actually does. Layer masks control the visibility of individual pixels of a layer (including images and adjustment layers). The basic principle is that as you paint on the layer mask: “black conceals”, “white reveals”, and gray gives some proportional results. There are times when it would be helpful to ensure a minimum visibility (gray) in the layer mask, and that’s what density does. At the default 100% density, the layer mask looks exactly as you painted it. But as you slide reduce density, the dark values in the mask are lightened. If you slide all the way to 0% density, the mask becomes pure white (even if you have true black in your mask)! Let’s explore a couple scenarios where you could benefit from adjusting density.

Using density for more natural-looking transitions

Filters often look best when you apply them in a targeted way that affects some parts of the image much more than others. For example,a noise reduction filter works best if you apply it more aggressively in smooth areas (such as sky and water) than in areas where you wish to retain detail. You can paint a layer mask that will help do that using white to cleanup the sky/water while using darker greys elsewhere to strike a balance of noise reduction and detail. Because you probably want at least some minimum effect everywhere in the image, the mask is going to have a minimal gray – and that’s exactly what density offers. So rather than spending too much time painting a very fancy mask, you can simply paint white on the sky/water areas that need the most smoothing. Then just adjust the mask density to reveal some noise reduction everywhere else. With minimal effort, you’ll get a perfect result with no obvious transition edges. It’s fully non-destructive, so you can readjust the density anytime you need.

You can use this approach when using a layer mask on an adjustment layer, such as for color grading or color overlays. Anytime you want the effect to show more in some places than others but need to show a little bit everywhere to look natural, density is a great solution. I show this in the video to improve a color overlay, which could just as easily been any form of color grading.

It works very well with smart filter masks, such as for sharpening and noise reduction. You could also use it to improve complex filters such as Nik Color Efex Pro or Luminar. Just apply a filter to your Smart Object, invert the filter mask to black, paint white where you need the filter most, then adjust the density to balance out the effect across the whole image. It’s the same workflow I showed in the video above to reduce noise.

One thing to keep in mind is that this control is separate from the master layer opacity, BlendIf, and vector masks. So even if you make the mask white via density, these other factors can still hide your pixels.

 

Using density to help blend a layer

Exposure blending, time blending, compositing and other forms of combining layers with different content typically involve painting white on a black layer mask to reveal each layer. Until you’ve revealed your subject, it can be hard to know exactly where you should brush on your image. In other words, you need a bit of a “sneak peak” to know how to paint the mask. You can <shift>-click the mask to disable it, but this reveals the layer entirely and obscures everything below it. Mask density offers a way to get something in-between to let you see everything at once. Just slide the density to around 50%. This will show the blend layer enough to know where to paint, while showing the underlying content at the same time. And as you paint, the blend layer will become more and more opaque so you still get a good sense of the blended result. Once you no longer need the visual aid, just slide density back to 100%. Be careful to slide all the way to 100%, so that you don’t allow unwanted portions of the layer to create unwanted ghosting.

 

Controlling density via Lumenzia

The sliders in Lumenzia allow you to not only adjust Lumenzia’s previews and BlendIf, but also the sliders for layer masks including feather and density. When you click on a mask to make it active, the precision slider in Lumenzia will show white to indicate that it is ready to adjust the feather on that layer or filter mask. To adjust density instead, just <alt/option>-click the slider and it will turn yellow to indicate that it is ready to adjust the density on that mask.

Making the night sky glow with Lumenzia v10

Thank you for all the enthusiasm and support for Lumenzia v10. Since it was released, I’ve heard a few common questions that I’d like to address here and in the short tutorial below.

 

The v10 interface: Compact (the new default) vs Full (the new default)

One of the more common questions has been around the “new” interface. The v10 interface is actually nearly identical to previous versions. Since v8, Lumenzia has offered a few different interface styles to allow you to choose whether you see a larger range of buttons or a simplified, smaller interface. What’s different in v10 is that the default is now set to the “large compact” instead of the full “large” interface, but these options have been around for a couple years (and you’ll see the compact interface is the one I’ve been using for most videos since v8).

You can change the interface size you like either via Flyout (top-right three bars icon) / Interface Size and Modes, or via the shortcut keys on the X button (such as <alt/option>-clicking X to cycle through all 4 options). Aside from the buttons, this also allows access to a small format, which is ideal when want to make the panel as small as possible (such as when working on a laptop).

The sliders allow you to achieve nearly any of the button values (as well as numeric values between the buttons, such as L2.5). So the compact interface offers all the functionality most users need in a smaller and simpler interface. Here are a few quick tips on how to make the most of the compact interface:

  • Click on “L” and then slide the precision slider down to the specific value you wish to use (such as L3). I strongly encourage the use of this slider with either interface, so that you may achieve the full range of values (for example, there is no button for L3.5 or L7).
  • The alphanumeric zones (such as Zc) include a wider range of tones than the numeric zones (such as Z5). Just slide the precision (vertical) slider down to make something like Zc look more like Z5. There is nothing particularly special about the initial value, so I would encourage you to use these sliders whether you use the compact or full interface.
  • There are more numeric zones than the alphanumeric ones. So if you want to target Z5 when coming from Zc, be sure to slide the value (horizontal) slider a little bit right to make the most selected tone be slightly brighter.

However, there are a few benefits to the large interface. You’ll need it for a few buttons (DM1 and LM1), the LIVE-M and LIVE-S modes (since the sliders do not apply), and the buttons offer an easy way to get specific and repeatable previews (which is particularly helpful if you use the Z0 – Z10 zone previews).

 

v10 modes

In v9 and previous versions, you could use a dropdown to select between modes such as LIVE-M and BlendIf:under. For v10, this has been replaced with a button (as the formatting options for dropdowns in UXP don’t fit the available space). Just click multiple times to cycle through the options. And because BlendIf:this is very rarely used / needed, it is now hidden by default. However, you can go to Flyout / Interface Size and Modes to check it to make it an available option. You can also use this to disable modes you don’t use (for example, uncheck both LIVE options if you’d prefer to quickly cycle between preview and BlendIf modes). The default “preview” mode (which creates the orange preview layers) is required and cannot be disabled.

 

v10 info display

You can now see import document information (color space and bit-depth) by enabling Flyout / Tool Tips & Info / Document & PS Info. By default, this info is shown in the Basics panel and not the main Lumenzia panel, but you can configure however you like. This new info will show right below the bottom of panel, so be sure to click and drag down the bottom edge far enough to see it. If a low quality setting (such as sRGB or 8-bit) is detected, the display will show in color to help call attention to the issue. While these are great settings for exporting to the web, you wouldn’t want to see this in your original/master files. If you are using an M1 computer under Rosetta, a special warning will be displayed, as running PS natively offers much faster performance.

 

Create Special Channels / Layers

This is also available in v9, but I have not demonstrated this feature prior to the tutorial here. This feature allows you to create special channels or layers based on LAB values, HSL, etc. This allows a much broader range of targeting options, as well as new creative effects when applied using blend modes. For the latter, use the layer preview option and try the various blend modes for creative effects. Try varying the fill opacity, as some blend modes respond differently to fill vs opacity (this includes the color burn, linear burn, color dodge, linear dodge, vivid light, linear light, hard mix, difference blend modes).

Options for creating special selections (or channels again) are also available via the “Sel” popup (which is shown when you click the button and there is no active selection). So you could use this for example to help create a selection based on different saturation models (HSL vs HSB).

 

Other shortcuts in the Flyout menu

The Lumenzia flyout menu (top-right three bars icon) now includes helpful shortcuts to the following:

  • Written user manuals. Previously these were separate files in the ZIP download for the panel. With the integrated manuals, you now have access to them at any time.
  • Release notes: Quick access to see the latest version and what’s changed. (Note that you can always see which version you have installed at the bottom of the panel).
  • Check for updates: Quick access to download the latest version. You can always see which version you’re running by looking at the bottom of the panel (click and drag down the bottom edge if you don’t see it).

A photographer’s review of the M1 Max Macbook Pro

I’ve had my hands on the brand new 2021 Macbook Pro (M1 Max) for a few weeks now, does it live up to the hype? Yes, absolutely. I’m stunned by how good this computer is in so many regards. This is unquestionably the best computer I’ve ever used for photography and I wanted to provide a detailed review from a photographer’s perspective, as well as some tips on how to make the most of the transition.

First, some quick background. I’ve been using a fully-loaded 2018 MacBook Pro (MBP). This includes a 2.9GHz 6‑core i9 Intel processor, 32GB memory, Radeon Pro 560X GPU with 4GB of GPU memory, 4TB SSD, and 15″ display. And thanks to a free battery replacement last month from Apple (the original battery was swelling, probably from being continuously charged during Covid), it’s still just like new. But time has moved on and I’ve nearly run out of internal storage, I’ve been eager for a lighter laptop to carry on photography trips, and of course I’m eager to get my hands on anything that will cut down the time I spend waiting while processing images and video. So I’ve been literally waiting to hand my money to Apple the moment they released a Pro version of Apple Silicon.

Within 15 minutes of the machines going on sale, I’d bought mine. It was an easy decision to buy every option except the 16″ as a professional doing photography, software, and video. I opted for a smaller screen and battery life to save some weight. My 15″ 2018 feels hefty at 4.0lbs and putting 4.7lbs on in my photo backpack for a 16″ screen (and some extra battery life) didn’t sound like fun. With all the other upgrades, my 2021 MBP includes the M1 Max with 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU, 64GB unified memory, and 8TB SSD storage. Of course, it also includes all the standard features like a greatly improved screen, better speakers and mic, upgraded web cam, HDMI port, SDXC card reader, and MagSafe.

The tests below reflect my maxed-out 14″ computer, but I’m using this for business and most photographers should probably just buy 14″ or 16″ with the basic 10-core CPU, 32GB RAM, 2-4TB SSD. 64GB and an upgraded GPU are nice for photography, but the gains are smaller (64GB is nice if you work with a lot of large files and the upgraded GPU is nice if you edit a lot of video).

 

Photoshop benchmarks:

I’ve just released a free benchmarking tool for Photoshop called G-Bench. The gains with M1 are very real and very impressive. Here are a few highlights (all tests on a high-resolution image from a Nikon D850):

  • On average, the M1 Max completes tasks in Photoshop in half the time of the 2018 MacBook Pro (57s weighted test time vs 110s).
  • Filter / Reduce noise takes only 10s vs 25.
  • Surface Blur takes only 9.5s vs 25
  • Field blur takes 2.5s vs 8.5.
  • Brush lag is effectively gone even with a 2000 pixel soft brush.

On the other hand, there are some areas where the gains are very small. Saving smart objects (15 vs 16s) and compressed TIF files (21 vs 24s) is barely changed as the bottleneck here is CPU clock speed, and the M1’s impressive gains are generally other categories of performance. Of course, if Adobe were to optimize file compression for multi-core CPUs at some point, then we could expect to see huge gains as well.

Equally surprising to me was how much of a performance hit was caused when running under Rosetta2. I’ve generally been told there is about a 20% loss of performance, but it’s much larger. The weighted test time nearly doubled (57s vs 112s). That made it slightly slower than my 2018 MBP. It’s impressive that the machine can keep up when running under emulation, but you’ll definitely want to run natively as much as possible.

Note that I’ve run these tests on a 14″ M1 Max. There are rumors of a high-power mode for the 16″ version, which amounts to being able to run the processor hotter (faster) due to better cooling with the larger chassis. If that comes to fruition, I’d love to hear what times you see running the same benchmark. I would be very surprised to see any benefit in Photoshop, as there’s almost nothing I do in Photoshop that drives the fans much above the minimum. Heavy imports in LR, video exports, or other activity that causes loud fans for a long time is the kind of task where I would expect some possible benefit (certainly Photoshop might benefit under a heavy multi-tasking scenario).

 

Other performance tests:

I haven’t created benchmarks for these other apps, but wanted to share some comparisons running identical tasks on both my 2018 and 2021 laptops.

  • Gigapixel AI did the same enlargement in 180s vs 30s (ie, the old machine took 6x longer!)
  • Rendering a 20-minute 1080p video from Final Cut Pro X took 2:02 on the new laptop vs 8:43 (a whopping 77% reduction in the time to export, ie the old machine took 4.3x longer)
  • Rendering a different 19-minute 1080p video from ScreenFlow took 9:06 on the new laptop vs 14:03 (a 35% reduction in the time to export, ie the old machine took 1.5x longer). This project was slightly more complex (many more cuts and a second audio track), but nothing that I believe would account for the different times here. The benefits can’t be explained as simply as “this machine is built for video”. Yes, all video apps benefit greatly, but there is an enormous advantage for apps which have been specifically optimized to use multiple cores, GPUs, and Apple Silicon (in general, probably more than just running native).

As you can see, the there are generally gains across the board. For apps which are optimized for performance, the gains can be truly astonishing.

As a general observation, I generally find that the usage of the GPU is much higher on the Apple Silicon laptop. Some of this is the WindowServer process from MacOS, but some is showing for the apps themselves. Both video apps showed greater usage of the GPU, which may come from the native version of the app, MacOS on Apple Silicon, or both. The GPU still shows a lot more relative downtime  than the CPU, but the gap is smaller than on the Intel machine.

Beyond speed: how is the rest of the 2021 M1 Max?

There is a LOT to love about this new laptop beyond just faster speeds and better battery life. A quick rundown of my favorites:

The silence! This is probably my favorite part of the upgrade. The 2018 laptop routinely runs the fans full tilt, which measures 44dB (sound measurements taken near where my head would be during regular use via the Decibal X app on iPhone). When running my benchmark test, it quickly ramped to around 28-30dB and then the full 44dB shortly after that. This was as loud as I could make it, even when pushing LR full tilt by re-rendering standard, smart, and 1:1 previews for 300 images. The 2018 laptop makes fan noise that I can hear all the time, even when it’s sitting completely idle and registering around 23-24dB, which is the ambient sound of the quiet room in our house.

The 2021 is so quiet that it hardly ever exceeded the 23bB ambient sound. I can’t hear it idle without putting my ear near the keyboard. It only got up to 26dB at the most challenging parts of my Photoshop benchmark. The reality is that so little Photoshop work uses 8-10 cores for extended periods that you just aren’t making it hot. So I did the same LR test to rebuild 3 x 300 previews. This finally got it revved up to a maximum 44dB. So it isn’t that the new machine is more quiet at the maximum fan speeds, it’s that it almost never uses them while the old one routinely does. You are hardly ever going to hear this machine unless you’re rendering video or doing a batch processing of a large number of images.

The battery life! I ran my benchmark test 3 times on each machine starting from 100%. The old machine has a battery that’s only a month old, so I’d say this is a pretty fair head to head. Both were running the latest versions of Photoshop and MacOS Monterey and without apps running in the background. Not only did the new machine finish in half the time, it still showed 95% battery charge vs only 68% by the time the old machine finished. The improvement is astounding.

The screen brightness for me has jumped from a maximum of 500 to 1600 nits. Does it look “three times” brighter? Definitely not, but it is clearly brighter and this will be extremely nice when I need to use the laptop outdoors or in bright ambient conditions. And the quality of the screen is much better with deeper, richer blacks via the mini-LED technology (which only uses a bright backlight behind pixels that need it, so that it doesn’t show through the dark pixels). The blacks are clearly much darker and the whites are clearly brighter, so the contrast ratio on this display is excellent.

There have been concerns about the risk that this new display may show “blooming”, or a bit of a halo around bright pixels isolated against a dark background. I can confirm that I do see this, which is because mini-LED lights small zones (not individual pixels). That said, it’s minimal, I wouldn’t notice if I weren’t looking for it, I can see it sometimes on the old display, its not as bright as the minimum black on the old display, and I already do a lot of my critical editing on a 27″ Eizo anyway. So even if you’re shooting the moon or little stars against a black night sky, I wouldn’t be concerned with this.

There have also be questions and concerns about the notch. I mostly don’t notice it, but it does leave fewer options at the top at times when the menu is really crowded. It also has some quirks where things can be effectively rendered behind the notch, which I assume will be fixed in short order with an update from Apple. But for now, it can be pretty confusing / frustrating, as important system icons may be completely hidden. A quick workaround is to switch apps (as an app with fewer written menu commands will show more icons). Given that the real change here is actually giving you more display at the top corners (rather than taking something away from the top-middle), I’m perfectly ok with it (as I’m sure Apple will fix the glitch with hidden content soon enough).

The thing I miss most in this display is simply the size, which was a conscious decision on my part to save weight. 14″ is noticeably less space one you add in toolbars for LR and PS, but it’s fairly subtle. I’m seeing 20 images in grid view in LR instead of 24. In Photoshop, I can click <tab> to hide and show the side panels quickly to see more of the image in rare cases where I’d want more. I’ll see how I feel after a few road trips, but I suspect I’ll be sticking with 14-15″ sizes over 16″. If Apple were to shave weight by cutting battery weight, that’s a tradeoff I’d happily take. I can reverse that tradeoff anytime by bringing my HyperJuice 130W USB-C, which is an amazing product and good for a full charge on the go.

The new FaceTime HD webcam is amazing. The noise is substantially improved, feels like switching from ISO 1600 to ISO 200 on your camera. The color rendering is much better, with skin tones looking much more natural. And the boosted resolution provides a meaningful improvement in detail.

The sound of the speakers is incredible on both machines. The 2018 is slightly louder, but I’m comparing a 15″ to the new 14″ chassis and I don’t know if the new 16″ performs differently. I would say that the 2021 sound feels slightly more enveloping and less like it’s coming from a little device in a specific part of the room. I’d say I slightly prefer the new sound.

A built-in SD-card reader (SDXC) is awesome to have again – one less adapter to carry, lose, or forget. And not having to worry about forgetting an HDMI cable removes some stress for making presentations.

 

How to get maximum speed and compatibility with Universal / Apple Silicon apps vs running Intel under Rosetta2:

The migration from Intel to custom Apple ARM chips means better performance and battery life, but also the need for new software and some limitations. Apple has done a remarkable job with “Rosetta2”, which allows you to run legacy apps on Apple Silicon. But to get the best performance, you’ll need to run “universal” or native apps. If you right-click an app and see the application kind listed as “Intel”, you’ll be running under Rosetta2 (if you see “universal” or “Apple Silicon”, you’re ready to run native). It’s so seamless that you might easily not realize that you’re running Rosetta2 and missing out on better performance. If you use Apple’s Migration Assistant to transfer all your existing data from your old laptop to the new one, then you’re very likely bringing over Intel apps and will need to upgrade or reinstall.

I found that all of my Adobe apps were all installed as the Intel version, even though universal versions of Photoshop v23, Lightroom v11, etc all exist. This is presumably Adobe installing only the software your machine needed at the time it downloaded, to save space on your computer. To upgrade to the much faster native versions, just uninstall (be sure to keep settings) and then install again. When you install directly on your Apple Silicon computer, the Creative Cloud Desktop (CCD) will install the universal versions of the apps.

I found this was also the case with some other non-Adobe apps. Some of these could be updated to universal apps, and some are only available as Intel apps at this time. There’s an easy way to review everything (without having to right-click for “get info” on each app). Go to the Apple logo at top left / About this Mac / System Report / Software / Applications. Make sure the display is wide enough to see the far right column for “kind”. Click that column to sort it and look for apps listed as “Intel”. If you see anything as “32-bit (unsupported)”, this is so old that it cannot run on any computer running any of the three most recent major versions of MacOS (you’d need 10.14 or older). If you see “Apple Silicon” or “Universal”, those apps are ready to run natively.

One more thing to know about the universal apps is that they contain both the Intel and Apple Silicon versions of the app, which means you can run natively or under Rosetta2. Running under Rosetta2 may unlock some features in the app which have not yet been migrated to the native version. In Photoshop, this includes CEP panels and the Shake Reduction filter. If you’re trying to find an extension panel under Window / Extensions (legacy), you’ll need to run under Rosetta or install a newer UXP version of the same plugin (Lumenzia v10 and all versions of Web Sharp Pro run natively as UXP panels). If you wish to launch a universal app under Rosetta, please see here for details. Adobe also lets you run under Rosetta if you go into the Creative Cloud Desktop app, click the … icon, and then choose “Open (Intel)”. The normal open option there will use Apple Silicon (and is noted in the tooltip). If you don’t see those options, then you haven’t yet installed the universal version of that app.

 

Important photography apps available native for Apple Silicon

  • All my software runs natively on Apple Silicon, that includes Lumenzia (v10+) and Web Sharp Pro.
  • Adobe Photoshop (v22.3+). Just be sure you’ve updated (the Apple Migration assistant will import your old Intel version onto your new M1 computer). If you cannot access Window / Extensions (legacy), the plugins below, or Filter / Sharpen / Shake Reduction, you are running under Rosetta. Just uninstall and reinstall the latest version to replace your Intel version with the Universal build.
  • Adobe Lightroom Classic (v10.3+). Same update comments as Photoshop.
  • Nik Collection. The entire collection (except Perspective Efex) got native support for Apple Silicon starting from v4.2. Aside from providing faster performance, this update is critical if you want to see all the Nik tools without having to run Photoshop under Rosetta.
  • ON1 Photo RAW (2022), which includes Resize if you get the ON1 Photo RAW 2022 Ultimate Upgrade.
  • CaptureOne Pro 22 (Dec 2021). This was a very painful update: the license provided to me over email does not work, and customer support had not repied after 7 days until an external person with connections inside the company was able to get them to respond. I have no reason to believe my issues would affect others now that we’re beyond the pre-purchase issues that affected me, but I hesitate to recommend products after such a support experience.
  • NeatImage (as of v9, released Dec 2021)

 

Apps not yet available as native for M1

 

As of the time I’m writing this, the following apps are not native for Apple Silicon, but do run under Rosetta2:

  • Luminar 4. This means slower performance and more importantly, you won’t see the Photoshop Plugins unless you run Photoshop under Rosetta. It is my understanding that no native update is coming for Luminar 4. Instead, Luminar fans are encouraged to update to the upcoming Luminar Neo, which process much more than just Apple Silicon support, including. Preorder now to save, if you are logged in and click the nearly hidden option at top to validate that you are a customer and you’ll be able to update for only $54 (>70% off the normal standalone price of Neo). I’m looking forward to seeing the new AI relight, AI atmostpher, AI sensor dust removal, AI portrait tools like background removal and bokeh, and more.
  • Topaz Gigapixel AI (as of v5.6). Thankfully, it runs much faster even with Rosetta on M1 Max than the 2018 (doubling the resolution of a D850 image took 31s vs 179s, which is 83% less waiting, or nearly 6x longer on the old laptop). Given how intense this application is, it’s screaming for native support and I’ll be thrilled to see how fast it can go then! Additionally, it does not yet show under PF File / Automation.
    • Note: Gigapixel uses some very interesting optimizations. On the 2018, it runs nearly entirely on the GPU with modest RAM. On the 2021, it runs nearly entirely on the CPU with much higher (2-10x) RAM usage. I’m not sure how much extra RAM matters though, as I deliberately consumed nearly all the free RAM on the computer and Gigapixel didn’t slow down a bit when it had to work with less.
  • Topaz Denoise AI (as of v3.3). While the software does not run native, the plugin does and that’s all that matters (you’ll be able to launch the plugin when Photoshop is running natively and speed is not an issue).
  • Topaz Sharpen AI (as of v3.2.2). While the software does not run native, the plugin does and that’s all that matters (you’ll be able to launch the plugin when Photoshop is running natively and speed is not an issue).
  • Nik Perspective Efex (as of v5). The rest of the Nik Collection got native support for Apple Silicon starting from v4.2. Be sure to check out my demo to make the most of Color Efect Pro. But you won’t be able to run Perspective Efex as a Photoshop plugin yet.
  • Adobe Bridge (as of v11). See Adobe’s support article for some limitations and tips.
  • i1Studio calibration software. It runs fine under Rosetta and I really don’t see any reason to care about a native build, as there are no speed or compatibility concerns that I’ve come across.
  • CEP extension panels for Photoshop (anything normally loaded via Window / Extensions (legacy) in Photoshop). You can either run Photoshop under Rosetta or update to UXP versions of these extension panels (which will show under the Plugins menu in PS). Both my Lumenzia and Web Sharp Pro software are available already as UXP panels.

Please let me know if you think I’m missing any critical and widespread photography apps from this list in the comments below.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. See my ethics statement for more information. When you purchase through such links, you pay the same price and help support the content on this site.

G-Bench: test Photoshop performance

As I wrote recently in article on how to assess the the best upgrades for Photoshop performance, it’s important to have some objective measures of performance in order to get good value for your money when upgrading your computer or otherwise optimizing performance. While there are a lot of great benchmarking tools out there, I’ve never felt there was tests designed to specifically assess Photoshop performance in a way that answered my questions. What performance should I expect from Photoshop with the latest hardware? Which features in Photoshop are most improved? etc.

So I decided to build my own benchmarking test for Photoshop: “G-Bench“, which I am making available for free. It will also be built into my upcoming Lumenzia v10+ and Web Sharp Pro v3.4+ updates (both should be available by Dec 1), where you can find it via the flyout (top-right three bars icon) under Utilities. And I have also created a standalone version of G-Bench in case you don’t have either or want to have a dedicated button for more frequent testing (which you can download for free here, as well as from the footer of my newsletters going forward). All of these panels are UXP panels, which means they can run natively on Apple Silicon (and are fully compatible with any Mac / Windows machine running PS 2023 or later).

Rational for a dedicated Photoshop benchmark

While it’s great to understand how fast your CPU or GPU is in general, it doesn’t tell you how fast a particular program will run. For example, with upgrade to the M1 Max (see my full review of the M1 for photographers), I found one video editor’s export time cut by 88% and another only cut by 35%. Software performance depends on the software as much as the hardware. If it isn’t optimized for multiple cores, GPUs, new instruction sets in the CPU, etc – then it may not show improvements in a generic bench test.

Furthermore, this applies not just to the program, but specific functions within it. For example, you might find that Surface Blur is suddenly 5x faster, while file saves only improved by 20% because they have different bottlenecks and may be optimized differently. So it’s important that your testing reflect the way you actually use the software. G-Bench is built to reflect the needs of photographers using Photoshop. So it focuses on testing where we tend to end up waiting: running filters, saving smart objects, etc.

Of course, you also use your computer for a lot of things other than Photoshop, so I recommend using G-Bench in addition to other benchmarks. They all compliment each other well.

 

How to use G-Bench

Just launch the “test and compare” dialog by clicking the button in G-Bench, or via flyout / utilities in Lumenzia and Web Sharp Pro. The first time you use it, you’ll need to set your preferred folder. This folder is used both to save the results of tests you run as well as allow you to review and compare tests you have already run. Once you’ve set that folder, you can click “run a test” to begin. The test may take roughly 5-60 minutes depending on the speed of your computer. Note that the display will update sporadically while the test is running (ie, the preview may appear lagging or frozen in the middle of the test). When it is done, you’ll see a popup dialog with results. If you leave the checkbox in that popup checked, a CSV file with your results will be saved to your folder when you click OK.

You may compare your tests  to each other, or to the tests which come with the panel. The “result A” and “result B” dropdowns each contain the same full list of all available tests. You can even import tests from other people by putting a copy of their CSV file into your designated folder. The top of the list reflects tests in your folder, and the bottom of the list reflects tests which come with the panel. Just select the two tests of interest (set A to your system and B to the reference data) and the click “compare results” to create a graph of the “weighted time”, which is the ultimate score for each test.

 

If you’d like to compare details of specific items in the test, just navigate in your file browser to the folder you selected to open the CSV files in Excel or Numbers. The CSV file contains test conditions (such as computer hardware) and results of specific tests (such as the time it took to enlarge the image 2.5x). If you’d like to see the CSV files for the included tests or use a formatted template to make the results more pretty, please click “export included tests” in the test and compare popup window. Note that the result A/B dropdowns will not list the duplicates of internal tests, they will only show once as included tests.

How to interpret results

I would also encourage you to run the entire test a few times. You’ll likely see the main result (weighted time) varies by 1-5%. This is normal, and you assume that a result in the middle is probably most indicative of performance. If you see a much larger variation, that likely indicators some other factor at work – such as a background program being very active during one run and not another. It could also be the result of changes you’d made in Photoshop (such as disabling OpenCL, which is one of the factor tracked in the test conditions recorded in the CSV). You might also see variation from one version of Photoshop to the next (such as speed improvements after code optimization, or perhaps a delay if there is a bug).

The line item tests should be relatively straight-forward. Each test is fairly specific. The reported time is an average of numerous loops (in most cases). This repeat testing helps provide better accuracy, as the test time varies a little each run – even under the same conditions. The fastest and shortest loop time is noted, and if you see huge variability there, you may wish to re-run the test. This might be caused by some transient issue that delayed Photoshop, but does not reflect the results you would typically see

The line items include a “weighting“. The purpose of this is so that each test reflect the real impact it has on a general workflow. You can think of this roughly as my estimation of the number of times you would use a given feature (on average) to edit a photo. So a weighting of 0.1 for motion blur indicates that I expect very few workflows will use this specific feature, whereas a weighting of say 10 for Adobe Camera RAW indicates I expect that feature would be used frequently. It’s much more predictive than just adding up all the times, but it’s far from perfect and certainly not a representation of exactly how you work. We are all a bit different. If you would like to try different weightings, please use the “export included tests” option and then open the exported XLSX (Excel template) to copy and paste your CSV data and then view the analysis tab to try your own weighting and look at the new result. You should then do the same with another data set, as the weighted time is only meaningful when compared to another test using the same weighting.

The total “weighted time” at the top is calculated by taking each tests average loop time and multiplying it by its weight, and then summing up all those numbers. So for example, if a test has a time of 7.2 seconds on average and a weight of 2, then it will contribute 14.4s to the total weighted time.

A few other notes on the data:

  • The rule of thumb I’ve always applied as an engineer is that if there isn’t a 20% change in performance, you’re unlikely to notice it.
  • The CSV file contains several important notes, be sure to look for them.
  • There is some setup for some tests, which is un-tracked. For example, the auto-align test creates lighter and darker versions of the base image and rotates them before invoking the alignment. Only the alignment time is recorded in that case. So the total active test time reported in the CSV will be somewhat less than the actual time the test takes to complete.
  • It’s important to keep these numbers in context. I deliberately kept the weighting for the brush tests lower than the expected use. These brush strokes take me about 1 second to do by hand, which means that some of the test time isn’t something I would perceive as any delay from the computer. You can certainly feel brush lag when it takes 2-3s for a large brush. Rather than trying to correct the values for this, I felt it best to just be simple and transparent with the data.
  • These are tests based on the time it takes to process the output. I do not have a way to test the time it takes for the ACR interface to open, for example. I’m effectively just testing the time it takes from the moment you click OK in a dialog until you get the result.
  • I do not plan to make many changes to the tests, as revising the tests would make previous test data useless. However, I anticipate I’ll eventually make a v2 and welcome your comments below on other tests you think would  be important to consider for your use of Photoshop for photography.

 

A few general observations from my own testing

I’ve tried running the test under various conditions on my computer to see what impacts performance and which aspects of Photoshop tend to be impacted. Your results will differ, but here’s what I see on an M1 Max and 2018 Macbook Pro:

  • While Rosetta2 is amazing to run old software on your M1 Mac, it is also far slower than I expected. My G-Bench times are nearly twice as long when running under Rosetta. It’s impressive performance under emulation, but my old 2018 laptop runs slightly faster than the M1 under Rosetta2. If you need to run some old plugins occasionally, I would just launch PS under Rosetta selectively. Otherwise, native is clearly the way to go with Apple Silicon.
  • As expected based on evaluating with Activity Monitor, GPU benefits are limited at this time. When I disable the GPU in Photoshop, the test times are nearly 50% longer – but almost the entire difference comes from the smart sharpen and enlargement test items. There is certainly a lot of untapped potential in a computer as powerful as the M1 Max, and I expect that software companies in general will increasingly take advantage of this more often.
  • Background application activity generally doesn’t matter, until you really push things.
    • Allowing a web browser and anti-virus to be active in the background increased the weighted time by just under 3% (most of which came from the browser since there were no new files for the anti-virus to scan). You can safely leave a lot of things in the background without having any detectable impact on Photoshop.
    • If I leave Final Cut Pro X rendering a large video in the background, the weighted time grows by 34%. Put another way, it still takes 43% less time than my old 2018 computer for Photoshop tasks even after I throw this heavy load on it. So even though I may not be using my CPU and GPU to the max in Photoshop, the excess capacity is still a huge benefit because I can run heavy applications in the background without causing much detectable change in Photoshop’s performance.

CPU, GPU, RAM: What should you update?

I haven’t met a photographer yet who wouldn’t appreciate a more powerful computer. We push our machines very hard, and it’s no fun to sit and wait to view and edit images. So naturally, we tend to dream about a “better” computer. But what does that mean? Should I get a really powerful GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) unit because I work on images? Maybe more RAM, I heard I should get 64GB from a guy who’s never seen how I work. Oh, wait, I need a bigger and faster SSD (Solid State Drive).

Each of these upgrades is obviously going to cost you and unless you want to throw huge amounts of money at the problem and pray it works, you should probably get a better idea of what you’re going to get for your money. Even little splurges have a cost. You might not care about spending an extra $200 for an upgraded GPU on top of the $2500 you’re already planning to spend, but should you? You could pay for an extra couple years of Lightroom and Photoshop with that money, so ideally you’re not just guessing that it’s going to help.

While nothing’s a sure bet, there are some simple ways you can help easily determine where spending some of your hard-earned cash will give you the most increase in performance. When it comes to speed, there are several factors which tend to play a role (in no particular order of importance, as it varies case by case).

  1. The software you use. Some programs are much more efficient than others for a given task. For example, many sports and wedding photographers love Photo Mechanic for its speed in culling images. And this can all change over time. Some future Photoshop update could slow down due to new features or speed up due to optimized code.
  2. The clock speed of your CPU (Central Processing Unit). This is a measure of raw speed that affects pretty much anything that does not run on the GPU.
  3. The number of CPU cores. Software can be optimized to be broken up into different tasks that can be processed simultaneously by multiple cores. But code which is not optimized for multiple cores, may see no benefit at all. An analogy would be hiring 4 people to paint your house (where they can effectively break up the work and get the job done faster) vs hiring 4 people to cook your dinner (where they’re more likely to trip over each other in the kitchen than feed you more quickly).
  4. The GPU. This is a complex mix of GPU cores, speed, and GPU RAM (unless you’re on Apple Silicon, where the GPU gets RAM from a shared pool). I’m just going to lump these together, and it should make more sense why when you see the testing below.
  5. The amount of RAM. This is where data resides when it is being processed. If you run out, you’re computer may use the (much slower) hard drive to help manage the temporary data or it may simple give you an error.
  6. The speed of RAM. This affects how much time the CPU may spend waiting to retrieve or store temporary data.
  7. Hard drive size. Hard drives may be used to an extent as working memory (such as scratch disks in Photoshop). In situations where the free space runs very low, this can suddenly switch from a non-factor to a major performance issue.
  8. Hard drive speed. This affects the time needed to get and store data, which may affect the speed of opening applications or opening and saving images.

This isn’t a comprehensive list and I’ve simplified a few concepts, but it covers all the things that make a big difference for purchasing decisions. And on this list, all but #1 are hardware factors which you may potentially be able to improve through an upgrade. The key to knowing which is important is understanding which of these represent a bottleneck to the tasks that are slowing you down. Any given task likely required multiple sub-systems (CPU, RAM, etc), but slow performance is often the result of a specific component taking a very long time for a specific task. The key to knowing where to invest in your computer is knowing where an investment might help address a bottleneck. And we can get a very good sense of the opportunities by understanding the bottlenecks we have now.

Using the tests below, you can help identify the bottlenecks affecting your work. Of course, this might change. The software industry as a whole has been doing a lot of work on optimizing code for multiple cores and for GPUs, and so a future software upgrade might remove a bottleneck you have today. But knowing your current bottlenecks is crucial, and you can make an educated guess from there as to how much margin of safety you might want given how long you expect to use a new computer or hardware upgrade.

My video tutorial shows how to test on MacOS using “Activity Monitor”, but I’ll add details below on how to perform similar tests on Windows using “Task Manager”.

Quick steps to setup Activity Monitor on MacOS:

  1. Go to Applications / Utilities / Activity Monitor
  2. Click on the “memory” tab in the main Activity Monitor Window (you can go to Window / Activity Monitor if it isn’t showing)
  3. Right click on the column headings to show and hide columns until your screen shows the same columns as mine. You can resize and reorder the columns by clicking and dragging.
  4. Go to View / Update frequency and set it to Often for 2 second intervals. This will give you a faster read on transient processes (1 second may be too variable).
  5. Click on Window / CPU History to see GPU usage over time. Click and drag the edges to get a nice display of all cores. You’ll probably see every other core shows little activity, these are “virtual cores” and the total number of cores is probably 2x the physical number of cores in your CPU.
  6. Click on Window / GPU History to see GPU usage over time. You may see more than one GPU depending on your system.
  7. You can also check or uncheck Window / Keep CPU Windows on Top if you want to keep both CPU and GPU history visible while you test.

Note that there are several columns available for memory. It’s a tricky subject, and I would just show “memory” as a way to gauge which apps are eating a lot of RAM. Ultimately, the green/yellow/red memory pressure graph is the best indicator of when the total system RAM is insufficient for what you and the operating system are collectively consuming.

 

Quick steps to setup Task Manager on Windows:

  1. Search for “Task Manager” in the start menu
  2. In the “processes” tab, right click the column headers to add “GPU”. You can then see CPU and GPU percentage here.
  3. Click on the “performance” tab to see graphs over time of CPU and RAM usage. You can also click “open resource monitor” at the bottom of the performance tab and then click the “memory” tab to see a plot and % of physical RAM used.
  4. Go to the menu for Options / Always on Top if you want to keep Task Manager visible as you test.

 

Tips for watching these metrics:

  • Test in a real environment. Background applications like anti-virus, backup software, open web browsers, etc all consume important resources. But if that’s how you use the machine, then that’s how you should test the machine. The goal of this testing is not better numbers, the goal is to get solid data to help you make a decision. The exception to that is if you’re trying to optimize your software setup, which you should do before you get collect data to inform hardware purchases (since you might be able to get more out of the hardware you have).
  • The metrics generally apply to specific tasks, not to programs on the whole. For example, some parts of Photoshop are optimized for the GPU and others are not. To get a true sense of the bottlenecks, you should run a variety of tasks representing the activities where the machine feels sluggish to you. Just do a variety of tasks you normally do and watch the metrics.
  • These are all meant as helpful guides. It’s not an exact science, so always use good judgement. Hitting a bottleneck on a process you normally let run when you step away from the computer isn’t all that important. It doesn’t matter if your videos take 2 hours or 6 to render if you’re going to be sleeping when it happens.
  • If you have questions on the options, see these support articles on Activity Monitor and Task Manager

 

CPU bottlenecks

The main indicators for CPU performance is CPU %. A process which consistently runs at a high percentage is heavily dependent on the speed of your CPU and higher clock speed would help. A process which consistently runs around 100% is not optimized for multiple cores. In general, CPU clock speed matters tremendously for Photoshop, with many operations still using a single core. Multiple cores are much more important for importing and exporting in Lightroom, where you’ll likely see CPU usage vastly higher than 100%.

As a general rule of thumb, I find that any bottleneck that shows 100% CPU usage is typically one where I’ll get the least boost with a computer upgrade. This reflects a software bottleneck and most hardware upgrades are more impressive with software which is optimized to utilize the full capabilities of a modern computer.

 

GPU bottlenecks

A good indicator for GPU utilization is the GPU history. You can watch the GPU%, but it tends to move too erratically to give you the best picture. If the GPU is sitting near 0 all the time, you clearly won’t get an immediate benefit from upgrading. If it is sitting around 30% or more for decent stretches, it may not quite be the biggest bottleneck, but upgrading is likely to offer meaningful gains in performance. If it is running up to much larger values during important slowdowns, then an upgraded GPU is very likely to be beneficial.

Another test (new Photoshop 2022) is under Help / GPU compatibility. If you see red X’s, then you are probably going to find some Photoshop features are greyed out and others run slowly. If you don’t see all green, investing in a GPU is a good idea. You should definitely have a GPU that meets Photoshop’s minimum requirements.

You’ll probably be surprised at how little your GPU is actually used for most photography apps. It generally has much more benefit for gaming and video. And the benefits are very app-specific, some take advantage of the GPU more than others. Most photographers won’t see a lot of benefit from a top of the line GPU.

 

RAM bottlenecks

The amount of RAM (memory) is crucial. When you have more RAM than you need, the system bottleneck will be in the CPU or GPU. But when RAM is limited, the computer will likely start to depend significantly on the hard drive and cause massive slowdowns. Which is to say adding more RAM will either help a lot (if you don’t have enough) or hardly at all (if you consistently have enough). Adding more than the computer uses won’t give you any benefit.

RAM speed bottlenecks are hard to test without physically swapping it. But generally, this isn’t a huge factor for performance and I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The total amount of RAM is generally much more important.

I would say that 32GB of RAM is the sweet spot for most photographers these days. You can definitely get by with only 16GB, but you’d likely see faster results with 32. I’ve personally used 32GB for years with great results most of the time, but have just upgraded to 64GB to avoid a few current slowdowns I run into and give myself flexibility as my software and needs continue to grow. If you work on very large and complex images or don’t care about cost, then 64GB is a good option.

A quick note on the various memory options in Activity Monitor. I consulted with some very deep experts on the topic and they didn’t know the answer. I’ve read a lot of information online that claims to be true, but then you’ll quickly find some counterexample which a given interpretation is dead wrong. Apple seems to be a bit deliberately cagey on what the various memory columns are and they’ve changed a bit over time. The “memory” and “real memory” columns can give you some idea as to which applications are consuming a lot of memory when you start really pushing the memory pressure into yellow/red territory. I am told these values represent actual RAM (not virtual use of the disk), and that things get very confusing with shared use of some memory across multiple processes. Don’t get too worried about the details, you’ll end up pulling out your hair trying to figure out why one is typically larger but then sometimes the other is much larger. But it can still be helpful to identify problems (such a faulty app consuming too much RAM).

 

Hard drive bottlenecks

The most important decision here is simply to ensure you have enough space to hold critical data. The picture gets a little murky, as you can often buy cheaper external drives as you need more storage rather than buying a very expensive internal SSD now. I believe a good rule of thumb is to buy a new computer with 2X the amount of internal storage you actually use now (with a goal of keeping a minimum of 100-200GB of space unused at all times). This assumes you have stable patterns of usage, you’ll have to be more thoughtful if you recently started producing video for example. It also assumes you aren’t using the internal storage in a wasteful manner now. Tools like DaisyDisk can be very helpful to help see what’s consuming space now in case you want to move some files to an external drive or just put them in the trash.

Hard drives of course also affect the speed of the computer in a couple ways. First, a fast hard drive will allow you to more quickly open applications and images. The difference between a cheap HDD (spinning hard disk drive) and SSD (solid state drive) can be massive. And there are various degrees of SSD speed, which can make a different to a point. However, if you are compressing your images, the opening and saving of those images is actually bottle-necked significantly by the CPU (which is not multi-core optimized at this time). I find that reading an uncompressed image is 3X faster an saving is about 20X faster. So a faster drive may offer very little benefit opening and saving compressed images.

Hard drive space also matters. Your computer does not use RAM exclusively for processing data, it also uses the hard drive. This is especially true when RAM is fully in use, but it can be a factor at any time (memory management is extremely complicated). For this reason, prefer to keep at least 200GB of free space on my internal drive at all times and would recommend you keep at least 100GB free. Once the free space gets too low, you’ll start to see erratic moments where things slow down. And eventually, you’ll run into errors when you’re completely out of space.

 

Summary of where to invest in computer hardware:

Here’s a quick recap of how to interpret the data:

  • The CPU % is 100% or more for long periods of time => A faster CPU clock speed are likely to help
  • The CPU % is much more than 100% for long periods of time => More cores are likely to help
  • The GPU % is >30% for long periods of time or close to 100% for short periods of time => GPU upgrades are likely to help
  • MacOS: “memory pressure” shows long periods of yellow or bursts of red => More RAM is likely to help
  • Windows: RAM performance graph shows in use RAM running high => More RAM is likely to help
  • Available space on your internal drive is < 100-200GB => A larger internal drive or freeing up space is likely to help immediately (but be sure to plan ahead for the data you’ll add in the years to come, 2x your current usage is a good target)
  • Applications launch slowly or you open/save uncompressed images => A faster drive is likely to help

It’s also important to keep a few things in mind:

  • Your results are subject to change as your software improves or your patterns of use change
  • Buying a $200 upgrade in the face of uncertainty might be a good bet if the alternative is a risk that you’ll have to replace the whole computer a year or two early

If you’re just looking for general photography advice, I would say the following in 2021 is ideal:

  • Fast CPU clock speed is key.
  • Don’t sweat the GPU (get one, but don’t pay for big upgrades unless you need for games/video), put the money towards CPU and RAM.
  • 32GB RAM, 64GB if you can splurge.
  • A SSD with 2x the internal storage you currently use.
Greg Benz Photography