When I bought the M2 MacBook Pro earlier this year, I never dreamed I’d replace it so quickly. But as the center of my art and business, I consider it a worthy investment (especially considering resale value of the old machine and net tax implications). Very few people should upgrade from the M2 (or even M1) to this new laptop. But I think it’s a very notable launch for a few reasons: it pushes the bounds for extreme users and will ensure more people can afford the excellent M1 or M2 machines with inventory close out and more options on the used market.
The M3 versions of the MacBook Pro push performance in several ways:
- More CPU and GPU cores (helpful for faster Lightroom import/export or video work).
- Maximum memory is now up to 128GB (few photographers will benefit from this).
- AV1 video hardware decoding for improve quality/efficiency in streaming media.
- Increased battery life (about an hour in most scenarios).
- The SDR brightness limit has been raised from 500 to 600 nits. This makes it slightly easier to do general computing in bright ambient light (HDR remains unchanged / outstanding) and allows you to match full brightness with an Apple Studio display.
The gains here are modest over the M2, but help to solidify the MacBook Pro’s position as what I consider to already be the best laptop for photographers. I’m historically pretty agnostic on the Apple vs PC debate – but after trying a wide range of computers over the past year, I believe Apple has a notable edge in laptops for photography use. They feature a best-in-class HDR display, optimal performance / battery life, and excellent overall quality.
I upgraded from the M2 MAX I bought earlier this year. If I thought there’d be an upgrade so quickly, I would have skipped the M2. But it has served me well and I expect this pulled the M3 forward and might mean I’ll be keeping it longer (especially if I end up skipping the M4), so I decided to order the fully-loaded 14″ M3 MAX. 128GB of RAM is definitely overkill for current my needs, but there’s no 96GB equivalent for this configuration and I push my computer pretty hard. I picked up the new Space Black, and it looks great (like a dark charcoal color and fingerprints are not an issue).
M3 MAX test results:
All my test results are a direct comparison of the fully-loaded M3 Max to the fully-loaded 14″ M2 Max.
Photoshop test results:
Testing this time around required some extra legwork as Photoshop performance has degraded between v24.1.1 and the latest v25.2. Specifically, adjustment layers and brushes run considerably slower. It’s subtle for many uses, but a handful of people have reported performance issues particularly since the v25 updates (which is where performance started to slow most significantly). So I had to do some testing to compare versions to settle on doing the testing with v24.1.1 (I’ve reported my observations to Adobe and hope to see performance restored in a future update).
My G-Bench Photoshop benchmarking software is meant to evaluate performance on Photoshop tasks relevant for photographers. The time required to complete key tasks is weighted based on the estimated likelihood a photographer would use it. In other words, it’s meant to give you a reasonable way to compare how fast Photoshop would feel subjectively for a photographer.
The M3 Max achieved a weighted score of 44. That’s roughly 12% faster than the comparable M2 MAX (or 23% vs M1 MAX and 60% from the 2018 Intel MacBook Pro).
The most significant gains in terms of total time were in opening and closing images and smart objects, as well as some of the blur tests. The total test time (without weighting) decreased by 19%. The most significant benefits here are for those who handle a lot of batch processing, large images, and smart objects.
I additionally tested Topaz Gigapixel, which ran 11% faster on the M3.
Lightoom test results:
The AI Denoise performance in Lightroom surprised me. The number of GPU cores only increased from 38 to 40 (so 5% boost might be possible), but I was under the impression the GPU clock speed increased (though I haven’t seen official confirmation). LR’s RAW denoise process takes 25.6s with the M2 Max, 25.2 with the M3 Max under the default (auto) performance mode, and 22.5s with the M3 Max under high performance mode. So there is definitely a gain here if you are willing to allow a bit more fan noise (high performance mode is not available on the 14″ M2). I ran this test several times and the results were very consistent.
Importing and exporting showed more benefit under the M3, which is consistent with the gains being related to writing data or tasks which are intensive on the CPU:
- importing RAW files was 18% faster.
- importing lossy DNGs was 28% faster on M3.(I was surprised to learn that lossy DNGs import significantly faster than native RAW files, perhaps because you’re only pull about 15% as many bytes from the hard drive – but I expected decoding JXL might offset that.)
- exporting JPG was 28% faster on M3 (with or without auto, as LR manages to push both CPU and GPU while remaining below the point where the fans kick in).
- exporting lossy DNGs was 25% faster on M3.
Video test results:
I did some very limited testing with video export and found mixed results for rendering 12-19 minute videos.
- Handbrake showed substantial gains. 33.9 minutes vs 24.2 minutes (29% reduction) under auto performance or 22.4 minutes (34% reduction) under high performance mode. Compared to the other software I tested, Handbrake was most dependent on the CPU – which meant it was the slowest overall but also benefitted the most from the extra cores on the M3.
- Screenflow was 15% faster.
- Davinci Resolve was 6% faster (high performance mode showed no benefit).
- FCPX was actually slower on the M3 (32% when exporting 4k videos at 1080p or 13% slower when exporting at native 4k). I am not sure why, but that’s what I found with several runs under v10.6.10. There has been discussion of the memory bandwith being slower with M3 and perhaps that is a bottleneck for this code (given how fast it is, that might explain why this app shows a slowdown and not the others). If that isn’t it, perhaps some future update will further optimize for the new hardware. Either way, it’s pretty fast on either platform and this one step back isn’t a huge concern for me personally.
Beyond this, I generally found about a 10-20% benefit for various tasks which are CPU intensive (GPU-intensive tasks show little benefit in my testing of current versions of software use for photography and video).
- These improvements here are very modest relative to the M2, but serve to make the best laptop for photography even better. I don’t say that lightly – I try to remain technology agnostic, but I believe the advantages of Apple Silicon and the XDR display offer clear and objective benefits for those focused primarily on photography.
- Any of the 14 or 16″ Apple Silicon MacBook Pros (M1, M2, M3) with 16+ GB of RAM is an outstanding laptop for photographers. The HDR display alone puts these into a class of their own. On top of that, you get a very high quality machine with an excellent combination of performance, and battery life.
- I highly recommend any of the M1-M3 14-16″ MacBook Pros for anyone using an Intel Mac laptop, PC laptop users interested in HDR, or anyone making the switch from desktop to laptop. Getting a used, refurb, or closeout stock of the M2 are all very attractive ways to get the best possible value.
- The M3 Max raises the bar for this outstanding product, but most M1 or M2 users should not upgrade to M3. I consider modest gains worthwhile for my business needs, but this won’t apply to most people (Apple knows this and has focused their M3 marketing on comparing to their older Intel machines). If you have a lower spec version of the M1 or M2 (ie limited RAM, hard drive, or CPU), then getting an M3 with upgraded options might make sense for you.
- The M3 Max shines most over the comparable M2 for tasks which import/export significant amounts or data or use significant CPU resources (even more so if using the 14″ with high performance mode for long tasks where thermal throttling is a factor). I’ve seen little benefit for GPU-intensive tasks, but that may change with further software optimization and does not reflect new ray tracing capabilities I do not use.
- High performance (found under MacOS Settings / Battery) mode is worth enabling if you don’t mind some additional fan noise occasionally under heavy load. These heavy tasks already kill a battery pretty quickly, so I’d just enable it for “on power adapter”.
Recommended configurations for photographers:
I recommend the 14″ laptop for lightweight travel (ideally with an external monitor at home). The 16″ display offers valuable room for toolbars and such and is highly recommended if you won’t travel with it much, don’t use an external monitor, or want a larger HDR display (as options for external HDR monitors are currently limited/pricy).
Most photographers can use a fairly basic CPU option, but should get 16-32GB of RAM and target internal storage twice as large as the data you currently store to ensure room for growth. Apple has created a fairly complex set of feature dependencies (likely to help encourage some upgrades and manage logistics/cost). So it helps to take your time to look through the details.
Here are the options I think make the most sense:
- Good (budget-conscious): 14″ 8-core M3 with 16GB RAM and 1TB SSD for $1999 (there is no 16″ version with the base M3 chip, the closes match would be this $2699 M3 Pro, which gives a bit of a CPU / RAM boost and an extra Thunderbolt port) This offers a fast, high-quality computer with an outstanding HDR display. 16GB is the minimum RAM a photographer should purchase. An upgrade to 24GB may ultimately pay for itself by extending the useful life of the computer and improving resale. I’d consider the $200 upgrade to 24GB RAM as the most logical next step if budget allows.
- Better (ideal for photography): 11-core M3 Pro with 32GB RAM and 1TB SSD for $2599 ($3099 for the 16″ version, which also forces a minor bump in CPU). The Pro CPU offers an extra Thunderbolt port over the base model and is required if you want a 16″ screen. 32GB is an ideal option for most photographers. You’ll need an upgraded CPU to get even more RAM – which is more than most photographers need.
- Best (for heavy Lightroom import/export, serious video work, or if money is no object): 16-core M3 Max, 64GB, 2TB+ for $4299 ($4599 for the 16″ version)
More cores and GPU support would mostly benefit you if you do a lot of large imports/exports with Lightroom or video editing. The benefits for Photoshop are fairly minimal at this level, as it is not extensively optimized for multiple cores and GPU (though that has been improving over the past few years). 48TB RAM would be an easy way to save a little here.
I personally went all in on the fully-loaded 14″ MacBook Pro. The extra RAM in this iteration is overkill for my needs and I would have stuck with 96GB if it were still an option (I do actually push beyond 64GB, but not often or by much). I’ve got an external XDR monitor for my HDR work and prefer the lightweight 14″ model for travel.
I recommend the following options to compliment the laptop:
- CalDigit TS4 dock. This makes it very easy to plug your laptop into everything with a single cable (which includes power for the laptop and data connections to monitor, hard drives, Ethernet, mouse, etc). It includes two downstream Thunderbolt ports, which I find very handy so that I can turn off my RAID drive without losing access to downstream devices. I owned the previous TS3 and it’s also a great option if you don’t care about multiple downstream TB ports.
- An external HDR monitor. This is very optional (and pricing/selection should only get better in time), but nice if you want to not only view HDR on a larger screen than the 14-16″ one built into the MacBook Pro.
- Sandisk Extreme Portable. Very fast / compact and connects with a single cable. I find this is a great option for backing up the computer, or adding more storage if you don’t have enough internal to the laptop (always be sure to backup your drives).
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