A photographer’s review of the new M3 MacBook Pro

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).

 

Conclusions:

  • 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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How to share your HDR photos on the web directly from Lightroom

The most recent Lightroom updates not only allow HDR editing on every platform, but also the ability to easily create a custom gallery which includes your HDR images. It looks great on any browser as it shows HDR where supported and automatically falls back to a great SDR everywhere else. It also supports all versions of Lightroom, including Classic, cloud, and mobile. See my LR web gallery for a live demo.

 

How to create an HDR portfolio page from LR Classic:

The Classic workflow is shown in the video above and involves the following steps:

  1. Enable syncing by clicking the cloud icon at top-right of LR (if you haven’t ready done this).
  2. Create a collection and add the images you wish to share. You may use a custom sort order to drag the images around as you like.
  3. Right-click the collection to make sure “sync with Lightroom” is enabled (if you don’t see this option, you need to complete the first step to enable syncing in the catalog).
  4. Right-click the collection and go to Lightroom Links / Make Collection Public – or click the “Make Public” button at top-right.
  5. After a couple minutes, you will see a link show at top-right (or under Lightroom Links / Copy Public Link). Load or copy the link from either location to share with others.
  6. For advanced options, right-click the collection and go to Lightroom Links / View on Web for the private view. Click on the palette at bottom or sharing icon towards top-right of the website for more options (as shown in the video above). These options include the ability to create sections, add text, and set the default cover image (which would be shown on social media when sharing a link to your portfolio).

You might wish to create alternate versions of your images (to sharpen them, add watermarks, limit resolution, etc) rather than sharing the original image. Viewers will see an image up to 2048 pixels on the long edge, unless you share a smaller image.

Tip: the cloud syncing works pretty much flawlessly for the cloud and mobile versions of LR, but that’s not always the case for LR Classic. It works well, but you may see occasional images which get delayed or stuck. See these tips for resolving syncing issues.

How to create an HDR portfolio page from LR (cloud):

The workflow for the cloud version of LR is a bit different. Cloud syncing is on by default, and albums (rather than collections) are used to share images. Use the following workflow:

  1. In the albums area in the left column, click the + icon and choose “create album“.
  2. Right-click your new album and choose “share & invite“.
  3. Set link access to “anyone can view“.
  4. The rest of the options in here are similar to the sharing options shown on the website in the demo for Classic (ie you can do more in LR cloud than Classic), but you’ll still need to view the website for the extra options under the palette icon (such as adding text and breaks in the layout).

How to create an HDR portfolio page from mobile:

The workflow is similar to LR cloud, but the layout is a little different. Use the following workflow:

  1. Click the “Lightroom” tab at bottom-middle of the home screen.
  2. Click the dropdown at top left to show albums, and then click the “+ create new” button at the bottom of the list.
  3. Then click … next to your new album and click on “share & invite“.
  4. Set link access to “anyone can view“.
  5. The “customize display” area shows additional controls the the layout, theme, etc. Like cloud, you’ll need the website for the palette icon options shown in the video above.

 

Limitations for sharing HDR images through LR web portfolios:

Adobe is pioneering so many HDR tools at once, it’s incredible. But with all things new, there are some gaps. You should be aware of a couple minor limitations:

  • The grid view only shows SDR. I recommend a note to tell your viewers to view the image large for HDR if you feel that is important.
  • There is an embedded sharing option (not shown in the video) can create a slideshow of images for your web. It’s great, but only shows SDR.

Record actions for anything you do with Lumenzia v11.6

Lumenzia v11.6 is now available (as another free update) and includes a new ability to record the plugin’s activity as normal Photoshop actions (with PS v25.0+). This unlocks a wide range of ways you can automate or simplify your workflow, such as:

  • Create an action to start your favorite dodge & burn method, load a luminosity selection, activate a brush with your preferred paint color, and activate the split screen so you can review both the image and mask as you dive right into dodging.
  • Add a couple of solid fill layers with your chosen colors and apply lights and darks BlendIf from Lumenzia to color grade your image. Once the action is done, you can even use the slider in Lumenzia to refine the BlendIf to give yourself the flexibility to fine tune the results from your action.
  • Create an action sequence which applies a Nik Color Efex Pro filter to add a warm glow and then uses Lumenzia isolate the effect to the highlights.
  • Create an action sequence when creates a color preview based on red and adjusts the slider to specific limits to meet your need. The sliders are recordable.
  • Batch process a series of images using luminosity masks.
  • Record an action to create curves with all the zone masks and assign it to a shortcut key. (When you use modifier keys like <shift> to access special features like the zone masks, that will be saved in the action).
  • Record an action such as creating a color preview targeting blues, an L2 selection, etc and assign it to a button on your Wacom tablet/pen or StreamDeck. (To set up buttons, you can assign keyboard shortcuts to the actions and then assign buttons on those tools to fire the required shortcut in PS, here’s an example for StreamDeck.)
  • You could even set up a button to make your darks or lights preview incrementally lighter or dark, so you could create a Lights prevent and then click a few buttons to adjust to the optimal preview. (See the notes below on Recording Action Tools to do this.)

The possibilities are nearly endless. I’d love to hear comments below on the creative ways you end up using it.

To record Lumenzia activity as an action, all you need is to record actions normally (using PS v25.0 or later). When you use Lumenzia, it will create a new step in the action you’re recording. When you’re done, you’ll then be able to play it back using PS v25.0 or later. That’s it. You can even share your recorded actions with other Lumenzia users.

In addition to standard recording, there are some extra features in the “Recording Action Tools” (found under the flyout menu at top-right / Utilities). These popup tools include:

  • The ability to slide the Lights / Darks precision slider up or down by 0.25 – 1.0 increments. This is helpful to make an action you can assign to a button or keyboard shortcut.
  • Controls to help turn on the ability to record other tools in Photoshop – such as the paint brush, eraser and clone stamp. They also let you control whether your cursor position is recorded with absolute coordinates or as a relative position in the image (to make it easier to apply to other images which may have a different resolution or aspect ratio).
  • And more. These tools are likely to be refined based on your feedback as to what would help make it easier for you to integrate Lumenzia into your own actions.
  • Support information describing the Lumenzia action recording works in detail, as well as tips for those who may be new to recording actions.
  • Note that this popup is “modeless” and can be left on screen while you work (it will not block your ability to do anything else in PS, just use it when you need and close it when you’re done).

Note: there are a couple of minor bugs in PS v25.0 currently which may affect some use of plugin actions. One prevents playback of PreBlend under some conditions and the other will render a given plugin action step useless if you double-click it. The PS v25.2 (note couple versions from now) appears to resolve both concerns. I recommend installing the PS beta if you need a faster fix (easy to do and has been pretty solid in my experience).

 

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Lightroom now supports HDR!

Adobe just added HDR( “High Dynamic Range”) support to Lightroom! If you haven’t experienced it yet, HDR offers the most significant improvement in image quality in decades (to be clear, this is completely different from the old “HDR” many of you know, this involves new display technology to actually show greater dynamic range). For the first time ever, we can actually display the full dynamic range of light captured in our RAW files.

LR support for HDR has been added everywhere, including LR Classic (v13), LR (ie cloud, v7), LR iOS (v9), LR Android (v9), and even partially at lightroom.adobe.com. It works just like Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), and offers numerous benefits. You can now edit, view, and export HDR images on iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. That’s a huge deal, as the majority of smart phones have HDR hardware. Additionally, you now have the convenience of using LR for managing images, editing with virtual copies, and exporting HDR in multiple formats. Export support includes HDR JPG gain maps to share images which look amazing on both HDR and SDR (“Standard Dynamic Range”).

Note: If you’re new to HDR, see my HDR JPG gain map gallery on an M1 or M2 MacBook Pro using Chrome, Brave or Opera to get a sense of what a great monitor can offer. Or if you’re trying to understand what to look for in an HDR monitor, see my recommended HDR monitors. And please see my e-book for more info on HDR.

How to edit HDR with LR:

You’ll need an HDR display. Setup is automatic if you’re using an Apple display or mobile device, however may need to do some setup to support HDR if you are using a PC or external monitor. See my tests to confirm support and troubleshooting if you don’t see test #1 show >0 stops of headroom.

Additionally, you should ideally enable “enable HDR editing by default for HDR photos” (found under Preferences / Preset in LR Classic and under Preference / Import in the cloud version). This will show as “HDR edit mode for new photos” in LR iOS / Android under Preferences / Import. This optional setting simply ensures the HDR mode is automatically turned on when you import an image which is already HDR (such as a 32-bit TIF). You can manually toggle the HDR mode later, this only affects the default at the time of import.

Once you’ve got HDR setup, the LR workflow is very simple. Just open an image in the develop module and look for the “HDR” button near the top of the Basic tab using the desktop or iPad version of LR. For iPhone / Android, it will appear as the “edit in HDR mode” switch near the bottom of the Edit / Light tab. They all do the same, it’s just a different layout for different screens.

If your image has a lot of bright content, just enabling HDR may show immediate benefit. If you see no change, your image didn’t have bright content (at least with current slider settings), but the goal isn’t to click the button and get immediate results for such an image. Enabling HDR  gives you the room to push parts of that image into the HDR range. This makes HDR useful on any image. You can even use it on an 8-bit SDR JPG and get some great benefits.

The editing in HDR mode should feel nearly identical to the SDR editing you’re used to. The key differences are:

  • The histogram will update to show an HDR range.
    • The left side is SDR, and the right show 4 segments – each of which is an additional stop brighter than SDR.
    • Some of the HDR region will be dimmed if your display does not support a full 4-stops of HDR headroom (this is common, especially for moderate capability displays or if you turn up your brightness very high, as that reduces the brightness reserved for HDR content). The available range for HDR on your display is known as HDR headroom.
    • Note that the HDR headroom will update as you change brightness on MacOS, but on Windows will always show the value which was correct at the time LR was launched (so you should consider restarting LR if you alter brightness significantly on a PC to ensure accurate feedback).
  • The numeric readout below the histogram works a bit differently
    • HDR values will show the number of stops over SDR white (such as+2.3 for 2.3 stops over SDR)
    • HDR values will show in red when clipped for your display or clipped in the data, and will otherwise show in orange when displayed without clipping on your display.
    • It is only available as RGB (there is no LAB option in HDR mode). This can make it a bit more difficult to check shadow / midtone levels as you have to consider three channels instead of just the L value. More importantly, RGB values are color-space dependent and LR uses different color spaces for SDR and HDR. As a result, even a pixel which is rendered with the same luminosity and color will have dramatically different RGB numbers when you enable HDR mode.
    • You may right-click the histogram to enable an option to display the SDR pixels as a percentage (rather than 0-255). The same caveat for numbers applies (ie, you might see 5% vs 25% for the same pixel when toggling HDR mode).
  • The highlight clipping warning (top-right triangle in the histogram or <J>) shows a red/yellow overlay:
    • yellow indicates pixels which are HDR and displayed properly on your display.
    • red indicates pixels which are either clipped in the data or clipped on your display. If they are clipped in the data, they will look bad when exported. If they are clipped on your display, they may show properly if you turn down the brightness – and they will look just fine when exported to the web as a browser will “tone map” the image to fit the dynamic range limits of the display.
  • The HDR limit dropdown lets you control the maximum HDR brightness allowed. The default 4 stops is great for most users. Advanced users may wish to expand or contract the range in some niche scenarios.
  • Visualize HDR turns on a cyan/blue/purple/magenta overlay to show which pixels are 1-4+ stops into the HDR range. This can be very helpful to hit specific editing targets, as not every scene calls for using the full HDR range or you may wish to optimize for more moderate HDR displays.
  • The “Preview for SDR Display” (may be hidden under “SDR rendition settings”) gives you 7 sliders which control how the SDR version of the image will be rendered. This would affect exports to a gain map, to standard SDR, or direct printing of the HDR.
  • Curves will show an SDR and HDR range.

See my post on HDR editing with ACR for more information, as the controls work the same.

You may also use LR’s “merge to HDR” feature. This is the point where the old “HDR” meets the new. With the old approach, you could combine several exposures to increase the dynamic range of the data and then you would tone map down to the limits of your display. Now you can use the old approach to increase dynamic range of the data and display much more of it. You’re still creating data which exceeds the limits of your monitor, so this technique is of limited value and should only be used in a few niche scenarios.

Here’s the image I edited in the video (and unlike the video, this photo should show with proper color):

My image as a gain map (with a few more tweaks in LR after the video)

How to export HDR images from LR:

Once you’ve created a great HDR edit, you’ll need some new options to export it in a way that preserves the HDRThere are a couple of good options for exporting HDR images from LR:

  • JPG with a gain map (turn on “HDR output” in LR Classic, the HDR gain map is automatic for mobile versions of LR)
    • This format is ideal for sharing images to be viewed in a web browser, as the gain map will automatically show an image optimized for any display – even if it does not support HDR or gain maps.
    • To optimize rendering of the image on an SDR or less-capable HDR display, you should tweak the sliders in the “preview for SDR display” section. These control the SDR rendition of the image which gets embedded into the JPG gain map.
    • Use the sRGB color space if you expect to upload this image to social media or any site which may reprocess the image and strip the embedded profile. Otherwise, P3 is a great choice to retain the full color.
    • See my HDR gain map gallery  to see how these images automatically adapt on different displays.
  • HDR AVIF (turn on “HDR output”)
    • This format is ideal for sharing on iPhone or iPad, as the iOS17 Photos app supports HDR AVIF when viewed full screen (and does not support JPG gain maps, so it would show those in SDR).
    • Due to some apparent bugs in iOS17.0’s initial support, exporting in the Rec2020 colorspace appears to be the safest option (the others may show mangled thumbnails and the full-sized sRGB may look incorrect).
    • These do not support gain maps currently, so this is not ideal for sharing in a web browser if the viewer may have an SDR display (which would result in automatic tone mapping) or does not support AVIF (MS Edge does not at this time).

You may also export HDR as JXL or 32-bit TIF (on LR Classic), which may be helpful formats for sharing an editable image, but probably not something you’ll use at this time.

On mobile, choosing “save copy to device” will export an HDR source as a JPG gain map. Using “export as” will give you options, including AVIF.

 

Sharing your HDR portfolio online right from Lightroom:

You can also share image directly through shared albums in Lightroom following these steps:

  • Use the cloud version of LR desktop, a mobile version, or lightroom.adobe.com
  • In “share and invite“, set link access to “anyone can view“.
  • Click the clipboard icon to copy the sharable URL.
  • See Adobe support (or this post) for more details.

Here’s my example gallery. The grid view is unfortunately not HDR at this time, but you’ll see HDR when you click an image to view it large. When you click to show full size, it will show an HDR AVIF if supported, or otherwise will show an SDR JPG (so this not a gain map, but something more sophisticated which is functionally the same and offers faster / smaller downloads).

 

HDR limitations in LR:

Initial support for HDR includes editing in the Develop module, filtering for HDR images in the Library, and exporting HDR images (including HDR JPG gain maps or HDR images as AVIF or JXL). You cannot print HDR (because you would need glowing ink to do that), but the print module will offer to tone map to SDR for you to print.

At this point, there are some gaps in HDR coverage:

  • The Library module only shows HDR clipped to SDR. They will show as clipped to SDR, which is still very useful for basic image management (renaming, moving, adding keywords, selecting images for export, etc). The “compare” tool would be particularly useful to have HDR support, as it is very helpful for making editing decisions.
  • The “merge to HDR” preview is shown in SDR. This has no effect on the results and is not a concern at all.
  • The Map module only shows HDR clipped to SDR. Not many people use this, but you can still effectively manage location data with the clipped SDR view.
  • The Slideshow Module only shows HDR clipped to SDR. This makes it useless for HDR at this time, but you can easily use one of these workarounds:
    • Make the Develop module show a full screen image (<shift>-Tab to hide panels and <L> twice to dim the edges (“lights out” mode). Then use the arrow keys to advance through your selected images. Note: do not use <F> for full screen, as that clips to SDR.
    • Export HDR AVIF images to an iPhone, iPad, or Android to show a slideshow there.

Aside from missing modules, there are some aspects of HDR which work differently you should be aware of:

  • Curves work quite differently. Do not copy them from SDR to HDR images or vice versa, they will almost always need revision. If you have a curve edit and toggle HDR mode, it may cause some confusing changes in the image if you don’t understand this impact.
  • Most other edits are pretty safe and seamless, but there can be some differences and you should review the image when turning HDR mode on or off if there are other edits in the image.

 

 

Conclusions:

First, I would just like to acknowledge and thank the ACR and LR teams for their support for HDR. They’ve created an extremely simple and intuitive interface for an extremely complex topic. Their work is an incredible achievement.

HDR is no longer some distant future utopia, you can use it now to show significantly better images on a wide range of displays. With these LR updates and other recent updates across the HDR ecosystem, you can now edit and view HDR on a wide range of devices including Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad, and Android. And you can share those HDR images to view on the web with most of those devices and web browsers.

HDR is new and there are still some gaps of course, but they are no longer a reason to wait to use HDR. When you share your work as a gain map, your image will safely fall back to a beautiful SDR image anywhere HDR display is not supported. Your worst-case scenario is sharing the same image you would have before, and a large number of viewers will see a significantly enhanced HDR image. Support for HDR has been expanding rapidly over the past year and things are only going to get even better from here.

As always, there are other updates with the latest major LR release. Notable enhancements include: Point Color in the Color Mixer allows you to target and revise color in the image, the ability to work with a local image in LR mobile without syncing to the cloud,

 

HDR photography resources:

For more information on HDR, please see my related posts on:

Adobe links:

 

“Gain maps” make HDR look great on any screen

HDR support has rapidly improved since Adobe first added support for true HDR (High Dynamic Range) display last October. We finally have the tools to show the full dynamic range and color captured in our RAW images. If you haven’t seen it, you won’t believe what you’ve been missing. Even 20 year-old RAW files can show detail that was never before visible. The biggest remaining challenge has been to find a way to support enhanced HDR display while still ensuring our photos look great on plain old SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) monitors. And now we finally have the solution: gain maps.

Note: To confirm what level of HDR support your computer has, please see test #1 on my HDR page.

What’s the benefit of an HDR “gain map”?

A simple HDR photo (one without a gain map) will often look mediocre at best on an SDR monitor. In that scenario, the browser uses “tone mapping” to convert from your HDR to an SDR image. Such a fully automated process doesn’t understand the creative decisions you would make a specific image to manage color, contrast, etc when compressing the tonal range. The automated results are almost never as good as the SDR image you could create on your own.

An HDR “gain map” gives you control over both the HDR and the SDR version – rather than leaving it to some fully automated process. It allows you to share photos which look amazing on any display, regardless of whether it supports HDR or not. So there is no longer a penalty for sharing HDR – everyone who views your image sees either a gorgeous HDR or a beautiful SDR – but never some low-quality tone map. If you want to see several examples, take a look at my HDR gain map gallery.

This means gain maps are also a critical technology to help spur adoption of HDR. We no longer have to wait for everyone to get HDR displays to start sharing HDR photos. And the best news is that it is available now. The majority of web browsers already support it, and it is backwards compatible so browsers that don’t support it simply fall back gracefully to your SDR image.

Another advantage of gain maps is that they eliminate tone mapping. There is no browser-specific algorithm that converts a full range HDR to a lesser HDR or SDR image. The gain map includes an exact SDR and HDR image. If your monitor is HDR but lacks the headroom to render the HDR as it was created, then an intermediate image is interpolated from the SDR and HDR versions. So it will look much better than tone mapping and it will be consistent from one browser to the next.

Note: This is an HDR video. It will look dark and lower contrast on an SDR display due to tone mapping of the video itself. Also, while the HDR video is pretty decent, it is not identical to viewing my actual screen (due to the greater complexities of HDR video – Adobe should truly be commended for how simple they’ve made HDR photography). If you view the gain map photo below on Chrome/Edge/Brave/Opera and an HDR display with 3 stops of headroom, you will see an exact match to what I see in Photoshop. Do not view on Firefox (seems to show incorrectly on HDR displays).

 

How does a gain map work?

A gain map is a single file with a second pseudo-image embedded in it to create an optimized result for a specific monitor. It can be used to generate the HDR version (which looks dramatically better where supported), the SDR version (without tone mapping to ensures great quality), or anything in between (to better support less capable HDR displays).

Gain maps are not a new type of file, but rather a technology which can be embedded into a variety of image formats. There are reference specs already for the JPG, AVIF, JXL, and HEIF file formats. JPG is especially notable as it could not properly support HDR without gain maps and it offers a very useful bridge to the future (i.e. highly compatible with today’s software).

A gain map includes:

  • A base (default) image. This can be an SDR or an HDR image (JPG gain maps are always encoded with SDR as the base). If the browser or viewing software does not understand gain maps, it will just the treat file as if it were just the base image.
  • The gain map. This is a secondary “image” embedded in the file. It is not a real image, but rather contains data to convert each pixel from the base image into the other (SDR or HDR) version of the image.
  • Gain map metadata. This tells the browser how the gain map is encoded as well as critical information to optimize rendering on any display.

How a JPG gain map is displayed depends on your software/hardware:

  • If your display supports HDR and your browser supports gain maps, you will see the HDR version of the image.
  • If your display is SDR, you will see the SDR version of the image.
  • If your browser  does not understand JPG gain maps will simply show you the SDR base image. So, JPG gain maps are backwards compatible and safe to use with any browser.

Note: you may see JPGs with a gain map called “Ultra HDR JPG“. Adobe does not use this brand name, but Google (Android 14) does. 

In the future, we will have options for other formats or the ability to encode with HDR as the base image. That will offer benefits for file size and quality, but is not 100% compatible with current browsers. JPG gain maps are the way to go for now.

 

Which browsers full support gain maps?

There is already widespread support for JPG gain maps. Chrome (v116+), MS Edge (v116+), Brave (v1.58+), and Opera (v102+) all support it by default. Collectively, that will represent about 75% of web usage soon (once a little more time has past for users to update to the latest version). If Safari were to add support, we’d get to 95%. So it’s already close to a default standard, but there is no reason not to use it now. JPG gain maps are backwards compatible, which just means if you use Safari to view an HDR JPG on an HDR display, you’ll see the SDR version because Safari doesn’t yet understand the image. So you can safely share HDR JPG gain maps now.

You can confirm support for gain maps in your browser by reviewing these HDR tests on a display which supports HDR. Below are three versions of the image. One is a true gain map (and will show as SDR or HDR based on your setup), one shows the ideal SDR rendition you’ll get from the gain map, and the last shows the inferior tone map SDR you’d get if a simple HDR without a gain map were viewed on an SDR display. If you have an SDR display, the gain map and SDR version from it should match.

 

 

How do you create a gain map?

Adobe Camera RAW v15.5 added support to create JPG gain maps. Just follow these steps:

  1. You’ll need a single layer to export, create a “stamp visible” layer by clicking <ctrl/cmd><alt/option><shift>-E.
  2. If you need to crop the image, you should instead probably just create a flattened copy of the image and crop that (Image / Duplicate).
  3. Select the new layer and run Filter / Camera Raw Filter (<ctrl/cmd><shift>-A).
  4. Make sure “HDR” mode is enabled (probably off by default). If you don’t see this option, your source image is not 32-bits (which is required for HDR export).
  5. Turn on “Preview for SDR Display” and tweak the settings as desired. This gives you direct control over the SDR version of your image saved in the gain map. Consider adding sampler points to monitor highlights so you can push the SDR as far as possible without clipping channels. *
  6. Press <ctrl/cmd>-S or click the save icon at top-right (near the gear icon).
  7. Set format to JPEG and check “enable HDR display“. This requests an HDR gain map. Consider using a slightly higher JPG quality than you normally would, 10 is a good choice but going as high as 12 is beneficial for some images
  8. You can set other setting as desired. Set the color space to “HDR sRGB (Rec 709)” if you plan to share the image on social media or other sites which may reprocess the image (this avoids problems which may be caused if the color profile is stripped from the image during reprocessing). If you are uploading direct to your own site and not using services which reprocess the image, the P3 color space is safe to use and offers better results.
  9. Once you’ve picked settings, click “Save” and exit the raw filter.
  10. Delete the stamp visible layer you created in step #1.

* Don’t expect your SDR to look as good as the HDR, it won’t. That’s the whole point, HDR is vastly better. We’re just trying to make the image look as good as possible on monitors with less dynamic range.

Note that while ACR v15.5 can export JPG gain maps, but ACR / PS will just open the base map (ie reading is not currently supported, so test/confirm your export with a supported browser or by using the Adobe tool detailed below).

 

Web Sharp Pro (WSP) v5.8.4 is designed to help facilitate gain map exports by offering the following benefits:

  • Eliminates most of the steps above (you’ll only need 5, 6, and 9 after your first export). Once you’ve set your SDR preview, just click <ctrl/cmd>-S, <enter>, <enter> to quickly save with the same settings you used last time in the interface – everything else is automated by WSP (I’d make it fully automated if Photoshop offered native support to export gain maps, but this is an excellent first step and easy to manage).
  • Your SDR preview settings are remembered so you can easily re-use or revise them for subsequent exports.
  • It can automatically enhance any SDR image to HDR and then export that as a gain map. This is a great option for those of you who focus primarily on processing for print, but would also like to offer an enhanced HDR version to view on screens.

In addition to simplifying gain map creation, WSP offers a range of other benefits such as social media templates, remembering custom crops, batch exports, adding borders, watermarks, etc.

 

 

What are the limitations of gain maps?

Like most new technologies, not everything is an improvement. The main downside of a gain map is that it is slightly larger than a standard image, typically about 30% larger. That’s a very small price to pay (and in the future AVIF gain maps should offset that change in size). If you need to make things as small as possible for your site, you can always share separate SDR and HDR versions of your image (I have a demo page that does serves SDR / HDR images dynamically instead of gain maps here).

The other limitation of gain maps (with the current tools) is that we don’t have complete control over the SDR version of the image – just a very useful set of global sliders. We can already get excellent results, but allowing the user to provide their own SDR would be an ideal enhancement for the future (to support creatives who want to push their art as far as possible). The gain map spec would allow this, we just need encoding software. If you’d like to see Adobe add support for you to have full control over the SDR rendition, please vote on this feature request.

 

In addition to these limitations, we must be aware that various web services may strip the gain map when we upload images. When you upload to Facebook, Instagram, or to your own WordPress media library, the image is typically reprocessed. Derivative versions of the image may be created to shrink the file size, fit certain size requirements, create thumbnails, ensure the submitted image cannot exploit security vulnerabilities, etc. Unless that back end reprocessing software supports gain maps, the resulting images will be based on the base image. In other words, HDR gain map JPG will just turn into the SDR embedded in your image. It’s perfectly safe, but the HDR benefit will be gone. This is very new technology and it will take time for these websites to adopt support.

There are many options to work around reprocessing issues which may convert gain maps to SDR:

  • WordPress or similar services: skip the media library and upload the images directly to your server. This is what I’m doing on my site.
  • Portfolio websites: use zonerama.com, which automatically serves HDR or SDR images. You can also embed your Zonerama portfolio on your own site.
  • Social media: Share a link to your HDR images, perhaps alongside the SDR image and a note to explain that the link shows the enhanced HDR version.
  • Email: send a ZIP or a link to the images on a service like DropBox and Google Drive (note that your file preview may be converted to SDR, but the actual download should be your original gain map).

I recommend you contact support as appropriate for any important services you use to let them know HDR is important to you and that you’d like to see support for HDR gain maps. Consumer demand will determine how quickly we see support.

It can be a little confusing when you create a proper gain map and then later find it was converted to SDR. The results can also be mixed (such as showing SDR for the preview on a service like Google Drive, but the download still providing the original gain map with HDR). Or you may still HDR while composing a post (such as on Reddit), only to find the post shows as SDR after being submitted. I recommend you test your uploads to make sure you know they still display as HDR. You can also download them and review in the Adobe Gain Map Demo App as detailed below.

 

What’s next for gain maps?

I am incredibly grateful to the various industry partners who have collaborated to bring us such an immensely useful innovation for photography. The initial support is incredible and there is so much opportunity to take things even further. We will likely see improvements in gain maps for years to come. Even when HDR screens are everywhere and SDR becomes rare, they will have an important role to play in adapting the best content to lesser HDR screens or for managing display in bright conditions (such as viewing your phone on a sunny day). I’ll offer my thoughts here on some enhancements we may see in time.

We also only have limited control over the SDR rendition at this time (through the preview sliders). That’s amazingly useful and easy to use, but a complete and optimal solution would also offer the user full control by supplying their own SDR (i.e. full manual control over the SDR). This would allow unique RAW process, local adjustments (such as tweaking just the sky), etc for the best possible results. It would also greatly facilitate creating enhanced HDR images from print-ready SDR images. If Photoshop were to add scripted support to create gain maps with full control over both the SDR and HDR version of the image, we’d truly have the ultimate tool for sharing HDR images that are optimized everywhere.

JPG gain maps are a very important first step as they offer universal support and backwards compatibility. However, other formats will be preferable in time. The most exciting is AVIF gain maps. These are already supported in Chrome Canary (under a developer flag chrome://flags/#avif-gainmap-hdr-images), however we need an encoder and more browser support before they are ready for general use. AVIF gain maps offer many benefits over JPG gain maps:

  • ~30% smaller files
  • Higher quality than JPG (fewer artifacts and 10-bit encoding to avoid banding)
  • The base image can be encoded as HDR, which offers better HDR quality and potentially even smaller files (as it’s probably safer to use low resolution gain maps if the base image is HDR). This won’t be an ideal format to share until gain map support is more widespread (otherwise you may see tone mapping or clipping based on the HDR rather than proper use of the gain map on displays which lack the full HDR capacity required for the HDR image).
  •  Supports transparent backgrounds

JXL also supports gain maps and could potentially offer further benefits for photography over AVIF in some cases. For example, it can encodes at higher bit depths than AVIF (which may make them suitable for further editing). The gains here are not as significant as AVIF vs JPG, and browser support for JXL is fairly non-existent. It is unclear if it will be gain widespread support.

Currently, we only have an option to create gain map through ACR (as far as I’ve seen to date). Expanding native support to Photoshop (PS), Lightroom (LR), Affinity, and other popular photography editing applications will obviously benefit creators. An increasing number of options in time is inevitable, the benefits will make gain maps very popular.

The current gain map spec is not yet an ISO standard, but efforts are in progress. An official standard should help ensure consistent quality across different browsers and software (although things already seem pretty solid).

 

Proofing and testing with the Adobe “Gain Map Demo App”

Adobe has built a demo tool intended to help software developers add support for gain maps, but it is also very useful for photographers who wish to test their images and better understand how gain maps work.  The Gain Map Demo App and sample images are available here and demonstrated in the video above. This gets a bit technical and is completely optional, but can be helpful for those who want to understand gain maps more deeply. It also demonstrates how important gain maps are if Adobe is willing to build a tool like this.

Some helpful tests you might run using this app:

  • Confirm an image is a proper gain map: The text in the right-hand column will tell you if you have an SDR or HDR image and whether it has an embedded gain map. This offers a very clear way to confirm that your image was properly created as a gain map, or that it remains so after uploading to a website.
  • Soft proof how your HDR will look on other monitors: When viewing “adaptive”, you can change HDR capacity to “manual” and drag the slider to see how the gain map will be rendered on displays ranging from SDR to the HDR capacity offered by your display. Watchout: if the image contains HDR detail above the actual capacity of your display, moving the slider above your HDR headroom will show clipping in the highlights (whereas a web browser would never do this because it would use the automatic version at the limits of your display). So don’t push the slider beyond your current limits (you can determine your HDR headroom using test #1 on my HDR page).

Some tips for using the app:

  • Drag an image to the app icon to open it directly (only works if the app is not already running).
  • To open multiple images, right-click the filmstrip area and choose “add image”.
  • Don’t worry if you see minor glitches or don’t understand the rest of it. It is just intended as a demo for software developers, not as a polished product for use by photographers.

Note that the app has other detail and viewing modes, but it goes down a pretty deep technical rabbit hole that I’m going to skip here because it isn’t helpful or meant for photographers. The reference documentation and spec at the link provides above more details for software developers.

 

More information for developers:

We have great tools to create and view gain maps, but also need 3rd-party tools which reprocess images to support gain maps so that we can safely share these JPG gain maps through media libraries on the various web platforms we use (otherwise the gain map we upload is converted to a standard JPG with no HDR support). The following resources should be helpful for developers looking to understand HDR or gain maps:

Greg Benz Photography