Incredible new AI noise reduction in LR / ACR

Adobe Camera RAW (ACR v15.3) and Lightroom (Classic v12.3 / Desktop v6.3) have just added a powerful new noise reduction tool using artificial intelligence (as well as some great enhancements to HDR capabilities and more noted at the bottom of this post). Noise reduction is a powerful tool not only for high ISO images, but also noisy images from small sensors (such as drones) or helping to make larger prints from low ISO images. There are now a number of AI-based tools and ACR is already among the best in its first release. In this tutorial, you’ll learn why you should use it, how to get optimal results, and how it compares to DXO PureRAW.

In my experience, this tool consistently adds a lot of value for its intended targets: noisy images. It’s is extremely helpful for noise in shadows, high ISO images, and small sensors (such as images captured with a drone). It can help make larger prints from images captured at an optimal ISO. And it can even reduce hot pixel noise in some images. The final result is significantly less luminance noise, less color noise, and better preservation of detail compared to the older manual noise removal.

 

Workflow for Adobe Denoise:

  1. Open or select an image in LR or directly in ACR (the feature is not available in inside RAW Smart Objects and the RAW Filter does not actually work with RAW data). You may also <shift>-click to select multiple images at the same time.
  2. Consider using exposure or shadow adjustments so you can clearly see any noisy areas you’ll want to review in the next steps (this won’t affect the results and you can change/undo it later).
  3. In the Detail tab, click the “Denoise” button. If you <alt/option>-click Denoise, it will run “headless” and immediately process the image with the same settings used last time you ran denoise.
  4. The preview shows 100%. You cannot change the size of the preview, but you can easily pick other parts of the image to preview by clicking directly on the image. You may alternatively click the – icon (or <alt/option>-click in the preview) to zoom out, then click elsewhere in the preview to zoom back in.
  5. Click the preview to view before/after to help choose the desired amount of Denoise. 50% is generally a good amount.
  6. Click “Enhance” then you may open the new image which shows in the film strip. You may wish to <ctrl/cmd>-click to select the original as well so that you may blend the two.
  7. You may apply manual noise reduction in addition to Denoise. That’s not something you should do often, but it can be useful in some cases.

Some tips for working with Denoise:

  • Expect to make some minor changes to adapt your approach if you’re already using another noise reduction tool. Adobe Denoise is designed to reduce noise. It does add some detail, but not  real sharpening like DXO or Topaz DeNoise do. So you’ll need to add some degree of sharpening or detail enhancement to the Adobe Denoise image if you’re hoping to match the level of detail those products tend to produce by default.
  • You can apply Denoise at any time on the RAW file, but it should ideally be done before using any tools which make permanent changes based on the current pixels (this includes AI-based masks like Select Sky/Subject and the healing brush). Denoise will automatically update those areas, but it’s a good idea to review them if you denoise after those changes. I’ve also seen denoise make some slight shifts in apparent color/tone. They’re quite minor, but it’s a good idea to look for changes if you’re denoising an image you’ve already processed.
  • You can skip the popup interface and run with the last same settings used last time by <alt/option>-clicking Denoise (the … will disappear on the button when you’re holding the correct shortcut key and hovering).
  • Adobe Denoise also adds detail, which can be both a benefit and a potential concern, depending on the image content. automatically turns on the “RAW Details” enhance option. If you compare Denoise at 1% (where it’s doing almost nothing) vs unchecking Denoise (so that it’s completely off), there is a significant change in detail. In other words, it adds a lot more detail beyond that provided when you only have “RAW Details” enabled. This extra edge detail increases with higher amounts of Denoise. This has several implications:
    • You may turn on Denoise at a very low percent to help reveal more detail in an image (like a form of AI capture sharpening).
    • You may find this detail results in artifacts in some areas. So even if you’re already comfortable with how  RAW Details affect your images, you should review the results closely since they’re different now. Watch out in particular for halos along strong edges like backlit buildings. If you run problems, you can blend locally with the original, blend with a version using less Denoise, or just use the old manual noise reduction as needed. It’s not a concern I’ve seen in many images, but you should be aware of it. It’s also the sort of problem I expect may be eliminated as this tool matures with future updates.
  • One scenario that I find Adobe Denoise doesn’t handle well yet: very high contrast edges, such as a sunset sky behind the hard edge of a building. In that scenario, you may see halos. Hopefully this is addressed in a future update, but there may be a few scenarios where another approach is preferable or should be blended in via layer mask.
  • If you wish to filter LR to only show denoised images, you may search on the text “enhanced” and may further limit metadata to file type of “digital negative / lossless” to show DNGs (in case you have unrelated files with a similar name). You may also go to Settings / File Handling and check “automatically add keywords to enhanced images”, which will cause “Denoise” to be added as a keyword (the amount of noise reduction is not noted in either the keyword or new file name).
  • There’s no direct way to to filter to files which have not been denoised, but you could use a creative approach by setting a metadata filter for file type to “Raw” and opting for Denoise to output as a stack. The resulting DNG will be at the top of the stack and will not show in the filtered stack (so long as you leave the stack collapsed). This assumes you did not import your images as DNG, in which case both the source and denoised image would have the same “file type”.
  • Speed with this tool varies wildly based on your computer. On my M2 Max, converting 10 D850 images took an average of 27 seconds per image. I’ve heard reports of much longer times with much older computers, so your speed will depend heavily on your computer’s capabilities. If you have a slower computer, I recommend just letting the batch run in the background (you can even keep working on other images in LR if you like). Adobe’s official guidance is: “For best performance, use a GPU with a large amount of memory, ideally at least 8 GB. On macOS, prefer an Apple silicon machine with lots of memory. On Windows, use GPUs with ML acceleration hardware, such as NVIDIA RTX with TensorCores. A faster GPU means faster results.”
  • You can get basic info on your GPU in PS under Help / GPU Compatibility. If you’d like to compare with others, some GPU benchmark options which have been recommended to me are 3DMark (for PC) and Cinebench for (PC or MacOS).

 

Adobe Denoise vs DXO PureRAW 3:

There are a few AI-based noise reduction tools out there and I’ve posted tutorials previously on DXO PureRAW 3 (with “DeepPRIME XD”). How does ACR compare? The short answer is that they have complimentary strengths, so I prefer to use a mix of both depending on the image. The full answer is a bit longer as they aren’t fully comparable, as DXO targets a larger range of RAW enhancements.

Pros for Adobe Denoise:

  • Included with ACR and therefore costs nothing if you have Photoshop / Lightroom CC (vs $129 for PureRAW for a new purchase at full price).
  • Offers control over the degree of noise reduction, which can be helpful to fine tune the balance between noise reduction and preserving detail.
  • Less prone to artifacts in fine details.
  • Preserves the mosaic data. This may facilitate use of improved demosaicing algorithms in the future (which may help improve fine detail or reduce pixel-level artifacts). However, if you keep the original RAW, you’d always have this data (and the combined size of the original and DXO DNG is only about 5% larger than the Adobe DNG). So this is nearly a wash if you’re willing to keep the original when using DXO.
  • Simpler to use. There’s not much to think about here, which is nice. That said, the DXO interface isn’t too complicated.
  • Embeds fast load data, which may provide some performance boost when changing images in LR / ACR.
  • I find that it does a somewhat better job with high ISO night sky images. DXO tends to shows some artifacts (faux star trails) and makes secondary stars too strong (which makes for a cluttered star field where everything is a bright star). Adobe Denoise also makes secondary stars too strong, but the overall result is a bit better.
    • One benefit of this cleaner result is that you can combine Adobe Denoise with stacking multiple images. This would help achieve greater total noise reduction and/or allow you to shoot fewer images. I’d happily stack say 5 images instead of 10-20. Not only will that save time (on a typically cold night), but helps reduce problems with sky area near edges (where you may not have much data from other images in the stack).
    • I find that DXO does a better job with foregrounds, so I expect I’ll use both tools on the same image and use the sky from ACR and the foreground from DXO.
  • Direct integration with LR / ACR.
  • It’s a first release and only going to get better. Adobe’s Eric Chan noted in his blog post that they’re continuing to work on better training data, support for using Denoise with Super Resolution, and eliminating the creation of a new DNG file. If you look at the history of another new feature, HDR, you’ll see it has improved significantly in the past six months already (including the improvements noted below).

Pros for DXO PureRAW:

  • Does a better job of enhancing high ISO shadow details. It also includes a “lens softness” control to help control the degree of detail enhancement. When you want to make enlargements for print, I find DXO (especially when combined with Topaz Gigapixel) is an indispensable tool. This is a great reason to consider adding DXO to your toolkit.
  • 25% smaller files. I assume this is because PureRAW is saving demosaiced data (RGB) vs Adobe Denoise which preserves mosaic data (RGGB). For reference, a typical D850 is roughly 51MB for the original NEF, 135MB for the PureRAW DNG, and 178MB for the Adobe DNG. You might save the file space or use this as an opportunity to keep the original RAW for reprocessing in the future as these algorithms continue to improve.
  • Offers vignetting, chromatic aberration, and lens corrections. I don’t generally find these to be huge advantages. The lens corrections are very helpful if you get perfect results, but if you wish to blend in some of the original image, you need to skip them to align the image. I wouldn’t say I’ve found the chromatic aberration and vignetting addresses problems I can’t address with other tools in ACR.
  • Outputs to a sub-folder, which may be preferable in organizing the derivative DNGs.

Note that camera support varies a little bit here and both are likely to offer expanded options over time. I do not know if Adobe Denoise supports more cameras than PureRAW in general or just different cameras (you can check your images with DXO’s free trial to confirm with your own images).While both were able to process images from a DJI Mavic Pro drone, the results from PureRAW were not as expected and it does not seem properly supported as of v3.1.0.

Adobe Denoise is also able to process a RAW (not ProRAW) photo from iPhone 14, whereas PureRAW 3 could not. Note that the iPhone can capture two different types of RAW images and only one of them can be processed with Adobe Denoise. The native iPhone app RAW files are ProRAW files which are already demosaiced (partially processed), and therefore not compatible with AI Noise. You’ll have to use an app like ProCamera to capture in the mosaiced RAW format if you wish to use this software. You can tell which is which in ACR / LR based on Denoise availability, as well as by reviewing Metadata/DNG in LR and checking to see that “mosaic data” shows “yes”. In a brief test, I felt that the RAW + Adobe Denoise version showed more noise and less sharpening artifact, so it may be worth exploring this if you do serious photography with an iPhone (but the differences probably aren’t worth the effort for casual use).

I find these tools are very complimentary and I’m glad to have both. When to use which tool:

  • When you want noise reduction with the most natural look: ACR Denoise
  • When you want to enhance fine detail or restore very noisy shadow detail: PureRAW3
  • High contrast edges (such as sunset behind buildings): PureRAW3 (note that you may see better results using the option to remove chromatic aberration in ACR than in PureRAW3 in this scenario)
  • Starry night skies: Adobe Denoise or manual noise removal in ACR coupled with stacking. Adobe Denoise makes minor stars more prominent (which can make the sky too cluttered). You can get a better result by using a more modest amount of Adobe denoise and then add manual noise reduction. I also find Adobe Denoise may require a slight shift in tint to keep consistent color in the night sky. I’d like to see both tools improve their ability to handle starry skies.

This is just the first release of the tool, so the last couple of items may shift in favor of Adobe Denoise as ACR is updated over time. Ultimately, Adobe is coming out strong in their first release and I expect many photographers will decide it’s good enough (given it provides great results at no extra cost). However, I think PureRAW is excellent and there are compelling advantages for many photographers. I recommend trying DXO’s free trial to see for yourself, your degree of benefit will depend on the kind of images you capture.

 

Adobe Denoise vs Topaz Denoise:

Many people love Topaz Denoise. They make amazing products and I’m an enormous fan of Topaz Gigapixel. Topaz were early pioneers with AI noise reduction and have made a great product. However, as often happens, there’s lot of competing innovation and in my opinion leadership has now shifted to Adobe and DXO. In particular, I believe the RAW processing workflow is simply better with those products. However, if you don’t care about reducing noise at the RAW stage, then you’ll likely have a stronger preference for Topaz.

Pros for Adobe AI Denose:

  • You can apply the noise reduction at any time and trust that the new RAW (linear DNG) will look extremely close to where you started. That makes it very easy to migrate existing edits. that’s not the case with many files I’ve tested with Topaz. I see huge shifts in color balance, tonality, and sometimes overall vignetting of the image. It’s a different result, and in my experience complicates editing.
  • I prefer the results from Adobe, I find they have the least amount of artifact of any of the AI tools so far. But it depends on your image content, and there is no universally better tool.
  • It’s simpler, just a single Denoise slider. Topaz also has a reasonably simple interface, but you have to choose which model to use and set up to four sliders.
  • Topaz is not showing the RAW image as you’ve processed it, which I find makes it harder to make optimal decisions with those various choices (especially if making critical decisions to reduce noise in shadow areas).
  • Denoise is effectively “free” as it is included with the cost of LR / ACR.
  • Direct integration with LR / ACR.

Pros for Topaz:

  • You can use it on TIF, JPG, and PNG – which is beneficial for improving images you’ve already edited, stock images, etc.
  • You can use it as a filter on a Smart Object. So if you prefer more flexibility, you can change the noise reduction settings later. This may mean an extra Smart Object + filter (if you aren’t applying it to a RAW Smart Object). I’d generally be careful with applying noise reduction after sharpening, clarity, etc.
  • It also offers controls to add some sharpening / detail. This can be very useful (it can also be misleading if you compare the initial Topaz results to the unsharpened results from Adobe Denoise). Personally, I find this may produce unwanted artifact at an early state of image processing which may limit the ability to enlarge later. I prefer not to sharpen this way on the RAW file.

 

I expect Adobe Denoise will spur more innovation and I look forward to seeing how things continue to improve across the ecosystem. If you feel I’m overlooking anything here (or things change in the months to come), please comment below. I’m sure Topaz will keep producing great updates.

 

Other notable changes in LR:

  • Edit in / “Open as Smart Object layers in Photoshop”.
  • Curves in local adjustments.
  • Ability to import  AVIF (new format which is much smaller than JPG) and HEIF (iPhone).

 

ACR v15.3 also has some nice HDR enhancements, including:

  • Vastly improved color for orange/yellow HDR highlights, which is particularly beneficial for images such as sunrise / sunset.
  • Full support for color grading in HDR.
  • A new keyboard shortcut (<shift>-O) to toggle the “Visualize HDR Ranges” overlay.

 

[Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I have purchased all the software referenced above and only endorse tools I personally use and recommend. If you purchase through these links, a small percentage of the sale will be used to help fund the content on this site, but the price you pay remains the same.  Please see my ethics statement if you have any questions.]

What’s new in Web Sharp Pro v5?

I’m happy to announce the launch of Web Sharp Pro v5, which is another free update for all existing customers. You can see key highlights in the three short videos below.

Web Sharp Pro v5 offers:

  • The ability to save any combination of settings as a preset. For example: you could create one preset to export to Facebook with blur border, one for a 4×5 Instagram portrait template with some added grain, and third for a larger watermarked version of the same image for your website. The options are endless. Whatever your needs, you can easily switch between the settings presets you create with just a few clicks. (see video #1)
  • Add up to three buttons to immediately sharpen with favorite saved presets. So you could export with presets you’ve created with a single click. (see video #1)
  • Bulk export with multiple different settings. When you click “batch” you can now choose any of your new saved presets to use on all the files you select for batch processing. You can also use this with the new Lightroom / Capture One integration.(see video #1)
  • Integration with Lightroom and Capture One. Just create a simple export template for either program and when you use it, Web Sharp Pro will automatically batch process all the images you’ve selected. (see video #2)
  • Your crops are remembered for future use. You no longer need to use crop overlays to save your preferred crops with the source image. If you create a custom crop for Facebook and a different crop for a 1×1 export, for example, those crops will be used the next time you export the image. You can choose to change them, or just use them automatically. This allows you to get the exact same custom crop any time you need to re-export the image for a given aspect ratio. (see video #3)
  • Support for multiple watermarks. You may import as many as you like for different watermarking needs.(see video #1)
  • And more. See the release notes for full details on the changes (be sure to look back to v5.0, these new features have been released in a succession of quick updates).

The combined effect of these updates is that you can now use the simpler “quick export” method to do nearly anything in the panel. Of course, the crop overlay method is still available when you want extra visualizations for safe margins, splitting into rows/columns, or when working with images where you’ve already added overlays.

Part 1: Bulk export with saved settings, buttons for favorites, and multiple watermarks

Part 2: Integration with Lightroom / CaptureOne

Part 3: Custom crops

 

Placid

Your browser / screen does not support HDR, or scripts are disabled. See my HDR tests and more info to learn how to to properly view HDR images.

Fighting my urge to sleep in after a long week of shooting, I didn’t exactly jump right out of bed on time. Throw in the uncertainty of reaching and scouting a new location, I had to hustle to stay ahead of sunrise. My heart was pounding by the time I arrived to this overlook, but it wasn’t long before it settled as I looked over the placid water into the first color of the crisp morning sky.

This HDR image was edited using ACR for RAW processing and Lumenzia for 32-bit dodging & burning with luminosity selections, exported as an HDR image using Web Sharp Pro, and then converted to an HDR video using Final Cut Pro X for Instagram. 

Note that if you are viewing on a computer which supports HDR (such as an M1 MacBook Pro using Chrome), the image above will show as an HDR AVIF. However, if your computer does not support it, then you will see an SDR (standard dynamic range) JPG. The SDR image is optimized to look as good as it can within the limits of those displays, but the HDR is definitely a more compelling image. If you have an iPhone, you can view this image as HDR with the Instagram link below.

I’ve also been experimenting with posting these HDR images on Instagram. Technically, it isn’t supported. But you can convert an HDR photo to an HDR video and that is supported. There are many limitations (HDR is only shown when viewing full screen on an iPhone and the IG overlays only disappear if you click and hold on the screen), but it’s still interesting to have a way to share HDR images on these great mobile screens. I would rather just host my own images and bypass these limitations, but we don’t yet have support for mobile browsers to show HDR images on iPhones / iPads. Hopefully that will change soon.

How to eliminate noise with PureRAW 3

DXO has just released PureRAW v3 to enhance your RAW images automatically with artificial intelligence (AI). I previously posted a detailed tutorial with PureRAW v2 showing how it can be used to enhance detail and reduce noise in high ISO images. Be sure to see that previous review, as I cover several details I’m not going to rehash here.
PureRAW is one of those rare tools that can improve most images with minimal work. It helps reduce noise, enhance detail, and correct lens distortions. That might sound like a tool only for high ISO images, but as I show in the video below, it can significantly improve the quality of even ISO 64 images for print. It’s incredibly versatile.

With the v3, DXO PureRAW offers the following improvements:
  • A new DeepPrime XD method which claims to help reduce the equivalent of 2.5 stops reduction in ISO.
    • In my experience, this holds up to their claims. The noise reduction is vastly improved and this has significant benefits to not only high ISO images, but the ability to print any image. When combined with Topaz Gigapixel, you can enlarge your prints to sizes I would never have thought possible.
  • Improved fine detail.
    • Noisy shadow detail improves significantly over the already impressive results from v2.
    • I find it adds substantial fine detail on ISO 64 images. It feels like my lenses are much sharper.
  • More control over settings.
    • You can now choose from 5 levels of lens sharpening instead of 2 (I’m counting off as an option).
    • You can choose from 3 methods of lens correction instead of 1. You can keep the original aspect ratio, keep the maximum area without any blank pixels, or keep everything to let you content-aware fill missing pixels to create the largest possible corrected image.
    • And you can selectively remove vignetting and chromatic aberration.
  • New batching processing options. If you use the standalone version, you can queue up several jobs at the same time, including with different settings. However, this capability does not appear to be in the v3 LR plugin
  • Support for Fujifilm X Series cameras.
A few things to note:
  • I find that nearly every image is improved. The one exception is starry night skies, where the results are a mix of good and bad. While I find the foregrounds of those images are improved, there are artifacts in the stars and I prefer the older DeepPRIME method (which comes with v3 and you can easily use or blend it as you like). I’m more inclined to use other noise reduction techniques for the stars (such as stacking or other denoising algorithms) than v3. But they keep making huge improvements and hopefully this is an area which will benefit as well in the future.
  • PureRAW’s legacy modes (such as the original DeepPrime) are still available and work the same as they did in v2.
  • You can also integrate this tool with Lightroom’s merge to panorama / HDR tool (you just need to run DXO before the LR merge).
  • I believe this is an excellent tool for HDR output from a single RAW, as it helps you avoid shadow noise while exposing properly for the highlights in a scene.
  • Try the demo version or check the camera compatibility list if you use an unusual camera or want to use a Smart Phone. I cannot process either standard RAW or ProRAW from an iPhone (and do not see any recent iPhone in the official list, but some very old models are supported).
  • If you already have DXO PhotoLab 6 ELITE, you don’t need PureRAW3 unless you’re seeking the Lightroom integration. You also have the same DeepPRIME XD capabilities.

 

The Lightroom integration offers a simple workflow. Just go to File / Plugin Extras / Process with DxO PureRAW 3 in LR after you’ve installed their plugin.

  • Set the denoising technology to DeepPRIME XD. This is mandatory if you want the best noise reduction. If you see artifacts (such as in stars), you might consider falling back to the older DeepPRIME method. But in general, I’d just use XD.
  • The lens sharpness works great at “standard“. This helps enhance fine detail is helpful when you intend to print. If you see any unwanted detail or artifacts, just uncheck the option to turn it off (it will still apply some detail enhancement even when completely off).
  • Turn vignetting on or off as you like. I prefer to leave vignetting off and use the controls in LR / ACR instead since they work similarly well and you can control the amount applied.
  • Turn chromatic aberration ON. The results here are better than you’ll get with LR / ACR after the fact.
  • I generally leave lens distortion off. I get good results from LR / ACR. More importantly, you’ll lose the option to blend the output with your original RAW if you want to mix different methods (which I would certainly do for night sky shots where I would treat the stars differently from the foreground).
  • I strongly recommend updating the name every time you change settings. PureRAW doesn’t name the file to remind you which settings you use and it can get confusing to compare different options if you don’t do this yourself. Hopefully, they’ll do this for us in the future.

 

Who should consider PureRAW 3?

  • Anyone making large prints. The noise reduction and fine detail are very powerful and a worthwhile upgrade from v2.
  • Anyone looking to reduce high ISO noise (other than starry skies as noted above). This is a great tool for hand-held portraits, weddings, events, and sports (if you can afford 15-30 seconds per images to process the RAW).
  • Those working with RAW files from small sensors such as drones or cropped sensors, which are inherently noisy even at low ISO.
If you’re curious to learn more about what they’re doing, check out DXO’s article on linear DNG and their official list of supported cameras and lenses. PureRAW costs $129 new, or $79 if you’re upgrading.

[Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I have purchased all the software referenced above and only endorse tools I personally use and recommend. If you purchase through these links, a small percentage of the sale will be used to help fund the content on this site, but the price you pay remains the same.  Please see my ethics statement if you have any questions.]

I upgraded from M1 to an M2 MacBook Pro. Was it worth it?

Update: See my review of the new M3 Max as well as gregbenzphotography.com/hdr for a demonstration of just how incredible the XDR display is on the new MacBook Pros.

I’ve been using a 14″ 2021 M1 MacBook Pro (MBP) since it launched. It’s been an amazing computer and continues to amaze me. To push things further, I just upgraded to the new 2023 M2 version. Was it worth it?

Both my old and new laptop are the most fully-loaded version you can get in the 14″ screen size. That includes the “Max” version of the CPU, 8TB internal storage, and maximum RAM options

The new M2 Max includes faster CPU cores with 2 more efficiency cores to improve battery life, faster / more GPU cores (38 vs 32), and the RAM has increased from 64 to a whopping 96GB RAM (both models at 400GB/s).

There are some improvements to core features as well including Bluetooth 5.3 (vs 5.0 for better performance, stability, and security with supporting devices), Wi-Fi 6E (vs Wi-Fi 6 for improved speed / latency with a supporting router), and HDMI 2.1 (vs 2.0 for double the bandwidth to support higher refresh rates on 4k monitors).

 

Test results: M2 Max vs M1 Max

First, I need to note that I’m running benchmarks not long after migrating my data, which means that my M2 machine is still doing some background indexing for Spotlight which may mean that I’ll see greater gains when that process is done. Second, be sure to check out my article on how to test performance of your CPU, GPU, RAM, etc for more details on how I made the observations below.

Here are the results I saw when comparing my newly M2 Max to my older M1 Max on the same tasks:

  • Photoshop tasks take roughly 12% less time in G-Bench tests (scoring 50.2 vs 57.2 for typical runs, though I’ve seen the M2 get as low as 49.6 and the M1 as low as 55.9). Based on Apple claims and 3rd-party benchmarks showing ~20% performance improvements, I expected I’d see G-Bench scores in the range of 45-50. So I would say these results are in line with expectations, but not quite what I’d hoped to see. Note: the detailed M2 data will be included in G-Bench standalone as well as Lumenzia and Web Sharp Pro utilities within the next couple weeks.
  • Creating Smart Objects is one area where the M2 really shines. Converting a complex set of layers to a Smart Object takes ~55% less time. I’m guessing improved SSD write speeds play significant a role in that. However, opening a Smart Object for further editing only saves ~7%.
  • The RAM increase to 96GB offers real benefit for heavy workloads. I’ve often seen the Activity Monitor show “memory pressure” in the yellow or even red with the M1. I expect I will almost never see that with the M2. That means less use of memory compression or swap files on the disk. That helps avoid performance degradation with the M2 and helps further separate its performance from the M1. When I tried enlarging a massive image, I saw the time savings of the M2 jump to 30% vs a 20% savings on more modest files.
  • The internal drive is dramatically improved for saving data. Write speeds are 50% faster (6800 vs 4500 MB/s in Black Magic). That won’t speed up saving images in Photoshop if you’re using compressed formats, as the CPU is the bottleneck there. It also won’t accelerate copying data as APFS uses virtual copies internally and external sources would be slower. But if you’re saving uncompressed images, you’ll definitely see a benefit. And this probably accounts for a good part of the massive speed boost in creating Smart Objects.
  • SSD read speeds are the same (about 5500 MB/s on each). Yet, large files open in 20% less time on the M2 (which seems to be driven by CPU improvements decode the data more quickly).
  • Apple claims battery life should be improved (18 vs 17 hours of video playback on the 14″ laptop). I don’t have a good way to confirm this (especially given the aged status of my M1 battery, which now shows a maximum capacity of 89% after 16 months of heavy use). The M1 has only 2 efficiency cores and they are frequently fully utilized, while the M2 offers 4 efficiency cores and should be able to run more efficiently for email, web browsing, and other simple tasks. I wouldn’t expect much improvement using performance-driven apps like LR and PS though.
  • The doubling of efficiency cores may help speed up tasks like background indexing which are written to prefer efficiency cores. When I allow Spotlight to index, I notice both machines max out the efficiency cores, but the M1 doesn’t seem to use the performance cores in a significant way for the task (even when on wall power).
  • Gigapixel runs about 7% faster. Previous hardware updates have shown huge gains as the software uses multiple cores and GPU well, it may not yet be fully optimized for M2 and might get a further speed bump with some future update.
  • I’m generally seeing other non-photography tasks I use (video, transpiling software, etc) save 10-20% as well.
  • For reasons I don’t understand, I only saw a 5% gain using Handbrake to transcode video. I wonder if there is some thermal throttling involved, as it was using nearly 100% of every core for an extended period of time – whereas Final Cut Pro X doesn’t push the CPU cores nearly as hard. I notice the fans get to to loud speeds noticeably earlier on the M2 than the M1 when using all CPU cores, perhaps due to the revised cooling design. (Note that fan noise is still rare unless you’re doing something using all cores heavily, such as importing a batch of images to LR or exporting video).

On the whole, these are fairly incremental gains and less than I’d expected.

So, was it worth it?

For me, yes (just barely). This is the single-most important tool I need to run my business and I’m willing to invest in it. That’s based largely on the desire for increased RAM, improved productivity, and my business needs for video and software development – balanced against tax considerations as a business expense and the net cost after selling the old laptop.

Unless you bought and lower-end M1 and now want to get more of the upgrades you skipped the first time, you should probably stick with the M1 you have. The performance gains are incremental and the 96 RAM option will only benefit a small group of photographers for the next few years. The future “M3” update is likely to be a more significant update and I’d wait for that. None of that is a negative on the M2 at all, it’s just that most people won’t get significant value from updating any computer in less than three years.

However, the value of Apple Silicon just got more compelling if you didn’t already have the M1. If you have an older Mac or a Windows machine, the M2 (or a now cheaper M1) are excellent computers and I would highly recommend either for nearly any photographer. The 1600-nits HDR-capable XDR display on this laptop would be worth the upgrade alone in my opinion (as well as being a very compelling reason to consider switching from Windows to Mac for photography, which I haven’t advocated for a long time prior to these new HDR screens). In addition, you get an incredibly powerful laptop with excellent battery life, sound system, and overall quality.

Most photographers should consider the Pro version of the M2 MacBook Pro. The Max CPU/GPU upgrade is more power than you need if you aren’t doing video. I’d get the 14″ version if you want a lightweight device for travel (and have an external monitor at home). 32GB is ideal for most photographers. I’d get a 1TB drive and pick up a 4TB Sandisk Extreme as an external drive if you’re on a budget.

Read my original M1 Max review for more details on why I strongly recommend any of these new Apple Silicon laptops.

 

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Greg Benz Photography