“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:

How to select any color in Photoshop

Luminosity masks are well-known for their ability to precisely and naturally target pixels in an image based on their tonal information. They also allow you to target other attributes such as color and saturation. Lumenzia v11.5 now offers a completely new way to target any color in Photoshop. It not only lets you target a range of hues (which you can customize extensively), it lets you further target nuances in the luminosity or saturation of those pixels as well. For example, you could create a selection or mask to help isolate brighter red-orange flowers in an image from their surroundings.

To use the new color previews, simply click on any color swatch or the color picker at the top of the panel. You may then optionally refine the preview in a number of ways:

  • Click and drag the sliders on the hue slider which appears to help refine what is included/excluded, as well as feathering at the limits. If you click and drag the area between the slider thumbs, you can move multiple sliders at once (which is helpful to work quickly or to adjust the limits while keeping the same feathering).
  • Click on any luminosity preview button (such as “L2” or “(b)”) to further isolate your color targeting by luminosity. It will show with a green outline to help note that the luminosity is actively being constrained as well.
  • You may use the precision and value sliders to refine the D, M, L, or zone targeting as you like. Or if you wish to remove the luminosity constraint, just click the same button again (so click “L” if any L preview was targeted, “(b)” if zone B was targeted, etc).
  • You may further isolate by saturation by clicking on Sat (for more saturated colors) or Vib (less saturated). You may also adjust the opacity of the bottom layer in the preview to refine saturation targeting (as noted in that layer’s name).
  • And you may of course refine levels at the top of the preview or use the optional layers to dodge/burn the preview or paint directly on it (as you can for any preview by enabling the options in the top-right flyout of the panel).

You may then apply the preview as a selection or mask to any layer. For example, you might use these new color previews to:

  • Reduce the vibrance of a yellow wall behind an orange subject (this offers both greater control over targeting and the type of adjustment than can be achieved with a standard HSL layer)
  • Darken a bright blue sky without affecting the bright yellow building next to it.
  • Apply a Nik Color Efex adjustment only to the red flowers in a bouquet.
  • The possibilities are endless, as you can use these new color previews with any layer mask, filter mask, or selection.

See the release notes for all the details on other recent updates to Lumenzia.

Export for any ratio with Generative Fill

Web Sharp Pro v5.8 is now available as a free update for all customers and includes the ability to use Generative Fill AI to export at any aspect ratio without cropping out any of your original image. So if your image needs to be a little taller or wider to meet the needs of Instagram, Pinterest, or just to match other images on your site – you no longer need to crop off the edges of your image to fit nor add white space or some other filler. Web Sharp Pro will now use Photoshop’s artificial intelligence to fill the gaps so you can preserve your original content and add just a little more sky to the top or sandy beach in the foreground to achieve the required size.

Tips for using Generative Fill:

  • Go to Settings / Quick Export and set the Crop / Fill dropdown to “Keep full image (fill via Generative Fill)“.
  • You can interactively refine any crop and the area to be filled by also checking the “interactive crop when filling” option. I would generally leave this on, unless you’re doing a batch export. It will default to keeping the full image and using a symmetric fill on the top/bottom or sides as needed.
  • If you are using any of the cropping modes, you may also leave some edge gaps anytime you’d like to fill. When you do this, you will be prompted for the type of fill to use, and Generative Fill will be one of the options.
  • Generative Fill tends to work best when the expanded area would contain unique content not seen elsewhere in the image. Content-Aware Fill is an alternative option and tends to work best in areas of repeating patterns/texture or when exporting at high resolution (as the current beta version of Generative Fill only creates content which is 1024 pixels on the long side and scales from that for larger sizes).
  • Generative Fill is very new (still in beta) and I would expect that it (and perhaps the Web Sharp Pro interface in turn) may adapt over time as the tool likely continues to improve.


Web Sharp Pro v5.8 also features:

  • The ability to slice any export into columns via quick exports (no need for overlay templates).
    • Because phones are oriented vertically, it can be very powerful to slice horizontal / landscape images into several columns for the viewer to swipe through, rather than show a very small single image. This is especially handy for Instagram, Threads, and other social networks on phones.
    • Go to Settings / Quick Export to choose columns. Quick tip: you can use math in the size fields. So if you want to export 5 columns of 1080 wide by 1350 tall for Instagram, you can enter the width as 5 * 1080 and Web Sharp Pro will automatically calculate 5400 as the correct width in pixels for the overall export.
  • Simplified interactive cropping (as of v5.8.1). You no longer need to hold <shift> to maintain the aspect ratio when cropping. It is fixed to avoid making any unwanted changes to the aspect ratio.
  • Support for content-aware fill in Quick Exports as well. This may be preferable to Generative Fill for high resolution exports or areas of texture or minimal detail.
  • Improvements to templates for the Threads social network and more. See the release notes for full details.


Apple Pro Display XDR for HDR photography

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’m a fan of next-generation HDR displays. These displays are absolutely stunning – for the first time ever, we can truly see all the detail and color in our RAW files. I’ve just picked up a stunning external HDR monitor and wanted to write a quick review of my experience so far and how it compares to my Eizo and other displays I’ve used in the past.

For the past couple years, I’ve been using the “Retina XDR” display built into the M1 and M2 MacBook Pro. These are stunning screens that far surpass anything I’ve seen in any other laptop, but they are limited to 14″ and 16″ sizes. Most of the time in my office I’ve been using a 27″ Eizo (CG2730). It’s an incredible display, but does not support HDR at all. So I’ve been seeking a large external HDR display. After extensive searching, it’s clear that Apple’s “Pro Display XDR” is in a class of its own. These are also very expensive displays when purchased new, but you can save a substantial amount if you purchase one used. I picked up the Apple Pro Display XDR, Apple stand, and the Logitech 4k magnetic webcam designed for this monitor for $3000 on Craigslist. That same bundle would have cost roughly $6700 with tax new ($5k for the display, $1k for the stand, $200 for the webcam). So I got everything in mint condition (including original packaging) with more than 1-year remaining warranty for 55% off. It is still a lot of money for most budgets, but it is an excellent value.

Before we get into the review, a quick primer on HDR displays. Current HDR technology tends to fall into one of two camps: ideal in a dark room (modern OLED) and ideal for everything else (mini-LED). There are already newer, brighter OLED displays in phones, but it will likely take a while before we have external monitors which are optimized for both typical ambient conditions and extremely dark viewing. So you may find your TV looks amazing for movies at night, while being very hard to see in the daytime. Or you may hear a professional who makes movies in a controlled environment talk about how important an OLED or reference monitor is for their work. The key thing to understand is that we don’t yet have affordable technologies which are perfect for all ambient conditions, so the best technology for watching movies at night and best technology for editing photos in the day are often different. I own five different HDR displays and have tested them and many others in a variety of conditions. At this point in time, I believe most photographers will be much better served with greater peak brightness (1000+ nits) than perfect blacks in an HDR monitor for photography. For a deeper discussion on the various technologies, see here.


General impressions of the Pro Display XDR

The Pro Display XDR has some truly impressive specs: 32″ size, 1600 nits peak brightness for stunning HDR display, deep integration with MacOS, no fan noise, and gorgeous aesthetics. The image quality is absolutely stunning. If you have not see a proper HDR image on this monitor or a similar 1600 nits screen (such as the Apple Silicon MacBook Pros), it’s very hard to appreciate what a substantial improvement in image quality it offers. It’s the most significant improvement in photography display I’ve seen in decades. The display is truly stunning for both HDR and print-centric workflows. I’ll dive into that more in the comparisons below.

The Pro Display XDR was originally launched nearly 4 years ago and it would be natural to ask if it will be outdated soon. I don’t think that will be the case. In the next 5 years or so, we’ll probably start to see monitors offering better OLED (QD, MLA, tandem stack) or micro-LED. All of these technologies are emissive displays which offer true black (to eliminate blooming and offer much greater dynamic range in dark viewing conditions) while also offering very high peak brightness (in order to retain HDR benefit in bright viewing conditions). While I’m looking forward to those future technologies in a monitor, I suspect mini-LED displays like this will probably be the best HDR option for most photographers for several years to come. Unless you use a current generation OLED in an extremely dark room, you’re better off with higher peak brightness than true black pixels.

The treatment of resolution is very interesting. My friend Mark pointed out that whether you’re at the default 3k or the full 6k, the actual photo in Photoshop is 100% identical. If you set the zoom level to 100% at each resolution, you’ll find the image fills the same portion of the screen. If you take screenshots of each, you’ll find the lower resolution screenshot is 6016 x 3384. You can put the screenshots in difference mode (align as needed) and you’ll find they are completely identical. So you can use the larger interface and will still get the maximum image resolution. It’s very slick!

The $1k stand for this display is the target of a lot of understandable frustration and sarcasm, but now that I’ve used it I’ve been won over that it is also truly unique. The attachment mechanism is dead simple, just bring touch the monitor to the stand and a magnet pulls it into position and then a mechanical lock automatically secures it. You have bring the stand to full height and flip a switch to release it, so it’s very secure and yet very easy to detach when needed. Height and tilt is extremely smooth and precise – you could use a single finger to reposition the screen easily. You can rotate the monitor to a vertical orientation if desired (and MacOS will automatically adapt). The stand is very solid, substantial, and gorgeous. You can easily buy a cheaper stand if you prefer – but if these design features appeal to you, I don’t think you’ll find another stand like it.

What could be better? It would be very nice if it had a downstream Thunderbolt port, which would make it easier to connect everything with a single cable. Many users would probably like to see a high-quality web cam integrated into it as well, though the Logitech webcam works very well to address that need.

I’ve not tried very hard with the right PC, but have yet to have success using this as an external HDR display for Windows. According to Apple, you can connect Pro Display XDR to a Windows or Linux PC equipped with a GPU that supports DisplayPort over Thunderbolt or DisplayPort Alt-mode over USB-C. But I haven’t had luck controlling HDR or brightness, which may simply be addressed with options I haven’t tried yet. I would recommend Windows users consider the ASUS ProArt Display PA32UCG.


Pro Display XDR vs laptop Retina XDR:

The naming here can be a bit confusing as both are labeled as “XDR”, which is simply Apple’s hardware branding for “Extreme Dynamic Range”. This branding indicates that you’re getting the very highest level of HDR support available.

I’ve compared the internal laptop XDR display with this external Pro Display XDR and would say they are generally very similar. Both offer excellent 1600 nits peak brightness and mini-LED with local dimming for excellent HDR display. Both offer deep MacOS integration and detailed control over the monitor’s characteristics. You can set the HDR brightness anywhere between 50 and 1600 and SDR brightness anywhere between 50 and 500 nits. That’s very handy if you wish to simulate less capable HDR displays or easily set your monitor to fixed levels of brightness to manage print workflows. You can also also customize the color gamut, white point, and EOTF to a degree.

There are a few differences of course, including:

  • Size, obviously. The Pro Display is 32″ vs 14 or 16″ for the laptop (I have the 14″ laptop for lightweight travel).
  • Resolution. The Pro Display is 6k (6016 x 3384 max, with 3008 x 1692 as the default) vs (3024 x 1964 max, with 1512 x 982 as the default).
  • Dimming zones. The Pro Display has 576 dimming zones vs 2500 for the laptop. A greater number of zones helps reduce “blooming”. I’m not entirely sure why a higher resolution display has fewer dimming zones, but assume pixel pitch/density has something to do with it (the larger display is 218 pixels per inch vs 250 for the laptop). Ultimately, I do not see performance differences as a result, which I’ll discuss below.
  • The Pro Display XDR uniquely has an option to optimize backlight performance for color detail vs minimizing blooming/halos, but I stick with the default and find them similar.
  • The Pro Display XDR has a higher contrast ratio (20MM : 1 vs 8MM :1), but I find them very similar.
  • The keyboard controls for brightness only seem to control the internal display. It would be nice to be able to adapt the external monitor’s brightness with the keyboard, but you can easily do this via the control center at top-right if you go to System Settings / Control Center and set display to “always show in menu bar”.
  • You cannot turn off the Pro Display without unplugging it, locking the screen, putting the computer to sleep or turning it off. You cannot simply slide the dimmer to the minimum to make the screen truly black. Using cmd-ctrl-Q to lock the screen is a good option. Not a big deal, but you may need to adapt a bit if you don’t like leaving the display on.

Ultimately both displays perform very similarly outside the size (and resolution, though both look great at the default resolutions which are well below their limits).

Like any transmissive display with local dimming, both will show “blooming” when there are bright pixels surrounded by dark pixels. This is because if any pixel within a given lighting zone is not black, then that zone’s backlight is turned on. That means that you can only see a truly black pixel when every pixel in that zone is black (or technically more than 20.5 stops below SDR white in my Photoshop testing). With brighter pixels in a zone, the backlight gets brighter and the minimum “black” increases, which is what creates this blooming effect. This is not something you’ll notice under most conditions. If you work in a room which is completely black or very dark, that’s when you’d likely notice it. That blooming also the reason why a professional color grading a movie (which takes place in a very dark environment) would opt for a $33,000 reference monitor or OLED instead of a mini-LED display like this. But if you’re like most people who work some lights on or window light, you’re unlikely to notice it. More importantly, you have much greater peak brightness to overcome ambient light, which is a major advantage over OLED for most users in general.

If you’d like to get a good sense of how much blooming there is with your display, you can easily test this in Photoshop. Create a new image and fill it with complete black. Then click “F” twice to toggle the screen mode to full screen with no menu bar. Then just move the cursor around. If the room is very dark, you’ll clearly see blooming around it on a mini-LED (whereas OLED will show none). But if you turn on the lights or light is coming in through the windows, you probably will not be able to see any blooming because of competing reflections on the screen and your eyes being less sensitive to very dark content in a brighter environment. When you’re done, click “F” again in Photoshop to get back to the default display.


Pro Display XDR vs Eizo CG2730:

I would say my Eizo is a pretty good proxy for any great SDR monitor you might currently use for printing.

Both of these are excellent monitors, but they have significant differences (the first spec in each line is the Pro Display XDR):

  • 1600 nits HDR vs 350 nits. The HDR capability here offers massive benefits for displaying the image. When it comes to SDR content and printing, both are fairly similar.
  • Size: 32″ Pro Display vs 27″ Eizo. I don’t feel the extra size is critical for enjoying the images or making prints, but it has great workflow benefits. I can see much more of the image while zoomed in, show more tools, etc.
  • Resolution: 6k Pro Display (6016 x 3384) vs 2k Eizo (2560 x 1440). The detail is clearly better at 6k. Some people would absolutely love the extra detail, to me it’s nice but not a huge deal (viewers with less than perfect vision or correction for viewing at computer distances probably won’t see a difference).
  • Gamut: P3 vs Adobe RGB. On the whole, I don’t think there’s a clear winner here and they’re similar for most content. More details below.

My primary concern in replacing the Eizo was to make sure the Pro Display would work as well for printing. I wasn’t too concerned with gamut, but had a lot of questions on my ability to see shadow detail. Thankfully, the Pro Display holds up extremely well and I would say offers similar levels of shadow detail. The Pro Display is able to achieve deeper blacks and a bit more shadow detail, but this is likely offset by the reflective glossy display (depending on room conditions). The Eizo has more of an anti-reflective matte finish and it definitely helps minimize reflections, even in a room where I don’t have any strong lights behind me. If I were buying this XDR display, I would consider upgrading to the anti-reflective nano-texture glass if your budget allows.

When it comes to gamut, the Pro Display offers more vibrant reds (and a bit more orange/yellow/magenta) while the Eizo offers more green and cyan. So a sunset or flower photo may look more vibrant on the XDR, but both will look great. And green/cyan water and foliage can definitely look more vibrant on the Eizo. Overall, the Eizo is a bit better aligned with the gamut of vibrant print media like Lumachrome, but I’d feel equally comfortable proofing a print on either display. Unless your image content focuses primarily on a narrow range of subjects which fall into one color camp or the other, I don’t think both deliver great results for gamut.

Both monitors have very good uniformity visually. When tested with the Calibrite Display Plus HL, both showed some minor deficiencies from ideal – with the Pro Display being flagged in 2 corners and the Eizo in all 4. I have no concerns with either.



The bottom line for me is that the Pro Display XDR not only offers massive benefits for HDR display, but is also outstanding for making prints and any other photography work. The price will be outside the budget of many photographers, but it’s well worth it and you can probably find an excellent used one for substantial savings. I would consider the nano-textured option if your budget allows. If I couldn’t find the right used version of this monitor, I likely would have purchased it new. It’s an excellent product.

If you’re one of the few people who primarily use your monitor in a dark room, you may be better off with a bright OLED display (you will likely save some money and may achieve comparable or possibly better dynamic range – but only if the ambient light is very low). Note that I also have more information on key aspects of HDR displays and other high quality and budget HDR options on my HDR monitor recommendations page.

See the latest pricing for the the Pro Display XDR at Amazon or B&H.

If something like this is out of your budget, I highly recommend the M1 or M2 MacBook Pro. You can still get a M1 MacBook with the 16″ version of this incredible display and 1TB SSD for $1900 new at B&H. And I’ve seen several 14″ and sometimes 16″ M1 or M2 laptops on eBay and Craiglist for $1000-1500. These Apple laptops can be very budget-friendly, offer an excellent HDR experience, and are incredibly powerful computers even at the lowest specifications.

[Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. I rarely endorse other products and only do when I think you would thoroughly enjoy them. By purchasing through my on this post, you are helping to support the creation of my tutorials at no cost to you.]


How to set up the Pro Display XDR

Setup for most people will be a simple matter of connecting the display to a thunderbolt port on your computer or dock. This monitor includes downstream USB ports, but no pass-through Thunderbolt. So you’ll either need multiple downstream ports on your dock or to use multiple Thunderbolt cables to connect your computer if you use other Thunderbolt accessories like a RAID drive.

Here is how I recommend you setup System Settings / Display:

  • If mirroring, set the Pro Display as “main display” and make sure “optimize for” also uses that monitor. Even if you mirror to a Retina XDR display on your laptop, the secondary HDR screen will be clipped at a maximum 2.5 stops of HDR headroom (even if the display is set in a way that would show 4 or 5 stops if it were the only or primary display).
  • Select the size that makes the interface feel comfortable for you. The image will always use 6k resolution, you’re really just scaling the surrounding interface with this choice (at least for Photoshop, I have not extensively tested this across all photography apps).
  • Turn off “true tone”. This will cause significant color shifts (warm tones) which make the color less accurate and invalidate any profiling you may do.
  • Leave the preset at the default “Pro Display XDR (P3 – 1600 nits)” unless you need to soft proof for less capable HDR displays or use a fixed reference brightness. If you wish to customize, click the dropdown and then “customize presets” at the bottom. You can then select the specific SDR and HDR brightness. See Apple support here and here for more info.
  • Leave the refresh rate at the default 60Hz.

I also recommend going to System Settings / Control Center and setting Display to “always show in Menu Bar”. This gives you easy access at the top-right of your screen to change brightness (or custom presets if you use them).

Be sure to review Apple’s white paper on the XDR to understand the various preset modes.

You won’t find the maximum 6k resolution for the display listed in System Settings / Display by default (the “more space” icon only goes to 3008 x 1692). To access it, you need to click on “advanced” and turn on “show resolutions as a list”. Then you’ll see 6k as an option in the list (as 6016 x 3384). I expect very few people will want it, as it makes the interface tiny and offers no image quality benefit (you always get 6k quality for the image in PS).

Exporting AVIF and HDR with Web Sharp Pro v5.6

Support for both AVIF (smaller file format) and HDR (“high dynamic range” via new monitor technology) is rapidly increasing. Adobe Camera RAW 15.4 just added a great new capability to export AVIF images at any time which enables new features in Web Sharp Pro.
Web Sharp Pro (WSP) v5.6 is a free update for all customers and includes two very significant updates:
  • The ability to export  AVIF images on via ACR (on both Mac and Windows). This offers the ability to export images which are up to 85% smaller than JPG and at the same time higher quality (fewer artifacts and higher bit depth).
  • A new option to convert and enhance standard (SDR) images to HDR. This can make any image look significantly better and makes it easy to use HDR with your existing edits, AI tools like MidJourney, stock images, etc.

Note that unless you see YouTube’s red “HDR” indicator by the quality setting at bottom right, you are viewing the content tone mapped to SDR (ie, it simulates the effect but true HDR will look much better).

Export as AVIF (via ACR):

The AVIF export is now possible by leveraging a new capability in ACR v15.4 which allows you to save images at any time. AVIF offers numerous benefits over JPG and will be universally supported by all major web browsers very soon (MS Edge is the only missing browser and AVIF support has been in test for a couple months now.
The workflow for the “AVIF (via ACR)” method involves manually clicking to save the image from ACR. When WSP opens the ACR interface, you should do the following:
  • Click <ctrl/cmd>-S or the save icon (this is the icon at top right with down arrow in a box).
  • Set output folder. I recommend setting it once and leaving it, this keeps things simple.
  • Set the first part of the file name to “Document Name” (the first one). This will preserve the name created by WSP.
  • Set file format to “AVIF”, leave metadata on “all” (since WSP already manages metadata for you), and quality between 8 to 12 (8 is fine for most use, 10 is ideal if you expect the viewer may zoom in beyond 100%).
  • Set “enable HDR display” appropriately (checked if and only if exporting HDR).
  • Set the color “space” to sRGB for SDR exports and or to either HDR P3 for HDR (any HDR option is safe). These are remembered separately, so once you’ve set them, you can ignore this and just make sure the enable HDR display is checked appropriately.
  • Do not use image sizing or output sharpening options, as WSP has already taken care of this for you.
  • Click “save” or <return>.
  • Exit ACR by clicking “OK” or <return>.
The steps above in bold are the ones you’ll need to do typically after you’ve setup ACR the first time – click the save icon, paste the filename, update HDR options if necessary, and save. If you aren’t changing output folder or switching between HDR and SDR, you should be able to simply press <ctrl/cmd>-S and then <return> twice each time you see the ACR interface. Note that WSP will show a guidance message during ACR export covering the key details (you may need to move ACR to see it underneath in Photoshop).
WSP does all the standard file prep (resizing, cropping, borders, watermarks, etc), manages several scenarios to simplify the export process with ACR, and then invokes ACR for the final save. ACR is not really intended for this kind of use and Photoshop does not yet natively support saving AVIF, so there are a couple minor manual steps involved. Still, it’s amazing to see ACR continuing to add valuable features like this to make it easier to work with AVIF and HDR images. I’ll update WSP on MacOS to a fully automated solution if/when PS natively supports AVIF (this is already possible for Windows users). If you’d like to see native support for AVIF in Photoshop, please be sure to vote and comment in support of AVIF.
If you’re using WSP on Windows, you can now choose to export as AVIF in two different ways:
  1. Export via a free 3rd-party plugin for Windows. This offers a fully automated export and supports both SDR and HDR images. It may also offer slightly better highlight color and detail in SDR images. See this tutorial for details on this Window-only option. https://gregbenzphotography.com/photography-tips/exporting-avif-files-from-photoshop/. I recommend this method for exporting SDR images.
  2. Export via ACR. This offers enhanced support for exporting HDR images which will offer the best possible image quality for HDR. ACR v15.4 only offers AVIF exports for HDR images. I recommend the ACR mthod for exporting HDR images.
MS Edge is the only browser which does not yet have AVIF support. You can enable it via MS Edge Canary with a development flag as shown here. The Canary build is at v115 and the latest production release is v113, suggesting support may get into production as soon as late July.

Enhancing SDR images to HDR:

WSP v5.6 also adds a new “Enhance SDR to HDR” setting to allow you to easily enhance any standard image. This feature will convert an SDR image to HDR and significantly enhance it (by automatically expanding the dynamic range in an intelligent way). This may be used for enhancing your existing edits, enhancing images created by AI tools like MidJourney, converting stock photos to HDR, etc. For those of you focused on editing for print, this also offers a simple way to enhance that same image for online display.
This will be increasingly useful as more and more software catches up to the great HDR screens already in circulation. Most Apple computers since 2018 include HDR hardware and can properly display such images on Chrome, Opera, and Brave (ie 65% of web browers). Android 14 beta with Chrome Canary now supports it, suggesting those with a Samsung Galaxy, Pixel 7 Pro, and other HDR-capable Android phones should be able to view HDR images on their phone by the end of this year. If/when Apple WebKit adds support to display HDR images, a massive number of iPhones and iPads will be able to display these images too. If you’re buying a new phone, tablet, or computer I recommend considering one which supports HDR to ensure you’re ready.
Recently, zonerama.com added support to let you share your HDR images on the web, including an elegant mechanism to automatically show the SDR version of your image for any viewer which does not support HDR.
Greg Benz Photography