2021 MacBook Pro For Photography
With the 2021 Macbook Pro, Apple introduced two game-changing Apple Silicon chips, the M1 Pro and the M1 Pro Max. This Macbook Pro is the first Apple Silicon designed for pros and is the most powerful Macbook Pro ever. Surprisingly, this Macbook Pro has been able to rival or surpass the abilities of powerful desktop Intel-based Macs and PCs.
This article will discuss my experience using this powerful computer for photography. My name is Wade Morales, and I am a landscape and nature photographer on the Big Island of Hawaii. I have been using the 2021 Macbook Pro for a few months now and have been putting it to the test with many of the most popular photography applications and plug-ins. I purchased my Macbook Pro with all the available upgrades except the 8TB SSD, for which I opted to go with the 2 TB SSD Storage. Here are the specs of the computer I purchased.
Here are the specs of the computer I purchased
Macbook Pro 16-inch Liquid Retina XDR display
*M1 Max Processer
*64 GB Unified Memory
*2 Tb SSD Storage
Although I purchased a fully loaded Macbook Pro, I am almost certain that I could have been happy with the lesser-priced M1 Pro with 32 GB of unified memory. So keep in mind that if you are contemplating a different configuration than I am reviewing, you will probably still be happy with it. Just keep in mind that the 13-inch Macbook Pro does not come with the M1 Pro or M1 Pro Max and cannot compare in performance.
Let's look at some of the most popular applications used by photographers today and how they performed.
Adobe Lightroom Performance With The 2021 MacBook Pro M1 Max
Adobe Lightroom is a raw converter, photo editing, and cataloging Application. My entire library of photos resides in Lightroom and is where I begin my photo editing process. Lightroom has not been known to be the fastest photo editing software. Many have jumped ship to use programs such as Capture One to take advantage of its speed advantage. Still, I have grown accustomed to using Lightroom for its ease of use and stick to Lightroom for my initial edits before finishing them up in Adobe Photoshop.
Editing photos in Lightroom was seamless and fast. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get the computer to break a sweat or stutter as I threw many strenuous tasks at it. Just for fun, I decided to generate a few thousand 1:1 previews while I edited 20 photos at one time by syncing the edits. I couldn't notice any hiccups in performance. I then stitched together a 17 photo panoramic that took Lightroom about 2 minutes to complete. During this, I finally heard the gentle hissing sound of the MacBook Pro's fans starting to run for the first time. After this torture test, I was convinced that I didn't have to test the capabilities of Lightroom any further. It is not often that I perform so many tasks at one time in any real-world situation. If Lightroom is to get any faster in the future, I believe that it will be by Adobe further optimizing Lightroom to work even better with Apple Silicon processors.
Adobe Photoshop Performance With The 2021 MacBook Pro M1 Max
Adobe Photoshop is where I spend most of my time editing my photos because I can work with layers and more specialized tools. Photoshop is far more taxing on your computer than Lightroom and is where in the past, my older computers struggled. It is not uncommon for me to work with over ten or more smart object layers in photoshop. Working with many layers increases the overall file size and consumes more of your computer's memory. As the number of adjustment layers built up, I would in the past notice significant slowdowns and even crashes in Photoshop. Those days seem to be over. Not only does photoshop run seamlessly now, but I am also able to work with tons of Safari browser tabs open, Youtube videos playing, Lightroom open, and whatever else I want to have up and running. The Sixty-four gigabytes of unified ram seems to handle everything I throw at it with ease. Sixty-four gigabytes of unified memory is overkill for most people, including me. I am still happy that I opted to max out the memory since I don't know what I will be using this computer in the future. Photoshop now runs on my computer how I always wished it would. I can solely focus on the creative process of editing photos and not worry about performance issues in Photoshop.
Compatibility with third-party programs using Apple Silicon
If you strictly use Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop, I can happily report that these Adobe applications have worked flawlessly as standalone applications. If you use third-party plug-ins, you might want to read this section. Otherwise, feel free to move on to the next.
Apple Silicon Macs have been available to purchase since November of 2020. I knew that it would take some time for developers to update their software to take advantage of these powerful processors. Fast forward to now, May 2022, and I am disappointed to say that some of my favorite programs are either not fully optimized or need to run using Rosetta. I will explain some of the issues I ran into and how I fixed them or couldn't. I recommend ensuring all of your software is compatible with Apple Silicon Macs if they are an important part of your photography workflow. Here I provide my personal opinions about what I like and dislike about these applications, Although this is not intended to be a review of these applications. I do not usually use all of these applications in my editing workflow, but I have experience testing them and thought it would be helpful to share my thoughts on how they perform in my testing on Apple Silicon. I have no affiliation with any of the applications mentioned. My experience with these applications might differ from yours, and software updates might have already fixed the issues I experienced after reading this article. So take what I say with a grain of salt.
Skylum Luminar Ai and Luminar Neo
If anyone reads this over at Skylum, I want to say well done. I have owned Luminar Ai for a while. Luminar is a one-time purchase software and has gotten plenty of updates and support since I owned it. Skylum has optimized Luminar Ai to run natively on Apple Silicon Macs, and it is fast. If you are happy with this version, you can continue to enjoy it with performance enhancements on Apple Silicon. I also own Luminar Neo, an upgraded version with many of the same features and many new features that work incredibly well. Luminar Neo is also blazing fast and works great on the 2021 MacBook Pro.
Nik Collection by DxO
Nik software is sold as a one-time purchase. My Nik Collection 3 by DxO that I purchased in June 2020 was working great for me. They had released a new version Nik Collection 4 which offered a few improved features that I opted to skip because they were unimportant to me. Unfortunately, Nik Collection 3 randomly stopped working for me on my 2021 MacBook Pro after successfully using it for about a month. I contacted DxO to troubleshoot, and they told me Nik Collection 3 was not compatible with Apple Silicon and is an old unsupported product. Their solution was to tell their previous customers to purchase the new Nik Collection 4, which retails for $149.00. Even their Nik Collection 4 cannot run natively on Apple Silicon. If you want to use it as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, you need to open your Photoshop using Rosseta 2. You do this by right-clicking your Photoshop application, clicking get info, and adding a checkmark to the box next to open using Rosetta. Now when you open Photoshop, you will be opening it using Rosseta. It seems like an easy fix, right? Well, in my experience Photoshop runs poorly in Rosetta. I found photoshop crashing after using it with Rosetta when creating a smart sharpen layer as a smart object. This is a simple task that I often use when editing photos. I repeated this multiple times, and each time Photoshop crashed. I reopened the same photo without launching Photoshop with Rosseta and had no issues this time. This was a disappointment. My workaround is to work on my photos in Photoshop natively until I need to use Nik software. I save my project, reopen photoshop using Rosetta, make my adjustments with Nik plug-ins, save my project, close photoshop, and reopen my photo in Photoshop natively so that I can continue to work without Photoshop crashing. I didn't think upgrading my computer would make my workflow more difficult, but this is the reality for now if I want to use Nik plug-ins. My intention is not to rag on any specific companies. This is more of a heads up to anyone in the process of purchasing a new Apple Silicon computer who will rely on third-party software to work on their photography.
Note: As of 06/15/2022, DxO has released a new version Nik Collection 5. If you want to hear more about it you can read this article. Click here to read
DxO Pure Raw
DxO pure raw is a great program used for demosaicing, denoising, and lens correction. This program is not a plug-in and works as a standalone application. The one disappointment I have again with DxO is that they do not seem to have any interest in supporting the relatively new software that they have sold to their customers. I bought DxO Pure Raw in June of 2021 and have been happy with it. They did just one minor update since I purchased it to support the product. One year later, they released DxO released Pure Raw 2, which in my opinion, should be a free update. The program is very similar to version one but is now four times faster running on an Apple Silicon Mac. It also offers a few minor improvements like support for Fuji X-Trans Files, up to 1.5 times faster on the best Windows computers, 8,000 New Optics Modules, and HiDPI Support. In my opinion, these minor updates hardly justify calling it a new version. But if you want to enjoy an optimized version for Apple Silicon, you will have to fork up another $89.99. I did not upgrade and have lost a bit of respect for DxO from this, to be honest. It is already fast enough unless you are processing huge batches of photos in Pure Raw. I would wait until they make significant updates to their software before purchasing future versions.
I will be honest, I do not use Topaz Labs too often. I own Topaz DeNoise AI, Topaz Sharpen AI, and Topaz Gigapixel AI. These programs have been optimized to take advantage of the M1 Max processor and, in my testing, are very fast. I have noticed some issues running some of them on the 2021 Macbook Pro. I like the innovation of Topaz Labs, but I hope that they continue to refine their products better.
I noticed the most significant performance increases when testing Gigapixel AI. Gigapixel AI is an upsizing software that many people claim is the best. Topaz Labs claims it can upscale and enhance any image by up to 600% while perfectly preserving image quality. I have not found that to be accurate. In my experience, after upsizing in Gigapixel, some parts of the image look impressive, while other parts of the image have strange artifacts that are impossible to remove. Nevertheless, I keep updating my software in hopes that it will work as well as they claim one day. But never mind what I think about the software, the speed increases using the Apple Silicon M1 Max are shocking. In the past, I would start an upsize and walk away from my computer, knowing that it might take 15-30 mins to complete. On this 2021 MacBook Pro, the process averages just 1-2 minutes to complete. Just make sure to set the preferences in Gigapixel AI to utilize the M1 Max processor.
Topaz Sharpen AI
Topaz AI is one of my favorite sharpening software plug-ins to use. It also has been optimized for Apple Silicon and runs natively in Adobe Photoshop as a plug-in. While I didn't notice substantial speed increases when using it on this 2021 MacBook Pro, it runs exceptionally well without any lag. I enjoy the masking capabilities in Topaz AI and have found it to be excellent for sharpening wildlife photos. I look forward to seeing future updates of this software.
Since its initial release, I have been testing Topaz DeNoise and have watched its evolution into one of the most popular noise removal software on the market. Initially, when I used it, I was blown away by how well it reduced noise while retaining details of the photo. But when I examined the pictures closely, I noticed many problems that seemed impossible to fix. While the software did a great job reducing the noise, it would often completely miss huge patches of noise in parts of the photo. The other issue I had is that even with the sharpening slider all the way down, it would oversharpen parts of the photo while attempting to retain details in the image. The program runs efficiently on Apple Silicon. When I made adjustments to any sliders, it would quickly update the image. I did not experience any significant lag. The one issue I noticed is that the program would randomly crash on multiple occasions.
Starry Landscape Stacker
Starry Landscape Stacker is an incredible star stacking software available in the Apple App Store. It auto aligns the stars from multiple photos and uses image averaging to reduce noise while retaining details in the stars. So instead of shooting at very long exposures at lower ISO's, which results in stars streaking across the sky, you shoot at higher ISO's and longer exposure, which results in pin-sharp stars and a less grainy looking photo.
I have noticed the process of stacking the images on the M1 Mac to be very fast and perform with no issues. According to the developer's release notes, the app has been optimized to run with Apple Silicon Macs.
Luminosity Masking Panels
Luminosity Mask Panels are tools used by photographers to make complex selections in Photoshop. These panels also include a wide variety of buttons that perform photoshop actions. While many of these panels perform similar functions, some have unique features that perform specialized effects for photos. I use three different luminosity mask panels: Tony Kuypers TK Actions Panel, Greg Benz's Lumenzia, and Jimmy McIntyre's Ryo Pro. I have tested all three of these panels with my M1 Mac, and all of them are working fine. These panels have been optimized to run natively on Apple Silicon Macs.
Canon Professional Print And Layout and Print Studio Pro
If you print your photography, I strongly urge you to check with the manufacturer of your printer to make sure that your computer and software are compatible with Apple Silicon and your current OS. If you upgrade your computer or your operating system, and it is not compatible with your printer's available print drivers, you will not be able to use your printer.
I use a Canon Pixma Pro 10 and a Canon Pixma Pro 300 to print my photos. Thankfully my older Pro 10 works fine with my Silicon Mac, but my Pro 300 doesn't show up on my computer. After days of troubleshooting with Canon and promised follow-up from them that never happened, I gave up for now and have been printing on the printer that still works, my Pro 10. Opening Canon's print software Photoshop plug-ins require opening Photoshop using Rosseta.
The MacBook Pro Liquid Retina XDR display
The 16" Liquid Retina XDR display on the MacBook Pro is crazy good. There are many comprehensive breakdowns on YouTube that compare the 16" Liquid Retina XDR display to other laptop displays so that I won't get into too much technical stuff. To be honest, this laptop display I do not use for the majority of my photo edits. I choose to use my Eizo ColorEdge CS2730 27" 16:9 IPS Monitor to edit my photos. The MacBook Pro 16" display is too small. I also prefer to edit on a display that can display nearly 100% of the Adobe RGB colorspace, which the Liquid Retina XDR display cannot. The glossy surface of the Macbook Pro display makes it challenging to analyze shadow details. This is partly due to its highly reflective surface. I wish Apple would have offered the same nano-textured glass as an option on the MacBook Pro as they do on their Pro XDR external display. All that being said, the Liquid Retina XDR is a beautiful display for watching content and culling through my photos in Lightroom.
Reference modes and Screen Calibration
Calibrating the 2021 Liquid Retina XDR display is a similar process to the previous Macbook Pro's, although the way apple manages different profiles has changed. In the MacBook Pro system preferences under the displays tab, you can now choose reference modes and create presets for viewing various types of content. The default reference mode is Apple XDR Display (P3-1600 Nits), which I have my display set to for browsing the web and viewing and editing HDR content. The MacBook Pro display can get very bright, which is not ideal when editing photos. Apple has included a Photography (P3 D-D65) reference mode that caps the screen's brightness to 500 Nits. According to a support article on suport.apple.com, this mode uses wide color P3 primaries with the D65 white point. I used Photography (P3 D-D65 reference mode as a starting point when calibrating my screen using my X-Rite i1Display Pro. There is a youtube channel called Art Is Right, which shows step by step how to profile your 2021 MacBook Pro display.
Is the 2021 Macbook Pro Worth The Investment?
When we talk about cost, I believe it is completely subjective and will vary from person to person. This 2021 MacBook Pro with the M1 Max 32 Core GPU and sixty-four GB of unified memory costs nearly $5000.00. In my opinion, it is worth it. I had never invested in laptops in the past because the performance was never able to compete with desktop computers. That is no longer the case. This laptop is now up to par with some of the most powerful desktop computers, and it even comes with an incredible display capable of viewing and editing HDR content. With the release of the M1 Pro and M1 Pro max processors, I genuinely think we have entered an exciting new era of technology. The cost of this laptop is expensive, but as I mentioned before, there are lesser-priced Macbook Pros that I believe will perform beyond many people's expectations for a fraction of the cost.