Should you update your Apple Gear for Pro Work?

Should you upgrade your Apple gear for doing professional visual effects style work?

In the last few months, Apple has upgraded the MacBook Pro lineup to include the M3 Max chip and released the iPhone 15 Pro, which includes the ability to record in log. Many features in both of these devices might make you want to upgrade your system or device, but just in terms of pure visual effects style work such as editing,  compositing, and grading. Is it worth it? To test this out, we’ve been shooting with the iPhone 15 Pro Max in log and working with the new M3 Max MacBook Pro to answer these questions. There is a big difference between tech specs & benchmarks and using something in the field. It’s almost impossible to tell whether you’ll perceive a difference between your current system and a new one unless you use it. Too often, companies claim amazing statistical differences, but it doesn’t make much of a difference to your everyday use. Here is what we found.

iPhone 15 Pro & Pro Max

Starting with the iPhone, the big difference with the latest release of the iPhone is the ability to record in log. The new Blackmagic Camera App was released almost simultaneously with the new phone, which facilitates shooting everything manually, and you can film directly to an external hard drive.

The new App alone doesn’t solve all your problems. Shooting in a compressed format will still limit your opportunities to grade successfully, even if you could shoot things manually. But being able to shoot with every setting locked down and being able to shoot in log, provides a genuine path to producing professional footage.

To shoot in the new format, you need to adjust the Apple ProRes menu to on and select the option for ProRes Encoding in Log.

The menu for allowing both Apple ProRes Log encoding and for enabling Spatial Video recording.

However, one huge consideration remains: you cannot manually control the aperture as you can with a traditional camera. To overcome this, we fitted a manual ND filter to the front of an iPhone. Combined with the ability to record and store clips immediately to an external hard drive, the iPhone moves from being just the “best camera is the one you have with you” to a genuinely useful tool you’ll find yourself reaching for and using regularly.

The best iPhone ND Filter and Hard Drive Rig (based on testing various current rigs on the net)

What is the Log format?

The new format inside the iPhone records footage in a flat, low-contrast, log format. The new log footage preserves image information in the highlights and shadows and is available in the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. This means it has no gamma curve applied to it when it is recorded. It is stored as a higher bit depth larger file that doesn’t have pre-processing as much as the traditional shots you would shoot with the iPhone’s native camera app. It is not the same as shooting RAW. The reason for this lies in the computational photography performed inside the phone to process from the extraordinarily small lens to produce its spectacular imagery. There is no doubt that the iPhone shoots better photos and video than it has any right to, given how small and compressed it is optically. The new optical ‘long lens’ 5x zoom alone is remarkable. Overall, the great imagery technically comes from incredibly clever machine learning and programming done on the raw sensor data. It would make no sense to export the actual raw files from the camera as is, but there’s a lot of benefit in taking the log file before it is baked into the normal final compressed .mp4 video.

The ProRes supports encoding high frequency imagery.

Shooting log is half of the answer. The other half is shooting with full manual control, especially if you want to intercut iPhone footage with footage filmed by a normal camera, as there is no aperture control on the iPhone. The amount of light that gets to the sensor or is used to control the image’s exposure is a combination of ISO adjustments and shutter speed adjustments. As such, there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to shoot something at 1/25 or 1/30th of a second to intercut with a traditional normal video shot with matching motion blur.  As highlighted in the video above, we can work fully manually if we can introduce a way of controlling the amount of light that falls on the sensor. The solution is to attach a variable ND filter. As long as you use a high-quality ND filter, this works well and has the added benefit of far more control. Not only can you set the exposure controls explicitly, but the camera will not try and automatically adjust to what it’s seeing in the scene, which is often a problem when shooting with the iPhone professionally.

When shooting, the iPhone camera App is normally constantly adjusting to get what it believes to be the right exposure. If you want something creatively silhouetted, you will be fighting the camera app, which will be trying to lift the black levels so that you can see everything clearly. The normal camera App doesn’t understand anything but a sensible mid-level exposure. Similarly, if you are trying to shoot a constant reference panning shot, the camera is going to adjust the exposure during the pan always to maintain a sensible exposure, which again is unlikely you want to have baked into your footage.

The top left is the result of auto-exposure in the iPhone Camera App. Right is the Log file with & without an Apple Log LUT. Note the flames are clipping when the camera tries to get the exposure right itself (top left) – looking very much like ‘video’.

The third major difference with the latest release of the iPhone is the ability to shoot directly to a portable hard drive through the new USB–C port. This is a game changer as it allows you to shoot to a magazine and swap the magazine when it’s full, without having to worry about download/transfer times and with the control of being able to back up your material quickly and easily.

The new iPhone has a new lens, zooms, and other interesting additions, but the final major innovation we have focused on is the new iPhone’s camera array’s ability to capture spacial video, which you can then view in the new Apple Vision Pro.  This uses the new dual-lens on the iPhone 15 Max and thus only works in landscape mode.

The new spacial capture mode for the soon to be released Apple Vision Pro.

The MacBook Pro

The other recent Apple release we’ve been testing, in concert with the iPhone 15,  is the MacBook Pro with the M3 Max chip. This laptop can be optioned up to an extraordinary level with large storage, vast amounts of RAM, and a very powerful processor that handles both the CPU and GPU in a clever way to optimize performance without crushing your battery life. This is a workhorse machine. It is not a machine for doing Excel or word processing. This is not a machine for your producer to review schedules on. This is a machine for doing compositing, texture work, editing, and real-time projects.

The computer that someone might normally go to for such work is either a traditional Tower PC + NVIDIA card or a Mac Studio. So why would you buy a laptop? The answer is portability and a very high-quality screen, bundled in a robust and functional design. The Macbook Pro’s Liquid Retina XDR display is an exceptional 1000 nits sustained and 1600 nits of peak brightness for HDR content. It has an impressive contrast ratio, really vivid colours, and an outstanding viewing angle. Even the SDR content is now displayed at up to 600 nits, which is 20% brighter than the earlier MacBook Pro’s 500 nits.

For some time now, the MacBook Pros have had multiple ports, card readers, and HDMI- all built-in. You get a more powerful processor and expanded capacity with the new machine. It is not the most powerful processor Apple Silicon will make. That is likely to be in the M3 Ultra, which will undoubtedly soon appear in a new Mac studio. That said, – this is a heck of a fast machine and versatile laptop to take on-set or location.

The MacBook Pro is not going to outperform a Tower PC with the latest expensive NVIDIA card, but it can run all the key apps such as Nuke (including the ML Copycat), Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, AE, UE5, Adobe Photoshop, and many other development tools.  The MacBook Pro comes into its own when you’re doing something that needs to be processed locally. Anything that would take a lot of time if you had to upload the data to the cloud before you could start working. The obvious examples are editing and colour grading in da Vinci Resolve. It would take a long time to upload all your rushes to the cloud, and really, there is almost no benefit in using the cloud, as all the advanced features such as ML can be accessed on your MacBook Pro.

Of course, you will not just use the MacBook Pro when you’re on location or on set. It’s also nice to know you can plug in multiple screens in the office. Below is a photo of my own lab desk, where you can see a Wacom Cintiq Pro tablet used for texturing and painting, running simultaneously as a high-quality Apple Studio Display as a third screen, – all from the one M3 MacBook Pro. It does this easily and effortlessly.

The MacBook Pro easily handles multiple screens.

Many of us were quick to upgrade to the M1 chipset when it came out, given the huge jump in performance of the Apple Silicon over the Intel chipset. If you like us, you may not upgrade every version of a new MacBook Pro that comes out, but if you only upgraded to the M1, you’ll notice a major difference when going to the M3. It’s also worth noting that one can set up the MacBook Pro with up to 128 GB of RAM, which is a serious amount of power, when considering that the CPU and GPU share the same RAM dynamically.

It’s fair to say that the new M3 MacBook Pro looks remarkably like its predecessors. The only real difference you’re going to see is beneath the hood. There may be a slight cosmetic difference to the finish of the case, but if you’re buying a computer to show off, – don’t waste your money. If you are buying a computer to get professional work done in a variety of different settings and a variety of different locations. The MacBook Pro M3 stacks up really well.