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Photo and Video Editing

Why Are Videos Washed Out on the Mac? / Exploring QuickTime Gamma Shift

If you edit video using Adobe Premiere Pro on a Mac, chances are you’ve encountered a problem where exported video looks washed out and desaturated in QuickTime Player, Safari and Chrome compared to what you see on the Premiere timeline.

Quicktime Gamma Shift
Comparing Premiere timeline (left) to QuickTime macOS Big Sur (right)

This is what people commonly call “QuickTime Gamma Shift.” I’m not a professional colorist, but as someone who edits video on Mac, this issue has been driving me nuts.

QuickTime Gamma Shift is anything but a recent problem. In fact, it’s been around for years, and affects anyone editing video on a Mac.

How to Handle QuickTime Gamma Shift

At the time of this writing, there are three options to for handling QuickTime Gamma Shift when editing video using Adobe Premiere Pro on a Mac.

Option One: Do Nothing

I know this probably sounds like a cop-out, but doing nothing is a deliberate choice with its own pros and cons. You simply use the exported video file from Premiere as is.

As long as you’re happy with your Premiere color grade, you may rest assured your exported video will appear as expected on the majority of televisions and computer displays out there.

There’s nothing wrong with your video! Yes, it looks washed out on the Mac, and unfortunately other Macs as well, but no one else is not seeing your video that way. 

Option Two: Export Gamma-Corrected Video for Viewing on a Mac

To do this, Adobe offers a free QuickTime Gamma Compensation LUT.

I’ll explain more about how this LUT works in a minute, but for now, this is a simple LUT you apply on export from Premiere. It changes the contrast of your exported video so when viewed in QuickTime, Chrome, Safari, or any color-managed application on the Mac, the video will appear very similar to what you see in Premiere.

Option Three: Add Contrast to Premiere Timeline with an Adjustment Layer

Adobe’s Gamma Compensation LUT adds quite a bit of contrast and will create a video that’s too dark for viewers who aren’t using a Mac. Instead, with this option, you slightly increase the contrast of your video timeline in Premiere.

Grade video as you normally would, then at the very end of your workflow, add an adjustment layer on top. On the adjustment layer, use Lumetri color and pull the tone curve down just a little to further darken the shadows.

Or, to be more precise, you may apply the ASC CDL color correction effect to the adjustment layer, then set its Red, Green, and Blue Power settings to 1.09.

Either approach will add contrast so when the exported video is viewed on any computer display (including Apple), the video will appear more similar to the color grade you created in Premiere. But it won’t be as dark as the video you export when using Adobe’s Gamma Compensation LUT.

Which Option is Best for You?

If you are exporting a video anyone may see at any time on any display, your safest bet is using the exported video from Premiere as-is. If this is what you’re currently doing, then you don’t need to change anything.

Yes, it is annoying seeing your video more washed out on the Mac. But this approach is the simplest, and you won’t be optimizing the video for one audience of viewers at the expense of anyone else. 

And besides, Apple may fix this issue at any time. They’ve never been afraid of changing things. And if and when they do, your past videos will then display correctly.

Alternatively, if you are exporting a video that will be viewed only on a Mac — your display, a client’s display — and not live online for months or years to come, then it makes sense to use Adobe’s Gamma Compensation LUT. My advice, use Adobe’s LUT selectively and sparingly.

The third option of applying more contrast is a safe middle ground if you want to try and tweak the contrast of your video just a little bit. It won’t completely resolve Quicktime Gamma Shift but may make your video look a little better on computer displays because they use a brighter gamma value than what Premiere and televisions use.

But obviously, there’s something weird about video on the Mac. You see it. Adobe is making LUTs to fix it. So, what is going on? To understand that, we need to take a closer look at display gamma.

Understanding Display Gamma

Gamma is a mathematical way of quantifying contrast on a display.

Here’s an illustration showing the most commonly used gamma values. Think of this as a Tone Curve, with black in the lower left, white in the upper right, and shades of gray in between.

Common Display Gamma Values

Films created for theaters typically use gamma 2.6. That’s the lowest curve on the chart. Gamma 2.6 is high contrast with deep, dark shadows.

Televisions use gamma 2.4, while pretty much anything that’s not a television uses gamma 2.2.

What affect do these gamma values have on photos and videos?

Here’s are some helpful images published by display manufacturer BenQ. As you can see, the higher the gamma numerical value, the darker and more constrasty the image.

Gamma value comparison
Gamma value comparison (image from BenQ)

Why do displays use different gamma values?

Because movie theaters, televisions, and computer displays are used in different environments. For example, with television, it was determined long ago that the stronger contrast and darker shadows of gamma 2.4 looked best because most people were watching TV in dimly lit rooms.

The same goes for dark movie theaters using gamma 2.6.

But when PCs came along, gamma 2.2 was adopted because computers were mostly used in rooms with brighter ambient light.

(Although…since we’re talking about history here, Apple’s operating system — all the way up to 2009 — used a brighter gamma value of 1.8. Since then, however, all new Macs thankfully use gamma 2.2.)

Adobe Premiere uses Gamma 2.4

Adobe Premiere Pro conforms to television broadcast standards, which means it uses gamma 2.4.

Premiere’s standardization for television may seem strange today when so much video content is viewed on phones, tablets, laptops, etc. But historically, the standards of broadcast television have been used as the baseline for nearly all video production. That’s why Premiere uses gamma 2.4 and the Rec.709 color gamut, which is the color space of broadcast television.

But because computer displays use gamma 2.2, anytime you export a video from Premiere the video will have slightly softer contrast when viewed on any non-television screen. This is the reason — in case you’ve never noticed — why videos streamed from a service like Netflix have softer contrast on your computer display compared to the same video viewed on television.

But there’s something about the Mac that is making this gamma shift even worse. What’s going on?

Why Mac Video is Washed Out

Rec.709 video on the Mac is not being displayed using the native 2.2 gamma of your display or anyone else’s display. Rec.709 video is being displayed using a non-standard gamma value of 1.96.

Where does 1.96 come from? Well, you can fall into a deep rabbit hole learning about metadata, tags, the difference between scene and display referred gamma, but the main takeaway here is this: Apple is using the wrong gamma.

For whatever reason, Apple engineered ColorSync (macOS’s color management utility) to translate the gamma of Rec.709 video to 1.96 when displaying video. The shift in gamma to 1.96 is especially noticeable with Apple Retina Displays using the larger color gamut of DCI-P3.

ColorSync, by the way, is what every color managed application on the Mac uses. This includes QuickTime Player, QuickView, Preview, Safari, Chrome, and more. It’s why a video in QuickTime Player looks just as washed out as the same video uploaded to YouTube and then viewed using Safari or Chrome on a Mac.

Gamma comparison Chrome and QuickTime
Chrome macOS Big Sur (left) and QuickTime Player (right). Both using incorrect gamma.

Nearly every Mac app goes through ColorSync, and because ColorSync is using the wrong gamma, your video looks washed out across multiple applications.

This can easily mislead Mac users into believing the gamma issue must be with an exported video, when in fact the issue is ColorSync displaying the video incorrectly in any app that relies on it.

A helpful method to verify this is to view your video in Firefox. Firefox is not a color-managed application, which means ColorSync doesn’t touch it. As a result, the same washed-out video in Safari and Chrome looks almost identical to the Premiere timeline in Firefox. 

Firefox and QuickTime Gamma comparison
Firefox macOS Big Sur (left) and QuickTime Player (right). Firefox video is using correct gamma.

This doesn’t mean that color management is bad and Firefox is doing things correctly compared to other browsers. It simply means color management — through ColorSync on the Mac — is interpreting Rec.709 video incorrectly.

Frequently Asked Questions about QuickTime Gamma Shift

While doing research for this article, I came across a few common questions about QuickTime Gamma Shift.

Will Enabling Display Color Management in Premiere Fix QuickTime Gamma Shift? 

Display Color Management in Adobe Premiere Pro
Display Color Management in Adobe Premiere Pro

No. Display Color Management is an option in Premiere’s preferences that — when enabled — changes the appearance of Premiere’s timeline to simulate Rec.709 on a non-Rec.709 display.

Enabling this preference isn’t necessary on a standard sRGB display because the sRGB and Rec.709 color gamuts are nearly identical. However, if you use an Apple Retina display, then you should absolutely enable this and keep it enabled at all times.

Why? Because Retina displays use DCI-P3 — not sRGB. The DCI-P3 color gamut is larger, which means it’s capable of displaying more colors than what sRGB or Rec.709 support. Enabling Display Color Management simulates Rec.709 or your DCI-P3 display so you don’t color grade your video using colors that can’t be seen on television or non-DCI-P3 displays.

Will Calibrating My Display Fix QuickTime Gamma Shift?

No. Display calibration optimizes the colors of your display to be more accurate. It’s a subtle but important shift to ensure the colors you see are the actual colors you intend to use. Calibration won’t change how ColorSync is interpreting video or change how your videos are exported. It simply calibrates your display to make colors more accurate.

Will Switching from Premiere Pro to DaVinci Resolve Fix QuickTime Gamma Shift?

No. DaVinci Resolve editors are affected as well. As a matter of fact, they have their own gamma compensation fix in the form of an export profile named “Rec.709-A”, with “A” (I assume) signifying “Apple”. There is no Rec.709-A standard. Rec.709-A simply a hack — just like the aforementioned Gamma Compensation LUT from Adobe — that makes Rec.709 videos look correct on Apple displays.

Summary

Overall, QuickTime Gamma Shift has been around for years, and won’t be resolved until Apple decides to do something about it. Until then, Mac video editors will continue pulling their hair out in frustration.

Thankfully, Adobe’s Gamma Compensation LUT does a good job of resolving Rec.709 video on Apple displays, but should only be used when Rec.709 video will only be seen by Mac users. Tweaking the Rec.709 timeline in Premiere with additional contrast is also an excellent method to account for the difference between gamma 2.4 and 2.2, but should only be used with videos that will primarily be viewed on non-television displays.

Looking forward, perhaps someday video editors will have a single color standard for online video similar to the Rec.709 standard used on television. But for now, the best we can do is grade for Rec.709, calibrate our displays, and try not to drive ourselves insane with the inherent inconsistency of the situation.

Reference

“Why does my footage look darker in Premiere?”
To read Adobe’s own take on this issue (written when their QuickTime Gamma Compensation LUT was introduced), take a look at this knowledge base article.

Video

Here’s the video version of this article from my YouTube channel.

Why Are QuickTime Videos Washed Out? / What to Do About QuickTime Gamma Shift