If you’ve read any tech journalism over the last day or two, you’re probably sick of seeing the words Nvidia and 3000 series designations. It’s no question Nvidia has created some impressive technology, but is it actually going to change anything for photo and video editing? The answer might just surprise you.
First, let’s talk briefly about the cards. Nvidia announced the RTX 3090, RTX 3080, and RTX 3070. These GPUs are their latest generation, featuring a host of performance improvements over the older architectures. All the usual upgrades are there, including more cores, faster memory, and the newest connectors. Even at the “lower” end of the stack, the RTX 3070 is supposedly faster than their previous flagship RTX 2080Ti.
There’s no question that these cards are going to offer a significant performance improvement to Nvidia’s core market of gamers and machine-learning researchers. For photo and video editing use, however, are these even going to be worth the upgrade? That question is a lot more difficult to answer owing to the highly-fragmented nature of GPU acceleration in professional programs.
Fortunately, over the last couple of years, Adobe and other software makers have added a number of GPU accelerated features to their programs. This has meant faster workflows, most notably where processes that used to have to render are now drawn in near real time — just look at scrubby zoom in Photoshop. To better understand how a faster GPU, let’s take a look at what workloads are accelerated on a per program basis.
For Photoshop the following tools either require a GPU or are dramatically accelerated by the presence of one:
- Perspective Warp
- Scrubby zoom
- Smooth brush resizing
- Lens blur
- Camera Raw
- Resizing with the preserve details option
- Select Focus
- Blur Gallery: Field Blur, Iris Blur, Tilt-Shift, Path Blur, Spin Blur
- Smart Sharpen
- Select and Mask
Looking at that list, I’m not seeing anything that is currently a pain point in my workflow. Probably the biggest benefit comes with the select and mask flow, where some larger images can chug on my 2070, although I wouldn’t upgrade just for that. I’d argue that any reasonable modern GPU is already plenty sufficient for Photoshop.
In Lightroom, the many of the adjustments are GPU accelerated, including basic adjustments and the tone curve, HSL, split toning, detail, and other panels in the develop module. Notably, the adjustment brush, loading raw images, generating previews, and a host of other time consuming tasks are not GPU accelerated. Also, some more niche but time intensive processes like HDR and panorama generation are not GPU accelerated.
Like many aspects of Lightroom, the situation is messy. GPU acceleration itself is buggy, with users reporting a variety of issues. Enabling GPU support on too weak of a card for the files can counterintuitively make things slower than no GPU acceleration at all. There’s the additional caveat of screen resolution, with GPU acceleration making more of a difference at higher resolutions. I didn’t really see an impact until I went to a 4K monitor, for example.
For Lightroom, the choice of GPU is highly dependent on your existing gear. If you have a high resolution monitor and an older, slower GPU, a new card could make a large difference to not only speed but stability. If instead you’re using a relatively new card with updated drivers, your money can be put towards better storage or a CPU upgrade, which should provide a more significant boost to the user experience.
The video editing world has been enjoying GPU accelerated effects and transitions for a while. Blending, scaling, some effects like color balance, and transitions like cross dissolves can all get a boost. Notably Lumetri looks all play well with GPU acceleration in my experience. Since the complexity of different video projects can range far more widely than photos (1080p vs 4K, heavy effects use vs cutting together some clips), you’ll have to take a look at your workflow. When you edit a project, have a GPU monitoring program up and check things like VRAM usage and utilization to see if you’ve maxed out your current gear. One important note is that while these new cards support AV1 decoding, the hardware support for fast AV1 encoding still isn’t there.
Interestingly, a number of more niche programs offer better GPU benefits than the industry titans. Specialty programs like panorama stitching and focus stacking often support OpenCL acceleration, meaning these cards could give you a big improvement to processing times. Additionally, photogrammetry users will appreciate the larger VRAM amounts on offer.
If you work with CGI programs that support GPU acceleration, these cards should be very appealing. A large bump to VRAM that was previously unavailable below Quardro level cards combined with a claimed significant boost to performance could offer significant benefits. The analysis of these specialty programs is beyond the scope of this piece, but if you find yourself compositing CG imagery with your photos or videos, keep an eye on program specific benchmarks.
Beyond Speed Improvements
Looking beyond just the raw speed improvements, it’s important to consider some of the features of the cards and what they mean for the visual industries. The first is the continued expansion of AI powered features, implemented in products like NVIDIA Broadcast. The software takes input from regular webcams and mics, then performs software magic to drastically improve the quality and add features. For instance, they demoed high quality real-time background removal without a green screen, and the existing RTX audio processing delivers amazing background noise reduction, capable of even filtering out a hairdryer along vocals.
Last but not least is the RTX’s namesake feature of ray tracing. First introduced on the 2000 series cards as a glorified tech demo, it seems the hardware has made it to the point of usability. Their demo, with hundreds of lights and a complex scene featuring one hundred million polygons, ran at 1440P at a reasonable frame rate. With these quality improvements to ray tracing, are more clients going to opt for a virtual photo shoot? Ikea already generates most of the imagery for their catalogs via CGI, compared to traditional photography.
If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines for the last few GPU generations, I don’t blame you. Between rising prices and diminishing performance improvements, there hasn’t been much of a reason to upgrade. The messy state of hardware acceleration for the programs used has made it an even tougher sell. In past articles covering hardware, I’ve mentioned a set of priorities for many users: a dollar spent on an NVME SSD or faster CPU typically offers more benefits than a GPU, and it seems that still hasn’t changed. If however, you’ve already maxed out your computer in these other areas and are looking to wring out more performance, or your specialty workflow benefits from the discussed improvements, Nvidia’s 3000 series cards should be at the top of your list.