Here’s what filmmakers and colorists should know about the new iPad Reference Mode

Is the iPad ready to be your client review monitor? Or is the new reference mode just a trick?

iPad OS 16 brings here a new feature that filmmakers should be excited about. However, it also takes some knowledge to understand how to work with it.

The new Reference Mode is available on the new iPad Pros with the M2 and is designed to give filmmakers and photographers working with video and photos a more accurate image. Which is a boon for creatives who use iPads to get approval from clients.

What is the reference?

Reference mode first works by turning off any color adjustments the iPad can make. For example, the iPad has a Night Shift feature, which adjusts the color palette to the time of day to make reading easier. It’s wonderful for your sleep cycle if you’re reading on the iPad before bed, but has long wreaked havoc on color critical notes on the iPad, as it’s affecting the color of everything displayed. The same is true of TrueTone, which constantly tracks ambient light and adjusts the display. Reference mode stops all that processing.

iPad Pro M2 Reference Mode
iPad Pro M2 Reference ModeCredits: apple

Beyond that, reference mode will limit the colors shown within the color spaces you choose. The list is quite impressive:

  • BT.709
  • BT.601 SMPTE-C
  • BT.601 EBU
  • sRGB
  • HDR10 BT.2100 PQ
  • BT.2100 HLG Dolby Vision Profile 8.4 or Dolby Vision Profile 5.

Let’s break down the most common one used by filmmakers here, which is BT.709 (also known as Rec.709). This is the color space for HD video, while BT.601 was most common for standard definition (basically sub-HD resolution from the 90s and early 00s). You can work with BT.2100 if you provide HDR formats, but they are still less common. For a large part of the industry, if you distribute to YouTube or Instagram or TikTok, BT.709 (Rec.709) is a safe bet.

Rec.709 color space only displays a limited palette of colors. As you can see in the chip below, the large color shape is the CIE 1931 palette, which shows all the colors common to the human eye.

Rec. 709 in CIE 1931 for all visible colorsCredits: Sakurambo derivative work Granddrake

The triangle is Rec.709, the colors it promises to show. Modern display panels (such as the M2 in the new iPad Pro) can display many colors that can be a much larger palette than the Rec.709 color space. Reference Mode clamps the iPad Pro display’s color palette to show only colors allowed within Rec.709. It does this with software, remapping any colors outside of the triangle into the triangle.

Filmmakers and colorists will also have the option to adjust details in the output. While this may not be necessary with a new device, every display will change over time. Recalibrating displays will not only extend their service life but also allow creatives to maintain maximum accuracy.

iPad reference mode calibration
Fine tune your iPad displayCredits: apple

iPad ready?

Now that we understand what’s going on with the software, the big question is… is the hardware ready?

Is the iPad panel ready to display those colors correctly? Critical tests, and a pandemic-driven industry-wide test, point to yes. Over the past two years, a lot of preview work has moved to the iPad, and for the most part, people are pretty happy with it.

We’d still recommend that someone in the pipeline (ideally a colorist) sit down and watch a truly calibrated broadcast monitor, but the rest of the team on the iPad monitoring solution is increasingly sufficient, or even preferred. If the choice is between a dozen different PC and Mac computer clients or all of them on iPads, the consistency and quality of the iPad Pro display will win any day. It’s a really nice monitor, and an art already supported before reference mode.

iPad Pro M2 DaVinci Solution
DaVinci Solutions on iPadCredits: apple

One thing we hope to see in the future is the ability to trigger a software for reference mode. If we could make it so that something like the app or the upcoming DaVinci Resolve iPad app automatically triggers reference mode, our lives would be so much easier when receiving notes from clients.

We never have to think they’re saying it’s “too warm” because it really is too warm or because their TrueTone settings are kicked in. In the meantime, we can walk our clients through how to turn it on and off, but that depends on a tech-savvy client willing to go into their settings—and we all know that’s not every client.

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