El Capitan's crazy gamma adjustments – photographers beware

8 October 2015, 02:01

iMacs and MacBooks offer an option to automatically adjust the brightness of the screen based on ambient conditions. This is achieved via a barely visible light sensor near the camera in the top of the screen assembly, and the feature can be activated and deactivated within System Preferences by clicking the Display icon, ensuring the Display tab is selected, and then checking Automatically Adjust Brightness.

Unfortunately, in El Capitan it’s not just the screen brightness (that is the LED backlighting strength) that gets adjusted. Activating this feature will also subtly adjust the gamma of the screen, and this could play havoc if you’re editing photos or videos.

You can test this for yourself in a room with a decent amount of ambient light (that is, a room that’s not dark):

  1. Open System Preferences, as described above, and ensure that Automatically Adjust Brightness is checked.
  2. Open a test image in the background so you can watch it for changes.
  3. Move the brightness slider completely to the right, so the screen is as bright as can be.
  4. Keep one eye on your test image and uncheck the Automatically Adjust Brightness button. You should see a subtle gamma change happen in the image, particularly in the shadows or darker areas.

Note that you can’t repeatedly test this by simply checking and unchecking the Automatically Adjust Brightness box. To repeat the test, you’ll again need to activate automatic brightness adjustment and decrease and then fully-increase brightness, before deactivating brightness adjustment.

Here’s a mock-up I did to show the subtle difference. Many thanks to Sylvester (a.k.a Captain Sexy Cat) for modelling. The left is WITH automatic brightness adjustment, and the right is WITHOUT. Therefore the image on the right would be the technically true and correct image in this instance:

So, what’s to be done about this aside from simply deactivating automatic screen brightness adjustment – which is actually useful? Wojtek Pietrusiewicz was one of the first to spot the issue and mentions a preferences key he spotted in the Console log: com.apple.AmbientDisplayAgent. I tried the obvious command of defaults write -g AmbientDisplayAgent 0 to attempt to turn off this feature, followed by logging out and back in again, but it didn’t work. However, it’s clear that this can be turned off because the option was there in El Capitan betas – and I’ve a feeling that if enough people discuss it then Apple might return the option in a future update to El Cap.

UPDATE: See comments below where Nicnl details a solution, although this involves a little hardcore system hacking and isn’t something I can recommend.

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I’m really annoyed by this “feature” as well. There are so many design-oriented OS X users out there, so I’m wondering why only a few people are actually complaining.

— Mooney · Oct 10, 02:28 AM · #

I found this article after searching for information on the automatic brightness control. I am using Yosemite and have found that I am constantly having to turn up the brightness, seconds later it gets turned down again and I can’t read the screen. It’s very frustrating and assume most would turn this off as soon as they figured out how to.

Why don’t you simply turn it off as I did?

Vin · Nov 3, 03:08 PM · #

I really don’t understand why Apple chose to merge this damn gamma correction with the auto brightness setting.
I love auto brightness but if I enable it there’s this horrible white layer all over the screen.

— Nicnl · Nov 26, 11:50 PM · #

Sorry for the double post, I’ve just found a way to disable it.

1) Disable SIP if not already.
2) Disable “auto brightness“ setting.
3) Open a terminal.
4) cd /System/Library/PrivateFrameworks/AmbientDisplay.framework/Versions/A/XPCServices/com.apple.AmbientDisplayAgent.xpc/Contents/MacOS/
5) mv com.apple.AmbientDisplayAgent _com.apple.AmbientDisplayAgent
6) Optional : re-enable SIP
7) Reboot
8) Enable “auto brightness” setting.

Apparently, there’s no more damn gamma correction and the brightness still changes when I cover the sensor with my hands.
It still works after few reboots but I’m not sure it can survive a system upgrade and/or a permission repair.

— Nicnl · Nov 27, 12:05 AM · #


This definitely worked, thanks so much!

— Yoonsik Park · Mar 15, 12:18 PM · #

Thanks @Nicnl,

I also renamed the file you found, however; boot up times on Sierra take a bit longer now and everytime I want to go into the display settings the system hangs for a bit.

Night Shift also doesn’t work anymore when disabling this agent.

I am looking for a way to disable the Ambient Light Compensation and keep night-shift and a snappy system. Has there been any new breakthroughs as how to just disable the gamma correcting feature?

I called Apple about this but they don’t even seem aware of this feature.

— Patrick · Mar 15, 05:25 AM · #

That moment when you start looking if anything regarding Ambient Light Compensation has changed in Sierra and find your own name mentioned in a post. 🙂

Hi Keir!

Wojtek Pietrusiewicz · Jun 1, 11:28 PM · #