Photography / Buying Guide

One Photographer's Search for the Right Apple Computer

Today, more than ever, a computer is an integral part of a photographer’s tool set. It is something indispensable to the working process, regardless of whether you’re a working professional, an artist, or nearly any kind of image maker; or just shooting photos to share online with friends. Even taking into account your camera, the computer is likely the most used piece of “photographic” equipment in your arsenal, too. With these ideas in mind, I recently was in the position to purchase a new computer and spent a few months comparing and weighing the various options for the Apple computer that would work best for me.

Having last upgraded my computer in the summer of 2009, I noticed I was no longer able to competently keep up with the files with which I was now working. For the majority of my work I still shoot film, and scan it, and when I shoot digitally, I have 36MP files that weigh around 70MB each. My previous—now backup—writing and surfing-the-net computer was a 15" MacBook Pro, featuring a 2.66 GHz Intel® Core™ i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a matte screen; the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro at the time. This computer has served me well for the past six years, especially since I was still in school when I first purchased it and had access to the school’s computer lab for doing any heavy-duty editing. Fast forward to now, and the computer is struggling to make the most basic image adjustments to my 40 x 50", 300MB scans, or even just importing and organizing a couple of hundred 36MP raw files. I knew it was time to upgrade to something that could handle my seemingly modest and fairly normal imaging needs comfortably.

When I began my search for the new computer, I had it in my mind that a Mac mini was the way to go. It was the computer I had been eyeing even before I began my serious search. Often known around the art and design world as the go-to option for those not ready or able to step up to the Mac Pro, it seemed to be an ideal balance between performance, price, and space. However, curiosity got the best of me and I began comparing all of the current Mac models to see which one was truly best suited to me.

Speed, versatility, and monitors became the three criteria I used to judge each of the models, as well as how long a computer could stand to support me. Going six years with my previous computer felt like a stretch, and I knew I could have updated sooner, or at least made some upgrades to the RAM. However, now I knew that nearly anything new I chose would be an improvement. The question was, how little is too little? Or actually more specific, how much is too much? The models I became most familiar with during this process were the Mac mini, variations on the iMac, a new MacBook Pro, or the Mac Pro. Each of these adequately addressed my needs in performance and versatility, while two of them passed my monitor test. Coincidently, they were the two without monitors.

The MacBook Pro felt like an all-around machine that I could take with me wherever I went and expect solid performance. I was already used to the notebook form factor, but I was yearning for a larger screen. The MacBook Pro, of course, has the ability to support an external monitor, but for me this felt like a compromise and not the best use of the computer. I needed something for my studio, and since I already have a still-functioning laptop, the MacBook Pro didn’t feel like the best value. I’m not one to edit photos while out on a shoot, nor do I need to do heavy image processing at night during a photo trip. If anything, a travel computer for me is a place to store imagery, maybe look at a few photos, and share some with friends if I so desire. Additionally, a personal qualm I have with the current state of MacBooks is their predilection for glossy screens. While beautiful to look at, and fulfilling the design aesthetics inherent to Apple products, they are difficult to work with when critical viewing is a must. This was the reason, six years ago, I upgraded to the matte screen when customizing my MacBook Pro, and was a bit disappointed this option has been taken off the table for the new echelon of machines.

The second computer I almost immediately eliminated from my search was the iMac, or more specifically, the 27” iMac with Retina 5K Display. Much for the same reason as the MacBook Pro, the glossy screen was not something I was overly excited about. However, I spent much more time considering this computer as a possibility due to its brilliant combination of form and function. iMacs have all of the performance power I need for my workflow, and the option to have a 5K Retina display was certainly enticing. I felt that I could overcome the glossiness just due to the resolution and working room I would be afforded by a screen of this size. This is the point where I began to read up a bit more on the iMac’s screen, and to see if its attributes could make up for the one element to which I wasn’t partial. Some of the highlights touted by Apple include the 14.7-million pixel resolution, or 218ppi; advanced timing controllers; an oxide-based TFT design; energy-efficient LEDs to maintain accurate, bright, and even illumination; and both photo alignment and compensation film technologies for more increased perceivable contrast from varying viewing angles.

When coupled with the svelte design, the iMac’s other features, such as four configurable RAM slots, at least 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM, and up to a 4 GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, all seemed to point toward an ideal computer for me. With this in mind, I kept the iMac in the back of my mind as I moved to do some more in-depth research on the Mac mini.

As previously mentioned, I came into the whole comparison process already planning on buying the Mac mini. There has always been something appealing about its incredibly small size and ability to adapt to a wide variety of situations. Many museums and galleries use them for video installations, as well as working computers, while other arts applications call for them due to their relative portability. However, the more I began to research, I became worried that the move to a maxed-out mini might not stand as a large enough performance increase over my six-year-old MacBook Pro.

The recent update to the Haswell processors was certainly long awaited for these machines; however, the option of only being able to choose between two Dual-Core processors and up to 16GB of RAM total left me a little worried. Albeit my current working scenario was significantly less than this, I had in mind that I would be planning for the future with my computer. Just as my current computer has lasted me nine years as the main workhorse of my processes, I needed to get a new computer that could last me just as long. With my new computer, I also needed to take into account how my working process has changed over the past nine years, and think about where I could see it going in the future.

Editing and retouching files in excess of 250MB is a daily routine for me at home, as well as juggling hundreds of these files at a time. If my file size or amount continues to increase steadily over the next several years, will 16GB of RAM suffice? And will the integrated Iris Graphics support working with larger monitors and potential video editing? These thoughts about potentially maximizing the usage potential of the Mac mini from the get-go began to steer me away from my initial choice, especially since the new design of the minis does not allow you to upgrade the RAM or other components. This left me little room to grow with this computer.

With the Mac mini on the way out from my selection, I was now back to considering the iMac. But just as I began to re-examine the specs and customization options, I realized I had completely overlooked the top-dog Mac: the Mac Pro. I had blocked this computer from my mind simply because, if anything, it was daunting for me to imagine owning a computer of this stature. I had worked with older-generation Mac Pros throughout school and in nearly every retouching, studio assisting, and printing job I have ever had, but these computers always seemed to complement the hectic workflow and all-day use. Just in the same way commercial photographers regularly work with very high-end medium format digital cameras for their shoots, yet few actually own them, I had always figured few individuals truly owned Mac Pros, and most were relegated to commercial or institutional operations. The interesting aspect of this thought process was that my conclusions were never based on cost, rather, they revolved around the presence of these computers in the industry. They were beyond home computers, as they held the intimidating title of “workstation.”

The newest version of the Mac Pro, however, shed its more intimidating "tower" structure and now sports a more modern exterior aesthetic, one you might even call domestic. With my curiosity piqued, I began to see if my workflow could justify owning this computer. Immediately, one of the most prominent concerns I had with other Mac models could be eliminated: the fear that I would outgrow its potential before my admittedly too-long, 10-year buying cycle. With other Macs, I was immediately jumping into the upgraded spec sets, and frequently looking for the maxed-out versions. This left me with little room to expand in the future and forced me to guess where I needed to begin. With the Mac Pro, this task was easy: I can start at the very bottom. A 3.7 GHz Intel Xeon E5 Quad-Core processor, 12GB of RAM, dual GPUs for a total of 4GB of VRAM, PCIe-based flash storage, and, most importantly, the ability to greatly expand on this basic feature set as time goes on. I appreciated that flash-based storage was standard on the Mac Pro for speed, and it didn’t bother me that the capacity was relatively low since I have already become accustomed to transferring from external drives, due to the low storage capacity of my existing computer. The flash-based storage was ideal for use as a scratch disk and a place to store my few applications and some working files. From here, series of external drives are used for keeping files and the Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0 interfaces certainly were an upgrade from the FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 I’m used to running.

All of this immediately clicked as the computer I could easily grow with; it was something that would match my slow upgrade cycle and give me a longer lifespan of use, compared to starting with a maxed-out configuration from the beginning. Similar to the way many people are still working with their previous-generation Mac Pros from 10 or more years ago in a professional capacity, I saw this Mac Pro as a long-term investment that could most easily be adapted to my changing and expanding multimedia workflow. It could easily handle retouching the largest of scans, processing hundreds of 36MP image files, some video editing if I go down that path, and nearly any other creative task I could see myself taking on in the future.

With my excitement built up and newly formed bias in place, I now returned to comparing the iMac to Retina 5K Display and the Mac Pro. I had really grown to appreciate this idea of having a computer I can grow into, something where I can comfortably begin at the bottom rather than jump straight to the top. And as much as I had convinced myself the built-in display of the iMac was going to work perfectly for me, I was still worried about the glossiness of it. During my course of investigating the Mac Pro, I also began looking for different monitors to complement it, and quickly realized this could be the ideal point to transition into working with a two monitor setup—or at least having the ability to do this. A dual-monitor configuration would be difficult to pull off with the iMac, since the display is the focal point of the computer. I would not be able to adequately duplicate this screen with a secondary monitor and would have to resort to working with mismatched screens, if I wanted to go this route.

This, ultimately, was the deciding point that led me to choose the Mac Pro as my new computer.

The whole process of weighing the attributes of each Mac model forced me to truly consider what I needed and wanted from a computer, and made me realize how the Mac ecosystem functions to support a wide range of differing tasks and user types. For me, a photographer, the Mac I chose best suits my workflow of retouching very large image files, continuously moving files between storage drives, importing new files, scanning film, and making large-scale prints. The best part about my Mac, too, is that I have room to grow for any other projects that come my way.

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I don't think that the IMac screen is too glossy.  Careful placement prevents glare from windows.

Of coarse you picked the most expensive computer there is.  It would be nice if budgetary concerns were addressed in the article.  I have a 5k IMac with a Thunderbolt screen attached it to it and they look great together. I also hace a 2011 MacBook pro and both can process D800 files just fine.  

And a Spyder5 perhaps? -.-

Bjorn... this review is timely as I'm now considering my move from an (Early 2008) MacPro. I totally agree with all your reasons for choosing the new MacPro over the Mac Mini, iMac or MacBook Pros (I also have a mid 2009 MacBook Pro, 13").  My question is more to do about the add-ons. What sort of HD storage and monitor did you end up with?  I too hate the glossy Apple screens and looking at the NEC PA271W for an upgrade to my Eizo CE210W.

Great article! Obviously, not everyone has the budget to make the jump. Those who can now have much more info to operate on. Tax write off at 20% per year after forming an LLC, anyone?