Apple's 2019 Mac Pro: The Ultimate Photo Workstation and Digital Darkroom

Apple’s 2019 Mac Pro: The Ultimate Photo Workstation and Digital Darkroom

In developing the Mac Pro (Late 2019), Apple has unveiled a true digital darkroom for photographers with intensive imaging needs. Perhaps your photo workflow involves a Lightroom library that is tens of terabytes in size and spans multiple RAID arrays, or you’re working with large raw files from the cameras such as the Sony a7R IV or FUJIFILM GFX 100. Maybe you’re digitizing 35mm or 120 roll film, or large-format sheet film with an optical resolution of 8000 dpi, and then importing these files into Photoshop to apply filters and other effects. To top things off, you use two, three, or four displays simultaneously. While tasks like these may seem daunting for any other system, the Mac Pro can do this all before breakfast, and still get the kids to school on time. Let’s take a look under the hood of the Mac Pro and see just how it accomplishes this.

With its return to a fully modular design, the Mac Pro gives users a great amount of control over the assembly and components of its final build. As with any system, the ultimate configuration of your Mac Pro will depend on needs that are based on the type of photo work you do. Since we’re talking about photography, we’ll discuss the GPU options first, and to this end, Apple offers a few different graphics configurations.

The base-level AMD Radeon Pro 580X is a great all-around performer for everyday photo editing. If you are only editing a photo or two at a time, the 8GB of GDDR5 memory with 256 GB/s of memory bandwidth will do a great job. Using its two HDMI 2.0 ports, plus four additional Thunderbolt™ 3 ports on the Mac Pro, it supports up to six 4K displays, two 5K displays, or two Pro Display XDRs. Having the ability to drive the latest and greatest displays is critical, especially if you are opting for a larger display to help view your images in all their glory. The Radeon Pro 580X fits in one half-height MPX (Mac Pro Expansion) module and enables PCIe slot 2 for additional expansion, perfect if your needs change over time, like if you pick up a higher resolution camera that is a bit more demanding on your computer.

The mid-tier AMD Radeon Pro Vega II delivers workstation-class graphics that are made for demanding pro applications like 3D content creation and photo retouching, and features 32GB of HBM2 memory with 1 TB/s of memory bandwidth. While the Radeon Pro Vega II only has one HDMI 2.0 port, it gains four Thunderbolt™ 3 ports, and when combined with the Mac Pro’s four dedicated Thunderbolt™ 3 ports, this card can support up to six 4K displays, three 5K displays, or two Pro Display XDRs.

In a single GPU configuration, the Radeon Pro Vega II occupies one full-height MPX module, fills an entire MPX bay, and uses extra power and PCIe bandwidth. All of this sounds pretty powerful, but there’s still a second empty MPX bay. So, if you need more, you can fill that second MPX bay with another Radeon Pro Vega II, for a total of 64GB of HBM2 memory with 2 TB/s of memory bandwidth. The on-card ports would also double to two HDMI 2.0 and eight Thunderbolt™ 3. When combined with the Mac Pro’s four Thunderbolt™ 3 ports, that’s twelve Thunderbolt™ 3 ports at your disposal. Likely the best pick for photographers looking for a bit more power in their machine. Handling multiple images quickly and effectively, or loading up design software for your latest photo book in addition to your images will benefit from a bit more powerful GPU.

Apple’s top-tier graphics offering is the AMD Radeon Pro Vega II Duo, which is optimized for demanding multi-GPU pro applications. The AMD Radeon Pro Vega Duo II combines two Radeon Pro Vega II cards within one MPX module, providing 64GB of HBM2 memory with 2 TB/s of memory bandwidth, plus one HDMI 2.0 port and four Thunderbolt™ ports that when combined with the Mac Pro’s four Thunderbolt™ ports, can drive eight 4K displays, four 5K displays, or four Pro Display XDRs. Now, what would a photographer do with all this power? Well, if you are creating gigapixel images, time-lapses, or creating composite or stacked images you may want all the graphics power you can get to ensure smooth editing.

Since the Radeon Pro Vega II Duo puts two GPUs within one MPX module, that second MPX slot is still available if you’d like to create the 1% of GPU setups. Better known as two Radeon Pro Vega II Duo cards, or four Radeon Pro Vega II cards, there is probably nothing you won’t be able to accomplish with 128GB of HBM2 memory (64GB per card) and 2 TB/s of memory bandwidth (1 TB/s per card), two HDMI 2.0 ports, and eight Thunderbolt™ 3 ports. As a cherry on top, the Mac Pro’s four Thunderbolt™ 3 ports brings the system total to 12. This is almost overkill for all but the most intense photography studios. Though, having this extra power is a great option if you are looking to add video to your repertoire in the future.

All dual GPU setups are connected through the Infinity Fabric Link, which allows for data transfers between the cards at up to 84 GB/s. Each GPU also contains DisplayPort connections that support the Mac Pro’s Thunderbolt™ 3 ports.

As impressive as the graphics performance of the Mac Pro is, it wouldn’t be much without a solid backbone of CPU, RAM, and storage. The Mac Pro offers five different Xeon W processors, starting with a 3.5 GHz Eight-Core, and moving steadily up the ladder to a 3.3 GHz 12-Core, 3.2 GHz 16-Core, 2.7 GHz 24-Core, and 2.5 GHz 28-Core. Now this is a hard question for photographers. Everyday editing will do just fine with the 8-core CPU. Combined with the other components and architecture of the Mac Pro will allow this computer to work better than any laptop and many other similarly spec'd desktops. If you process out hundreds of images on the regular, opting for the 16-core or even 24-core can make a lot of sense. This will power through your massive edits in no time at all. Perfect if you need to send proofs to your clients as soon as possible. The 28-core is for if you need or simply just want the best you can get. It'll take care of practically everything you can throw at it.

All models can be configured with up to 768GB of memory, with a 1.5TB option available for the 24- and 28-core systems. Also, all systems support 2933 MHz memory, except for the 8-core, which supports 2666 MHz memory. Memory is the piece that allows your CPU to work to its fullest potential, especially for running applications such as Photoshop. Large images with lots of layers can take up a lot of memory, and it is quick for users to start seeing slowdowns as they move from one part of the image to the next. While 768GB and more will be amazing for ultra-high-res images such as gigapixels or focus stacks with hundreds of photos, most photographers will see huge advantages to moving to the Mac Pro with even just a couple hundred GBs of memory. Don't worry, if you need more later on the 12 DIMM slots are user upgradeable.

Storage-wise, the Mac Pro can be set up with 256GB, 1TB, 2TB, or 4TB of storage, with sequential reads of up to 2.6 GB/s and sequential writes of 2.7 GB/s. While the 256GB SSD comes as one module, all other SSD configurations come with the storage capacity evenly split between two modules. This one should be an easier decision for many. If you work off your internal storage (which you may want to if you need speed), then opt for a larger drive. If you rely on an external RAID or NAS then you can get away with a smaller SSD for running your applications.

Looking at the whole package, the Mac Pro is a powerful machine that will suit the needs of any type of photographer. Editing will not be a slog with a properly configured machine. Stop by the B&H "Mac Pro, Unleashed" Page to learn more about how the Mac Pro can help different types of creative workflows.

It seems like the internals of the Mac Pro could power a racecar, but what do you think? Is this the photo workstation you’ve been waiting for? Feel free to leave your comments below.