Apple 16-Inch MacBook Pro for Photography

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The MacBook Pro has long been the standard, go-to laptop for working photographers. It combines the power we need along with the portability to bring on location or along while traveling. It’s the perfect combination that just got even better with the recent release of the new, late 2019 16" MacBook Pro. I had a chance to use this new model for a few days, and decided to jump in head-first and use it in lieu of not only my 2015 13" MacBook Pro, but also my 2013 Mac Pro for a photo book project I’ve been working on. I spent the few days using it as I would either of my own computers, but ended up treating it in the same way I would my Mac Pro. The obvious difference was now having the ability to work on serious photo editing and design away from my home.

Before getting too much into how the new computer handled editing a series of photographs (*spoiler alert* it was great), I want to talk about some of its distinctions versus simply diving into how it’s faster and better, as how essentially all new computers are. One of the key differences (pun intended) of the 16" MacBook Pro is the keyboard. Returning to a scissor key design, opposed to the butterfly key design that has been in place since 2015, this new model returns to its former glory as a computer with impressive haptic feedback.

The much-maligned butterfly key design, while good in intention, never really took off and ended up being a sore subject for many MacBook owners over the past few generations. Luckily, the issues of keystrokes not registering or keys themselves coming off should hopefully be gone with the reversion to a scissor key system, or as Apple now calls, a Magic Keyboard. Versus the butterfly design, this new keyboard gives 1mm of key travel with each keystroke, instead of the 0.3mm of the predecessors. This provides a nice typing sensation and, in my opinion, much improved tactility. I bring all of this up because, for me, the keyboard is one of the essential components of how I edit photographs in Adobe Photoshop, sort and label files in Bridge, layout and design in InDesign, and just how I work in general.

I’ve always been a fan of keyboard shortcuts and commands and, even though photography is visual medium, the way the applications are configured, I spend at least half of my editing and designing effort— selecting tools, opening functions, applying actions, and saving the files—using the keyboard. The improved key spacing and key travel distance suit changing tools by touch and working quickly, making editing a much more efficient process. Also, besides the redesign of the keys themselves, the 16" MacBook Pro also sees the return of a physical Escape key along with an inverted T arrow pad, which make it that much more intuitive to work in these applications by feel, too.

The second main improvement I see benefitting photographers has to be the screen. This is an obvious one, but the huge increase in screen size, 16" vs 15.4", is a game changer… okay, I’m joking. But there is a new screen with this new computer, and it is better. And better is always good. It’s a Retina Display, of course, has a slightly increased 3072 x 1920 resolution, and offers 500 cd/m2 brightness while covering the P3 wide color gamut. This makes it truly feasible for editing photos on the computer, instead of needing to relegate the fine color tuning duties to a desktop monitor. The screen has True Tone technology, too, that makes it more comfortable to view the display in various lighting conditions, but remember to turn this feature off when editing your photos in order to achieve more consistent and accurate colors.

Next, there is the improved processing and memory. This is a linear improvement, and an expected one, and offers a pretty straightforward progression from previous-generation MacBooks. Specifically, the model I worked with has a 2.4 GHz Intel® Core™ i9 8-core processor, 32GB of 2666 MHz DDR4 RAM, 1TB SSD storage, and an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M graphics card with 8GB of GDDR6 VRAM. As somebody who doesn’t always stay on the cutting edge of computers, this blew me away that this much power is easily available in a MacBook Pro. It was bittersweet to be working with a laptop that could overpower my admittedly under-spec’d Mac Pro at home, but it was impressive to be working with a library of high-resolution files at such a fluid pace.

I decided to try my hand at producing a photo book from scratch with this new computer. I had more than 100 drum-scanned images (each file ~300-400MB before adding adjustment layers) that needed to be dust spotted, color corrected, retouched, resized, sequenced, labeled, and then laid out into a book. This isn’t the most intensive test possible, but it was a very realistic application and still a fair amount of processing power was required for some of the more intensive ends of the editing and designing process. Opening and closing files quickly, seeing no lag on using content-aware fill tools, and being able to batch-process actions quickly to more than 100 files made the whole job quick and seamless. It felt like I was working with web-sized JPEGs instead of 16-bit TIFFs that could be used to produce 40 x 50" exhibition prints. And it was all the more impressive to me to be doing this with a portable setup. The great thing about a MacBook Pro is that it can easily extend its reach beyond “just a laptop” to be the primary computer for many image-makers. It is, perhaps, the closest thing to an all-in-one computer for photographers.

After finishing laying out the project, it was a rather uneventful conclusion to my test period with this computer. Everything worked out fine; there were no hiccups, no catches, no issues. And this is perfect. It’s a great computer, but I honestly wouldn’t have expected anything else. After a couple of generations of questionable designs to this series, I see this new 16" MacBook Pro as a return to form and as a computer that can successfully take a back seat to the tasks you need to do. It won’t get in the way, won’t slow you down, and won’t prevent you from working on the tasks you need to, when you need to. It’s made me question my need to have two separate computers in my workflow, and is making me reconsider loading up on one stellar MacBook Pro to handle all ends of my photography practice.

What are your thoughts on the new 16" MacBook Pros? Are you an existing MacBook user? Do you see yourself upgrading to this new model? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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2 Comments

Thanks for the review Bjorn. I, too, am a professional photographer working on a 2013 Mac Pro. I have also been considering going to a MacBook Pro, and I am wondering how the speed of this laptop compares to your Mac Pro. Would you say that it's faster?

Thanks much!

Hey Gregory- that's a good question...and it depends quite a bit on the configuration of your Mac Pro and what kind of MacBook Pro you're looking at. I think you'll find on paper and in tests that a well-spec'd MacBook Pro should be faster than the base-level Mac Pros from 2013 just due to advances in processing and, in my case, actually a greater amount of memory. But if you have a fully maxed-out 2013 Mac Pro, then I'm not so sure. If you were to match specs between both computers, then I think it'd be a pretty safe assumption that the newer computer will be a bit quicker, especially with newer software.

In terms of practicality, though, my base-level Mac Pro still keeps up just fine with the editing workflow I have, and I don't crave a ton more speed just yet. I work with very large file sizes (for photos, anyway) but not large libraries of images; I'm the type of person who has projects comprised of a hundred different 500MB image files, versus having thousands of 30MB files.

The last thing I'd point out depends a bit on your physical working setup- desktop vs laptop form factor. You can always plug the MacBook Pro into a large monitor and then ignore the laptop screen or use it as a second screen for an editing palette, but sometimes it's nice to have a more permanent setup. On the other hand having your main computer be both portable and capable of desktop use is a definite advantage if you're traveling a lot.

Let me know if you have any more questions!

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