The Best Macintosh Computer Systems for Photography

Last year I wrote a blog article detailing what I felt were the ideal Macintosh computer setups for building a cost-conscious digital photography “studio”.  However, as you’d expect, the never-ending technological improvements in the computer industry have rendered that article out-dated and obsolete.  Ah, the price of progress.

Word of warning: If you’re not into computer hardware, reading this article will be less exciting than watching asphalt dry.

Anyway…here’s an updated list of Macintosh computer solutions for digital photography:

THE MAC MINI

In my old blog post from last year, I suggested that the Mac Mini was an excellent solution for those with entry-level computer experience and/or for those who are novices in photography.  While that opinion still holds true (The Mini is an awesome choice for beginners), I now believe the Mac Mini is also quite capable of being a bare-bones full-time, “do-it-all” computer for photographers of any skill level.

Why did I change my mind?  I own a Mini that my son abuses sometimes…and I put it through its paces just to see if it could handle my photo workflow.  And, to my surprise, it handled it all without a hiccup.  Uploading, cataloging, post-processing in both Lightroom and Photoshop.  The Mini did it all just fine.

Apple offers four processors in the Mini: A 1.4GHz (grass grows faster than 1.4GHz), 2.6GHz (turbo boost to 3.1GHz), 2.8GHz (turbo to 3.5GHz), and 3.0GHz (turbo to 3.5GHz).  The 2.8GHz model is powerful enough to efficiently handle Lightroom and Photoshop, provided you max-out the RAM at 16GB.

The “graphics card” is not actually a card, but the Intel Iris Graphics module (which is not upgradeable, unfortunately).  As a result, while you can drive two 2560 X 1600 monitors, a 4K monitor via Thunderbolt 2 is not possible.  Nevertheless, for photography, a 2560 X 1600 monitor is more than adequate resolution and a great cost-efficient option.

The Mini offers either flash storage or a “Fusion Drive”.  A Fusion Drive is a combination of a small amount of flash storage (used for quickly accessing, opening and running software programs), and a larger amount of traditional hard-drive storage (for storing files such as photographs, videos, and music).

If you opt for the Mini with 2.8GHz, you can add a 2TB Fusion Drive, which is enough storage for the casual photographer.

Here’s how I would configure a Mac Mini for photography use:

  1. 2.8GHz Dual-Core i5 (Turbo-Boost to 3.5GHz)
  2. 16GB 1600MHz LPDDE3 SDRAM (I have no clue whatsoever what LPDDE3 means)
  3. 2TB Fusion Drive
  4. NEC EA275WMI-BK 27″ Widescreen LED Backlit WQHD IPS Monitor ($594.00)

Cost of setup: $1,893.00

THE MACBOOK AIR

All apologies if any of you own or use a MacBook Air.  I mean no disrespect.  But, if you’re in the market for a photography laptop, look elsewhere.

While the MacBook Air is more than capable as a very light and portable machine for generic computer usage (i.e. surfing the web, word-processing, using iTunes, spreadsheets, emailing, Twitter, Facebook, etc…), it is not powerful or sophisticated enough to efficiently handle intensive post-processing of photographs.

The most powerful processor you can stuff in the Air is a gentle 2.2GHz.  A toddler’s abacus has more processing power.  Even more importantly, Apple does not make a Retina display for the Air (the Retina display is Apple’s version of a high-resolution, wide color gamut monitor), making post-processing a nearly impossible task…especially if you’re a stickler for the details, like color fidelity.

If you’re in search of a portable computer to handle the everyday basics in life, the Air is an excellent option.  I’d just stay away from it if you’re a photographer.

If your heart is set in stone on wanting a MacBook Air, this is how I’d configure it for photography:

  1. 13″ Macbook Air
  2. 2.2GHz dual-core i5 processor
  3. 8GB of RAM
  4. 512GB Flash Drive
  5. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)
  6. Lots of patience  (priceless)
  7. Tums ($1.99)

Cost of MacBook Air Setup:  $1,769.99

THE MACBOOK PRO

The ubiquitous MacBook Pro underwent a major overhaul this past year…the result is a lighter, more powerful, and more versatile laptop with Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C. Thunderbolt 3 is literally twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2…but, unfortunately, Thunderbolt 3 requires a different sort of plug than Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2.  Therefore, if you have a bunch of Thunderbolt 2 devices (like I do), you need an adapter to plug them into a Thunderbolt 3 port.

Last year I said the MBP is simply the best photography laptop money can buy, and the quality of the new version has only strengthened my opinion.

The new Retina display has a wider color gamut than the previous MBP, and you can hook up TWO 5k displays (or four 4K displays) via Thunderbolt 3 on the 15 inch.  That’s some serious graphics power for a laptop.

Both the 13 inch and 15 inch versions offer a “Touch Bar” as an option, which replaces the old function buttons at the top of the keyboard.  Technically, the Touch Bar adapts itself to whatever program you’re using, allowing you to customize certain changes with the tap (or slide) of a finger (i.e. screen brightness, volume, etc.).  The Bar is more of a gimmick than a useful tool at this point, but I’m sure it’s likely to catch on in time and become more helpful.

As was the case with the old MBP, a Fusion Drive is not an opinion…you can only get a very fast flash drive for the machine’s internal storage…from 256GB capacity all the way up to a ridiculously expensive 2TB.

The ideal MBP setup for photography:

  1. 15″ MBP with Retina Display
  2. 2.8GHz (turbo boost to 3.8GHz) Quad-Core i7 processor.
  3. 16GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM
  4. 512GB Flash Drive
  5. Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB memory Graphics Card
  6. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

Cost of Setup: $2,918.99*

THE IMAC

As I said above, the MacBook Pro is the finest laptop for photography.

Well, the iMac is the finest desktop for photography.  By.  Far.  It recently experienced an upgrade, getting Thunderbolt 3/USB-C, faster processors, and better monitors.  The 21.5 inch model utilizes a 4K display, and the 27 inch has a 5K display with support for a billion colors.  Clearly, Apple had photographers (and videographers) in mind when they upgraded these displays.

If you choose the 27″ iMac, you can opt for a ridiculously fast 4.2GHz Quad-Core processor with turbo up to 4.5GHz.  By comparison, my 4-year-old Mac Pro has a Six-Core 3.5GHz processor with no turbo.  The extra two cores do little, if anything, to improve speed.  For an example…suppose you have a V8 and V6 engine side-by-side.  Obviously, the V8 has two more cylinders.  But, if the V8 has less horsepower and less torque than the V6, which engine would you prefer (if they cost the same)?  When using a computer to drive Lightroom and Photoshop, what matters far more than number of cores is the power of the processor.

The 27″ iMac can drive one external 5K display or two 4K external displays.  So…if you want (and can afford it), you can have two 5K displays (the 27″ iMac itself, plus one external 5K display) sitting right next to each other on your desk.  That’s pretty cool.

Apple offers quite a few different models of the iMac with several different processors.  To be honest, the more expensive and faster processors technically aren’t necessary to drive Lightroom, Photoshop, and/or any other third-party post-processing software you like to use.  While tricked-out iMacs might run a little bit faster…if price is an issue (and when isn’t it?), I would be more than happy with the base processor, and prefer to spend my money on the larger 27″ display and maxed-out RAM.  Next to processing power, nothing helps a computer run more efficiently than adding RAM…and, obviously, the larger display with support for more colors is a great benefit to photographers.

Here’s my recommended iMac:

  1. 27″ iMac with 5K Retina Display
  2. 3.4GHz Quad-Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz)
  3. 32GB 2400MHz DDR4 RAM
  4. 2TB Fusion Drive
  5. Graphics Card: Radeon Pro 570 with 4GB memory.

Cost of Setup: $2,599.00*

* As you can see in the comparisons above, if you don’t mind using a desktop computer vs. a laptop (and don’t have the need for a portable machine), the 27″ base iMac is not only significantly cheaper than the MBP, it’s faster (more powerful processor with more RAM), with cheaper storage, and a much larger and more advanced monitor.

THE MAC PRO

Darth Vader’s Trash Can. Now a functionally obsolete machine.

Stay away from this catastrophic abomination of a computer like you’d stay away from a Sony Betamax.  If you’re around my age (44) or older, you may remember Betamax.  In the early 80s, it was hailed as the new mainstay for video cassette recorders. Problem was, the video industry never bought into Betamax…they went with VCRs instead.  VCRs won, Betamax lost.  So, anyone with a Betamax basically ended up with a machine that played tapes which no one made.

Unfortunately, I bought into the hype when the funky-looking Mac Pro came out.  Compared to other pro-level desktop computers, the MP is extremely diminutive with no space for internal peripherals…and therefore nearly impossible to make any internal upgrades…but hey, that’s ok because you can add peripherals to it on the outside.  Great, right?  Wrong.

(If it sounds like I’m a little bitter about the Mac Pro, it’s ’cause I am)

Apple tried to revolutionize the professional desktop computer industry…I’ll give them credit for having the guts to try.  To make a computer successful, it needs the industry to buy into it and make processor and graphics card upgrades as they become available.  But that never happened.  The computer industry just snickered at this machine and went on about its business, never offering upgradeable hardware for the Mac Pro.  Newer processors and graphics cards do not exist for the Mac Pro, and they never will.

I can’t even sell it on Ebay.  No one wants one of these things…and who could blame them?

My obsolete Mac Pro. One foot tall, one mountain of regret.

According to Apple, they will be offering a completely redesigned and fully-upgradeable Mac Pro in the distant future…and by “distant” I mean not until at least 2019, in my opinion.  Oh…and Apple publicly admitted the current Mac Pro was not designed properly to be a long-term solution.  Gee…thanks.

Cost of Setup: 4 years of regret.

THE IMAC PRO

Looks like a regular iMac, but it won’t act like one.

When I first read that Apple is coming out with an iMac Pro, I quickly thought to myself, “Finally, here’s my replacement for the cylindrical Mac Pro”.

The iMac Pro is going to be an awesome machine:  A state-of-the-art 8, 10 or 18 core processor that turbos up to 4.5GHz, a Radeon Vega graphics card (that is supposedly up to three times faster than the fastest graphics card in the current iMac), FOUR Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports (and the ability to connect two external 5K displays), an up to 4TB flash solid-state hard drive, an even better monitor than the new 27″ iMac, 10Gb ethernet, and up to 128GB of RAM.

But…the next question you have to ask is: Does a photographer really NEED all of this power to simply catalog, post-process, and print photographs?  The answer is an emphatic “No”.

Then I read what the base price will be, and I laughed.  Supposedly, the iMac Pro will start at over $5,000.00.  So, if I want the base model of one of these, I’d have to fork over the cost of a Leica M Type 262 camera.  No thanks. If I had 5 grand to burn, I’d rather have the camera.

I’ll just stick with my old Mac Pro until it dies, then go for a regular 27″ iMac…but I appreciate the effort, Apple.

The Leica M Type 262. Brand new it’s roughly the same price as the new base iMac Pro.

 

Happy Shooting!

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