Computing Reviews

Using a MacBook Pro Retina for Photo Editing (2013 Model)

Our photo editing has long been taken care of by Apple products, the current machine being a Mac Mini plugged into a 27inch Thunderbolt display. This combination provides us with an incredibly fast image throughput with beautifully accurate colours. Recently we felt the need to add portable devices that retained this level of accuracy and speed, so began a long evaluation process of the myriad of tablet and laptop devices currently on the market.

MacBook Pro Retina 2013When it comes to evaluation, Apple were always going to be at the top of the list for us – we simply love the build quality and attention to detail that comes as standard in most of their products, be it iPod, iPad or MacBook…they all look good and perform well.

The 15” MacBook Pro Retina (MPBr) grabbed our attention around 18 months ago and, while we were deeply impressed with the machine, we were not in a position to invest further in technology so watched with great interest as a plethora of other devices made their appearance over the coming months. One other device made it onto our shortlist – Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 – a beautifully portable tablet that Ethan has just added to our arsenal (and will be the subject matter of another review).

But for me it was the MBPr that stole the show and several days ago I became an owner of this aluminium clad powerhouse, sporting 16GB memory, a fast 512gb SSD and 2.3GHz Quad-Core i7 processor. Intended solely for image processing it could be argued that the specifications are overkill, but I am concerned that these machines are non-upgradeable so feel that by beefing up the specs now we are going someway to future-proofing our purchase.

There is no doubt that the 15”MBPr is beautifully designed and minimalist in its appearance. This appeals greatly to my own aesthetic tastes so I have no problems regarding it looks. I guess it is a tad heavy, but not much heavier that some of the 15” laptops I have used in the past. It is far slimmer than my other laptops and at least half as thin as those sporting optical drives (which the MBPr does not have). External connections include two USB 3 and two Thunderbolt 2 ports, along with a SDXC card slot and 3.5mm headphones jack.

The backlit keyboard has just the right amount of key travel and feels positive without being too ‘clicky’ when pressed. The trackpad is the best I have used – responsive, accurate and supports the full range of Apple gestures. I prefer using a mouse for fine tweaking images, so purchased the Apple Magic Mouse, which also supports gestures.

But it is the Retina display that really sets the MBPr apart. Having used some of the iPad/iPhone incarnations featuring this technology, we were no strangers to it, and it was at an Olympus Launch event last year (you can read the blog here) that gave us our first taste of how it looks on a laptop; Two MacBook’s were made available for us to view images on – a retina and non-retina version. The difference between the displays was noticeable and it was easy to tell them apart. Apple displays are of a very high standard, even non-retina versions are superb (witness the 27 Thunderbolt display). Retina technology adds an extra depth to images and the tones reproduced are wonderful, lending the most realistic finish to images I have ever seen. Given the amount of pixels crammed onto the 15 inch display there is little wonder that such smooth image rendering is possible.

MacBook Pro Retina 2013We have used Lightroom to process our RAW images for some years now, and saw no reason to change this for the MBPr. The installation was painless and once our user presets had been imported we were ready to go. A recent trip to West Africa has generated a couple of large image libraries, so it was only natural that these would be the MBPr’s first processing task.

Nothing we threw at this machine slowed it down, caused fan noise or generated heat – it just took everything in its stride. Exporting individual images was pretty much instantaneous with larger groups of images taking just a couple of seconds. Being used to much lesser specification windows based machines, the speed of this beast simply bowled me over – the combination of SSD, Quad Core i7 processor and 16gb RAM really shone.

Image processing itself is a real pleasure; we have not used any colour calibration software on the MBPr (yet) but have found the factory settings of the display to be pretty accurate. We may carry out calibration at a later date but to me it looks plenty good enough as it is, and from what I have researched, calibration of the retina display offers just a small improvement.

After exporting the Africa libraries we decided to compare the results by viewing them on our Thunderbolt display and were not disappointed. The images appeared crisp, lifelike and correctly balanced so we have no reservations concerning the use of the MBPr for image processing. In fact it will become my primary tool for this task as I like to work in different rooms around the house (or even outside). The screen is very reflective so bright sunlight and strong indoor lighting needs to be avoided. The viewing angle is excellent, allowing two or three people to gather around the screen without any colour distortion.

I have spent the last few evenings viewing sections of our insanely large image back catalogue, simply to see how some of our older images look on a retina display. I must admit to being stunned by the quality of many of them – I feel like I am looking at them through a new set of eyes. There are details and colour nuances once locked up in some that I have never seen before. No doubt I will work my way through all of them during the dark winter evenings. Old images taken with my 9 year old Olympus E-1 look stunning – stunning enough for me to exhume it from its long sleep, charge up a battery and go out shooting with it again.

My only concern is the capacity of the SSD – 512GB will soon get swallowed up with RAW images. A 1TB disk was available but pushed the price up to an unjustifiable level. Therefore older image libraries will be stored on external HD’s and backed up to secondary devices.

The MacBook Pro Retina has been a machine I have wanted to use since they were first introduced. I was put off a little by some of the screen problems on the first models and more than happy to sit patiently on the side lines (like I am with most digital technology) until the technology had matured a little. This latest iteration seems to address earlier niggles and offers a powerful, portable, beautiful solution to image manipulation and presentation.

I am left wondering what a 17” version would look like, or even a Thunderbolt retina screen…