In Computer Storage for Photographers in the August 2019 issue of Medium Format Magazine, I covered storage. Here in December 2019, I cover choosing a computer for photography.
There are some pretty awesome computing options that have emerged in late 2019. While I use Apple Macs exclusively, this article discusses the various choices of CPU/GPU/etc in a way that will also be useful to non-Mac users.
The size of my images has been increasing, what with cameras up to 100 megapixels, but it boils down to simple math: pushing around 100 megapixels instead of 50 takes twice the time. What once was reasonably speedy starts to feel sluggish. Compounding the issue, with focus stacking (Sept 2019 issue) and image scaling (Oct 2019 issue), routine tasks can take 5 minutes to an hour.
I have done consulting for nearly a thousand clients over the past years about choosing and configuring a system for photography, I’ve honed my skills at getting them the best possible solution for their actual workflow, sometimes saving my clients thousands of dollars they would have thrown at the problem, and yet been of little or no benefit, or even been worse. The gist of that is captured here, but I advise throwing away assumptions when it comes to one’s own work—don’t assume, but measure/test if possible—that’s what I do in order to advise my clients properly.
Desktop or laptop, or laptop as a desktop?
My judgment is that Apple’s latest 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch model with 8-core CPU and 64GB memory can be a full-fledged desktop computer replacement, even for demanding users. That’s assuming for desktop usage the addition of a keyboard and mouse and external display (you can even close the lid and just use the external keyboard and display, pretending it really is a desktop computer). See my 2019-11-18 blog post at diglloyd.com for details: 2019 Apple MacBook Pro with 16″ Display: the Single Computer Solution At Last.
While desktop computers like the 2019 iMac 5K, iMac Pro and Mac Pro will outperform the 2019 MacBook Pro, meaningful differences will not be seen in real-world usage for 90% of the photographers out there (exceptions being when memory is a limiting factor).
Moreover, the convenience of a blazing fast 4TB or 8TB internal SSD is something no Apple desktop computer can match internally. An 8TB internal SSD along with 64GB memory and top-end GPU and 8-core CPU make the 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch a worthy desktop replacement and an outlandishly strong travel computer—and it has dual Thunderbolt 3 busses with four TB3 ports too! Plus its thermal management is greatly improved, so it can run under load without thermal throttling longer than any previous Apple laptop.
If you do settle on an Apple laptop, note that CPU, GPU, SSD and memory are all soldered-on, and thus cannot be upgraded. It is thus unwise to down-spec such a machine. If it is to be the sole computer with a 3+ year lifespan, the smart move is to max it out, with the only choice worth debating is a 4TB or 8TB internal SSD. But even that seems a dubious debate, as the hassle of having to add external SSD storage is not worth it, and will be slower no matter what.
For perspective, what drives my decision
Everyone has their own particulars. Here I discuss how my own workflow and habits rule out seemingly better solutions.
First, I do not plan on getting the extremely capable 2019 Mac Pro, because for travel in my Sprinter van it is just not a good fit: power hungry, requires a separate display, bulk. Because I do a lot on the road, the all-in-one form factor of the Apple iMac 5K is ideal, with fast setup and teardown a mandatory feature (I can set it up and have it booted up in under two minutes). That, and the Mac Pro is insanely expensive even without a display.
While it might at first thought seem appropriate for travel, I also do not plan on getting the very capable Apple 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch for travel. Its ergonomics are awful when used by itself, e.g., hunching over the built-in keyboard and screen. The screen is also too small for my work and my eyes too (presbyopia), so it still requires an external display, and that’s more setup/teardown hassle and desk space.
Thus for myself for those reasons and more, the only form factor that is viable for home and on the road in my van is the Apple iMac 5K form factor, which means the iMac 5K or iMac Pro. Were money not an issue, I’d have an Apple Mac Pro with Apple Pro Display XDR at home, plus the iMac 5K for van usage, using the OWC Thunderblade 8TB SSD for all my data between the two, but that total cost is prohibitive, and is a case of diminishing returns.
Components: the display, where pixel density is a tiny problem
Here I refer readers to two of my blog posts which cover this matter in detail. The key issue is pixel density and its ramifications for image assessment. Please see the articles Too-High Pixel Density on 5K and 8K Displays Impedes Image Assessment and 2.5K or 4K or 5K Display for Image Editing and Viewing?, referenced on this page: https://diglloyd.com/computer+display
To cover it in a nutshell: when pixel density it very high (e.g., 220 dpi with Apple iMac 5K), it becomes difficult to assess image sharpness, how much sharpening to apply, etc. Accordingly, I still evaluate images on a 2560 X 1600 display with pixel density of 110 dpi. Viewing pleasure may drive the desire for a 5K or 6K display, but that is a distinctly different goal than image processing and assessment, or from choosing a display for its color accuracy and color management capabilities.
Components: CPU Cores
The 2019 MacBook Pro and the 2019 iMac 5K have all the performance in their 8-core CPUs that most photographers need. It is enough for me too, even though I’d like faster this and that now and again. Eight CPU cores should be considered a starting point—do not even consider 4-core or 6-core CPUs if performance is a key goal.
If you regularly do focus stacking as I do, the one thing I’d really like is a 16 core CPU (12 cores would suffice, and 24/28 would be fantastic). For image scaling with 16 CPU cores, even the fastest GPU might be put to shame with Gigapixel AI.
It is almost always the smart move to choose more CPU cores over some fancy GPU because CPU cores get used a lot more by imaging software these days and are far more general purpose.
Only the 2019 Mac Pro or iMac Pro qualify for the 10+ core CPUs, but you’ll pay a steep premium for high-core-count CPUs from Intel. So most of us will have to be content with 8 CPU cores.
The GPU is increasingly used by imaging software, and it is a big help for things like image upscaling with Gigapixel AI, Adobe Camera Raw Enhance Details, though most other Photoshopand Lightroom features hardly use the GPU. Capture One Pro also uses it. Video processing is a special case—I’m discussing still photography here. But if you get spendy on a fancy high-end external GPU expecting Photoshop to run batshit fast, you’ll be sorely disappointed— excepting a few special cases, Photoshop won’t run faster in any meaningful way. If those special cases are your thing then it might make sense, but few of us will be in that boat.
The 2019 iMac 5K and 2019 MacBook Pro both have solid GPU options that are plenty fast for the vast majority of photographers. The iMac Pro and Mac Pro move it up further. When buying, do move up from the base GPU to the next level, but if the cost escalates, spend your money on more CPU cores first unless you have a proven workflow case for the GPU.
Beware of external GPU (eGPU), which DO NOT WORK with some Macs (an Apple/Adobe API problem). While eGPUs are hyped, they are NOT a solution for most computing problems because they either do not get used at all, or their is marginal in the context of total task runtime. Indeed, if the Mac has a discrete GPU, then an eGPU is NEVER used by Photoshop (at least as I write this and until Apple and Adobe fix that).
A key boost for me when I got the 2019 iMac 5K was/is 128GB memory. That extra memory (vs 64GB) has really helped with multi-frame stitching, saving me gobs of time in some cases. The big speed win comes from Photoshop not having to swap things to and from disk.
While 128GB is a sweet spot for my needs, for most users 64GB is ample, so the 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch with 64GB is a strong solution for those who want the simplicity of a single machine for both home and travel. See my 2019-11-18 blog post at diglloyd.com: 2019 Apple MacBook Pro with 16″ Display: the Single Computer Solution At Last.
Components: internal SSD
A high performance system must have a very high speed SSD internally. That kind of speed lets CPUs and GPU have data when needed with minimum delay, lets the OS run a peak speed, etc. While Thunderbolt 3 can deliver about 2700 MB/sec, an internal SSD might hit 3400 MB/sec.
The smart move is to go with nothing less than a 2TB internal SSD, with 4TB strongly preferred given an assumed 3+ year lifespan of the computer—both capacity and resilience to wear.
In the Apple Mac lineup, the 2019 MacBook Pro can have up to a whopping 8TB internal SSD, whereas other models are limited to 2TB or 4TB. Consider carefully your storage capacity needs over a 3+ year timeframe; for example, were I going with the 2019 MacBook Pro as my sole computer, I would absolutely go with the 8TB SSD (all capacities are soldered onto the logic board, so there is no upgrading of any component, including the SSD).
Components: External I/O Speed and bandwidth
With adequate memory, I/O speed largely drops out of the picture when working in Photoshop or Lightroom, because images sit in memory and thus I/O is a blip in the overall context. For example, if it takes 0.4 seconds to read a Fujifilm GFX100 raw file off a fast hard drive (and much less on an SSD), it may still take 3-5 seconds for Photoshop or Lightroom to convert the raw file to usable form.
That said, Lightroom users will find it essential to store catalog on the fastest SSD on the system because Lightroom uses the drive for a lot more than just read raw files into memory. Ditto if the scratch drive(s) in Photoshop actually get used, or any use case where there is a lot of disk I/O.
Favor machines with at least two Thunderbolt 3 busses, all else being similar. This is critical if you intend to use an external 5K or 6K display—a 6K display will eat up 30 Gpbs of the write bandwidth available on the 40 Gbps Thunderbolt 3 bus. The other bus to which the display is not connected can thus run at full speed for high-speed I/O.
The 2019 Mac Pro rocks for Thunderbolt 3 busses and ports (with options). The 2019 MacBook Pro rocks in having dual Thunderbolt 3 busses with four ports. Ditto for the 2018 Mac mini, but its GPU is so slow that it is a very poor choice overall. The single Thunderbolt 3 bus of the 2019 iMac 5K (two ports) is a disappointing design, but for most photographic uses it will be of no concern.
I’ve selected several Apple Mac products here to illustrate the foregoing points.
High performance desktop machine — 2019 iMac 5K
This beautiful display includes a powerful computer with it. Get the 8-core CPU, Radeon Pro Vega 48, 8GB memory configuration, then add 128GB from OWC to double the max RAM and save a ton of money (see my website), and the 2TB SSD (no larger option available).
The 2019 iMac 5K is my workhorse machine as I write this, and has been for 6 months. By far the fastest and most powerful Mac I have ever used. Its only real drawback is its single Thunderbolt 3 bus, which makes it undesirable for connecting an external 5K or 6K display, or lots of Thunderbolt 3 peripherals.
More info: https://macperformanceguide.com/2019+iMac+5K
2019 iMac 5K
High performance computer for travel and desktop — 2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch
Get the 2.4 GHz 8-core CPU, Radeon Pro 5500M, 64GB memory and 4TB or 8TB SSD.
Add a keyboard and mouse and external display for desktop use, because the ergonomics of a laptop are otherwise awful.
2019 MacBook Pro 16-inch
2017 iMac Pro
A very fine machine with up to an 18-core CPU, but at the end of its lifecycle. For desktop users, I advise the Mac Pro instead, or waiting for a revised model.
2017 iMac Pro
2019 Mac Pro
Debuting in December 2019 or so as I write this. Total overkill for most photographers. Suitable for long-term aggressive usage with gobs of expansion possibility supported by its 1.4 kW power supply.
More info: https://macperformanceguide.com/2019+Mac+Pro
Computing power on the Apple side is really outstanding with four excellent choices even for those shooting at 100 megapixels. On the PC side, similar if not the same considerations apply.
Lloyd’s photography blog is found at diglloyd.com. You will find Lloyd’s monthly column “Metapixel” in the Medium Format Magazine where he writes about technical issues related to medium format photography.
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