We have written quite a bit about building PCs here at Photography Life, but sadly, we have not given nearly as much attention to Macs. Part of the reason is the platform of choice – a few of the PL’s team members have been using PCs for many years, including myself, and as a result, we have not had a chance to write much about Apple products. But things will hopefully change going forward. Earlier this year, I purchased my first iMac Retina and I have been exploring the Mac world ever since. While I am planning to write a separate article on my thoughts about Mac vs PC and some of my personal experiences with potentially switching to a different platform, in this particular article I want to focus on one topic, which is purchasing an iMac for photography needs. I have had quite a few requests from our readers on this topic and many wonder what type of an iMac would suffice for photography work without breaking the bank. After doing quite a bit of research before purchasing my iMac and consulting with other Mac experts, I believe I found a couple of configuration options that are optimal for photography work for the next few years.
Before we go into the recommended configuration, let’s explore one of the most frequently asked questions – should one get an iMac or a Mac Pro for photography needs?
1) iMac vs Mac Pro
Last year I had a chance to try out the Mac Pro and I really loved it. You can see my detailed review of the Mac Pro, where I talked about the product and explored its use for everyday work, including running software like Lightroom and Photoshop. Running Intel Xeon processors, Mac Pro is surely a very capable beast. However, Apple has not released any updates to the Mac Pro line for over two years, which has been pretty frustrating for the Apple fans who want to stay on the edge. We have already seen two whole generations of Intel processors go by since the current Mac Pro debuted in 2013 (Haswell and Broadwell), which in the PC world would mean suicide for a company. And yet Apple is still continuing to sell the outdated architecture today, which is a bit puzzling. But this is not the main reason why I would not recommend buying the Mac Pro for photography today. The main reason is, the Mac Pro is better suited for demanding, multi-threaded applications that can fully take advantage of its processing power. Unless you stitch a lot of panoramas and need all the CPU cores and RAM you can get (the Mac Pro is expandable up to 64 GB of RAM), there is no point of getting a Mac Pro. For standard post-processing work in Lightroom and Photoshop, the iMac is going to be your best bet, so buying an outdated Mac Pro would pretty much be money down the drain. Today, the most basic Mac Pro will cost you $3K for the machine alone and once you add up the cost of a 4K+ display, you are looking at a pretty big investment that could go well over $5K. In contrast, a pretty decent build with the latest generation iMac Retina 5K based on Intel 6th Generation Skylake CPU will cost $2K, while the most beefed up version that will surely beat the Mac Pro in many ways will still be under $4K.
Let’s take a look at the performance comparison of my now outdated iMac Retina, with the following specifications:
I purchased mine for a really good deal when B&H was running a killer $400 promotion earlier this year. As you can see, with a 3.5 Ghz Intel Core i5 and AMD Radeon R9 M290X, this is a pretty average build by today’s standards. I purchased mine with 8 GB of RAM and upgraded it to 32 GB (more on that below), so I cannot complain about its performance – both Lightroom and Photoshop run perfectly fine, even when doing more processor-intensive tasks stitching panoramas. I would still use my high-end PC for heavy processing work, but for everyday tasks, this machine runs really well.
1.1) Single-Core vs Multi-Core Performance
Look at that – for Single-Core tasks, my iMac with an i5 CPU easily beats the high-end Mac Pro! Where the Mac Pro obviously stands out, is its Multi-Core performance. The funny thing is, Adobe really sucks at utilizing all CPU cores for both Lightroom and Photoshop, so at the end of the day, if that’s all you do, Multi-Core performance won’t matter! I would personally recommend to go for faster Single-Core performance CPUs with higher operating frequency, than a powerful Multi-Core machine. The only case where Lightroom is able to correctly use more cores is during the Export operation, so if you do a lot of that, then you will benefit a bit more from a Mac Pro. But come on – how much exporting do you really do and how often? When my wife exports images from Lightroom for her wedding clients, she starts the process and goes to sleep. If there are multiple weddings, she starts multiple export processes. It does not matter how long the process takes, as long as all the files are there in the morning.
So at the end of the day, for your day to day editing work, your best bet is to get a fast modern-generation CPU that will perform extremely well on a single core, which both Intel’s i5 and i7 CPUs will be able to satisfy.
1.2) GPU Performance
Where the iMac lacks when compared to a Mac Pro or other desktop-class machines, is GPU performance. Unfortunately, due to the compactness of the iMac, a standard-size video card won’t fit, so Apple had to integrate laptop-grade video cards into these machines. My iMac Retina came with an AMD Radeon R9 M290X video card with 2 GB of GPU RAM, which is decent, but not as good as the latest generation Skylake iMacs with fast AMD Radeon R9 M395X video cards. Still, there is really no comparison between these and a full-featured AMD FirePro video cards you find on the Mac Pro. When I ran CineBench, I got a surprising result showing slightly better OpenGL performance on my iMac Retina when compared to the Mac Pro:
However, after I ran a NovaBench test, it was pretty evident that when it comes to 3D performance, the FirePro is going to be much better in comparison:
Is this important? Well, with both Lightroom and Photoshop now supporting GPU acceleration, you would want to be running a video card that can handle GPU acceleration well. If you have an older Mac with a slow video card, you might be better off turning GPU acceleration off. But on newer and faster machines, especially with Retina screens, you will be better off with GPU acceleration enabled. On my iMac, it has been a mixed bag. For some actions in the Develop module, GPU acceleration certainly brings benefits, but for other actions like Spot Healing, GPU acceleration noticeably slows things down.
1.3) Storage and Configuration Changes
Both Mac Pro and iMac can run PCIe-based flash storage, so their storage performance is comparable. The iMac has the option to run large-capacity Fusion drives, which are much cheaper in comparison and can give up to 3 TB of total storage – the Mac Pro has no such option (and for a reason). Personally, I would stay away from spinning drives (a Fusion drive is a combination of SSD and spinning disks), since they are slower and not as reliable in comparison to Flash drives. If a spinning drive fails in an iMac, it would be pretty darn expensive to get it replaced. That’s one of the biggest disadvantages of the iMac – aside from swapping RAM, nothing else is easily replaceable. With such a thin form factor, Apple packed everything very tightly into the iMac chassis, making it pretty very difficult to access storage or CPU.
On a Mac Pro, changing the components is much easier. Once you remove the cover, you can easily swap out RAM and PCIe Storage. And with a bit of work, one could even swap out the CPU.
So keep this in mind when buying an iMac. Once you choose your configuration, there is no going back, which is why choosing the correct storage and CPU is so important!
2) Choosing Size – 21.5″ iMac with Retina 4K vs 27″ iMac with Retina 5K
When working on high resolution images, the lower the resolution of the screen, the more you will be scrolling from one are of the image to another when zoomed in. With modern cameras now sporting 30+ MP sensors, displaying those images on low resolution screens does not make much sense anymore. Not when 4K+ screens are becoming much more affordable. Apple has been packing Retina 4K+ screens on its iMacs for a while now for that reason and those IPS screens are really gorgeous for displaying images. So what iMac would be best suited for photography? The 21.5″ version with a 4K screen or the 27″ version with a 5K screen? Unless you have desk space limitations, I would go for the 27″ Retina screen. With a whopping 5120 x 2880 resolution, you could watch 4K content and still have some desktop space left! But the biggest benefit is the physical monitor size – a 27″ screen is huge in comparison to a 21.5″ screen. There is simply no comparison between the two.
I personally went for a 27″ iMac and I have no regrets. In fact, to be honest, I bought the iMac primarily for its 5K screen. If I were to buy an equivalent 5K screen for my PC, I would be looking at spending over $1,600 for the screen alone! Interestingly, this is the first time an Apple product is actually cheaper and more valuable than a PC. Actually, there is no PC all-in-one product on the market with similar screen specifications…
3) CPU and GPU Considerations
With Intel’s Skylake architecture already out on the newest iMacs, unless you have budget constraints, it would make sense to get the latest and greatest CPU (late 2015 model). This would future-proof your purchase and give you the best overall performance. The newest architecture will support up to 64 GB of RAM, so if you want to move beyond the previous 32 GB limit, Skylake would be the way to go. In addition to getting the latest, 6th generation CPU, you would also be getting the fastest AMD Radeon R9 video cards, with up to 4 GB of GPU RAM, which will be beneficial for GPU-intensive post-processing tasks.
It would also keep the resale value higher for a couple of years. My iMac Retina was a late 2014 model that I bought in the summer of 2015 and while I got a good deal at the time, that same iMac is now $400 cheaper, brand new. Unless Apple releases another iMac, which probably won’t happen for another year, your investment won’t tank as fast as buying an older generation iMac that few people want. But do keep in mind that computers in general are never a good investment in the first place – expect to lose value very quickly. With the fast pace of technology, that’s just the way it is! Remember “It’s All About The Pentiums” by Weird Al Yankovic? “My new computer has got the clocks, it rocks, but it was obsolete before I opened the box!” LOL, so true! So while it might be a good idea to get the “latest and greatest” to be set for the next few years, if the newest technology is far more expensive than something that is only 5-10% slower, that marginal performance increase might not be worth the investment.
What about Intel Core i5 vs Core i7? Depending on the workload, the performance difference between the two can vary from 5% to 50%. You probably won’t see more than 10% difference in applications like Lightroom and Photoshop that have a hard time utilizing more than a single core, but for exports and other tasks that can take advantage of hyperthreading, you will be better off with an Intel Core i7 CPU. If money is not an issue, go for an i7 CPU. With a 4.0 Ghz clock speed vs 3.3 Ghz on Skylake, more threads and more cache, my preference would be to stick with i7. If you decide to go with a previous generation CPU for low budget reasons, Core i5 will also do the job. I went with a Core i5 setup personally, as there was not a good deal on the i7 at the time…
4) Storage Considerations
With iMac Retina having so many different storage options (256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB PCIe and Fusion Drives from 1 TB to 3 TB), choosing an appropriate storage option can also be challenging. Like I have pointed out above, you must choose your storage option carefully, as you will not be able to upgrade it in the future. My personal recommendation is to stay away from spinning drives when buying computers. PCIe drives are much faster and they have lower chances of failing or building up “bad blocks” overtime. With the iMac getting pretty hot under full load, putting a spinning drive might not be the best idea. But that’s not the main reason why I would recommend a PCIe flash drive. When choosing your Lightroom storage option, it is always best to place your Lightroom catalog and cache in the fastest drive you have available. Keep in mind that Lightroom stores not only its catalog file, but also preview images under the same folder structure. While a Fusion drive can off-load the catalog into its faster SSD memory, your preview files will most likely still reside in the spinning area of the drive, slowing access times down. So you are going to be better off by placing your Lightroom catalogs in the faster PCIe Flash storage.
What about storage space? PCIe gets expensive fast, so what size is optimal? This is strictly a budget-driven question. If you have a large budget, get the largest PCIe Flash drive, which is 1 TB. But if that is too expensive, 512 GB would also work. Personally, I would avoid 256 GB, as it would be too limiting – once you load up your Lightroom catalog, it will eat through those 256 GB too quickly, especially with full size previews.
Now if you did end up choosing a small PCIe storage option, or if you already have a Fusion drive, there is no need to be overly concerned – there is a great solution out there! Earlier this year, I purchased the Samsung Portable SSD T1 drive and this thing absolutely rocks! Check out my detailed review of the Samsung T1, where I explain how I took advantage of this little drive on my iMac. No matter what you end up choosing for primary storage, you could use one or more of these T1 drives to add a lot more storage for your iMac. The 1 TB version is a bit expensive at $400, but you could get the lower capacity version for your Lightroom catalog and have a larger capacity drive for your RAW files, making a super fast and efficient iMac setup. These drives are so small and lightweight, that you could leave them dangling off your iMac’s USB ports on the back of the machine!
5) RAM Considerations
When choosing an iMac, always choose the least amount of RAM. Apple wants you to shell out $600 for 32 GB of RAM, which is ridiculous! For my late 2014 iMac Retina, I bought two 16 GB Crucial memory sticks, totaling only $150! That’s way cheaper than if I were to buy 32 GB already installed on the iMac – I saved $450 by installing the memory myself. Now the same memory won’t work on the latest iMac with Skylake, so if you are looking for a 32 GB kit, get it from OWC. Even better, get this 64 GB kit for less than $700 instead and you can enjoy more memory than even Apple offers!
Installing the drive is super easy. All you have to do is open the rear RAM panel on the iMac, remove existing memory and swap it out with the new memory. The procedure is not technical at all and if you have trouble with the process, you can ask someone else to do it for you. Folks at OWC made a 2 minute video that shows the process right here. It took me a couple of minutes to do it and the machine came up on the first boot, showing all 32 GB of RAM that I installed.
So unless you want your money down the drain, don’t buy the most beefed up iMac – buy memory separately and install it yourself to save hundreds of dollars.
6) iMac Recommendations
Based on the above, below are my recommendations for the latest iMac (Late 2015) with Skylake CPUs:
- Apple 27″ iMac with Retina 5K, 4.0 Ghz Intel Core i7, AMD Radeon R9 M395X, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB Flash Storage – $3,499
- Apple 27″ iMac with Retina 5K, 4.0 Ghz Intel Core i7, AMD Radeon R9 M390, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB Flash Storage – $3,199
- Apple 27″ iMac with Retina 5K, 4.0 Ghz Intel Core i7, AMD Radeon R9 M390, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB Flash Storage – $2,699
Personally, I find the most value in the last option at $2,699. It does not have the fastest video card or the most amount of flash storage, but it is $800 cheaper than the top recommended model, which is a lot!
If the iMacs above are still too expensive, these two have some killer discounts at the moment:
- Apple 27″ iMac with Retina 5K (Mid 2015), 3.3 Ghz Intel Core i5, AMD Radeon M290, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB 7200 RPM Hard Drive – $1,549
- Apple 27″ iMac with Retuna 5K (Late 2014), 3.5 Ghz Intel ore i5, AMD Radeon M290X, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB Fusion Drive – $1,749
The second option with the Fusion drive is what I bought for myself this summer. While both have spinning drives, they are significantly cheaper than the Skylake models and are much more affordable.
Hope you found this article useful. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below!