How to Buy an Apple iMac for Photography

In this article, I want to focus on purchasing an iMac for photography needs and what types of considerations one has to keep in mind when selecting one. 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, iMac Pro or a Mac Pro for photography needs?

1) iMac vs Mac Pro

A few years back, 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 too long now, which has been pretty frustrating for the Apple fans who want to stay on the edge. We have already seen several generations of Intel processors go by since the last Mac Pro debuted in 2013, 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 And yet Apple is still continuing to sell the outdated architecture today, which is a bit puzzling.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, machines like the Mac Pro and the new iMac Pro are better suited for demanding, multi-threaded applications that can fully take advantage of their processing power. Unless you stitch a lot of panoramas and need all the CPU cores and RAM you can get, there is no point of getting them. For standard post-processing work in Lightroom and Photoshop, the iMac is going to be your best bet, so buying an outdated Mac Pro or the super expensive iMac Pro would pretty much be money down the drain. Today, the most basic Mac Pro will cost you $2K 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 will cost $1,750K – that’s a huge difference in price between the two.

Let’s take a look at the performance comparison of a pretty outdated iMac Retina, with the following specifications:

I purchased mine for a really good deal a few years back when B&H was running a killer promotion. As you can see it has a 3.5 Ghz Intel Core i5 and AMD Radeon R9 M290X, which is an outdated configuration by 2018 standards. However, that’s not the point – what I wanted to show in this demonstration, is how a desktop-grade CPU can beat an older workstation class CPU in applications like Photoshop and Lightroom due to its strengths in single core performance. I purchased mine with 8 GB of RAM and upgraded it to 32 GB (more on that below), which is something I would recommend everyone to do in order to save even more money. While I would use my high-end PC for heavy processing work, this machine runs pretty well for everyday tasks, including working in Photoshop and Lightroom.

1.1) Single-Core vs Multi-Core Performance

I ran GeekBench, Cinebench and NovaBench on this machine and I have some interesting data to share. Here is the comparison between a beefed up Mac Pro and my old iMac on GeekBench:

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, even today in 2018, Adobe still 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 all that much for day-to-day editing needs! I would personally recommend to go for faster Single-Core performance CPUs with higher operating frequency and the latest generation Intel CPU, than an outdated Multi-Core machine. The only case where Lightroom is able to utilize 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 I need to export a lot of images from Lightroom, I start the process and leave my computer, knowing that it will take a lot of time anyway. If I need to export a lot of images in a shorter period of time, I start multiple export processes, which pushes more computer resources towards the export.

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 should 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 is tough to 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 on the latest generation iMacs with fast AMD Radeon Pro 570 or 580 video cards. Still, there is really no comparison between these and workstation grade AMD FirePro / AMD Radeon Pro Vega 64 video cards you find on the Mac Pro and the iMac Pro. I ran CineBench to see how my iMac would compared to the Mac Pro, which showed pretty decent results:

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, it might be a good idea to turn GPU acceleration off, as it can hurt the overall responsiveness of applications. But on newer and faster machines, especially with Retina screens, you will be better off with GPU acceleration enabled. I would recommend to test both and see which works better and smoother. Keep in mind that not everything is GPU-accelerated in Photoshop and Lightroom – only certain tasks are. In Lightroom, for example, sliders and tools like gradient filters are GPU-accelerated, whereas the adjustment brush and spot healing are not. On my iMac, GPU acceleration has been a mixed bag, so I ended up disabling it.

At the moment, Adobe’s GPU acceleration is poorly implemented, so there don’t seem to be huge benefits to having a fast GPU card anyway…

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 good 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 very difficult to access the storage or the 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) iMac vs iMac Pro

Apple released its high-end iMac, the iMac Pro in late 2017 and with this release, the company wants to appeal those who want even more power from the iMac line of products. The new iMac Pro is a completely different beast compared to the iMac. It is a workstation-class machine that is optimized for those who run very demanding tasks that are able to take advantage of multi-core CPU performance. It has very different configuration options and obviously a much higher price point compared to the iMac. While the cheapest iMac can be bought for under $2K today, the cheapest iMac Pro costs a whopping $5K, while its most expensive configuration runs at a hefty price tag of $13,350! Ouch, that’s a lot of money for a computer. But here is the thing, if you think that these machines are overpriced, put a sample configuration together with identical specifications in a custom build and see if you can bring the cost down (good luck with that, because I couldn’t come even close). With up to 128 GB of RAM, up to 4 TB SSD, fast AMD Radeon Pro Vega 64 GPU and 10 Gbit Ethernet, these machines are absolutely phenomenal in terms of performance potential. They are the most powerful all-in-one desktop computers on the planet.

The big question is, is it worth getting the new iMac Pro when compared to the regular iMac? The answer is going to be “no” for most photographers out there. Not only because of the much higher price point, but also because of the same reasons highlighted earlier – applications such as Photoshop and Lightroom are simply not optimized for multi-core performance. You are going to be paying a lot of money for small performance improvements for everyday needs.

However, those who run memory and processor-intensive tasks that need as many resources as possible, such as when stitching high-resolution HDR panoramas, or when working with 4K+ video content, will definitely benefit from the iMac Pro. This is the type of machine that video production studios and 3D modelers are going to absolutely love.

The new iMac Pro is not a replacement to the Mac Pro line of products – Apple has already confirmed that it is working on the next generation “modular” Mac Pro, which will allow users to be able to upgrade computer components more often. That’s exciting, because it is not something you will be able to do on an iMac Pro (everything is too tightly packed together). So if you are looking for a machine that you can upgrade in the future, you should probably wait until the new Mac Pro is released. Lastly, please note that it is not possible to add more RAM to the iMac Pro like you can on the iMac, so you must choose the proper configuration option at the time of purchase!

Overall, the iMac Pro is a very impressive machine that I am certainly hoping to test and review soon. Still, it is not a machine I would recommend for everyday photography needs – the regular iMac is going to be your best bet.

3) 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 area of the image to another when zoomed in. With modern cameras now sporting 30+ MP sensors, it might make sense to move up to higher resolution screens. 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 at least $1K for the screen alone!

4) CPU and GPU Considerations

Unless you have budget constraints, it would make sense to get the latest and greatest CPU on the iMac, which is basically the Mid 2017 model with Intel’s Kaby Lake generation CPUs. Apple has not yet released an iMac based on Intel’s Coffee Lake generation CPUs, but the line will most likely be updated in 2018 to include whatever is the latest Intel platform. Unless there is an insane rebate taking place that makes it very appealing to get an older CPU, I would stick with the most current version to get the best overall performance. The current architecture supports up to 64 GB of RAM, which is plenty for most photography needs. In addition to getting the latest generation CPU, you will also be getting the fastest AMD Radeon Pro video cards available, with up to 8 GB of GPU RAM, which will be beneficial for GPU-intensive tasks.

Buying the current generation iMac will also help keep its resale value higher for a couple of years. However, 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! 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 more cores and hyperthreading, you will be better off with an Intel Core i7 CPU. If money is not an issue, go for an i7 CPU. If you decide to go with a previous generation CPU for 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…

5) Storage Considerations

With iMac Retina having so many different storage options (256 GB to 2 TB PCIe SSD 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 2 TB. But if that is too expensive, 512 GB will 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! I previously reviewed the Samsung Portable SSD T1 drive and explained how I took advantage of this little drive on my iMac. The current version of the portable SSD is T5 and you can get it in a number of different size configurations from 256 all the way to 2 TB (the 2 TB version is currently $100 off). So no matter what you end up choosing for primary storage, you could use one or more of these portable SSD drives to add a lot more storage for your iMac. 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! Keep in mind though that when it comes to pure performance, the native PCIe SSD drives are always going to be faster. So ideally, you should try to get as much SSD storage as possible on the iMac.

6) 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 and $1,400 for 64 GB of RAM, which is ridiculous! When buying my iMac, I bought two 16 GB memory sticks myself, which only cost $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. If I were to get the latest iMac, I would get a 64 GB DDR4 2400 Mhz SODIMM kit that only costs $750 – that’s a whopping $650 in savings.

Installing the memory 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.

Please note that the above does not apply to the iMac Pro. If you are planning to get an iMac Pro, please make sure to pick your RAM options wisely at the time of purchase, since you will not be able to upgrade or change RAM by yourself later.

7) iMac and iMac Pro Recommendations

Based on the above, below are my recommendations for the latest iMac (Mid 2017) with Kaby Lake CPUs:

Personally, I find the most value in the second option at $3,029. It does not have the fastest video card or the most amount of flash storage, but it is $850 cheaper than the top recommended model, which is a lot!

If you need a performance monster for heavy editing work, below are my iMac Pro recommendations:

All other iMac Pro models are very expensive, so you will need to look at the different configurations purely based on your needs, as the cost of the machine is going to go up dramatically depending on what CPU, RAM and SSD option you are going to pick.

Hope you found this article useful. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below!