It is easy for any photographer to describe the ideal computer monitor for reviewing, editing and displaying photos. It should render blacks and whites without colour cast or other impurities; colour, brightness and contrast should be accurate and matched to the printer output; and the pixel grid should be invisible.
Last week Apple announced a new incarnation of the 27 inch iMac with what they call the Retina display – their word for very high resolution. The high resolution display was first seen on the iPhone, then was incorporated into the iPad design. The Macbook Pro laptops were next to get Retina, and now it has come to the big desktop.
How good is it? Let’s just say that it comes close to the photographer’s ideal. We have had enough time with the new iMac to be able to compare it with the model it replaces and we are impressed.
Like its predecessor it comes with the Fusion Drive setup that marries a small solid state hard drive to a conventional 1TB mechanical disc. The computer learns which applications should be given priority to speed up opening so that boot up and opening Photoshop and Lightroom are almost as fast as flicking a switch and turning on the light. The new iMac starts at $2999 which makes it competitive with any Windows system with similar specifications – and as far as we know there is no Windows equivalent of the stunning 5120×2880 dot display. (The previous iMac’s display is 2560X1440.)
When viewing photos on the new iMac the pixel grid is invisible to the naked eye, so looking at a picture is like viewing the subject through a clean window. The resolved detail from a properly exposed and focused RAW file is breathtaking, but this has consequences. Images prepared for internet distribution through Flickr or Picasa, for instance, need to be created in a higher resolution form than we are accustomed to or, as we have seen, they can look shabby on the iMac screen which shows up and emphasises any defects.
Photo editing in Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture is made especially pleasurable because you not only see more detail but you see more picture. On the previous iMac a RAW image from a micro four thirds camera (2592X4608 pixels) at full size, overflows the work area, necessitating scrolling for editing. On the new iMac the same image zoomed to 100 per cent nicely fills the work-top rectangle – you see it all. It sounds like a small thing but it changes the editing experience.
With Final Cut Pro X installed we will try true 4K video editing as soon as we can get a suitable camera. In the meantime we can report that 1080 video looks splendid.
Although every iMac is individually calibrated at the factory we found that out of the box the display looked a little warm, adding a sepia tinge to black and white photos. We let the computer run for three hours, spooling a full screen video, and then calibrated it and the cooler white balance suited us better.
Viewing angles are very wide and there is no backlight edge bleed which has been a distraction for us on the previous model. Apple has put a lot of R and D into reducing reflections and it has paid off.
Because the outer form of the computer has not changed we still must cope with all the ports for externals, such as USB, Thunderbolt, Ethernet and SD cards, being on the back where they are accessed by feel. There is no optical disc drive, so factor in the cost of an add-on because, whatever Apple says, you will need one.
However, notwithstanding the triumph of form over function, Apple has raised the bar yet again for photographers. It’s the cat’s pyjamas, as they say in the classics.