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Retina Revelations — A Photographers Perspective

(Note: This review was made testing a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3 GHz with Retina display. Under the keyboard was 8 MB of RAM and 256GB flash storage — the introductory level MacBook Pro with Retina display)


For those of you who know me — though my dear friend, fellow tractor owner and VII Photo agency Chairman, Mr. Neal Jackson, will beg to differ — I’m the Anti-Tech.

I truly do distain discussions on kit, gear, gadgets and tech. Pour me brilliant cups of coffee and I’ll surely wax endless about what we can do with these tools, however to analyze them, ogle about their design or babble on how they work is tantamount to placing my head in the frame of a doorway, slamming it shut.

There is one specific reason for making this review — I’m utterly excited about photography’s newest and truly amazing enlarger/film editor, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, and what it means in regards to the potential in the digital darkroom.

Or to express it more succinctly — what it means in regards to both being a photographer in these digital (dry) darkrooms AND having clock time left over to actually have a life.

While teaching a workshop in Bali this July, monkey's found the Oreo bag next to my MacBook Pro, fortunately not the coffee. These are indeed the proudest monkeys I've ever seen.

Some background…for over six years I’ve had the privilege (more so, the honor) to collaborate — and to literally be heard — by some of the smartest minds in the photographic industry; The team at Apple who create the photographic imaging program, Aperture. To say they are geniuses would be an epic understatement. These are women and men who take 0’s and 1’s, turning code into a tool which brilliantly handles all my photographic workflow as efficiently as an iPhone flows and functions all my (and likely your) professional mobile needs. To this day, Aperture continues to push the limits of how we work in what I like to call, the dry darkroom.

Another disclaimer — I know nothing about code. Haven’t a clue what a megapixel is from a pimple pixel. Not a lick of understanding what a MHz is from a GHz nor can I figure out how to set up email if it weren’t for all those Assistant tools. Can’t even fathom how or why when I press these keys, semi coherent words appear on a glowing screen.

Actually, I don’t want to know such things.

Not due to the lack of caring.

It’s simply not my art nor my purpose. Such art — truly is an art — is in the minds and hands of those geniuses who create these tools we use, an art which is well beyond my comprehension.

A beautiful grasshopper decides to check out my first MacBook Pro as I edited along the beach in Rinondoran village in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 2008 while on a story for Time Magazine. Since 1996 I think I've been through seven different — always improved — Apple portable computers.


Recently, I had a MacBook Pro with Retina display sent to my home as a loaner from Apple to test pro apps performance — Aperture, Final Cut and a few other photographic based tools we tend to use.

The timing was perfect for Cupertino to contact me — last month I was heading to South Sudan for work on two projects with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) — first, to highlight a breaking health crisis in Yida and the other, of a multi-month MSF/VII health initiative collaboration. This MacBook Pro I’m still writing upon is on its last leg. Actually, more like exhausted after beating the beheebers out it after a few years of using, creating and playing with it, no different then as kids we used Legos, Barbies or a Stretch Armstrong…remember that wacky guy?. Needless to say I was giddy as an eight year-old when Apple had called upon me to use the MBPr for a month, perfectly falling over the three weeks I’d be in Africa.

When Saturday morning of August 11 came — the day I was leaving for the airport in Hartford — no package from Apple had arrived other than the loaner agreement in a separate envelope a day earlier.

Calling repeatedly to Fedex, I learned the plane carrying the MBPr had been delayed out of Texas, missing it’s connecting flight to Albany, leaving the delivery truck for the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to never consider stopping by the farm before I left. In a desperate attempt to still bring a MacBook Pro with Retina display to Africa, I called the Apple store in nearby Holyoke where I planned to swing by and purchase one en rout to the airport. Fortunately August 11 was Massachusetts Tax Amnesty Day. Unfortunately, I was told the lines were so long, all MBPr would likely be sold out before I could ever got there. Frustrated, I’d have to bring this 2010 MBP, hoping it would see me through a grueling three-week trip.

Ironically, upon arrival three days later to a dusty airstrip in Yida, South Sudan, I couldn’t help but twistingly ponder whether this Fedex plane hadn’t maybe diverted to Yida in order to somehow deliver food and that Dallas delayed MBPr.

Fortunately no one was hurt when this Fedex plane landed a few months ago in Yida, South Sudan. It simply was too heavy to land on a dirt runway where (as I was told) the landing gear burrowed into the soil, causing the front landing gear to break and the plane to skid down the runway on its nose. If you're wondering why there are no engines and whatnot, every piece of the plane was taken apart so it could not be used to fly ever again. Presume it's next to near impossible to repair such a plane in this remote region of Africa.


Returning Stateside three weeks later, sitting in my studio was a Pelican case containing the loaner MBPr.

Coming home from South Sudan — and after hugging the kids — I opened a Pelican case containing a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3 GHz with Retina display. Cute purple tie straps Apple uses, eh.

Like a grade schooler, I immediately opened it. Actually had to do so and quickly — there was only 8 days left before needing to ship it back to Cupertino.

Having never written a review (I’m no David Pogue of the NYT’s), I’ll simply tell it like it is, as an end user but more so, as a professional photographer who uses these items on a daily basis, most often in extremely demanding situations.

In the shortest most emphatic way possible, here’s my entire review:

MacBook Pro with Retina display is astonishing.

MacBook Pro with Retina display on the left and my 2+ year old MacBook Pro on right. Both may look like siblings however their differences are enormous. By the way if you're wondering (and I hope you are), the coffee I was drinking was delicious Piece Brothers Fogbuster roast.

Wait. That’s too simple.

So much has changed and is new about this MBPr, I need to begin with the basic act of simply starting it up. Pushing the power button on is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding differences between every previous computer (creating tool) you’ve ever owned.



What stuck me immediately was how quickly the MBPr went from simply sitting there like a dormant placemat (it looks almost that thin), to allowing me to begin work — just over ten seconds from pressing the ON button to full active application usage.




What hits you like a ton of lead after the Retina MacBook Pro is on, will forever change the way you work within the dry darkroom/film editing room.

The screen.

This Retina screen verges on the near indescribable.

Why do I use the word, Indescribable?

Because working on Apple’s MacBook Pro Retina screen renders images in such astonishing detail, it’s like reliving what you had seen previously with your own eyes.

Now back home, it was as if the events I recorded with my camera (a Canon 5D Mark II) were reappearing in the exact visual reality I’d witnessed back in South Sudan.

I became re-depressed, even more angry, reviewing so frighteningly clear (in such unflinching detail and subtle nuance) the horrors of just weeks earlier.

Another way of putting it — this screen to our world no longer presents a diminished perception of reality, but rather an actual visual presentation of reality.

Not a single detail is missing.

Only thing lacking are three dimensions and scent — sound is sorted through dramatically improved speakers (more on that below).

When looking at an image at 100% magnification, going back to this old screen is as if I put a sheet of cellophane across my eye or drugstore quality reading glasses, the difference is that astounding.

Recently, I was working one afternoon in the dining room. The kids were home — after a few weeks away from the family, I always try to reconnect by being as close to them as possible rather than buried in studio located in the barn. At times I couldn’t help but gasp by the MBPr clarity and sharpness. My middle child, Konstantin, would say while on the living room sofa, “DADDY! What are you making all that noise for, I’m trying to do my homework!” Little did Kon know I was oohing due to seeing elements in my photographs which I’d never seen before.

In fact, photographs I’d toned while in South Sudan on this older MBP clearly showed signs of incomplete/improper (to my liking that is) aspects of burning and dodging, something I’d never be able to see except either in a final print.

In fact, that’s what working on a Retina screen feels like — as if you’re actually toning a physical print.

In addition, I realized why the editor in NY had emailed me while back in Yida, asking if they could lighten up a few of the photos I’d sent — they were too dark in certain areas. Obviously I couldn’t completely see every aspect of the image clearly on what already is a mighty good screen on older MacBook Pros, yet I thought at the time they were toned smack on. Unfortunately I cannot show these toning difference right now. They are part of a project VII and MSF are working on to be released in November.

Immediately realized I’d have to re-tone a few, the task flew effortlessly in Aperture on this MBPr, faster than even on my studio iMac…and that iMac is pretty darn fast.

Now here is where the Retina screen really causes near visual rapture — zooming into an image, barely a pixel appears. In fact look at these screengrabs off the MBPr (SHIFT+COMMAND+3) of the chimney sweep who cleaned our fireplace just over a week ago and note the zoom factor in each image caption — also on the full image mini preview in Aperture on the far right which shows there’s nothing hidden up my sleeve — and then be astonished:

Our neighborhood chimney sweep — as if appearing straight out of Mary Poppins — stopped by while the Retina MacBook Pro was still here. I took some photos simply because he's such a wonderful fellow. This is a vertical portrait in Aperture and viewed at 100%.

Now at 200%…

At 200%, image details/pixels are like those seen at 100%. It gets more intense as we go further in.

Let’s go to 300%…

At 300% magnification, the only thing I notice is that my focus wasn't actually on his eyes but on his checks, which are tack sharp and yet still no pixels to be seen. Take a sip of coffee, it gets even better.

How about 400%…

Now at 400%, unless WordPress is taking these 1440 x 900 pixel, 72 dpi, screengrabs which I exported the .PNG original file out as a Jpeg compression 12 (BTW, I haven't a fucking clue what any of this nonsense I just wrote even means), I'm hard pressed to find any pixel appearance. In fact what I really begin to notice is all the tiny specks of soot on his face...and the fact my focus really was not on his eyes.

Time to enter a new dimension of detail at 500%…

At 500% magnification, we begin to see what might be Jpeg compression noise. More unusual, the eyelashes of the chimney sweet are beginning to look sharper — this might be due to the ultra-sharp cheek area no longer in view, removing the visual reference of staggering sharpness and detail.

And now to journey into the center of the eye at 1000%…

At an astonishing 1000% magnification, I can barely begin to see any pixels.If anything, maybe there is Jpeg pixel noise, digital grain or indeed the first visible signs of screen pixels on the Retina display. Who knows. More so, who cares — if you walked this close to someones face and tried to focus with your own 20/20 vision, this fellows eye would also appear out of focus. What is noticeable is that a Retina screen presents the world as clearly as our very own eyes.

Another WHOLLY SH_T moment happened when moving my physical position about in the dining room chair — there was no change in tonal nor brightness on the screen.

On every previous portable MBP (and likely on every portable PCs monitor), you have to find juuuust the right tilt of the screen in relationship to your eye perspective/view. Then and only then could you feel you were going to be toning photographs or color correcting video properly.

Those days are gone.

The MBPr is so smack on, you can move the screen back and forth by 30-40 degrees, never witnessing a tonal nor density change in the screen. No more neck cringes caused by concerns if you move your head or shift your body, where then every aspect of toning needs monitor repositioning.

We’re now all free to move about, even turning screens for sideways views so others like Kon, who after too many oohs and ah’s, wandered over to ooh and ah himself.

Continuing on the screen — yes, there’s far more bits still to share — on the final full day of using the MBPr, I stumbled into the unexpected…the screen is much less reflective than all previous glossy screens. Here, take a look:

At first I could not believe what my eyes were not seeing — I never heard that the often gripped about issue of glossy screens being too reflective had been, though not completely, resolved. Sure, if you take a MacBook Pro Retina screen outside by a pool or smack in the middle of football pitch, you'll catch your mug reflecting in the screen. However in a shaded area or indoors and in situations like this where a very large window is pouring in light all over me, even wearing a while t-shirt the reflective image is hardly noticed in the black areas of the display, and never did I notice myself while working on an actual image.

Loads of websites and magazines have surely mentioned how crisp and sharp letters/fonts are now on the retina screen so I’ll skip that part — Yes, it’s true, you can read as if letters were chiseled in stone, not pixels.

What matters in the world of photography and filmmaking is the image, and wholly cow has image viewing been raised not just to a whole new level, it’s nearly like viewing reality before you, all over again.



Pushing the MacBook Pro with Retina display as hard as I could using Aperture — using certain brushes that are processor hungry — rarely did it slow down, even while working on the most entry level MBPr.

Only twice did Aperture take a half second to catch its breath when adding complex definition brush strokes to an image (maxing out the RAM would surely stop any chance of a spinning pizza from rearing its twirling colors).

Every other action done in Aperture and a few playback tests in FC flowed and responded in real time. No delays.



Like surely all, I relish the moments of down time, unchained from all this nonsense so we can be with our families, have a drink at the bar after a long day on the streets (as we did during film days), to read a book or dare I verge on delusional with the notion of getting to bed early.

If I could bring back all the time lost while waiting for 8GB and 16 (now 32 and 64GB) cards to download, I’d have more lives left than a cat.

I can remember the days when myself and a number of Time Magazine colleagues rented a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was November 2001, to be exact. I was covering the departure of the Taliban and the emergence of an society aching for change using my first ever digital camera — a Nikon 1Dx which cost well over $6000 yet produced images (in Jpeg) little better than a $300 iPhone 4s.

Downloading images off a 1GB Micro Drive (now here’s an example for not complaining about the costs of being a photographer today…those 1GB IBM CF cards just over 10 years ago where $350++ each. Last month I bought a 32GB Lexar cards for less than $100), it took 20+ minutes via what I presume was then a USB 1 connected to a USB 1 hard drive.

This was state of the art.

When Apple brought Firewire 400 (and then FW800) to a MacBook some years ago, it was liberation, where downloading meant less time lost, however not nearly enough when downloading from today’s massive storing SD and CF cards.

When copying the South Sudan Aperture library from this 2+ year old MBP over to a portable hard drive (USB 2 to USB 3 — had purchased new USB 3 HD’s to use for the Fedex delayed MBPr loaner…), that 11GB Aperture library chockablock full of preview files, metadata, toning layers and whatnot, copied in just over 15 mins.

The same Aperture library copied from the exact same USB 3 HD over to the USB 3 MacBook Pro Retina — hold on to your seats:

2 minutes 39 seconds.

Enough said.



Maybe it’s because this older MacBook Pro has been dragged up and down too many stairs in a Think Tank bag, wedged into countless overhead bins or received the crumbs of too many sandwiches into the keyboard crevices. It’s just not as fast as it use to be nor is older battery technology able to truly disconnect me very long without AC power and a wall socket. I’m lucky if I get 1 hour on this battery — surely the battery could use replacing but I’m upgrading so why bother.

My sister-in-law, Maria Bakkalapulo, a stellar ethnomusicologist and radio journalist, has a relatively new MBP. She tells me she gets around 2-3 hours on her kit when unplugged using basic apps. When crunching heavy processor apps (like Final Cut) while on battery power, she receives a decent 1 to 1 1/2 hours of battery time….and that, Maria says, is with the screen slightly dimmed.

To see what this MacBook Pro with Retina display battery can handle regarding working say on long haul flights, I unplugged the power cable, cranked up the retina screen to full brightness and pushed the processor as hard as possible with complex brushes in Aperture like definition, repeated burning/dodging, slideshow creations, viewed a video file, etc.

After 1 hour there was still 80% batter power left.

At 4 hours on battery power and having to stop to eat dinner with the family, it was only nearing 20%, likely still able to cruise at full processor speed for another 30-60 more minutes.

It’s not in perpetuity battery flow (perpetual motion is the holly grail of scientific invention), however we no longer need to wander about in search of a power supply as often and that flight across The Pond can indeed be a purposeful, work productive (or movie watching) experience, basically all the way on battery power.

Wow, could I have used that oomph while in South Sudan, where the generator often knocked off for hours, rendering my ability to work on preparing images for MSF impossible.



Simply put — the MBPr is thinner and lighter than any previous MBP. It’s not as light as my wife’s MacBook Air, however I reckon it’s a safe bet that Jony Ivey and his fellow geniuses will sort a way to pack the same power into the size of a MacBook Air well within the next few year and then we’ll all have better posture and re-leveled shoulders.

How they pack so much more power and battery life into an even thinner/lighter piece of kit is beyond comprehension. Simply put, it's art. By the way, only after taking this iPhone snap did I truly realize how much abuse this older MBP (right) has taken over the years.


Being a field recordist for over 20 years and now being asked to produce more films, sound quality is paramount. No idea how they did it but the sound emanating out of the Retina MacBook Pro is significantly better. The speakers even received the WDiiB (Wow, Daddy, it is Better!”) Seal Approval from my son, Konstantin, when I played him a film excerpt from South Sudan, watching the exact same film clip on this MBP and the loaner MBPr. I wouldn’t throw away your Bose or other high-end stereo external speakers just yet, however the sound (more so, the quality) coming out of this computer is noticeably better.



Did not have access to any Thunderbolt peripherals but when reading about — and understand with my limited tech knowledge of such things as transfer speeds — it’s very safe to say that the insane speeds of UBS 3 will feel somewhat impish once using a completely Thunderbolt connected system.



After sharing realtime thoughts recently over Facebook and Twitter while working with the MBPr, I received some very constructive but somewhat misplaced grips. Initial concerns on a key matter were indeed realistic — the lack of connection ports. Rghtfully so, because the myriad of connecting ports we’ve all gotten use to over the last decade (like ethernet connection, Firewire, data card slots, etc) can and will compromise certain aspects of creative workflow now that everything (other than USB 3) is connected via a thing called Thunderbolt. However most if not all have been addressed, either by Apple or third party peripheral makers.

Here’s a rundown of concerns I heard over the 8 days of testing while sharing thoughts through social media:



There were complaints — and some potentially serious concerns — about legacy connectivity with older, less rapidly upgrading third party items such as digital sound cards and other connecting peripheral bits, not to mention the loss of 800FW.

Right while these constructive discussions where occurring, my good friend and VII colleague, Marcus Bleasdale, emailed me the this link, solving pretty much each and every legacy connective issue possible — a simple, elegant Thunderbolt to everything else connecting dock made by Belkin.

Order it, then create with peripherals which likely were even invented over a decade ago — that’s centuries in computer years.


No 17″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Sorry, no behemoth to carry on to a plane which only can be opened comfortably in Singapore Air business class seats. If you want a 17″, it will likely have to wait until Apple sort this (if they even choose to) or plain and simply do the following because it’s an excellent workflow when wanting large screens; Work/create just as brilliantly as many of us have done for basically a decade, doing so on a lightweight, extremely portable and powerful computer with a staggeringly brilliant 15 inch Retina screen, then if needing a larger monitor, do final editing back in studio, connected to a brilliant 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display where we really have visual real estate space.


Photoshop Compatibility

I heard from a few friends who were wondering whether any of the Adobe image programs (CS/Photoshop/etc) presented images properly on the Retina screen. You might be shocked to know…I don’t use CS (Photoshop), using instead Aperture for my entire still image workflow (even for video storage/organizing). Yes, I do have a licensed version of CS5 but rarely if ever use it. And no, I did not test any Adobe products on this MBPr. CS was not preinstalled (Apple knows I’m an Aperture user) so you will have to reference other sources for this potential compatibility issue. Most important to realize regarding this matter — Apple has always been THE graphics/artists based computer. Sooner than later Adobe will upgrade all their programs just as they have done during previous major OS updates from Apple. In the mean time, try Aperture and you’ll quickly realize just how more efficient, powerful and liberating this entire dry darkroom madness and image organizing chaos can be.


Power Cable

The new MacBook Pro with Retina displays has a wider AC connector so your old MBP power supplies will not work as a backup…let’s not whine about cable changes as has been happening with the new Lightening iPhone connector — things do change. They have to, nearly always for the better. There is however a perfect solution in order to keep those older MBP power supplies useful, a MagSafe 2 Converter which sells for just $10 bucks.



Back in 1997 I was living in Hong Kong. After much buildup and excitement within the tech world (sorry, I don’t get excited about new gear. I simply get excited by what I can do with it), by late November of that year, Apple had finally released what was considered the mac-daddy of portable Macs — the PowerBook G3 (Kanga). My portable computer at the time, a Powerbook 5300, was also on its last leg and was needing to be replaced. Even with Hong Kong being the capital of low cost discounted electronics (and without a sales tax), I went out and bought this powerhouse of a computer (directly at the home of an authorized reseller — his shop had already closed for night) for a staggering $4,000 USD. It had a whopping 5GB HD with processing speeds likely now be found in an Apple Nano.

Part of 30+ year personal project on my feet, that's $30,000 Hong Kong Dollars (or $4000 USD) laying on the floor in exchange for that PowerBook G3 computer over on the far right. Still have that computer, part of the Stanmeyer Museum of Computer Relics collection.

The MacBook Pro with Retina display I tested (the 15-inch: 2.3 GHz Retina display) is selling for $1,800 less than that 1997 Powerbook G3, for $2,199, or with a full 16GB of RAM for $200 more.

The max-ed out MacBook Pro with Retina crammed with gobs of flash HD space, screaming amounts of RAM and processor MHz whatnot thrown in, is selling for $3,749, $250 less than that then brilliant brick I bought well over a decade ago in Hong Kong.

The max’ed model is what I’d recommend if you can push the bank account (or credit cards) that far, simply for the full power of 16 GB of RAM and the fastest possible processor along with loads of storage space.

To say all this is not inexpensive is a truth for most of us.

To say our photography is important  — along with the the time saved to be a photographer and spend time with your family, friends or just plan rest — is priceless.

I have so much more to do in this life and it doesn’t include being tethered behind a glowing screen.

Time for me to order a Retina screen MacBook Pro — and though I adore Fedex (they are smack on brilliant, only two delays to the farm in the last four years of countless deliveries) — I do hope the max’ed MBPr arrives to the doorstep before my return to South Sudan on October 8th.

MacBook Pro with Retina display loaner, heading back last week to Cupertino.

All the best,



(Photographers wanting to discover how to empower their digital archives — and spend less time behind these glowing screes — I’m hosting a Organize all this Digital Madness workshop in my studio next weekend. Only a few spaces left. Visit my workshop link for registration and complete details for this Aperture workshop and future workshops to Indonesia and India in 2013)


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