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The 2019 iMac – The Perfect Photographer’s Workstation

Apple and I go back a long way. I first used one of their machines when I was studying for my journalism degree back in 1987. It was a Macintosh Plus and it introduced me to the world of desktop publishing and digital editing. I’ve been with Apple from that day forward, though I have owned (and do currently own) PCs as well – but they’re mainly for gaming, not serious work.

The Specs

So before we get into the nitty gritty of the new machine – here’s what I was coming from. Previously I had been using a Hackintosh running on my 3.4Ghz Core i7-6700 gaming PC with 16Gb of RAM which I used alongside my 2015 MacBook Pro. While I’m grateful to the hackers of the Hackintosh community for giving me Mac Pro-like performance for a fraction of the price, Hackintoshes (no matter how cleverly configured) are imperfect solutions and simply not a longterm viable basis for an everyday workhorse. For your main machine you need a box you can rely on 100% and after a decade using Hackintosh setups (and all the major and minor issues that come with them) I realised that they simply can’t fulfil that role. After issues I had with KEXTs, upgrades, iMessage, Nvidia drivers, file system corruption and sound problems I decided to get a desktop Mac. Since the iMac line had not been upgraded in some time, however, I decided to wait until it was. 18 months later, Apple announced the 2019 iMacs.

The iMac I bought was this one – the top of the line 27″ model. Here’s how I spec’d it out:

  • I kept the 3.7 GHz Intel Core i5 CPU rather than upgrading to the i9 – this was a budget consideration.
  • I did upgrade the graphics from the Radeon 580 to the Vega 48 so that I could leverage the GPU in Final Cut Pro X.
  • I kept the memory at 8Gb because Apple RAM is super-expensive but I did order 32Gb of 2666 DDR4 the same day I ordered the Mac. Upgrading the machine to 32Gb with Apple would have increased the price of my machine by $960 – the RAM I bought from Amazon US was $260 including shipping!
  • I kept the 2Tb Fusion drive.
  • Everything else was default.

The Display

Obviously one of the biggest drawcards for these machines is that amazing 5K display. The first time I started working on my photographs on that screen I knew I had been spoiled forever and that I could never use an inferior display again. It is sharp and vibrant and pixel-perfect and it was amazing to me to see my photographs on this screen at a level of detail I hadn’t witnessed outside large prints. But above and beyond the quality of the screen, the colour rendition is superb – so good in fact that I’ve been going back and changing the colour balance on loads of my old photos. What really brings home the quality of this screen to me is that I have my old BenQ 27″ screen plugged in as a second display and, to be honest, everything I look at on that screen now looks cartoon-like and unnatural.

The iMac’s huge display, with its one billion colours and 500nits of brightness makes it absolutely perfect for photo retouching. I can finally edit my photographs safe in the knowledge that the image I am seeing is as true a rendition of its actual definition as I am ever likely to get. The worry prior to using this screen is that the photo I thought I was sharing looked totally different on everyone else’s screens because I was compensating for flaws that didn’t exist in the photo but looked that way due to using an inferior screen. I guess the main takeaway from all this is that if you’re serious about your photography then you probably need to get serious about your computer monitor too.

The Connectivity

Like most photographers, I have a lot of photos which I manage via Adobe Lightroom Classic. For many years now I have stored all of my data off my computer on external storage. I have large external drives for my recent photos (last three years worth), my archived photos (going back 10 years), my current videos (going back two years), my archive videos (going back four years), two miscellaneous drives with music and text on them and my Time Machine drive. All the important stuff gets backed up to a 16Tb NAS. But the bottom line is that I have a lot of stuff plugged into my system.

On the back of the iMac are four USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, an ethernet port, an SDXC slot and a headphone socket. Most of my drives are hanging off a 12 port USB hub running into one of the USB 3 ports – this all works perfectly. If I have any complaints about this set-up it’s that it’s a bit of a pain plugging or unplugging stuff into the iMac because you have to get up and go around the back of it. This is particularly true of the SD card slot and so, instead of using it, I have plugged in my old uGreen USB3 card reader peripheral. In one of the Thunderbolt ports I have a small Satechi hub which I mainly use for the HDMI to bring the second screen to life, but it also has a couple of USB ports which come in handy for extra peripherals such as microphones. It’s a lot of stuff, but it all works perfectly and it hasn’t missed a beat.

 

Photo Editing

To be honest I got spoiled using my old Hackintosh. I bought that PC three years ago and it gave me iMac-like performance levels, so I have become used to being able to move around inside Lightroom quickly, render HDRs fast and bash out panos without having to go and make a cup of tea while it’s working. However my iMac takes it to a whole new level and I just love the speed of editing on this beast. There is no slider lag in Lightroom, the previews update extremely quickly, imports run like a dream and exports and renders are ready in seconds. The speed of my editing is held back only by the speed of my photo archive drives which are mechanical – I am giving serious thought to getting a decent sized SSD for my current Lightroom catalog and then just archiving my photos out on a yearly basis to mechanical backup storage and the NAS.

I do pretty much all of my editing inside Lightroom from the RAW files my Canon 7D2 and Mavic 2 Pro produce. Occasionally however I need to use external applications such as AutoPano for the 360º panos (and the occasional regular pano that Lightroom fails to blend), Luminar for specific edits and Photoshop for retouching, and in all cases these apps run fast and flawlessly. The increased speeds have dramatically cut down on import and edit times and the editing is a delay-free joy.

 

Video Editing

I only began the process of learning to edit videos when I started my little travel channel on YouTube and I have come to enjoy turning a collection of uncut sequences, voice-overs and music into finished films. As great as Final Cut Pro is, video editing was often a frustrating process, whether it’s waiting for proxy files to be built or simply watching the beachball because you’re re-timing a clip. And while there are still waits during the editing process they are much shorter these days. In particular I have been loving the speed with which Final Cut exports the fully rendered master files now.

The big display is a genuine boon when it comes to editing. While I still keep the browser over my second display, I can fit more into the 5K display and the quality of the images I see on it are in a whole other league to my old screen. I always feel like I’m being far truer to the original photographs and video than I ever could be on my old PC and, above and beyond that, the entire process of editing is much faster leaving me more time to actually create content rather than simply process it. Unfortunately my iMac 2019 did not cure my procrastination, so any lack of new video content is on me!

The Bottom Line

Four grand is a lot of money, however you look at it. My Hackintosh, for all its flaws, cost one quarter of that. However I do not regret spending the money on my new iMac for a nanosecond. It is simply awesome to be back on actual Apple hardware, using a system that has been thoroughly tested and streamlined to work perfectly with the Mojave operating system and with Apple software such as the amazing Final Cut Pro X. No system is future-proof, but I have no doubt that this machine will carry me forwards for many years giving sterling service and, like all Apple hardware, I’ll still be able to get good money for it five years from now if I choose to upgrade again. In the meantime I have a machine that is the perfect core for a digital photographer and filmmaker’s studio – it is fast, it is exceptionally well designed, it is refined and it’s mine all mine.

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