Choosing Mac Pro replacement for Photography

My 2013 Mac Pro is getting old enough for me to research replacement options. It’s not quite the base model, with a 512 G SSD and 16 GB of RAM. I’m a documentary photographer and It’s been adequate for my needs. When I purchased it in 2014 I also got a NEC 27” Spectraview monitor with the proprietary calibration tools. It too has been adequate. In fact, if nothing breaks, I’ll be OK with my current setup for the foreseeable future. But I’m not an optimist by nature.

I won’t be considering the new Mac Pro—too expensive and way more power than I need. I’ll likely bump the ram on whatever machine I do get to 32 GB. A 512 GB SSD will be adequate for the OS, my few installed programs, and the Lightroom catalog. All my work is kept on external spinning hard drives.

For now, I’ve written off the Mini because of the installed GPU. That would seem to leave an iMac, MacBook Pro + monitor (I don’t need mobility though), or iMac Pro as the only appropriate options for me.

I’ve looked at my own image files on various iMacs in the last few years and always have one major complaint: the black levels in my pictures are “crushed” on the iMac screens. Now, none of these machines have been calibrated. I’m guessing no adjustments have been made, whatsoever. Still, the way the dark areas look gives me pause.

So, my questions:

=> Can you offer suggestions or alternatives to my hardware options from a power/function POV?
=> Are you working on a calibrated iMac screen and if so, how is it for photography?

Thanks!

At home I have something like your system: a 2013 Mac Pro with an NEC 27” Spectraview, which I did calibrate a long time ago, but not recently. Like you, I am thinking about next steps. My set up has an external RAID that hosts all of my images.

For my offsite backup, at work, I have a different setup. After an older 2009 Mac Pro failed I brought in a 2016 Macbook Pro and connected it to one of those 5K LG monitors; the same panel as in the iMac or iMac Pro. I did this mostly because I wanted to run the Macbook Pro open and dual screen, and I wanted the pixel density (so “feel” of the extended desktop) to be the same from one panel to another. And for the most part, it is.

However, I have not calibrated the work LG. I am intrigued by your critique of crushed blacks – I haven’t noticed them in my images, but that may say more about my skill level than the LG.

Some other comments:

  • I think for photography work, for me, 32GB RAM is a kind of floor. Too often I’ve been stuck with paging-to-disk slowdowns … although admittedly I keep a lot of programs / windows open.

  • Thunderbolt 3 is really very nice, compared to the 2013’s TB2. Speed of course, but it has so much bandwidth that monitors and external RAIDs can all coexist on one cable. The back of my Mac Pro 2013, by comparison, is a Medusa’s hair of cables.

  • You could, of course, continue to use your NEC for primary photo editing, and keep the iMac or Macbook Pro’s screen off to the side for general file stuff.

FWIW I’m leaning towards a refurbished iMacPro, because of its quietness, extra TB busses, VEGA mountability, EEC RAM, and because I can keep my NEC to proof if I’m not happy with the iMac’s screen. But OTOH I haven’t really noticed the crushed blacks you’ve seen.

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I calibrate my 27" Retina iMac with an X-Rite i1Studio. Output from soft-proof to my Canon Pixma Pro is fine. A dedicated monitor, especially in low light, with a hood, would be better, but I don’t know if it would be by much. (Though I’ve occasionally drooled over one or two BenQ monitors.) But I know pros who have successfully used iMacs, even non-Retina ones, for their photography and professional retouching, for years.

I use Lightroom and Photoshop (and Luminar, and Nik Plugins, and other photo software) on a fairly regular basis on my iMac with Fusion Drive. I saw an immediate speed improvement when I added 32Gb RAM to it, giving me 40Gb total, and if I’d bought an internal SSD model I know it would be faster still.

For my work I’m happy with the current setup, and I’m holding onto this system for a while. (If Apple were to come out with an iMac with FaceID that interfaces with 1Password, I’ll probably upgrade sooner than later.) If you want to make an investment go ahead with the iMac Pro, but I don’t think you’d be disappointed with the iMac either.

Ya know, I do have another option. I own a 2017 MacBook Pro, 16GB Ram and 512 GB SSD. I don’t use it much and almost always closed with an OK, not great, Samsung 32” screen, but never for photo editing. I wonder how this compares with a similarly specified Mac Mini—especially GPU-wise.

Is it the 15"?
If so, it has a Radeon Pro GPU with 2 or 4 Gb of memory and an Intel 630.
The Mac Mini only has the Intel 630.

2017 MBP
https://support.apple.com/kb/SP756?locale=en_US

MM

Whoops. I should have said; it’s a 13”

Try what you have. Only consider upgrading if/when you know you need to. I think you should be able to still get a lot of serious use doing post-production with that 13" MPB.

Have you considered a 6-core Mac mini permanently mated to an eGPU? There are third party but reputable vendors of eGPU enclosures, and then you can pick any GPU you want?

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I recently went to an iMacPro, base model with 32 GB ram. As in your case, all of my files/data are contained on an external Drobo connected via TB3. I went with the pro vs regular iMac because of its much newer and quieter internal design. The major downside is the inability to upgrade ram without disassembling the entire thing. I bought mine refurbished from Apple and saved quite a bit of money.

I think the screen on an iMac or iMacPro is fine for photo editing as long as you calibrate the screen, provided you are not doing the rendering for the next Star Wars movie (in which case I suppose you would be buying the new ApplExpensive monitor.

Another good choice is the Mac Mini with an eGPU via Thunderbolt 3, and had that been available I would have given consideration to that option as well, as I already had a decent Dell 24” 4K monitor (but the iMac screen is clearly nicer).

If you have a decent MBP you can try it with a good external monitor and see how you like it, and remember that a TB3 enabled MBP should be able to drive an eGPU as well, allowing you to leverage hardware you already have.

One thing of note is that Adobe is finally, from what I have read, enabling Photoshop and (I think) Lightroom to make real use of the eGPU, which is a motivation for having a machine with a good non-integrated GPU. Prior to this, I don’t think the GPU actually impacted on image editing speed as much as you would have thought.

Fast external storage (eg TB3, and possibly on an external SSD) will make a big difference in editing as well. I have found my very large image files (I am shooting cameras in the 30-50MP range for most of my work) take a long-ish time to load in LR even from a TB3 Drobo, probably because the Drobo even over TB is just not the fastest drive on the bus.

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I sure would be interested in your assessment of the NEC Spectraview vs the iMac screen when and if you have an opportunity to compare.

Yes, I should at least try the MBP with the good monitor. I’d be interested to see the difference between that machine and the 2013 Mac Pro for the work I do. I don’t believe my use is that demanding other than what I expect from my prints.

I’ve been hesitant to look at the eGPU option—it just seemed like one more rabbit hole and/or point of failure. Do you know whether the typical Mini-eGPU-separate screen is turnkey or would it require tinkering?

The iMac Pro is SO tempting. I invested as much 5 years ago in the Mac Pro/NEC Spectraview. I think I just have to find someone doing reasonably high end printing from an iMac Pro and take a look at the calibrated screen.

That was part of what went into my decision to go with the iMacPro.

I had the 2013 MacPro. It was a good machine at the time, but the dual graphics cards never really turned into anything useful, and it was getting long in the tooth. Being out of AppleCare and knowing that Apple had basically abandoned the design, I sold it after about 3.5 years. (I actually got one very early; it was the first one delivered to my local Apple store so everyone working there was as excited as I was when it arrived!)

I have not been, generally, a fan of the all-in-one style iMacs because it creates another point of failure - if the monitor goes, the whole computer goes in for repair; if the CPU goes, same thing - but I decided to go with it this time, anticipating that the upcoming and now announced new MacPro was going to be way out of my price point, and not anticipating the power that would be in the 2018 mini.

I think if you calibrate the screen well you should find printing to be just as good as on any other screen of similar quality. I think the screen is on a par with reasonably priced pro-grade screens for photography, but probably not at the highest end for pro-grade monitors. Your NEC Spectraview may well have better color rendition; I don’t know how the color spaces compare.

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Something to keep in mind is the option of having a external SSD connected to process new photos and then after processing, editing, etc transferring them to the Drobo. It helps a bit with speed especially if needed to work on files. That said are you soon looking to move away from the Drobo or are you comfortable with it for the time being?

I’m unfamiliar with the terms you use, but I’ve extensively heard what eGPUs do and how they can come in handy on the show and other podcasts / tech reviewers. However, for the money and the way these things are being marketed they’d fall flat if they couldn’t prove reliable to pros

@Jonathan_Davis: I am reasonably satisfied with the Drobo. It is not, I think, the fastest external drive around (although I have not personally done any benchmarking), but its speed has thus far been adequate for me and I do like the concept of being able to swap drives at need, and to use differently sized-drives as well. I actually have two of them, a Drobo 5D3 (5-bay enclosure with TB3) and the new 8C (8 drive TB3). The latter is where clones and Arq backups are stored and the Arq backups go off to BackBlaze as well, while the former is where all of my data resides.

I have been thinking about moving to either the WD 2-drive hardware raid drives or enclosures from OWC with SoftRaid, in part because these drives will support APFS and encryption, neither of which are supported by Drobo, but the expense of making the change has caused me to hold off. (I few months ago there was a sale on Amazon of the WD 16 TB 2 drive hardware Raid units for an unbelievable price of $159, and I got wind of it too late to buy.)

I have had drives fail in my Drobos over the years (I’ve used them since the original 4-bay USB2 model) and it really does work as advertised; just pull on the dead drive and slide in a new one, and over hours to days depending on drive size and data volume it will rebuild itself. I have also had at least two Drobo enclosures die on me, and the given the repair cost I have just junked them.

Still, no drive is perfect. I have owned two OWC 4-bay hardware raid enclosures over the years, and both died just after the 1-year warranty had expired, and so again became recycling fodder. I admit that has turned me off a bit to OWC enclosures, perhaps unfairly since every other OWC user raves about their quality, which is why if they have a good enough sale I may well buy another.

One thing to keep in mind about Drobo of course is that if the enclosure dies, and you have to get the data off the drives, you have no recourse but to buy a new enclosure as there is virtually no other way to recover Drobo data due to their proprietary storage system. I have read of data recovery companies advertising they can retrieve data from Drobo disk sets, but I don’t know if that really works or not. The same can be said about hardware raid, which is a reason to favor SoftRaid, since in theory you could buy any enclosure and put the drives into it (note that OWC sells two versions of SoftRaid, one which apparently only works with OWC enclosures and one which works with any enclosure, but I don’t know how that restriction is actually enforced).

It’s one reason why in the past when I was building Linux servers I always used software raid. If the hardware died, the drives could be connected to any other Linux system via whatever mechanism was handy and the raid volume easily reconstructed.

I had a four bay, FW800/USB model fail, with its controller corrupting the non-RAID disks.

I’ve had at least 2 of their external hard drives fail (the enclosure, not the drive), and a wonky RAM stick once.

While I have 2 of their thunderbays (TB2) currently, I don’t entirely trust them. They were pretty early models, and at least one enclosure had to be sent back. Lots of time with their tech support.

SoftRAID is terrific; I’m a long-time user. I was less enthused when OWC bought them. Same with Akitio enclosures.

The software knows if the enclosure hosting the RAID is OWC’s, or not.

That’s a bummer the not so great experiences with OWC. They were really nice at Macstock.