You now own a beautiful Apple Macbook Pro, or even the new 5K iMac and you have a High Definition screen. This is progress and will make ‘everything better’. It must be…. But is it all pros and no cons?
Screens compared, as shown on the Apple website. In reality, the difference is far greater than you will see in this comparison (Retina on the right). You can get a better sense by visiting the Apple link below the images.
This is the position I am now in. I have been working off an 18 month old iMac in the UK and I’m typing this on a band new 15 inch Macbook Pro with juicy Retina screen. I believe it is about 220 ppi, so roughly double what I was using before, but it did not take long to realize this upgrade is not an entirely trouble free proposition. There turn out to be a rather large number of things to consider and work around, for you and for others!
First, for those of you not familiar with such things, I will summarise the real improvements:
- More resolution. At double the linear resolution, the screen can display four times the data in a given area. That’s a big difference and a bit like going from a 16”x12” print made from 35mm Tri-X to one printed off a 6x7cm negative. All so-called HD screens are a little different, but range from about 200 to 240 pixels per inch, so you are getting close to physical photograph levels of detail, assuming you have enough data to generate this resolution in full. More on this later…
- Contrast and colour saturation are improved. Images are richer and more three dimensional. You will definitely notice subtle split toning of B&W images far more than on lower quality screens. Add 5 points of sepia to highlights and you will see a subtle warm tone. Nice, but there is a ‘but’….
- The viewing experience is, in overall terms, dramatically improved. One no longer has to make a mental leap as to what your image really looks like. Now you can just see it, looking like a photograph, with real detail and presence.
So if we just view images on our screens, we get all the positives and there are no downsides, but here is a list of the issues I have encountered. None are show-stoppers of course, but they have required a bit of consideration. Some I had anticipated, bu the more complex to solve issues I had not!
1. Website Viewing: Sites populated with low (no, regular) resolution images generally look awful. Yup. They are no longer condensed into your small iPad or phone screen and thus able to deliver very high resolution albeit at a smaller size. The image has more breathing space, but nowhere near enough pixels to generate the full HD resolution. You’d think this means that they look just like they did on standard screens, but they don’t. They look blurry and, well, like there is something wrong with them! I have read that it has been estimated that HD computer screens account for a single digit percentage of all users, so most people still see websites that look fine, but you, as a new Retina screen user actually have a worse viewing experience! Some sites are HD ready, but most are not.
2. Your own Website: So now you log onto your own site and your eyes bulge. Hmmm, it is clearly time to upgrade your site, which should be simple, right? Actually, maybe not. There are a number of problems:
Viewing area. How large is the viewing area on your website (for each image). Some websites (like my personal one here) are set up such that the resolution of the image you provide will continue to expand as its file size increases until it cannot expand beyond its maximum display area. Only then will the resolution increase. Whereas before you could throw a 600 pixel wide images at the site and know it would display at about 6” wide, you now upload an image four times larger, at 1200 pixels wide, only to find that it now shows at a gigantic 10” and nowhere near full HD resolution. Firstly this looks awful, IMO. Unfortunately most photo-website providers think everyone wants to display massive images and have set things up accordingly. This mean those looking to display images that do not burst to the edges of the screen are out of luck. In such cases, the solution is to upload an even bigger file, which now means people with large screens can display then, snip them and print the. You’ve given them 2000 pixels on the long axis and they’ve made a 7”inch print before you have fully processed how bad your previously space balanced website now looks. Ah, you gasp, before playing with every setting under the sun to shrink the display area down, so that you have some space around the images and are no longer providing free files for print.
With this blog, I had to fine, install and learn a new plug in that would allow me to boost the resolution of thumbnails and also allows some uprezzing of previously uploaded low res images. It also helps ensure that larger files uploaded display nicely on HD screens. Lots of new things to learn and implement with 12 months of back posts.
Another issue is saturation and contrast. Assuming I have uploaded enough pixels and have my display area managed, the resolution issue is taken care of. Unfortunately, Retina and normal screens display very different contrast and colour saturation. This means that if I want to add a subtle tone to be seen on most normal screens, there is a much richer tone visible on HD – more than I want. If I reduce it, nothing is visible on normal screens. Bottom line: you can’t win, but only aim to find a good compromise. It helps to view your site on a variety of screens. That was good practice then and it is imperative now. The same holds true for contrast. Add the ‘just right’ amount for HD and they’re flat on a lesser screen. Add more and they look over the top on the Retina computer. Ouch.
3. Printing: Previously working on a normal screen, you know that viewing your image at 1:2 (or 50%) on your computer gives a good sense of what it will look like in print (in terms of detail). My rough rule of thumb was this:
If I view it at 1:2 and can see more detail when I click to view at 1:1, I know that when printed at inches = #linear pixels / 200 it will give about the same perceptual detail as I am getting from looking at the screen. So, for example I have an image 6000 pixels on the long axis, if I can see a good jump in detail when switching from 1:2 to 1:1, I know this file will give me a good 30” printed length (6000 divided by 200). If I do not see a good jump in detail when moving from 1:2 to 1:2, it will look a bit soft at 30” and maybe only very crisp at 20-24”, for example.
Now you have a Retina screen, you need to rethink whatever rules of thumb you used to gauge file and print detail relationships. No biggie, but it needs working through.
Now remember that images have more contrast and colour saturation when viewed on your Retina / HD screen. I used to know that, as a rule of thumb, if I turned by Macbook screen brightness down to five bars and viewed my file in very dimly lit room, I should add about 20 points of contrast and + 0.05 additional exposure in Lightroom 5, roughly. This would get me darned close, but not with the Retina screen that has much more inherent contrast. Saturation is another issue to look into. Again, none of this is a drama, but it might be if you regularly work on multiple screens, only one or some of which are HD. I am sure there are far more technically minded people out there who have ‘work arounds’, who think my way of working is sloppy, but mine work for me and they are surpsiginly accurate. I guess I will have to ensure that all final print preparation is done on the 27” iMac currently in storage. It’s oh so lovely to look at files at 1:2, white out the screen periphery in LR, kick back and get an idea of what a print will look like, both in detail and in ‘presence’.
Conclusion: What is probably clear is that there may be quite a bit of work in store for you to adjust your various workflows, especially if you print and have a website. So what is my conclusion? It is that you would have to pry this laptop out of my cold dead hands. I’ll put in the work and so should you. The web is adjusting, more and more people are viewing websites on large HD screens, so it’s best to make the leap now. They’re no substitute for prints, but working with images on a home computer has never been more enjoyable.