Before I get started here I would like to point out that the only experience I have had with the new retina MacBooks are within the confines of a few visits to the Apple store and messing about with Aperture on their demo machines for a good long while. I very much encourage any photographers with personal experience using one of these new pixel dense displays to chime in and share your opinions based on your experience. I trust you guys will keep things civilized, I know opinions run deep with this sort of topic.

I can’t help but dwell heavily on impending high resolution displays that could be entering the market. After reading an article containing some basic projections on the future of high density displays in mac products I cringed to imagine that my 5D images would not be a high enough resolution to fill the screen on an iMac with a retina display. In fact, the 27″ model could potentially use an only slightly smaller resolution than a full raw file from a 5D Mark III. That is pretty insane to imagine.

To edit photos on a display like that it may look good on the surface but zooming in to view details would suddenly become much more difficult. You could argue that it looks good enough to edit accurately without zooming in but sometimes fine tuning takes an enlarged view to accomplish what you need. Even with the current high density Macbook Pros I find editing on photos, even from fully capable raw files from a 5D mark II that editing is in some ways improved and in other ways muddled by the ability to only zoom in slightly on an image to fine tune it before software kicks in and starts filling in information with pixels that don’t really exist. So while photos DO look gorgeous on the display I would hesitate to say that is perfect for editing photos.

And this is just with the high end camera market. The iMac has long been considered a home computer but has quickly replaced the Pro towers Apple makes as they are more than capable of handling the needs of most. So what of the average consumers who have been using modest smaller resolution point and shoots or the ones attached to their iPhones. The resolution of their snapshots has been perfectly fine for sharing online, looking at on their computers, or making prints to share but soon enough these modest images will look worse and worse on larger high density displays. Apple touts its full screen iPhoto as a beautiful way to edit and view photos but what about when the screen resolutions eclipse that of the cameras in use today?

Photographers have been debating “The Megapixel Myth” for years and year now (similar to the “megahertz myth” of old mac marketing). Points are always made in consideration of what resolution a person could honestly need their photos to be. It has been welcoming to see recently how camera makers have been able to comfortably improve and enhance the image quality and low light performance without having to waste as much time reaching for senseless megapixel numbers.

The fact that is bugging me is that I sort of felt as though technology was starting to find level ground in the war of speed and resolution and in this space we started to see some honest evolution again in the world of computing and technology. For example, with computers we found the introduction of the iPad and tablet computing. Within the camera market we seemed to be seeing manufacturers actually focus on the usability, functionality, and performance of their cameras rather than racing for higher resolutions resulting in the booming micro four-thirds market.

Movers and shakers in technology had started to focus on user interface design and creative engineering that felt like it was pushing forward to the future and creating compelling products again rather than suck up time and resources fighting to build the fastest machine with the greatest specs. The only thing that had threatened that stance was a race for cheaper pricing on technology but Apple has shown that one obviously does not have to be the cheapest to succeed in the market, you just have to make honest products and stand behind them.

But in this case, I can’t help but fear that display technology may kick start yet another senseless spec war not only in screen resolution technology but within camera makers as well. It is a slippery slope I feel we are on right now and while I don’t fear the worst I am certainly curious to see what happens over the next couple years in this space.

As photographers it’s time to stand up and stop concentrating so heavily on tech specs and other such nonsense and get back to what makes the history of photography so rich and eclectic. It’s time to focus once again on creating emotional and effective imagery that is able to stand the test of time, not be seen and instantly forgotten. Photography is a place where philosophy and technology mix with art and its ease of entry has diluted its user base to the point of over saturation. While chemistry and technology has always been a central pillar in this space, I fear it could drag it down even further unless we start to greet some of this forward momentum with at least a whisper of skepticism. I guess the best way to break this down is simply to ask, when will we ever be satisfied? When will sharp be sharp enough, or big be big enough? When do we reach the point within some areas of consumer technology where we are making progress simply for the sake of progress?

Just when I thought maybe were starting to come to terms with certain technological advancements and actually enjoy ourselves within our technically enhanced lives I have been quickly reminded that it will never end. I don’t mean to be overly pessimistic but you have got to admit it does feel a big daunting at times does it not? It is a subject I have long explored on these pages and I know I am not alone.

Getting back to the matter at hand, screen resolutions can be beautiful, effective, and amazing at these ultra high resolutions, but I can only hope that we move forward with realistic expectations. On my iPhone a retina display makes perfect sense because the size of the screen is a bit smaller and it aids in its use. On the iPad it is a natural evolution of another device held close to you as you work in a very personal way. Now, on laptops we start to explore the fringe of what may or may not be a relevant need. As we see high density screens get larger and larger I start to question, why? Just because we can?

Let me take a moment here to apologize to all those using a new macbook retina for the 5+ years of posts now containing thumbnail images that are now absurdly awful looking. Of course I will admit WAY back in the day they were even smaller when the average screen size was 800x600px. We evolve as technology evolves, is that right?

While designers are able to adapt to these new technologies by developing new types of scalable designs and techniques (and I will admit it does seem kind of fun and exciting) photographers have little choice but to either continue to use current display technology as long as it is available or continue the frivolous, all too frequent camera upgrades in effort to stay relevant, and people wonder why its so expensive to hire a good photographer. Not everything we use needs to have such short shelf lives does it? At least my 20+ year old film cameras still work. (The image above was shot with my Hasselblad)

I really have no intention of coming across as overly sensitive or hesitant to continue to grow or move forward, I just like to keep things in perspective is all. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong and this display tech transition will be smooth as silk.

Followup:  I noticed this post from Marco Arment, as I’m sure a lot of you did as well who follow the mac blogger circles. He seems to be realizing similar things that I have been writing about lately here on 50ft. The benefits of an iPhone as a camera are clear but so are the limitations. It’s interesting that it took the new retina display for some to realize the limitations of shooting with an iPhone weigh just as much as the benefits. I am still fascinated by what kind of an impact these screens may have in the tech industry overall, not just for geeks and designers.

Bitmap image resolutions have seen a slow steady growth over the years but the dawn of dense resolution displays comes as a slap in the face sort of change as many images created or shared in the recent past and in many cases, near future are left in the dust. It will be interesting to see others come to their own conclusions and realizations about this transition as time moves forward and we evolve into the new era of high density resolutions.


  1. “Progress” « Ryan Markel - June 26, 2012 at 2:53 am

    […] John Carey: I can’t help but dwell heavily on impending high resolution displays that could be entering the market. After reading an article containing some basic projections on the future of high density displays in mac products I cringed to imagine that my 5D images would not be a high enough resolution to fill the screen on an iMac with a retina display. In fact, the 27″ model could potentially use an only slightly smaller resolution than a full raw file from a 5D Mark III. That is pretty insane to imagine. […]

  2. Paul Anthony Webb - June 26, 2012 at 4:34 am

    I really do hope we stop the retina displays after the 27″. I mean, what would be the point of anything higher? Having to create double the image assets for websites is bad enough with the 4S display but jeez…

  3. Johnny Van Cura - June 26, 2012 at 5:50 am

    I hadn’t thought of it before…but we can now expect a resolution revolution impacting the camera market…I’m excited to see where it will be in about 3 years.

  4. Rupert Maspero - June 26, 2012 at 8:16 am

    I have the new MacBook Pro with retina and can honestly say it is the best and worst thing about the laptop. It may have a great PPI but is still only 15″ which means that even though there is loads of detail it is still physically really small to look at and so can still be hard to see.

  5. koleoptero - June 26, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Fear not, cellphones are the answer to our problems. See the specs on this: http://www.nokia.com/global/products/phone/808pureview/

    Just kidding of course. The new displays will be fun. As for older images being made irrelevant I don’t think that’s the case since, as you pointed out too, content matters more than size. I’ve hit on photos on the web that are relatively tiny (some 600*400px approx) that made me just sit and look at them for hours, and some large that just didn’t matter. Plus, it may make software developers improve their resizing algorithms to not look as awful as they look for on the fly resizing now.

  6. Mike - June 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I think we are worrying unnecessarily, John.

    OS-X can scale images very well, so existing images need not look any different or worse on a retina display. However, elements that are rendered specifically for the display, such as type, can really take advantage of these new displays and shine. Add to this that Apple are no longer insisting on whacking a shiny and reflective piece of glass on the front, and we have a significant step forward.

  7. John - June 27, 2012 at 12:34 am

    It’s true, OSX does a great job of scaling images but it is scaling just the same. Of course type and scalable vector graphics do look wonderful it does sort of leave bitmap based images to die off rather quickly. It’d funny, you would have thought after the camera manufacturers battling to come out with the highest resolution sensors would have beat screen manufacturers to the punch.

    I am by no means anti-retina display, I think the new MacBooks are beautiful. Especially that less shiny surface. It’s the larger displays I question the relevance of.

    As for software and web developers making scalable imagery for designs, something I am starting to look into to be sure images on the site look better from here on out. This is, like any introduction of new technology, a transitional period now but then again, are we ever not in a transition?

  8. thedoo - June 27, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Technology scares me as much as I enjoy taking advantage of technology.

  9. When it comes to technology, when will we be satisfied? - June 28, 2012 at 11:21 am

    […] John Carey makes an interesting observation about the Macbook Pro with Retina Display in Progress: […]

  10. Designing on a Retina Screen: My Thoughts on the Retina MacBook Pro | pixelpush design - July 9, 2012 at 7:51 am

    […] Should Retina Screens Even Exist? “As we see high density screens get larger and larger I start to question, why? Just because we can?” – John Carey Fifty Foot Shadows […]

  11. Craig - July 9, 2012 at 9:34 am

    At last, somebody on the same wavelength as me.

    You have made my day :-)

  12. Maria - July 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Hey, I recognized one of your pictures listed as album art for a new Vampire Weekend single:


    I’m just wondering if that’s official?

  13. Abe - July 17, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Hi John, it’s been awhile since your last post. Hope you update it soon. Would love to see more of 50foot awesomeness.


  14. havemac - October 4, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    i’m old and Windows Bill Gates put error messages in Lotus long ago,so you have trouble getting anything right forget about virus
    they put fake error message in a program. stold DOS compression technology..stold that no spell check lol, stole is fur round yr neck shoulder

  15. havemac - October 4, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    hmm they steal yrs stole they stold yr stole. thieve steal, after the fact you stold

  16. Ivan - February 10, 2013 at 7:11 pm


    Please I cannot tell you how much I love this Theme for the Iphone but cannot get it to work well with Iphone 5 on iOS 6.1. I have tried to use Ifile to get some icons that don’t seem to work like Mail, Facebook, etc… Message, app store, notes, weather , clock, stock, voice memo, setting, ifile, winter board, contacts calculator all work:) Not sure why some others don’t when the bundles in Ifile are identical and I even tried to modify and no luck. The weather info comes and go’s but time and Date are great. Also the transparent dock is in the wrong place due to the larger screen size of the Iphone 5. Not sure if you are looking to update but if you can I would greatly appreciate of some tips to modify in Ifile to fix some icons and weather information. Thanks.

  17. Designing on a Retina Screen: My Thoughts on the Retina MacBook Pro - Everyday Marketing Everyday Marketing - July 25, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    […] “As we see high density screens get larger and larger I start to question, why? Just because we can?” – John Carey Fifty Foot Shadows […]

  18. Ge Yang - September 11, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    Now looking back, the sentiment expressed in this blog post couldn’t be more wrong.

  19. John Carey - September 11, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    Heh, yeah things certainly did shift, and we live in a world of densely packed pixels at this point. I am happy that it settled smoothly as I had hoped. Many digital cameras still don’t produce images large enough to fill the larger screens on the market but thankfully scaling is smooth enough for it not to matter.

    So yeah, my argument about display resolution ended up a frivolous one, but the deeper discussion about tech and its surface level evolution, what it takes to feel satisfied, and what type of advancement truly effects us in our daily lives remains. It was the wider point of view that I was coming from when I wrote this a few years ago and still feel it’s true today.

    Looking at this from a usability perspective (which was the articles sentiment) I still feel that display resolution is not the core of what makes modern computing great but in saying that I’m just digging into semantics.

    I appreciate you nudging this into my memory again though, always good to look back and recognize aspects of what I had considered in the past through a new viewpoint down the line.

  20. Svetoslav Blagoev - January 17, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    Thanks for this in depth analysis. This could be really helpful.

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