Review: Apple MacBook Pro 13″, late 2016 with touch bar

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Image: Apple

Like every piece of hardware, there are plenty of reviews out there that assess the product from just about every possible point of view. For computers, there are other places that do the extensive quantitative testing far better than I could even if I had the time and inclination – which I don’t – but I think where I can add perhaps a little clarity is to review this machine from the point of view of a working and travelling photographer. If you don’t want to read the rest, in short and in my own opinion, this is perhaps the best laptop out there at the moment for the serious photography. There are a couple of major gotchas, though – which may or may not be a deal breaker for you. I’ve been using one of these new machines since the start of December, which is long enough for performance and battery life to settle down, and to figure out how it fits into the workflow overall.

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Off topic: a creative frame of mind

Not conducive.

This post will not make any sense at first, and certainly not the title image – but I’ll get there. As a photographer – and a person trying to find something different and visually/aesthetically pleasing under sometimes challenging situations, it’s important to be aware of things that can limit or aid us. From a general life standpoint, the things that inspire us also tend to be the ones that put us in a good mood – and in what way is that bad? Having spent time in a wide range of places which cover all portions of the inspiration scale, there are definitely places that stand out as being better than others – but often for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. But you do notice it in the way the locals smile, have a spring in their step, tend to be encouraged and happy to run their own small businesses, and generally seem happy. In contrast, places that stifle or are not conducive to creativity tend to be missing that ‘zing’: everything is transactional ends at the next buck.

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Apple PC hardware choices for the photographer

Choices, choices. Image from the Apple Malaysia homepage.

At some point early on in the digital era, the world decided that Apple was the way to go for serious photographers and graphics professionals – granted, there were applications that were Mac-specific or just worked so much better on a Mac than a PC that it made sense. I’m sure some of that was image and hubris, too pricing be damnmed, the hardware just looked sooo much cooler. There was also a point in not so distant history at which we weren’t held hostage by Apple’s upgrade options, either: you could buy the base version, and upgrade certain components yourself if you were handy with a screwdriver, which brought the cost of performance down. The cost of ownership wasn’t (and still isn’t) as bad because Macs maintain their resale value – probably because the new machines are never much cheaper than the old ones. But a) does Apple hardware still make sense for photographers, and b) if so, what hardware?

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Thoughts on the Apple iPhone 5 camera

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Don’t worry, I’m not about to start claiming the various image-processing apps are the best thing since sliced bread; they aren’t. What I am going to do is take an objective look at the iPhone 5’s camera as a tool for photographers. Firstly, we’ve got to remember that the device itself has a lot of limitations: it was never designed primarily to be a camera in the first place, which means a lot of niceties are missing: a dedicated shutter button, for instance. It is therefore important to consider things in perspective, and be realistic about the kind of functionality we can reasonably expect. I reviewed the iPhone 4’s camera here; from the 4S, the camera received a spec bump to 8MP with a slightly different sensor, meaning that the effective focal length of the lens is a somewhat longer 30mm – now five elements and with a fixed f2.4 effective aperture. The new unit is made by Sony, and focuses and shoots noticeably faster than the 4.

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Presenting Ming Thein’s Photography Compendium for iPad


Six months in the making, I’m proud to present Ming Thein’s Photography Compendium: an iPad app like no other. It’s not for taking pictures or processing: it’s for learning and reading on the go, and all content is also retina-display native. It’s now available for $1.99 on the Apple App Store:


The Homepage aggregates the latest posts from the site, images from my photostream on Flickr, as well as the latest video tutorial content. Think of it like the Huffington Post, but for photography – it of course updates by itself every time there’s new content, too.


On the bottom tab bar, the Dictionary icon takes you to a searchable lexicon of photographic terms – if you’ve ever wondered what the difference between longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberration is, here’s the place to find out. If I’ve missed something, you can also request a definition. Drag and release to update the list and contents – same for the blog aggregator, Camerapedia and video list, too. The dictionary content is available exclusively through the app only.


The blog tab is an offline aggregator for recent posts – you can load up the most recent posts to read on the go when you don’t have an internet connection. It also includes a mini-browser that activates whenever external links are in play.


For everybody who’s been asking for digital delivery of the Photoshop Workflow DVD and Leica M-Monochrom workflow DVD, both are now available as a HD download through the app. There are also all-new and more detailed video segments; and there will of course be more videos over time with several currently in the works. (The physical DVDs continue to be available in the normal way at the previous links for those who don’t have iPads or prefer to have a physical disc.)


Finally, we’ve translated the CAMERAPEDIA! into a searchable database of equipment. Tempted to buy something during your next camera store visit? Check out my opinion first.

To celebrate the launch of the app, I’m giving away 20 promo codes for free apps to the first 20 people to retweet or post this page link on their Facebook walls – copy the post link into the comment box along with your email address and I’ll send you a promo code. UPDATE: 1400h, GMT+8 – all the promo codes are gone. Thank you very much for your support, everybody! Enjoy! MT

UPDATE: 1000, GMT+8 22 Nov 2012: After the first day, we’ve debuted at #7 on the US app store for photography; #2 in Malaysia; #3 in Singapore and Sweden; #4 in Switzerland; #5 in Hong Kong. All I can say is that I’m overwhelmed by the support and response – thank you again! MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

The iPhone as a camera

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I admit to being one of the skeptics who didn’t believe that anything that wasn’t designed primarily as a camera would be able to function in a worthwhile capacity as one – I remember my first camera phone having all of VGA resolution (a Nokia 6600) and not being very much good under any conditions. In fact, the thing didn’t even have autofocus, much less any sort of manual adjustments. Successive phones thereafter all came with cameras of some sort, mostly held at the 1.3 megapixel level with sensors about the size of this full stop. In the meantime, I was shooting with APS-C DSLRs – no comparison!

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But the relentless pace of miniaturization eventually delivered a sensor of sufficient quality and resolution, coupled with a decent enough optical system, that I put aside my biases for long enough to give one a decent try. That was the iPhone 3GS – it had a 3MP camera with autofocus; tap to select the focus point and lock exposure. A little, bit like weighted spot metering. I got a decent image or two out of that.

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The waiters

The iPhone 4 was a revelation, however. Not only was the sensor and optics greatly improved, we finally got a decent field of view – my favorite 28mm! Still tap to focus and expose, with no provision for adjusting any controls anywhere. Despite all that, it was (and is) possible to get some pretty good shots out of the camera – especially considering it’s a phone first, small computer second, and camera somewhere around a distant third.

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Filling stop

In other ways though, it shows. Despite the increasing complexity and controllability of competitors’ offerings, Apple decided to keep it idiot-proof and deny the iPhone user any sort of exposure control other than the pseudo-spot meter. Nokia released a 41MP sensor that used binning to generate some of the most amazing 8MP images I’ve seen from a small sensor camera – let alone a phone – and Apple just quietly went to 8MP, and fiddled a bit with the FOV again, so it’s probably closer to 30 or 32mm in the 4S than the previous 28mm.

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I don’t have a 4S, nor do I intend to pay the Apple ‘upgrade tax’ every year to buy one. The iPhone is a great piece of technology, but I’m entirely happy with mine until it breaks, or the new model actually offers something I want that I can’t currently have. And only then will I think about buying another one. (From a commercial point of view, I actually find it pretty amazing that they can turn a $800 precision device into a piece of fast moving consumer electronics.)

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What the iPhone lacks in controllability it makes up for in development possibilities – just so long as you stay within Apple’s limits. I still remember the app which had a shortcut option to put the camera shutter onto one of the volume release buttons – it got pulled, only for Apple to subsequently add it as a system option to the latest version of iOS. To be honest though, I’ve tried most of the popular photo apps and find them a bit cheesy. Instagram, Hipstamatic and Camera+ are the prime offenders: use the app, and your images look the same as everybody else’s who used the app – what’s the point of photography if you’re going to produce the same work as the next guy? They might as well forgo the camera and just put in a library of random images that appears whenever you press the shutter instead.

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Auckland marina sunset

There are some good apps, however – PhotoForge is one of them. It comes much closer to being Photoshop lite than Photoshop Mobile does; that I find pretty amazing. Still, I wouldn’t do any serious editing work on that because it lacks the fine control of the real desktop version.

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Dew on leaf in playground

I want to talk about three more things before I close.

Firstly, real world limitations:
– You can’t control white balance. This is the biggest of them all, to me – especially when the iPhone 4 does a pretty poor job at deciding what color something is. Shade is much too cool, and incandescent is much too warm. And worse still, it tends to blow out the channels so you have no hope in hell of recovering any tonal information later.
– You can only control exposure to a certain degree, and that’s linked to focus point. Generally, this is okay because it’s how spot metering works – you expose for your subject, which you also obviously focus on. However, I find again that the latitude of adjustment for exposure is limited – perhaps because the camera has an electronic shutter only – so sometimes it can’t give you a fast enough shutter speed, or a slow enough one. It would actually be nice to know what exposure parameters the camera chose, too.
– You can’t control the output JPEG parameters. All you get is Disneyland color mode – that’s it. Again, once a channel goes, so does any hope of recovering tonal information.
– Speed. Focusing speed, shooting speed and shutter lag are all slow – the 4S improves on this slightly, but still feels unresponsive compared to a good compact like the Ricoh GR-Digital III or IV. Realistically, that means you’re not going to be shooting anything moving, unless you prefocus.
– Tap to shoot. The lack of a physical shutter button means awkward hand positions and ensuing camera shake while trying to poke the button on the screen. Sure, iOS5 gives you the option of using one of the volume buttons, but it isn’t a solution – you still need to touch the screen to focus.

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Secondly, advantages and strengths:
– It’s always there. We always carry our phones, and even if I didn’t, the iPhone 4 is small enough and sleek enough that I wouldn’t notice it in my pocket.
– The image quality is finally good enough. Hell, even Getty Images thinks so – I’ve got photos in the library that were shot with an iPhone 4.
– It’s silent. Thankfully that annoyingly cheesy shutter sound can be silenced by putting the phone in vibrate mode; or you could just stick your finger over the speaker opening.
– Connectivity. Sometimes, you need to share an image – something stupid, something important, something for information only. And you can’t do that easily with a camera that isn’t also internet-connected.

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Just another KL traffic jam

Finally, possible improvements for a future version, bearing in mind the original Apple gestalt for simplicity:
– More latitude for auto white balance and the touch-spot meter
– Show us what the exposure is! I want to know in advance if it’s too dark or will be grainy etc.
– Two more manual settings: ISO, and image output parameters.
– RAW files (we can dream, I suppose). I still have to run the jpegs through photoshop to pass muster, so I might as well start from a better base. Sorry Apple, there’s just no way you can develop one set of color/ tone/ sharpening settings that are going to work under all situations.
– Two stage shutter button, or if Jonathon Ive lost a few points of his bonus percentage for each button he added, then make both of the volume buttons do double duty: one to AF and lock exposure, and the other to shoot.
– Put the damn camera in the middle of the phone, at least in a position where you’re not likely to stick your hand into it if held in landscape orientation. The design of the phone is superb, but it’s way too easy to stick your finger into the lens.
– Better low light performance (taken as given)
– More speed! (taken as given)

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The Interrogator, or Behind the two way glass

In conclusion, I use the iPhone a lot as a camera because of one reason and one reason only: it’s the one I know I always have with me. (And even if I did have another camera, what would I use to take pictures of the camera? photographer’s joke 😉 MT

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Magritte strikes again


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

POTD: The crinkled building

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The crinkled building. Or maybe it should be called architectural origami. Starhill Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. And in keeping with yesterday’s article, it was shot with an Apple iPhone 4. MT

Breaking news: Leica + Apple partnership!

A recent, reliable source has told me that the much hyped Photokina announcement for Leica won’t be a new M, but instead a further step towards documentary photography: to put better tools in the hands of citizen photojournalists, they have decided to finally give in to collaboration requests from mobile phone makers. Apple – probably the only design equal of Leica in the phone world – has decided to take on Nokia’s Carl Zeiss partnership and gone to Leica. It’s not exactly surprising after Jobs’ launch of the iPhone 4 – which compared the design gestalt as aspiring to the Leica philosophy.

The announcement makes a lot of sense as it will also tie in with the iPhone 5’s arrival, which has traditionally been around Q3. It’s also time for a redesign of the iPhone 4, which has now seen two generations of service – much like the plastic design of the 3G/3GS.

No concrete details on the sensor – my contact was very tight-lipped about that – other than ‘it will be more than 8MP, but not as many as that ridiculous Nokia 808 thingy; image quality will be fantastic because it will be bigger than most cellphone sensors and have no anti-aliasing filter.’ The real killer, however, will be the lens: an f0.95, 35mm equivalent. It will have AF with limited (10cm, I suppose?) macro functionality, is a Leica design, and will carry the NOCTILUX-C ASPH 0.95 inscription – presumably C stands for ‘compact’? I have no idea how thick this is going to be though – maybe there’s a lens protrusion, or folded optics, or a similar trick to keep the thickness down. Hopefully it won’t be too much of a pocket lump.

What excites me the most, however, is that they apparently got Apple to cave in an offer not only a physical, two-stage shutter button, but the option of saving a DNG file too – hooray! MT