Retina Display MacBook Pro for Calibration and Photography

I have been asked to put together an overview of my observations on the Retina Display MacBook Pro, as related to photography, and specifically to display calibration. The material below draws on my previous analysis, plus further information about calibration of the Retina display.


The Retina resolution of the new display is certainly its top feature, and in use this is the first thing you notice about the display. While Adobe has not yet released an update to Photoshop to take advantage of this higher resolution, they did demo an unreleased version at the WWDC keynote where the Retina MBP was announced, so we should be able to take advantage of this resolution soon; at least in Photoshop CS6; no guarantees about CS5 and earlier. In the meantime, the sharper text is a joy to behold, and will reduce eyestrain, even if it has no direct effect on photography or video work.

Video is certainly the second area where the Retina display will excel, and versions of the more popular video editing tools for the Mac should be forthcoming to utilize this display to its fullest. The image below shows a standard resolution app on the left (current version of Photoshop CS6) versus a Retina resolution app (Apple’s Preview Utility). Click on the image to see full size, for comparison of what Retina resolution can add to an image.


Color Gamut 

Earlier MacBooks and other Apple laptops had a sub-sRGB color space that was not only smaller, but twisted in a way that offset the primary colors from their ideal hues. While this issue had been improved substantially in the more recent MacBook Pro models, the Retina display now offers a very close replication of sRGB on screen. This offers a number of advantages; not just over smaller gamut displays, but to a lesser degree over wide gamut displays as well. In addition to increasing the gamut from earlier devices, emulating sRGB in hardware means that non-color managed applications, browsers, and video players will show more reasonable color even without the ability to use a profile.

Retina Display Gamut
Earlier Unibody MacBook Pro Gamut


The gloss screen on recent Apple displays has been an issue for some people, especially for mobile use, where uncontrolled lighting may mean distracting reflections on screen. While a matte surface helps spread such reflections around and remove their sharp edges, it reduces the contrast of the scene in the process. The Retina display uses low reflectance glass, plus one less layer of glass than earlier MacBook screens, reducing this issue without resorting to a matte surface. The image below shows the reduced reflectance of the Retina display on the left, compared to an older Unibody MBP screen on the right. Again, clicking on the image can provide a more detailed view of the image. Note the second reflection in the Unibody screen, caused by the extra layer of glass.

Retina Versus Unibody Reflectance

Viewing Angle 

Many laptops reduce energy usage and extend battery life by focussing most of their light output in a narrow cone in front of the screen, amplifying the brightness for viewers directly in front of the display. This technique has its drawbacks, however, and means that users can never quite trust the brightness and shadow detail of an image on a laptop display. Are the shadows in the image file actually as seen, or are they a bit more open, or a bit more clogged, as seen when your head is a bit higher or lower in relation to the screen. And are colors exactly as seen on screen? Even to a second viewer, who is reviewing your images with you, and is a bit to your left or right.

The answer to this conundrum is to use a proper IPS screen which shows similar color and brightness at a wide range of viewing angles. The flip side of this coin is increased battery drain to display this wide, even view of the screen. In addition to the increased pixel count of the Retina screen, these two factors (resolution, viewing angle) are the top two reasons the computer uses more juice. Apple’s solution to this is to build a series of custom sized battery cells into the ultra-thin body to provide for the higher energy uses of this amazing display. This produces the highest quality screen I have ever seen on a laptop; but the high drain, custom batteries will not be inexpensive to replace, when the time comes.


The Retina display can produce luminance levels as high as 280 candelas per meter squared. This is not the brightest display on the market, but it is still bright enough for all reasonable uses. The display dimming controls allow a full range of dimming of this screen for use in low light, color managed conditions as well, plus the bonus of an “off” setting at the bottom of the dimming scale, to turn the screen’s backlight completely off, for conditions such as a long, overnight session of moving files to another drive. This range of brightness is valuable for color managed use and calibration, where adjusting the display to an appropriate brightness for the ambient light level is important.

Device Type Category 

The best of current display calibration systems, including the Spyder4 devices, characterizes devices based on display type. The Retina display fits nicely into the Standard Gamut, White LED backlight category. At this time, the Retina display MBP is newer than the latest release of Spyder4 software, so until the next Spyder4 software update, when you calibrate a Retina display MBP, the Spyder’s New Display wizard will ask you to choose a gamut and backlight type for the display (after the next update, this will be done automatically, and invisibly). The choices noted above (Standard Gamut, White LED Backlight) are correct.  Fitting well into this category improves the accuracy of calibration on this display.


Display calibration includes user control adjustments, which are not really relevant for laptops, where the brightness must be changed for use in different environments, with different levels of ambient light; and video LUT adjustments, which gray balance the display and set an appropriate tone response curve (gamma, in simplest terms) for all applications on the device, at a global level. The Retina display is a good citizen, allowing accurate readings of colors for gray balancing, and accurate readings of luminance for tone response mapping. So calibration is very effective on the Retina display, and the resulting “Before and After” demo in the Spyder4 software will show that the uncalibrated state is not bad, but that the calibrated state is indeed better, both in terms of white balance, and densities in images.


The other component of the calibration and profiling process consists of creating an ICC profile describing the current state of your display, its primary colors, its tone response curve or gamma, and other factors. Resolution does not effect color and density measurements, so the main feature of the Retina display is not a problem for profiling. The Retina display, by avoiding problematic technologies or extreme color saturations, allows for very accurate profiling of the display. I will oversee detailed comparisons to a laboratory grade display measurement device next week, but even in advance of that process, I have full confidence that the Retina display is being capable of being very accurately profiled by latest generation profiling tools such as the Spyder4.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: Return to Blog’s Main Page

Published by cdtobie

This blog covers a range of issues of interest to photographers and those involved in the digital photographic workflow, digital tools and platforms, and fine art output.

31 thoughts on “Retina Display MacBook Pro for Calibration and Photography

  1. Very good review and one of the few I’ve found showing the Datacolor sRGB gamut. I use the spyder 3 system (just ordered spyder4 upgrade)

    Can you please advise if the results shown are before or after calibration?

    If results are from after cal. , have you confirmed that the Datacolor profile is working correctly in third party editing apps that are not yet updated for the new Retina display? (ie; Lightroom, CS5, On One etc…)


    1. Hi JJ,

      Profiling does not change the gamut of a device, it simply measures and records it. Calibration can effect the luminance of a display, by dimming it in the video LUTs, and reduce the gamut by pulling down one or more of the primaries to generate more a more balanced whitepoint. But the gamut shown is the native gamut of the device.

      As for third party apps on the Retina Display, as I noted, Photoshop does not yet support the full resolution, but both Photoshop and Lightroom both display color correctly on it. Can’t speak for any of the plugins/standalones from OneOne, NIK, etc… though I will be trying some of these in the near future. I’ve been invited to present for NIK TV, so I expect I’ll be testing their apps first.

    1. AdobeRGB has the same red and blue primaries as sRGB; it just has a more brilliant green. With a display that is a dead ringer to sRGB, comparison to aRGB is rather pointless, it will display everything except that little chevron shaped wedge from blue up through saturated cyans to green, and a similar wedge down from green, through saturated yellows to red. Identical to any graph that shows both sRGB and aRGB.

  2. thx … is the Adobe RGB color space is larger than for a non-retinal display? I read that he should be smaller than non-retina display of 2011.

  3. I followed your remarks about sRGB and AdobeRGB concerning the display of the new Retina MBP.
    I was just wondering what you think of this review:
    where the author states that the AdobeRGB gamut is 7% less than in the previous MBP (without Retina display).

    I am seriously considering buying a Retina MBP for “on-location” photo editing (whilst on photo shoots) where you cannot bring your calibrated Eizo display with you (due to size and weight). You stated that the sRGB gamut is nearly 100%. Anandtech stated the AdobeRGB is with 67,1% even lower than from the previous MBP.

    Can you make a “real-world-evaluation” for serious Photoshop work on location on this machine ?

    Apart from the whole gamut discussion I really like the fact that the viewing angle is vastly improved over previous MBP displays due to IPS technology.
    But what still bugs me is the fact that AdobeRGB might be less good than on my (calibrated) 17″MBP…

    thanks in advance

    1. He ends that article by stating: ” Apple has delivered tightly integrated IPS panels with wonderful performance characteristics as a part of the Retina brand. I do hope that for the years to come Apple does not compromise on these fronts.”

      While you seem to have some confusion about AdobeRGB (a space that can display more saturated greens and cyans, but which is not matched well to non-color managed functions) and sRGB, both this article and my own testing show this to be an excellent photo editing display; possibly the best laptop photo editing screen ever. The gamut is considerable larger than apple laptops of a couple of years ago, and even if its down slightly from the very last MacBook Pro, that reduction normalizes it to sRGB images, as well as the iPad 3. The quality of the screen, viewing angle, and reduced reflectivity are far more important than chasing fluorescent greens.

      AdobeRGB is simply not the standard against which this display should be compared: it is an sRGB display. It would score the same percentage of aRGB as sRGB itself does: 76 percent, give or take a point or so.

      1. I just callbrated my Retina Display MBP using Spyder 4 Elite and got 100 sRGB and 75% aRGB. Also, the profile overview shows the triangles matching up perfectly between aRGB and sRGB.

        The brightness on this screen blows my eyes out, so I’ve knocked it down. In fact, the callibration process forced me to knock it down to bring it to a proper range.

    1. I read your Retina MBP article; very courageous to change OSes at this point in your career. I hope you are able to acclimate to the little things that just never are quite the same…

  4. Nice review, thank you. Is it just me? Or does everyone else think the retina is dark? I think that’s leading me to over expose my photos in post. I haven’t printed any of these out yet so I’m not quite sure. How do you calibrate a retina monitor?

    1. I’d say its you. A calibrated Retina Display is not dark, in terms of dimness, or in terms of clogged shadows, or in any other terms I know that could be construed as “dark”. How do you calibrate a Retina Monitor? Just like any other monitor. Get a calibrator (ideally a latest generation one) set the target values appropriately (automatic, at least with a Spyder) and tell it to calibrate.

  5. Great article, thank you. I would like to use the rMBP for photo editing. I am not a pro so I am not going to do a color critical work but would like to have “decent’ results.
    I would assume that the rMBP would be enough for me and I would not need to buy and external IPS monitor (something like Dell U2412M which is still an sRGB monitor). What are your thoughts on this?


    1. I think its a reasonable plan. And you can add another display later if needed. But be sure to hardware calibrate your rMBP (or any other display) before you do photo editing on it!

  6. thank you for a great review. I do my critical photoshop work on a monitor that can display full aRGB profile: 27″ Widescreen Color-Critical Desktop Monitor w/ SpectraViewII MODEL: PA271W-BK-SV. the main difference I see between the external monitor and the calibrated MacBook pro monitors (not retina) is the difficulties with the blacks. The screens are just too contrasty and if trying to print a photo edited on a MacBook Pro 15 inch I7 quad high res screen, it appears not contrasty and washed out. Once the images are brought to the MacPro desktop and edited on external aRBG monitor which has his own software and hardware calibration, the images print perfectly on Epson 7890 large format printer. My question: on a calibrated retina display, will the black contrast be similar to external monitors or will it be as contrasty as the non retina displays on the Mac laptops or desktops and again, what looks like a rich black prints as non-contrasty washed out dark grey? Also, can the brightness be calibrated so that it can be matched for printing the picture files directly on the epson printers?

    Thank you in advance for your response and feedback.

    1. That depends on what you mean by blacks, and by contrasty. And what media types you use, and whether you soft proof. And how bright your display is, and how bright your viewing light is. So you see, it’s complicated. But MY Retina MBP matches MY inkjet prints in the darks quite nicely.

      And yes, laptop luminance can be controlled for print matching.

  7. Very nice article. I am getting my Retina Macbook Pro in the near future and was wondering about calibration. I do photo editing and obviously, calibration is important to me. I currently use a SpyderPro 3 for my older Macbook Pro. I’m wondering if you have any further information since the writing of this article? Do you know if the SyderPro 3 will work with the Retina Macbook? If not, has the software been updated for the Syder 4?


    1. The Retina MBPs have very well mannered, easy to read displays. You can certainly try calibrating it with your Spyder3, and if you are not satisfied with the results, you can upgrade your Spyder at that point.

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