CD Tobie: Retina Display MacBook Pro for Calibration and Photography
Jun 2012 28

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 one 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.

C. DAVID TOBIE has been involved in color management and digital imaging from their early development. David has worked to see affordable solutions put in place for graphic design, prepress, photography and digital imaging, and then taught users how best to utilize them. He has consulted internationally for a wide range of color-related companies, and is best known by photographers for his writing and technical editing of texts and periodicals for the photo industry such as Mastering Digital Printing, and Professional Photographer magazine, and his seminars on color and imaging at photographic workshop around the globe. David is currently Global Product Technology Manager at Datacolor, where he develops new products and features for their Spyder line of calibration tools. His work has received a long line of digital imaging product awards including the coveted TIPA award, and a nomination for the Spyder line of calibration tools. Much of David’s recent writing can be found at his photography blog:, and his samples of his photography can be seen at:

  • Great to see this article published on the SpyderBlog. I will be interested to hear Spyder user’s views on this rather unique new display, the laptop its built into, and Spyder calibration of this device. I’ll also try to answer any questions that I can… especially since so few people have the Retina MBP yet.


    Hi C. DAVID TOBIE. Good info. Eventhough I am not a photographer I use my macbook pro retina with many graphics and colors and I like to have the best resolution possible at all times.

    Thanks for the tips