As an aspiring photographer, you’re bound to have a hard time while getting your hands on good or even decent equipment. A great DSLR camera and a couple of lenses can cost a fortune on their own, and there’s tons of extra stuff you will need to get it up and running in all circumstances. But even those don’t amount to much if you don’t have a powerful computer to match them. So, how to choose the best computer for photo editing? Which specifications are optimal? Last but not least, how much money will it cost you? I’ll cover all these questions and more in this blog post, and then I will present a few of the best solutions currently on the market.
For starters, let’s get one thing clear. Splurging on just about any expensive computer doesn’t mean you will get the best of it as a photographer. Not all pricey computers are made equal. Before making that dreaded choice, you will need to know precisely what you’re looking for.
“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” – Warren Buffett
Best Photo Editing Computer “Must-Haves”
As you most probably know, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are two sacred tools for every photographer and photo editor. Both are highly advanced software and they tend to devour your computer’s resources, at least where larger projects are concerned.
So, in order to handle them properly and with ease, you will need the following components to work without any strain:
- A dedicated graphics card or GPU. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this feature. A dedicated card, as opposed to integrated, feeds off its own RAM, instead of parasitizing on the system’s RAM. Of course, it has its disadvantages, such as consuming more power, reducing your battery life (if you’re on a laptop), and of course, the cost. But if you plan on doing some serious photo editing, it’s definitely a must. If you do video editing too, you’d better make sure your computer is really powerful.
- Enough RAM for the system. These days, 8GB is the least you should go with. The more, the better. Believe it or not, Windows 10 typically consumes over 5GB when only Chrome and a couple of minor apps or programs are running (such as email or photo viewing software). Turn on Photoshop or Lightroom and another 1GB will get busy, even if you only just opened a couple of images and haven’t even started editing. Now, imagine a typical Photoshop or Lightroom project, with ten or more images being open at the same time. The math is simple: don’t even dream about having less than 8GB of RAM.
- A powerful processor or CPU. Contrary to the popular opinion, enough RAM won’t compensate for the lack of a good processor. But think of it as a relation between your muscles and your brain. Even if you were Hulk, your muscles wouldn’t fare well without a competent and powerful brain. Vice versa also stands: the greatest brain in the universe wouldn’t thrive without relying on the body. CPU is your computer’s brain. If you’re wondering about brands, Intel would definitely be a win, since Adobe products have proven to work better with Intel CPUs – specifically, the Core-i series. And now, an info that your wallet will like: there is no need to go for the highest core counts. While having a 16- or 32-core CPU is probably awesome, it’s far from necessary. An 8-core should do just fine.
- Enough capacity on your hard drive. Photoshop and Lightroom have a say here as well. They will going to use your hard drive as the so-called “scratch disk,” so they can store temporary files somewhere when there isn’t enough RAM. These files can get really huge. To prevent clogging your system’s memories, it’s best to get at least 1TB of disk space, plus an SSD to accommodate your operating system as well as Adobe products.
- A great monitor… Or two. Getting a wide, high-resolution monitor will not only reduce the eye strain, but will also have an immense impact on the quality of your final product. Once you get a chance to work with a really powerful monitor, it will feel as if you got a fresh pair of eyes – quite literally. Since you are working with colors, you’d better make sure your colors show really accurate. If you already have a decent but not excellent monitor that you would like to keep using, consider getting a monitor calibrator. It will make sure you always get the right colors. Keep in mind, however, that many top-notch monitors have spotless colors to begin with, so they won’t need a calibrator. As for dual monitor system, it will incredibly boost your efficiency by allowing you to spread out your tools and previews.
Do I Need a Mac or a PC?
I won’t indulge the decades long debate between ardent and fierce Apple and PC advocates and loyalists. We’re interested in facts here, so let’s cast all subjectivity aside and see which is the best computer for photo editing.
The cold truth is that both Mac and PC have their own pros and cons. So, the choice usually boils down to personal preference. Do you want a powerful beast of a computer? You don’t have to splurge thousands on a Mac. You can get equally or even more bang for your buck if you buy a PC. That being said, I won’t take the PC side either. I admit that there is more than one area where Apple champions are right. Mac computers aren’t nearly as vulnerable to viruses and various other threats that lurk behind the corner in the PC world. Due to their more stable infrastructure, they are also less likely to crash or cause various bugs and errors in the midst of your project.
As a rule of thumb, PCs are more upgradeable (not an insignificant advantage) and support a far wider variety of software. But then again, it’s harder to make the choice when you get to choose between dozens of manufacturers for every single component. Compared to that, a Mac will give you none to very little headache, since they build almost all the hardware and software in-house.
“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” – Plato
A Desktop or a Laptop?
Most professional photographers I know don’t rely on a single computer, be it a desktop or a laptop. Instead, they have one of each, for different purposes and circumstances. And that is the most recommended option – of course, if you can afford it. A powerful laptop will be your travel companion, so you don’t have to rush home whenever you need to do some quick editing. A super-reliable monster of a desktop would be sitting at home, waiting for you to come and feed it materials from the shooting session. The two aren’t interchangeable. You can’t drag a desktop around. And a laptop doesn’t have unlimited upgrading opportunity. Each of them has its own strengths and weaknesses.
However, if you really have to make a choice, it would probably be best to get a super powerful laptop AND a good monitor to hook it up when you’re at home. That’s simply due to the fact that you should always be able to bring the best computer for photo editing with you, but you shouldn’t have to rely on a single small screen of a laptop. If I had to compromise, I would probably go for that kind of a middleground.
Best Computer for Photo Editing – Top 8 Choices (Updated 2020)
I will try to make this section as useful as possible for the widest audience, by including both the best options money can buy, as well as those that should fit an average budget. Also, I will feature both desktops and laptops. So, let’s dig in!
Microsoft Surface Studio 2
Specs: 1.3GHz Intel Core i7 Processor. 32GB RAM. NVIDIA GeForce GPU. 28-Inch PixelSense Display Touchscreen Monitor. 1TB SSD.
Everybody (myself included) will advise you against getting an all-in-one computer. And for obvious reasons: they are rarely upgradeable, and if something goes wrong, fixing it is a nightmare. Plus, cleaning can be way more difficult and tricky than with “ordinary” desktops. I agree with all that, except when it comes to state-of-the-art models such as Microsoft Surface Studio. All designers and photo editors will be thrilled at its 13.5 million pixels of true-to-life colors. Plus, you can tilt the machine (I almost said the monitor, gods forbid!) at 20 degrees down to work in studio mode.
It’s a real beast for people who work with digital art, yet stylish enough to suit even the fiercest Apple fans. Unfortunately, it’s very expensive and therefore unaffordable for most people. But you could do well to plan on acquiring it as soon as your possibilities allow.
Apple iMac Pro
Specs: 3.2GHz 8-core Intel Xeon W Processor. 32GB RAM. 1TB SSD. 27-inch with Retina 5K Display.
There isn’t much to say about this computer, except that it’s hands down one of a few most powerful machines out there. The standard iMac design has been around for a decade now, and they still stay true to it. In case 32GB RAM is less than you need, it is easy to upgrade through the circular opening on the back of the computer.
There are two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports that allow for further upgrades. Even the heaviest tasks will run smoothly, and to be frank, you might not even need this amount of power. But if you are an Apple fan, it will be a non-negotiable choice for you.
Dell XPS 8930 Tower Desktop
Specs: 8th Generation Intel i7-8700 6-Core 3.20GHz Processor (up to 4.60GHz). 16GB DDR4 Memory. 2TB SATA Hard Drive. NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050Ti 4GB GDDR5 Graphics.
Those of you who don’t mind having a box below your computer desk will find this machine a real monster in terms of performance. The graphics are powerful enough to power any hardware-intensive task, be it photo and video editing or immersive gaming. Special thermally controlled fans are very quiet, with multiple airflows that cool the CPU, GPU, and power supply unit separately, so that heating will never be an issue.
There are 11 USB ports, two of which are USB-C type. The card is dedicated with 4GB of its own RAM, so it won’t eat up your system’s resources. The computer comes pre-loaded with Windows 10 and has almost no bloatware. (If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s unneeded software that comes included in a new computer and requires some hassle to get rid of.)
Apple Mac Mini with AppleCare+
Specs: 3.0GHz 6-Core Intel Core i5 Processor with TurboBoost up to 4.1GHz. 256GB SSD. 8GB RAM. Intel UHD Graphics 630.
A very powerful machine in a very small and elegant package, this Apple Mac Mini should handle every task and workload you throw at it. It’s definitely a great solution for those of you who prefer a desktop computer but are reluctant to carry a big box with them. With four USB-C Thunderbolt ports available, you can upgrade this little machine in various ways, for most purposes. The RAM is upgradeable to up to 64GB, in case you have any doubt. But my guess is that you’ll have a perfectly smooth experience with the RAM as it is. One would expect such a small gadget to overheat in a second when running bulky operations, but you shouldn’t worry on that account. It has an advanced thermal architecture with great airflow, so temperature won’t be an issue.
The only minus is that the graphics card is integrated. Bad news for photo editors as well as gamers! You can get an external GPU to improve the performance, but it will raise the cost even more.
HP Pavilion Wave Compact Desktop Computer
Specs: 6th Generation Intel(R) Core(TM) i5-6400T Processor, Quad-Core, 2.20GHz. 8 GB DDR4-2133 SDRAM. 1 TB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive. 128GB SSD. Windows 10.
I know that looks aren’t everything, but it helps when your computer doesn’t look like a big, plain box. This one certainly doesn’t, and it even has a fully integrated audio system. The powerful processor allows for great multitasking performance, as well as 4K video capabilities.
You won’t lack any storage space even if you feed the computer with all of your digital content. Thanks to the integrated audio that lets you ditch those speakers, I would recommend it to video editors or simply those who enjoy listening to music while they work. Or to those who really like their desk to look beautiful.
CyberPowerPC Gamer Ultra
Specs: 3.5 GHz FX-Series Six-Core FX-6300 Processor. 8 GB DDR3 RAM. 1024 GB Mechanical Hard Drive. AMD Radeon R7 240 Graphic Coprocessor. Windows 10 Home.
Let’s jump to the machines toward the lower end. And don’t just skip this model because it’s called “Gamer.” Since gaming and photo/video editing requires pretty much the same technical specs, you won’t be disappointed with this machine. In fact, it provides an enormous value for the money. The dedicated graphics card runs on 2GB of its own RAM. If you want to get (or already have) multiple monitors, fret not, since this computer is dual-monitor compatible. Keyboard and mouse are included in the package and price.
Of course, very advanced users might find it lacking. But then again, it doesn’t cost an arm and leg, so we shouldn’t expect it to be perfect or even compare it with the top-notch solutions.
Lenovo ThinkPad P1 Premium School and Business Mobile Workstation Laptop
Specs: 8th Generation Coffee Lake Intel 6-Core i7-8750H Processor (up to 4.1GHz). 32GB DDR4 SDRAM Memory. 512GB Sata SSD. 15.6-Inch Full HD (1920×1080) Display. Windows 10 Professional.
If you’re looking for a perfect laptop for photo editing, and are willing to splurge whatever it costs, Lenovo ThinkPad P1 is probably the best computer you can buy as of this moment. The IPS display means that the colors are bright, true-to-life, and don’t change or reduce in quality when viewed from different angles.
Two Thunderbolt 3 ports enable upgrading, in case you find it lacking in any respect (which I sincerely doubt). It might sound unbelievable, but this contraption is more powerful than some very expensive desktops. Apart from amazing performance and display, this laptop also features very flexible yet sturdy design, so you don’t have to worry about rougher treatment when you’re out and about.
Apple MacBook Pro 15-Inch
Specs: 15-inch Retina Display. 2.2GHz 6-Core Intel Core i7 Processor. 16GB RAM. 256GB SSD. Intel UHD Graphics 630. Touch Bar.
The Retina Display is as gorgeous as ever, due to the very high pixel density. The True Tone technology adjusts the display brightness to the external lightning in your environment. Traditional function keys are replaced with customizable Touch Bar, which allows you to use your tools intuitively. It automatically recognizes the type of work you’re engaged in, and offers you the most relevant functions. So, if you are editing a photo, for example, just touch and hold the touch bar to automatically preview the original, pre-editing version. The SSD is super fast. Of course, you can always go with the cheaper 13-inch version, but I wanted to include the bigger display since it’s very important for photo editing.
The only con I can think of is lack of a SD card port, which many photographers will find annoying. Also, the storage and RAM could have been better for a computer this expensive.