What Computer Should You Get For Photography?

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Apple iMac Retina 5K (Image Courtesy Apple Inc.)

If you’re wondering what the best computer is for photography then you’re not alone! It’s one of the most popular questions we get asked.

We also just recently purchased new computers so I’ll also share some thoughts on the decision making process we took.

The Most Frequently Asked Questions About New Computers For Photography

Should I get a Mac or a PC?

 

Inspiron

A Dell Inspirion PC All In One PC (Image Courtesy of Dell Inc.)

From a technical point of view there’s not a big difference between a Mac computer and PC. They’re both computers, and both operating systems will run the popular photography programs you’ll be using (Lightroom, Photoshop, etc).

One drawback of Mac is the premium you pay over an equivalent PC. Apple computers generally cost more than PCs. It’s my opinion that the superior industrial design and operating system from Apple is worth paying extra for.

Another drawback of Mac is the lack of upgradeability. With a PC there’s a much better chance you’ll be able to upgrade the hard drive, RAM, video card, etc. Most Mac computers aren’t very user upgradable, which means you need to pick your upgrades when ordering the computer. Also, if your Mac breaks the chances of repairing it yourself are pretty slim (get the extended warranty!)

Macs have developed a bit of a reputation for their reliability because of the control Apple has between hardware and software. Since Apple makes the computer and the operating system they can ensure maximum compatibility between the two while other PC manufacturers just make the computer and then run Windows. Personally I think this is less of an issue than it used to be.

Having used both PC and Mac over the years, and despite the drawbacks I just mentioned, my personal recommendation is still for Mac. The biggest reason is that I find the Mac operating system (OSX) more intuitive and more enjoyable to use. I feel like I can work faster with Mac than with Windows (this nothing to do with computer speed, just but rather the design and usability of the operating system).

As kind of a counter-recommendation, I wouldn’t specifically switch to Mac just for a new photography computer. If you’re using a PC right now and you’re comfortable with PC then it might be better for you to stick with it. Learning photography can be confusing enough without also trying to get comfortable with a new computer operating system.

Should I get a Desktop vs. Laptop?

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Apple Retina MacBook Pro (Image Courtesy Apple Inc.)

The short answer is “get both!”.

If you don’t have a computer at all then starting with a laptop is probably the better choice. They’re often a bit cheaper than desktops, and you can always connect a monitor, keyboard and mouse to a laptop and use it like a desktop.

If you do any sort of travelling, or you’re still a student in school then you’ll likely find a laptop a more versatile solution.

So why buy a desktop? If you’re using a computer more professionally, a desktop is probably the better choice. Desktops are often more powerful, and you only need to worry about connecting all your peripheral devices (monitors, keyboards, external hard drives, memory card readers, etc) once. It’s nice to just sit down at a workstation that is totally ready to go.

I personally prefer working on my desktop computer. I like having multiple large screens to spread out windows from various programs. I also prefer using a wired mouse which is faster and more precise than wireless mice. My desktop computer also has a direct connection to my network/internet, which is faster than wifi. Finally, we have also built up a good workspace around our desktop computers (nice desk, excellent chairs, printers close by, etc).

I think another reason to get a desktop would be if you’re looking for a family computer – something everyone can use.

Ideally having both a laptop and a desktop is the way to go. You get the portability of a laptop when you need it and the power of a desktop when you’re not out and about.

We’ve been using both desktops and laptops for years and it’s been so nice (I’m writing this from a laptop on the couch right now!).

How much should I spend on a photography computer?

This is a tough question to answer because there is such a wide range of computer prices depending on whether you go Mac or PC, and what system options you choose.

I think a lot of entry level computers are fine for the hobbyist photographer, and you don’t need spend a ton getting all the bells and whistles. In fact a great place to start is probably with the computer you already own (if you already own a computer). New computers will certainly run photography software faster, but older computers (really anything released in the past 4-5 years) will still run programs like Lightroom and Photoshop.

If you’re doing photography professionally, and you’ll be using your computer everyday – then spending a bit more can certainly help speed things up for you.

Now, it’s not just the computer you need to budget for. You need to think about getting a monitor, additional hard drives for photo backup, a printer, and if you’re using Adobe software – the price of subscribing to Creative Cloud.

It all adds up:

A good colour accurate monitor that you can calibrate will run you between $1000-$1500. It seems steep, but a great monitor will really help make sure your prints look the way you intend. (I would recommend a 27-30inch monitor for photo editing, you can read our review of the NEC PA271W here).

And a photo printer can cost you anywhere between $150-$1000+ depending on the size of prints you want to do and whether you want a printer that uses archival quality inks.

A 4TB external hard drive goes for about $160. You’ll need multiple drives to ensure safe backup of your photos, with offsite storage.

Adobe offers a Creative Cloud Photography Plan that includes both Lightroom and Photoshop for $10/month. If you want the whole creative suite (adding programs like Premiere, Illustrator, InDesign, etc) then it will cost you $50/month.

Back to the computer:

As a rough estimate for an entry level system you can expect to pay between $1000 – $1500. For this amount you should get some kind of monitor (either included separately, or as part of the computer – like an all in one iMac, or Dell Inspiron).

For a pro level system you can expect to pay $2500 – $4000+. This price might not include the cost of a monitor (and you probably should be looking for a proper color accurate display to add to the computer).

What To Look For In A New Computer For Photography

When shopping for a new computer make sure to pay close attention to the following features. Two computers might look identical from the outside, but it’s what’s under the hood that makes a big difference to performance.

Here’s what to look for (roughly in order of what I feel is most important)

What to look for:

Solid State Drive

Your computer needs something to store its operating system files and programs on. Right now computer manufacturers are transitioning from hard disk drives (HDD) which store information on spinning magnetic platters, to solid state drives (SSD) which have no moving parts (like the type of storage used in your cell phone). Solid state drives read and write data much faster than traditional hard disk drives. The downside is that solid state drives are often small in capacity and cost more to upgrade

Your computer will be much faster with your operating system running on a solid state drive. I strongly recommend upgrading to a solid state drive (even if you have to settle for a lower capacity drive). It’s the best way to improve the overall performance of your computer. I would recommend at least a 512GB SSD for your computer’s operating system. I used a 256 GB SSD for a couple years and I was constantly filling it up (but I’m not super disciplined at keeping my downloads folder, or desktop very organized).

Note: some manufacturers like Apple offer a combination SSD + HDD. This has the advantage of offering the speed of a SSD with the larger storage capacity of a HDD. The performance of these drives seem pretty good, the main disadvantage seems to be when moving large amounts of files (larger than the SSD can cache), then you end up with the super slow HDD speeds. For the average user I think this is a fair trade off.

RAM

This is probably the second most important feature to consider when purchasing a new computer. RAM stands for random access memory. Your computer’s RAM is basically super fast, but temporary storage space that computer programs use.

The more programs you have open, the more RAM you’ll be using. Some programs also require / use more RAM. For example editing multiple high resolution images is going to take up more RAM than editing a couple of text documents.

I would recommend a minimum of 16GB of RAM. If you’re working with really large files (500MB+) then you might want to move up 32GB. If you’re on a Mac you can open up Activity Monitor to view how much RAM each program is using (I’m sure there’s a similar app on Windows). This will give you an idea of whether you need to get more RAM (or how much RAM you should get in your next computer).

Check to see if it’s possible to upgrade the RAM in your computer, if it is you can often purchase RAM cheaper from a 3rd party and easily install it yourself.

Video Card

A video card is what outputs images and video from your computer to your monitor. It’s also known as a graphics processing unit (GPU).

You should be looking for a video card with 2GB of RAM. You might even be able to get by without a video card (in which case the GPU is integrated into the motherboard or CPU). A video card with more RAM (4GB) will be better if you’re running ultra high resolution monitors, or doing video editing – but most photography programs won’t benefit from beefy video cards.

New to Lightroom 6/CC Adobe has added support for GPU acceleration. At the moment the only part of Lightroom that utilizes GPU acceleration is the Develop module. When making adjustments in the develop module you’ll notice how quickly the image updates with the adjustments you’re making (very little lag between making an adjustment with a slider and seeing the adjustment performed on the image).

Processor

The processor (CPU) is the part of the computer that performs operations, it’s basically the brain of the computer. The faster your CPU (measured in GHz) the more operations per second it can perform. Processors can also have multiple cores. The more cores a CPU has the more operations it is capable of performing simultaneously. The key word there is “capable”. Most programs aren’t very well optimized to take significant advantage of multiple cores.

Photography programs like Lightroom and Photoshop will benefit from a faster processor speed. That said you may not need the fastest processor out there.

If you need a computer for professional photography use then it’s worth upgrading to a faster processor, it will save you time.

If you’re a hobbyist then processor speed, and how many cores the processor has, is much less of a concern. It will simply take your computer a bit longer to perform some tasks (like exporting photos, or generating preview files).

The recommendation for processor speed and number of cores is tough to make since it will vary widely depending on whether you’re looking at a laptop, an all in one desktop, or a standalone tower. Generally when it comes to processors the higher the GHz, the faster the computer, and the more cores the processor has, the more capable it is of handling professional applications.

Our New Computers

So what did we get, and what would we do differently?

First a bit of backstory on what we’re upgrading from. For the past 4 years we’ve been using custom built PC computers that run the Mac operating system. This type of computer is called a “Hackintosh”. My recommendation is against creating a hackintosh because they take more work than either Macs or PCs to setup and to maintain. (If you’re interested you can learn how to build your own hackintosh here.)

I really enjoyed experimenting with hackintoshes. We originally built them at the time when it seemed like Apple was discontinuing the Mac Pro and we badly needed to upgrade our current Mac Pros. The hackintoshes allowed us to build very powerful computers quite cheaply.

Fast forward to today and those Hackintoshes are now quite old. Over the past year I haven’t been able to upgrade to the most recent operating system (because of the time consuming task it is it is to get everything working properly with the latest version of OSX).

So we moved back to real Apple computers!

We ended up getting two 27-inch Apple Retina 5Ks. You can learn more about the iMac Retina on Apple’s website here.

The first iMac Retina has pretty much all the upgrade options available:

Bag_-_Apple

We upgraded to the 4.0GHz processor. We ordered a 2x16GB upgraded RAM kit from OWC to bring the total RAM up to 40GB (the computer already comes with 8GB). We upgraded the SSD to 1TB, as well as the video card to the 4GB option.

This first computer is definitely overkill at the moment. We’re planning on doing a lot more video this year, which was the reason went with the beefy upgrades.

For the second iMac Retina we were a bit more reserved:

Bag_-_Apple 2

We upgraded to the 4.0 GHz processor. We ordered a 2x8GB RAM kit from OWC to bring the total RAM up to 24GB. And we upgraded to the 512GB SSD.

So basically the only difference between the computers is the amount of RAM, the size of the SSD, and the video cards.

For both computers we ordered the additional 3 year warranty (Apple Care). Since you can’t easily repair these computers yourself, the additional warranty is definitely necessary.

We use our computers professionally for hours everyday, so our choice of upgrades are a bit on the heavy side.

The 27inch screens for the Apple 5K are beautiful. Photos look absolutely stunning on this display. The color and detail from this screen is mind blowing. Text looks razor sharp. We do still have a color accurate display for print work, but for our primary screens I much prefer looking at the the ultra high resolution 5Ks.

As far as what we would do differently, I think the second (cheaper) computer we ordered was a good mix of upgrades – I probably would have upgraded the RAM on this computer to 40GB since 24GB already hasn’t been enough. While it’s awesome to have lots of room to grow with our beefier (more expensive) computer I’m not sure how much we’ll take advantage of the upgrades (the upgrade to a 1TB SSD and 4GB video card adds quite a bit).

I would also consider a slower processor. The 4.0 GHz isn’t that much faster than the 3.2 or 3.3GHz processors.

Final Thoughts

I think it’s important to emphasize that you do not need to have the latest and greatest computer to do photography on. We tend to upgrade our computers only every 4-5 years Computers are expensive so you want to make sure you get good value out of them!

I also want to stress the importance of peripheral devices to your photography. I wish I had gotten a nice photo printer sooner (we paid for our photo printer with our very first print order!). If you already have a computer I would recommend getting a printer before a new computer. 

And don’t forget about photo storage! If you’re photos aren’t properly backed up then go buy a new hard drive (or hard drives) right now and do whatever it takes to make sure those files are safe!

One final tip: look for deals! You can purchase refurbished computers directly from Apple which even qualify for the 3-year extended warranty.

When we were first getting started with photography we purchased one of our first laptops used, so check your local classifieds for deals!

Hope you’ve found this post helpful. If you have any other tips for buying a new computer for photography feel free to leave a note in the comments below! Thanks!

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