When I was a new photographer, I spend ages going over the internet to see what kind of a computer I should upgrade to. Back when I was in college, I always thought that a laptop computer wasn’t powerful enough for photo editing and that a desktop computer would be more practical. In some cases, a desktop is the best long-term choice. But laptops are also a great choice for most people out there. When you’re looking to decide which machine will suit your purposes, there’s a couple of considerations to take.
As a general rule, laptops are more flexible than desktops and are powerful enough for most photographers. But desktop computers are cheaper in the long term and offer more ergonomic supports. Most editing apps require 8Gb of ram to operate but typically need more power to run efficiently.
So here’s a guide based on my years of experience editing on both types of machines. But there’s one thing that I need to get out of the way first, and that’s that I’m through and through a PC user. I’ve worked with both PC and Mac, and there are good reasons to use both. But in the end, because of the power, prices, and additional functionality that I get with a PC, I’m not switching back anytime soon. In fact, there are some tools that ONLY exist for PC. Many programs have been adapted to Mac over the years, but there is still a large number of programs and technical solutions that only work on PC.
That said, much of the advice in this article still applies to both types of computer users. But I’ll get into a debate on that subject another day.
The main reason to buy a laptop computer for photo editing is that they’re portable. I can take my laptop from sitting at my desk to lounging on the couch in a couple of seconds. The minute that I finish editing, I can take the same machine with me while I relax and watch Netflix. It’s powerful enough for the vast majority of user demands and has a good enough battery life to leave the charger behind if I want to have a solid 8-hour editing session at a cafe.
When I’m showing portfolios to clients, the laptop is my best friend. I can have everything ready to go. Just hop in the car, and show the clients the photos I took, and even do some minor edits in front of them if need be!
In the studio, I can tether my photos straight into my laptop. This allows me to check sharpness and image quality in Lightroom while taking the shot. I myself, or an assistant can even start editing right then and there. This way I know that I have enough photographs, and I know exactly which ones to edit when I’m taking product photos. I can also let the client choose their favorite photos on site so there’s less time going back and forth over email.
This is a powerful workflow that has saved me from having to reshoot countless times. And it just doesn’t work as well with a desktop computer. No client is going to wait for a half-hour for you to drag a computer out of your car and set up all the cables in front of them. This also wastes precious time in the studio and increases the chances of losing files due to user error.
Laptops aren’t perfect. Many of them are fast and efficient, but they’ll never be as powerful as a desktop. Laptop screens are tiny. As well, very few laptop screens can even show the full sRGB color format — a compressed color profile built for sharing images on the web. And after that, only the more expensive models can show a 4k resolution, which helps you see the image clearer when editing process. And many of the affordable models that do have 4k screens will grind to a halt when performing tasks in Lightroom. If you’re on a budget, I absolutely recommend looking for a Full HD screen rather than a 4K one, as it will perform much better under pressure.
Laptops are quick to overheat. When this happens, the computer will automatically slow itself down so that it doesn’t ruin the electronics. If they don’t dissipate heat properly, either the process of cooling down will take a long time, or they’ll burn themselves out. This is a problem for constant users of Photoshop and Lightroom. After just a couple of years, what was once a shiny, beautiful, top-of-the-line machine might start to feel sluggish. Part of it is because of the machine overheating more because of dust and objects getting inside, head allowing it to heat up faster. The other part of the equation, though, is that Adobe programs are unquenchable power-hungry beasts.
The next factor is ergonomics. I can sit at a cafe for 8 hours and edit to my heart’s content. But I’m getting older, and my spine is not able to take as much bending as it used to be able to. I can only sit in hard chairs slumped over a computer so long before developing a hunchback. A laptop will need some ergonomic supports before it becomes comfortable enough to use during long sessions. But if this is your day job or a hobby you spend a lot of time on, ergonomics may be a deciding factor in deciding whether or not to buy a desktop computer.
Optional extras that’ll make a photo-editing laptop more enjoyable to use:
From there monitor size is really up to your personal preference. Don’t let anyone upsell you on a 15” monitor unless it comes with some serious hardware upgrades for a little extra cost. Over time, you will want to purchase ergonomic supports. For example, I have a laptop stand on top of two yoga blocks, a wired keyboard, and a wireless mouse. It’s a sturdy setup that supports my frame and allows me to edit with good posture.
An SSD is a really important piece of hardware for a laptop computer. An SSD will make a major difference in the life and speed of your photo editing machine. If you can’t afford an SSD larger than 500Gb, you can always buy additional USB hard drives down the line as necessary.
A dedicated graphics card will also make a major difference in the processing power of your computer. Adobe uses graphics cards to boost the speed of their programs, which can be a major help when running power-hungry processes like combining HDR photographs or stitching panoramas.
Desktop computers are way more powerful and way cheaper than laptops. You can build these machines yourself for sometimes half the cost of buying an equivalent pre-built machine. And when the components get old, it’s a breeze to install a new one instead of throwing out the whole computer. Unlike desktops, Laptops are becoming more and more proprietary these days, making them harder to update.
And down the line, you’re going to need additional photo storage space. You can easily install a new hard drive in a PC for extra space. Typically HDDs on a desktop are larger, more reliable, and have a faster RPM. This means that they can read and write data much faster than they can on a laptop. So you can build in multiple layers of additional, reliable storage for much cheaper than purchasing new USB hard drives every time you fill one up on a laptop.
Desktop PCs are also faster because they don’t need to fit components into a small sizer. The components in a desktop computer have more space between them. This way they dissipate heat faster and can take advantage of larger fans and different types of cooling systems. In the real world, the extra heat dissipation means that you’ll have a faster computer because it won’t constantly hold back performance to reduce heat production.
Desktop computers are also more ergonomic. They have larger screens that sit at the proper height to support good posture. You can easily spend an entire day working on a desktop computer without having back or shoulder aches. And at the same time, most newer screens support 4K or greater resolution. Some of them can even support larger color gamuts than sRGB. And you can always add a second, or the third screen to make
you look like a boss the computer more usable.
Well, they take up a lot of space. They’re unmovable, and basically require a space dedicated only to their use. You’re going to get way more power and usability, but you can’t just move to the next room and continue watching that YouTube tutorial. In most cases, you’re going to also need to have a laptop. And you could just get a cheap Chromebook or tablet for watching videos, but do you really want something so limited?
But that’s mostly it! And those cons are dealbreakers to many people — especially if they only want a single computer in their life.
Optional extras that’ll make editing more fun
Once you’ve got the perfect computer for your lifestyle, the next step is to get out there and start taking amazing photographs! I’ve developed a simple, four-step process for taking and editing fine-art landscape photographs. This process has made all the difference in my career, and helped me win multiple international awards for my photographs! And I’m giving this away in my Free Online Web Class. Sign up here to learn more about how this system can help revolutionize your photography workflow today.