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Should I buy a laptop or desktop for photo editing?

Should I buy a laptop or desktop for photo editing?

This is a question that I get asked a surprising amount by photographers. And the truth is, there’s no easy answer. It all depends on what you want or need to move forward as a photographer. Laptops are coming very close to desktops in terms of power, functionality, and usability. But they’re not nearly as customizable, comfortable or long-lasting as desktop computers.

So here’s a guide based on my years of experience with the platforms. 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. 

So while many of the tips that I’ll give do also relate to Mac, it’s not my system, and I don’t recommend it to others. But I’ll get into a debate on that subject another day.

A graphic showing which computer is better for photo editing
Will a laptop be powerful enough? Or should I buy a desktop computer?

Why should I buy a laptop over a desktop? 

The main reason is because they’re portable. I can take my laptop from sitting to laying down in a matter of seconds. This device can go from being a Netflix/YouTube machine and a Photo/video editing powerhouse in 10 seconds flat. It’s powerful, it can run video games 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 clients my work, my laptop is my best friend. I can have everything ready to go, hop in my car or the bus and be ready to not only show clients the work, but to do some quick edits in front of them. 

If I’m doing studio work, I can tether my photos straight into the laptop. So I can check sharpness and image quality in Lightroom while taking the shot instead of relying on the back of the camera. 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 favourite photos on site so there’s less time going back and forth over email. 

This is an insanely powerful workflow that has saved me from having to reshoot countless times. And these are all features that I just can’t do on a desktop computer. I’m sorry, but no client is going to wait a half-hour for you to drag a computer out of your car and set up all the cables in front of them. Hell no.

You just can’t have this kind of comfort with a Desktop computer.

Are there cons to using a laptop for photo editing?

Okay, laptops are far from perfect. They can be organized to be fast and efficient, but they’ll never be as powerful as a desktop. Laptop screens are tiny, and most machines out there skip out on building in proper colour rendition. Very few laptops on the screen can even support the full sRGB colour format, which is the most compressed colour profile built for sharing images on the web. It’s kind of sad, really. And after that, very few support 4k screen formats, which help immensely during the editing process. Hell, the affordable ones that do support 4K, can barely even handle it when moving through Lightroom quickly. 

Laptops are also quick to overheat. And when they do, if they don’t dissipate heat properly, they’ll burn themselves out over time. This is a major problem for serial 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 how quickly the world advances, and the other part is because Adobe programs are unquenchable power-hungry beasts. 

The next factor is the ergonomics. So 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 of a beating as it used to be able to. I can only sit in hard chairs slumped over a computer for so long before developing a hunchback. So a laptop will need a large variety of supports before it becomes comfortable enough to use long term. Certainly, I can’t work for long hours on a comfortable couch with it resting on my lap, as intended. 

Laptops aren’t ergonomic. It’s difficult to maintain good posture, which can cause back problems down the line

What does a good photo editing laptop need to have?

  1. Intel I7 or AMD Ryzen 7 processor
  2. 16Gb of Ram
  3. 1080 Monitor (2.7k or 4k is better)
  4. 500gb SSD
  5. Full-spectrum sRGB monitor
  6. At least 2 USB ports.

Extras that’ll make a laptop better: 

  1. Headphone jack (I’m looking at you, Apple)
  2. As many USB ports as possible, with at least one USB C port
  3. Ethernet input
  4. HDMI input
  5. SD card reader

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 spec upgrades for a little extra cost. You can also purchase ergonomic supports down the road. For example, I have a laptop stand on top of two yoga blocks, a wired keyboard, and wireless mouse. And while it’s not the steadiest thing, it supports my frame and allows me to edit with a somewhat okay posture. (My wife would probably say something different, though)

An SSD is really an important measure for a laptop computer. Especially with photo editing, this will make a major difference on the life and speed of the editing machine. If you can’t afford an SSD larger than 500gb, you can always buy an additional 500gb USB ssd down the road for around $150, which is usually less than the cost of upgrading to the next step built-in. 

Desktop computer station
A desktop work station can be it’s own piece of art.

What are the benefits of a desktop computer? 

Reliability! Desktop computers are way more powerful and way cheaper. You can build these machines yourself for sometimes half the cost of buying an equivalent machine pre-built, and then when the components get old, it’s a breeze to update. As well when a piece of the desktop breaks, it’s easy to order a new part and install it yourself, where laptops are becoming more and more proprietary every year. 

As well, if you need additional storage, you’re not limited to a tiny chassis. You can install a new hard drive without taking up a precious USB slot. Typically HDDs on a desktop are larger and have a faster RPM. This means that they can read and write data much faster than they can on a desktop. 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 sacrifice any size. So the components can dissipate heat faster taking advantage of larger fans and open space. This also means they last longer since the heat doesn’t break them down as fast as they do on a laptop. 

Desktop computers are also much more ergonomic, with 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 are also moving to 4K, and support larger colour gamuts that are flawless for editing photos and videos. And you can always add a second, or the third screen to make you look like a boss the computer more usable. 

This editor wouldn’t have his workstation any other way.

What are the cons of a PC?

Well, they take up a lot of space. They’re unmovable pieces of tech and they basically require a certain 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 your life. 

What should I look for in an editing PC if I were to buy one today? 

 

  1. Extra space to expand the components
  2. A large hard drive, at least 1Tb
  3. Intel I7, or AMD Ryzen 7 processor
  4. Graphics card with 2gb Ram
  5. 16gb Ram minimum
  6. 4K monitor, full-spectrum sRGB 
  7. A chair that you can spend a couple of days in
  8. Standing desk.

Optional extras that’ll make editing more fun

  1. A second monitor
  2. Standing desk
  3. A graphics card with 4gb of Ram
  4. Dedicated hard-drive station that can be expanded over time
  5. Your own artwork framed on the wall around your workstation
Frameable photos like this one can take hours of hard work before they’re ready. Be sure that you have a comfortable space so that you can continue working as long as you need to create your own masterpieces

Okay, I’ve made my decision, what’s next?

Awesome. A good computer will be a major help in the end. The last thing in the world you want is for the machine you rely on most to let you down. Spend the extra money now, and you won’t regret it. 

But when you’re ready to put that computer through its paces, you should take a look at my Lightroom Jumpstart guide. It’s got all the tips and tricks you need to help you become a professional landscape photo editor. I’ve been using Lightroom since the beginning of my photography career, and I’ve developed a unique workflow that will help you make the kind of fine art landscape photographs that you and your friends will want to hang on their walls. 

Sign up today and get the Lightroom Jumpstart course for only $49!

Tim Shields

Tim Shields is the founder of Photography Academy, the author of The Photo Cookbook, and the creator of the Photography Transformation 4-Step System. He holds the designation of Master Photographer in Fine Art from Master Photographers International.