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Should I buy a laptop or desktop for photo editing?

Should I buy a laptop or desktop for photo editing?

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.

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 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. 

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

Are there cons to using a laptop for photo editing?

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.

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

What specifications should a photo editing laptop have?

  1. Intel I7 or AMD Ryzen 7 processor
  2. 16Gb of Ram
  3. 1080 (Full HD) Monitor 
  4. 500Gb SSD minimum
  5. At least 2 USB ports

Optional extras that’ll make a photo-editing laptop more enjoyable to use: 

  1. Headphone jack (I’m looking at you, Apple)
  2. 2.7k, or 4k Monitor with full sRGB spectrum
  3. A machine with a dedicated graphics card
  4. 1Tb SSD storage
  5. As many USB ports as possible, with at least one USB C port
  6. Ethernet input
  7. HDMI input
  8. SD card reader
  9. An external mouse, keyboard, and additional ergonomic supports

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 computer station
A desktop workstation can be its own piece of art.

What are the benefits of a desktop computer? 

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. 

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, 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. 

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

  1. Extra space for new hard drives and additional 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
  6. 4K monitor, full-spectrum sRGB 

Optional extras that’ll make editing more fun

  1. A second monitor
  2. Standing desk with other ergonomic supports
  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?

The Photography Transformational MasterclassOnce 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.

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.