Hi everyone! It’s Black Friday / Cyber Monday 2023 weekend here. I always get a lot of questions from people on which computer, laptop, monitor and hard drives they should get. So I thought I’d write down a few general thoughts and update this as time goes on. I originally made this post in 2020. But I revise it every year, so this is the fourth version (though not much tends to change)

Also, today is the last day for the Black Friday/Cyber Monday Course bundle sales here on the site. Click here to check them out…

Keep in mind there is NO WAY to spec out the perfect computer and tell you exact specs on what you should get. But hopefully this helps point you in the right direction or maybe keep you from getting something you may regret in a year.

DISCLAIMER: Please don’t message me asking for more details on this topic. Because there are literally thousands of combinations of computers, screens and monitors I won’t be able to respond to any questions on “Should I buy this…”, or “Can you elaborate on this…”. Thanks in advance! 🙂

The Hard Truth to Come To Grips With First

The first thing to come to grips with is this. No matter which photo editing app you use (Adobe, ON1, Luminar, Capture One, Topaz, etc…), you are involved in one of the MOST INTENSIVE things you can put a computer through.

You may think you’re just an amateur photographer, just in it for fun, without a lot of requirements. But the moment you fire up one of those apps, you’re putting yourself in to the top 1% territory, when it comes to the specs you need for your computer. You require just as much power as a teen’s gaming computer. Your normal web browser or word processing app is nothing compared to the resources a photo editing app requires. So set your expectations (and Budget!) accordingly, knowing that running these programs is the hardest thing you can ask a computer to do. And if you want speed, then the cheapest option is never going to be the best.

Laptop vs. Desktop (or Tablet)

First, do you want a laptop or desktop? A laptop is portable and I’d ONLY go with this option if you absolutely need portability. If not, my recommendation would be to get a Desktop computer. A max’d out laptop (in most cases), will never be as fast as a desktop for similar money (generally). And in a few years, your laptop will start to feel very slow, and is typically not as upgradable as a desktop.

For me personally, things have changed a bit. I used to do all of my editing on an Apple iMac (2017 version). I had an Apple MacBook Pro (2016 version) and it held up okay. But remember, I need to be portable. Running an online business is 100% my livelihood. I travel often, and I need a laptop because I do teach on the road, travel, work remotely, etc… I need to have a computer with me all the time.

Anyway, one of the pain points for me is that you can guarantee whatever I wanted to work on was on “the other computer” when I had both laptop and desktop. So, back in 2021 I decided to trade in my iMac and laptop to Apple – while purchasing a new one. Then I ordered one of the MacBook Pro’s with the M1 chips (specs below). I now plug this in to a monitor (read on for which one) when I’m in my office – and the laptop has become my only computer. After two years, I can say that I’m very happy with the choice and have had absolutely zero problems with it.

What about a tablet? I said this 4 years ago and I’ll say it still today… We just aren’t there yet. People try to travel light with just a tablet, and it usually doesn’t go well. We just don’t have a good workflow yet. I know there’s those tablet/laptop hybrids and again… buy at your own risk. Trust me when I say, you’ll never get the performance you’re looking for.

Apple or Windows?

No matter what anyone says, it just doesn’t matter. No matter how passionately they argue with you, it’s a personal choice. Don’t think either one will be faster than the other, or better for photographers or anything like that. Many will disagree, but you wanted my opinion so there it is 🙂 I will say that on average, you can get a better spec’d out PC for the same money vs. an Apple product.

But personally, I’m an Apple user and I don’t see myself switching in the future. For me, the extra money is worth the experience I get, but I know many great photographers that are PC based. When that photo gets shown on Social Media, a website, or printed on the wall NOBODY can tell you which operating system it came from. Like I said… it just doesn’t matter. And if you think it does matter then there’s probably a website you can argue that on – but this ain’t it 😉

Onto the Specs…

Okay, onto the specs. Keep in mind I am as un-tech-savvy as any person out there. As I mentioned, please don’t send me questions asking me to elaborate because I won’t be able to. But here’s what I know:

PROCESSOR: Your main computer processor is one of the biggest things that will get you speed. Get the best one you can get. I can’t give you a number because there are too many with all M1’s, M3’s, i7s and i-this and multi-core-that’s. Just get the best one you can configure or afford. You won’t regret splurging on this choice, so splurge away.

RAM: Right now for most applications the “minimum” specs are 8GB of RAM. That means that’s the absolute minimum for the software to operate. And when you buy the absolute minimum of anything be prepared for absolute minimal performance.

Most companies recommend 16 GB of RAM. Again, “recommend” is the word they use to get around making you spend a ton of money on a computer. And with recommended specs, you will still get minimal performance. I would suggest at least 32GB so you have room to grow. On my previous 2017 iMac, I ordered it with 8GB of RAM cheap option, and then went to Crucial.com and ordered the 64GB Upgrade kit and upgraded it on my own (it was super easy to do – took about 3 minutes and again… I’m not tech savvy at all).

HARD DRIVE: I’d recommend at least a 1 TB Internal SSD drive. They are fast and they are what you’ll put your applications on so they can be accessed very quickly. Plus, 1 TB gives you room for extra stuff. But don’t plan on putting your photos on your internal drive because you’ll run out of space.

Most people will end up putting photos on external drives. I use externals for all of my photos. I don’t use RAID or NAS (I don’t even know how to spell them!). I just keep it simple – put it on the drive and make sure that drive is always backed up (I use Carbon Copy Cloner on the Mac but I’m sure there’s a program for PCs if you look).

Graphics Card: This is a really tough one to write about. There are just too many options and every program uses the graphics card in different ways. I would say get at least 4GB of RAM (or VRAM or whatever they call it) for your graphics card. My best suggestion is to do a Google search for “Minimum Specs for Lightroom (or Photoshop or whatever software you use)”. It will take you to Adobe’s website and under “Graphics Card” there are typically recommended specs and even a “Read More / GPU FAQ” or something similar.

But if it’s me, and I went to configure a new computer, I saw I had an option for + $300 for a better card and + $500 (a 16GB graphic memory) for an ever better card. I’d get the best card. If you can afford it, do it. If you can’t get the best one, you can that’s at least 4GB – but go with 8GB if you can.

What About Monitors?

NOTE: I have since purchased an Apple XDR screen for my laptop that I wrote about here.

Okay, this is another really tough area. 99.9% of your photography will be seen on a device of some sort when you share it (phone or tablet). So get used to the fact that you have ZERO control over how your photos are seen to everyone else in the world. You can get the best screen in the world and it won’t do any good. The best you can do is just edit consistently.

You’ll read a ton about sRGB and Adobe RGB, etc… So my suggestion is decide if you are printing A LOT or not, and how important this is. If it’s important you’re going to spend more money. If you think you’re going to print at least every week or two (lab or at home), then you may want to spring for a more expensive monitor that comes close to supporting the Adobe RGB color space. If not, go with the cheapest thing you can find.

I used an iMac so it had a nice glossy bright screen, and that’s what edited on mostly. If I was going to print, I’d proof the photo on my BenQ screen. But I hate the way my photography looks on the BenQ screen. Photos always look better on bright glossy screens, because it’s not how the rest of the world sees it on their devices, so I try not to use a matte screen much, unless I’m printing.

I know that all sounds vague, but my advice is that most of you reading this aren’t printing often. So don’t buy a screen that is made for printing, or you’re wasting money. Even if you don’t have a screen made for printing, you can easily dial in your settings and develop a workflow to get a good print with any screen (I do, and don’t use the BenQ anymore).

Finally, if you need something a little more concrete here’s some suggestions:

  • At least a 23″ screen. I’d actually recommend nothing smaller than 27″ if your eyesight is as bad as mine 🙂
  • What about 4K, 5K or even 6K? Personally I don’t want more resolution. But if you’re editing video go for it. For just photos, you don’t really need 4K? For many monitors, higher resolution just means smaller / harder-to-see interfaces which is actually NOT what I want.
  • Remember the larger the screen the more strain you put on your graphics card and computer overall – which in turn translates to your photo apps running slower. And if you add a second screen you’ll want to make sure you have a great graphics card that can handle it. Nobody thinks about this and wonders why their computer is slow.
  • Apple came out with the Studio display a while back. If you’re an Apple user, that’s what I’d get.
  • Dell Ultrasharp monitors are good. Honestly, all Dell’s are good.
  • BenQ makes good photo monitors if you want to spend more and print a lot. Don’t get one if you don’t print.
  • Eizo also makes good screens and they fall in to the same category as BenQ – don’t get one if you’re not printing a lot.

External Hard Drives

I wrote a post earlier this year about my hard drive and backup solution. Since then, I’ve switched hard drives to a Samsung 8TB SSD drive. The drives are really meant to go internally in your computer, but for another $15 I added this enclosure which plugs in to any USB port. Super simple to use, so even if you’re not techie, you’ll have no problem.

For those that remember, my previous hard drive was 8TB as well, and I didn’t go up in size on purpose. I’m tired of clutter. Almost none of us have 8TB of photos worth keeping and contrary to the popular saying, I don’t feel that “storage is cheap” – well, good fast storage that is.

So this past year I’ve gotten really good at deleting photos. It’s just too much. I have Terabytes of 9-bracket HDR photos that sit and do nothing because I already picked a photo from the shoot that I like 10 years ago. I also deleted PSDs and TIFFs for photos that are finished because I know myself, and I’ll never go back and re-edit them.

So I went on a photo-deleting-rampage this year, and got my photo library down to something that comfortably fits on to an 8TB drive, with room to grow. And I’m more picky than ever about what I keep. Not only that, I just feel better about my photo library. It’s lean, easy to look through, and I don’t have terabytes of bad photos looming over my head anymore.

Oh… and coming from a 7200 rpm large, spinning drive with a fan, these new drives are totally silent and don’t spin down and force me to wait for them to spin up when I need to edit. My office is actually too quiet now. It sounds funny, but it’s the weirdest thing after spending 7 years with my old drives and hearing that constant hum in the background.

I plan on writing more about this since it was a recent switch, but I figured I’d share this in case you find a good deal on an SSD drive.

Finally… Try It Out

My last piece of advice is to buy something you can try out. That may be harder with a computer, but with a monitor it should be easy. Make sure you get something that you can return. And make sure you watch the return policy. I’ll personally never buy anything from that “Blue/Yellow” electronics store because I hate their 14-day return policy. I’m just so used to 30 days that I inevitably forget and get stuck with something I didn’t want. But this time of year, most places will give you until January to return things. And if it’s shipped to you, pay attention to the return policy shipping fees. You don’t want to get stuck spending $100 (or more) just to return something that you don’t want.

Final Thoughts…

One final thought and it’s more of a way to think about this. Whatever computer you get will feel fast for a total of about 24 hours. After that, you settle into working on it and it will feel slower again. It’s just the way it works. No computer speed ever consistently exceeds our expectations for a long period of time. It may sound harsh, but you know I’m right 😉 Good luck!

PS: Don’t forget to check out the Cyber Monday Sales on the website here. Just click here for more info.

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