How to Buy an Apple MacBook for Photography

Tips & Techniques

If you want to buy a laptop for portable photography editing, one of the best choices to consider is a MacBook. However, between the recent shift to ARM architecture chips and the wide range of models and features, there’s a lot to consider when choosing a MacBook. In today’s guide, I’ll give an overview of each of the current MacBook models, and I’ll identify some of the configurations I recommend.

While I’ve always used a Windows computer for desktop editing, Apple’s lineup is my favorite for portable hardware. With the M1 and now M2 chips, which are designed by Apple and offer record-setting performance on a per-watt basis, the MacBook line is a better choice than ever for a portable editing workstation.

Apple makes a total of two different lines of laptops. First, there is the lightweight MacBook Air, then there is the MacBook Pro line. The Pro line comes in three sizes, although the MacBook Pro 13” fits in a different product category than the MacBook Pro 14” and 16”, as I’ll explain in a moment.

For someone who is shopping for a solid Apple laptop for photography needs, all these choices might be overwhelming and confusing. So, if you are wondering about which one to pick, this article is here to help.

Table of Contents

Overview

Before I get into the individual product lines, I want to quickly touch on the Mx architecture. The processors that previously powered the MacBook line over the last 2 decades or so were Intel chips. These chips, particularly at the i7 and i9 level, were powerful, but very power hungry. This meant less time running on battery and a hotter laptop.

Around the same time, Apple’s semiconductor design experience had grown rapidly. Their collaboration with TSMC (the company that actually made their chips) opened the door to better and better nodes (the actual manufacturing process used for the chips).

With Intel’s chips stagnating, Apple saw an opportunity to design their own chips – starting from a blank slate, so to speak. The result of this design process was the M1 chip, a notable departure from Intel’s x86 ISA. By moving to an ARM ISA, Apple was able to make a number of optimizations, and even align their operating systems for macOS and iPadOS.

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For photographers and videographers, this shift had a number of benefits, as well as some major risks. The biggest benefit was immediately apparent when performance testing the new MacBooks, with their performance far exceeding older Intel MacBooks, particularly on a per-watt basis.

Even without the “per-watt” qualifier, however, Mx MacBooks are the fastest MacBooks Apple has created. They also came with phenomenal battery life, with Apple listing 17+ hours of battery life for the entire lineup.

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The new ISA means that all your software written for x86 has to be translated into ARM code, however. While Apple’s software for performing this translation, called Rosetta 2, usually does a seamless job at performing this task, there is the potential for issues with small, old, or niche programs not performing well. I personally have had zero issues with any software on my M1 MacBook, especially as most major software tools like Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere, and Resolve are available with native ARM binaries.

Apple has recently introduced the M2 chip, rolling it out across the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13”. The 14 and 16” MacBooks, which run a larger M1 Pro, Max, or Ultra chip, haven’t been updated yet, nor do I expect them to be updated soon. Supply shortages, order backlogs, and foundry considerations for the latest node all are contributing to significant delays for existing M1-based orders.

MacBook Air

The Intel-based MacBook Air was previously an ultra-portable laptop and unsuitable for most photo editing operations. Although I had one and basically just used it to back up my memory cards, it would choke on even opening an image in Photoshop.

All that changed with the M1 version of the Air. Now, editing images and 1080p video is easy, even with multitasking. For that reason, if you’re looking for the most portable MacBook available for photography, the Air is definitely a viable option.

The recent introduction of the M2 Air brings even more power to the same package, retaining the amazing 18 hours of battery life, expanding the GPU core count as an option, and expanding the memory capacity as well. A few members of our team at Photography Life, including Spencer and Nasim, use the Air nowadays for lightweight and international travel.

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The MacBook Air has a wonderful display for photo editing, which is a pleasant surprise on an ultra-portable laptop. The display is an 2560 x 1600 IPS LED, with support for the wide P3 color gamut. While not on the same level as the XDR display on the 14 and 16” Pros, it’s still perfectly suitable for field editing.

The MacBook Air does come with a few concessions, however. When considering an editing setup, the Air only offers two Thunderbolt 3 ports. This means having to rely on a hub, or plugging things in and out just to offload cameras while charging or using a mouse. The Air also is limited in terms of display outputs, with the computer only being capable of driving one external display. That means no getting home and hooking up to a multi-monitor display.

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If you’re trying to get into the portable Mx ecosystem at the most affordable price-point, the M1 MacBook is a solid option. At $999, it’s the cheapest option, and it still has good performance.

That said, if your budget has some flexibility, consider stepping up to the M2-equipped Air. At $1,199, it is slightly more expensive than the M1 version, but it adds a slightly larger, brighter display, has more performance, and supports a faster GPU and more memory (as upgrades). It also has a better 1080P webcam and a better speaker setup if you intend to use it for video conferencing.

For the M2 version, I like the base configuration. Apple’s upgrade options have always been a very expensive proposition, and while 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage is suboptimal, I don’t know if either need to be upgraded, given the intended use of the Air. RAM on the Mx series is less of a consideration than older systems, thanks to the SSD allowing for incredibly fast swap operations. Additionally, I don’t see using the Air for huge, multi-layer PSDs or complex multi-tasking, or really any situation where the extra RAM would come in handy.

For storage, I’d suggest looking at a pair of USB-C or Thunderbolt SSDs. Having a pair makes it easy to follow good backup practices, while the speed of the interface makes it practical to edit off them, instead of the internal drive. For the $400 Apple wants to upgrade to a 1TB SSD, you could pick up three separate 1TB portable SSDs.

MacBook Pro 13”

The 13 inch MacBook Pro is in a really weird place. With it having also received the M2 upgrade, it might seem like a good option – but in reality, it offers very little over the less expensive, M2-equipped MacBook Air.

The Air got an upgraded display, speakers, webcam, and a new chassis, while the Pro basically got just the new chip. This leaves the only real advantages of the Pro over the Air being a slightly larger battery and active cooling (a basically unnecessary feature for the expected workloads of these laptops).

It’s not that the MacBook Pro 13″ is a bad machine, but the MacBook Air 13″ simply makes more sense given the price. If you have the budget for the 13″ Pro, you’d probably be better-served speccing up an Air with more memory or a larger SSD.

MacBook Pro 14 and 16”

I’ve lumped the 14 and 16 inch MacBook Pros together throughout this article because they are essentially the same computer with two different sizes of screen. Whichever you choose, you’ll be getting incredible performance, a gorgeous display, an excellent trackpad and keyboard experience, and high quality speakers.

I found the 14 inch Pro to be the perfect blend of portability, performance, and screen size. It’s easy to fit in a backpack, while still large enough to comfortably edit on. It’s the perfect size to use on a plane, while the insane battery life makes it possible to use for a full day of constant work or photo editing without recharging.

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I looked closely at the 16 inch MacBook Pro, but decided against it, as it really was starting to brush up against too big for easy use on the road. If you’re looking for a desktop replacement that can be used on the road, or are looking for the biggest screen size and battery life available, it is an option. If you’re considering both sizes, definitely look at them in person, as I imagine you’ll find one size is a better fit for you than the other.

On both sizes of laptop, you get the M1 Pro chip, and an upgrade to the higher-core-count M1 Max is available. You also get 3 Thunderbolt ports, instead of 2 on the Air. On the Pro chip, you can run 2 external displays, while the Max can run 3. Each also comes with an HDMI port, SDXC reader, MagSafe 3 charging port, and a headphone jack. This set of ports means fewer adapters, and greatly improved usability compared to the Air.

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Together with the huge performance potential of the M1 Pro chip, these added ports also make the Pro a suitable desktop replacement. Hooking into a Thunderbolt hub could let you use one computer for editing at home and in the field, simplifying file management and saving you money over separate computer builds.

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When it comes to the build, a lot of my same advice applies to Pro as it does to the Air: Consider which upgrades are necessary, versus nice to have. Fortunately, the base model Pros come with a more reasonable 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, meaning you already have a well-equipped machine at the base level.

Considering the higher workload that I’d expect to put on a Pro compared to an Air, however, some upgrades could make sense if they’re in your budget. Upgrading the RAM to 32GB is expensive, but – along with the faster CPU option – is something that has no substitute for an after-purchase upgrade, unlike storage.

The faster CPU levels are tricky to recommend, particularly for photographers. The CPU upgrade options primarily improve video editing performance (with higher GPU counts, better support for media decode and encode, and support for 64GB of RAM).

Seeing the performance gains of the M2 chip makes me think that a potential upgrade cycle might be just one or two model years, not 5 model years as has been the case in the past. So, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend over-speccing your current purchase. If you are working with large 6K or 8K video timelines, however, consider upgrading to the M1 Max chip.

Whichever set of upgrades you choose, I’d still strongly suggest getting a pair of external USB-C or Thunderbolt SSDs for bulk storage. They’re also great for moving your photos from your laptop to your desktop rig, making them an essential piece of kit. I’d also suggest a USB-C hub, particularly if you still have a number of USB-A devices. While more devices are moving over to USB-C, I’ve still got a number of low bandwidth devices that are perfect to hook up to a hub.

If you want more detail on the M1 MacBook Pros, especially the 14″, you can read my full review here.

Is M2 Pro Worth The Wait?

As I mentioned earlier in this piece, the announcement of the M2 chip might dampen enthusiasm for the M1 Pro and Max models. However, between supply chain reality and rumors, I don’t see the M2 Pro announcement as imminent. If you’re looking for a laptop for photo or video editing, there’s no better option than the 14-inch or 16-inch MacBook Pros. While not the cheapest, these are no-compromises packages for any kind of graphical work, while remaining supremely portable.

Meanwhile, if you’re not looking to edit heavy files on the road, and instead need a (still powerful) machine for importing photos, doing ordinary edits, and passing time on the flight to your next photo destination, the MacBook Air is a wonderful option. Ultraportable options always carried a number of compromises in the past, and while the Air still has some small downsides like the number of ports and weak external display support, I believe it’s the best option for a compact laptop on the market today.

Overall, the Mx series of chips have turned Apple’s MacBook line from a series of good laptops, to the best laptops in their category, and the go-to option for all but the most particular workflows. Even though M2 is on the horizon for more of the MacBook Pros, don’t forget that you can never keep up with technology. There will always be something faster and better, that’s just the way it is – just like with cameras. If you have an immediate need for a solid laptop, the options today are already excellent.

Hope this helps – please let me know if you have any questions!

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