MacBook Pro: The Best Laptop for Photo Editing

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Apple has brought the SD card slot back to the MacBook Pro—that couldn’t be a clearer signal that these new M1-equipped models are meant for photographers. They are more powerful than previous models, have a gorgeous display, and seem like the upgrade for which everyone has been waiting. That also means a lot to photographers.

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Apple 16.2" MacBook Pro with M1 Max Chip
14" MacBook Pro with M1 Pro
  • M1 Max 10-Core CPU
  • 16-Core GPU
  • 16GB Unified Memory (Optional: 32GB)
  • 1TB SSD (Minimum)

Your everyday photo-editing tasks don’t require the raw continuous graphical power of the top-of-the-line M1 Max (additionally, the extra video encoders aren’t so helpful for stills), so save some cash and still enjoy smooth editing. Also, the extra cores of upgraded models do increase power drain, so sticking with the 16-core GPU will offer plenty of power while extending battery life.

Another note is that the new unified memory architecture and ultra-fast SSDs (of which we recommend getting at least 1TB) work together to give you as much memory as you need at the time. You likely won’t see much faster performance with more RAM, although if you are trying to load multiple 50+ megapixel images into a focus stack or composite, then maybe you should consider a bump to 32GB. And, if you are partial to larger screens, the 16" will be perfect.

Time to Power Up

The M1 Pro and M1 Max chips are on another level for creative tasks. Speedy storage and memory also make sure that even the largest images are loaded practically instantly. If you are working off the internal SSD or from a fast Thunderbolt™ 4 external drive, you should be able to browse your library of images with no delay.

If we want to discuss the more important part of a powerful machine, it is what happens when you start loading your images for editing in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. For this task, photographers should find that the new M1 Pro and M1 Max are superb.

Depending on the computer you are coming from, the extra power will be either mind blowing or just very good, all winners in our book. I was more in the mind-blown camp when compared to the 2016 15" MacBook Pro and 2017 iMac I have at home. Even a Mac mini with M1 feels sluggish executing some of these tasks.

For example, exporting around 50 half-res images from an a7R IV in Capture One took less than a minute. Taking those images and bringing them into a single Photoshop document as layers was also a breeze. And the task of auto-aligning all these layers took only a couple of minutes, compared to a literal 10-15-minute wait on my iMac.

The new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips will legitimately save you time with these types of workloads. And saved time is valuable.

The SD Slot is Back, Plus Some Other Ports

The ports are back, baby. And for many photographers, none are more welcome than the SD card reader. A vast majority of cameras still use the format, and this means one less accessory to throw in your bag. It will hit UHS-II speeds, which lines up with the fastest you can get and make use of today, so photographers are set there.

I wish we could’ve gotten something like CFexpress, but I do understand that those cards are still very much in the minority and many cameras that support the new media often split slots with SD, anyway. And if you have something like a Nikon Z 9, the dedicated reader will be faster via the Thunderbolt™ 4 port anyway.

Speaking of, there are three Thunderbolt™ 4/USB4 Type-C ports on the new MacBooks. No huge changes to speeds or anything—we are still at 40Gb/s—but having the latest standards is always nice. Alongside those is an HDMI 2.0 port and a new 3.5mm jack that will support high-impedance headphones, if that’s your thing.

Those looking to dock their MacBook when at home or in the studio should know that the chip choice will affect monitor support. The M1 Pro will drive two 6K Pro Display XDRs while the M1 Max (our recommendation) will support a configuration with three Pro Display XDRs and a 4K TV.

Finally, it’s time to talk about MagSafe 3. It is another returning feature and it has been upgraded. It’s stronger and faster. Stronger is nice since it securely snaps into place, although it might be a little too strong and pull the laptop a tad before popping off when accidentally knocked. Among the other benefits beyond the safety aspect is that it now offers fast charging for getting to 50% in 30 minutes. That’ll help you get juiced up quick.

A Killer Screen

Apple displays have been very good for a very long time. The mini-LED tech in the latest MacBooks takes this up a notch. The contrast is beautiful, only matched by OLED, and the mini-LEDs get brighter, which is a very practical benefit. By the specs, this display has about 10,000 individually controlled LEDs, which can reach a sustained brightness of 1,000 nits and a peak of 1,600 nits.

For most use cases you will never see those numbers. In SDR—still the standard—the screen hovers at a familiar 500 nits. Still, the screen is as good as ever when it comes to color with full P3 gamut. The extra contrast will be a benefit and, when you first open up the laptop, you will see how those inky blacks make everything look that much better.

Better Battery Life

If you are a traveling or very mobile photographer, the laptop you use is one of the most important pieces of equipment you have with you. Apple gave a boost to battery life with the 14 and 16" models, offering maximum run times of 17 and 21 hours, respectively. The 16" is a 10-hour improvement. That’s huge.

In real-world use, it does seem like photo editing requires nowhere near the same power draw of previous models. Obviously, only in a perfect world will you hit Apple’s numbers, but getting an entire day of work out of a single charge is now possible. If you jump back and forth between other apps, like web browsing or email, you should be seeing huge increases in battery life. Photo editing alone all day might burn through it faster, and you might want that MagSafe charger around after lunch.

Other Goodies

Everything we’ve talked about shows how the new MacBook Pros are “supercharged for pros,” per Apple, which can make us forget that these are also just very good laptops, in general.

You will notice that to accomplish this, the laptops are physically larger. They are a hair thicker and a tad heavier. But it is so worth it.

Apple has upgraded the webcam to 1080p and has an improved mic—perfect for all those video calls. The speakers are now a lot better, and even support new spatial audio formats.

The keyboard is an exciting upgrade. You’ll spend a great deal of time on it and moving back to the more classic scissor-switch design is a huge improvement of the butterflies of years past. Plus, now you have some full-size function keys that’ll help if you want to make use of every single shortcut in your apps. Plus, the massive trackpad is as good as they always have been. And, a final note, there is Touch ID in the same place but with a nicer design and feel.

Is there anything else you want to know? Need help making your decision? Please drop a note in the Comments section, below! To read more about the new MacBook Pro laptops, click here.

2 Comments

I have same opinion. Macbook pro is the best for photo editing and retouching. Photo editing service starting 2013. At first i started windows computer. Now i am using macbook this is amazing resulation. Thank for you sugestion this most valuable for me. Now next month i will buy M1 Max 10-Core CPU

There are certainly good Windows laptops out there, but it really is all the smaller (and larger) things combined that make the MacBook Pro such a great option for creatives. You will definitely be happy with the new M1 Max versions.

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