The Ideal Mac Hardware for Photography

Mac Family
One big happy Mac family…

 

For any questions or comments, you can reach me at jeb@jevanphotography.com.  Or, you can head over to my Facebook page.

Since the dawn of digital photography technology, the debate between Mac and PC for storage, editing, and printing of photographs has raged.  My personal opinion on this topic has always been to stick with the interface you are most comfortable with.  There is no question whatsoever that BOTH Mac and PC computers can, if properly equipped, run Lightroom, Photoshop, and any other editing software with equal efficiency and performance.

This article focuses on the ideal Mac hardware solutions for photography.

As a general rule, I believe that desktop machines (i.e. the iMac) are better suited for editing photographs than are laptop machines (i.e. MacBook Pro), but that’s just a personal opinion.  I like the ease with which you can hook up external monitors, an external keyboard (especially an external keyboard), mice, and other periphery such as large storage arrays to a desktop machine.  Others prefer the portability of a laptop.  It’s all just a question of what you prefer because the performance of a Macbook Pro laptop and an iMac desktop computer is pretty much equal.

In this article I will go over both Mac desktops and laptops.

THE MAC MINI

mac-mini-2014-gallery1 mac-mini-2014-gallery3

This little entry-level machine is ideal for beginners, or for PC users who are looking to give Mac a try.  It’s sort of a stripped-down, more affordable version of a Mac Pro.  The properly-equipped Mac Mini can handle Photoshop and Lightroom with no issues, while the machine itself occupies an impressively small footprint in your home office.

As you can see in the image above, the Mini gives you both Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0 options for running an external storage device.

The Mac Mini does not come with a monitor, so you would need to purchase one.  If I had to pick just one monitor to use for editing and working with photos, the NEC PA272W-BK 27″ model is a good combination of performance and price.  A high quality monitor is extremely important if color accuracy is important to your photographs.

Keep in mind that the Mac Mini does not come with a dedicated graphics card, so your monitor’s performance might not be as seamlessly smooth as, say, the same monitor affixed to the Mac Pro.

The Mac Mini offers either a 1TB or 2TB “Fusion Drive”.  The Fusion Drive is a combination of a small amount of lightning quick flash storage (for files that are quickly and commonly accessed like software programs), and slower conventional hard drive storage (for stuff like your photo library).

Personally, I would rather go with 256GB of flash storage instead of the 2TB Fusion Drive, and spend $200 on a larger external storage device like the LaCie 4TB listed below.

Here is how I would configure a Mac Mini for Photography storage and editing.  Keep in mind that since I consider the Mac Mini to be an entry-level machine, my recommendations are based around an entry-level budget-oriented setup:

  1. 2.6GHz Dual-Core Intel i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz)
  2. 16GB 1600MHz LPDDE3 SDRAM
  3. 256GB of Flash Storage
  4. NEC PA272W-BK 27″ ($899.00)
  5. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

Cost of Setup: $1,817.99

 

THE MACBOOK AIR

macbook-air-gallery2-2014

As its name suggests, this thin, little laptop is very light and portable.  What you gain in portability, however, you lose in functionality.  The MacBook Air, in my opinion, is not much more than a glorified Word Processor.

For the casual photo hobbyist, the MacBook Air is sufficiently powerful enough to surf the web, respond to emails, work with Microsoft Word/Excel, and handle basic editing tasks in Lightroom.

But, for the discerning serious hobbyist or pro who wants to run more intensive editing in Photoshop or other detail-intensive editing software, I would recommending stepping up to the MacBook Pro.

Keep in mind that the MacBook Air does NOT come with a Retina display (Retina displays are Mac’s version of high-end laptop screens), so your photographs will not look as sharp, nor will color be as accurate as they will appear on a MacBook Pro with a Retina display.

The 13″ MacBook Air does have a Thunderbolt port, so if you wish, you can drive an external monitor.  But, the graphics processor in the MacBook Air leaves something to be desired…it is not powerful enough to handle intensive Photoshop editing tasks without slowing down the performance of the laptop.

If you have your heart set on a machine that maximizes portability, here is the ideal MacBook Air for photo editing:

  1. 13-inch MacBook Air with 1.6GHz Dual-Core Intel i5
  2. 8 GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM (8 is as high as you can go….they don’t hold 16GB unfortunately)
  3. 256GB of Flash Storage
  4. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

Cost of Setup: $1,418.99

 

THE MACBOOK PRO

MACBOOKPRO ports_hero

 

Simply put, the best laptops money can buy.  Of course, Mac knows this, and prices them accordingly.  If portability is a necessity, and you also need a graphics processor capable of easily handling anything Photoshop can throw at it, I recommend the 15″ Retina display with a dedicated graphics card:

  1. 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display
  2. 2.5GHz Quad-Core Intel i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.7GHz
  3. 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
  4. Intel Iris Pro Graphics + AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB GDDR5 memory
  5. 512GB of Flash Storage
  6. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

Cost of Recommended Machine: $2,718.99

THE IMAC

imac-gallery5-2015

In my opinion, all things considered, the iMac is the finest machine built for the purpose of storing, editing, and printing photographs.

Mac offers two versions, a 21″ and 27″.  I recommend going for the 27″…the current 27″ iMac has a 5K Retina display…there are very few 5K external displays available on the market right now.

The iMac also offers a 3 TB “fusion” drive, which is 1TB larger than the Fusion Drive offered in the Mac Mini.  In my opinion, there’s a very big difference between 2TB and 3TB…2TB is toeing the line on how much storage you will probably need for photos, videos, and your music library…but I think 3TB is likely enough for most people.

With the 3TB fusion drive, you probably won’t need another external storage device, unless your photo library surpasses the 3TB size.

Recommended setup:

  1. 27″ iMac with 5K Retina display
  2. 3.3GHz Quad-Core Intel i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz (Mac makes an iMac with a faster i7 processor, but I don’t believe the marginally faster processor is worth the extra $250 it costs.  The 3.3GHz processor is plenty fast for editing photos).
  3. 32GB 1867MHz DDR3 SDRAM  (always maximize the amount of RAM…that’s one of the easiest ways to speed up your machine)
  4. 3TB Fusion Drive
  5. AMD Radeon R9 M395X with 4GB video memory

Cost of Setup:  $3,249.00

THE MAC PRO

mac-pro-gallery3-2013

Overkill for Photographers.  It’s essentially a Mac Mini on steroids.  If you do serious 4K video editing, this is a useful machine.  For editing and storing still photographs, this machine is obviously plenty fast, but the added expense of the machine vs. the iMac doesn’t really net you any increase in performance in Lightroom or Photoshop.

The Mac Pro looks like Darth Vader’s trash can…one single chunk of black aluminum in a cylindrical shape.  It’s shape makes adding internal upgrades almost impossible, creating a deceptively small footprint in your home office.  You will need to add an external storage device, and you must purchase an external monitor because the Mac Pro doesn’t come with one.

Recommended setup:

  1. 3.7GHz Quad-Core with 10MB of L3 cache
  2. 64GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC RAM
  3. Dual AMD FirePro D300 GPU’s with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM each.
  4. NEC PA272W-BK 27″ 16:9 IPS Monitor ($899.00)
  5. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

Cost of Setup: A late model Honda Accord.  OK, I’m kidding.  It’s “only” $5,417.99

STORAGE

If you go with flash storage in your machine (highly recommend because Flash storage is extremely quick for common and routine tasks such as opening and running software programs), you are going to need an external source to store all of your photographs (unless you get the aforementioned Fusion Drive).

Even if you are just starting out in the wonderful world of photography as a hobby…assuming you own your Mac for several years, you are going to compile a couple terabytes of photographs in no time…espcailly if you shoot in RAW uncompressed format (the average uncompressed RAW photograph the Nikon D810 cranks out is around 50MB).

Here are a couple of storage devices I’d recommend:

LaCie 2TB or 4TB Rugged Thunderbolt or USB External Hard Drive

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I’m a fan of LaCie’s portable hard drives. I own one of these to hold all of my iTunes music and movies.  They come in either 2TB or 4TB size, and also come in either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt connection format.  For a couple hundred bucks, you can’t beat this device.  It comes with a rubberized protective bumper which helps keep it safe from drops, or from your average 3 year old tossing it around for their amusement.

These devices are highly portable…excellent for matching up with a MacBook. And, they have a very small footprint on your desk.

For those of you who need even more storage, I like the Thunderbolt G-Technology 6TB USB 3.0 Hard Drive.  It also comes in an 8TB size:

g

 

If you absolutely need the fastest storage option out there, a Thunderbolt RAID Array is awesomely quick and offers a multitude of different kinds of redundancy and protection from disk failure.  A RAID Array over Thunderbolt can copy or transfer several TB of photographs in no time.  But, you have to pay a nice premium for the technology.

The Promise Pegasus2 R6 Six Bay RAID Array is stupid fast, and holds 6 hard drives:

6

 

So, for example, if you stocked it with six 6TB hard drives, in a RAID 0 format you’d have 36 TB of storage.  That’s a lot of photographs.  And it can move data at upwards of 1,000MB/s in RAID 0.  WAY faster than any Photographer would ever need, but very helpful for videographers who work in 4K format.

With six 3TB hard drives (18TB of total storage) included, the Pegasus2 R6 checks in at $2,249.00.

My personal favorite RAID array is the Areca 8050.  It runs via Thunderbolt 2 interface, with the bays capable of holding up to 48TB of data:

The Areca 8050
The Areca 8050

The Areca is very simple to setup through its web-based control panel.  I’ve owned it a couple of years without having a single issue with it or any of the drives inside of it.  This machine holds all of my old Lightroom library catalogs, and also serves as the backup to my current Lightroom library catalog.  The price for one of these, without drives included, is $1,699.00.

One thing I did not include in any of the aforementioned setups is a backup storage device.  While not absolutely essential, I do consider a backup device every bit as important as your main storage unit.  Hard drives have small pieces of machinery inside them which move around at high speeds.  Just like any other machine that has moving parts, eventually they will break.  And when they do, you REALLY want a backup of all of that work.

All Mac operating systems come with a software program called “Time Machine”.  I consider Time Machine to be one of the best backup programs ever invented…and it’s free with your Mac.  Use it to backup your storage regularly.  It runs automatically in the background, and you can pick which hard drive to store your backups on.

In case you’re wondering what I use, for the past 2+ years I’ve had a Mac Pro…here’s my basic setup:

I was one of those silly people who mistakenly believed having the Mac Pro would offer a tangible performance boost over the iMac for working in Lightroom/Photoshop.  I was wrong.  If I could do it all over again, I would have purchased an iMac.  But, I have owned the Mac Pro for over two years now, and I am very pleased with its performance (notwithstanding the initial price tag).  Knock on wood…it has never had a single mechanical problem.

If you have any opinions on any of this stuff I would love to hear from you.

Happy Shooting!!

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