If you want to buy a laptop for portable photography editing, one of the best choices to consider is an Apple 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.
The biggest distinction in Apple’s laptop lineup is the difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro, but there are also three separate MacBook Pros of 13″, 14″, and 16″. Then there’s the choice between M1 and M2 chips – and further options within those chips.
For a photographer who is just trying to find a solid Apple laptop, all these choices might be overwhelming and confusing. So, if you are wondering about which one to pick, this article is here to help.
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 two decades or so were Intel chips. These chips, particularly at the i7 and i9 level, were powerful, but very power hungry. This meant a shorter battery life 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/x64 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.
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 that of 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. And they also come with phenomenal battery life, with Apple listing 17+ hours of battery life for the entire lineup.
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.
M1 and M2 Chip Options
At this point, every MacBook in Apple’s lineup – the MacBook Air, as well as the three MacBook Pro sizes – is offered with the option for the M2 chip . However, you can still easily find MacBooks with the older M1 chip available, begging the question: is it worth paying more for the newer M2 chip?
On one hand, there are performance improvements with the M2 chip, as expected. There are also minor battery life improvements on some of the M2 versions of these laptops. For example, the 14″ and 16″ M2 MacBook Pros have about one hour of additional battery life compared to the 2021 MacBook Pros with the M1 chips.
That said, even though the CPU is “up to 20% faster” with M2 according to Apple, benchmarks show that these gains are heavily tilted towards multi-core tasks (think rendering video), rather than single core operations. It won’t make much of a difference when editing photos with most post-processing software, although some tasks like rendering previews may be a bit faster.
What about the differences within the chips, specifically the Pro vs Max versions? Even though there is a difference between the number of CPU cores on the Pro and Max chips – ranging from an 8-core option on the M1 Pro to a 12-core option on the M2 Max – this isn’t a big deal for most photographers, since most photo editing software cannot make full use of multiple cores.
That said, for GPU-heavy tasks, the Max (and M2) will definitely offer a higher level of performance. Considering that machine-learning and artificial intelligence editing software (like photo upsampling and noise reduction software) tends to be GPU-heavy, it could make a difference if you rely on this sort of software.
Even so, I wouldn’t consider the M2 chip or the Max versions to be must-haves for photography. Whether it’s worth the extra money depends on the sorts of software you use, as well as your budget.
What You Need to Know About the MacBook Air
The Intel-based MacBook Air was previously an ultra-portable laptop unsuitable for most photo editing operations. Although I had one and basically just used it to back up my memory cards, it would choke 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. A few members of our team at Photography Life, including Spencer and Nasim, use the Air nowadays for lightweight and international travel.
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. It still wouldn’t be a great choice for editing 4K video or stitching huge panoramas, but for ordinary photographic work, the Air is definitely fast enough.
Part of what makes the MacBook Air a good device for photography is the wonderful display, 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 well suited for field editing.
The MacBook Air does come with a few concessions, however. For example, 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.
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 MacBook available today, 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 tend to be 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 on 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.
What You Need to Know About the MacBook Pro 13”
The 13 inch MacBook Pro is in a really weird place. Since it has 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 (generally an unnecessary feature for the expected workloads of these laptops, especially for photography).
It’s not that the MacBook Pro 13″ is a bad machine, but the MacBook Air 13″ simply makes more sense considering 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.
What You Need to Know About the MacBook Pro 14″ and 16”
I’ve lumped the 14 and 16 inch MacBook Pros together 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.
With these MacBook Pros, you have a choice between the M1 chips (found in the 2021 MacBook Pros) versus the newer M2 chips released in early 2023. As I mentioned before, I think you could safely go with an older MacBook Pro with the M1 chip to save money as a photographer, but it all depends on your situation. Videographers will appreciate the M2 options, and so will photographers who rely heavily on machine-learning post-processing software.
On both the 14″ and 16″ sizes, you 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 4. 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.
Together with the huge performance potential of the laptop, these added ports make the MacBook Pro a suitable desktop replacement. Hooking into a Thunderbolt hub could let you use the same computer for editing at home and in the field, simplifying file management and saving you money over separate computer builds.
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 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). If you are working with large 6K or 8K video timelines, consider upgrading to the M2 Max chip. For most photographers, though, the Pro versions of the M1 or M2 chip will be more than sufficient.
Whichever set of upgrades you choose, I’d still strongly suggest getting a pair of external USB-C or Thunderbolt SSDs for bulk storage. 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.
Recommendations and Conclusion
Considering all of these different options, what do I actually recommend to photographers who want to buy a MacBook as of 2023?
My answer to this question would be an M1 version of the MacBook Pro, probably the 14-inch size. This isn’t just a hypothetical answer, it’s what I bought for myself after comparing all the options, and I am very happy with it today. (You can read my full review here.)
I looked closely at the 16 inch MacBook Pro, but I decided against it, as it really was starting to brush up against too big for easy use on the road. Meanwhile, the 14-inch size was perfect for use on a plane, and the insane battery life is enough to use for a full day of photo editing without needing to recharge. That said, I definitely recommend look at them in person, as I imagine you’ll find one size is a better fit for you than the other.
Why didn’t I go with the M2? Even though it wasn’t out when I bought my M1 MacBook Pro, everyone knew it was on the horizon, so I could have waited if I thought it made sense. But considering the photo editing that I do, the higher-core CPU options weren’t really necessary, and the single-thread performance didn’t improve substantially enough to matter for me. Nor do the other improvements (like higher RAM options, 1 hour longer battery, and HDMI 2.1 instead of 2.0) matter much as a photographer.
With that in mind, I’d highly recommend that fellow photographers look towards the 2021 M1 Pro or Max models, while they’re still available. Retailers like B&H have new stock of these left, and they’re available at a significant discount. That means you can pick up a storage or RAM upgrade, or just bank a couple hundred dollars, all while getting virtually the same computing experience as the M2. Unless you need an absolutely top-spec machine, I’d continue to recommend the M1 Pro MacBook Pro for photographers and intermediate-level video users.
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 M1 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. The M2 version’s improvements are also worth considering.
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. I hope this article helped you understand the differences between them for photography needs. Please let me know if you have any questions!
I just purchased a 14″ MacBook Pro M2 Max with 32GB RAM and a 1TB SSD. This replaces a mid-2015 model purchased in Feb 2017 which replaced and earlier 2010 model. My 2015 model was great, but was showing its age, especially with only a 500GB drive. The 2010 worked fine when I was shooting a 1mp camera and the 2017 worked well for 24mp. However, now I have two 45+ mp cameras and just need more RAM and moree horsepower.
The immediate impact is massive. asks are faster, image ingestion, processing are faster. Everything is faster. I went with this model because I wanted 32GB RAM and this machine was available in stock. The M2 Pro with similar specs would have been a 7-10 wait and I am impatient. Cost difference from Pro to Max was $200 with other specs being identical.
Immediate improvement in performance speed and all other aspects of the experience. There are many software upgrades on older software, but am ok with that. Overall, a great purchase that will keep me happy for some time.
I will not bash PCs as this is a personal choice for each of us. One must choose what fits best in your own workflow. I have made my choice.
the Dell XP 15 and you can’t go wrong!
Choose the Dell XPS 15 and you can’t go wrong! (Unless your typing is not up to par!)
Hello, thank you for your nice article. I joined the MAC family with macbook pro m2 14″. Since I have been a windows user for almost 30 years, I think I will have a problem of compatibility with the MAC system for a while. Unfortunately, there is no USB A port on the MAC, which I bought only for photo and video processing. So I need to buy a duplicator but there are so many poor quality products on the market. Which brand do you recommend as a USB multiplexer that I can use for MAC?
Hello…some good quality products would be Satechi, HyperDrive or Anker (less expensive) There are many options within those brands. It all depends on your needs.
Please note that m2 gen SSD below 1tb capacity are significantly slower than previos gen due to solo chip design
I want to like the Mac platform but I have to say that the MacOS is just weak when it comes to file management. I still see Macs as computers for soccer moms, for people who do not want to know anything about what they are doing on a computer. I asked a Mac user recently where she stores all of her photo files and she said she has no idea where they are.
That is definitely false. Maybe you are thinking of IpadOS/iOS where file management indeed is bad. However, file management on MacOS is like other OSes and in fact it’s even nicer than windows. It is true Unix and you can even use the terminal if you are a power user. I have have extensively used Windows, Linux, and MacOS and I’ve also used FreeBSD and Solaris and I can say that the file management on MacOS is perfectly fine, perhaps with the exception of their weird ._ files….
No it’s NOT true UNIX. It’s apples version.
Actually, the MacOS operating system is officially Unix certified.
I very much like the Apple Finder. The person that doesn’t know where the photos are probably uses the program Photos. That program ( i hate it) is made for people that do not want to know anything about computers… for them it works.
I am sure there are also Windows users that don’t know anything about there computer.
Windows is as powerful as Mac but looks so 1990’s it really puts me off.
But now Apple made a giant leap forward in speed with their own M-processors, GPU and memory on one chip. Processors only they have.
That said there is enough to complain about the Apple system too. For one it is expensive once you want more than the base system. The they only look forward, so only the last built of their OS is very stable etc… ( i use Apple computers since 1985)
Apple was deve6loped for that person type who didn’t know where her photos were stored. That’s why the graphical interface. It’s also why Apple is proprietary. So everyone gets the same experience and to protect their patents.
Totally agree on hating Mac OS Finder. But Pathfinder by Cocoatech is an excellent replacement. Costs money, but it’s like Windows Explorer+++. It will solve your file management qualms about MacOS.
Pathfinder has dual pane file browsing and lots of useful functions, which I havent explored yet. I do like the batch rename for photos, although I would like it to be even more powerful. Folder Sync can help with backups.
For the rest, I’ve been using Windows for work and Mac at home for a long time now, and it feels like the opposite of 20 years ago. Mac is getting buggy, while Windows is more stable(!) and practical. But Mac hardware is now clearly better/faster allround, except for gaming.
you have to be slightly nuts to think paying a yearly fee of $30 a year for a file manager is in any way ok.. Maybe a one-off fee for life, but yearly?! Should be standard on any decent OS…
I also don’t especially like Finder, possibly just because it shows how file management (a decent directory structure, easily navigated) is not a high priority. I use linux(work), macbook(home)and windows 10 (both) and prefer windows from this point of view.
You can indeed just buy the software once, permanently, for $33, with one year of upgrades/bug fixes included
Just so you know, they were never developed for people to be technical. That is why creative people like them so must. The desk top interface made it simple for them. Windows went to the desk top interface because they saw how successful it was. The joke back when Windows 95 came out was that it was Apple 85.
For almost all my photography I just edit single Raws and my M1 Macbook Air is enough for me.
The M2 Pros are here!
Personally I would never use a laptop with a relatively small screen for editing. In the long run you are ruining your eyes. Despite how good they are. And they are good I know, Especially the ones with the M1 processor are FAST I noticed.
But I have read somewhere that Macbook Air models with the M2 processor and passive cooling seem to have performance problems after some time of use. Search with Google for “macbook m2 passive cooling system” and you will find some interesting articles.
Another thing I don’t like about MacBooks and laptops in general is that upgrading yourself is impossible or very difficult. The same for maintenance. Therefore I prefer a desktop computer like the silver Mac Pro where you can exchange components and add memory yourself. And add a monitor of your choice. I even used a G5 Power Mac for more than 10 years doing 90 megapixels or more scans with a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000ED.
If I needed a mobile solution I would choose a refurbished model like the Apple MacBook Pro 15″ with 16GB memory and a 1TB SSD, for sale around $ 800 – 900.
For pure photo editing, I would be totally happy with an M1 Macbook Air with 16GB of RAM for anything up to 45mp Raws and even smaller video editing projects. On the other hand, if I were going to use it for more serious video editing I would go for the M2 air or a Pro model depending on my weight requirements. Personally, I would probably go for the Air simply because it’s totally silent and that helps voiceover recordings as well, but that probably doesn’t even matter that much since I have been doing voiceovers with my M1 Mac Mini with active cooling, and it’s so quiet anyway that I cannot hear any problems in recordings.
Evidently, I bought my 13 inch MacBook pro too soon (early 2021). But my 2011 15 inch MacBook pro had reached its final destination, so I had little choice. There was little indication then about M2 chips or a 14 inch. But then the first advice that was given to me about buying computers, in 1997, was that once you’d bought it, stop looking around. Forthwith.
Still, there’ll be something else around in 6.5 years, when I’m due a replacement. Either or I’ll have reach my final destination.
Yes your final destination with Apple in heaven! I’ll be in Windows heaven!