In October of 2023 Apple updated their extremely powerful line of MacBook Pro computers with M3 Apple Silicon. The size and design of the MacBook Pro is mostly unchanged, and Apple didn’t directly compare the M2 to M3 much, but early testing has shown about 20% improvement. Let me tell you what photographers should upgrade when buying an M3 MacBook Pro and if those with an M2 or M1 MacBook Pro should be upgrading.
For those who don’t need the details and just want to know the sweet spot configuration (best price to performance) of an M3 MacBook for photographers:
Most photographers should buy the base model 14″ M3 MacBook Pro 8‑core CPU, 10‑core GPU, and upgrade to 16GB of unified memory. At $1,800 this is a powerhouse photo editing computer that will last 3-5 years.
TLDR Order of Upgrades Based On Budget
Here is a handy table with the order of the upgrades photographers should do based on their budget and needs. As has been done for many years, Apple does not make any of the 2023 M3 MacBook Pro models upgradeable, so photographers have to get what they need when they order.
Not all of the configuration options are in the table because there are some options photographers shouldn’t waste their money on. We start with the base 14″ M3 MacBook Pro configured with M3 8-core CPU / 10-core GPU, 8 GB of unified memory, and a 512GB SSD.
|$1,600||14″ M3 8-core CPU||N/A||Not enough unified memory for most photographers|
|$1,800||16GB unified memory||13%||Sweet spot for most photographers|
|$2,000||24GB unified memory||11%||Recommended for photographers working with 40+ megapixel cameras and/or more than 10 layers in Photoshop|
|$2,200||1TB SSD||10%||Enables editing one photo shoot from the internal SSD but most photographers will still need an external drive.|
|$2,400||14″ M3 Pro 12-core CPU||9%||Sweet spot for still photographers who editing videos at least 1x/month (back down to 18GB of unified memory)|
|$3,200||14″ M3 Max 14-core CPU||33%||Ouch*, but noticeable performance improvement with Premiere / Resolve|
|$3,700||14″ M3 Max 16-core CPU||16%||Noticeable performance improvement with After Effects|
|$3,900||64GB unified memory||5%||Noticeable performance improvement with After Effects|
For photographers who will rarely be connected at home, here is my advice for the budget and upgrades for the 16″ M3 MacBook Pro
|$2,500||16″ M3 Pro 12-core CPU||N/A||Power house photo editing computer, though a unified memory upgrade will better match the Processor|
|$2,700||1TB SSD||8%||Enables editing one photo shoot from the internal SSD but most photographers will still need an external drive.|
|$3,100||36GB unified memory||15%||Sweet spot for photographers who really need mobility|
|$3,500||16″ M3 Max 14-core CPU||13%||Noticeable performance improvement with Premiere / Resolve*|
|$4,000||16″ M3 Max 16-core CPU||14%||Noticeable performance improvement with After Effects|
|$4,200||64 GB unified memory||5%||Noticeable performance improvement with After Effects|
Decision 1: Upgrade to 2023 M3 MacBook Pro?
The best way to decide if you should upgrade is if it has been over 3 years since you bought your last computer or if your needs have changed and your current computer isn’t meeting them. Outside of that, my advice is to resist the urge to get the shiny new thing from Apple and invest the money elsewhere (workshops, training, lenses, etc).
To help ease your urge toward that shiny new Mac, here is a table that tells you when most photographers are likely to benefit from an upgrade.
|M2 MacBook Pro||No||Yes, there is about a 20% difference in performance, but every new model is going to be better/faster. Stick with what you have as long as it is working for you.|
|M2 Mac Studio||No||Only if you have found the desktop Mac limiting and need the ability to go mobile with your computer.|
|M2 Mac Mini||Maybe||Only if you have found the desktop to be limiting and need the ability to go mobile|
|M2 MacBook Air||No||No question the M3 MacBook Pro would be a significant performance improvement, but if the MacBook Air is working for you wait for M4.|
|M1 MacBook Pro||No||Hold off for M4 unless it isn’t meeting your needs.|
|M1 Mac Mini||No||Hold off for M4 unless it isn’t meeting your needs.|
|Any Intel Mac||Yes||If you have been holding on to an Intel-based Mac, time to pull the trigger on that upgrade and be amazed.|
|PC newer than 3 years||Probably not||If you spent more than $1,800 on a PC within the past 3 years you aren’t likely to see a significant difference in performance with a new Mac. If you spent less than that, you didn’t buy enough computer and are likely to see a difference.|
|PC older than 3 years||Probably||If it has been more than 3 years with your PC and you have been thinking about going Mac then upgrading to a MacBook Pro is going to be meaningful, though I recommend Mac Studio or Mac Mini over the MacBook Pro if you don’t need mobility.|
Decision 2: 14″ or 16″
So you have decided you want to pull the trigger on buying a 2023 M3 MacBook Pro. Next decision is the 14″ or 16″ version. I think 14″ makes the most sense for most photographers.
The 14″ M3 MacBook Pro with one upgrade is plenty of computer for most photographers to keep photo editing software running well for the next 3-5 years.
14″ M3 MacBook Pro : Recommended For Most Photographers
Unlike previous generations of the MacBook Pro with Apple Silicon, there is only one configuration difference between the 2023 14″ and 16″ M3 MacBook Pro. The base M3 System on a Chip (Processor) that I recommend as the best price to performance for most photographers is only available in the 14″ model. Therefore, I recommend the 14″ model for most photographers.
16″ M3 MacBook Pro: For Photographers Mostly On the Go
At a cost difference of about $900 (goes down to $300 difference at the high end), the 16″ M3 MacBook Pro makes the most sense for photographers who primarily work on their photos while on the go. Photographers who mostly work from home should really consider a Mac Studio or a Mac Mini. If occasional mobility is needed the 14″ M3 MacBook Pro plus a good external display will be a better editing experience for the money.
Decision 3: System on a Chip (Processor)
As has been the case with the M1 and M2, Apple released 3 versions of the M3 System on a Chip (SoC) with the updated MacBook Pro lineup. Apple offers the M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max.
Photographers may be tempted to think they need to shell out the money to get the M3 Max processor, but that is overkill for most photographers. Let’s go through each option.
M3 8-core CPU/10-core GPU: Recommended For Most Photographers
As a sports volume photographer I tend to push computers harder than most photographers. I do things like batch merge 400 high megapixel images of athletes into 1GB composite files. I spent 18 months editing my images on an M1 Pro in a 14″ MacBook Pro and CPU/GPU was rarely an issue.
Yes, that was an M1 Pro and not the M1 base SoC. Yes, that allowed me to complete those kinds of jobs faster. Yes, my power user batch workflows would benefit from as much CPU/GPU as I can get. But would that really be the best choice for me when I only run those kind of jobs about 10 times a year? Nope.
As I have talked with and mentored photographers over the years, I have become convinced that most photographers significantly overspend when they buy a computer. Apple Silicon has changed things a lot for photographers who like to use Macs.
The base Apple Silicon models are extremely capable and the M3 base SoC only makes that more true than it was with the M1 and M2. The base M3 8-core CPU/10-core GPU is the best price to performance that will meet the needs of most photographers mostly working in Lightroom with the occasional edit in Photoshop.
Besides raw performance, there are two things photographers should be aware of when deciding between the base M3 and the M3 Pro or M3 Max.
- The base M3 has only 2 USB-C ports compared with the 3 USB-C ports with the M3 Pro and M3 Max. The two USB-C ports are also slightly less capable with them both being Thunderbolt 3 / USB 4 instead of Thunderbolt 4. Though both types of ports will be the same speed with external storage.
- The base M3 only supports a single external display. The M3 Pro supports 2 external displays and the M3 Max supports up to 4.
There are a few other differences, but I don’t think they are worth mentioning. All of the differences have been considered in my recommendation. I don’t think most photographers will find these differences limiting.
M3 Pro 12-core CPU/18-core GPU: Recommended For Some Video Editing
NOTE: I skipped over the M3 Pro 11-core/14-core GPU available in the 2023 14″ MacBook Pro because I don’t think it is valuable to most photographers. Pick between the base M3 and the M3 Pro with 12-core CPU/18-core GPU.
The M3 Pro 12-core CPU/18-core GPU is recommended over the base M3 for the following use cases:
- The photographer who uses Lightroom for management of their photos but 75%+ editing in Photoshop
- The photographer who uses de-noise or raw enhancement tools like those from Topaz and DxO on more than 100 images a week
- The photographer who does (or plans to do) the occasional video editing project
- The photographer who needs to connect up to 2 external displays
Photographers who fit in those use cases and have a budget of $2,400 should upgrade to the M3 Pro 12-core CPU/18-core GPU, leave the default 18GB of unified memory, and upgrade the internal SSD to 1TB.
M3 Max 14-core CPU/30-core GPU: Useful For Frequent Video Editing
The M3 Max 14-core CPU/30-core GPU SoC is overkill for most photographers. At a 33% increase in cost this is the second most expensive upgrade in the 2023 M3 MacBook Pro lineup (see 8TB SSD below). Most photographers are not going to see a noticeable difference using tools like Lightroom and Photoshop.
The upgrade from M3 Pro to M3 Max makes a lot more sense for videographers. Even then I am skeptical video editors upgrading from the M3 Pro to the M3 Max will see anything close to a 33% improvement in performance. No question tools like Adobe Premiere Pro and/or DaVinci Resolve will be faster, just not likely to be 33% faster. Still, the time saved if video editing is something done every day probably adds up to make it worth it.
Please consider a Mac Studio as a most cost effective way to get this performance.
M3 Max 16-core CPU/40-core GPU: Useful For After Effects
The same arguments against the low-end M3 Max 14-core CPU/30-core GPU applies to the top end M3 Max 16-core CPU/40-core GPU SoC. It is overkill for most photographers. Though after taking on the monstrous 33% increase to get to the lower M3 Max SoC, the cost increase to the upper M3 Max is a more far more tolerable 16%.
The M3 Max 16-core CPU/40-core GPU is likely to be useful to those who live in tools like Adobe After Effects. I don’t think there is any chance for a 16% improvement in performance, but if you do actually live in After Effects then adding up the minor improvements over time probably makes it worth the expense.
Decision 3: Unified Memory
Next up is how much Unified Memory to put in your 2023 M3 MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, the amount of unified memory is different based on which SoC (Processor) you chose in Decision 2, which makes it difficult on recommendations.
Also, to reiterate something stated earlier, this is something you can’t change later. Photographers have to get this right as they order.
Most photographers should upgrade the 2023 M3 MacBook Pro to have a least 16GB of unified memory.
16GB of Unified Memory: Recommended For Most Photographers
NOTE: Apple offers 8GB of unified memory in the base model 2023 14″ M3 MacBook Pro. Please DO NOT buy one with 8GB of unified memory. Yes, it will function. Yes, it may be mostly adequate for light photo editing. No, it is not going to meet the needs of most photographers for 3 to 5 years.
If you want the very best price to performance in your 2023 M3 MacBook Pro, go with the base 14″ model and spend the $200 to get 16GB of unified memory. While the cost increase is about 13%, which is a lot for this amount of memory, the performance difference is likely worth the cost. Photographers are likely to see a noticeable difference running Lightroom and Photoshop.
As mentioned earlier, I used a 2022 M1 Pro MacBook Pro as my primary photo editing machine for about 18 months. That machine had 16GB of unified memory and it worked extremely well.
24GB Unified Memory – Recommended For Large Raws and Multi-Layered Photoshop Work
At a cost increase of 11% this makes sense for photographers who work with 40+ megapixel images and/or more than 10 layers in large Photoshop files. Not only is this likely to have a noticeable performance benefit in Photoshop, it may be the difference between getting your edit done and having Photoshop crash because it ran out of memory.
64GB Unified Memory – Recommended For Intense Video Editing
Part of the reason the upgrade to either of the M3 Max SoC is so expensive is that both include upgrades to unified memory. When you upgrade to the high end M3 Max 16-core CPU/40-core GPU SoC you are forced to upgrade the unified memory to 48GB. Not necessarily a bad thing, I would have recommended upgrading to more unified memory just after updating the SoC.
Photographers who have a $3,900 budget and do a lot of video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro and/or DaVinci Resolve will benefit from the 5% increase in cost to go from 48GB to 64GB of unified memory. Though again, I will highly recommend looking at the Mac Studio over the M3 MacBook Pro for video editing.
96GB or 128GB of Unified Memory – Crazy Town
With the lower M3 Max SoC Apple allows an upgrade from 64GB to 96GB of unified memory at a massive cost of $800. With the high end M3 Max SoC Apple only allows going from 64GB to 128GB of unified memory for the crazy cost of $1,000. This might make sense for video editors, especially those that live in Adobe After Effects every day, but this is crazy town costs for most photographers.
Photographers who would benefit from this kind of memory will know they need it and probably have the budget to get it. For the rest of us, this upgrade isn’t remotely close to being worth the cost.
Decision 4: SSD Storage
As has been the case with all of these decisions on your 2023 M3 MacBook Pro, what you buy is what you are stuck with. You can’t upgrade the storage inside the computer so you need to buy for your needs and maybe a little more.
The challenge is the storage upgrades get extremely expensive really quickly.
512GB SSD Storage – Recommended For Most Photographers
I wish that Apple had made 1TB of SSD storage the default at the entry level price, but at least the 256GB SSD options isn’t there. The 512GB SSD Apple puts in the base-model 2023 14″ M3 MacBook Pro is recommended for most photographers.
As proof that photographers can fully utilize a Mac with a 512GB SSD, here is the current use on my 2 year old 14″ M1 Pro MacBook Pro
Keep in mind that my usage is likely quite a lot more than what most photographers are going to have. I use my laptop for development of my Lightroom performance testing plugin, my iPhone apps (XCode is massive), and install all sorts of 3rd party plugins for testing.
What most photographers won’t be able to do with 512GB SSD in their 2023 M3 MacBook Pro is store their images or their Lightroom Classic catalog on that SSD. As I have worked with photographers over the years it seems the average space needed for a hobbyist photographer runs about 2TB which would fill this 512GB drive four times.
The good news is the 2023 M3 MacBook Pro has super fast USB-C ports, making it really easy to add fast external storage. External storage can be connected to any of the M3 MacBook Pro computers at 40GB/s. I have done significant testing of the performance impact of storing images and the Lightroom Catalog on external storage, and Lightroom maxes out at 245MB/s read/write speeds. That means Lightroom maxes out using less than 1% of the drive speed.
To say it more plainly, as long as you choose a good drive, photographers won’t notice a difference between putting their images and catalog on an external drive vs the internal drive. If you need some help choosing a good external drive, check out my recommendations.
1TB SSD Storage – Reasonable If There Is Budget
While 512GB of SSD storage is very doable, most photographers will benefit from the breathing room of doubling that storage to 1TB. The extra storage space enables photographers to keep their most recent photo shoot on the internal drive so that editing can be done without dragging an external drive around.
That isn’t to say this means most photographers won’t still need that external drive. They will, as I talk about in the 2TB SSD section below.
I think it is worth the 10% increase in cost for most photographers to invest in the 1TB SSD upgrade, especially travel photographers. Unless the budget just can’t stretch to $2,200, photographers should upgrade to 1TB of SSD storage after upgrading to 24GB of unified memory.
2TB SSD Storage – Not Recommended
The 1TB SSD upgrade comes at a mostly reasonable cost (in Apple terms). Where the 1TB SSD upgrade costs about 10% more, the 2TB SSD upgrade isn’t worse at 10% more again. Doubling the space for about double the investment may seem reasonable (again in Apple terms), but I don’t think it makes sense for most photographers.
My experience has been that most photographers, even those who do photography as a hobby, need at least 2TB of storage for their photos and Lightroom catalog. Seems perfect then right? Pay the 20% for the 2TB upgrade and then photographers can keep everything on their internal drive. Unfortunately, no.
After installing MacOS, numerous photo/video editing applications, and other applications like browsers most photographers will use somewhere between 10% and 40% of that space before ever putting a single photo on the drive. With the cost of this storage being high compared with external drives, the 2TB SSD option doesn’t make sense for most photographers.
Again, check out my external hard drive recommendations on more cost effective ways to add the storage photographers need.
4TB SSD Storage – Maybe For Intense Video Editing
Apple doesn’t offer an upgrade beyond 2TB for the 2023 MacBook Pro with the base M3 SoC, which is fine because it isn’t an upgrade worth the cost for most photographers. With the M3 Pro and M3 Max Apple offers 4TB SSD upgrades at the cost of $1,000! Ouch.
It is hard for me to imagine a use case where this upgrade makes sense for any photographers or even most videographers. For intense video editing there are extremely fast external storage options for the 2023 M3 MacBook Pro for significantly less investment.
There are a lot of other components I recommend photographers and videographers upgrade before spending money on this 4TB SSD upgrade. If you have a budget of $6,900 for your 2023 M3 MacBook Pro the 4TB SSD upgrade might make sense for videographers doing intense video editing on a daily basis, but it would have to be a pretty special use case where external storage just can’t meet the needs. Outside of that, don’t waste your money on this excessively expensive storage.
8TB SSD Storage – Just Don’t
At an additional investment cost of an astounding 47% to go from 1TB to 8TB, Apple almost makes it possible to pay more for internal storage than the rest of the computer. This just doesn’t make sense to me. Not for photographers. Not for videographers. You can get yourself a whole lot of high performing external storage that is transferable to other devices for the crazy money Apple is asking for with this upgrade.