Welcome to the Photographer’s iMac 2019 Buying Guide! So glad you stopped by. In this post I am going to go through every decision you have to make on Apple’s website when buying a 2019 iMac (not the iMac Pro) for the purpose of doing photo editing.
Check out the updated version of this article, Photographer’s 2020 iMac Buying Guide
What 2019 iMac Options Do Photographers Need to Run Lightroom and Photoshop?
Photographers will want the 27″ 5K iMac with the 3.6GHz Core i9 processor, 32GB memory, and 512GB SSD storage that in total runs about $3,400 as the best performance to best run Lightroom and Photoshop. Photographers on a budget can get a 21.5″ iMac that will run Lightroom and Photoshop really well for about $2,400.
Yes, that is quite an investment! There are some less expensive options that will work, which I will go through here, but the 2019 iMac with these options will not only work really well right now, photographers should expect that it will continue to work pretty well for the next 3-5 years.
If $2,400 is too much and you want macOS on your desktop then check out my Photographer’s Mac Mini Buying Guide and my Best Budget Computer For Photographers article. If you really need the mobility of a laptop (make sure that is TRULY something you need) and want macOS then you can check out my Photographer’s MacBook Pro Buying Guide.
For the photographers who edit photos on PCs out there (I use both a PC and a MacBook Pro so I understand both sides very well) we all know that it is possible to build a PC with better hardware for less money. You can check out my Lightroom Computer 2018 article for that, but here we are just going to discuss Mac.
With that said, let’s go through the decisions a photographer has to make when buying a 2019 iMac and give you the information you need to make those decisions.
Should Photographers Choose the 21.5″ or 27″ Screen?
It is going to sound strange but this first decision is the hardest you have to make as a photographer buying a 2019 iMac. On the one hand, the 21.5″ model means less of an investment ranging from $1,100 to $3,000 but that 21.5″ screen is pretty small (I have a suggestion for how to make this work) for editing photos. On the other hand, the 27″ 2019 iMac provides a bigger screen that is better suited for photo editing with much more investment ranging from $1,800 to a completely ridiculous $5,300.
If you have a tighter budget, it is TOTALLY possible to have the 2019 21.5″ iMac be a great computer for photo editing, so let’s go through the choices first and then we’ll get to the more expensive model.
2019 21.5″ iMac For Photographers
Though the 21.5″ screen size is pretty small for editing photos, a size I really can’t recommend, the 2019 21.5″ iMac can still be a very good computer for photographers and I will tell you how here. First let’s talk about what configurations of the 2019 21.5″ iMac should NOT buy. I recommend that photographers avoid buying the least expensive option of the 2019 21.5″ iMac that runs anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500.
Lowest 2019 21.5″ iMac Processor Too Small For Photographers!
The biggest problem with the lowest 21.5″ iMac is the Intel 7th generation Core-i5 dual-core processor. It just isn’t enough for the demanding photo editing software. At least not when you have some other options very close in price. I am not saying that photo editing programs like Lightroom Classic and Photoshop won’t run. They will launch and function. They just won’t run very fast. Even if you might be happy with the performance today in 2019, it is unlikely you will continue to be happy with it 3 to 5 years from now – something most photographers need.
I get it, it is enticing to think you can spend $1,200 on the lowest-end iMac for photo editing and have it work well. After all, Apple doesn’t make bad computers right? I agree Apple does better at providing computers that will be powerful enough for creatives than PCs where they can be completely useless on the lowest end, but photographers will be better off choosing the middle option Apple offers with the 2019 21.5″ iMac.
The middle option of the has the 8th Generation Core-i3 quad-core processor. Picking that increases the cost $100 to $1,300 and according to this comparison from cpubenchmark.net that buys you as much as 45% improvement in performance! I don’t know about you but that is worth an extra $100 to me.
We will talk more about the other processor choices in a later decision, but the highest processor option you see in the graph above buys you a 30% improvement in performance over the middle option for an extra $300. Click on the image to see more details of the comparison between these processors. Here I am only show the single thread performance difference because that is what Lightroom and Photoshop MOSTLY do. If you consider the full difference between the processors the Core i7 is as much as 77% better. These are options worth spending money on for photographers.
Lowest 2019 21.5″ iMac Screen Resolution Too Small For Photographers
The other problem with the lowest of the 21.5″ iMac is that in only has a full HD resolution (1920×1080). Kind of crazy I just said “only full HD”. It wasn’t very long ago that full HD was what we were all spending money on upgrades to our TVs, but here in 2019 that isn’t good enough for photo editing. Seriously, it isn’t. The difference between full HD and the next resolution up from that called WQHD (2560×1440 or sometimes called 2K) is so big you really shouldn’t consider full HD.
Unfortunately, you can’t pick a 2019 iMac with this 2K resolution. You get the full HD resolution in the lowest 21.5″ or you get 4K (4096×2304) or 5K. I really wish Apple offered one with a 2K resolution between the two because that is really the sweet spot for Lightroom. 2K gives you plenty of resolution for editing your photos and Lightroom can do a much better job to keep up.
For the seriously budget conscious, photographers could make this work and save themselves some money buying the lowest 21.5″ model and then a good-sized monitor to go with it. Many photographers really like a 2 monitor setup anyway, so adding something like a 32″ 2K (1440p) IPS monitor like this ViewSonic model that runs about $280.
If only photographers could get a little better processor in the lowest option that would really be a good computer for those with smaller budgets. Unfortunately Apple doesn’t give you the option to do that. Which means I can’t recommend the lowest tier 2019 21.5″ iMac for photographers.
2019 21.5″ iMac Processor For Photographers
Yep, here we are right back to talking about the processor again. With the middle 2019 21.5″ iMac option you can choose between an 8th generation Core i3 quad-core processor or an 8th generation Core i7 processor. Both are pretty good choices that will meet the demands of photo processing software.
With the highest tier 2019 21.5″ iMac you choose between an 8th generation Core i5 processor or an 8th generation Core i7 processor. Core i5 in this highest option vs the Core i3 in the middle option, the Core i5 should be better right? Yes, about 50% better, but I don’t think either of either of these are the best option for photographers. Better than the Core i5 processor in the lowest configuration, but there is a better choice.
The best performance for photographers is going to be that Core i7 processor. The EXACT SAME processor is available in both the middle and the highest configuration of the 2019 21.5″ iMac. With the middle option of 2019 2.15″ iMac it costs you $300 more to go from that baseline Core i3 up to the Core i7 for a total of $1,600 without any other upgrades and gets you between 30% and 70% improvement in performance.
With the highest tier of the 2019 21.5″ iMac it costs you $200 to go from the baseline Core i5 processor to the Core i7 (again, exactly the same one as the middle option) for a total of $1,700 with about that same 30-70% improvement in performance.
If the processor is exactly the same, why does the higher tier 2019 21.5″ iMac cost $100 more? It is the difference in the graphics card, something that Lightroom just doesn’t really use for much of anything today (although it does make a difference in the very newest Enhance Details feature). If it is Lightroom and Photoshop that you are going to run on this Mac, not worth spending the extra $100 there.
2019 21.5″ Memory (RAM) For Photographers
Here is another reason the middle tier of the 2019 21.5″ iMac is the best choice for photographers. The same memory is available between both the middle and highest option. Both start with 8GB and both can be upgraded to have 32GB. The costs are even identical to upgrade either the middle or highest option.
Great, so how much memory should a photographer buy? As much as they can afford of course! 8GB is the bare minimum, kind of a make it work option. If you are going to be running Lightroom and Photoshop (and a browser with lots of tabs open) at the same time, you will be much happier with 16GB or 32GB of memory over 8GB. Will 8GB work for photographers? Yep. Just be ready to see some beachballs (the icon macOS shows you when it is not keeping up with you).
16GB of memory is kind of the sweet spot. At just $200 to go from 8GB to 16GB I think it is worth that money to get you there. After all, I just saved you $100 helping you not pick the highest option of the 2019 21.5″ iMac so you have $100 to spend right? 16GB will do very well for you for nearly everything you will want to do with both Lightroom and Photoshop running at the same time. The place it will struggle a little would be more demanding photo editing like panorama and HDR merging or compositing.
It is a much bigger jump from 16GB to 32GB at $400 more. If you can afford it, it would be worth it to go to 32GB. Memory needs for photo editing aren’t going down as time goes on, they are only increasing. If you need this computer to last for 5 years it is worth that $400 to get to 32GB of memory.
I wish there was an option to buy the 8GB of memory from Apple and then upgrade it yourself later. After all, 32GB of the same type of memory is only about $200 from anyone other than Apple. Unfortunately, Apple decided back in 2012 that with the 21.5″ iMac they would make the memory NOT be user accessible. There are kits and instructions to do it even though Apple has gone to great lengths to not allow it, but it is a process iFixit says moderately difficult and potentially dangerous. Plus, they don’t have their guide up for the 2019 version as of this post.
2019 21.5″ Graphics For Photographers
My advice for a 2019 iMac with regard to graphics is the same as I give for any Mac or PC. Graphics currently does very little to effect performance of either Lightroom or Photoshop. Adobe simply hasn’t added much in the way of graphics processing capabilities to either program and as of the publication of this article (hopefully Adobe changes this and makes this point more disputable in the future) it simply isn’t worth the money for photographers to spend money on graphics.
That changes entirely if you are planning to do video editing with this computer. This article is not for that use case, so I won’t go into it here, but graphics becomes far more significant with that use case or gaming than it does for photography.
2019 21.5″ Storage (Hard Drive Size) For Photographers
In the middle tier 2019 21.5″ iMac Apple offers a 1TB Serial ATA Drive @5400 rpm and I am not sure why they even have this offering here in 2019. Photographers DO NOT want this option. For $100 more you can get the 1TB Fusion Drive and while this is a little better than the first option, I strongly recommend photographers avoid this drive as well.
Check out the testing I have done to see how storing your photos on an external SSD vs an external spinning drive speeds up Lightroom Classic by as much as 50% in this article on Performance of External Drives with Lightroom Classic
The minimum storage option photographers want is the 256GB SSD storage option that will add $200 to the price of your new iMac and is completely worth that price. Yes, that is 1/4 the storage of the first two options, but the performance difference is immense! Boot times and program load times will be significantly faster with this option over the less expensive choices and this is an absolute no-brainer for a photographer.
Apple still has two more options for storage in the 2019 21.5″ iMac. There is a 512GB SSD storage option that gives you the same performance as the smaller 256GB SSD but twice the storage. That extra storage is really nice for a photographer to have.
256GB is going to be fairly tight for photographers. After installing macOS and the creative software photographers use like Lightroom and Photoshop along with other productivity tools like word processor or spreadsheet tools and web browsers, there won’t be a whole lot of room left for your photos. I know I keep advising that upgrades are worth paying for and it all adds up in a hurry, but if there is room in your budget for yet another $200 to go from the 256GB SSD to 512GB SSD I recommend doing it.
What I do not recommend is going above that to the next option with 1TB SSD storage. Not because it is a terrible option or that you would be entirely wasting your money doing that upgrade. If it is in your budget you will be really happy to have the extra space like you are if you can upgrade from coach to first class. The problem is at $400 to go from the 512GB SSD storage to 1TB of SSD storage is not the best value for your dollar.
You see, even 1TB of storage is really not that much for a photographer. Especially if you shoot a modern full frame camera, that 1TB drive will get used up very quickly. The reality for photographers is that you are going to need to add external storage to your iMac no matter which of these options you choose. To me you are best cutting that internal storage off at 512GB (I would actually do 256GB) and using that $400 (or $600 if you do 256GB) on something like this 2TB external SSD from SanDisk ($330). You get you 4x the storage at slightly less cost and that SanDisk drive is still EXTREMELY fast.
Use the SanDisk drive for the photos you are actively editing and then buy something like this Western Digital 4TB Black My Passport Portable External Hard Drive ($100) for long-term storage after you are done editing the photos and you have much more storage that should last you quite a while for your photo editing at much less cost.
Also, an important note here, please make sure you implement some kind of a 3-2-1 backup solution. Check out these podcast episodes for more information on backup:
- Master Photography: Backup for Photographers (2019)
- Photo Taco: ULTIMATE Guide to Backup for Photographers (2018)
- Photo Taco: Online Backup (2017)
While the 21.5″ 4K screen is very nice, it really isn’t large enough for photo editing. You could get by with it for a little while, and if there are budget constraints then maybe you do that for a while, but my recommendation is that you buy a second display to use with this iMac that is 27″ or larger.
The 2019 21.5″ iMac supports up to two 4K 60Hz external displays, which means you can add something like this excellent Dell Ultrasharp U2718Q 27-Inch 4K IPS Monitor for about $400.
Recommended 2019 21.5″ iMac For Photographers
To wrap up the recommendation on the “budget” 2019 iMac that I can recommend to photographers, here is the minimum configuration I recommend:
- 3.2GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz
- 16GB DDR4 memory
- 256GB SSD
The cost comes in at about $2,000 for this configuration. I highly recommend adding that second screen to go with this model because 21.5″ is just too small for photo editing at $400. Total cost for a really good 2019 iMac for photo editing is about $2,400 and you would be setup for many years to do amazing things in post-processing. If you don’t already have the additional storage your costs get up to about $3,000 all in (assuming you are going to implement a 3-2-1 backup solution).
Yes, that is quite a bit of money, probably as much or maybe more than you spent on your camera, but this will get the job done beautifully for the next 3-5 years.
2019 27″ iMac For Photographers
There are quite a few differences between the 2019 21.5″ iMac and the 2019 27″ iMac, but I think only two of them should matter to photographers. The first is pretty obvious – the size of the screen. I don’t think that a 21.5″ screen, even one that supports 4K resolution, is physically large enough for photographers. As with all of the decisions it isn’t that it won’t work, because the lowest configured 2019 iMac Apple sells will absolutely run Photoshop and Lightroom and function. But I am very confident that most photographers will be far happier with a physically large screen and the cost makes sense.
The second difference between the 2019 21.5″ iMac and the 2019 27″ iMac that will matter to photographers is the processing power available in the 27″ model. Here in 2019 both Photoshop and Lightroom benefit more from faster CPU clock speeds (that’s the GHz) than they do multiple cores and bigger/faster graphics cards. The 2019 27″ iMac offers options for faster clock speeds that will make a difference to photographers as they use Lightroom and Photoshop.
While with the advice above about how a photographer should configure a 2019 21.5″ iMac to end up with a really good computer for photo editing, the 2019 27″ iMac just has more to offer if you have a slightly higher budget.
Photographers Should Not Choose Lowest 2019 27″ iMac
As was the case with the 2019 21.5″ iMac, photographers should NOT choose the lowest 2019 27″ iMac for photo editing. With the lowest option you don’t get the choice to upgrade to a faster processor, something photographers really need for their post processing needs. Trust me on this, you don’t want that $1,800 2019 27″ iMac for photo editing.
This is a good thing, it means there is one less option photographers have to choose from. Now let’s walk through the decisions a photographer has to make between that middle and highest option of the 2019 27″ iMac.
2019 27″ iMac Processor For Photographers
You would think that spending $1,800 on a computer should mean that it is enough for photographers to do some good post processing. As I have said many times here, it will work, it just won’t work as well as it could if you invest just a little more into your new computer.
The 3.0GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor in the lowest 2019 27″ iMac option Apple offers is not up to the demands of photo editing and Apple doesn’t let you upgrade that option to include a better processor. It will work, you can run Lightroom and Photoshop but if you are going to be making an investment in a computer for photo editing I think you are far better off making a little more investment and having a computer that will make you productive for a little bit longer.
Looking at performance comparisons between the base processor options across the lowest, middle, and highest 2019 27″ iMac, there isn’t a significant difference between any of them. Between the lowest and middle tier you get about a 4% improvement in single threaded performance. From middle to highest you get about a 7% improvement. Looking at the comparisons here I hope you can appreciate how big that 30% increase is in the 2019 21.5″ iMac as I outlined above.
Now the difference between that lowest tier and the highest is about 11% and is totally worth the price increase to get there. But there is an even better option that is available in both the middle and the highest tier of the 2019 27″ iMac.
Not as big as the 30% difference in the 2019 21.5″ iMac, but the difference between the processor you cannot upgrade in the lowest tier of the 2019 27″ iMac and the Core i9 processor you can upgrade to in either the middle or the highest tier is 20%. Again, I am only comparing the single threaded performance here because that is what matters most to both Lightroom and Photoshop. If you consider the full capabilities of the processor it is more like a 70% difference. To me that is totally worth the $500 increase in cost for the middle tier or the $400 increase in the high tier.
Before leaving the processor recommendation, unlike my recommendation to go with the middle tier in the 2019 21.5″ iMac, I recommend photographers go with the high tier with the 2019 27″ iMac because the costs will be identical with the remainder of the configuration and you end up with a slightly better video card. More information below.
2019 21.5″ iMac Processor vs 2019 27″ iMac Processor for Photographers
Now the question I am sure you are wondering about. What is the performance difference between the Core i7 in the 2019 21.5″ iMac and the Core i9 in the 2019 27″ iMac. Surely the Core i9 in the 27″ model is better for both Lightrom and Photoshop right? Let’s take a look.
Yep, about 10% better performance in the Core i9 in the 2019 27″ iMac over the Core i7 in the 2019 21.5″ iMac in single threaded capabilities that matter to Lightroom and Photoshop. If you consider the full capabilities the difference is about 33%. This is why my recommendation for photographers looking to buy a 2019 iMac is to go with the 27″ version if budget allows.
2019 27″ iMac Memory For Photographers
There really isn’t much of a choice with regard to memory with the 2019 27″ iMac for photographers. You have choices of 8, 16, 32, and 64GB of memory in the middle and upper tier. The costs for each is exactly the same between the two, so your choice should be made based on the budget you have.
After the processor, the amount of memory is the next most important factor for how well your computer will run Lightroom and Photoshop (and all of the other programs you want to have up at the same time). The more memory you can get in that computer the better. If you can afford the $1,000 increase to go from the base level of 8GB of memory to the higest available in 64GB of memory then you should do that.
Again, Apple has chosen to make the memory something you can upgrade yourself, so whatever you buy now is what you are going to have for the lifetime of this computer. If $1,000 is just too much (it is for me) to get to 64GB of memory then for sure I recommend spending the $200 to go from 8 to 16GB and would really recommend you see if you can spend the $600 to go from 8 to 32GB. Check out the next section for a way you can get the memory and save some money.
I view the 2019 27″ iMac as the performance option for photographers, those who have more budget to spend on a computer for editing photos. If you need a smaller budget computer then I recommend you go with the 2019 21.5″ iMac as outlined above.
2019 27″ iMac Memory For The Slightly Adventurous
I noted above that the Apple has decided to not make the memory user upgradeable in the 2019 21.5″ iMac. It is frustrating to me because if it was user upgradeable that would make that model even more compelling for those low on budget. The good news is upgrading the memory yourself is pretty simple in the 2019 27″ iMac!
There are a few guides that show you how to do it, but it is really pretty simple. There is an easily accessible door on the back of the 2019 27″ iMac that gives you access to the slots for the memory. You can upgrade the memory yourself for far less than what Apple charges without any sacrifice in performance or reliability.
While it is possible to get the memory from any vendor, I recommend OWC as the memory will be tested specifically for working with your new iMac. You can buy the 32GB kit for about $200 and because it comes in 2x16GB DIMMS you can even keep the 8GB of memory that you buy as the lowest cost option from Apple and get to 40GB! That will save you $400 and you end up with more memory than paying for 32GB of RAM to come with your new iMac. I love it.
OWC also offers two different 64GB kits. The less expensive 4x16GB kit will run you about $390 but you will have to take out the memory that Apple installed in your new iMac (OWC will give you a small rebate if you send that memory to them). They also offer a 2x32GB kit for about $450 that will let you keep the 8GB of memory Apple put in there for a total of 72GB. Pretty cool and you save between $550 and $610. Personally the $390 kit is what I would choose to do to get to 64GB.
Now here is where it gets crazy. The 2019 27″ iMac actually supports up to 128GB of memory even though you can’t buy it that way from Apple. OWC sells a 4x32GB kit for about $900. Yep, you can get 2x the maximum amount of memory that Apple offers for $100 less than what Apple charges for 64GB of memory. I think this is overkill for photographers here in 2019, but if you have the budget why not right?
2019 27″ iMac Graphics For Photographers
My advice is not different here than it was for the 2019 21.5″ iMac above. Photographers are better served to invest their money in other components than in the graphics of any computer.
That said, I am recommending photographers go with the highest tier 2019 27″ iMac because for exactly the same price they get SLIGHTLY better graphics than you get in the middle tier. It won’t really matter for running Lightroom and Photoshop, but if you can get something better for the same price you should right?
What I do NOT recommend photographers do with the 2019 27″ iMac is invest the $450 it takes to upgrade the graphics. It won’t be materially different as you use Lightroom and Photoshop. Invest in more storage, more memory, or in more external storage instead of putting your money here.
2019 27″ iMac Storage For Photographers
The story is largely the same with regard to the storage option I recommend photographers choose with the 2019 27″ iMac as I did with the 2019 21.5″ iMac. Do not choose the 2TB or 3TB Fusion Drive options, there is a significant improvement in performance going with an SSD.
Again, I view the 2019 27″ iMac as the performance option for photographers and not the budget option. Go with the 2019 21.5″ iMac if you want a great machine with a smaller budget. For this reason, I don’t recommend the 256GB SSD storage option that is only available in the middle tier of the 2019 27″ iMac.
The cost of getting more storage than that gets into the realm of ridiculous very quickly. My recommendation for having more storage available to photographers than the 512GB SSD will provide is the same as what I wrote above for the 2019 21.5″ iMac.
Recommended 2019 27″ iMac For Photographers
Here is the final configuration I recommend photographers use as they buy a 2019 27″ iMac for post processing:
- Choose the highest tier
- 3.6GHz 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor, Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz
- 32GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory
- Radeon Pro 580x
- 512GB SSD
This configuration comes out to a whopping $3,400! It is not inexpensive for sure but this computer will serve you extremely well for 3-5 years and will get out of your way as you work to realize your creative vision. Think of how much you spend on camera bodies and lenses, why would you think you would have a computer that does what you need for less?