Apple FINALLY updated their Mac Mini product line late in 2018 (with a minor update in March 2020), making it a pretty good option for photographers to run Lightroom and Photoshop. This buying guide provides insight into which model and what configuration options photographers should consider.
If you are a Windows user (I use both platforms about 50/50) then the concepts on what hardware is worth paying for is still applicable, but you would be better served checking out my Lightroom Computer 2018 post and podcast episode. I also have a Photographer’s Guide to Buying an iMac and Photographer’s Guide to Buying a MacBook Pro. If you are on a tight budget check out my Best Budget Computer for Photography article.
What is the best configuration of a late 2018 Mac Mini for photographers?
The best configuration of a late 2018 Mac Mini for photographers is 3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7, with 16GB of memory, and 512GB of SSD storage at a cost of about $2,100.
With the 2018 refresh of the Mac Mini Apple has a solid lineup of computers that are great for photo editing. A photographer almost can’t make a bad choice with the Mac Mini, though the $800 entry level model isn’t really up to the challenge of running Lightroom.
Apple has made the choices for a Mac Mini much easier than their MacBook Pro lineup. There is really only one choice to make compared with seven decisions you have with the 2018 MacBook Pro lineup. You can get help with those seven decisions in my Photographer’s MacBook Pro Buying Guide article, though I think the Mac Mini is a better choice as far as value for the money.
Before we get into the configuration decisions, I want set some expectations for you as a photographer looking to buy a computer. You really need to be ready to make an investment here. Mac or PC, here in 2019 you shouldn’t really expect to get a computer that can do a good job with Lightroom and Photoshop for less than $1,000.
Yes, you might find some sales that make desktop computers (especially desktops running Windows) that dip a little below that $1,000 mark but if you don’t have a budget of at least $1,000 then I recommend you keep saving until you can get up there. $1,500 is significantly better.
On the other hand, you absolutely do NOT have to spend more than $3,000 on a computer to run Lightroom and Photoshop REALLY well. Not even on a computer from Apple. You can do quite well with a machine that costs between $1,500 and $2,500. It will last you at least 3 years and you should get 5 years out of the machine if you invest it properly. That is what the buying guides on this site are all about.
Decision 1: Processor
I know I just said there is really only one choice to be made but there are actually 3. I said there is really only one because to me two of the three configuration decisions to make are made for you as a photographer.
Which processor you are going to choose is the first decision Apple presents, but it really isn’t too much of a decision for a photographer wanting to run Lightroom and Photoshop. If budget is constrained, this is not an area you should save money on. Lightroom in particular REALLY wants as much processor as you can give it, so spend the money here first.
Core i3 Processor – Not Really Enough Power
At the least expensive end of things, $799 gets you a 3.6GHz quad‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i3 processor. Everyone has different expectations when it comes to performance in Lightroom and Photoshop. For beginners just starting out to learn Lightroom, who are more likely to work on jpeg files and not use Photoshop at the same time, the baseline 2018 Mac Mini with a Core i3 process is going to be just fine. If you have more advanced skills and needs with Lightroom and Photoshop running at the same time then a Core i3 processor is just really not enough power.
Yes, this Core i3 processor will technically start the software and run it, but if you are editing full frame raw files then expect the sliders and adjustment brushes in Lightroom to be somewhat slow to respond in comparison to how Lightroom does with Core i5 or Core i7 processors. You can also expect exports from Lightroom or HDR/panorama merges, more advanced features, to take longer with the Core i3.
Core i5 Processor – Sufficient
The next processor up from that is the 3.0GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz) for $1,099. If you don’t have the budget to go up to the Core i7 processor then the Core i5 will do pretty well. It will be sufficient.
The Core i5 is nearly 50% faster than the Core i3 option. Completely worth the $300 more to get here (you also get 2x the SSD storage in that $300). It is the lowest I recommend you go for photo editing on the 2018 Mac Mini. If you go with the Core i5 you may not get 5 years out of this machine before you feel like it is running this too slowly.
Because you can’t upgrade the processor in the Mac Mini, if you want this computer to last as long as possible then I recommend investing in the Core i7.
Core i7 Processor – Excellent
Finally, you have the 3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz) processor that is going to do a good job running Lightroom and Photoshop for at least 3 years and probably 5 years. It is only 25% faster than the Core i5, but that 25% makes a real difference in Lightroom.
Going to the Core i7 means another $200, taking the price up to $1,300 now, but you already have a pretty decent computer for running Lightroom and Photoshop without spending any more money.
If there is more money in the budget I do recommend upgrading the memory from 8GB to 16GB, which is your next decision, but the processor is so important to running Lightroom that if you can only do $1,300 then this is where you should go. Especially because if you are willing to dig into the computer a little then you can upgrade the memory later yourself!
Decision 2: Memory
It is great that Apple has you choose processor first because that also happens to be the most important thing to make Lightroom perform well. Next to that is the memory that just so happens to be your next configuration choice.
This memory decision is the real decision you have to make when buying a Mac Mini for photo editing. This decision is not as easy to make as the processor. The more memory you can throw at Lightroom and Photoshop – especially if you run them at the same time – the better. Check out my How Much Memory does Lightroom Need article for more information.
Of course there is a cost to the memory, and prices are inflated right now due to so much demand placed on the market with the crypto mining craze, so what is the reasonable amount of memory for photographers? So glad you asked.
8GB – Almost Sufficient
The baseline Mac Mini has 8GB of memory. On a Windows computer I would tell you that 8GB is not enough for running Lightroom and Photoshop. But Apple has engineered into macOS some special sauce with regard to memory management that makes 8GB on a Mac a whole lot more useful than it is on a PC.
Still, even with the fancy memory tech in macOS, 8GB is going to be really tight. If you do any kind of panorama or HDR work you won’t be happy with 8GB of memory. The lack of memory is also going to slow down moving from photo to photo in Lightroom, so if you don’t like that “Please wait…” message at the bottom of Lightroom you will want to invest more here.
If you maxed out the processor already (which is higher priority than memory) and there isn’t any room in the budget to upgrade to 16GB of memory, then stay right here. It will work for the “normal” types of editing or if you are just getting started in Lightroom and Photoshop.
This is also something you could buy if you want to upgrade the memory yourself. Yes, you can actually do that on the 2018 Mac Mini! It isn’t something Apple is recommending, they officially tell you to take it into them to upgrade the memory, but iFixit has a beautiful Mac mini Late 2018 Memory (RAM) Replacement guide.
iFixit rates the process to upgrade the memory at a medium level and say it should take 20-40 minutes to do. It will save you quite a lot of money and even if you have never done something like this I promise this is something you could do without breaking anything.
You should also check out this OWC Mac Mini Memory upgrade video because even if you have NEVER opened up a computer in your life, you can totally do this! You will save yourself a ton of money in the process.
16GB – Sufficient
If you don’t want to take on upgrading the memory yourself (seriously, you can do it!), 16GB of memory is sufficient to make photo editing work well on pretty well any modern computer. Windows or Mac. I already mentioned the special sauce that Apple has put into macOS with regard to memory management, and that is going to make 16GB feel more like 20 or 30.
Not saying that 16GB of memory is going to be the same as actually having 32GB of memory. There is a big difference there, just that 16GB of memory in a Mac Mini will function more similarly to a basic (things can be done for Windows too but takes some advanced knowledge) Windows computer with more physical memory.
Upgrade the processor first, and if there is $200 in the budget then I recommend going to 16GB of memory. 16GB is the sweet spot for a 2018 Mac Mini to do photo editing. The right price to performance ration for most photographers, though it won’t really be useful for video editing.
If you willing to give it a try (are you catching on yet that you can do it) you can get to 24GB of RAM for half the cost of paying Apple the $200 to have them upgrade from 8GB to 16GB of memory. Buy the OWC 16GB (16GBx1) memory kit for about $100 and then you should be able to easily install that one memory stick right next to the 8GB stick that Apple will put in there and have 24GB!
32GB – Excellent
At $600, the upgrade to 32GB of memory is quite a jump, but if you are one who round-trips between Lightroom and Photoshop a lot and/or do HDR panoramas, then you are going to need it. I have been using 32GB of memory on my custom built Windows photo editing computer since 2014, and have needed every bit it.
The beginning to intermediate photographer is likely to be just fine with 16GB of memory, but the photographer doing advanced editing on their photos is going to need to get to 32GB. Max the processor and spend the $600 to get to 32GB of memory and the 2018 Mac Mini should be a solid photo editing computer for at least 3 years.
Once again, you can save yourself a lot if you will be brave and upgrade the memory yourself. Buy the OWC 32GB (32GBx1) memory upgrade for about $230 and you can install this memory stick next to the 8GB stick that Apple installs to get to 40GB of memory and save yourself $380!
64GB – Overpriced (Unless DIY)
Yep, I think that paying $1,400 to get to 64GB of memory is overpriced for a 2018 Mac Mini photo editing computer. While 64GB of memory may be very helpful for some workloads (I could have used it for some of my bigger composites or HDR panoramas for sure), it is absolutely NOT worth it for photographers to pay the price Apple is charging for this upgrade.
It isn’t silly to put 64GB of memory into a 2018 Mac Mini. Both Lightroom and Photoshop will gobble up as much memory as you can put in the computer. It is the price Apple wants for it is just plain silly. Given the other components in the 2018 Mac Mini, like the lack of a discrete graphics card (will talk about the Thunderbolt 3 option for GPU later), you are likely to run into other bottlenecks before you can truly use all of that memory.
Video editing is where you could really use this amount of memory, and the 2018 Mac Mini is not a great video editing computer. If you want to do a lot of video editing you will have a much better experience with an iMac (check out the Photographer’s 2019 iMac Buying Guide) or a custom Windows computer.
When I saw the $1,400 price tag Apple charges on this upgrade I literally laughed out loud. Paying more for the memory than the rest of the computer combined is insane. Especially when you can buy a 64GB (32GBx2) memory kit from OWC for about $450! Unlike the 16GB and 32GB DIY upgrades where you can keep the 8GB memory stick and get to higher amounts of memory for less cost, this time you can’t keep that 8GB memory stick that comes from Apple so you only get to 64GB in total. You can save a MASSIVE $950 doing it yourself over paying Apple. That would be worth doing if there is budget.
Decision 3: Storage
Like memory, this decision is harder to make and going to be entirely budget based. One of the challenges with using a Mac Mini for photo editing is the lack of storage.
Photographers need and use a lot of storage. Not like videographers, that is some serious storage needs with 4K and 8K footage these days, but photographers definitely need a good amount of storage for their photos. No matter which storage option you go with, you are going to have to connect external storage to the Mac Mini, something I will address as well.
I like that Apple has made this the third decision to make as you configure your 2018 Mac Mini. With all of the options being super speedy SSD, the only bad choice you can make here is not getting enough storage or going with the overkill options.
The bad news is you can’t replace the SSD yourself. Come on Apple! The processor and the SSD are both soldered in. Neither is user upgradeable. So you have to nail this because you aren’t changing your mind later.
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
128GB SSD – Not Enough
Don’t go this low on the storage. You can’t go this low as of March 2020! Good thing. I have two computers with 256GB SSD drives. My 2015 MacBook Pro and my 2014 custom build Windows desktop. I only have the operating system and the applications installed to these drives, no photos stored there, and there isn’t a lot of breathing room.
With that in mind, 128GB of SSD storage is just not enough for anything but a computer to browse the Internet. Nothing else. I wouldn’t recommend 128GB of storage for a computer used mainly to create documents and spreadsheets, let alone a photographer.
Dial back the memory if you can’t afford the $200 to get to 256GB. Or better yet, save just a bit longer until you get that extra $200.
256GB – Sufficient
Don’t go any lower than this for the storage.
The $200 to get to 256GB is essential for a photographer. This is now the lowest option available as of March 2020. Sure wish they had updated the Intel CPUs inside the Mac Mini at the same time, but this is nice.
As mentioned above, this is what I chose for my photo editing computers in 2014 and 2015. It works. I have enough room for the operating system (both macOS and Windows) and the other software I use (Lightroom Classic CC, Lightroom CC, Photoshop CC, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and a few others), but it is a little tight.
With only 256GB of storage I have to think about what I am putting there and actively manage it a bit, watching for programs that default to using the boot drive for temp files. If after maxing out the processor and getting a good amount of memory you don’t have budget to go any further than 256GB then this will do quite well – just be ready to manage things a little form time to time and find things to delete.
512GB – Excellent
If after processor and memory the budget allows the
$400 $200 (as of March 2020) to go to 512GB of storage, I think this is the sweet spot for the 2018 Mac Mini as a photo editing computer. You can be good with the 256GB option, but with 512GB you won’t really have to worry about things.
Now you are not going to put your photos here. 512GB will give you enough space that I recommend you put your catalog here, but you need to add external storage to the Mac Mini for your photos.
1TB and 2TB – Overkill
Still overkill even with the March 2020 updated pricing that now asks for $400 to go from 256GB to 1TB. I guess it is nice to see Apple offer some overkill options. In the past options for more memory and more storage weren’t there and now we have some options that just don’t make sense.
You may be thinking that 1TB or 2TB of local storage inside the 2018 Mac Mini sounds ideal to you as a photographer, but the price is over the top again here.
Like memory, SSD storage in larger sizes like 1TB and 2TB is expensive. However, Apple is marking up the costs on the SSD quite a bit more than they are with the memory. A 1TB PCIe NVMe – M.2 Internal SSD goes for about $300 at the time of this article and Apple wants
$800 $400 (almost reasonable now) to go up from 128GB 256GB to 1TB, about a $500 (167%) $100(33%) markup. 2TB goes for about $550 and Apple wants a whopping $1,600 $800 for it, a markup of about $1,000 (290%) $250(200%)!
Makes those markups on prints seem pretty tame, doesn’t it?!!
Not only is the cost far too high for what you get here, it doesn’t really solve your storage needs. If you are just starting out, 2TB may seem like plenty of storage for you photos, but I can promise you it really isn’t if you stick with this for very long. External storage is the best way to meet the needs of storing your photos and 512GB or 256B SSD options are better choices.
Decision 4: External Storage
While on the topic of storage, if you are going to use a Mac Mini for your photo editing you really have to plan on adding external storage for your photos. I really wish that Apple offered a desktop computer with the form factor that allowed adding internal storage. Maybe the new Mac Pro that is supposed to be headed our way in 2019 will provide it, but I am not holding my breath.
So the storage has to be external. Fortunately Apple has provided some super speedy ports on the 2018 Mac Mini to do just that. Thunderbolt 3 connections are capable of speeds that rival the M.2 interface to PCIe NVMe SSD we just got done talking about. Unfortunately, that kind of storage is so expensive I also can’t recommend it.
Wait, so you above I said that you don’t want the 1TB or 2TB SSD option, but the external storage through Thunderbolt 3 that can come close in performance is also too expensive? Yep. Neither is worth the price of the storage for the tiny bit of performance increase. It would sure be nice if there was a less expensive way to go to 2TB of that insanely fast storage. I just don’t think the cost is worth it.
I do have a very good alternative. Still a little on the costly side for many photographers, but a really good option that will provide quite a lot of performance. The SanDisk 2TB Extreme Portable External SSD for about $390. A full $1,200 (410%) less than what Apple wants. Now that’s what I’m talking about. Funny how you can make a $400 external drive seem less expensive isn’t it? That drive is plenty fast to keep your Lightroom and Photoshop moving along.
Get one of those and live off it as long as you can, when you hit the wall where that 2TB isn’t enough add slower, less expensive long term storage with something like the WD 8TB Elements USB 3.0 Desktop Hard Drive that runs about $150. Name brand isn’t a big deal here, USB 3.0 is the thing to look for. You can get both external drives, totaling 10TB of storage, for about 45% less than the cost of the 2TB internal storage option.
Edit from the speedy and mostly reasonably priced SandDisk SSD and then store the photos long-term in the slower but far less expensive WD drive (or something similar). A great solution to the problem of storage for a photographer wanting to use a 2018 Mac Mini for photo editing.
Don’t forget that you need to backup that data. Check out the Photography and Storage, Online Backup and ULTIMATE Guide to Backup For Photographers Photo Taco episodes for help there. I recommend BackBlaze as both a reliable and good value online backup provider I have used for many years. If you signup using my link you and I both get a month of service for FREE!
Decision 5: Ethernet
Apple offers the option to upgrade from a 10/100/100 Ethernet connection to a 10 gigabit Ethernet connection for $100. There is really only one good reason a photographer would consider this upgrade, and that is if you ever want to use Network Attached Storage (NAS).
We just talked about needing to add external storage. One of the options I didn’t go into here, but do in the podcast episodes mentioned above, is the ability to connect to Network Attached storage. There are some good advantages to this kind of storage, but let’s not get into that here.
The important thing to note is that this upgraded Ethernet connection will allow you to get the very most speed out of that NAS as is possible today. Still won’t be close to direct connections like Thunderbolt 2/3 or USB 3.0/3.1, but a really solid option for that less expensive slower storage.
With that 10 gigabit connection you can get speeds fast enough to edit photos from the NAS. Without it, I don’t recommend doing that.
For most photographers, not worth spending the $100 here. If you need it later and are still using this Mac Mini for editing then you can always add a Thunderbolt to Ethernet adapter and get there when you decide you need it. I am guessing you won’t.
Decision 6: Graphics
Unfortunately Apple doesn’t offer any choices for Graphics processing capabilities. You’ll notice there is no option for a discrete graphics card and you are stuck with Intel UHD Graphics 630 built into the Intel processor.
There is a way to add discrete graphics to your 2018 Mac Mini via that speedy Thunderbolt 3 port, but I don’t recommend it for photographers who buy a Mac Mini. The technology is pretty expensive and isn’t mature enough to really depend upon. It is more likely to give you problems than it is to provide solutions.
That said, just so you know all of your options, for about $540 you can buy the eGFX Breakaway Box 550 Bundle (with Sapphire PULSE Radeon RX 580 8GB Card) from Sonnet (a well known and well established vendor for components like these).
If you are wanting to go with an eGPU with you Mac Mini you for sure want to max out the other components, let’s assume you DIY the 64GB of memory, you get a total cost of about $2,300 for your Mac Mini. That is before adding storage and a display. I just don’t think it is worth it to add on the eGPU. If this is the kind of Mac you are after you really should consider an iMac.
On top of immature technology and significant costs, Lightroom and Photoshop don’t do a great job taking advantage of GPU processing here in 2019. There is some support, and in some cases it has helped, but there are still a lot of photographers finding they have to turn off what limited support there is for GPU in order to get the most performance.
The one challenge photographers may run into with a Mac Mini for their photo editing computer is trying to do that on a 4K display. Technically, the Mac Mini can drive a 4K display, but it may not drive it very well. The graphics power in that CPU is just enough to make this go. As of right now you would be better off with a MacBook Pro with discrete graphics driving a 4K display or an iMac. Let’s hope that eGPU becomes less expensive and more reliable soon.
Decision 7: Monitor
I didn’t have this section in this guide originally, but after having many questions I decided to add it in here. Photographers who are buying the Mac Mini clearly need a display to make it useful. The new Pro Display XDR Apple announced at WWDC in 2019 is a whopping $5,000 and not something that is intended for photographers, so what display should a photographer buy to go with their 2018 Mac Mini?
Here in mid-2019 photographers will be happiest with a 2K (2560×1440 or 2560×1600) monitor to go with their Mac Mini. Make sure it is not labeled as “Full HD” or 1080p. Sometimes the description will say 1440p. The Intel graphics will be able to drive that 2K display far better than it can a 4K or higher resolution monitor.
Brands aren’t as important here, though I would stick with the largest players like Dell, HP, LG, Asus, BenQ, ViewSonic, or Acer. You want to make sure the display uses IPS technology and that it has DisplayPort for a connection. You should look for a 27″ screen and if you have the budget 32″ is worth paying for.
As of right now for the best price to performance I recommend the ViewSonic VX3211-2K-MHD 32 Inch IPS WQHD 1440p Monitor that runs about $280. Another great choice for a monitor that is more highly acclaimed is the Dell Ultrasharp U2719DX 27-Inch WQHD 2560×1440 Resolution IPS Monitor that runs about $380 but it is both more expensive and smaller.
The 2018 Mac Mini can be a good solution for a photo editing computer, just be prepared to spend $1,500 to $2,100. The $800 entry level model is not going to be enough to do a good job with photo editing.
The budget configuration, the absolute lowest configuration of the 2018 Mac Mini I recommend to photographers at about
$1,300 $1,100 ( $1,200 $1,000 if you do DIY memory) is:
- Processor: 3.0GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz)
- Memory: 16GB 2666MHz DDR4
- Storage: 256GB SSD storage
The most I recommend a photographer spend on the 2018 Mac Mini is about
$2,100 $1,900 ( $1,720 $1,520 if DIY memory) for the following configuration:
- Processor: 3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz)
- Memory: 32GB 2666MHz DDR4
- Storage: 512GB SSD storage
If you have more budget than
$1,300 $1,100, but not the full $2,100 $1,900 then back off on the storage and go down to the 256GB SSD.
The other options are just overkill for photographers. The performance improvement will not be worth the cost to max out the 2018 Mac Mini at a cost of about
$4,300 $2,899 to be used for photo editing. There are much better ways to spend $4,300 $2,899 on a computer to do photo editing.