Building the Right PC for Your (Serious) Photography Needs

First of all, I must say that I am a PC guy. Many photographers choose iMacs over PCs for the “stability” and such, but I haven't seen big difference in it, to be honest.

What kind of a computer does a photographer need? Well, you can go ahead with almost any decent computer, but if it isn't up to par, it will slow you down significantly. I won't get into specific brands, as in whether you need a Kingston or Corsair solid state drives for the differences in product specifications.

Photographers, as well as gamers need quite a lot of raw processing power in their computers. But that needs to be paired with so many different things that gamers will never need. For example, a 10-bit monitor. No game (as far as I know, and I do play a lot of games) supports 10 bit color, but photography on the other hand easily goes to 12 bit color space even with the entry-level DSLRs out there.

Monitor

When talking about monitors: the bigger the better. Opting for factory calibrated to cover the most used color spaces is a good choice. Dell and Asus currently have good 10 bit monitors for affordable prices. 10 bit monitor has 1024 shades of each color, instead of 256 on the regular consumer monitors, which means they get better gradients, and better color reproduction than consumer grade. You should go for decent IPS panel (reading reviews is wise) with refresh rate not bigger than 5ms. You will want to use it for things other than photography sometimes. There are monitors that are much wider than usual, which is practically replacing 2 or 3 monitor setups. This is really good thing to have because it makes editing so much easier.

The bigger the better. The more the merrier? Photo by robad0b

Read More: How to Choose the Best Monitor for Photography

Graphics Card

Since you need 10 bit color reproduction, regular graphics cards (such as Geforce or Radeons) won't do it. They are limited to 8 bit color reproduction. What you need is a Quadro grade graphics card, which is a workstation card (not really the best choice for gaming per se), it focuses on graphics processing, allowing 10 bit color significantly improving processes involving graphics (makes Photoshop and Illustrator work much, much faster), and it isn't huge by size. If you can't afford a good workstation graphics card, then opt out for one that supports 10 bit color monitor and get regular graphics card that does good Open CL processing. Plug the monitor in the Quadro, and let both cards work to get you the processing you need.

A good graphics card speeds up your workflow. Photo by GBPublic_PR

Processor

Processor isn't really that big an issue, you can opt out for workstation processors such as Xeon, but regular i5 and i7's would do. Just make sure that the processor has decent amount of cache (somewhere around 8mb should suffice). The processor works quite a lot when post processing images, but mostly it works to supplement the graphics card. Since the Quadro (or equivalent ATI) will work quite faster and better than the processor, the processor won't have big impact on graphic processing. It will have decent impact on file management however, but that is paired with the speeds of the RAM memory and hard drives and/or SSD's.

Your processor should have a decent cache. Photo by Mike Saechang

RAM Memory

RAM memory is second biggest factor after the graphics card in determining your computer's performance in this case. The more RAM the better. The more RAM you have, the more layers you can have, or bigger files (such as panoramas). With image resolution increasing, going lower than 16 GB ram is counter productive. Today you should aim at 32 or 64GB of RAM memory.

Storage and Active Drives

Solid state drives are getting cheaper, so there aren't many reasons not to get one. Get at least 256 GB one as the primary drive, where you will install the OS and your photography software. Also the rest of that drive can be used as scratch disks for Photoshop and that will increase the file dumping times by 10 at least.

Hard drives, I would recommend Western Digital Red series for the storage. I'm not sure if other companies have equivalents, if they do, get them. Red series from Western Digital has 1 million hours mean time before failure, which is at least 4x than regular drives. They are the fastest hard drives that Western Digital produces and are built for servers, which is a great addition if you use RAID setups (it won't fail on detecting bad sectors). Best part is that they cost pretty much the same as Western Digital Black series, and they are just better. As I said, it doesn't have to be Western Digital, just look for a drive of that type.

SSD is the future. Photo by IntelFreePress

Card Readers

Additionally, USB 3.0 card reader will be a good addition because it speeds up the import process. A decent external drive is handy when you need to transfer larger amount of pictures, also USB 3.0. There isn't a good reason why you shouldn't invest in an UPS unit. Nobody wants their work lost due to power outage, and it keeps the power stable thus prolonging the life of your PC. And of course a tool for monitor calibration. If you want correct color display, you'll have to calibrate the monitor from time to time (even though it is factory calibrated).

Lastly, make sure that you buy a good quality PC case (if you don't already have one) and disable or at least diffuse the lights that the PC has. It can interfere with your color judging if the LED light from the PC case is too strong.

If you think I missed something out, feel free to share it in the comments below.

About the author

Dzvonko Petrovski

Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and is not afraid to share the knowledge about it.

  • Rick says:

    What type of sound card and pc camera should be used. This would be used for video chat and so forth

  • Alan says:

    Having just built a new PC for Photoshop, many of the topics addressed in this article match my research. Especially RAM. The more the merrier! I went with 32GB and it’s working out well. Photoshop is working much better than my previous PC that only had 8GB, and I can tell from watching Task Manager that 16GB would not have been enough for the large many-layer files I work with. But just in case, I left some empty DIMM slots that will allow me to expand to 64GB if I need to in the future.

    I disagree with the statement that Western Digital Red drives are the “fastest hard drives that Western Digital produces”. Benchmarks at Tom’s Hardware and other sites show slower access times than most 5400 RPM drives. The market for WD Red drives are NAS servers where you need reliable storage but generally are not for primary access. They are great drives for that purpose – I have two WD Reds in RAID 1 in a file server for backup storage, but my primary photo storage on my PC is a WD Black which is faster than the Reds.

    Of course, no matter what you’re using for photo storage: make sure you have an adequate backup method in place. For local backups you don’t need the fastest hard drives around (WD Reds are great, and WD Greens are fine too), but you do want a fast connection to the drive . If you use an external drive attached to your PC for backups, make sure it’s at least USB 3.0 or ESATA. A USB 2.0 drive is probably too slow. If you use a NAS server for backups, make sure your network is at least Gigabit speed.

  • Scott C says:

    -sigh-. This article is almost completely inaccurate.

    Monitor / Graphics Card
    You don’t need 10 bit colour unless you’re working at the very high end. Yes, you might see slightly less banding on the screen at 8 bit if you go looking for it, but the output file is unaffected. When it’s a standard feature on most gear it’ll be nice, but it’s not worth the massive price premium that you would pay at the moment.

    Almost any monitor will have a sufficient refresh rate for photography. Games have higher requirements. Video work might need better.

    When you’re looking at graphics cards, you should be concerned with the OpenCL implementation. A few years ago, the AMD cards were much better than the Nvidia 600 series cards, because Nvidia preferred their CUDA system. That meant that AMD cards could accelerate PS filters and especially video encoding more than the equivalent Nvidia card. I don’t know what the current state of play is – maybe someone else could comment.

    That said, LR doesn’t use the GPU at all, and PS doesn’t use it much. Capture One does make extensive use of a GPU with good OpenCL, especially if you’re importing large batches of photos.

    You do need to look out for the amount of memory on the card. I wouldn’t buy a card with less than 2 Gb.

    Processor
    The processor really is the biggest issue.

    If you’re running LR, almost all the processing happens on the main processor. If you’re importing large sets (e.g. sports photography), then you need the fastest processor you can afford. The i7 4770 is probably around the sweet spot. There’s an i5 that’s around 20% slower, but 40% cheaper which might be a sensible trade-off if you’re not under time pressure.

    The processor still does most of the work in PS.

    Random Access Memory Memory (sic)
    You should probably have 16 Gb. It’s not expensive. If you’re working on medium format resolutions or a huge number of bitmapped layers in PS, you might need more. I routinely produce A2 posters at 300dpi with many layers on a 16 Gb system without going anywhere near the memory limit.

    Buy 2 x 8Gb, then if you find you need 32Gb you can upgrade without throwing any away.

    Storage and Active Drives
    Western Digital Red series are inappropriate unless you’re using them in a RAID system because they’ll fail rather than attempting to recover bad sectors. (The intention is to report the error as soon as possible so the RAID hardware can quickly repair it, instead of waiting for the wounded drive to recover itself.)

    I use Samsung EVO drives, but most SSDs are pretty good nowadays (unless they’re intended for special use e.g. RAID).

    An expensive drive is no substitute for a good backup. High end devices fail every day.

    Other components
    If you live somewhere that’s prone to power outages then a UPS might be wise. Otherwise, spend some of the money you saved on an exotic graphics card on a good quality power supply instead. A known brand (e.g. Antec, Corsair) and being “80 Plus” certified is a good sign.

    Also, spend some money on a quality processor fan and case fans to keep the noise levels down. Intel fans do not do a good job!

    Comments
    Go to your local computer shop (not a chain). Explain to them what you software you run. Ask them to build you the right computer for you.

    You wouldn’t ask an IT guy to shoot your wedding (even if he’s had really good advice on shooting weddings from another IT guy), so don’t ask photographers for advice on IT!

  • David says:

    What is the synopsis on a iMac? Screen?

  • NickoF says:

    Sound advice, I agree.
    If you can’t do all of this at once, approach in stages.

  • Craig McMurtrie says:

    RAM, SSD. RAM, SSD. RAM, SSD. Always match your graphics card, with your monitor/s. It is pointless getting a dedicated graphics card with a crap monitor. If you can afford it.

  • Tony says:

    What about the current generation of laptops on the market? I guess the gaming ones will suffice.

  • Chris says:

    Interesting article, though perhaps a little unrealistic. Your photo of a “good” graphics card appears to show a Quadro K6000, which costs the best part of £4000! Using this to drive Dell or Asus monitors strikes me a something of an overkill!

  • Jeff says:

    Your first comment about Macs told me everything I need to know about your article.
    I own both pc and Mac.
    I choose Mac.
    Yes, there is a difference

    • Same, I have the Apple Thunderbolt Display which I use with both my PC and Macbook Pro and I always use the Macbook over the PC for the photos. PC has its place – and until 18 months ago I wouldn’t have had a mac, but now I’ll not go back for normal day to day stuff.

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      • bad.camera says:

        So gamut isn’t important to either of you concerning your photography? No Apple monitor has ever come close to producing the gradations of a real work monitor. I mean, if 16.7million colors represents your work better than 1.06billion colors I can’t imagine how much your leniency you must give your printer. This is one of the areas where photographers should be more educated.

  • Bogdan says:

    Gaming laptops usually have tn panels as they have shorter lag than ips. Tn panels are not as good for photo work and they don’t calibrate as well as ips. Other than that, gaming laptops are pretty good in terms of speed and specs.

  • Jon Miller says:

    While a great deal of what has been stated is true (I’m an IT Consultant also), there are a few other things to keep in mind.

    I built my system with redundancy in mind by designing the following:
    32GB Corsair 4x8GB RAM (better to spread the RAM in each slot then overheat a slot or 2)
    i7 Chip 4770 3.4GHz 8MB
    Graphic Card AMD Radeon 7900 series with 9GB ram
    2 x SSD Samsung 840 EVO drives mirror (RAID 1) -Strictly OS and Application s (keeping 25% free at all times)
    6 x WD RE 3TB 64MB 7200rpm drive (RAID 5) split into 2 partitions (one for initial selection (.cr2) other for working (all .tif)
    1 x NAS 5 drives WD Red – network storage
    Adding another NAS in 3 months

    It open Windows 8.1 in 3 seconds
    open PS CS6 in 5 seconds
    saves and open 1.5 GB tif file in 2 seconds

    No matter what you build think about redundancy so you can rest easy in the event of a disk failure… because once a drive is gone the information is hard to get off if possible at all.

    • Add two Raid 1 SSDs for scratch disk and ps will run even smoother. 🙂

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      • Dina Siyar says:

        Does it make a difference to have a separate scratch disc if you are using SSD? I just assumed with HDD there was head contention, and time wasted with seeks and rotational latency that would all go away when you move to SSD. Is there more to it? I was planning to get the Samsung 950 which is NVmE and a lot faster than SATA but also twice as expensive. I don’t want to pay for more than one! Should I get multiple SATA SSD instead?

        I am really only interested in visible responsiveness while I am at the screen editing. I don’t care much if importing or output processing take a while. To be honest my PC spends more time waiting for me than I do waiting for it.

        Thanks if you can help me dodge a bullet here.

        Dina

  • Bozz says:

    I don’t work for this company so this is not advertising their goods etc. I am currently in the market to have a PC built for my own photographic needs, Have a look at this for some interesting ideas.

    http://www.imagescience.com.au/kb/questions/141/Build+a+powerful+PC+for+Photoshop+and+other+imaging+applications

    Cheers,
    Bozz

  • For photoshop – X99 + 8 core i7 + 32Gb ram + 512Gb SSD in RAID 0 = bliss!
    Head to the hackintosh forums, slam some Mavericks/Yosemite on it and voila – capable photo/video editing machine

  • Omar Bsais says:

    Is the AMD FIRE PRO D300 8bits or 10bits ?

  • Steve says:

    I know a laptop will never be able to match a desktop in performance, but I’d like to find one that can handle PS that isn’t a gaming laptop as the gaming laptops tend to weigh north of 5lbs. and I travel a lot and want something more in the range of 3lb or less. Of course I realize I am asking a lot and would expect the cost to be higher.

    • bad.camera says:

      Look for a Dell XPS Studio 16. I haven’t seen a higher color gamut on a laptop monitor before or since this laptop came out.

  • Mistyisle says:

    This was written in 2014, so whilst valid or not for the time, and I value the advice given, times have moved forward. For USB it would now be best to future-proof by getting USB 3.1. I would go with a Toshiba external drive as they are the most reliable. Still researching the rest 🙂

    Thanks to Dzvonko for his insights !

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