How To Build A PC For Photographers

11/23/2012 8:59:36 AM

Ideally, a digital photography PC minimizes workflow hassles and maximizes performance and capacity. Here are the features to look for.

WHETHER YOU BUILD your own system or buy one off the shelf, several considerations are key to choosing the right mix of components for a photographer’s PC. Regardless of your specific preferences, you’ll want robust storage a balance between CPU and graphics performance, and a great display. Now let’s look at how to put it together.

CPU and Memory

My production Pc’s CPU is a Core i7-3930K – a six-core processor built on Intel’s 32nm manufacturing process. It costs about $560, and requires a motherboard that supports an LGA 2011 socket. I run the 3930K at its default settings, and it lives in a Gigabyte GA-X79-UD3 motherboard (available for a bit less than $240).

My PC has 16GB of RAM, in the form of four Kingston HyperX LoVo DDR3-1600 modules that can run at full 1600MHz (effective) speed at 1.5V. My Nikon D800 camera captures 14-bit raw files that range from 45MB to 48MB each; but while I’m editing, they take more memory than the disk space they occupy.

Description: Core i7 CPUs have relatively large L3 caches, which improve performance in most editing applications

Core i7 CPUs have relatively large L3 caches, which improve performance in most editing applications

A good alternative would be a CPU in the new Ivy Bridge line, such as the 3.5GHz Core i7-3770K. The 3770K (about $350) runs four cores and up to eight threads. It’s capable and quite power efficient.

Besides supporting hyper-threading, Core i7 CPUs have relatively large L3 caches, which improve performance in most editing applications.

If you edit lots of raw files, plan on getting 16GB of RAM.


Description: Storage begins with the flash memory cards you use in your camera

Storage begins with the flash memory cards you use in your camera

Even 12-megapixel raw images consume at least 10MB of disk space each, and 12-bit, 16-megapixel images eat up 14MB to 16MB each.

Storage begins with the flash memory cards you use in your camera. The fastest 1000x CompactFlash cards can move data off the card at roughly 120 megabytes per second, and the fastest SD Cards can read it at up to 95 MBps. Write speeds are closer to 70 MBps for the fastest CompactFlash cards, but only in cameras that have high-speed controllers.

The real bottleneck in the workflow, however, involves moving data from the card to our PC. Ideally, your PC will have a USB 3.0reader connected to a USB 3.0 port.

PC Storage

Description: PC Storage

PC Storage

Two points are crucial in connection with desktop PC storage for photographers.

First, have more than one physical drive. A good combination would be a solid-state drive for a boot drive and a large-capacity hard drive or RAID 1 array for secondary storage. Even if you use standard rotating storage, having two physical drives will improve performance. By keeping applications on the primary drive and photo storage on the secondary drive, you increase data throughput. More-sophisticated users can put scratch files on the secondary drive as well.

Second, develop a backup strategy. Even a RAID 1 array doesn’t make you immune to disaster, since a catastrophic PC failure can kill the array. Backing up your photos on a regular schedules is critical.

I’m wary of using external drives as primary storage. I’ve had driven enter sleep mode at awkward times, or lose sync over eSATA. Even with high-performance standards such as eSATA and Thunder-bolt, external drive connections aren’t always reliable. External drives can be handy for backups, however, whether network-attached or locally attached, as long as they have sufficient capacity.

With laptops, avoid 5400-rpm or slower hard drives. Having lots of capacity is great, but waiting for a slow drive to grind through editing tasks is no fun.

Using the cloud

I don’t use cloud storage for general backups, since it’s time-consuming and expensive. If you’re a subscriber to online photo-sharing sites, though, you may be able to use such services as a kind of cloud backup just for photos. For example, Flickr Pro ($20 per year) allows unlimited full-resolution image uploads.

Graphics card

Description: Photo-editing applications increasingly offload work onto the graphics card

Photo-editing applications increasingly offload work onto the graphics card

The CPU is very important in today’s computational environment. Many photo and video editors now incorporate GPU acceleration. The graphics card doesn’t just accelerate the display and scroll the canvas; it also acts as a parallel compute engine for filters.

Photo-editing applications increasingly offload work onto the graphics card. Most such applications use OpenGL and OpenCL. The former focuses strictly on graphics, while the latter lets developers use the GPU for general parallel compute tasks, such as blur filters.

My system runs a Radeon HD 7970, which costs almost $500; but if you aren’t a hard-core PC game player, you can get by with a midrange card such as the Radeon HD 7770 (about $150) or the Radeon HD 7850 (about $250). Nvidia-based cards work well, too.

Having a discrete GPU on your laptop is nice, but Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge processors have significantly improved the performance of integrated graphics, including GPU compute performance. Still, in the end, a discrete GPU probably will perform better.


If you’re serious about photo editing, choose a display that you can calibrate for color-accuracy. My rule of thumb is to use high-quality displays with IPS or IPS-based LCD technologies. Unless you’re doing pro-level print work, you don’t need a professional-grade monitor, but look for a display that supports true 8-bits-per-pixel color. Today, you can find good-quality 24-inch IPS monitors that support 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution for under $400.

If you’re looking at laptops, try to find one that has an IPS panel. They tend to be available mainly on the more premium models. Asus, Dell, HP, and Sony all ship laptops with IPS displays. Aim for a native resolution of 1600 by 900 pixels or better.

Many modern LCD screens offer wide-gamut options, be sure to set windows to display the correct gamut for your monitor. Just type color management into the Windows Start menu search box, select Advanced Color Management, and then choose the Advanced tab.

You’ll also want to set the correct ICC profile for your display. The profile is usually included on a CD that ships with the display, or you can download it from the manufacturer’s website. Another option is to use simple tools to calibrate your display.

Multiple monitors

More pixels are better and more displays are better, too.

My desktop system is set up with three 30-inch displays, each of which supports 2560-by-1600-pixel resolution, for my main display, I use an HP ZR30w that is technically capable of 10-bits-per-pixel color. I also use an older HP 3065 and a Dell 3008WFP, though the Dell often pulls double duty by being connected to one of my test systems. I’ve calibrated all three using the Spyder 4 Pro calibration puck and software.

You probably don’t need three displays, but having two can be extremely handy. Generally I run Photoshop on the ZR30w and have Adobe Bridge running on the 3065. Even lower-cost applications, such as Light room, support dual displays. Simply put, having two monitors makes your workflow proceed more efficiently. Note that you don’t have to use two high-end displays, unless you want to: the secondary monitor can be a lower-cost model, though having similar displays is ideal for calibration purposes.


Photo editors, like cameras, are merely tools for getting the photographs you want. The art and craft of the photographer are the things that make photographs shine. You will get better as a photographer only by shooting and editing photos. But having the right PC hardware and software will make editing.

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