How to build a powerful computer for photo editing

One of the neverending stories in the world of photography, is the Mac vs Windows debate. Well, this is not a fanboy post from either side to fuel that debate. This is a post for those looking for advice on how to get or build (DIY) a powerful workstation for editing photos in Photoshop CC, Capture One and Lightroom. I have used both platforms, and just want to share my honest opinions, as well as give you some advice and my parts list for building a pretty powerful beast of a machine for editing photos.

I’m a full time photographer, and I need a powerful machine for processing, editing and retouching. That’s my job. My files are mainly from the awesome Fujifilm X-T2 and X-Pro2 cameras, plus the Nikon D810. I also want a computer that is future proof and can handle files from things like the brand new GFX 50S digital medium format camera from Fujifilm, and upwards to 100MP files. Doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

Background
I started selling images professionally in the mid nineties. Back then we had something called film. It didn’t move, so it wasn’t that kind of film. I started scanning and working on digital files somewhere around 2001, and then in 2005 I went fully digital with Hasselblad medium format digital and Nikon cameras. It was a brave new world!

In the old days, I actually worked in the IT business. Both on the tech side and several years as a project manager. So I was used to Windows and computers in general, and I knew it really well. Well enough to hate it actually. I tried Macs briefly every now and then, but all my software licenses where on Windows, and buying new licenses for Mac was out of the question (back in the days cross platform licenses wasn’t cheap). But all my friends and colleagues always told me, get a Mac! Ditch Windows. Especially whenever I had Windows or computer problems. Macs just work, people said.

The switch to Mac
So February 2016, my workstation was ready for an upgrade. At least that was how I felt. My three year old Dell was getting “old”, and all the Mac-nagging from people around me had finally sunken in. So I went all in and bought a maximum speced iMac 27″ 5K Retina, plus an Eizo CG247 to get a two screen solution. People told me that would be a powerful machine, so I really had great expectations. Some of them where fulfilled, others not.

Mac OS vs Windows
I came from Windows 7 (never wanted Win8). First of all, I loved using El Capitan. Suddenly my computer worked seamlessly together with my iPad and iPhones, and I really liked a lot of the things in the Mac OS. But it wasn’t very stable to be honest. I experienced a lot of random reboots and odd errors that you can find documented by plenty of users in different Mac user forums. Quite often the machine had rebooted, even though it seemed only to be in sleep mode. Apple actually took it back for repair and changed the motherboard. From what I heard it was related to El Capitan and that particular series of iMacs (a friend had an identical machine with all the same problems). Changing the motherboard fixed most of the reboots. Not all, but most.

I worked on this Mac daily for 6 months, and I know enough now to say that the saying “Macs just work!” isn’t true. Many had also told me that you don’t need to know much about computers to run a Mac. Well surprise, you do. I had to fix plenty of things like backups making the iMac reboot, laggy sliders in Photoshop while working with a Wacom Intous Pro, ICC profiles going mad when dragging an image from the built in screen to monitor number two, my wifi printer loosing its connection to the iMac a couple of times a week (had to uninstall and reinstall 5-6 times before it worked again every single time), plus a bunch of other stuff. So the Mac world wasn’t any better at all. The Wacom issue was reported to both Adobe or Wacom, but they never solved it in a satisfactory way. So Macs have trouble. PCs have trouble. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Speed
This was perhaps one of my main reasons for upgrading. I had always heard how fast the Mac OSes where, and how well tuned these machines where for graphic applications. Well, the speed of my brand new top speced iMac was quite disappointing to be honest. Even the three year old Dell I sold was much faster. And when I’m talking about speed, I mean loading images, processing rawfiles out of programs like Capture One/Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom, working with several open files in Photoshop at once, preferably while having programs like Capture One, Bridge and Photo Mechanic running in the background. None of these things met my expectations, and they where actually not any faster than my old machine. Some of them where much slower. Even tools like working with sliders in Capture One or using the patch tool in Photoshop was slower on the iMac vs my old Dell (it was a well speced Dell). Opening Bridge to render rawfiles does take some time on both Mac and Windows. But on the iMac, if I tried resizing or moving the Bridge window while it was working, the iMac seemed in desperate need of both oxygen and a defibrillator. Not impressive at all.

 

samsungspeed
Having a true M.2 Nvme drive can give you some amazing speed. Even with this “old one”. The new 960 is even faster.

 

From PC to Mac and back
So after about 4 months of daily usage, I really felt that the Mac let me down in too many areas. ANd all those people telling you “Once you go Mac, you never go back” isn’t necessarily right. It all depends what you really want. Something that looks godd, or a beast that helps you do the job. I decided on the latter. So I spent the next two months doing tons of research parallell to working on the Mac. I contacted retouching agencies abroad, and talked to a lot of people that you truly can call powerusers. Then six months after I had bought my first Mac, I ordered all the parts to build my own Windows 10 based computer. I could have had someone else assemble the parts, but I wanted to see if it really was as easy as everyone told me. And it was.

Lower cost
The good thing is that with all the parts, I ended up getting my own custom PC for less than 2/3 of the price of the iMac. Fair enough, the iMac has a 5K Retina screen included in the price, but that new Windows machine is in a totally different league than any Mac out there. So it really is cheap in comparison. And to say that whis new computer is stable and fast is really a big understatement. It runs around any Mac in circles. And Windows 10 is extremely stable and reliable.

Stability and speed
It has now been running 24/7 since the beginning of September, and not one single glitch. No restarts. No bluescreens. No hiccups or strange things. Nothing. Nada. Zip. And it’s fast. Blistering fast! It takes 10 (!) seconds to load 22 Nikon D810 16bit TIFF files from Bridge into Photoshop on it. And I can work smooth and fast on an image while having all the other 21 open. Why 22?! Well I had a folder with 22 files and tested. It could have been 20 or 30. But I had 22, so I tried with those. I also tried those same 22 on the iMac, and it took about 25-30 seconds to open them, but having all of them open wasn’t even an option. You could notice Photoshop and other programs slowing down when I had 4-5 of those files open in Photoshop.

computer_inside2
Here you can see the motherboard with the Samsung 950 PRO drive on it. Hovering out of focus over things are the Qudra graphics card so I can get 10 bit color with my Eizo CG277.

But of course, speed is relative. A colleague showed me his brand new top speced Mac a couple of weeks ago. It was blistering fast, and everything was instant he said. He wanted to show me how fast things where in Lightroom, Photoshop and Capture One. But there really wasn’t any competition. When he double clicked a file to zoom 100% into it in Capture One, it took about a second, maybe one and a half even. The same with Lightroom. Around a 1.5 seconds to render it sharp. Even so, he called that instant. So he was a bit surprised to find out that his definition of instant differed from mine. For me, instant is when things happen at the same time you click the mouse button or press the key. No time lag. None at all. Instant, as in, well, instant… And now I’ve got instant.

computer_processor_cooling
Keep your cool! Here you can see the cooling for the processor, and also one of the cabinet fans in the background.
computer_front_fans
I also put two fans in the front. The top one came with the cabinet, and I added the bottom one a little later. Turned out it wasn’t really necessary…

What you need vs what you want
For me it’s not about “I love Mac, and I hate Windows” or vice versa. I want a computer that is as fast and stable as I can get it, and I need to get my job done. Both Mac and Windows have their strengths and flaws. Choose whatever suits you best. But having said that, I have never had such a stable computer as this one running Windows 10 since going digital in 2001. Never had a faster one either.

computer_powersupply
Here’s the power supply, and you can also see the M2000 graphics card, and the processor cooling system. Cool, huh?!

How difficult is it?
That’s the most obvious question many ask. I have never built one myself. But it’s really just a puzzle with very few parts. There are videos online that will take you through this step by step. I worked quite slowly I think, and I used one day. Started in the morning, fired it up in the evening.

computer_work_and_tempdisks
Here are the two ordinary SSD drives. The one on the left is for temp files and scratch drive for Photoshop, and the right one is the one where I have the files when they are still in progress.

My parts list
So finally, here’s my parts list for building that fast and reliable machine I’ve been talking about here. I know that the motherbpoard and my main bootdrive is out in new versions, so forgive me for posting this such a “long” time after I built it. I just like to make sure things work properly before giving other people advice. But I built this with a 3-5 year perspective in mind, so I’m not that slow either. I think this machine will indeed have a long lifespan, because I can easily upgrade parts should I want to. You can’t do that with a Mac. Not easily anyway. I’ll also comment on why I chose that particular item in the list:

Cabinet
Fractal Design Define R5 Sort. A silent cabinet with lots of room and flexibility for whatever you want to do.

Power supply
Corsair RM750i. Gives enough power for what I need, and can handle more if I decide to add more parts that need power later.

Motherboard
Asus Z170-Deluxe Socket-1151. I needed a motherboard that could handle a fast M.2 Nvme SSD disk as bootdisk. This motherboard also has wifi (5GHz) and bluetooth. I’m not sure if it has been discontinued, but if so, the successor will probably be even better. The next time I want a motherboard that can handle at least two M.2 Nvme disks.

Processor
Intel Core i7-6700K Skylake. You can get processors with more cores, but there isn’t much to gain with Photoshop. Anything above 4 cores doesn’t really give you much improvement in Photoshop speedwise. At least as of now. This may change if Adobe recodes Photoshop to utilize more cores.

Processor cooling
Noctua NH-D15S. I thought about water cooling, but after getting some advice, this radiator fan would be more than enough. And I see my temperatures are extremely low, so it works great and really does the job.

Cabinet cooling
The cabinet comes installed with two fans of the Dynamic GP-14 White type. One in the front and one in the back. Everything worked great with only those two. But I got a bit carried away and curious, so I bought two more GP-14 fans, and put one extra in the front and one on the side. I did it “just to see”, and to give some extra cooling for the M.2 drive if needed (they can get hot). But if I had bothered to check the temperatures in the motherboard setup menu, I would have seen that everything was very cool and low temp already. So two extra fans was a waste of money really. I have disabled the side fan, but I kept the extra one in front. And it’s so cold inside that cabinet I can chill my beer in there if I want to.

Memory
Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR4 32GB (2 x 16GB) 2400MHz. I may put in another set of these later, but so far I haven’t had any issues running out of memory. The jump from 16GB to 32GB really helps, but I don’t think I’ll gain much by going to 64GB. Maybe for those working a lot with video.

Graphics card
PNY Quadro M2000 4GB GDDR5 (also called Nvidia Quadro). After having used Eizo Color Edge monitors for over ten years, I really don’t want anything else. In my opinion they are simply the best for accurate colors. I have a CG277 with a built in calibration device. The Eizo CG series handles 10 bit color, but what many doesn’t know, is that you need a graphics card that also can handle 10 bit color. And the only cards that can do that are Nvidia Quadro cards as far as I know. Now I understand why Dell always insisted on building my earlier computers with Quadro cards.

Bootdrive
Samsung 950 PRO 512GB M.2 PCIe SSD. This is a drive that is about 5 times faster than an ordinary SSD. You can see from my test that I get read and write speeds that are quite extreme, and that’s why I needed a motherboard that could handle a true M.2 Nvme drive like this for bootdisk. I have all my programs installed here, plus that it serves as scratchdisk for Photoshop. Because of the extreme speed, it can handle this without any problems. Had this disk been an ordinary SSD, I wouldn’t have used it for both programs, scratch and system temp files. PS! Since I bought this, it has been replaced by the even better 960 PRO with even higher read/write speeds. PPS! If you want to use this kind of drive for bootdisk, make sure the motherboard you choose can handle that.

Workdrive
Crucial MX300 750GB 2.5″ SSD. This is the drive where new jobs are copied to. I create sessions here in Capture One, and I work on the files further in Photoshop. That means fast processing speeds out of rawconverters, loading in and out of Photoshop etc.

Temp and scratchdisk
Samsung 750 EVO 500GB 2.5″ SSD. Photoshop use this drive for scratch disk (as well as the C: drive), and I have set Adobe Camera Raw, Bridge and PhotoMechanic to use it for their temp-/ cachefiles.

Datadrive (local archive)
WD Desktop Black 4TB 3.5″. This is an ordinary 7200RPM spin drive. When I have delivered a job to the client, and it’s ready for archiving but I still want it close at hand, it sits on this drive for about 4-6 months (that’s my plan) before it only lives on my three external backups (Jottaclod service for online backup, plus two identical harddrives located in different places).

External backups
G-Technology 4TB G-DRIVE external USB3.0 harddrive. Very fast external drives! Much faster than the WD MyPassport I also use when I need to carry something in my pocket. Sold through the Apple store, and I think these are great value. I also use online backup via the Norwegian service Jottacloud. Works great.

Speakers
Creative Gigaworks T20 Series II. Just to play some music while working.

Keyboard and mouse
Logitech MX800 Combo wireless. Works just fine.

OS
Windows 10 64bit Home. So happy I decided to go for Windows 10.

Monitor
Eizo CG277W. Built in calibration device and 10 bit color. Awesome monitor! See more info about it on the paragraph about the graphics card.

computer_inside1
So back where I started. The R5 cabinet is a joy to use. And it’s very silent! Very easy to build your own machine with that as a base. To the right you can see the side fan I added later, that I really didn’t need, so I’m going to remove that. You see the power supply, the motherboard and the two processor fans. The white fan to the left of the processor fans is the rear cabinet fan that’s already in the cabinet. Bottom right you se my only 7200RPM (4TB) spindrive that I use for local archive after jobs have been delivered.
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20 thoughts on “How to build a powerful computer for photo editing

  1. I just got myself a new Asus gaming laptop a couple of weeks ago running Windows 10. I’m enjoying 10, having used Win 7 on all my machines up till this point. This new machine is a beast – it’s not halfway as formidable as yours, but it’s responsive, robust, and capable enough for me to develop stills and video without weeping, something that has been happening for the past couple of years. I’ve been researching laptops for the past year, so I thoroughly appreciated this post… and I gotta say, damn, those fans!

    1. Hahaha! I knew it. I just knew it! You’re a gamergirl, eh?! Cool! I’ve heard great things about those new Asus laptops. I was actually this close to buying one myself, since my laptop needs an upgrade. But I have a Surface Pro 4 on test instead. I suspect that one fits my needs better. Like tethering those Fujis and doing some light stuff out in the field. And you’re right. Damn those fans, hahaha!

      Cheers,
      Eivind

      1. Hehe, no, I’m not a gamer, but I always buy gaming laptops because of the grunt (especially these days where I dabble in video). This time around I got this one: https://www.asus.com/sg/Notebooks/FX502VM/ It’s got good specs for the money. The screen isn’t the greatest, but it can chew through some heavy tasks without too much of a hiccup so it’s a workable compromise. It doesn’t have such impressive fans though 😉

      2. What?? You’re not a gamer like I thought?! Sigh… Then I’m not allowed to come out and play with you… JK. Wow! That Asus really packs some seriuos punch. And it looks good too. What is it you don’t like about the screen? But don’t you worry about those fans. You can have one of mine. I’ll unscrew it today and send it to you. Just attach it to your Asus with a couple of rounds of gaffertape (I’ll include a roll of that as well) and you’re aaaaaall good. :p

      3. I’m in love with those Mac retina screens – this one is decent at best, although it’s way better than my last one (until 3 weeks ago I was working on 1366 x 768 max resolution on very faded colors – it is maddening when using Premiere in particular). On those fans…. I might end up packing a fan and some gaffa tape at some point. Gotta keep up with the cool kids 😉

      4. Ouch… 1366 sucks….. There’s hardly any room between the toolbar and the status bar in most programs. Cool kids gaff! That’s for sure! :p

  2. That’s a great article you wrote here. My custom built pc is almost 7 years old and starts to slow down for quite some time now when using PS and LR. Working in LR isn’t much fun anymore. My pc has to be replaced one day and I think it’s best I start from scratch, using your article as a guide. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks a lot Serge, glad you like it! Don’t hesitate to ask if you need some more advice or input. I’ll help if I can.

      Cheers,
      Eivind

  3. I went Mac in 2005 and have not looked back since. However, having said that I am starting to see the glitches that you mentioned. My last MacPro was back in 2009 I think then went the MacBook Pro way. I see a dilution in their OSX to cater for iPhone/iPad interface that I am not a fan.

    Your article on this Windows 10 based setup may tickle my fancy to build one myself. As also for me it is about stability and “longevity”. Thanks for a great write up and I may just do what you have done and go back to Windows. They have indeed closed the gap since 2005!

    1. Thanks! For me, stability, reliability and speed are very important. And when I compare my personal experiences on Mac, as well as what some of my colleagues do on their Macs, Windows 10 on a computer setup like this wins in every area. But if Macs could perform better, I’d choose that. I’m not into that Mac vs Win “war”, I just need the best tool for getting my job done. Glad you liked it, thanks!

      Cheers,
      Eivind

  4. Awesome article Eivind. I also switched to fujifilm and loving it. Came across your site while doing a search on tethering using fujifilm.

    This article is fascinating. Are you at all able to do a benchmark test using geekbench and sharing the results? It would be awesome to see what your build is pushing. Geekbench is unique in that whatever result you get can be directly compared to another computer. For instance, if your score is 20000, and mine is 10000, your pc would then be double the spead. My current system (hp8570w elite book) gives me 15000 points in geekbench. Depending on the performance increase you are getting. I might bite the bullet and upgrade myself. Thanks!

    1. Hi Herman! Thanks a million, really glad you liked the article. I downloaded and ran the Geekbench in tryout mode, and I got a CPU score of 19667. That was with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Bridge, eM Client mailprogram, Norton Security and Jottacloud online backup system running in the background. I don’t know if that affects the Geekbench score. I’m very happy with my build, and real life performance is absolutely stunning. And another note; this machine has now been running 24/7 for 9 months (I never turn it off), without a single glitch. Not one restart, not one bluescreen, not a single little complaint from Windows or any of the other programs. I’ve never seen a system as stable as this in my life. Touch wood…

      Cheers,
      Eivind Rohne / http://www.instagram.com/erohne

  5. Thank you *VERY* much for posting this article. I was planning to buy a iMac 5k, but hesitating, many comments showed the speed could be dissapointing. So I stepped in your footprints and now I am building almost the exact PC. From your recipe, saved me a lot of time researching AND I’would never have started it in the first place. I never build a PC (well, soldered a 6502 based kit together a long time ago) but often have changed cards and HD’s etc. Your photographs are also helpful. I’ll let you know when it’s ready. Up till now it’s fun (and educating).

    1. Thank you so much Gerard! I’m so glad you found the article helpful, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it after you’re up an running. I’ve never had such a stable machine or operating system ever. It’s been on 24/7 since I built it, and I’m extremely happy with it.

      Cheers,
      Eivind

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