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The Best Computer for Photo Editing

We are often asked what the best computer is for photo editing? If you have the cash to burn, you can simply go out and buy the best computer to run Photoshop and Lightroom.  In the real world, however, buying a computer for photo editing is a daunting and expensive experience; especially for new photographers who just started out. After buying a camera, lenses, and all the extras, your cash reserves might be depleted. The reality is, that all your expensive camera gear, will come to nothing if you don’t have a fast computer system, on which you can edit your photos. 

In this article, which we will update regularly, we shed some light on what computer system to buy for photo editing and hope to save you a lot of time, money, and heartache 

 

Desktop, or Laptop?

high end desktop pc

“High-End Desktop PC”

Often in our Lightroom and Photoshop workshops, we are asked by our students whether they should buy a Desktop Computer or a Laptop?

The first question you should ask yourself is; do you travel around a lot, or do you mostly work from home? Desktop PC’s have great upgrade potential but are a hassle to move around. Laptops, on the other hand, are better for people constantly on the move, but limited in terms of upgrades and specs.

Another aspect you should take into consideration is screen size. Editing on a big monitor at home is much more pleasant than struggling with a smaller laptop screen. If you consider buying a laptop only, then also consider buying an additional large screen for photo editing. 

What most professional photographers do is to buy a laptop for on-the-road work, and then a have a beast of a system at home for retouching and edits that demand a lot of disk space and processing power.

We recommend staying away from All in One PCs (where the hardware is built into the Screen) as they seriously lack upgradeability.  It’s also impractical for photographers who need multiple drives for storage. The general exception, however, would be the Microsoft Surface and the iMac, which both have impressive specs and offer excellent monitors. These high-end, very expensive machines will last years before needing an upgrade.

 

PC, or MAC?

One of the most frequently asked questions and a widely debated topic is which is the best, Windows or MacOS?

My advice is, get the system that you are the most comfortable with. I grew up with a PC and often a bit confused when using MAC. However, the opposite will be true for someone that really knows their way around MAC. One definite advantage of MAC is the more “limited” product range compared to the vast variety of Windows-based PCs. In other words, if you buy a new MAC, which only comes with Medium – High-end specs you can be pretty sure that it will be able to run your editing programs seamlessly, whereas an uninformed user, might buy a low-spec PC, which can’t do the job. On the other hand, if you do your research and buy a proper PC, you will get more bang for your buck as well as future upgradeability. 

 

  Windows PC MAC

Upgradability 

  • Best
  • Limited
Security
  • Vulnerable to Viruses and Malware due to the open nature of Windows
  • Less susceptible to viruses and malware due to the exclusivity of macOS
Battery Life
  • Depending on the brand
  • Best 
Affordability (SA) 
  • Affordable
  • Expensive 
Availability of Peripherals 
  • Best 
  • Limited 
OS
  • Windows has a greater variety of software available, especially if you are into Gaming.
  • macOS has a very limited choice of software as it is a specialised operating system.
Interconnectivity
  • Third party software for syncing across devices
  • Interconnected ecosystem for all Apple devices. 
Stability
  • More susceptible to random errors/freezing and hardware failures
  • Less prone to errors and hardware failure

 

Hardware Requirements

The five most important hardware components for editing in Lightroom and Photoshop are:

  • Storage Drives
  • Memory (RAM)
  • The Processor (CPU)
  • The Graphics card (GPU)
  • Monitor

 

1. Storage Drives

a photo of a samsung solid state drive

“Solid State Drive (SSD)”

The Hard Disk Drive (HDD) has been around for so long that all drives are generally called Hard Drives. In recent years, however, the Solid State Drive (SSD) has become ever more popular. In a nutshell, the difference between a Hard Disk Drive and a Solid State Drive is that the one has rotating disks inside it and the other is solid, with no moving parts. This in effect causes the SSD to be able to access data extremely fast, whereas the HDD has to wait for the rotating disks to warm up before you can access the files.

I’m listing the storage drive first as I believe it to be the most important part that will save you time. It determines the speed at which the computer can access the data stored on the drive. This is where Solid State Drives come in handy as it can reduce your computer startup (boot) time to under 10 seconds! If that got your attention, then the next question is, probably, how much storage capacity should my SSD have? SSD’s generally have smaller capacities than their older HDD counterparts and the larger ones are quite pricey!

That is why we recommend using an SSD to run your Operating System, Software,  Lightroom Catalog and Cache Drives while using a large capacity hard drive for storage. Typically, a 500GB SSD will be adequate for your OS, Photoshop, Lightroom, and any other software you might be using. We then recommend getting a second or even third Hard Drive of  2 – 4 TB which you will then use as storage for all your photos, data, and documents. Obviously, you will need an additional external hard drive(s) to backup your Photos and Lightroom Catalog(s). 

Minimum Specs

Recommended Specs

2 Hard Drives:

  • 2-4 TB HDD to run the OS, and hold your Data, Program Files, and Photos
  • 2-4 TB External HDD (Backup)

3 Hard Drives: 

  • 500 GB SSD or higher (System and Lightroom Catalog) 
  • 2-4 TB HDD (Photo Storage)
  • 2-4 TB External HDD (Backup)

 

2. Memory (RAM)

a photo of crucial DDR4 ram modules

“DDR4 RAM”

RAM, is the second most important hardware, as it increases the number of tasks the CPU can handle at the same time. Simply just opening Lightroom or Photoshop, uses around 1 GB ram each. Once you open a file (PS) or start scrolling through your pictures (LR) they both start using up to 4 GB ram each. Combined with the Operating system using about 2GB RAM for itself, to run Lightroom effectively, you would need a minimum of 8GB RAM. Any less than that and your PC will slow down and even stop responding when carrying out strenuous tasks like creating an HDR or Panorama.

Minimum Specs

Recommended Specs

Not Recommended

  • 8 GB DDR4 2400MHZ or higher
  • 16 – 64 GB DDR4 2400MHZ
  • Anything less than 8 GB Ram

3. Processor (CPU)

intel core i7 best cpu for photo editing

“Intel Core-i7 CPU”

The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the part the computer that is commonly referred to as the “brains” of the computer. It is responsible for carrying out all

the tasks you or any software give. How effective Lightroom will work when applying filters or adjusting sliders, depends on how good the CPU is. Adobe’s software is usually built to better support Intel products. Therefore we recommend the Intel “Core-I” CPU Range. Don’t buy anything that has “Pentium” or “Celeron” in the name, unless you like wasting time or you hate yourself!

To quickly see what generation an Intel CPU belongs to, look at the first out of 4 digits after the brand name. For example, Intel Core i7 – 6700. The “6” in 6700 indicates that it is a Sixth Generation Intel CPU.

Minimum Required Specs

Recommended Specs

Not Recommended

  • Intel Core-i5 Sixth Generation
  • Intel Core-i7 Sixth Generation or higher
  • Core-i3 or less
  • Anything with “Pentium” or “Celeron” in the name

 

4. Graphics Card (GPU)

a photo of the nvidia geforce useful for photo editing

“NVIDIA Geforce Graphics Card”

I mention Graphics cards last because, as of writing this article, Adobe Lightroom struggle with Graphics processing. However, if you are using Photoshop, having a good graphics card will serve you well. Lightroom, unfortunately, does not truly support hardware acceleration at this moment. From experience, we found that turning hardware acceleration on in Lightroom actually decreases the performance of filters and brushes. Hopefully, this issue will be fixed with the next major update of Lightroom. 

Recommending a specific graphics card is tricky, especially since new cards are released frequently. However, you will find that buying a mid-range to high-end NVIDIA card for photo editing might be the safest option. 

Minimum Required Specs

Recommended Specs

  • Onboard Graphics
  • NVIDIA GeForce 950, 960, 980, 1050, 1060, 1080 or higher

 

5. Monitors

photo of a premium 27 inch QHD dell monitor for photo editing

“Dell 27 inch QHD Monitor”

Buying a proper high-resolution display with accurate colour is essential for photo editing. With Ultra HD (UHD) and 4K monitors on the rise, we can now view our photos with crisp, sharp details. UHD and 4K resolution typically range from 2560 x 1440 to 3840 x 2160. Unfortunately, in the South African context, these monitors are expensive, but getting one now will be more future proof. If you’re on a tight budget then go for at least a Full HD screen (1920 x 1080). In the case of Windows-based laptops, make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of buying one that supports a lesser resolution than Full HD.

This brings me to another important aspect. Does size really matter? For photo editing, it does! We recommend getting a minimum size of 27 inches or consider getting two 24 inch screens, which is perfect for multitasking and editing. If you have the cash to splash, then consider spoiling yourself with at least a 32 inch ultra-wide, curved monitor and make sure it supports UHD resolution. It will be expensive, but being surrounded by so much real estate will be utopian!

Other aspects you should consider is the screen technology, which determines the image quality, colour accuracy and viewing angles. Go for a backlit LED screen with IPS technology, or similar technologies like PLS (Samsung) or AHVA. Stay away from TN and VA Panels, which doesn’t cut it for editing.

Finding a screen that offers colour accuracy and a wide range of colour (gamut) is equally critical. The two most important colour spaces offered in screens are sRGB and Adobe RGB. sRGB is the general standard for the Internet and most software applications but covers a limited colour range compared to Adobe RGB. Adobe RGB was developed to represent the full range of colours achievable on CMYK printers. Even though Adobe RGB covers a wider range of colours, it might be counterproductive in that Windows and other software applications will show the colours incorrectly. Photoshop, however, will display Adobe RGB colour space perfectly, whereas Lightroom uses an even larger colour space, ProPhoto RGB, which is not yet supported by monitors.  If you use Lightroom mostly, then the difference between an sRGB or Adobe RGB monitor, will be negotiable. 

Some professional, top of the range monitors offers Adobe RGB and even built-in hardware calibration, to assure absolute colour accuracy. These high-end monitors can cost tens of thousands of Rands and is an overkill for the average photographer. If you wouldn’t spend that much money on a professional screen, consider buying or borrowing, an optional calibration tool, like the Spyder Pro, or X-Rite ColorMunki and buy a monitor that covers 99% – 100% of the sRGB colour space. 

Key specs to look for in a monitor:

Panel Technology 
  • IPS
  • PLS
  • AHVA
Resolution 
  • Full HD 1920 x 1080 (Budget)
  • UHD 2560 x 1440
  • 4K 3840 x 2160
Size
  • 27″ and larger
Colour Space
  • sRGB 99 – 100% coverage
  • Adobe RGB (Expensive)

 

A note about Colour Management and Workflow: 

If you consider doing professional commercial photography where colour accuracy – from shooting to print – will be of the utmost importance, then I recommend reading John Fox’ article on Colour Management. This is perhaps one of the complete articles you will ever find on the topic.

 

6. Input Devices

Mouse:

  • A critical piece of hardware that is commonly overlooked.  Having a good mouse goes a long way in speeding up and easing retouching. We recommend getting yourself a Gaming Mouse, which will offer ergonomics and improved control. Some gaming mice, even come with additional weights, which can improve accuracy when performing precision tasks! Finally, remember to get yourself a proper Mouse Pad, which will enable you to use the mouse with increased accuracy on any surface.

Card Reader:

  • A compatible USB 3 card reader that can read the type of card (s) your camera uses, will save you the hassle of connecting your camera to the PC every time you need to download photos. 

Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS)

  • To add an extra layer of protection, you can safeguard your setup by adding an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) which allows you to finish up what you were doing, save your work and safely turn off your computer, in the event of a power failure.

Recommended Specs 

Buying a machine according to the specs below will assure fluid and relatively “painless” editing. That is if you have the editing skills to match!

 

 

Laptop

Desktop

Storage

  • 500 GB HDD or larger
  • Additional External HDD to backup your Photos and Lightroom Catalog
  • 3 x Hard Drives 
    • 500 GB SSD or larger (System, Lightroom Catalog, Cache)
    • 2-4 TB HDD (Photo Storage)
    • Additional External HDD to backup your Photos and Lightroom Catalog

Memory (RAM)

  • 12 GB or more  
  • 32GB, or more

Processor (CPU)

  • Core-i5 or higher
  • Core-i7, fifth generation or higher

Graphics Card (GPU)

  • Onboard or
    Similar to Desktop 
  • NVIDIA GeForce 950, 960, 980, 1050, 1060, 1080, or higher

Monitor

  • 15 Inch or larger
  • HD, or UHD
  • 27 inch, or larger
  • UHD, 4K
  • IPS, PLS or AHVA Panel
  • 99 – 100% sRGB coverage

Peripherals

  • Gaming Mouse & Pad
  • Gaming Mouse & Pad
  • Compatible USB 3 Card Reader

 

How can we help you?

I hope that this article has shed some light on the hardware side of photo editing. Feel free to leave a comment with any questions, or connect with us on our Facebook Group! 

 


 

Helpful Links

GET LIGHTROOM AND PHOTOSHOP | Adobe’s Photographer Subscription Plan

 


About the Author:

Shawn Marran
I am Danie Bester's Personal Assistant and Geek. I live in Centurion and joined the DPC Team as a Web Administrator. I manage the DPC site as well as our Student Network Photo Critic. Current long term goals involve being trained in web design. I frequently get compared to an Owl because of my love for the night. I enjoy Night-time photography as well as urban landscape, architectural and abstract photography.

2 Comments

  1. Danie Bester
    Danie Bester 2017/07/28 at 11:31

    Buying a Computer for Editing can be a daunting experience. You’ve nailed this article my young Padawan. Our Readers and Photography Students should know that this comes from someone who is somewhat of a geek. Or should we say rather an authority on Computers!

  2. Shawn Marran
    Shawn Marran 2017/07/24 at 10:28

    Adobe has created a survey asking the public to voice their concerns on the ever growing Lightroom performance issues. If you are an avid Lightroom user, be sure to fill out the survey which can be found at the following link – https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/LrDesktop_performance

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