The 2017 High-End PC Buyers Guide for Photographers Running Photoshop

The 2017 High-End PC Buyers Guide for Photographers Running Photoshop

We're going to build our very own photographers PC, capable of working at blazing speeds with 50-megapixel images and dozens of layers in Adobe Photoshop. The high-end system we will be discussing here will have a budget of $1,500 in mind. For this, we're going to build our post-processing dream PC, but it doesn't include a monitor. Let's start comparing specs.

A (Personal) Numbers Game

PC building is about comparing numbers, but also about personal preference. With two major contenders on the CPU market, Intel and AMD, most people tend to stick to either. It’s the same with ATI Graphics (an acquired subsidiary of AMD) and NVidia. Even in a time when the price/performance numbers of AMD/ATI systems look better, I am still an Intel/NVidia guy. I can’t explain why exactly. Maybe because I’ve build PCs since the age of 12 and in only one of those instances (and it wasn’t the first build), an ATI-card died. You’re going to have to forgive me for this manufacturer’s choice, but rest assured that the rest of this comparison is as objective as I can be. If you specifically want AMD/ATI, I suggest that you look at the new Ryzen range of processors and the RX 580 series graphics cards, both of which I’ve heard very good things about.

To be able to write this article, I've used the fantastic spreadsheets of PassMark software, which have been my reference for comparing processors and video cards for over a decade.

Processor: Intel Core i7-7700

A processor is the beating heart of your machine. In photography editing, the power of the processor will determine for some amount how fast and snappy your edits translate into the results you see on the screen. The 7700 is at the top end of the desktop Intel Socket 1151 range, surpassed in performance only by the “unlocked” 6700K and 7700K. “Unlocked” means that these processors are well suited for those who aim to overclock them. Our 7700 operates at 3.6 GHz and scores a respectable 10,816 points on CPU-Benchmark. Some of the specs include 8 MB SmartCache, four physical cores and eight hardware threads.

Now, if these or any of the following specs don’t say a whole lot to you, that’s OK. Let me just say that this CPU’s price/performance index is absolutely top-notch for a current generation Intel processor. It’s going for around $300.

intel core i7-7700

Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-H270-HD3

If the processor is your computer’s heart; the motherboard is undoubtedly its blood circulation system. It connects the individual parts through its integrated chipset. I’ve opted for a H270 board, because the main differences between it and its bigger brother, the Z270 chipset, are the overclocking capabilities and consequently the Z270’s higher price point.

This $100 ATX-board boasts three PCI-e x16 slots for connecting a wide range of fast components such as a video card, sound, or ultra-fast storage. Additionally, we see four USB 3.0 and four USB 2.0 connectors. There are four memory slots, which we’ll cover next.


Memory: Kingston HyperX FURY 32 GB 2133 MHz

RAM stores instructions temporarily. The higher the amount of this temporary storage, the larger your files can be without your new computer slowing down on you. Because of the ever-increasing resolutions of digital camera sensors, working in layers in Photoshop, and panorama stitching, I rather choose a higher amount of RAM and pay a little extra. The memory speed and latencies say something about how fast a new set of instructions can be added or cleared from the memory. Our motherboard runs 2,133 MHz memory out of the box, so that’s what we’ll pick.

We will fill all four slots with a kit of four 8 GB memory modules, for a total of 32 GB RAM. If you’re knowledgeable about timings, then I think you will agree that choosing CL14 14-14-32 is a good contender among both the cheaper and more expensive choices we have.

Kingston Hyper X DDR4 memory

Graphics Card: ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 6GB ROG STRIX OC

So why would we need a graphics card for photo editing? Aren’t today’s processors kitted out with on-board video? In short, yes they are. Although modern software like our beloved Adobe products Lightroom and Photoshop are actually designed from the ground up to work with dedicated graphics cards. Complex operations in Photoshop and Lightroom are a lot (!) faster if you’re using a video card, because these are basically computers on their own. They have their own processor (called a GPU), cooler, memory, and motherboard. That’s the main reason why this part is the most expensive part in our build. We don’t, however, need the most expensive or fastest card out there (unless of course you’re also an avid gamer).

For Photoshop’s GPU intensive features like blurring, sharpening, and the Camera Raw filter, memory interface width is actually more important than raw GPU-performance. A 2 GB 256-bit video card will outperform a 4 GB 128-bit video card, because of the parallel computing power of that card. This is why professional-grade Radeon R9, Tesla, and Quadro all feature the highest possible memory bandwidth. These cards also cost an arm and a leg, so they’re not for our build.

Most enthusiast, non-professional cards feature a 384-bit memory bus, but also cost anything upwards of $700. Our price range lets us put in a respectable 192-bit GTX 1060 card with 6 GB of video memory. The $350 ASUS GeForce GTX 1060 6GB ROG STRIX OC features 1,280 CUDA cores that run at 1,645 MHz.


Main Storage and Cache: Samsung 850 EVO, 250 GB SSD

We’re inching closer to software. Software, such as your operating system, installs on a drive and in 2017 these come in three flavors: traditional hard drives, solid state drives, and combinations of the two. SSDs are the fastest option and can be connected through a so-called SATA-cable or directly on the motherboard for best performance at a cost.

Your main storage is the one on which we’re going to install Windows, Lightroom, and Photoshop. But we will also use this drive for cache. Cache is temporary storage that acts much like an extension of your RAM. If the RAM fills up, the cache folder on your storage device will fill to avoid problems such as blocking your entire system. This is why we need a sizable amount of space on this drive at all times. We’re going for a 250 GB SSD.

The Samsung 850 EVO series has a lot going for it. The 250 GB version reads at 540 MB/s and writes at 520 MB/s. For its $100 price, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an equal or better performing drive.

Samsung 850 EVO 250GB SSD

Storing Your Photos: Western Digital Black, 2 TB HDD

When it comes to storing your precious photos, size does matter. This 7,200rpm SATA-600 drive reads at 164 MB/s and boasts 2 TB of storage. That’s more than enough for putting any stages of your edited photography on there; raw files, original PSDs, and JPEGs for the web. And should you run out of storage, there’s always the option of putting another one in there, because our motherboard supports four additional drives. The drive sets you back $136.

WD Black 2TB

Power, Case, and Peripherals

This build, like any high-end system, is quite power hungry because of its graphics card, which requires at least 500 watts of power. All the other components don’t require that much, so let’s stick on the safe side and put in a 750-watt power supply. The Corsair RM750x is an 80 PLUS gold-standard power supply with full, modular cable management. And because it has an active thermal regulation system, the fan is only fully engaged when it’s most needed.

A great case has a good amount of airflow, so cable management is a priority. Aside from that, picking a case is entirely subjective, so I won’t get into this in great detail. As long as it fits your ATX-motherboard and the 298mm long video card. The same subjectivity holds true for any peripherals like a mouse, keyboard, and speakers, assuming you even want the latter.

All of the components in this category will cost around $250, depending on how fancy your case and mouse are.

Corsair CArbide black case


Our build comes to a grand total of $1,426, with all the parts coming from Amazon. But we're not there yet. Because there are so many factors to consider, buying a monitor for photography editing is worthy of an entire article by itself. And once all the boxes of your new PC build arrive, it’s time to put everything together and tweak the system to get the most out of your rig. You’ve guessed it, we’re in for another multi-part article.

If you have any questions about these parts, or have a better idea for any the components selected for this build, you’re welcome to make suggestions. You can also comment with "I have a Mac" to get the discussing going. This is build is just one of the millions of combinations you could make to build your post-processing dream PC. Until next time: Happy comparing.

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Previous comments
Robert Bell's picture

Thats exactly what I do - ssd drives though

Daniel Laan's picture

Thanks for the suggestion, Kyle. Looks like a worthy upgrade. If your budget allows to go over 1500, definitely put some money near storage.

Kyle Medina's picture

Haven't built a rig in years. Are there motherboards supporting USB-C yet? I would think that for a motherboard having at least 2 is a must and ditching anything with USB 2.0, wasted space.

Yes there are plenty with usbc (thunderbolt 3 and usb3.1)

Not a high end built at all...
m.2 is standard for mid range build now

Mr Hogwallop's picture

The title of the article, calling it a buyers guide, does not really line up with the story of building a PC.
I don't want to build anything but I am in the market for a new computer.

Paulo Macedo's picture

For Christ sakes...a 7700K for creatives? For Photoshop and Premiere? C'mon, the AMD Ryzen 7 1700 costs almost the same, double the cores, and 16 threads is on par with the i7 6800's when running Cinebench r15. Not to mention the slighly more expensive AMD Ryzen 7 1800X, costing 499$ and delivering the performance of Intel's i7 6900K costing some whooping 1050$.
As for GPU, Nvidia and i can't recomend AMD untill this new Vega GPU comes out. It's being said that the 1000$ Vega chip will deliver on par performance of the 4000$ Nvidia Quadro card.
So, to keep inside budget, a GTX 1060 will do the job nice :)
Either you build for gamming, or you build for work, 7700K is great for gamming, not so great for multi-threaded tasks, like rendering 4K video in Premiere.

If i was building this rig:

ASUS Prime X370 Pro (MoBo)
AMD Ryzen 7 1700X 8c 16t @ 3.4GHz (CPU)
Corsair Vengeance 4 x 8GB DDR4 3000Mhz (32GB RAM)
Nvidia GTX 1060 6GB (GPU)
Samsung 850 Evo 256GB SSD (SSD)
Western Digital RED NAS Hardrive 4TB (HDD)

NOX Hummer ZN (ATX Tower)
Cooler Master G650N 80 Plus Bronze (650W)

This is my take, by trying to avoid the over-expensive Intel CPU's, that will only get you a gain from 5 to 10% for double the money.

My computers had Intel and AMD CPU's, AMD and NVidia GPU's, i shoot Nikon and Canon alike.

Spy Black's picture

Apparently Adobe has not optimized it's applications for the Ryzen, so you'll actually suffer a performance hit using the new AMD chip. We'll have to wait and see how long it will take for Adobe to update their software.

The problem isn't so much that Adobe hasn't optimized their applications for AMD CPU's, it is AMD playing catch-up with Intel's changes to the x86-64 instruction set and having to wait for those changes to be propagated to whatever compiler they are using to build their applications.

Spy Black's picture

I would be surprised if AMD would drop that ball. This isn't a petty project.

It isn't that simple, Intel controls the instruction set and provides documentation for developers on how to implement code that takes advantage of their CPU's. Compiler manufacturers have to add the necessary code and libraries into their compiler suites (unless you use Intel's C/C++ compiler) and then wait for the application vendor (Adobe) to add the compiler into their build suite, build and test code then roll it into production.

It doesn't happen overnight.

Christoph .'s picture

It is a fairly new platform, and in benchmarks the 7700K does sometimes take a win by a few %, but at the end of the day you've got half the thread and core count. When devs take advantage of the increased core count (i.e. future proofing) Ryzen will be at a considerable lead.

Not only that, but would you rather a few % faster and a nigh-unusable computer during rendering/workloads, or a little slower but you can use it as normal. I just upgraded to a 1700 (very easy to get to 3.8GHz) and I can render and export without the whole system being completely sluggish during. It takes a hit, obviously, but still very much operable.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Chris, the 7700K has a fair advantage on framerates, gamming!
When exporting a 4K project, the Ryzen 7 1700, 1700X and 1800X take a fair lead. Comparing to the i7 6*** platform. As for software development, regarding these new architectures I believe that in time things will be ok.

I've built custom PCs and I would recommend replacing the stock CPU cooler with something better like the Coolermaster Hypo Evo or even a closed loop liquid cooler. Very important if you are going to overclock your cpu or even take advantage of the turbo boost capability.

Anonymous's picture

Overclocking is for kids playing games.

I mean yea many gamers (adults included here) overclock, but it allows boost of performance for processing and rendering. Most processors are now made to be overclocked so why wouldn't you want that extra boost?

michael buehrle's picture

i have a mac.

Anonymous's picture

My condolences. ;)

Adam Palmer's picture

I'd recommend a bigger SSD an HD unless you don't shoot a lot of photos

Michael Comeau's picture

I'm about to buy a fully-loaded iMac... because someone else has to fix it when it breaks.

Michael Kormos's picture

I used to build my own gaming PCs. Fun hobby. Water cooling, fancy LEDs, the works! My "high-end" photoshop machine is now an iMac. Go figure!

Oleh Brevus's picture

I've build mine PC for 1240 euros. And that's more than enough for editing photos.
Ryzen 5 1600 (6 core CPU)
Motherboard: Asus Prime X370 Pro
GPU: Radeon RX580 8Gb DDR5
RAM: 16Gb Corsair Vengeance LPX 3000Mhz
1 Tb 2.5'' WD Black 7200 RPM
250 Gb Samsung 960 EVO SSD NVMe
Case: NZXT S340 Black

I don't see this as a "high-end" system. I see this as a machine built using standard components with a focus performance and price. When I think high-end systems, I am thinking like this:

ArsTechnica has a nice read on Intel's latest and has benchmarks:

A motherboard that gives you I/O options including dual Gigabit Ethernet and Thunderbolt and can take up to 128 GB of memory:

Get a nice Nvidia video card:

Since the motherboard has two M2 slots, use them:

And if you want RAID:

Choose whether you want to use spinning rust or SSD's.

These are some of the components I would use to build a system that is (1) fast and (2) future proof. You could still be using this machine for years and while it might not be as fast as what would be on the street in a few years, it would be no slouch. Yes it would be expensive, but if you depend on your computer for work, then it should be a business expense like your camera gear is.

I also don't understand running everything off of one disk. I use multiple SSD's in my system and I have dedicated scratch disks for Photoshop, CameraRaw and cache for Photo Mechanic. I bought Kingston 120 GB SSD's and use those for the scratch disks. It might not be super fast but it does improve performance.

Paulo Macedo's picture

He was talking about a 1500$ budget, just that CPU costs that! And anyway, i9 is another atempt for Intel to reach our pockets, wait for Threadripper!

And I will say again, this is "high-end" how???? I could have chose a Xeon CPU instead of an i9 and would cost the same if not more!!! If you read the article and looked at the benchmarks, the i9 has a clear edge over Ryzen in some areas and in others Ryzen wins. I expect Threadripper to be more of the same. If I was building a system now I would be using the i9.

Maybe Daniel should edit his article and remove the "high-end" part because all I see here is a PC that I could buy anywhere. When I think high-end, I am thinking $4,000+.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Sorry Robert, but for 1500€ you can surelly build some high end rig. At least high end enough not to choke with D810 RAW files. Mid end PC's cost some 700€ to build, pretty much like the one i have now. The performance benefits between having a Xeon or let's say, the latest Ryzen are not that much.
Yes, Xeon's are server processors, made to handle data like no other, but they are very expensive and you surelly won't take all it's benefits not even for gamming.
The hardware you can buy for 1500€ can put to shame the 3500€ Mac Pro, that many people call High End. Not that i want to start the bloody Mac vs PC thing here, i like OSX, just don't like the crippled computers for twice the price.
With 1500€ i can buld a machine that will last me at least 4 years if not more, without choking on high megapixel files, or start stuttering youtube videos while I am encoding something on Premiere or processing a batch of files, let's say a wedding.
And to me, that's High End, to most of us it's High End. This article is meant to help out and build a work horse, not the Battlefield 1 4K 60fps machine.

Actually no you can't. What you call high end is what I call mainstream. I am a system administrator and work daily with Xeon and SPARC CPU equipped servers and workloads that would make this "high end PC" melt down!! High end and $1,500 is an oxymoron!!

Yes, I have seen the "tests" where a PC blows away a "trash can" MacPro but nobody can explain why!!! I have some ideas and if anyone would run dtruss against Premiere while it was running and take a look at the output, one might find the answer as to why or install Windows on it and perform the same tests and see what you get for results. My money is on the Windows equipped MacPro will perform very well against a PC. But i have also seen this kind of "test" where an older machine is pitted against modern hardware and of course the modern hardware wins.

We will have to agree to disagree because what you call high end is something that I call anyone can buy in their local Best Buy. What I consider high end you are going straight to the vendor or a reseller to buy such as this:

Anonymous's picture

Not mentioned here is getting the cache off of the drive with the OS, a fundamental when I built mine, but maybe that not necessary with very new storage and so much RAM?

Anthony Ojo's picture

How is this high end?!?!?!!

Valters Pelns's picture

Would upgrading gpu from gtx 970 to gtx 1060 improve Lightroom speed?
I have PC - i7: 6700k@4,5ghz, 32 GB Ram @2,6Ghz, ssd: Samsung 850 pro ..

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