PC Lust: What Would Be in Your Custom Build?

PC Lust: What Would Be in Your Custom Build?

Do you have Shiny Object Syndrome? Do you conduct self-control litmus tests when the weekly B&H newsletter drops in your inbox? Do you try to rationalize snagging the new Profoto strobe when you know very well that your savings account is plummeting faster the engagement for photos on Instagram? If so, you may want to take a hard pass on this article.

As for me, I didn't use to care about gear. 

It was 2013. A high-profile wedding photographer broke his ankle mid-season, so he hired me to shoot his weddings as he wheeled around alongside me, barking orders. Having been warned about his cuttingly rude personality, it was little surprise when he fell quickly into character, scoffing: "You edit on a laptop? You can't edit on a laptop!" He continued to cut into me for everything from my camera to my outfit. Later in the year, The Knot announced their annual "Top 5%" of photographers by city. My "joke" 5D Mark II and laptop setup and I crushed him that year and every year afterward until I moved out of the wedding space.

I never cared about gear; I cared about images. I cared about creating incredible images. 

On the left is my new custom PC build, on the right is my previous desktop.

Fast-forward to a decade later. Now, I care a little more, and in the recent months, it has become clear that it wa time to upgrade my computer.

I had been working on an Acer desktop for the last several years, and it had done the job. Over the last few years, the AI on Adobe software has gotten more advanced and the system requirements on computers have gotten steeper. My computer couldn't keep up. I added an Asus Geforce GTX 1060 3GB Dual Video Graphics Card, which boosted its performance for another year, but soon, it became clear that it was time to upgrade in a major way. 

So, I set out to build the photographer's dream PC. 

Inside the PC as it was being built.

With the help of peers and tech friends, I noted all the wish-list items for designing a photographer's dream PC and I sent it to Wholesale Computers & Technology, LLC. They're local to me, but they work on major contracts, such as Disney, and ship all over the US. I gave them my list on a Thursday before I left for a weekend shoot, and when I returned, the workhorse was built! Here are the specs:

  • Intel i7-11700K 8-Core 3.6GHZ CPU
  • B560M motherboard with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • Liquid cooling system
  • 64 GB DDR4 memory
  • Gigabit LAN
  • HD audio
  • Samsung 980 pro 2-terabyte NVME drive
  • DVD+-RW burner
  • RTX 3050 8 GB video card
  • Windows 11
  • Cooler Master NR400 ATX tower with tempered glass
  • EVGA 750-watt power supply
  • ASUS 31.5” 4K HDR monitor 

The total cost for the computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and build was just under $2,500. I also bought the SpyderX Pro to calibrate my monitor ($130)

As I mentioned in the opening, I only care about technology as much as it makes a significant difference in my work, and let me tell you this machine makes a colossal difference in my work. I ran startup tests with both computers next to each other. It took six seconds for the entire machine to start up, compared to my old computer, which took 4 minutes and 19 seconds. It took the new computer four seconds to open Photoshop: sonic speed compared to the 4 minutes and 53 seconds it took my old computer to open and load everything. On top of that, I was able to run image processor in Photoshop (to resize a batch of images) while answering emails without any detectable delay. The computer is quiet, fast, and a real workhorse.

The value of investing in the custom-built PC comes over time as well. My peers advised me that if I invested in a custom PC, it would easily last me eight years or more. The added advantage to building a computer is that if something is falling behind or becomes outdated, you can replace that specific component instead of the entire machine. 

Though I don't have what we jokingly refer to as Shiny Object Syndrome in our writers' chat, I do love having tools that help me create images well and efficiently. Do you have to have the R5, a custom-built PC, the f/1.2 instead of the f/1.8? No, you don't. People with simpler gear out-shoot gear junkies all the time. However, as a full-time photographer who pours hours working with system-heavy software, I definitely give this purchase five stars for the efficiency it gives me. 

PC users, what's your experience? Have you ever built a custom computer that upgraded your workflow? Do you have a pre-built computer that you recommend for photographers? Leave a comment; the discussions below often are my favorite part of being a writer.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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I use both Z series workstations and I custom build workstations for videographers and photographers. We're in a time of change, with Zen 4 from AMD alongside RNDA 3 about to be released, you have nVidia's Lovelace (40 series) GPUs as well. All about to be released within the next few months. This is why I've been telling people who want to build rigs to hold off if they can until we have a better idea of the landscape. Normally I'd not recommend this as something better is always around the corner, but we're at a inflection point in PC hardware something that doesn't happen all that often.

Too much is unconfirmed (but plenty of rumours and evidence) about nextgen, but AMD has consistently proven they have a robust system AM4 lasted 5 years and AM5 chipset will likely be supported just as long making CPU upgrades a touch less painful. Threadripper is a still big unknown but it's by far one of the best HEDT processers for your workstation with a price commensurate with that expectations. For Multithreading AMD is beats or matches Intels best often at a better total system price.

A couple of other notes about your system: Your liquid cooling system will require more maintenance, my own AiO died after four years and never gone full custom as I prefer cooler tower designs) and if you intend to do video you'll struggle, especially with the 1Gb LAN as 2.5Gb or faster is becoming more common or if you transfer a lot of data to and from a NAS.

Wow you sure know your stuff!!! I don't do video only photos. This was my first custom build and I think I'm going to stay on this path. My only regret is I didn't think to ask to have an SD slot put in-never make assumptions. I have to use a card reader with a USB. The screen is a bit tricky I'm doing calibration with data color and it's still back and forth with the customer service as it's not quite right after a few comparison tests. It's definitely a process to set up but I'm really thrilled with the investment overall.

If you have a 3.5" bay on your case you can install something like the Akasa dock that's a multi-reader and USB ports, it's what I use on one of my back up rigs which is used to ingest media before transferring to the NAS (then to a LTO tape library for cold storage). I prefer dual matched displays rather than one big one, makes screen management more pleasant especially when you start using the MS window shortcuts. I sometimes rig up a third display for proofing or as a reference for editing. If you're interested in my rigs I've probably posted bits and pieces about them here previously.

I would also strongly advise look at getting a NAS (avoid QNAP) if you haven't got a solution in place already. In addition set up a back up for your main drive using something like Macrium Reflect because the time saved by not having to redo all your settings/actions/etc is more than worth it.

However all that said enjoy the rig, and more importantly good light!

Thank you for all these great tips! I'll look into them.

If he has has room for a second NIC on his NAS build, there is one faster solution, my current solution is an Asus XG-C100C 10 GbE adapter. I use a 2.5GbE switch for all wired devices, and have moved to 2.5GbE for all but the laptops, those use Intel AX210 WiFi adapters which will deliver 1.8Gbps if in the same room as the AP, but since 10GbE switches are insanely overpriced, I use a direct 10GbE connection to my NAS.

While pricey since it is $90 per NIC, if the user currently has everything on 1GbE and is using a NAS with a 10GbE port or a FreeNAS / TrueNAS build where they can easily add an additional NIC, it could allow for a lot of time savings on initial backups.

If using a lower powered system, 2.5GbE on its own is fine. Even after overhead, the throughput is enough to saturate the read/write of standard modern hard drive.

Performance across a 2.5GbE switch (variation caused by the system being actively used on the network, thus having traffic unrelated to the benchmark.

A single drive such as the newer WD Red drives, will top out at around 200 to 220MB/s. Thus over a NAS a JBOD setup will perform similarly to having a drive installed internally (though with a little lower IOPS), and a RAID5 or ZFS pool will perform a bit better as you will more consistently have reads and writes closer to 300MB/s.

You can pick up Mellanox 10Gb/e cards cheaply and second hand switches if you shop around I won't say cheap but vastly cheaper than you'd buy new. Downside you'd not get the support and have build the LAN yourself. However the prices for new 10Gb/e switches are dropping with with what I'd call more affordable options on the market in the last year. 10Gb/e should really only be brought into the equation if you're primarily working with video as a bonded 1Gb/e or 2.5Gb/e should be more than sufficient for photographic data unless you're working in a shared data environment (and you have equipment that supports bonding such as your NAS and Switch).

However my point is that you're removing lanes from the PCIe fabric of the motherboard rather than having an integrated into the chipset. Now how this affects this system I don't know don't have the mobo diagram but it's on the lower end so it'll have less lanes dedicated to the PCIe lanes. What this means whilst adding network cards is fine, you just need to under the cost to your internal data fabric whether in latency or throughput or even to your GPU or NVMe drive which shares that fabric. In addition 2.5Gb/e is rapidly becoming standard across many motherboards at similar price points to 1Gb/e so if there is a choice you should go with with the latter.

There are some deals to be had there, though it can be tricky to get decent savings, especially with you add the cost of the SFP+ modules.

Just realized can't read fStoppers anymore. The ads have become too intrusive.

Ad blocker? There are tonnes of free ones.

I started building PC's back early-mid '90's. I was heavily into gaming and LAN parties :D. My first one was built using hand-me-downs from friends and family and cheap eBay parts. One day, I was curious what a store bought PC would be like, so I drove out and bought one from Circuit City. Very disappointing. Even after I uninstalled all the bloatware, it was slower than the one I built using old and cheap parts. I returned it 3 days later; and I've been building/upgrading my own since.

Fast forward to current(ish), I did a budget upgrade in 2020 on a 2012 build. Just the core components for about $450.

It's more than capable for photo editing. Heck, the 2012 build was good at photos. For video, the 2020 upgrade is at minimum twice as fast and doesn't crash Davinci Resolve. Though, I think because the old video card was only 2 gigs. lol

I primarily use Capture One and Photoshop. Unless I start to do serious video work, I think my current setup would last me another 8+ years.

Wow that's amazing. I don't know why it never occurred to me to build a computer. I think I'm with you- hooked for life.

In Dec 2020 I bought a custom built computer for editing in Photoshop and Lightroom from Puget Systems. I LOVE that machine! It’s SO fast. I spent about $5,000 including a 32” monitor. Last year I bought a 16” MacBook Pro Max with 32GB RAM and a 1TB drive. It smokes the desktop. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.

Haha, that reminds of an old racing t-shirt quote, "Damn, you must be fast! 'Cause I was hauling ass when I past you!"

I had built virtually the same computer (slightly different motherboard) about a year ago and love it. My previous desktop was 4+ years old and showing it's age. The new one is fast, I now have 2 monitors (one with a pen) and my editing is now fun. Definitely worth the investment. And custom builds typically give you more expansion capability vs. stock PC's

I'm discovering the same thing! I'm curious to see how long this speed will last. With my store-bought computer it slowly declined in speed over the years till about year 4 and it was just ridiculous at that point

In my experience, when your computer starts to slow down, it's usually not hardware related. Typically, with hardware, it's either working or it's not.

Software however, are more likely the culprit. Software updates, including Windows Updates and driver updates, have a bad habit of not cleaning up after themselves; or break things. For this reason, I don't allow automatic updates on my system. For Windows Updates, I manually create a System Restore Point, then manually check for updates and let them run. When they are done, I run a gauntlet of benchmarks (Cinebench, Geekbench, CrystalDiskMark) to make sure no abnormal performance hit. For Firefox and Chrome, I create a copy of the profiles in case I need to roll things back.

If you feel your system has become sluggish, you can always Reset (reinstall) before upgrading. Assuming you have proper backup, I would run "Remove everything" so there's no question.

Wow. That's interesting. That makes sense- about the hardware working on not working. I'm tempted to try that on my old computer and see what the results are. Thanks for sharing

personally, I find Adobe suite too problematic on windows to custom build a rig for it. That said, if I had to it would be similar to the above. The only change I would make is I would put as much CPU power as possible in because Adobe is so painfully CPU bound. Probably a 12900K.

I dunno. I have an entry level AMD Ryzen 5 3600 and it's fine with Photoshop.

Also, though I do most of the editing in Capture One, I play around with Lightroom's subject masking and adjustments from time to time. It's pretty snappy. As an experience overall, definitely not as fast as C1, but, not as bad as you've mentioned in the past.

I know you've mentioned before your spec'd out PC struggles with Adobe products. It's hard to fathom it's that bad. Only thing I can think of is hardware configuration issues or there's non-Adobe software issues.

I would love an all-in-one with a 27" 5K monitor. A lot like the iMac that I use now, but a PC with the following upgrades / improvements:

Not thin and sleek, but rather thick, so as to facilitate the following additional features:

Retractable 15' power cord

Internal battery so it can run for a couple of hours without plugging it in, for those times when power is interrupted by lightning storms or when there simply isn't an outlet anywhere nearby. Freaking sick of having to restart my computer every time the power goes out for just a minute or two. The battery could just automatically "take over" for the power cord whenever the electricity goes out momentarily, or when someone trips on my power cord and it unplugs by accident when I am in the middle of editing. No more inadvertent "crashing off", ever again. I guess "battery backup" is what I am trying to describe. If there isn't already such a thing, then there should be.

15 or 20 TB internal hard drive, so that I would never have to figure out how to use an external drive or get the computer and other media to "talk to each other". The original computer would just be big enough to store all of the photos I ever take for the rest of my life with no need for hassles or figuring anything out.

Heavy metal rim around the perimeter of the 27" screen, so that the glass wouldn't crack or chip if I accidentally bang the computer into something. I use my current all-in-one in a lot of different places, and always pack it around the way many people use a laptop. It goes on 3 month road / camping trips with me. It goes to my friend's house with me. It goes to the local artist association meetings with me. It goes to the photography club meetings with me. Sometimes it goes to church with me. It goes on weekend and overnight trips with me. I want laptop portability, but with that nice 27" 5K screen and the ease of a cordless all-in-one design.

I would really want the all-in-one to come with a very indestructible carry case. A case designed specifically for the exact computer, and something that could survive a horrid car accident or being thrown onto concrete by careless people who load checked bags into airplane cargo compartments. Something so rugged that I never have to worry about my computer breaking, no matter how roughly it is handled by careless ruffians.

Why don't you just get an uninterruptible power supply?

Apple will never make an internal battery on an iMac. A UPS is exactly what you need and has existed for decades. They are often used in businesses to keep their servers online, but you can get ones for the home too and they aren't expensive. https://www.apc.com

That is quite a wish list! I'm with you on the power supply and internal hard drive!

I had to make many compromises with my build.
Due to the scalping bots and newegg running purchase lotteries to allow regular purchases, I ended up with a Ryzen 7 5800X instead of the 5900X.
Still using the 32GB DDR4 3400 kit from my previous build.

Beyond that, I am stuck with a GTX 970 (GPU from the Paleolithic Era), due to scalping making current gen cards insanely overpriced, hoping for better luck with an RTX 4070 when released in 3 months.

Beyond that, due to mainstream AMD and Intel CPUs having very few PCIe lanes, I have to make due with 6 8TB WD red drives, 2 SATA SSDs (1 2TB and 1 1TB, and 2 1TB M.2 NVMe SSDs.

The CPU helps greatly for my video editing work flow, but the ancient GPU, adds a lot of annoyance since noise reduction and other similar effects in DaVinci resolve, where to reduce reduce compression artifacts (optimizing for streaming), it help to do some stronger noise reduction during moments of otherwise high fill rate, since no modern compression standard handles noise well

CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 5800x (PBO, +200 on the fit curve, and curve optimizer)
RAM: (4 X 8 GB) G.Skill DDR4 3400 (overclocked to 3600).
GPU: GTX 970 (ancient artifact).
Motherboard: Asus X570e Strix.
Storage: 6X 8TB WD red 1X 1TB SATA SSD, 1X 2TB SATA SSD, 2X 1TB NVMe SSDs.

(Got screwed on the WD black SN750, since there is a known firmware bug where if on a chipset connected m.2 slot, the payload size drops to 128 bytes instead of 256, this causes a drop in linear read and write performance, but 4k random remains normal.

M.2 slots using CPU lanes (first M.2 slot on current Intel and AMD systems) does not have the payload issue. Western digital fixed the issue with a firmware update on the SN850, but is refusing to push an update to fix the same issue on the SN750.

I remember at the time that I bought my graphics card to boost life into my last computer it was nearly impossible and I had to almost wait a month. I guess that many of those shortages have since been resolved. I hope that although you had to make some compromises you're happy with your machine.