Computer Guide for Photography and Video Editing: What to Buy and Why? (Part 1)

Computer Guide for Photography and Video Editing: What to Buy and Why? (Part 1)

Photographers and filmmakers probably spend more time on their computers that behind a camera. We own thousands of dollars in gears, yet some of us waste a considerable amount of time struggling on a sluggish PC. However, for the price of a good lens you could dramatically improve your productivity by speeding up the entire post-shooting phase. Here is a short guide to help you navigate through the current offerings and avoid the marketing traps in order to build the perfect machine based on your budget.

The main idea is to put together a balanced setup without creating any bottleneck such as having an overpowered processor without enough memory to handle the processing load or vice versa. The second element is to invest your money wisely. For instance, no need to fall for useless features (e.g., ultra high frequency DDR memory) and get lost in details (advanced monitoring, LED, heat sinks on cold parts) while these extra dollars might serve you better on the CPU and GPU.

Power Supply

I cannot stress enough the importance of installing a good power supply unit (PSU) in your PC. As a rule of thumb, do not even consider a power supply below $40. Cheaply made units have poor efficiency, they will waste energy by producing a lot of heat requiring a noisy fan to evacuate this thermal load. Finally, low-end PSUs generate bad quality voltage and amperage which will stress the precious electronic parts of the PC, in turn reducing their lifetime. In the worst case scenario, the machine may become instable and crash. Don’t be cheap and save yourself a lot of trouble by investing a little bit more on a decent PSU. Rely on established brands and spend between $50–$120 depending of the power needed.

The most power hungry components of a PC are the graphics card and the CPU. You must scale your PSU based on those. In contrast, hard drives don’t pull more than a few watts each (2-8 W). An average, computers equipped with a few hard drives, an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 draws around 350 watts maximum. After taking into account the usual safety margin, a 450 watt PSU is all you need. High-end machines with Core i7/Ryzen 7 and GeForce 1080 only require a 650 watt PSU. Beyond that, you will be wasting money unless you perform advanced overclocking or mount multiple GPU in SLI configuration. As for the certification, the best efficiency to price ratio are silver and gold. Forget the nonsense marketing labels such as titanium or diamond. The few extra percent of efficiency over the gold category does not justify the huge price difference. You will never get it back on your power bill.

  • SeaSonic S12II 520 W 80 Plus Bronze ($50): This wallet-friendly PSU will generate enough power for an Intel i5 or Ryzen 5 computer mounted with a mid-range graphic card such the GeForce GTX 1060 or Radeon RX 570. Get the gold version if you can ($70), it will generate less heat and save a few dollars on your electricity bill.
  • Corsair RM650x 650 W 80 Plus Gold ($110): More than enough power for the most demanding computers fitted with monster CPU and GPU plus a dozen hard drives. No need to go for higher wattage or spend more on LED and useless monitoring options.

Case

There are a lot of options, but noise isolation, thermal management, and ease of installation should be the main deciding factors. Another key point is size. High-end CPUs require large cooling devices sticking out of the processor and some graphic cards can be quite big. The number of hard drive slots is also important for photography and video editing computers. Check if the case comes with the fan(s), especially with the entry-level product.

Fractal Design R5 (left) and Antec P-100 (right). Two sober cases with good noise isolation, ventilation and modularity.

CPU and Motherboard

After many years of Intel supremacy, AMD is back with a new generation of competitive CPU called Ryzen. Luckily for us, AMD decided to tackle the market with an aggressive pricing approach. Both manufacturers offer 14nm chip design which limits the maximum processor frequency to 4.5 GHz. Since the frequency race is not possible anymore, they found a new competitive ground by adding cores on their CPU. At the moment, Intel is leading the trend with its i9 series reaching up to 18 Cores for the i9-7980XE. However, you’ll have to sell a kidney to afford this $2,000 CPU.

Are More Cores Really Useful for Photography and Video Applications?

It depends. While most image and video editing programs manage to distribute the load among several cores, some applications or tasks (video games) are not optimized for parallel processing. In this case, 8, 10, or 18-core CPUs might be slower than a simple high frequency quad-core processor. Why? Because more cores per CPU translate into lower frequencies per core. For instance, the quad-core i7-7700k processor runs 4.3 GHz per core while the 8 cores Ryzen 1800X maxes out at 3.6 GHz per core. The former will outperform the later for single core operation and non-parallel processing. However, a 6-core CPU running at higher frequency than a 8-core CPU might give similar or better results (e.g., i7 8700K versus RX 1800X) even on multi-threaded applications. It all depends of the nature of the task and the level of software optimization, but overall more cores are beneficial on photo-video computers.

Finally, performance is dependent on the usage phase. Real time editing, playback, pre-render, final export, and encoding each take a different toll on the processor. Some tasks will benefit from the higher frequency while others will spread the load on multiple cores. Sometime these tasks rely first on the graphics card.

The CPU and Motherboard Combination

The key step is to determine which processor offers the best performance/price ratio. At the moment the “sweet spot” is in the $300–600 price range for the 6 to 8 core CPU. After that you’ll have to spend a lot of money to improve the performance, not only on the processor itself but on the motherboard as well. Indeed, AMD and Intel have this horrible habit to change the type of socket (plug) and chipset (controller) with every new generation of CPU. After each processor release, the choice of compatible motherboards is limited to a few options costing around $300–400. Then, the price usually goes back to a reasonable level after a year or so. Therefore, the choice of CPU dictates the motherboard selection and both components must be considered together in terms of budget. Of course, it might be tempting to spend an extra $100 for the slightly more powerful class of CPU but does it really make sense if you must purchase a much pricier motherboard? This money will be better spent on the graphics cards or memory.

New generation of CPU means new socket and chipset initially associated with expensive motherboards.

On the AMD platform, the 8-core Ryzen 1700 ($280) and 1800X ($440) are hard to beat at this price point especially with motherboards costing between $80 and $150.

The counter offer from Intel in the 8 cores league is the new i7-7820X, but this CPU is more expensive ($560) than the Ryzen. On top of that, Intel made the transition to the LGA 2066 socket for this new generation of processors and the motherboards are still expensive. Expect at least $220 for a decent LGA 2066 board. However, Intel just released the competitive 6-core i7-8700K ($410). The lower core number is compensated by a higher base frequency giving better scores on some processing tasks. To make things better, this CPU is compatible with the mainstream LGA 1151 socket but requires the latest Z370 chipset so don’t expect to install this new CPU on your old LGA 1151 motherboard. Fortunately, LGA 1151 and Z370 motherboards are affordable with good items ranging from $120 to $200.

On the elitist segment, AMD proposes the new Ryzen Threadripper processors to challenge Intel LGA 2066 i7 and i9 CPU, but they also suffer from a limited choice of pricey motherboards based on the new TR4 socket.

What about the K and X processors?

The K suffix on the Intel CPU such as the i7 8700K denotes the overclocking capabilities. Non-K versions are locked and can’t be overclocked.

The situation is a little more confusing on the AMD side with the X processors. Both versions are opened to overclocking but the X version runs at slightly higher frequency and has more headroom (higher TDP) to increase the speed. Without overclocking, the performance gains are small between the two; a few percent at best depending of the tasks. However, note that the non-X processor includes the Wraith Spire cooler while the X version comes naked and you’ll have to add another $30–50 to equip the CPU with a cooler. In terms of value, the non-X version is the best option if you don’t plan to overclock the processor.

Motherboards

Motherboards are a commodity these days. Rely on established brands such as Asus, Gigabytes, or MSI and don’t spend more than $150–200 for classic sockets (Intel LGA 1151/Z370 and AMD AM4) and $350 for advanced one (Intel LGA 2066 and AMD TR4). Manufacturers will try to justify the premium prices by designing “aerodynamic” boards filled with LED, useless heat sinks and few extra connectors. Don’t fall in this marketing trap because these features only inflate the price without providing any performance gain unless you plan to overclock your CPU. Finally, the NVMe hard drives must be considered on powerful setups. If you want to go that route, make sure that the motherboard firmware accept this protocol and comes with the M.2 slots to connect the NVMe drives.

Buying Options

Economy Photographers

  • AMD: Four-core Ryzen 5 1400 ($150) or six-core Ryzen 5 1600 ($200) with any $80-$120 motherboard based on the AM4 socket and B350 chipset.
  • Intel: On the low-end, Intel is simply not competitive on multi-threaded applications against the Ryzen 5 1600, but if you insist, get the four-core Intel i5 7500 ($180) with any $80–120 motherboards based on the LGA 1151 socket and B250 chipset.

Business-Oriented Photographers, Best Price/Performance Ratio

  • AMD: Eight-core Ryzen 7 1700 ($280) or 1800X ($440) with any $100–$150 motherboard based on the AM4 socket and B350 chipset.
  • Intel: Six-core Intel i7 8700K ($410) with any $120–200 motherboards based on the LGA 1151 socket and Z370 chipset.

Kevin Abosch Style

  • AMD: Twelve-core Ryzen Threadripper 1920X ($780) or sixteen-core 1950X ($970) mounted on a TR4 / X399 motherboard ($300-400).
  • Intel: In the new i9 generation, the entry ticket cost $960 for the 10-core i9-7900x. The ultimate CPU right now is the 18-core i9-7980XE ($2,000). Pair them with a LGA 2066 / X299 motherboard ($300–400).

In the next article, we will analyze the graphics card, storage options, RAM, and heat management issues.

CONTINUE TO THE SECOND PART OF THIS ARTICLE

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70 Comments

Nicholas Schultz's picture

sick post on PC building for editing. I was first a PC gamer (master race :P) / tech nerd before photographer, so I was fortunate enough to already have been building computers since I was 15. I am kind of envious about how easy it is to build computers now compared to before. Compatibility issues are no where near as prevalent as they used to be.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Yes, I remember building my first PC, a 486 Dx2! with 8 MB of Ram. It was a crazy setup at the time and everything was running on DOS. Now the BIOS and UEFI have this nice GUI with even mouse and internet connection. Everything is so easy.

For me it is more complicated now. You have zillions of i7 processors, all with different sockets, better number in CPU clock means nothing and you have to carefully balance between cores, threads, lanes, GHz and Turbo GHz (if any). Then motherboard comes with its overwhelming variety etc.

Days past Pentium was Pentium, and Pentium II was clearly not Pentium :)

Oliver Kmia's picture

Yeah, I agree which is why I wrote this article to clarify a few thing. Personally I think that there is no need to invest in the new LGA 2066 i7 and I9 at the moment especially since intel is updating its "old" LGA 1151 offers in response to the Ryzen by offering the 6 Cores Intel i7 8700K.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Interesting, unfortunately the benchmarks are limited to the latest CPU (i7 & i9 LGA 2066 & Ryzen Threadripper) and for Premiere Pro only.
At least it shows that more cores is not necessarily better past a certain point especially in terms of value which is why I recommended to stay withing the 6-8 cores count for now.
However in a similar test, other reviewers had different results on 8K footage where the 16 cores threadripper might have made the difference over the 10 cores i9
https://youtu.be/PphEQqI1Nck?t=8m24s

They have many more benchmarks. E.g. for Lightroom: https://www.pugetsystems.com/all_articles.php?tag=Lightroom

Oliver Kmia's picture

Thanks. It's a great website. Very good information with real life benchmarks no related to video games for once!

Aaron Priest's picture

I refer people a LOT to their benchmarks for custom building computers for photography and video editing. Very solid benchmarking.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Yes, they are great. Read them all already. Very good stuff.

Bill Peppas's picture

Some common sense finally :)

By the way, the ideal setup for video currently is a 2 part solution, a high core count and relatively decent clock frequency system for the encoding tasks, and a 4-6core clocked at 5GHz ( or more if you can do it stably and fully reliably ) for the post-processing of the video footage and photos ( well, for photos there's little to no difference compared to a stock 4.3GHz Core i7 anyway, video is where you can see some differences )

Chad D's picture

power supply efficiency curve is about in the middle so if your system could draw say 400 get a 750- 800 power supply is best practice not pushing up to the top
yes you can get away with a bit less but the fan will kick in more and on top not as efficient
less heat etc.. also

agree on top quality which helps of course with so many things

Oliver Kmia's picture

I have a 650 PSU (Corsair RM) on my monster PC and I never saw the fan spin even during heavy loads. But in real life the price are not much different from a 600 PSU even in the same product line so why not. As long as you get a solid PSU I'm fine. I never understood people who spend 2 or 3k on big rig and try to feed them with shitty power to save $30... We agree.

Chad D's picture

ditto and you know but to others reading so many issues stem from a low quality power supply ?

but I also feel the same with monitors when someone spends loads on top glass etc... then buys a $300 monitor and says its good enough

Chad D's picture

recently built up a 7820x with a 1080 GPU system to replace my mac
mostly use C1 and that is a program that does well with better CPU and GPU combos

agree for sure on a balanced system all the way around :)

now if we can just get Adobe to make better software for photographers mainly LR and PS still are the bottleneck in so many ways from lack of proper GPU use to write etc..
really shows when you use a program like C1 on a faster modern machine

the new ryzen and 78xx and 79xx cpus and supporting chipsets/motherboard combos are allowing a lot more PCI lanes and some direct to the cpu for the NVMe etc.. is also a great thing going for the newer stuff on the market

Oliver Kmia's picture

Plus one for C1 ;)
Overall Adobe is really bad when it come to optimization. Apparently the new LR is going to work better... Was about time, personally I didn't wait. This is just a shame at this point.

Chad D's picture

besides photography full time I also have a post company and do a lot of client work in LR
have to say the latest now called classic is dog slow for me ? I know it's a hit more miss as some are experiencing my issues the others the opposite and its fast
have to check it out on the old mac pro just to see what its doing there also ?

been on C1 since day one and while not perfect I do love the output and control etc.. :) but that is another article ;) ahhaahaha

Oliver Kmia's picture

I haven't tried the new LR yet but Alexander posted some interesting links above. This one is about the comparison between LR 2015 and LR classic
https://www.pugetsystems.com/labs/articles/Lightroom-Classic-CC-is-it-fa...

Chad D's picture

yeah, I look at their articles quite a bit :)
one of the only places to see a wide spectrum related to us photographers ;)

my issue with most LR reviews and my own views on performance
is import and export are not a big deal to me and are not about the slider and moving image to image in develop mode where it really counts

I can import and do email or go get a snack same as export I can do that and do other things convert to dng ? never do but again a batch you can do and then do other things you do not have to sit and watch and really unless its instant
yes it can get you back to working quicker but its not interactive and does not require image to image input is what I mean :) hahahahahaha

years ago I did some testing with LR mostly for my own purpose about LR3 days

used a video at 60FPS to record image to image when the sliders come into the working state and did various testing with caches locations types etc..

kinda feel like redoing that again for the image to image in develop mode and how quick you can really get working on that next image which I do think most of us find the aarrrrgghhhhhhhhhh times happening

again my personal view is import-export times are not critical :)

on that vid yeah it has gotten way quicker on import and export and building previews but once you get in develop mode (on my system at least) the end job is slower than it was before ! cause the develop module is so slow image to image etc...

Chad D's picture

also to say not knocking the review at all :)
more just saying its not the part where we all have issues and testing for that is a pain and best I can figure how to do is the video test ?

Kyle Medina's picture

Fantastic article

Oliver Kmia's picture

Thanks Kyle. Much appreciated. Part 2 is coming tomorrow or the next day. Cheer.

I'm skeptical of there being many photographers that are willing to build their own computers. I think they have valid reasons to be wary. Even once you know how to physically put the components together they better hope everything works out well, such as no component failures and that the components work well with each other. If not, they are their own tech support and they'll need to know far more than simply putting those physical components together to get things going again. It could end up being a time and sanity sucking nightmare.

I'm not convinced, as the two other posters, that things are more smoother sailing today. I know of nothing in the industry that would make that so. If anything, at least on the software side, the quality of software today is crap compared to years ago. Pretty much everything today is betaware. I'm a Mac user and sadly that is also the case with the macOS.

I'm not trying to deter anyone from doing this if they really want to but if you are a professional photographer where time is money and free time is precious, I would recommend simply buying a properly configured computer from one of the major computer makers and with as long of a warranty as possible based on how long you plan to own it. Building, and especially repairing, computers is diving into the deep end of computing and not likely the smart thing to get yourself into if you trying to build and maintain a business. A lot of these types of posts and discussions simply make this whole process appear much easier than it really is. It's like a finely polished how to video from iFixit, that typically leaves out critical details, or DIY shows on the home improvement channels.

I also think at least something regarding Macs should be mentioned. Sure this article is about building a non-Apple computer but in the end it's all about having the right computer that you are comfortable using and that perhaps offers other advantages not available to someone who builds their computer. While in many cases, one can build a Windows computer that has the same CPU, and even better GPUs, as a Mac, at a cheaper price, the true cost and value of a computer doesn't begin and end with the purchase price, whether you buy a whole computer or buy the parts and assemble it yourself.

My final advice, if your a seriously interested in doing this, is to research the subject well before going out and buying parts all willy nilly. Also buy only what you need.

I'm adding some photos for the geeks amongst us. This is my iMac just recently after swapping out the hard drive for an SSD and a new power supply. I decided to completely disassemble it to clean it properly and to replace the NVRAM battery. As you can see in the photo of the fan, that caked on dust is from four years of use.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Hi Bob,

You are right for Mac, usually Apple people tend to like the "ready to go" option but you can totally build your own Mac. Since Apple made the switch to Intel, all Mac are just like PC when it comes to hardware with a few restrictions linked to the software (well, because it's Apple). If you want check the build your Mac bible at: https://www.tonymacx86.com
In any case you'll have to double check these software limitations and be willing to spend time in Terminal.

Obviously this article is aimed for those who know how to build a PC and just want a little tech refresh for their next build. I'm not going to make another build tutorial, Lee made one here a few month ago:
https://fstoppers.com/originals/ultimate-video-guide-building-photo-and-...

But for those who are willing to try, this is very simple nowadays compared to how it was 15-20 years ago.

PS: your fan is not that bad, I've seen much worst. But it never hurts to clean it.

Spy Black's picture

I think you underestimate kids today... ;-)

Oliver Kmia's picture

Modern LEGO ;)

I wasn't talking about kids. Since you brought them up anyway, the younger generations have only gotten worse and worse when it comes to working with their hands, never mind actually building something. They do excel at typing into phones and playing video games though.

Spy Black's picture

Again, I think you underestimate younger people today. When I show up at my local Microcenter there's only kids behind the counter, and they know their stuff. There's plenty of kids buying components there too.

It's not rocket science to build a system, but you need to know what you want to begin with. If you know what you want, it doesn't take much to research, purchase, and build your own system. If you're used to Macs this seems pretty vague and alien, but it's more common than you think.

For me, although there are monies saved in building your own, the real benefit is not only having a computer rigged EXACTLY the way YOU want it, but you also know it from the inside out, and you have the luxury of upgrading various components as time goes by to increase it's productivity. This is most important with graphics cards, whose evolution is not only dizzying fast, but most graphics programs today will immediately benefit from a an updated GPU.

Knowing your system from the inside out lets you know what does and doesn't benefit from an upgrade. One time I replaced a motherboard and CPU only that were on sale (all other existing components were used) and got an instant performance boost, for only about $175. Saved me from needing to build a whole new system.

You said kids previously. I'm not one of those older people that refers to simply "younger people" as kids.

There will always be exceptions but in general younger people today are not as good or as interested in working with their hands to do such things as previous generations. Yes, "it's not "rocket science" to build a computer, but it may as well be for most people. There is nothing unique about photographers that would exclude them.

I came from the Windows world and I built and repaired many computers. Now I use Macs. I'm not unusual, just older. At a certain point I didn't want to deal with the bigger headache of building and maintaining a computer and also owning and maintaining a Windows computer. Computer building is a very niche interest. Only computer geeks think otherwise.

I don't mean that as a put down either. It's just that computer geeks, as intelligent as they can be, are usually detached from what the general populace is interested in. It's one of the reasons why they are so awful at explaining computer advice in a way that doesn't leave the average person scratching their heads. I used to call computer geeks the most clueless intelligent people you could ever meet.

"For me, although there are monies saved in building your own, the real benefit is not only having a computer rigged EXACTLY the way YOU want it, but you also know it from the inside out,"

Two things. You can get that by buying a custom system made by any of the PC manufacturers and there is nothing special CPU and GPU wise that one needs for photography.

"and you have the luxury of upgrading various components as time goes by to increase it's productivity. This is most important with graphics cards, whose evolution is not only dizzying fast, but most graphics programs today will immediately benefit from a an updated GPU."

That may be beneficial to those working with video but doubtful or unnecessary for those working with photography alone. Also, by the time it comes to upgrade a GPU you're likely at a point where the motherboard, CPU and RAM need upgrading too. Perhaps even the power supply. It would be like buying an entirely new computer, minus the case. That's typically the case for those that build their own computer. It was for me.

"Knowing your system from the inside out lets you know what does and doesn't benefit from an upgrade. One time I replaced a motherboard and CPU only that were on sale (all other existing components were used) and got an instant performance boost, for only about $175. Saved me from needing to build a whole new system."

Most people today would get a better boost by simply getting rid of their spinning drives. Generational boosts for CPUs and motherboards are minor, at best. Typically around 15% or so. For most people it makes sense to replace or upgrade their computers only every four years or so.

I get where you're coming talking about intimidation for taking on the task of building a PC. However, there are companies online that provide this service for you. One such company is ibuypower.com (no affiliation). I've spec'd the parts required to do it myself versus them building it for me and their cost was about a $300 premium. For many, I would think that would be worth it having them build and warranty it for 3 years. But that gets someone into a computer that can be easily upgraded/repaired where you can have easy access to components versus prying open something like an iMac, undoing glue/tape, removing multiple parts just to gain access to others, etc.

You're right, time is money. Unfortunately, Apple machines like the iMac are so difficult for non-experts to work on, a simple repair could require being without the entire machine for who knows how long. In a PC, if a graphics card, memory, PSU, etc. goes bad, you can get right to it, replace it, and be up and running again in no time.

Hackintoshes are a mixed bag. They sound great in theory, but simple software updates can lead to an entire OS reinstall