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.
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.
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 Define R5 ($120): Probably one of the best cases. Very good value for the price with a lot of features and modularity. Comes in black or white for the Apple wannabes.
- Antec Performance Series Case P-100 Black ($80): A solid option for power-users on a budget.
- Corsair Carbide 100R ($50): Smaller mid-tower case for intermediate computers. The cooling fan is included.
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.
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 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.
- 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
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.
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 :)
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.
How about real world benchmarks:
Almost forgot GPU benchmarks:
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
They have many more benchmarks. E.g. for Lightroom: https://www.pugetsystems.com/all_articles.php?tag=Lightroom
Thanks. It's a great website. Very good information with real life benchmarks no related to video games for once!
I refer people a LOT to their benchmarks for custom building computers for photography and video editing. Very solid benchmarking.
Yes, they are great. Read them all already. Very good stuff.
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 )
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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...
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 ?
Thanks Kyle. Much appreciated. Part 2 is coming tomorrow or the next day. Cheer.
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:
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.
I think you underestimate kids today... ;-)
Modern LEGO ;)
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.
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
Until last January I knew nothing about building a computer. My last PC was custom made by a small shop and before that I used Dell. Dell is still a great option, their components work beautifully together.
Anyway, when I decided to build my own PC I went to Youtube and did lots of reading. It was fun and exciting. The best moment was when the the PC just fired up for the first time, what a pleasure.
All in all it took me 2 hours to build it but of course many hours of researching. The satisfaction is knowing I built it and it works great.
So far it is working amazing. No reason to doubt it will not in the future
You just said you do not want to sound pessimistic :-)
"That said, getting inside a current iMac is not difficult at all. More time consumimg? Of course, but the repair I did on mine was done in a few hours, and that was taking my time."
You remind me of Ducati riders who think $300 oil changes are normal...
I meant time. :-)
I can open up a system, clean it out and put it back together in less than an hour, and I don't have to hurry. Hence why you comments remind me of Ducati riders who think $300 oil changes are normal
> 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.
They usually cheap out on "non-visible" components though, like PSU or HDD and give you no-name crap. Or you get a branded OS with bloatware (Lenovo, Dell, ...).
Best compromise is to get a PC built-to-order and pick everything yourself to guarantee quality components. Costs maybe 50 bucks extra and saves a lot of time and nerves. Onlineshops usually have that option.
I don't want to sell my kidney right now .....I'm pleased with core i7 :)
When picking a power supply, wattage is not the only criterion. You need to know how this wattage is split between individual rails (i.e. 3.3V, 12V, etc). A PSU may provide enough watts, but not enough current on a particular rail. Also, don't assume that all PSU have a pinout compatible with your MB. Some brands use non-standard pinouts (see for example http://www.smps.us/power-connectors.html for pinout variations).
I had read a while back that programs were not running as efficientl on the new AMD chip due to coding differences. I don't know if this is still the case, I remember that the Adobe Suite for instance wasn't running well.
The new Ryzen are good for the price and AMD finally came up with a decent product (and not a CPU/livingroom heater....). It really depends of the task (preview, final export, effects, etc.) but they do a good job. Overall and in term of value, Intel is better when it comes to frequency and AMD has an edge for multi-threading applications.
One point. I don't think there is a HDD that meets the nvme standard or uses an M.2 port :p
SSD's on the other hand....I'm actually surprised they didn't get more of a mention. Browsing through a folders that contain hundreds (or thousands) of shots looking for a specific one, can be painful if you are working with slow storage. A Fast SSD can immediately alleviate at lot that slow down. It'll also help the editing process when you are loading or saving your work. And when you're coping your SD/CF/XQD cards to your computer.
Fast storage isn't as sexy but it's hugely important in my opinion.
Hi Peter. I'm going to cover the storage option in the Part 2 of the article. Should be out tomorrow or the next day. You're right, spinning drives is a thing of the past but they only survive because of their cheap price per TB. They should only be used for cold storage and backup. Modern work station must have SSD for the system and hot files
M.2 is just the most common physical socket for NVMe SSD but it can be U.2 or PCIe. What is important is the NVMe protocol that replace the limited 550MB/s SATA.
All good points, I would only recommend one other option for Cases.... and that is consider a Rack mount case as an option. I know for my current workflow having a large tower on my desktop has become less and less desirable, and for the current system I am in pre-planning stages on, I am working on a rack mount system to keep it below the desktop and out of the way. That way I can have a nice large display along with my monitor speakers up on the desk, and have my audio interfaces, and computer all in rack's below or on the side out of the way of my work-space. I myself am building a Threadripper/Vega 64 frontier edition (both liquid cooled) system for video editing. And might even upgrade my desk to a nice Omnirax so I have the racks built into the desk to fit neatly all my rack gear. That way I still have easy access, and have the desktop space for editing workflow.
Looks like you are building a nice PC. I just named a few options for the case but there are so many possibilities. The rack is nice for sure.
Or... you could just buy an iMac and actually get to work on your photography instead of updating software, drivers, etc.
I said goodbye to custom PCs in 2003 and I’ve never been more productive.
Now, what is that worth to you?
What do you do for media imports and software install? Where are the media readers and CD drives?
I never used media (DVD, CD) anymore. Everything goes through or internet or the USB connectors on the motherboard, including the software install. However you can purchase any DVD player for $30 and connect it to the motherboard via a SATA cable.
Just went through a build to replace my 2009 Macbook Pro which was still going strong, but not up to video. I'm new to tech nerdery, but I was suprised at a.) how small m.2 drives are and b.) how HUGE graphics cards are. Also, RGB's are like damn tribbles with everything now. I do like my X62 though.
Can you touch on storage in Article II? no NAS or that mess, but OS/Project/Scratch drive stuff.
Good info, thanks, Oliver.
As you are building your rig, try the guys at BHPhoto, their techs are usually very helpful and educated.
Thanks James. The B&H guys are very good. It's always nice to talk with an actual human being who knows what he is talking about. The level of customer super at this store is next level.