Custom PC Building Guide for Photography and Video

Custom PC Building Guide for Photography and Video

I had been using a Mac since I first started photography and retouching. Over the years, I upgraded my Macs and used them without a problem, and all software that I have been using worked flawlessly. The Mac has several advantages such as ease of use, a perfect interface (OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard is still my favorite by the way), advanced file and folder tagging, and security, but there was a problem that led me to change my mind and switch to Windows: very high price tags and limited customization options.

First of all, I wasn’t after a portable solution, as I already own a MacBook Pro Retina for tethered shooting and on-location use, but I was definitely looking for a reliable workstation to use. While I was searching Mac Pro specifications and price, I decided to look for an alternative solution and that was the time when I started thinking about switching to the dark side: Windows and PC. I had never built a custom PC before, and I haven’t been using Windows since 2004. All I remember about PC and Windows was problems and errors. Everything about picking the parts and building it by myself was exciting but at the same time, I still had hesitation. I finally made up my mind when I calculated the total price of the parts of my custom PC. It cost roughly $1,600, whereas a Mac Pro with similar specs was about $4,700. Mac Pro was really small and its design was really good, but I wouldn’t spend three times more just for that. I thought that I should take this risk and switch all my system and daily computer habits as well.

The Mac Pro specifications and pricing on Apple.com

Choosing the Parts

Processor and Motherboard

I said that I wasn’t after a portable solution, but I always hated the big-sized usual PC cases. To make it compact enough, I decided to go on with a small-sized (Mini-ITX) motherboard and a case. While it has some advantages about size and look, it has also some disadvantages such as limitation of adding extra graphics card or a sound card, as it has only one PCI-E slot. But it wasn’t a big deal for me, as I was only aiming to use this machine for retouching on Photoshop and 3D rendering purposes. Also, as it is stated on Adobe’s website, there is no need for a second graphics card:

Photoshop currently doesn't take advantage of more than one graphics processor. Using two graphics cards does not enhance Photoshop's performance.

Also, I chose a six-core processor over a four-core processor to get better performance in Photoshop and better computing performance, especially for 3D modeling and rendering. According to Adobe:

Photoshop generally runs faster with more processor cores, although some features take greater advantage of the additional cores than others. For most users, the increase in performance that more than six cores provide, doesn’t justify the increased cost.

Graphics Card

NVIDIA cards are rapidly evolving and I wanted an affordable graphics card with sufficient specs for my workstation. I chose a compact-sized GTX 970 to run some Photoshop features flawlessly, and so far, I’m happy with it. In the future I can upgrade it whenever I want. Also, keep in my mind that a good graphics card accelerates some specific features in Photoshop.

 

RAM

Having 16 GB of RAM would have been enough, as the minimum requirement for the latest Photoshop version is 8 GB, but if you are working with multiple images with lots of layers you can experience memory problems. Therefore I decided to use 32 GB of RAM in this build.

Photoshop uses random access memory (RAM) to process images. If Photoshop has insufficient memory, it uses hard-disk space, also known as a scratch disk, to process information. Accessing information in memory is faster than accessing information on a hard disk. Therefore, Photoshop is fastest when it can process all or most image information in RAM.

Complete Parts List

Total cost is approximately $1,600.

Windows 10 Experience

To be honest, I still miss OS X, and it really took some time to adapt to Windows and its shortcuts. Within this period, I already started using this PC as my default workstation, and luckily I haven’t seen any blue screen, or unexpected program errors. Also, I modified most things on Windows with native customization options to achieve a OS X-like look, such as a black-colored mouse cursor and top-positioned task bar. So far, the performance is already perfect, and day by day I’m getting used to it. In the meantime, I barely have gotten used to the Windows keyboard and started using a mechanical keyboard which I really like more than my Mac keyboards.

Photoshop and Retouching Experience

I tested my new system with 16-bit 36 MP and 80 MP raw images. Working with these images in Photoshop was really flawless and even with multiple images opened, I couldn’t notice any decrease in performance. The only problem I noticed was in saving 4-5 GB PSB files was taking a bit long and I think it is because of the SSD, which was connected via SATA port. A PCI-based SSD would probably handle this faster, but that would be too much expensive. Other than that, the only thing that slowed me down at the beginning was the placement of "alt" and "Windows" keys, which is used frequently in Photoshop. So, if you are thinking of switching to Windows from Mac, be prepared to learn all of Photoshop's shortcuts once again. 

Build and Installation Notes

  • When using high capacity RAM, some motherboards don’t recognize them and don’t boot due to an un-updated BIOS version, so it is better to find low capacity RAM such as 4 GB or 8 GB just to boot the PC and update the BIOS.
  • The Wi-Fi card on the motherboard that I used was really unstable and some other user reviews also supported this issue, so I changed that with an Intel Wi-Fi Card.
  • If you want more options for your system, don’t limit yourself with the Mini-ITX's form factor. You can get a Micro-ATX size motherboard (one size bigger than the tiny sized Mini-ITX) which would allow you to install dual graphics cards or PCI-E based SSD.
  • If you are living in a hot place, be sure that your computer is cool enough to run properly. It is better to create good air circulation inside your case with additional fans. If you set your fan speeds properly, you wouldn’t hear any annoying fan noise.
  • Building a PC by yourself is really fun and exciting, and it has many advantages such as the ability of changing and upgrading the parts whenever you want. Even if it looks too complicated and technical, don’t hold back yourself, there are lots of tutorials on YouTube and the manuals that come with the parts are very useful. This was my first building experience and it took about 45 minutes with watching some videos and reading the manuals. If I've done it, you can do it.
  • If you are migrating from Mac, be aware of the difference in file type systems. On this new PC, I started using my backup hard drives in exFAT format which can also be read and written by Macs. It is better to avoid using third-party file format compatibility software as they can cause errors on your disk which may result in data loss. This is the only thing that bothers me right now as I have lots of archived data in my hard drives which are in HFS+ format (the default OS X format with zero Windows compatibility).

Conclusion

Using a Mac or Windows is like using a Nikon or a Canon camera (Pentax would be considered Ubuntu at this point), however, after a while it is really easy to adapt a new operation system, and the result is satisfying for me. Even though I still miss OS X, the performance that I got for this price point and the new Windows 10 made everything easier. If you have similar experiences in switching systems or custom PC building, please share in the comments below.

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92 Comments

great post! I've considered doing a video series on building a workstation at home because I've never done it before and I need to learn.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

Thanks Lee! I'm looking forward to seeing that video series!

Lee, I'm going to be taking apart my PC here to clean it in a day, If I put a video of me building it would you consider putting it on Fstoppers page if I do it well? P.S. I build gaming PC's all the time for people.

Sure, if it's relevant to photographers/videographers.

Anthony Ojo's picture

Its super easy i just built one last month!

I've been building my own PCs for over twenty years. It is really simple compared to when I first put together my first rig. The only thing you need to make sure you you get right is making sure you have compatible motherboards, CPU and memory types.

Casey Wrightsman's picture

Just recently put together a new setup in my office. Added LEDs for good measure haha

Winston Gee's picture

^sweet looking set up man! I gotta say though, editing under that ambient condition would make my edits all whacky and stuff O_o

Casey Wrightsman's picture

Thanks! They are RGB LEDs so I can make them any color or just white.

Gabriel Regalbuto's picture

I own a Macbook Pro as well, but for a workstation I go Hackintosh. Best of both worlds. Look up Tonymacx86 for foolproof recipes.

Anthony Ojo's picture

From 2008 to 2014 i was all about Mac, I even worked at the Apple store which is where i learned Final Cut 7. In those 6 years i owned different version of the 17" Macbook Pro... and i was always at the Genius Bar with some hardware problem. Basically mac laptops are not made for 3D render or four hour upon hours of video editing and after a year they would give me huge problems. So 2 years ago i switched back to PC because i needed a more robust computer for editing and 3D. I bought an MSI and although i had wifi issue's it worked way better and i still use it today. But last month i decided to go with a new desktop build. I used 2 Xeon processors for a total of 16 cores, the new GTX 1080 and the ssds from my laptop. the full part list and set up is on my PCPartpicker http://pcpartpicker.com/b/P7f8TW. My friend just ordered a 12 core Mac Pro for the office and spent $10K, my computer out-specs his and i spent 1/5th of the price! Unfortunately apple is more worried about selling phones these days and it shows.

Also i found a work around that lets me use VMWare to run Mac OSX using 6 of my 16 cores, just in case i need to run something on the mac side!

Lane Shurtleff's picture

Ever build a HackIntoch (specific PC guts wirh OS X OS) ? I built a dual boot system for a VFX artist a few months ago and he's very impressed with being able to boot into either OS X or Win10 whenever he needs specific programs.

Anthony Ojo's picture

Yeah i did. But Hackintosh builds suffer from lack of support for newer hardware. I want to be be able to freely add and take away parts without checking a list of compatibility before i did. For example my os is booting off a PCI card of 2 MSATA SSDs in RAID 0 and i have a USB 3.1 card as well both of which would probably not fly in a Hackintosh build. Whenever im in Chrome, or Adobe or Cinema4D the OS fades away to the point that I really do not care what OS im using as long as i can get my work done quickly and efficiently and not break the bank. Thats what a full windows build offers me.

Korey Moore's picture

I was also a mac user from about 2006-2015. Built my first pc. Full size tower, i7 4790k, 16gb ram, EVGA SC GTX 1080 (was a gtx 970), ASUS maximus VII hero mobo, Samsung SSD for the OS, and a western digital 4tb for storage. Have to say I love the performance I got out of this pc a hell of a lot more.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

1080 will be my next move Korey ;)

Brian Dowling's picture

Apple makes great computers, but they rarely update them. The Mac Pro hasn't been updated in 3 years!
I don't really want to trade in my iMac for a PC, but Apple is leaving us little choice at times.

http://buyersguide.macrumors.com/#Mac is a good resource on Apple updates or lack there of.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

Definitely Brian, that was another reason why I switched, I didn't want to spend that much money for a "late 2013" Mac Pro

I have been using PCs since their introduction by IBM in 1980 when I was working for IBM. I worked in the PC Division for over 20 yrs. As a photographer I could not find a decent screen PC laptop in the early 2010 so I switched to Mac and have never looked back. I still support clients who are on Windows, via my own consulting company, but I use a late 2013 iMac 27" with 2nd 27" Cinema screen, 32GB ram 1TB pci SSD and 40TB NAS. I have tried Hackintosh (and have built well over 100 Windows PCs), but Hackintosh's have a habit of falling over after an OS update so I won't go there anymore.

Macs may be dearer to buy/build than Windows boxes, but in my experience they are more reliable and need less maintenance so over the years the TCO is less and productivity is more.

In my personal opinion, one needs to spend MUCH more effort protecting a Windows computer from malware than a Mac (which still must have protection!). The only Windows platform I would entertain, is one that had no direct internet access, which makes life just too complicated. I also found that Windows PCs tend to slow down and become unstable over time, due to software issues mounting up. Again, the user needs to spend far too much time maintaining the environment than on Macs. Whilst I know that Macs aren't perfect either, I can be productive much more on a Mac platform than on a Windows platform.

Your milage may vary, and your skills levels are all different, so this is just my point of view.

Anthony Ojo's picture

Check out this PC by Origin, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KH3I7SvBoUg, Its like the iMac but better because it uses a desktop GPU instead of a laptop GPU in the iMac. You can configure it (or upgrade it later) with a Xeon processor and ECC memeory, iMac's cannot do Xeons. And it supports 2 SSDs and an NVME M.2 SSD which blow the PCIe SSDs out of the water without even trying! Just google NVME SDDs and look at the almost double performance gains. And its closed looped water cooled to it runs quieter and cooler and faster than the iMac under load.

Or for a Mac Pro replace ment check out the MSI vortex, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2334eeA9Zs, Which is basically a Mac Pro like PC!

Yes the Mac has an amazing OS and i prefer it hands down to Windows, but would you rather get your work done faster or look a a more beautiful OS.

Brian Dowling's picture

Thanks for the links. I'll be sure to check them out :)

Lane Shurtleff's picture

"When using high capacity RAM, some motherboards don’t recognize them and don’t boot due to an un-updated BIOS version, so it is better to find low capacity RAM such as 4 GB or 8 GB just to boot the PC and update the BIOS."
It helps to examine ALL the specs of a MB before purchasing RAMM. There are many levels of clocking (speed) that will work with every MB. They way you worded that install was to purchase slower and smaller RAMM, just to get a PC up and running? Mnay MB now can overclock both RAMM and the CPU for blinding fast performance. If they older BIOS is installed on the MB, just install a single RAMM chip installed of 2 ( or what ever combo you're using).
I build massive GPU workstations for various VFX groups and can get amazing results without breaking the bank. (Was there a special reason you wanted a $308 MB? just curious?)

Burak Erzincanli's picture

Hi Lane,
some motherboards don't support 16gb ram stick with default BIOS even if you use only one slot,
I learned it after I bought my 16GBx2 sticks :) My MB didn't accept even one stick.
I chose that MB just for it's size actually, and I think it is the only m-ITX x99 motherboard in the market right now

Anthony Ojo's picture

Yeah right now it is the only MITX x99 board. I also like that it supports Xeon processors. I want to use this board in my next build!

I have been a PC user from the start, I actually liked DOS and thought the Original Macs were toys. I am a fairly serious amateur photographer and use Adobe.Lightroom and Photoshot with the NIK plugins along with Corel x10 paintshop pro. I do a lot of panoramic stitching and do all my work on an hp 8 core AMD processor with 8 GB of ram. I find it very fast but my largest files are about 800 MB and these big stitched images are like 12000 x 8000 pix at 300 DPI. I am still on windows 7 as win 10 offers no new features that I am interested in. Not sure what the author is doing with 4GB files but good PC work stations are up to the job. Building computers is easy these days and I have built several in the past and often buy used computers and soup them up
Apple is boutique computer maker for the timid brand conscious consumer. Steve jobs played on this with his reality distortion field.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

I'm creating large composite images with hundreds of layers :)

Jacques Cornell's picture

While Windows seems to have more or less caught up, Apple was often first with significant technologies. Those of us who adopted Macs when they did something Windows didn't - like system-wide color management - may be inclined to stick with the historical leader. For the longest time, Windows was playing catch-up. MacOS was also the first with multi-language support. I've been hearing the "toys" and "boutique" dismissals since the 1980's, and always felt these characterizations were misinformed.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Agree, Apple cannot compete with well built PC

Stephen Rutledge's picture

Lucky you don't live in Australia. That Apple Mac Pro set-up costs $7,619.00 here :/

Burak Erzincanli's picture

Hi Stephen,
Acutally I live in Melbourne, VIC :) and yeah I know, the local prices are so high, but the parts on my post are based on US prices fyi ;)
Cheers

Stephen Rutledge's picture

Fellow Melburnian... nice post! :)