The Ultimate Video Guide to Building a Photo and Video Editing Desktop Computer

The Ultimate Video Guide to Building a Photo and Video Editing Desktop Computer

I've always been a Windows desktop user, but until this point I've never built my own desktop from scratch. I finally decided to teach myself how to build the ultimate PC for video and photo editing and I'm bringing you along for the ride. 

At the start of this article I will explain the basic process of choosing components for your desktop. The second half of this article will be about our specific build. We have created a video of the entire process and a list of each component we used.

How to Build Your Own Computer for Photo and Video Editing

The absolute best resource I have found for building a PC from scratch is PCPartPicker. This website allows you easily compare and purchase every possible component for your build while also warning you of any incompatibilities and finding you the best price for each part. You can use the tips I give you below to easily build a completely unique computer from scratch using PCPartPicker. Now let's get started. 

Choose a Processor First

Every PC build should begin with choosing a processor. The processor socket size will determine your motherboard, and your motherboard will then determine which case and other components you buy as well. First, you'll need to decide what your computer will be used for. Some Adobe programs, like Premiere, can take advantage of multiple cores while other programs, like Lightroom, utilize more clock speed. If you're only going to be using your computer for photo editing, you may want to buy a chip like the Intel Core i7-7700K 4.2 GHz simply because it has a native 4.2 clock speed. If you're working in Premiere like we are, you may want to buy a chip with more cores and a slightly lower clock speed. 

AMD vs Intel

AMD has recently released the "Ryzen" series of processors which are (at least on paper) more powerful and cheaper than the Intel competitors. Sadly, at the time that this article was written, Adobe software doesn't seem to be totally optimized with these processors. Puget systems has done a bench test with these new chips and Adobe Premiere and found that Intel may still have the edge. If you want to go the AMD route stay tuned for Adobe updates, these chips may be a far better choice than Intel in the future but they aren't necessarily today. 

Choose a CPU Cooler

Your computer's case will have its own fans but each processor will need it's own heat sync and fan or a water cooling system. A fan is the cheapest option but water cooling will allow you to overclock your CPU if you want to get that deep into this (we won't be overclocking our machine). PCPartPicker will be able to show you which coolers are compatible with your processor.

Choose a Motherboard

After you've chosen a processor, you'll need to choose a motherboard with a compatible socket size. Make sure you consider how many DIMM slots for ram you will need, if the board has onboard Wi-Fi, how many SATA jacks are available for hard drives, SSDs, and optical drives, and other perks like USB C, Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1, and Ethernet. If you want your computer to have more than one graphics card, you'll need a motherboard that is SLI capable. 

Choose Your Memory or "RAM"

At this time, in 2017, you're probably going to either want 32 GB or 64 GB of RAM. We built ours with only 32 GB because we know it's an easy upgrade to 64 GB if we find that our computer is using 100 percent. RAM also has its own clock speed and different boards and processors allow for different speeds. Again, PCPartPicker will be able to help you with this.

Choose Your Storage

If you're building your own computer in 2017 you are going to want at least one solid state drive to house your operating system. SSDs are more expensive than standard hard drives but they are about three times faster, quieter, and more reliable. For our build we will be using two different SSD drives. One for the operating system and one for storage and to edit from. 

M.2 is a new type of solid state storage that some motherboards accept. These cards can perform much faster than standard SATA SSDs and they may not necessarily cost more. In our build we didn't use our M.2 slot but we probably should have. I may end up replacing my 500gb main SSD for an M.2 SSD. 

Choose a Video Card

Depending on what you are doing with your PC, a video card might be the most important piece of hardware or the least important. Playing current video games and editing in Adobe Premiere require high end video cards while Photoshop and Lightroom may not utilize the video card at all. If you're only interested in editing photos I would suggest a much cheaper video card like the GTX 1050 that can still push dual 4k monitors and is a quarter of the price of the one we put in our machine. 

Choose a Case

Cases come in all shapes and sizes and after choosing the components above, PCPartPicker will help you to find the case that will hold them all. For me, I wanted to have a case that had USB 3 on the front and had a glass windowed side panel.

Choose an Optical Drive

I almost never use an optical drive but once every couple of years I might need one. It's also easier to install Windows with an optical drive if you have a disc. If you don't have an optical drive you'll have to create a bootable USB drive and it's very time consuming. I would suggest buying the cheapest optical DVD drive on the market if you don't plan on using one very often; they're only $20. 

Choose a Power Supply

Once again PCPartPicker is going to be your best resource for choosing a power supply because it will keep track of the power draw of each of the components in your machine. A seasoned  builder recently told me that he prefers to overpower his machines because he feels that the power supplies will last longer and give him the option of upgrading components in the future without buying a new power supply. 

Choose Your Operating System

If you've never built a PC before you may not realize that you do actually have to buy Windows. B&H sells an OEM version of Windows 10 Pro for $139. Make sure that you buy the "Pro" version because other versions will not take advantage of our RAM. 

Other Items to Buy

If your motherboard doesn't have Wi-Fi or Ethernet built in and you need those features, you'll need to either buy a USB adapter or a PCI card with those features. You'll also need to purchase monitors. We prefer 1080 or 1440 monitors for photo editing machines, and 4K for video editing and all around machines. You'll also need a mouse and keyboard. Our favorites are the Logitech K800 keyboard and Performance MX Mouse

Now that you know the basics of building a PC, lets me show you what we chose to build and how we did it. 

Our PC Build

We created a video that takes you through our entire build

Below I've created a list of every component that we used plus recommendations for cheaper and more expensive options. If you want to build our exact machine you can simply buy the parts and follow along with our video. If you want to customize your machine, each of your parts should be run through PCPartPicker to check for compatibility issues before purchasing. 

Processor

Intel Core i7-6850K 3.6 GHz Six-Core

We purchased this chip because it has the perfect balance of extra cores and clock speed. We purchased it with Adobe Premiere in mind and if you aren't going to be working in Premiere very often, you won't need to spend this much. 

For Photoshop and LightroomIntel Core i7-7700K 4.2 GHz Quad-Core

Budget OptionIntel Core i5-7600K 3.8 GHz Quad-Core

No Budget OptionIntel Core i7-6900K 3.2 GHz Eight-Core

CPU Cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO CPU Cooler

The CPU cooler we purchased may actually be a little underpowered for our build. Multiple people have commented that we might be wise to purchase a better cooler for both better performance and chip lifespan. You may want to splurge for the option below. 

No Budget OptionDeepcool Captain 240 EX White Liquid CPU Cooler

Motherboard

ASUS X99-A II LGA 2011-v3 ATX Motherboard

This motherboard is relatively cheap but still comes with USB 3.1, USB C, 8 DIMM slots for RAM, and 6 SATA. My only wish is that this card had Wi-Fi. 

No Budget OptionASUS X99-DELUXE II LGA 2011-v3

This motherboard comes with Wi-Fi, and will accept a Thunderbolt 3 add-on card. 

RAM

Corsair 16 GB Vengeance LPX DDR4 3200 MHz

This is extremely fast RAM that comes with two 8 GB chips. We purchased two packages for a total of 32 GB but you could buy four for a total of 64 GB of RAM. 

No Budget OptionPatriot 32GB Viper 4 DDR4 3200 MHz (buy four for 128 GB)

Storage

Samsung 500 GB 850 Evo 2.5" SATA III SSD

Samsung 1TB 850 Evo 2.5" SATA III SSD

I failed to realize that the motherboard that I chose does in fact have an M.2 slot that can be used for a new type of SSD drive. This port allows for much faster speeds compared to the SATA SSDs that I used. I may end up switching my 500GB SSD for a 500GB M.2 SSD. Keep in mind this upgrade costs $70. 

No Budget OptionSamsung 4 TB 850 Evo 2.5" SATA III SSD

You may also consider buying multiple drives and running them in RAID to get better performance and redundancy internally. You may also want to look into M.2 SSDs which can be far faster than SATA SSDs. 

Graphics Card

ASUS Republic of Gamers Strix OC GeForce GTX 1070

This graphics card is currently considered the "best bang for your buck." It's not the top of the line but it's extremely powerful and allows 4K gaming and extremely fast video rendering in Premiere. 

Budget OptionEVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti

No Budget OptionZOTAC GeForce GTX 1080 Ti

Case

Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5 Mid-Tower Case

This is a nice metal case with a windowed side panel. It gave us plenty of room to work and the fans are extremely quite. If you're building a cheaper computer you may not need a case this big and you could save a little money. 

No Budget OptionCorsair Crystal Series 570X RGB Mid-Tower Case

Optical Drive

LG Internal SATA 14x Super Multi Blu-ray Disc Rewriter

I'm not sure how much I will use this but since it was only $55 I decided to throw it in. 

Budget OptionASUS DRW-24B1ST Internal SATA 16X DVD Disc Rewriter

Power Supply

EVGA SuperNOVA 650 G1

We put a 650 watt power supply in our computer but an expert builder recommended that we suggest the 750 watt version instead for a longer lifecycle. It's only $20 more. 

Operating System

Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit, OEM DVD)

Make sure that you buy Windows Pro and not Windows Home as it will not take advantage of all of our RAM. If you don't put an optical drive in your machine you will still need to buy this DVD and use the product key. To install windows 10 you will need to create a bootable USB thumb drive using another Windows computer. 

Monitor

Dell P2415Q 24" Ultra HD 4K Monitor

These are our favorite 4K monitors. At $369 they are relatively affordable and the color and clarity is fantastic for the price. Keep in mind that if you are looking for the fastest Lightroom performance, you may not want to buy a 4K monitor. If budget is important, I personally would much rather have two, cheaper monitors, rather than one nicer monitor. After working with dual monitors, you'll never want to go back to just one. 

Budget OptionDell U2415 24" Widescreen LED Backlit IPS

No Budget OptionDell UP3216Q 31.5" 16:9 UltraSharp 4K

Keyboard and Mouse

Logitech Performance Combo MX800 Wireless

This is our favorite keyboard and mouse by far. The mouse specifically is the best I have ever used. I think we own around 10 of them. 

Speakers

Polk Audio TSi100 Bookshelf Speakers 

Sony STRDH130 2-Channel Stereo Receiver 

Polk Audio PSW10 10-Inch Powered Subwoofer 

Speaker Wire 

Headphone to RCA Cable 

This speaker system is the best sound for the money that we have ever heard. We did an entire post about this system here

External Storage

Synology DiskStation DS1515+ 30 TB

We have been running six computers off of this NAS for the last few years and it has never let us down. Now that we are moving to 4K video we are starting to see some lagging in Premiere and so we are about to upgrade to the 10 Gbps option

Total Cost

Desktop Cost: $2,500

Dual 4k Monitors: $740

Mouse and Keyboard: $115

Speaker System: $380

Total cost for our build: $3,735

Conclusion

Up until this point I have purchased almost exclusively Alienware desktop computers. These computers have worked well for us in the past but recently our building was hit by lighting and many of the components on these PCs were destroyed. Repairing these computers was very difficult in some cases and impossible for two of them because many of the proprietary parts were either unavailable or wildly expensive.

As I was choosing the parts for our build it didn't feel like I was going to build an ultra expensive machine but when you add everything together, the whole setup was over $3,300 which is higher than I expected. I tried to build out a similar Alienware machine and although I wasn't able to choose identical components, our build was hundreds of dollars cheaper. If you buy a cheaper processor, SSD, graphics card, and monitors, your build should easily be $1,500-$2,000 cheaper than ours. 

Although it can take an hour or two to build one of these computers by hand, I really appreciated the ability to actually choose every single component myself and I have gained a new understanding of how computers work. Inevitably in the future we will have hardware failures again and I feel far more confident about finding the parts and repairing this machine myself. From now on, all of our computers will be built in house. 

This is the first time we have covered this sort of thing on Fstoppers. If you appreciate this content please let us know in the comments below and we will continue to update you guys on the hardware that we build in use in our office. 

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105 Comments

Previous comments
LA M's picture

Not if reliability is high on your list. Anytime there is an update to the OS it's "break city" for you. Too much tinkering for a production environment.

Hakintosh are for tinkerers...

Lane Shurtleff's picture

I have a fairly knowledgeable software background and have built quite a few "HackIntoshs", but as stated before, every time Apple updates ANYTHING, the whole system need to be "reset". Not a stable professional work environment if your rmain goal is reliabilty and getting any work done in a hurry.

exactly! i tinkered with hackintosh for awhile but I'm much more happy with windows 10 and I can game without switching OS. I still use my macbook air for on the go edits.

OS updates happen often with mac and they tend to break your hackintosh. In my experience new mac apps tend to force you to upgrade the os (kinda like ps4) so you're constantly messing with your setup and fixing it as time goes on. Not to mention the Nvidia 10 series aren't supported yet.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

Shop listing doesn't have 950, 960 M.2 memory. I am curious if you can actually build hackintosh on M.2 drive.

LA M's picture

I'll keep saying it until we all get on Adobe's case.....it's not the hardware, it's their software. The latest version of (everything) is super buggy. You can run Lightroom on just about anything and it will still be glacially slow and crash at weird moments....Nice build but overkill.

Very true comments about Lightroom - I find it the slowest of all the Adobe products I use.

Studio 403's picture

Great story Lee, very nice, tempest to go back to windows. I am an apple guy, They have orphaned us users with IMac. Mine in 2011 model. There prices are so out of touch and really nothing new with IMac today. I hear something is oncoming in 2018....I don't believe them, or will coast 6K, Jealouse in America, lol

Leigh Smith's picture

I built a PC about 3 yrs ago. Never put an optical drive in it. Have never needed it, never missed it. I say be gone to those dumb old disks!

Michael Yearout's picture

Lee: Great post and video. You've almost got me ready to build my own!

Brian Stricker's picture

I know next to nothing about computers (well I know enough that I can get myself into trouble thinking I know anything) but this makes me want to order a bunch of parts.

Between this article and Trey Ratcliff's about switching to PC I think I quite possible could be making that leap of faith soon. Windows concerns me a great deal though.

Apple hopefully will be reading all these articles as without a major focus shift back to the pro user (those who built Apple to what it is today); they will basically become solely a mobile device producer.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Great article and video, Lee! As someone works for a company that builds military computers, I found this to be well thought out and executed (especially for a first build). The moment when that power switch did nothing was priceless - lot of anticipation! By the way, if you're curious this is us: www.systelusa.com - if you're ever in Houston, come on by and I'll show you how we build servers

Lee Morris's picture

I'd love to check out your servers. I'm sure that's on a whole different level of complexity.

michael andrew's picture

Which Processor do you recommend for someone who shoots black and white film and wears tight jeans? Should i just buy a $4000 mac laptop?

Lee Morris's picture

The Mac is the only option for you sir

As Mike Kelley said above, everyone is probably going to find something wrong with your build...

So here's what I think is wrong with your build ;) (I've been building workstations since 2003, so please take this as constructive criticism):

1. At the very least, the main SSD should have been an M.2 PCI-E x4 drive. SATA = 6Gbps max theoretical. PCI-E x4: 32Gbps max theoretical. The M.2 version of the Samsung 850 runs circles -- circles, I tell you -- around the bus-speed limited SATA drives. (The Samsung 950 drives are even faster.)
2. Please don't strap a cheap Cooler Master heatsink to a 130-watt TDP CPU, unless you want to have fun with thermal throttling. If you don't want to watercool, at least spend an extra $30 for a Noctua U12 or U14 cooler that will actually do its job at higher CPU temps.
3. Yes, you really should have paid for a 750-watt power supply. You probably should have also paid for a more efficient power supply that has better stability on the +12v and +5v rails.
4. Creating a Windows 10 USB drive is not 'hard'. Downloading an .ISO file and running a tool, both of which Microsoft provides to anyone, is the opposite of difficult. https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/software-download/windows10ISO

Lee Morris's picture

Fair critique and I think I will update the ssd to m.2 and the CPU cooler

If you actually update your machine and not just the article, can you run some before and after benchmarks?

Spy Black's picture

In my own build, I used a separate 256-gig SSD for the Photoshop scratch disk alone. I have a 1-terabyte SSD for the system drive, and a 4-terabyte mechanical drive for data storage. I'm going to add another 500 gig or 1 terabyte SSD as an intermediate storage for data being worked on. I still use Win 7 because I find the Win 10 interface really annoying (although one has the option to use use Classic Shell), and I haven't yet sorted out all the info on how to root Win 10 so it's not constantly data mining your ass.

Two 24-inch monitors strike me as rather small, especially when 27-inch models are going pretty cheap. That would be my only criticism of your rig.

As a rebuttal, we need to also take into consideration the ambient environment, case fan setup, as to whether or not an air cooler in addition if the user is overclocking or not.

For the standard user using their workstation within the advertised specifications, with a well ventilated case, in a region of the world that does not regularly break into low 90s Fahrenheit then an air cooler can do fairly well even if the user doesn't. But a smaller case with less fans and/or a substantial overclock I wholeheartedly agree, but the with a stipulation. Water coolers are great at removing more heat from the chip, but if the ambient environment cannot absorb the extra heat then the effect is weakened or possibly nullified in a worst case scenario. A well ventilated or air conditioned room may still be needed depending on the region of the world and time of year.

The take away is much like camera equipment, there is no one size fits all CPU cooler. The best advice is to aggregate the appropriate information from experienced builders as well as working professionals with similar workflows and climates to reach the correct conclusion for oneself.

Randy Smith's picture

I prefer to buy a maxed out iMac

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

Ok Lee this isn't fair, so from tomorrow I'm gonna start making photography tutorials... Just joking, considering it's not your job you did good. The power supply switch moment was hilarious. I have only one tip for you DON'T EVER trust drivers that Windows installs when you click on "Update drivers" just go to the manufacturer website and download the latest versions. Use Windows suggested drivers ONLY if it's you last resource.

Tam Nguyen's picture

How is your system running? Personally, this is the combo I'd pick: https://pcpartpicker.com/list/tVqQnn

Now, the two Motherboards listed will not work for the i7-7700k and i5-7600k. Both of those CPUs are 1151 pin processors not 2011 pins as the above MOBOs are.

Doug Birling's picture

I just went through this process, though originally I specked out a Hackintosh, but finally gave up on that as I couldn't get the graphics card to work. I do work on a mac during the day, so I remapped the command and control key on the PC, so now most key commands are the same and then I remapped most of the key commands in Premiere to be the same. Projects open from Mac to PC so far without missing a beat!

Kirk Darling's picture

With regard to dual video cards: First, Photoshop and Lightroom totally don't care. Second, although Adobe claims Premiere Pro will use dual cards for rendering, tests conclude that a second card makes little or no difference (in one YouTube test, two cards were actually slower than one). My own test showed zero difference with two cards. Finally, if you do use two cards, you do NOT use SLI. Just insert both cards and Premiere Pro will see them and do what little it does with them--SLI will cause errors.

Tyler Chappell's picture

When you say: "Make sure that you buy the "Pro" version because other versions will not take advantage of our RAM", this is simply not true. I think what you were trying to distinguish between was 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) versions of Windows.
Windows comes in basically 4 flavors, Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro, available in both 32-bit and 64-bit options. There is no reason whatsoever for a person to install 32-bit Windows 10 unless they are using an ancient, decade old system that doesn't even have 4GB of RAM. Both Windows 10 Home AND Windows 10 Pro can easily support a computer that is running 32GB or 64GB of RAM.
A Photographer isn't necessarily going to gain any benefit at all from running Windows 10 Pro rather than Windows 10 Home. Both are fine, but going with the Home version will save them about $40 if they're pinching pennies. But if they buy Windows 10 Pro, it might save them a little bit in the future if for instance Windows 11 comes out and they upgrade. Otherwise they could find themselves paying a little more in the future if they decide they want to upgrade from Windows 10 Home to "Windows 11 Pro" for instance. But either way, whenever you purchase Windows 10, it typically comes with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions and you choose which one you want to use at the beginning of the installation process, otherwise, just always make sure you select 64-bit when buying a Windows 10 DVD.
So if you're a photographer building your first ever desktop PC, make sure that you install the 64-bit version of either Windows 10 Home or Pro, or else you won't be able to take advantage of faster, more powerful 64-bit applications like Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects etc. Virtually all software nowadays comes in 64-bit versions, and in some cases, ONLY 64-bit.
Any 64-bit OS can run both 64-bit and 32-bit applications, but a 32-bit version of Windows will not be able to run 64-bit applications at all.

Shawn Chambers's picture

Everyone keeps saying M.2 is faster than SSD. First, M.2 is an SSD. Second, there are 2 types of M.2. There's M.2 SATA that uses the same SATA bus as the SSD drives most are familiar with. And then there is M.2 NVMe. This uses the PCI express bus which is mucho faster. You need to make sure that your motherboard utilizes the NVMe M.2 drives if you want to go that way.

I just built my pc with an M.2 NVMe for boot drive, a 2nd SSD i had already for my lightroom catalog, a 1TB WD Blue for all my image files, and (2) 3TB WD Red HD's in a raid for backup of the other 3 drives. My images also reside in dropbox on my WD blue for added backup as well as cloud access. And everything is backed up to the cloud via CrashPlan.

As Im still an amateur photographer... I don't have any external servers.... Yet.

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