Lightroom is a notorious slow-poke, and higher-resolution cameras are even dragging down Photoshop. While there are plenty of software tweaks to eke out a few more percent here and there, want to know how you can actually kick your editing workflow into high gear?
A few months ago, I was dealing with all the usual software slowdowns in my photo editing workflow. It was partly because I’d just gotten an even higher-resolution camera and partly because I had some new client needs that meant shooting HDR brackets and more panoramas. Altogether, this meant heavier files and more of them. Everything from importing and rendering previews, to editing, to exporting the finished files was chugging along at a miserable pace. I spent a bit of time refining all the software settings I could, cleaning up drivers and nudging my overclock just a little higher, but it just wasn’t enough. It was finally that time: time for a hardware upgrade.
When you’re looking at upgrading your computer for a photography workflow, there are a few key things to consider. If you have a prebuilt computer from a manufacturer like Dell or a laptop, some of these upgrades may not be possible. You can probably replace the RAM with a higher capacity set of sticks if it isn’t soldered in or add a GPU via an external enclosure. For the best upgradability, consider building your own computer. It’s incredibly easy, provides the best value possible for your parts, and can be done in an hour or two (it’s also a great project to undertake if you’re still in a locked-down area). Also, some of these upgrades may trigger the need for other upgrades, like going to a new motherboard and DDR4 memory for some processors, or a higher-wattage PSU for a newer graphics card.
The other consideration is recognizing how you want to apportion your budget. Depending on where your workflow needs a speed boost, you can focus on just maxing out a part or spreading the benefits around to all aspects of your computer. In the individual part sections, I’ll try to indicate which aspects of the workflow they most impact.
Your computer’s processor impacts every aspect of your workflow. From generating previews on import to rendering many of the filters and sliders effects to saving and exporting speeds, the processor plays a key role. For a number of years, there were only marginal gains from each new generation of processors, but I think that for many users, the time has come. If you’re on a 4th-, 5th-, or 6th-generation Intel chip, or AMD pre-Zen chip, even a mid-level processor and entry-level motherboard will offer a massive speed boost, as well as a host of convenient features. New boards have plenty of USB-3 ports, USB-C support, NVME storage, and more, expanding the benefits beyond just a raw speed advantage.
Some of my favorite picks for processors include the 3700X, 3900X, and i9-10900K. Each offers a substantial core count increase over old four-core CPUs and a big boost to IPC. What this means in plain English is the ability to do more work at once and do it faster. While many photo workflows don’t parallelize well across many cores, software support has been getting better in this area. With that in mind, don’t feel like you need to over-buy if you’re just doing photo work. The more expensive options offer only slight improvements for a purely-photo based workflow. If you find that you’re doing video work, however, they can offer much more benefit.
For 90% of users, the 3700X is the sweet spot of performance and value, outperforming chips that cost multiples of its price on Puget’s benchmarks for Lightroom and PS. Of course, the 3900X is all that goodness and more, but at a higher price. If you’re upgrading, don’t forget to budget the cost of an AM4 motherboard and potentially DDR4 RAM if you’re coming from an older system — one reason to consider the 3700X more closely.
For the top of the Photoshop workflow, Intel’s i9-10900K is king, but as it loses to the 3900X in both price and Lightroom performance according to Puget’s benchmarks, you have to consider what your workflow looks like.
A memory upgrade is one of the easiest options, making it a perfect way to get comfortable working on your computer. If you have less than 8 GB of memory, place your order today. RAM prices have fallen to the point where I’d consider 16 GB the minimum for a desktop. While you can go to 32 GB or 64 GB easily, this is definitely one area that’s affected by workflow. Big data sets, like stacking, panorama stitching, and heavily layered documents will all benefit from more RAM, but if you’re keeping things simple, 16 GB should be fine.
If you’re upgrading your processor, you’ll need to consider the generation and speed. DDR4 is the newer standard, meaning your older DDR3 sticks can’t be carried forward. Speed is also important, especially for AMD processors. Owing to their architecture, you’ll want to get at least 3,200 MHz speeds, with 3,600 MHz preferred (it’s more expensive, of course).
For RAM, a broad recommendation is difficult. Consider your budget, size, and speed needs, then take a look at what’s in stock. The actual RAM chips all come from a few fabs, so the actual brand on the box is more about aesthetics and warranty than actual performance differences (assuming identical speeds without overclocking).
Remember the mention of NVME a while back? That’s an interface for SSDs that will truly change how you work with Lightroom. Consider the differences between 4 storage setups: a single hard drive, a pair of RAID 0 drives, a SATA SSD, and an NVME SSD. A single drive will be around 200 MB/s, with the pair of drives sitting a bit faster. A SATA SSD can effectively max out the SATA port it’s connected to at 550 MB/s. All of that pales in comparison to a basic NVME SSD, which can do over 3,000 MB/s.
Now, raw speed isn’t everything, but in every aspect other than $/GB, an SSD will offer more performance and reliability. The best part of using one of these SSDs as your boot drive is a performance boost across everything you do on your computer. While SSD storage has gotten cheaper, it’s still cost-prohibitive to store huge media libraries on it. Instead, consider setting up some storage tiers. With a 1 TB SSD, you can have your OS, programs, and a year or two of recent images. From there, you can back up those contents to a pair of large hard drives for cheap, failure tolerant, bulk storage.
My picks for SSD are the Inland Premium and WD Black SN750. For hard drives, I’ve had good luck with Western Digital 8 TB. 8 TB and higher Red drives are free from their slow SMR technology and represent a good intersection between performance and price.
Header image courtesy of SpaceX.