Why Having a Cutting Edge Computer Is More Important Than Having a Brand New Camera

Some of us photographer types are rather notorious gear junkies. I'm as guilty of it as the next guy. We like our toys and love to collect as many gadgets and doohickeys as we can get our hands on. Few things grab our attention more than the spec sheet of the newest cutting edge camera. Our budgets, however, aren't as infinite as our eagerness to spend them, which often leads to the need to prioritize purchases. Despite what your eagerness is telling you, the most valuable update might actually be upgrading your computer rather than that shiny new camera body.

Fast Computers Mean More Time Shooting

Nearly all digital photographers spend more time working with their computers than they ever do shooting. The computer is the gateway that lets you transform shots into what you want to share with the world. The computer is a tremendously helpful tool, but it also can be a quagmire that sucks your time away. The difference in image quality between one generation of camera and the next often offers an almost undetectable difference to the audience; however, a computer that allows you to spend half as much time editing means that you can increase your time actually shooting, which leads to more practice and more honing of your craft.

Fast Computers Lead to Better Images

Slow computers are frustrating: the slower the computer, the more frustrating it is. A frustrated photographer does not make for an inspired photographer. By upgrading your computer, you ensure that your editing workflow remains as smooth and pleasant as possible, which, in turn, keeps you in the most creative mood possible. By accelerating the speed of your workflow, you are able to better harness the joy of working with your images, which at the end of the day will lead to a stronger portfolio and a better photographer.

Fast Computers Let You Push the Envelope

Heavy Photoshop work isn't for everyone, but for the ones who do love it, the limits of that work often are guarded by the breadth of what the computer is able to accomplish before becoming so slow that working becomes effectively impossible. By upgrading your computer, you are able to expand those limits and go beyond your normal workflow without having to sacrifice huge amounts of time waiting for filters and effects to render.

Conclusion

A new camera is surely a tempting toy to put on the ole credit card, but it certainly won't make you a better photographer, and the images it will create won't be radically better than your current camera, unless it is very old. A new computer, however, will give you more time to shoot, a smoother workflow, and the freedom to experiment with massive files without brushing against the ceiling of what your machine is capable of handling. The next time you are fiddling with your budget, take a moment to explore your workstation options, as those options ultimately can be a better decision when furthering your craft.

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40 Comments
Mark Alameel's picture

Assuming you already have "good" gear, then yes I would upgrade my computer, or color management... before I upgrade my camera.

However, old cameras, while still working, can also slow you down too depending on what your shooting. They other day I pulled out an old camera and was surprised how slow it is compared to my memory... and the back LCD screen was so small! :D Just like your new computer allows you to move faster, so does a new camera, sometime.

While I know my fellow artists will hate this next statement, but a new camera will make you a better photographer. When I look at my first digital DSLR raw images and my current setup... yes the raw files are noticeably better, better color rendering, sharpness, etc. I work less now to get the look I want.

It's a balance of what you need to upgrade.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'd agree with this if the camera is exceptionally old. You won't see much difference from one generation to the next but if you haven't upgraded in 4 or 5 generations there is certainly a gain to be had.

Mark Alameel's picture

Agreed. There is a balance. :D

william mitchell's picture

Upgrading the computer you have with more ram and faster drives like SSD may be better then a new computer. CPU's have not changed very much in the last 5 years.

Michael Aubrey's picture

This.

Justin Haugen's picture

most of the benefits of the i3/i5/i7 upgrades have been felt in the laptop world in terms of smaller architecture and more efficient power usage. I'm not in a particular rush to upgrade my computer I built in 2013, it's doing things just fine still.

Tam Nguyen's picture

I built my computer in 2010 with a Core i7 3.2 Ghz OC'ed at 3.8 Ghz. It's still faster than most chips out there these days. But yes, I've gone from 7200 rpm drives to 15k rpm and now SSDs.

stir photos's picture

Not to troll, and you do make a good point, but I would only caution against just assuming more RAM will improve speed, if your BUS speed isn't sufficient, it basically will negate any RAM increase. Think of BUS speed as a corridor that RAM must go through. A qualified professional can give the correct set-up that's both scaleable and cost effective. In this sense, the cost of BUS might be considered a hidden cost of RAM improvement.

stir photos's picture

Umm; okay, but are you sure you understand what RAM is though? No offense, but it sorta seems like you might be getting some of the terms mixed up.

I spoke strictly speaking to the chip set (not the hard drive or SSD), and excluding the motherboard. If we include a lower end motherboard into the conversation and/or equation, you're left with roughly the same type of scenario whereby higher speed modules will be slowed down to meet the requirements of the motherboard, so it's the same thing as I was saying before with BUS speed.

The reason I made the analogy of BUS speed being like a corridor is because basically BUS speed is how much information and how fast that information can get through [the motherboard]. A narrow corridor won't let as much information get through. So, RAM can't force it's way through the narrow corridor no matter how much of it there is...

Lastly, RAM can be thought of like temporary memory, which is different than hard drive memory and/or SSD memory, which can be thought of as permanent memory- that whole apples to oranges thing.

stir photos's picture

I didn't intend to offend you, sorry about that. Hell, for all I know, you're the "RAM f**kin' master"

But, RAM is different than hard drive and SSD memory, we agree on that I hope. It's not a valid test to compare the speed of RAM to hard drives and/or SSD memory. You can compare hard drive speeds to SSD memory speeds and that would be a fair test. And, yes, BUS speed is directly correlated to RAM, but you can't say one is faster than the other either. Your BUS speed determines how much RAM you can have and anything over that rating is useless. It's impossible to recognize and acknowledge a fact that RAM speeds compared to hard drives and/or SSD memory is faster or slower than one another; they have different functions.

Sniff, sniff.... Do you smell that? It smells like a bet to me. I'll bet you 20 paypal dollars that you can't find a valid test that compares RAM memory directly to HHD or SSD memory. The reason is because they have different functions...

Since I probably wasn't clear, all I'm saying to William's original and valid point is that I'd hate to see some person upgrade their RAM with minimal or no speed improvement whatsoever. If they're on an older computer with an older chipset, then a RAM upgrade alone might not be enough due to slower BUS speed, that's all. It's a valid concern and possibility. Then the poor schmuck has to wonder why simply installing newer or more RAM didn't speed up his computer during workflow.

Again, not trying to troll here, I honestly am just trying to add value to William's comment, which is, "hey, before you go installing copious amounts of RAM all willy nilly- maybe determine your BUS speed first. If you can't, get a qualified technician to help you out."

https://media2.giphy.com/media/3o7qDLkrKr034Z3hQI/200.gif

Slarti Bartfast's picture

Um — actually — you're both kinda mistaken.

The only instance where installing more RAM increases the performance of a system is when your system is operating in a low memory situation, thus causing the system to run software within Virtual Memory (VM).

This occurs when the RAM requirements of the running software exceeds the amount of RAM your system has installed, causing the software to utilize a portion of your hard drive (or SSD) as RAM (aka VM). SSDs are far faster than HDDs but are both far slower than RAM.

The effect of bus speeds & workflows are largely moot points.

If the software you're running requires more RAM than you have installed, then your system will benefit from having more RAM installed. If not, it won't — so you'd be better off spending your money elsewhere like changing the HDD for an SDD.

You also have to watch out for bottlenecking on the processor (CPU). If your CPU is pinned at 100%, and the running software isn't using all the available RAM, then increasing your RAM won't help in this instance either. Time for a new CPU or an entirely new computer.

Joe Schmitt's picture

The RAM f**kin' master. LOL!! Also, nice Obama GIF!

LEO RODRIGUEZ's picture

Agree, i have done that twice, both times machine is better than new

filmkennedy's picture

??? I occasionally still edit photos from a D800 and/or D810 on a 2009 iMac if I'm not using my newer 5k iMac. It still can still handle the 70+ MB raw files nicely-obviously not as efficiently as newer computers but still get the job done.

There is a balance to cameras/gear vs post capabilities. But at least video wise I know I get more work because I have a Red Weapon camera then other guys shooting with Canons and Sonys. My clients don't ask how old my computer is that I'd be editing on-the only gear they ask about that I'd shoot on other then lenses is the camera.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ha, you must have more patience than me, I'm on a fully maxed out 2013 iMac right now and its slow handling of D800 resolution files me insane.

filmkennedy's picture

lol it just takes a while loading the raw file from camera raw into Photoshop and while running some actions-other then that it's pretty smooth... Or I'm just patient

LA M's picture

I disagree.

A better computer means more processing of more files in the same amount of time as your old crappy computer.

A better monitor leads to more time scrutinizing your previous shoots and leaves you wondering just how terrible your retouching has been all these years on the old monitor.

and on and on and on.

Nothing to do with gear or computers. It's about priorities.

Ryan Cooper's picture

You would edit more files or shoot more images specifically because you have more capability to work through them quickly? For me I'd work with the same number of images I worked with before and be done in less time.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Haha, maybe you should say that having a faster computer will improve your quality of life. Experts say 38% more Miller Time!!

stir photos's picture

There's a saying car folks have something along the lines of (paraphrasing), "serious car enthusiasts start their upgrades with brakes and transmission, and everything else after. Posers start with the paint and seats, and everything else after". That's the first thing I thought of when I read the title of this article.

From an amateur perspective, I think this is great advice. As an amateur, my post skills were terrible (they still are, but they've improved) and without a high end computer that terrible post work could've just as easily turned into a chore that I didn't want to do, or wasn't able to do well because of factors like speed, screen quality, etc.. If you're an amateur and have a budget for a new camera body, I'd seriously consider a new computer first. There's a guy here on Fstoppers (I can't recall his name, but it sounds Italian I think) shooting excellent portraits/swimwear/glamour stuff on a pretty old camera body, so look to photographers like that if you need/want the inspiration or justification to buy a quality computer before a new body.

My first DSLR was a gift from my wife and she bought it at Best Buy. Once I got a mentor he suggested that I get a quality lens first and to make sure my computer was as powerful as I could afford. That's exactly what I did and in that order, although my computer was already powerful, but I did need a new monitor.

I'm a believer that if you're an amateur you'll just naturally outgrow your camera body and you'll know when it's time to upgrade it. It's hard to explain, but my main body I use now, I honestly feel like I haven't outgrown it yet, all the while I'm lusting for a new camera body.

So, that's my .02 cents worth...

Deleted Account's picture

Haven't upgraded the computer for last 7 years. Although having USB3 was tempting, I decided that it actually will not improve too much my life quality. It is time for new HDD so SSD is coming, but I will stick to this machine as long as my current camera will work.

Deleted Account's picture

It doesn't but SSDs will improve speed anyway.
Rotary HDDs don't take advantage even of SATAII with throughput around 100MB/s.
Additionally, SSDs have much shorter access time. And that is what is important in overall system speed.
I will not take full advantage of SSD but it will eliminate all that bothers me in current setup.
On top of that I plan to make RAID0 to get additional performance.

So in theory I can improve the "speed" 3x times with one SSD and 6x with RAID0.

Deleted Account's picture

LOL. Why would I spend so much money if my current setup gives me all I need. That was my point. Seven years and it fast enough for photography. I upgrade HDD just because old drive is close to its end-of-life. SSDs will be faster than HDD, period.
Maybe if I will start doing some heavy video work I will reconsider.

Deleted Account's picture

So you suggest that I don't have an access to new machines and I just don't know what is out there in the modern world?

Deleted Account's picture

You are man of assumptions, aren't you. What else do you know about me and my experience?

Deleted Account's picture

What is the price difference between buying two SSDs and new computer with SSD? Lets's add that my current setup is 27" 2.8GHz i7 with 32GB RAM and I don't want to go below that?
I have been working in IT for over 10years plus 10 more since I actually started building PCs. I build computers, repair computers and I know and understand current technology. I have even certs to back it up.
You can spend all the money you want to get few seconds faster file transfers, but if everything works the way it should, spending money on new computer is not an investment. It is waste.
The speed you are refering to is valid only when you constantly transfer big files, or do video editing. Most day to day computer user will benefit from data access speed(random access time).
I don't know how old are you. Maybe 7years is 1/3 of your life. Maybe you are a kid who spend parents money to buy computers just to have nice score on benchmarks.
Your advise can be summed up to "newer is better". Can you define term investment btw?

Deleted Account's picture

series of fallacies...
I will replace iMac with motherboard and CPU.
How about rest of the computer? and the SSD we are talking about?
And matching quality 27" IPS monitor?
You just don't make any sense.
My current iMac has 1TB internal drive. Raid0 requires two 500s to match the size. Two Samsung 500GB 850 Evo 2.5" SSD costs $320.

What else will you come up with to support your arguments?

SSDs don't supposed to compensate for SATA II. The HDD will not saturate SATAII so even one SSD will improve speed. Anyway, I would even stay with what it is right now if it wasn't a time to replace the HDD due to its age. I could explain you that but you so hung up on "being right" you will come up with something irrelevant in another post.
BTW I used google for you. You can read this about striping two SSDs on SATAII
http://www.techpowerup.com/forums/threads/ssd-raid-0-performance-with-sa...

You are so funny with that "old" computer. What become so old and used up in that machine that needs to be replaced? Other than HDD?
Maybe thermal paste... That will be replaced during the maintenance anyway.

Look up that dictionary before you will give advice on the investments. As, at least, 50y old man you should know how to use google. My father can.

And again I couldn't refrain from responding to your comments, but I will end it here.

Deleted Account's picture

There are two sata ports. HDD and ODD.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Buying a new computer is like buying tires, you need to do it once in a while.

If one is bumping up to the limits of the computer, and monopolizing the time in the day I would agree it is time to update. Unless your computer is 8 or 10 years old the relatively minor bump in speed a new machine offers is not going to be life changing, neither is a new camera for most people.
But just like the old adage that most lenses are better than most photographers, most computers are faster than most photographers.
Things that make a difference in a photographers work could be taking a workshop, or learning a new skill like video, or shooting and printing film... maybe getting a new lens that is NOT like your usual lenses, try something new like street or location shooting if you are usually woking in a studio.

OTOH learning how to manage your time better is also an option :)

João Almeida's picture

Well, I agree with Ryan.
I have a Sony a6000 (and I'm really happy with it).. Yes, there is the new a6300, or the A7RII (jesus...) but I prefer to invest that money on a new computer. OR, at least, in a decent screen (I think you should focus more in that. A nice, true-color screen is fundamental to a decente postprocessing.

Phil Newton's picture

Damn. I have neither! My most recent upgrade has been a 24" monitor hooked up to my laptop, one of those USB hub fan-cooling laptop stand things, Wacom tablet, and wireless mouse and keyboard, and comfy office chair. Editing is easy and fun now, and my results are vastly improved.

Fritz Asuro's picture

"Cutting edge computer" then I see iMac on the thumbnail. Lol

A vdS's picture

It's bullshit, getting a better computer will not radicaly change the way you work, your speed or your creativity, even a 5 year old computer allow you to do the job. On the other hand if you change your 5year old 7D for the 5Dmk3 well, you will have radically better picture in many situation.
Also having a quicker computer will affect your creativity only if you work in a test a trial way, which is the worst way to work in my opinion, In the agency I work for, people decide first what they want to do, then how to do it, and only then they do it. If the key for creativity was having the fastest process we would know it. Ask painters.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Its impossibly to learn something new without experimenting first. Do the people at your agency just already know everything? What if they are asked to do something they have never done before? That involves exploration coupled with trial, and yes, error to learn.

On the contrary, I find that upgrading a computer does radically change workflow. If every time I want to do something I have to wait or every time I want to make an adjustment there is a delay because my workstation is too slow that is going to interrupt my creative flow. Furthermore, when working on a deadline your time to invest in the work is limited, if your computer gobbles up half that time being slow then you have less time to invest in optimal attention to detail.

dale clark's picture

Actually, this article makes since. Especially as we go into the large files sizes that cameras like the 5Ds/r and A7rii produces. The file sizes are only going to get bigger. Being able to keep system running normal as you transfer those large files off CF/SD card is a must. As a high volume image provider, the ability to quickly batch process or apply multiple adjustment to multiple images at once is extremely helpful. Plus, software gets more bloated with each upgrade. I was helping a client with a personal photo a while back on her older Macbook air. Using PS elements, there was a very slight delay with using the selection tool. It always dragged behind. Now, it may have been a glitch with her particular system or lack of memory, however, I was thinking, I could not work like this everyday doing what I do.

Alexandre Herve's picture

Format your computer ... it will be faster than you can imagine !

Ryan Cooper's picture

A reformat can certainly help but its benefit is limited by the capabilities of your hardware.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I worded it exactly as I intended. The benefit of reformatting cannot exceed the current level of hardware within the computer. That, by definition, is a limit.

Daris Fox's picture

Wrong reply

Daris Fox's picture

A well built PC can last 4-5 years, my previous rig lasted 5 before I replaced it. I build for longevity and put money aside each year for upgrades, I generally stick to a set budget and build a spec to that. My current workstation is based around a X99 mobo with an i7 5930K, a Quadro graphics card (second hand to save cash), 64Gb RAM and a couple of NVMe drives and 12Tb storage. Is this overkill? Most assuredly it is today, but in 2-3 years it'll be still powerful enough to handle most task but even then I'll tweak the configuration depending on needs and/or repairs but the main core of the system will be more than powerful enough to continue the work it's doing without needing to be replaced.

The rig can handle medium format RAWs almost in an blink of an eye especially in comparison to my old rig and suffers no real slowdown when scrubbing 1080p and 4k footage. It's cut much of my editing time by at least a third if not more. Another bonus, despite the spec, it's actually using less power so saves me money in the long run.