Building a Photo-editing PC for 2018
last revision - November 2018
There is a lot of old information, misinformation and myth around the best specifications for a photo-editing PC. In addition, people build and spec machines for more than one purpose. In this rough guide to the best value photo-editing machine for 2018 I’m going to stick to photo-editing and I’m going to spec the machine to suit Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop CC.
Technology moves fast, so I’ll limit the references to specific components and instead take you quickly through the most important considerations for a value based photo-editing build for Adobe software.
This machine is very specialised. It is intended for browsing the internet, office documents, accounting, light video editing and its main raison d'etre - photo-editing and retouching.
The reason it’s specialised is that it is built lean and for the task instead of adding a lot of gumph related to gaming or other applications. Don’t get me wrong, it will fly through pretty much everything but the goal is very clear.
Before we spec this machine we need to talk about the software it will run. This is:
Windows 10 Professional 64bit Operating System
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Adobe Photoshop CC
The reason I set out software right at the start is that it directly and fundamentally affects the system and component choices. You see, hardware used in PC’s has often been optimised for gaming. Games software has a relatively high rate of generational development. It also places incredible loads on Graphics engines, Central Processing Units and Memory.
You might think that what is good for gaming must be good for graphically intense photo retouching but that is not the case. We don’t need rapid-fire frame rates and we don’t need the mass calculation of relatively simple graphics tasks.
Instead, we need more rapid calculations of more complex problems, usually done by the CPU. We only need help with the graphics when running multiple high-resolution displays. Think twin 4K monitors here.
I made a point earlier about generational development in software. Gaming software turns around fast. Other software tends to build on architectural choices over many years of development. Have a look at enterprise management software, it is so complex and the architecture is often so ancient that when you buy it, you are stuck with some seriously old-fashioned design. Often the only way it’s makers can find to add functionality is to buy out the competition and try to patch it in somehow.
Adobe software isn’t that bad, but it is based on many years iterating the same software platform. It needs to provide backwards compatibility and offer progress as well. Its generational cycle is slower but why is this important?
To me, it indicates why the latest PC components can often slow Adobe software down. Think about the changes we’ve seen to CPU design with the addition of multiple cores and Hyper-threading. It makes sense to pump instructions through multiple cores at the same time to achieve a task. Doing this limits the heat generated on the chip and theoretically accomplishes the task twice as quickly.
It’s good for new generation software that can break its instructions down to make use of multiple cores. There are chips out there with 16 cores now that should theoretically blow through any modern software designs.
However, the slow generational development we see in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop means that this software simply is not built to take advantage of multi-core hyperthreaded CPU’s. Some specific tasks can, for example exporting images but most of the time the high core count is a handicap.
In fact there is documented evidence that more than 4 CPU cores for Lightroom will progressively slow the software down over a session. If, like me you have this problem, then you can change the cores available to Lightroom using affinity settings.
To explain why it is a handicap is pretty easy. The smaller cores operate at lower speeds to reduce overall heat. They use their sheer quantity to blast through the instructions. Many hands make light work as they say.
Adobe software, on the other hand, likes fewer faster cores. It seems to be optimized for about 4 cores currently and likes these to run as fast as they possibly can.
So our first task is to find a low core count CPU that runs at very high frequency. We could even artificially over-clock it to a higher frequency to get better results.
There are two major CPU manufacturers that dominate the market. Intel and AMD. AMD has positioned itself as the multi-core CPU of choice while Intel has used it’s recent technological advantages to make individual CPU cores that perform faster.
For this reason, the main CPU contender is Intel at the moment. They do, however, tend to be more expensive.
At the start of 2018, we’ve seen the release of the 8th Generation Intel Chips (edit 9th gen chips have been released using the same architecture), so our choices are to take advantage of these or the best of the 7th Generation CPU’s.
Bear in mind that we are looking for value and performance, not out-and-out speed.
There are two problems with the 7th generation offering. Firstly, the price seems to be higher than better performing 8/9th Gen CPU’s, although I expect this to change. Secondly, they are an upgrade dead-end. Intel sparked fury amongst its customers by stating that the motherboards that these CPU’s use are incompatible with 8/9th gen CPU’s even though the architecture is almost identical.
So, for our purposes, as value buyers, these are contenders for best value photo-editing CPUs in late 2018. Listed below in order of price (higher to lower) and out-of-the-box performance (high to low).
Intel i5-8600K 6 core 3.6-4.3Ghz - overclockable
Intel i5-8400 6 core 2.8-4.0Ghz
Intel i3-8350K 4 core 4.0Ghz - overclockable (4 cores are actually more desirable for Lightroom only tasks!)
Of these, the i5-8400 is the best standard option but you will need to take advantage of lower priced motherboards designed specifically for them. Buying it and putting it on an over-clocking "Z370" board makes little sense (edit - Nov 18 - cheaper B360 & H310 budget boards are now available for those who will not overclock).
The Intel i5-8600K is the performance and value option, meeting or beating the best of the 7th gen CPU’s (i7-7700K) in many tasks. It is a suitable choice for the Z370 boards on the market. Six cores make it slightly unsuited to Lightroom (which doesn’t handle more than 4 cores well) but excellent for Photoshop and Premiere Pro.
The fastest option is not listed. The Intel i9-9900K is probably the best option for photo-editing CPUs available at the moment but is more costly and therefore not a value option.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is another area hyped up by gaming. It is a component we often overspend on. It is assumed that the highest speed memory modules with the highest frequency are the best for Lightroom or Photoshop. Tests show that this is NOT TRUE.
Faster RAM will make a difference of 1 or 2% to system speed, but the most important factor is not its speed but its quantity. For Lightroom Classic, 16GB is a good number and most users will rarely need more than this. For intensive use in Photoshop 32GB is plenty. 64GB will hardly ever be necessary.
The good news is that we can buy pretty standard memory modules, ideally matched to your CPU. For the i5-8600K you would be looking for DDR4 2666Mhz RAM but the more common and cheaper DDR4 2400Mhz RAM will work just as well (edit..2400Mhz is now end of life - get 2666Mhz or more)
We have even more myths to bust! Graphics is what photo-editing is all about right? It turns out that this is a myth. Graphics will help with output on multiple high-resolution displays but is not a huge bonus otherwise. It is easy to get hoodwinked into thinking that spending R6,000 + on a graphics card (GPU) is necessary! For Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CC, you can save the cash.
There is an argument to say that dedicated graphics might help with other tasks your computer performs so a cheaper GPU is all you should really ever need to consider.
In fact, in tests, it appears on average that there is only a 2% difference in performance between a R2,000 and a R23,000 GPU when using Photoshop.
Of course, if your workflow is 30bit you are going to require a top end NVIDIA Quadra GPU - but if you know about 30bit workflows, it is unlikely you need this rough guide :)
Another thing to note is that Lightroom, certainly in my experience, has had a little trouble with AMD Radeon GPU’s - they are glitchy, so much so that mine is currently disabled for Lightroom. I’d recommend using NVidia GeForce cards instead.
For most setups a Nvidia GeForce 1050Ti 2GB priced around R2,400 will be entirely adequate. It may not even be necessary at all.
For a mid-range option and for future proofing you might look at a Nvidia GeForce 1060 6GB GPU.
The Hard Drives
Let’s have a look at another area where it is easy to overspec and get burned. Hard drives. You need super fast hard drives right? They make a massive difference to performance and are a traditional bottleneck, everyone knows that…
It turns out that this is another myth when it comes to Lightroom performance. In fact, when reviewing tests even the old mechanical drives mostly matched the latest M2 solid-state drives for importing, exporting and viewing in the develop module. These M2 drives are 25 times faster for reading and writing and yet they make virtually no difference to these Lightroom tasks!
I’d certainly recommend a Solid State Drive (SSD) for the operating system and general system snapiness but you do not need a big one and you don’t need to host Lightroom and Photoshop on it. Indeed, the Operating System only boots from it and then stays resident in memory, so it’s not really vital for that either.
Even tasks that you think might use the disk intensively, ingesting, exporting, building previews all happen at very similar speeds on traditional mechanical hard drives and SSDs.
So again, you may get a system wide speed boost by using the latest M2 SSD and it might feel a bit smoother moving around Lightroom and Photoshop but for the intensive tasks it is only going to make 1 or 2% difference. If you don’t believe me here are the tests.
There’s also a theory floating around the internet that separating Cache, Catalogue, Previews and Images onto separate drives will avoid clashes on the drive. There is a performance boost when you store your images on a fast SSD but it is very marginal indeed. It’s less hassle to just keep to the standard recommendation of installing Lightroom and Photoshop on a fast SSD and your original images on a normal mechanical Hard Disk Drive.
The good news is that we can buy storage volume on relatively cheap mechanical drives instead of blowing the budget on very large SSDs.
Having used M2 myself, I think it was a mistake. It is exceptionally fast to boot etc... but one M2 blocks two SATA ports. There are only 6 SATA ports on most machines and this severely limits the ability to keep all your drives and backup internally (taking advantage of those fast connections). It also limits the potential to set up an internal RAID 5 or 6.
A reasonable setup might be:
256GB SSD for Operating System & Lightroom / Photoshop Cache, Previews and Catalogue
3TB HDD for storage. (3TB because it is an easy size to backup and they are very cheap currently)
256GB SSD for OS, Lightroom, Photoshop & Cache etc...
500GB SSD for Previews and Catalogues - if you shoot a lot.
3TB HDD for storage
I don’t want to delve into the other components too much, the Case, Power Supply, CPU Cooler and the monitor. You just need to buy good value solid options. Try not to skimp too much here, although it is always tempting.
The case should be big enough for growth and new components. Get the right one and it could last you two or three builds. Same for the Power Supply, get one with a decent wattage (550Watts plus) to cater for growth needs in the future and to run your system efficiently and with stability. Poorly specced power supplies can be responsible for a lot of crashes.
The cooler just needs to do a decent job for modest overclocking, otherwise, stick to the stock cooler (not sold with Intel K series CPUs). I prefer air-cooled units as they do a good job and are potentially less risky than liquid cooled units.
The monitor should not be skimped. It needs to display your work and allow you to proof it properly. It should render at least 100% of the sRGB colour space and preferably 100% of the Adobe RGB space too. It should be an IPS panel with a non-glossy finish and good viewing angles. A high-resolution display is great for viewing photos but shitty for reading text. Consider a cheaper and lower resolution second monitor for reading.
Don’t sacrifice the colour space for size. If all you can afford is a smaller colour accurate display then rather that than a huge inaccurate display. Dell makes some excellent options in its Ultrasharp range.
Putting it all together
So let’s add some components to this machine and see how much it will cost!
Case - Corsair Carbide 100R Silent - R985
Power Supply - Super Flower 550W Modular R999
Motherboard - MSI H310-A PRO R1,799
CPU - Intel i5-8400 R3,199
CPU Cooler - Stock
GPU - MSI GTX 1050 2GB - R2,139
RAM - G SKILL F4-2666 RIPJAW V 2x8GB modules R2,159
Storage OS - WD BLUE 250GB SSD - R1,125
Storage Images - WD Blue 3TB HDD R1,549
Total R 13,954 Excluding peripherals, delivery and Operating System
Case - Corsair Carbide 400R - R1,299
Power Supply - Super Flower 550W Modular R999
Motherboard - Asus Tuf Z370-PRO R2,549
CPU - Intel i5-8600K R4,299
CPU Cooler - Cooler Master Hyper 212 LED R409
GPU - Galax GTX 1050Ti 4GB - R2,699
RAM - Hyper X Fury DDR4 2666 2x16GB (32GB) modules R5,299
Storage OS - WD BLUE 250GB SSD - R1,125
Storage Images - WD Blue 3TB HDD R1,499
Total R 20,177 Excluding delivery and Operating System
If you add a VERY good monitor to this, R8,000 and Operating System R2,200 you are looking at a price of +/- R25,000 and R30,000 respectively.
Compared to an iMac
iMac’s tend to be higher priced with great screens, connections and fast drives but older CPU's and GPU's and smaller amounts of RAM. A R25,000 iMac has a 21-inch display, a 7th Gen i5-7500 processor and 8GB RAM with a 1TB internal drive. I definitely do like them, they are beautifully built.
A R34,000 iMac has a 27inch 5K screen, 7th Gen i5-7600, 8GB RAM and 1TB drive. Both these machines use versions of the AMD Radeon GPU.
I have recently started using a MacBook Pro laptop, which I love. Alongside my Desktop PC, it's not the easiest solution but perhaps it gives me the best of both worlds (or conceivably the worst of each!).
I really enjoy the look and feel of MacBook, especially when writing and editing quickly on the move but for serious stuff, I can't work with its small screen and limited 8GB memory.
I prefer building my own PC, particularly when you factor in upgrades. With an iMac, you cannot separate the screen from the computer - this means that when I upgrade I will need to buy both again.
If we start to talk about the more expensive Mac Pro Desktop, we are more into the realm of CAD and Video editing. These do have separate screens but at a starting price of R46,000 (without the screen) for an Intel Xeon processor and only 16GB of RAM and 256GB hard drive, I think it is not really a value proposition for photo-editing and retouching. Nor a performance option to be honest.
With the PC build, the real savings come into play with the second upgrade or refresh. We use pretty much all the same components, replacing the motherboard, CPU, RAM and maybe the GPU - this might cost R8-12K while in the iMac world we would have to sell the old machine then buy another one for R25-40k.
Some simple takeaways to look for when you configure your system. Obviously, you don't always need to build your own. Just seek out off-the-shelf PCs that meet most of the criteria. Most of the time you can select options when buying them on the internet.
To summarise the specifications you need for good Lightroom and Photoshop performance:
For standard digital DSLR photography look for at least 16GB RAM - if your individual image files are between 500mb and 1GB get 32GB of RAM and 64GB if they are 1.5GB + - don't worry about the speed of the RAM or ECC RAM
Look for a very fast, low-core-count, CPU. Try to use the latest generations to future-proof
Look for a system SSD between 256GB and 500GB - you don't need bigger or faster
Get a normal large capacity Hard Disk for storing your Photos 2TB-4TB (for easy backups)
Look for a simple Graphics Card, preferably Nvidia, with 2GB-4GB RAM. Check it is supported on the Adobe website for peace of mind.
Try to get solid peripherals - the Power Supply etc...
Get a good screen that will last for years.