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How to build (or buy) the perfect PC for photography

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Seven years ago I built my very first desktop computer and I kind of went a little over the top. Aptly named Frankenstein, it was a bit of an overkill for what it was initially meant to be: a Photoshop workstation. I was extremely happy with it, I edited my photos and I played my games, but as we all know, all good things come to an end.

With camera sensors providing higher resolution and ultimately larger files, and with Photoshop hungry for more processing power, my Frankenstein is screaming for mercy. But what really did it for old Frank is my new interest in drone video and photography.

Being cheap, I got a free programme called Da Vinci Resolve (don’t let the free fool you, it is an incredible software that competes with the best of the best) to edit my HD videos that I’m shooting with my drone.

So when I sat down to edit my first video, Frank just had enough and started complaining like an old windbag. So I said to myself enough is enough. I will put Frank out to pasture and buy another pc.

I have spent hours and hours studying, watching videos, reading blogs and specs as to what I should buy, I wanted to share my experience with those of you who are looking to buy your first photo editing pc. So what are your options? Painfully plentiful to say the least. Should you get this processor or that processor, this graphics card or that graphics card? The one thing that really got me pulling my hair out is especially was the graphics card. There are so many different manufacturers offering the same type of graphics card that it’s enough to drive you mad. But anyway, let’s try to take things a step at a time.

When buying a new computer, start by looking at the two easiest options. Do you buy a pre-built Dell, or HP, or Mac, or do you build one yourself? And should you go with Intel or AMD processors? See? I’m driving you mad already.

This article is for those who want to buy or build a desktop computer who are looking for a bit more power and upgrade-ability in the future. If you are looking to buy a laptop then there are plenty of options out there, and although you could save some money on a similar windows pc, my money is with apple when it comes to Photoshop editing even with the hefty price tag.

So, what were my options when I started thinking of getting my next Frankenstein? I could either go with the pre-built pc, or just buy the components I wanted and build one myself. And what specs should my new pc have?

Before we go any further let’s just talk a little bit about what to look out for when buying a pc you would use for editing.

The most important component really is the processing power when it comes to Photoshop, followed by RAM and then finally the graphics card.

This is what Adobe recommends as the minimum System requirements | 2017 release of Photoshop CC

Windows

  • Intel® Core 2 or AMD Athlon® 64 processor; 2GHz or faster processor

  • Microsoft Windows 7 with Service Pack 1, Windows 8.1, or Windows 10

  • 2 GB or more of RAM (8 GB recommended)

  • 2.6 GB or more of available hard-disk space for 32-bit installation; 3.1 GB or more of available hard-disk space for 64-bit installation; additional free space required during installation (cannot install on a volume that uses a case-sensitive file system)

  • 1024 x 768 display (1280×800 recommended) with 16-bit color and 512 MB or more of dedicated VRAM; 2 GB is recommended*

  • OpenGL 2.0-capable system

  • Internet connection and registration are necessary for required software activation, validation of subscriptions, and access to online services.**

macOS

  • Multicore Intel processor with 64-bit support

  • macOS version 10.12 (Sierra), Mac OS X version 10.11 (El Capitan), or Mac OS X version 10.10 (Yosemite)

  • 2 GB or more of RAM (8 GB recommended)

  • 4 GB or more of available hard-disk space for installation; additional free space required during installation (cannot install on a volume that uses a case-sensitive file system)

  • 1024 x 768 display (1280×800 recommended) with 16-bit color and 512 MB or more of dedicated VRAM; 2 GB is recommended*

  • OpenGL 2.0-capable system

But trust me, that really won’t cut it. After extensive online research I found that the minimum photographers are recommending is an i5 processor or AMD Ryzen 1600, and a memory of at least 8gb.

So, bearing that in mind, off I went to look for my new PC.

The main advantage I personally thought I would have when buying a pre-built desktop was basically that I could just order it online or pick it up at the store and it would have most of what I needed at a good price to be able to work on my photos.

Then I went online and I realised how difficult it was to find the computer that would meet my needs. They were just too expensive, around £3600 for a top-end pc, or at around £1,600 at cheaper end, loaded with components I would never really need. I tried searching for everyday use computers, but again, they were simply underpowered when it came to processing power, (something that Photoshop really is hungry for).

The best options for processors I was getting was an Intel I3, that simply would not cut it. Again, it would seem that Apple would be the wise choice, with the iMac mini offering at least an i5 processor and 4gb of RAM at around £480, and a 21.5 inch iMac at round £1,000, (big advantage to get a screen with your pc). So, to be quite honest, that’s the route you should go if you are looking to get your first editing pc.

But, still for me, none of those pre-built PCs offered what I really wanted, so I decided I would attempt to build Frank II by myself.

For a processor I decided to go with AMD, as their new Ryzen CPU is really giving Intel a run for their money. Cheaper and more powerful it was the right choice, a choice I made with Frankenstein as well. I went with the Ryzen 5 1600x, since the company claims it is about 70% faster than Intel’s i5-7600k. You can find it on Amazon for around £200 click here. Be advised that this CPU doesn’t come with a cooler, so you would have to buy one separately.

Moving on to the motherboard now, and you don’t really want to go over the top here, unless you are thinking about gaming and overclocking your CPU. I went for an Asus X370-Pro motherboard , which sells for around £130 on Amazon.

When it comes to graphics cards now, here is where you can save a lot of money, as you don’t really need that much graphics card memory to work with Photoshop. The card of choice recommended by many online is the GTX 1050 or GTX1050Ti, unless, again, you are also into gaming in which case you can get something with more power. Since I will be doing video editing on my pc I chose to go with the GTX 1060. Again, it’s all personal preference.

I went for 16 GB RAM, again due to video rendering, but you will not need more than 8GB if you are going to work with photo editing alone.

Once you have figured out which motherboard, CPU, graphics card and memory you want to buy, then all you have to do is pick out your computer case, mouse, keyboard and screen. If you already have an HD from your old pc then you can still use it for the new build. But you can also find many pre-calibrated and 4k monitors.

An amazing site to help you choose, see the compatibility and prices of the computer components you want to buy is Part Picker. There you can filter the results of your search by price and by ratings, but the really cool thing about this site is that while you are putting together the list of the parts you want to buy, it immediately checks whether they are compatible with each other. If not, you will see a compatibility warning message. Try it out, it’s a lot of fun.

And finally, building your own pc really isn’t that difficult. The parts fit into each other like legos, and there are thousands videos on YouTube on advice on different parts, and step-by-step building instructions.

Have fun.

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