Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

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In this age of digital photography (and other imagery) it is pretty much necessary to interface with your camera via a computer. It will store your image files, allow you to edit them, and upload to various platforms. However, like your camera, your computer is an expensive piece of technology that needs to be understood in order to be used properly.

On Facebook photography groups, you will see a lot of questions about what hardware specifications people need when buying a new computer. Should they go with PC or Mac? Laptop or desktop? What do all the words and numbers mean? Do I need an SSD or an EHD or both?

Some caveats

For simplicity sake, the term PC (personal computer) will be used in this article to cover the generic concept of a computer – regardless of brand or operating system. Whether you buy a PC or a Mac the hardware inside is the same.

This is also a beginner’s guide to hardware terminology for people without IT experience and backgrounds. For the technical readers, yes there may be some oversimplification of terminology. Unless it is genuinely incorrect, please reserve any comments about that. The non-technical people really don’t care about the details.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

Consider your own needs

Photographers working with very large image files can often need a more powerful machine than normal. If you are doing editing in Photoshop with lots of layers, then the technical demand on the hardware is even higher.

As with everything, the faster and more powerful you want the hardware to be, the more expensive it will be as well. So being able to make decisions and choices to suit your budget and requirements is important.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

The needles on the inside of a spinning disk SATA drive – I disassembled it for parts.

What does it all mean?

  • SFF Tower
  • i7-7700
  • 16GB Memory
  • 256GB SSD
  • DVD-RW
  • GeForce GTX 1080 Graphics card
  • HDMI, VGA, 6 x USB, 1 x USB-C
  • 24″ Monitor

Above is a standard description of the usual components found in a PC or laptops these days. In general, the list of specifications is done in a consistent order, listing the important features and functionality of the machine. Let’s break it down individually:

#1 – Size and Shape

By TJStamp

If the computer is a desktop PC then the first definition will be the form factor or type of case. Desktop PC cases come in several different tower sizes – full tower, micro, small form factor (SFF), and mini. Does it matter which you choose? Yes, if you want to put lots of hard drives in, or a really grunty graphics card, then you will need a bigger case. A powerful graphics card needs a bigger power supply to run it and is also a full sized card (usually) so will need a full sized tower case.

If the computer is a laptop then the description in the first line will usually define the screen size and type; e.g. 14″ FHD 1920×1080. Small, sleek, thin, and light is fashionable with laptops at the moment, however the sacrifice you make is that limits the options for upgrading your hardware over time. Laptops in general are not easily expandable and often have a shorter useable lifespan than desktops as a result. However, laptops are portable which is an added bonus.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

Smaller cases also limit the choices you have to make in relation to the hardware options. With a mini case, it will only fit the smallest components, like an SSD (solid state drive) and that can often drive the price up as well.

So the choice of the form factor matters. Laptop versus desktop is a key decision, and then the size of the chassis makes a difference as to what you can put in it.

#2 – CPU

CPU stand for Central Processing Unit, and is essentially the brain of the PC. This does all the calculations and thinking and can affect the speed and performance capability of the computer. CPUs are classed by performance capability so an i7 is top of the range, i5 middle of the range, and i3 is entry level.

For standard everyday use an i5 is sufficient. For many photographers on a budget, an i5 with enough memory and an SSD will still be powerful enough to edit in Lightroom (or your program of choice). Those who edit really big files, especially in Photoshop will probably want to look at an i7 option.

Within each family there are several choices, again relating to speed and performance.  This is defined as the number of cores they have and the clock speed. As is typical with technology, the faster and more powerful, the more expensive the option will be. Here is where it can get tricky because the software you are running on the computer may have been designed with certain requirements as to the hardware specifications. It may prefer to run on a single core, or need multiple cores or even multiple CPUs (i.e. it has more than one processor in the machine).

So you also need to know what requirements your specific software might need to run at optimum efficiency.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

Pins on the bottom of a CPU.

3. Memory

If we think of the computer in vehicle terms, the form factor is the style and shape of the vehicle (2-seater, coupe, sedan, SUV, etc.), the CPU is the engine, and that means the memory is the fuel tank. Fuel limits how fast and how far a vehicle can travel, and memory does a similar thing for a computer. The more memory it has, the more capacity the computer has to process and run lots of operations at once. Memory provides the resources the CPU needs to do the computing.

Memory (RAM – Random Access Memory, or essentially the working memory) is available in 4, 8, 16 and 32 GB sticks. Most consumer PCs and laptops only have capacity for a maximum of 32GB with usually two slots available for memory. At least 8GB should be the minimum purchase in 2017. For anyone intending to use Photoshop heavily I would recommend at least one 16GB stick initially. That allows you a second slot to upgrade into if you have performance issues – if you buy two 8GB and want to upgrade, you will have to throw one away.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

Memory stick (this has been snapped in half).

4. Hard Drive

If CPU is the engine, and memory is the fuel, then the hard drive is the storage capacity. So how much stuff can you fit into your PC? Is it a snazzy 2-seater, a roomy sedan, a people mover, a van, or a long-haul truck as far as storage capacity of your data.

Data isn’t just your image files either. Everything you load onto a PC takes up storage space, the operating system, all the programs, games, videos, music, emails, etc.  Everything that somehow gets downloaded onto the computer needs a place to be stored. Over time, that can take up a lot of space. Add in large file formats like RAW files being downloaded by the hundreds or thousands on a regular basis, and suddenly you need a LOT more storage than you thought.

Today there is the added complexity of two different technology choices for hard drives in consumer PC devices. Traditional spinning disc drives that connect via SATA (usually referred to as SATA drives for short) or SSD drives  (solid state drives) are available. SATA drives have come in very large capacity options 4, 6 and 8TB at the top end, but they are a slower performance option. Due to having lots of moving parts, they are prone to breaking but they are the most cost effective option.

SSD drives are a newer technology that stores data in a different way without any moving parts. Hence they are physically more reliable, but have smaller storage capacity options and are quite expensive compared to the SATA option. Some of the newer slimline tablets and PCs only offer the choice of SSD.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

Spinning disk out of a Toshiba laptop.

5. Data Input Options

How do you get data onto your computer? Does it come with a DVD drive? Most of the modern notebooks and tablets are so slim in design there is no room for such a device. You can get external DVD drives that plug in via USB if you need one to install software that comes in disk format.

If you have a PC tower you can install a fitted memory card reader which is faster than an external one for importing your image files.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

External USB card reader to input your camera files.

6. Graphics Cards

Every motherboard comes with some graphics capabilities. Essentially, this is the bit that generates what you see on the screen. For basic image editing an onboard option is sufficient. However, if you are using Photoshop or Lightroom you may want to consider a specialized card that comes with dedicated graphics memory to boost the performance. Most low-mid range gaming cards will suffice. An added benefit is they will also offer support for multiple monitors, generally at least two. People wanting to process and edit video files may want to consider a dedicated specialized card for that purpose, they generally will only fit into a large PC case and can be quite expensive.

This is an additional option which will only fit into a tower case option – the bigger chassis have space to fit these. Extra graphics is not an option for laptops and similar form factor devices (unless you purchase a high-end mobile workstation or gaming laptop which are expensive). I would recommend getting a silent card as they can be quite noisy, generally the more powerful the card the bigger the fan it requires (too cool it down) and the noisier the card.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

Graphics card that fits into a PCIe slot.

Non-Technical Guide to Buying a Computer for Photographers

Monitor ports on a graphics card, the blue one is VGA and the white one is DVI.

Conclusion and Summary

So designing your computer means taking into account all the technical requirements of the software versus the capabilities of the hardware and your available budget. If you’re not interested in technology this might be a bit frustrating. However, investing some time in learning about what the components of your computer do, and how it relates to your specific requirements may be useful for making strategic computer purchases.

If you have the budget to purchase a more powerful machine, with the idea of hanging on to it for 3-4 years, instead of 1-2, that might be a better return on investment. Buying a larger PC tower case allows you to upgrade all of the components, depending on technology changes. You might even stretch out use of the PC to 4-5 years for a small outlay on upgrades – perhaps some extra memory, and maybe some SSD to boost performance.

Conversely, if your requirements are low and your budget is limited, being able to make an educated choice around what compromises you might have to make (i.e. maybe get a PC instead of a laptop as it’s often cheaper) can be helpful as well.

Do a bit of reading or research, or find a technical friend and offer to buy them lunch if they will assist you with your next computer purchase, that is always a viable option.

Read more from our Post Production category

Stacey Hill invested in her first DSLR back in 2007. While having many adventures out and about in the South Island of New Zealand, Stacey took to blogging about her experiences learning photography. Recently she discovered the fun and creative possibilities to be had with Photoshop. She can be found having an opinion all over the place here.

  • david

    nicely written. i have a tech background, but found this article helpful in answering some of my questions, and confirming some of my thoughts.

  • Stacey

    Thanks David, I appreciate you commenting.

  • Top Rock Photography

    I think you blundered. Neither Ps nor Lr currently benefit much from a GPU (nor multi-threading). These are considerations which should be noted for those not using DarkTable or Krita. Their best money is spent in memory.

    Most MB have four slots for RAM and max out at 64-128GB. Only laptops tend to only have two slots, and they tend to max out at 32-64GB. Furthermore, when upgrading RAM, it is best to upgrade them in pairs, otherwise one can have a performance hit. Yes, an 8GB and 16GB stick will give you 24GB, but it may perform slower than 16GB with one 16GB stick, and certainly slower than 16GB with two 8GB sticks.

    Also, not all RAM sticks are the same. Choosing the right RAM can result in faster workflow. RAM choice is not just about capacity.

    Most SSDs max out at 1TB, with a few 2TB available for about US$1,000, so the issue with SSD vs HHD is not just price, but capacity. HDDs are available at up to 10TB for about US$350-500. Additionally, with HHD, they come in different flavours also, depending on need; power economy, Desktop speed, RAID use, NAS use, or surveillance use. Surveillance HDDs are not well suited for Desktop use, neither are economy drives or even desktop speed drives suited for surveillance. Additionally, my four × 2GB HHD RAID 5 setup (6TB total) for file storage is only slight slower than my 256GB SSD for system files. This is because striping HHDs increases throughput. When I upgrade, I will be striping six or more in a RAID 5.

    Speaking of RAID, storage is not just about speed and capacity, but also reliability. Another important factor is backup. Although RAID protects you if one drive fails, it is not considered an adequate solution. A natural disaster can take out an entire RAID leaving no failover, then backups are all on which one can rely.

    Additionally, the Core i5 and the Core i7 come in different flavours with different needs in mind. a low level i5 or i7 may run Lr or Ps at comparable speeds to the top of the line i7 since neither of those applications utilise the other features outside of sheer speed. The savings can be put into memory. Additionally, the lower end Ryzen CPUs are outperforming the i5s and most i7s for a great deal less, even more money to be spent in RAM and maybe a RAID 5 system, plus backup.

    Likewise, not all monitors are the same. It is not simply size, nor is it simply resolution, but colour accuracy & gamut are essential. I currently have two monitors; a 39 inch 4K for detail work, and a 24 inch FHD colour calibrated monitor for colour correction work. Why not just colour calibrate the 4k monitor? Because it has a poor, limited colour gamut and simply cannot be calibrated. However, it came at a bargain price! You get what you pay for.

    Again, selecting software is also not a simple choice. Most people choose Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop because it is called the industry de facto choice. I, at first, did not choose Adobe products simply because they do not run on Linux. I choose Linux for stability and security. I have been running solely Linux for over 15 years. My applications of choice are DarkTable, RawTherapee, and Krita. So at first, the “not available on Linux” was my reason for not using Lr and Ps, but now I have even more; all three of those applications use multi-threading, GPU acceleration, and have a 32-bit, floating-point, colour pipeline, with out-of-gamut calculations. Lr & Ps use a 16-bit integer pipeline (except when doing HDR processing), which clip out-of-gamut values. Additionally, Darktable can do parametric masks, which Lr cannot do. It is more accurate than a brush, with alpha layers.

    Linux and Darktable are not for everyone, (I don’t actually know why, but I will accept that), and this article is about HW and not SW. But SW choices can influence our HW choices, but even without that, this HW article did not suggests good options for HW choices for the majority of photographers using Adobe applications.

    May I suggest, for Adobe users, a low-end i5 , i7, or Ryzen, fast 32GB of RAM in either two 16GB sticks or four 8GB sticks, any GPU with support for two or more monitors, including support for 4k monitors, a small SSD of 256GB or less for system files, plus three or more RAID-suitable HDD of 4TB or more each to build a RAID 5 for storage, an 8TB or larger external HDD for backup, or a home NAS, an internal SATA or USB3 memory card reader, a BluRay burner, and a colour calibrated 4k monitor. All of that (except monitor) could probably be had for about US$2,130 at NewEgg, including tower case & PSU. For less than US$500, one can get a UHD 4K 27″ colour calibrated monitor.

    Now US$2,130 may sound like a great deal of money, but bear in mind, this is with 12TB of RAID 5 storage (with 4× 4TB, 256GB cache, 7200RPM HDD), 8GB backup (7200RPM HDD), an 8-core Ryzen CPU, a 4-monitor, 4K capable GPU, 32GB RAM, and an M.2 256GB SSD on the MB, while the Mac Pro, at US$3,000, has 16GB RAM and only one 256GB SSD. Still, if 2,000+ is too steep, one can forego the RAID, reduce storage & backup capacity/speed, reduce monitor size/resolution (but stay with proper colour calibration), even go down to 16GB RAM (with two 8GB modules), and drop the price to under US$800. One just needs to know where to compromise based on one’s software choices. (The above was assuming Adobe Lr & Ps).

    This is not a Linux/Windows/Mac rant, nor an Adobe/FLOSS rant. It is just saying that the advice here on hardware for a photography rig, is quite inadequately researched and presented.

  • Jeff

    Hi Stacey, I believe that the question of whether to buy a Mac or a Windows PC is one of the most fundamental decisions a photographer can make. You mention it in the intro but nowhere else in the article. Whoops! Can you help out with this?

  • Stacey

    Well deciding between Mac or Windows is like deciding between a Holden or a Ford (or a Canon or a Nikon). They both do the same thing, might look a bit different and function slightly differently. If you really care then buy the one you want to. Personally I dislike IOS operating system a great deal and I would never buy one, nor would I recommend them to people with no experience of them. Its down to personal preference *shrug* – they use exactly the same hardware under the hood

  • Mike Fewster

    Using SSD for programs and hard drive for storage deserved some attention.

  • Stacey

    Did you miss section 4 on Hard drives where SSD are mentioned?

  • Mr_Electability

    For what it’s worth, an awful lot can now be done on Linux, as well. Photoshop won’t run on it as far as I know, but there are a number of very good raw processors which receive widespread praise, such as RawTherapee and DarkTable. This software is all free and in some ways very advanced technically. The downside is that very few people use Linux, and there can be a bit of a learning curve for those who aren’t accustomed to it.

  • loginfailed

    Another crucial element to pay attention to is the type of screen/monitor you’re getting with your computer. Will it have a big enough gamut to display colors accurately? Will it represent your dynamic range sufficiently, or will its backlight compromise the fidelity of your black tones? Speaking of backlighting, will all the pixels be evenly lit by the backlight, or will there be visible vignetting along the corners of the screen? If it’s a touch-screen monitor, will it have a coating that either reflects light and causes glare, or one that makes everything look dull and muddy? All these seemingly petty details can prove to have an impact on the quality of your picture-viewing and editing experience, and should be carefully considered when choosing a monitor (or laptop).

  • Stacey

    Yes screens is a whole separate subject in its own right.

  • Top Rock Photography

    Curious as to why my comment was removed. I was merely being helpful as a systems analyst.

    Oh, well….

  • Top Rock Photography

    I do not think he missed it, but as was in my well thought out reply earlier, you did not mention the use of a hybrid system with both, nor the use of RAID5 to achieve higher speeds, higher capacities, and greater reliability with HDDs.

  • Top Rock Photography

    Yeah, I suppose you won’t recommend Windows to a person with no experience on it either? No experience in not a good reason to not recommend a product. So, having asked, “should I go with PC or Mac,” it would have been nice to discuss any differences (and also consider Linux, et al).

  • Top Rock Photography

    Yeah, and I covered most of that in my since deleted reply.

  • Stacey

    Actually I wouldnt recommend Windows to an IOS fan. And at a beginner level I wouldnt recommend Linux at all.

  • Stacey

    Have to take it up with the Editors – beyond the control of mere contributors……

  • Stacey

    No I didnt discuss those things, because this was an entry level article, and as I mention in my introduction, the non technical people *really* don’t care.

  • Top Rock Photography

    Understood.

  • Top Rock Photography

    Curious as to why. You say they both do the same thing, but will not recommend one to someone without experience on it, as if experience on it matters, but will gladly recommend the other to someone without experience on it, as if experience does not matter.

    I know it cannot be an ease of use issue, as both Mac and Linux are super simple. Can’t be a reliability issue either, as they are both more reliable than Windows. Can’t be cost, as Linux is dirt cheap….

    But whatever the reason, I will drop it. I just think if one is going to guide beginners how to decide what to get, the guidance should be without bias.

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