Choosing the components for your photo editing computer can be tricky. In this guide, I’ll look at each computer component that affects your editing speed and examine where to get the best editing performance per dollar. Whether you’re looking to upgrade your computer for Photoshop, or want to get the fastest previews in Lightroom, choosing the right computer parts is crucial.
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Laptop or Desktop for Photo Editing?
The first choice you need to make when you’re getting a new photo editing setup is the type of computer itself: a laptop, or a desktop.
There are a number of great laptops to choose from as a photographer. Laptops in general offer far more portability than a desktop, and they’re usually “ready-built,” at least to a greater degree than a typical desktop. They also already include a monitor, keyboard, and trackpad. I particularly like the MacBook Pro (see my guide to buying the right one as a photographer) as the most recent model offers great performance, tons of battery life, and a high-quality screen.
That said, the MacBook Pro is also an example of the drawbacks of a laptop for photographers: They’re usually much harder to upgrade. Even Windows laptops that are easier to upgrade are often limited just to RAM or storage. Meanwhile, on a typical desktop computer, there is no shortage of upgrades you can make in the future. For this reason, desktops can be more future-proof than a laptop.
Beyond that, desktops are generally less expensive (for a given amount of performance), and often more powerful than an equivalent laptop. There is more room to customize a desktop and tailor it to your needs as they change over time. Of course, this is all a generalization, and you can find laptops that are exceptions to some of these points, but that’s the general situation of laptops vs desktops.
Throughout the rest of the guide, I’ll dive into the exact computer components – processor, RAM, GPU, and storage – that matter the most as a photographer. These components apply both to laptops and to desktops, although my specific product recommendations below are generally for desktops.
The processor is often referred to as the brain of your computer. Processors are broadly a case of paying more for more performance. Higher-end chips will have more cores – plus, the individual cores are often faster or can boost to a higher speed.
On top of that, newer chips tend to have meaningful design improvements. As a result, for the same speed, they can get more work done. I’d recommend only considering the latest generation of chips.
1.1. x64 vs ARM For Photo Editing
The processor market presents two choices: x64 or ARM. x64 underlies all the typical consumer chips from Intel and AMD. It’s the processor type found in basically all laptops and desktops from every manufacturer except Apple.
Meanwhile, Apple’s most recent Macs – the ones powered by Apple Silicon chips – are the only practical choices for ARM-powered computers for photo editing. While I go into more detail about this choice in my Apple Macbook Buying Guide, the bottom line is simple: If you want to choose a non-Apple computer, you’ll be looking at an x64 processor as your starting point.
1.2. Single Threaded Performance
The most important aspect of choosing a processor – at least for photo editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom – is evaluating the single threaded performance. On one hand, Photoshop is very lightly threaded, meaning the work it does can’t be easily broken up among many cores. This means the performance gap between expensive chips with many cores and cheaper chips with fewer cores isn’t very large. For instance, in testing with Photoshop, the Core i5-13600K (see my recommendations below) performs about the same as the Ryzen 9 7950X, which costs about twice as much.
As for Lightroom, some functions can make better use of multiple cores, but these tasks are limited to passive activities like generating previews or exporting files. The difference you’ll feel when actively editing a photo is much smaller. So, again, single threaded performance is more important.
1.3. My Processor Recommendations for Photo Editing
Upgrading your processor can be an expensive proposition, often requiring a new motherboard and potentially new RAM. The latest processors are no longer compatible with DDR3, and DDR4 support is dropping away. As such, make sure to consider those additional costs when looking at a new processor.
The following are the two best x64 processors for photo editing with Photoshop and Lightroom: Intel Core i9 13900K and Intel Core i5 13600K. The i9 is the performance king for Photoshop and Lightroom, while the i5 punches above its price. If you often edit video, consider spending extra for the i9, as the extra cores widen the gap in video editing software. Otherwise, it’s probably best to get the i5 and put your money elsewhere, like RAM or storage.
Files that your computer is actively working on are stored in your computer’s RAM. Basically, more RAM lets you keep more things open at once before your computer has to swap (shuffle files between RAM and your slower SSD or hard drive). Faster RAM can help you get the most performance from your processor.
2.1. How Much RAM Do I Need for Photo Editing?
Huge amounts of RAM aren’t particularly necessary for most photo editing purposes, with one major exception: stitching panoramas. If you’re editing panoramas, 32GB or even 64GB of RAM can come in handy, allowing you to work on massive 250+ megapixel files in Photoshop without issue.
For more general photo editing uses, 16GB should suffice. That said, 32GB DDR4 kits are so cheap that it’s worth a few extra dollars, if your budget allows.
2.2. Does RAM Speed Matter for Photo Editing?
Faster RAM kits – denoted by higher clock speeds, like 3600 vs 2833MHz for DDR4 RAM – can have a small but meaningful impact on processor performance. This is particularly notable on AMD’s latest chips, thanks to the interaction of RAM speeds and the clock speeds of other parts of the processor.
While there’s a huge variety of clock speeds and latency values for RAM, finding a kit from a reputable vendor at 3600Mhz for DDR4 or 6000Mhz for DDR5 should be the sweet spot between price and performance gains.
2.3. RAM for Photo Editing Recommendations
RAM prices are always fluctuating, making a single SKU tough to recommend. So instead of recommending a specific product this time, I’ll recommend that you look for a 16, 32, or 64GB kit with 3600MHz or 6000MHz timings from a brand like Corsair or G.Skill.
With the latest developments in GPU acceleration, GPUs are an increasingly important part of a photo editing setup. Both Photoshop and Lightroom have a number of GPU-accelerated features, while a number of other photo editing programs make varying use of your GPU.
3.1. Do I Need a GPU for Photo Editing?
For both Photoshop and Lightroom, a GPU can make a significant difference in speed and usability when editing photos, particularly when working with high resolution monitors. Specific features, like Photoshop’s Neural Filters or Lightroom’s Enhance Details mode are entirely reliant on your local GPU.
While high-end GPUs with large amounts of VRAM aren’t necessary right now for photo editing, that statement could change before long. In the following section, I’ll be taking a look at the role of a GPU in machine learning applications, which are only becoming more prevalent in photo editing software.
3.2. Impact of Machine Learning for Photo Editing
One of the biggest developments in photo editing software over the last couple years has been the significant increase in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) features. While Photoshop and Lightroom do have some ML-based features, offerings like Gigapixel AI from Topaz Labs are entirely based on ML – and by extension, highly reliant on the performance of your GPU.
If you’re looking at upgrading your computer for photo editing, strongly consider getting a decent GPU now, or at least budgeting for a future upgrade. I expect AI / ML features to take an increasingly large role in photo editing in the future.
3.3. GPU Recommendations for Photo Editing
If you’re purely editing images and not using AI / ML features, any entry-level GPU will be sufficient. According to Adobe, even cards as low as the NVIDIA’s 1050 Ti are sufficient. Still, for the best driver support and greatest range of features, I’d suggest that you look at more recent models.
NVIDIA’s 1650 is available at a reasonable price, but if you’re looking to get more performance, the 3060 can be a great option. The 3060 supports HDMI 2.1 for high resolution monitors, and is on a significantly more recent chip architecture. It would by my choice if you intend to use machine-learning software with any regularity when editing your photos.
4. Best Storage for Photo Editing
To edit photos, you need a place to store your files. Storage capacity and storage speed are equally important here; your choice of storage has a big impact on your computer’s speed, especially for processes that read or write large amounts of data at a time (like transferring a high volume of files).
I’m a big proponent of using NVME SSDs for storing your programs, Lightroom catalog, and a number of recent or active files. Meanwhile, you can keep the bulk of your images on HDDs for the far better price per GB that they offer.
NVME SSDs are a specific form-factor and communication protocol for solid state drives that offers the best performance and latency. You’ll need a more recent computer to take advantage of them, however, with the need for a motherboard that supports M.2 NVME drives. Lots of recent motherboards support multiple NVME drives, and they’re common among laptops these days, too.
With many NVME SSDs offering over 3,000MB/s – and more recent Gen 4 drives supporting speeds over 7,000MB/s – these drives can be anywhere from 15 to 35x faster than HDDs. This doesn’t even bring the faster latencies into the picture. Put simply, these drives are very fast compared to hard drives or older SATA SSDs, so I’d definitely recommend one. (My specific recommendations are in a moment.)
4.2. Hard Drives
The slower but bigger counterpart to SSDs, hard disk drives (HDDs) still have a place for the sheer amount of storage they offer at cheap prices.
With cameras pushing 100MB raw files, that 1TB SSD can fill up quickly. If you have a desktop computer, adding a few extra internal hard drives can be a great call, from both a storage and redundancy perspective, all at a pretty low cost.
For laptop users, or just those with computers that don’t have additional drive bays, external hard drives are a good option for the same reason. That said, don’t forget to budget for two drives – losing thousands of images to a drive failure would be awful.
4.3. CMR vs SMR
One niche consideration when shopping for drives is to avoid SMR models. SMR, or shingled magnetic recording, refers to how the drive actually lays down the data on the disk. Long story short, it’s a huge hit to performance, particularly for active workloads. While SMR drives can be slightly cheaper, I would recommend avoiding them in any application.
Seagate and Western Digital list their CMR and SMR models at the links I just provided, but these lists may be change. If you’re in doubt, consider searching the model you’re looking at, along with the keywords SMR or CMR, and see what the community has to say about the drive.
4.4. My NVME SSD Recommendations
I’ve had great results with both Samsung and Hynix NVME SSDs. Western Digital is also well regarded in this space. As a more budget option that doesn’t give up performance, consider Samsung’s EVO 970. This NVME drive is perfect for upgrading systems that support Gen 3 speeds. For the newest systems, consider bumping up to a Gen 4 drive like the 980 Pro or even faster 990 Pro.
If you’ve got limited drive space, like in a laptop, consider going for a larger capacity drive in the laptop. A number of 4TB models are now available at pretty reasonable prices. I believe they’re worth it for many applications. Photographers who have high throughput, like wedding photographers, would be especially good candidates for high capacities like this.
As a caveat, don’t expect the highest-end drives to offer much of a noticeable difference in day-to-day use, as programs like Lightroom can’t take full advantage of the speed. Instead, for sustained transfers or burst use, like scrubbing through video, the faster drives will set themselves apart.
4.5. My Hard Drive Recommendations
I like WD’s Red Plus line. While they’re nominally for NAS use, they work great in regular desktop use, and don’t use SMR technology. Seagate’s drives are also good, with some models sitting at a significant discount to WD’s lineup. Choosing a drive really comes down to understanding your own storage needs: 2TB or 16TB could both be reasonable choices for different photographers.
As previously mentioned, I highly recommend picking up more than one drive, so that you can back up or mirror to the second drive. While this is only part of an effective backup strategy, having a single disk as a point of failure is very risky.
Whether you use a laptop or a desktop, your choice of computer makes a huge difference in the speed and reliability of your photo editing workflow. Lightroom, Photoshop, and any other photography software can be sped up dramatically if you chose the right computer components to upgrade. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, as I’m happy to make a custom recommendation!