Thanks to the super high-resolution sensors we see today in digital cameras, a fast computer is absolutely essential for an efficient post-processing workflow when working with RAW images. If a few years back a standard PC or a mid-range laptop were good enough for post-processing images, 30+ MP RAW files can put a huge burden on processing power and make a high-end machine seem obsolete. In addition, most commercial software targeted at professionals has also gotten pretty heavy, requiring more memory, faster storage and high-end CPUs and GPUs for a smooth, delay-free experience. Having spent most of my adult life in information technology, I have always been building my own PCs. In my recent articles and reviews of storage equipment, a number of our readers asked me to share my preferences for a solid, future-proof PC build that could take pretty much anything you throw at it for post-processing large numbers of RAW images and video. In this article, I want to talk about my ultimate PC build for photography and other needs, and discuss my personal preferences for working with Lightroom catalogs and RAW files in terms of file management and performance optimization.
Note: An updated version of this article for Intel’s latest Skylake CPU has been published.
I will be presenting two different builds – one based on a full tower case, which gives a lot of flexibility in terms of space, storage and future expansion options, and one based on a very compact build for a lightweight setup that occupies minimum space. Although I have always been using large cases, I have been leaning towards more compact options lately – primarily because it is now possible to build small, but powerful machines.
Let’s start with the architecture – which way is to go, Intel or AMD?
Bringing up Intel vs AMD can sometimes spark up debates among PC enthusiasts, similar to what we see when one brings up Nikon vs Canon. Ever since seeing AMD CPUs melt and explode when a fan quit working (yes, that was a while ago) I have always chosen Intel as my architecture. And I have never looked back or regretted this choice, since Intel has been rock-solid in every build I have had. Taking a quick look at this chart from CPU Benchmark reveals why millions choose Intel over AMD – the top of the chart is dominated by Intel and has been like that for a while. Intel rules both the PC and the Apple world for a reason and you can find similar benchmarks in many other sites. If I offended AMD fans with this, I apologize ahead of time!
2) Chipset and CPU
With Intel being the top choice for architecture, the next step is determining the chipset and the CPU. And although Intel’s latest architecture is X99 and Skylake has not been announced yet, I normally don’t go with the latest chipset (as it can get unnecessarily costly), and rather concentrate on the fastest and most value-driven processor on the market. And without a doubt, “Devil’s Canyon” Intel Core i7-4790K proved to be the top choice for a while now, with its insane single and multi-core performance that seriously challenges the latest Intel CPUs. Since the Intel i7-4790K has the LGA1150 socket, it means that our default choice is Intel’s Z97 chipset. Although Z97 is pretty aged by now, it is a very solid chipset, with plenty of great motherboard choices on the market. Now that we know what we want in terms of both CPU and chipset, let’s move on to selecting the right motherboard.
The choice of a motherboard is tough, because there are so many choices available out there. There are brands, then there are models, ranging from affordable to not so affordable. When building PCs, I don’t bother with picking either a low or a high-end motherbooard, since the best value is in the mid-range. However, I do have selection criteria – I want a motherboard that comes with an M.2 slot, which is critical, as you will see below. As for a choice of brand, I have tried many brands including Tyan (anyone remember Tyan Trinity with dual CPU support?), ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, ASRock, Intel and SuperMicro, and I always keep coming back to ASUS. While I am not a big fan of ASUS software (particularly their AI Suite software), I have not been disappointed with the hardware, which has been rock-solid, running for many years. That’s not to say that other motherboards are bad – ASUS has just been my personal preference all along. But ASUS does come with a relatively high price tag, so if you find that the motherboards I picked below are too expensive for your budget, feel free to pick any other motherboard with WiFi + M.2 support.
Another brand that I have recently started to favor is ASRock, which is basically a daughter company of ASUStek, the same company that makes ASUS hardware. As you will see below, my top contender for the Z97 chipset for desktops is an ASRock motherboard.
So based on the above, the below two motherboards are my top contenders for the builds:
- Full Tower Build: ASRock Z97 Extreme 9 – my primary reason for picking this ASRock motherboard is M.2 support – this motherboard has two slots, one of which is PCIe Gen3 x4 based. If you want to make a nice Hacintosh, the motherboard also comes with a Thunderbolt AIC Connector. My only gripe with this is lack of built-in WiFi, but there is a mini-PCIe slot that you can use to add WiFi, if you need it. For a full tower build, WiFi might not be as critical.
- Compact Build: ASUS Maximus VII Impact – while this is probably the priciest mini-ITX motherboard on the market, it is for a reason – it is the only ITX motherboard with Z97 chipset that comes with a super-fast M.2 x4 slot. Add on all the goodies like WiFi, Bluetooth, 4 USB 2.0 and 4 USB 3.0 slots on the back and you will see why I picked this motherboard as the top choice for a compact build.
4) M.2 Slot – Faster than SSD
If you have been using an SSD drive and have been impressed with its performance, you have only touched the surface when it comes to extreme storage performance. The new generation M.2 SSD drives deliver up to 32 Gb/s speeds, which is a boatload faster than 6 Gb/s limit of the SATA interface to which traditional SSD drives attach. So there is simply no comparison between SSD and M.2 SSD – some of the best M.2 SSD drives today can deliver up to 1,600 MB/s read speed, while the best SSD drives will cap at 500 MB/s, if that. That’s over 3x performance you would be getting with M.2! So imagine booting up your operating system in a matter of seconds and using that extreme performance for cashing and other read/write-intensive operations. You know where your Lightroom catalog would live…
As for the choice of an M.2 SSD unit, I would not get anything less than the Samsung SM951. This is the puppy that will give you 2,150 MB/s read and 1,500 MB/s write speeds. Nothing beats that at the moment. When XP951 hits the market, it will be my top choice, but for now, the SM951 is simply unrivaled.
Size-wise, I would not settle for anything less than 512 GB. Yes, that’s pricey, but 256 GB won’t cut it for large catalogs, especially if you are planning to generate full size JPEG previews (and you should, if you want ultra-fast Lightroom performance – see this article for more details). And if you are planning to use the above ASRock motherboard, you should get one Samsung SM951 and one lower-end M.2 unit. The second slot is limited to 10 Gb/s, which is still much faster than SATA. Plus, you save some space and there are less cables to pull and worry about.
5) SSD / HDD Storage
In addition to the M.2 drive(s), which will be hosting your Lightroom catalog, my recommendation is to get fast SSD drives for storing photos. I know many of our readers will disagree with this, because photos can be stored on regular spinning drives as well (which are often fast enough). However, ever since I started using SSDs for storing RAW files, I would have a hard time switching back. Keep in mind that whenever you open and make changes to a RAW file, Lightroom still needs to access it. And if you put those RAW files in faster storage, your access time will decrease and you will see pretty noticeable performance benefits. If you don’t mind the high price tag, my top choice would be the Samsung 850 EVO 1 TB SSD drives. If you don’t have a lot of photos, go for the 500 GB version instead, which is much cheaper. Why not go for the 850 Pro series? Because it is overkill for a photo storage in my opinion. However, if budget is not an issue, go for the 850 Pro line instead, as you will get a bit more performance out of those. If you find other brand SSD drives with similar performance, those might be worth looking into as well – sometimes you will find great deals on Crucial, Intel, SanDisk and other brand SSDs. Whatever brand, make and size you choose, make sure to buy two of the same drives. Although SSD is much more reliable than HDD, I would still go for a RAID 1 / mirror setup just in case you forget to frequently back-up your work. Another advantage of SSD is that you won’t have to worry about heat dissipation issues, as they do not get as hot as regular hard drives.
For many, going with an all-SSD storage is cost prohibitive. You certainly do not get as much storage as you can with spinning drives either, so that’s another drawback. So if you have a lot of photos that you like keeping on the same volume and you do not want to buy expensive 1-2 TB SSD drives, then go for two 4+ TB hard drives. Just make sure that you don’t buy one of those green drives – go for 7200 RPM drives with a good amount of cache, similar to Western Digital 4 TB Black drives. For the full tower build, I would recommend to get four of these drives to use as backup / RAID 1 / RAID 5 storage.
My current workflow is to store current year photos (the ones I actively edit) in SSD storage and move everything else to slower, network-based Synology DS1815+ (will review it shortly), which is absolutely amazing as a home server. I use Synology DS1815+ heavily in my environment and Lola and I often access photos from multiple computers, which is very convenient. When she is done editing, we move multiple catalogs to shared storage, merge them there and copy back to our computers, keeping full backups in the common storage.
Choosing RAM can also give you a lot of headache, as there are so many different types of RAM out there. I am typically not as picky when it comes to RAM – I choose a good brand like Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill and Kingston, and pick whichever one is on a good sale. Back in the day I would spend a lot of time looking at RAM timings, overclock-ability and other factors, but nowadays I don’t bother wasting my time – most RAM out there is quite good. I don’t heavily overclock my computers anymore, particularly when going small, so typical timings and speeds are sufficient for my needs. Here are two options I found with a quick search for solid memory:
Unfortunately, mini-ITX builds are limited to 16 GB of RAM, so that’s the maximum we can use on the compact build. I like low-profile RAM like the above Ballistix series, since they work great with oversized third-party fans / CPU coolers. If you are planning to overclock your rig, I would certainly look into higher-end memory though, potentially with better, taller heat-sinks that dissipate heat better.
7) Video Card
Now that Lightroom and many other applications take advantage of GPU rendering, the speed of your video card certainly does play a role in how fast applications render images / video and respond. If you want to take advantage of this additional benefit, I would get a high-end video card that can easily handle the load. While those with deep pockets and a desire to run a 30-bit workflow should look into NVIDIA’s Quadro-series video cards (which can cost up to $10K alone), I personally went for the NVIDIA GTX 970 video card, which is super fast and easily handles the load I throw at it. At this time, I do not see the benefit of a 30-bit workflow setup for my needs and I cannot justify spending over $1K on a Quadro-series video card, which is why I went this route. So here are my two top recommendations:
I chose a smaller profile video card for the compact build, because it leaves plenty of space for cooling and cables.
8) Power Supply
Lots of options for power supplies too and you certainly want to make sure to get a solid power supply that is modular. With a modular power supply, you only add as many cables as you require and you don’t end up with a lot of dangling cords inside the case. My personal favorite has been Corsair CX series PSUs, which are great value. Here are the two I would recommend for the two setups:
- Full Tower Build: Corsair CX Series 850 Watt Modular PSU. If you are planning to add more than two hard drives, add more accessories and overclock your setup, I would recommend to go with a larger and more powerful PSU, like the Corsair HX1000i.
- Compact Build: Corsair CX Series 650 Watt Modular PSU
Now that we have picked a motherboard, CPU, PSU, RAM, storage and a video card, it is time time to pick a case for each setup. Again, the below choices are based on my personal preferences. If you like other brands and models, please feel free to share you opinion in the comments section below.
- Full Tower Build: Cooler Master HAF X 942. I have been using Cooler Master HAF-series cases for some time now and I love these. Lots of room, plenty of cooling and many options to add lots of storage. If you do not want to go with a tall tower, another recommendation is to go for the HAF 912 mid-tower, which is also a very nice and much more affordable case.
- Compact Build: Cooler Master Elite 130 mini-ITX case. I have done a lot of research before picking this case. So far I have not found a case that I like better and I have already built 3-4 machines with this case, with impressive results. For the price, it is the best mini-ITX case in my opinion. If you need to build two machines for some reason – a big unit and a compact one, I would seriously consider going for HAF on both cases. Pick the HAF Stacker to be able to stack the smaller unit on top of the large HAF.
Although a monitor is optional and you can use the current monitor you already have, having a nice 4K monitor with an IPS panel would be sweet for such a high-end setup. I have been personally using Dell’s IPS monitors for the past few years for photo editing and I really like them. Yes, there are great monitors out there that you can buy from HP and Eizo, but that’s only if you are willing to spend over $1K per monitor. My personal choice is to go with a dual-screen setup and my budget is typically limited to $1K max for both. If you want a monitor with better calibration options, the Dell UP2414Q is the way to go (it comes with a built-in LUT, so calibration software does not have to load each time you restart). Otherwise, the Dell P2715Q is a bigger monitor (27″ vs 24″), which is more suitable for 4K content. If you don’t want to go 4K yet and want to stay with a solid 24″ display, my current setup is comprised of two Dell U2413 monitors, both hardware-calibrated.
11) Assessing the Damage
Let’s take a look at both setups and assess the damage:
|Component Type||Component Choice||Price|
|CPU||Intel Core i7-4790K||$340|
|Motherboard||ASRock Z97 Extreme 9||$232|
|M.2 x4 SSD||Samsung SM951 512 GB||$369|
|M.2 SSD||Samsung 850 EVO 500 GB||$195|
|2x SSD Drives (Optional)||Samsung 850 EVO 512 GB||$684|
|2x HDD Drives (Optional)||WD 4 TB Caviar 7200 RPM||$405|
|RAM||Crucial Ballistix Sport 32 GB||$200|
|Video Card||EVGA GeForce GTX 970||$330|
|Power Supply||Corsair CS850M||$130|
|Case||Cooler Master HAF X 942||$170|
|GRAND TOTAL (WITHOUT MONITORS AND OPTIONAL STORAGE)||$1,966|
Obviously the price goes up if you add the optional drives and dual monitors, but those are optional and depend on your needs / what you already have.
Not bad for an under $2K PC! If you are wondering how this would compare to a Mac, it will obliterate pretty much any Mac out there, with the exception of some Mac Pro models in terms of processing power (Xeon vs Core i7). Overall though, even the best Mac Pros won’t stand a chance against the above configuration (expect to pay $5K+ for a high-end Mac Pro).
Now let’s take a look at our compact configuration:
|Component Type||Component Choice||Price|
|CPU||Intel Core i7-4790K||$340|
|Motherboard||ASUS Maximus VII Impact||$220|
|M.2 x4 SSD||Samsung SM951 512 GB||$369|
|2x SSD Drives (Optional)||Samsung 850 EVO 512 GB||$684|
|RAM||Crucial Ballistix Sport 16 GB||$89|
|Video Card||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 970 Mini ITX||$329|
|Power Supply||Corsair CS650M||$88|
|Case||Cooler Master Elite 130 mini-ITX||$48|
|GRAND TOTAL (WITHOUT MONITORS AND OPTIONAL STORAGE)||$1,483|
Just like the full tower PC, this small-factor PC will obliterate pretty much anything out there, except for higher-end setups that cost a lot more. Nothing comparable from Apple either. The setup is pretty much identical to the full tower, except you are going for a small PSU and less storage options. I would certainly add at least one 1 TB SSD drive though, as the 512 GB M.2 storage won’t be sufficient.
Please note that I did not include the cost of operating system, since it varies quite a bit and you might already have options to upgrade for free.
12) Lightroom Workflow
So, how would I use the above PCs in terms of Lightroom configuration? As I have already pointed out above, you want to use the super fast M.2 storage for your catalog. Although the catalog will be located together with your boot volume, I would not be concerned with such a setup – you still want to give the catalog the fastest space you have on your computer. While the catalog itself does not need much speed, the preview files will be loading from the same volume where the catalog is located and that’s where the M.2 read speed comes into play – it will be super fast!
Your photos should not reside in the same volume. I would recommend putting your photos in a separate volume. If you go with SSD drives, put the photos there – RAW files will load instantly and working on those high-resolution images will give you the best experience. Now if you want to work really fast without waiting for any previews to generate, especially when you want to view the full size version, my recommendation is to generate full-size JPEG previews, as pointed out in this article:
Once the files are in the SSD volume, generating full previews should not take a lot of time, considering how fast this PC and your storage are. But it is definitely worth the effort! I have been rendering full size JPEG previews upon import.
If you run into space issues, it means that your catalog is probably too big and you have too many photos. I would recommend to reorganize your catalog and start splitting your work by year, as recommended in my article on organizing photos in Lightroom.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the above configuration. Please share in the comments section below!
P.S. I realize that the above article might not be for everyone – many of our readers are not geeks and will not be able to build a PC. Although putting components together is fairly easy, one has to have some experience with putting a PC together, performing hardware checks and installing an operating system.
P.P.S. I did not write this article with an intention to flame Apple. I have recently purchased an iMac and will be sharing my thoughts on advantages and disadvantages compared to a PC soon. Both have their pros and cons!