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Building a computer from a Photographers' Perspective … Suggestions for What’s Worked Best for Me

Let’s take a break from hiking and adventures and talk a little about the computer that drives Pixels and Pointers and more importantly the setup that processes all the photographs. I shoot on a Nikon Z9. At any given time, this camera can be pumping out 40 pictures in a matter of seconds and that adds up quickly. I could come home with 10 gigabytes of data or if it’s a long day it could be 60 gigabytes.

And just like hiking, the journey for me with photography has been a rewarding and sometimes frustrating road. Building a computer has been equally interesting and let me start by saying that I am not an expert. I only have thoughts based on what I have learned through the process of building one.


Identifying the Needs for Hiking and Photography


Let’s start at the top … Photography. Fortunately, there have been many people in my life that have assisted with the process of learning what I need to know about digital photography … NEF v. RAW v. Lightroom v. Editing v. Storage v. Backup. I have had one family member that’s a pro-shooter and is always willing to share tips and techniques. He is a lifesaver. Not everyone has access to resources on ready 5, but there are hacks around it.

  • For photography, hang out at the camera store and ask questions, photographers love to chat, talk about gear, best practices, and shooting techniques. Now that does come with an unspoken obligation to spend a little bit of money at the store you frequent, but it’s good to support the local shops. And if you’re into photography, there are always nik-naks to buy.

  • For computers, places like Microcenter are a wealth of information, and the folks there are amazing at answering questions about every little detail when it comes to computers.

  • The internet, search Google. I can’t tell you how many times I see questions on Facebook in groups where the questions can be answered with a simple Google search. And my hope is that maybe Google brought you here.

As for selecting a computer for editing your digital camera photographs, this is where I started, and your journey might be a little different. There is no right or wrong answer to this. And I’ll tell you, trial and error and small upgrades over time were my plans. We don’t always have the luxury of getting the best right away, but if you build a computer — you can start small and work your way up. I started with basics and slowly replaced the components of my computer to get to where it’s at today. Of course, computer recommendations are outdated quickly, so some of this you’ll have to read as the ‘essence of what you need.’


Photo Editing Software


Start with what you are solving for. For me, it was Adobe Lightroom. There are a number of editing software packages that are out there — Capture 1, Adobe Lightroom, NX Studio (I shoot Nikon), Luminar, etc. I found that the editing capability with Adobe Lightroom was on par with everyone else or at least on the margin. What really solidified the software for me was the photo organization functions in Adobe Lightroom and the mentioned relative above that is/was teaching me photography is a 30-year Adobe Lightroom veteran. So, the PC I built was based on Adobe Lightroom.


And important to note, not all programs are equal. When I used my original computer specifications with Adobe Lightroom v. NX Studio, I did notice that NX Studio performed with zero lag whereas Lightroom had small lags or hiccups — we believe that was related to the embedded previews and Lightroom was offering a larger file, but that’s not tested. The exports were nearly the same, only the trained eye could really tell the difference. I only call that out because it’s a nuance to selecting the hardware for editing photos.


Let’s get to the hardware that I selected to edit photographs and run this website. My current configuration is what I would term as a ‘smoke show’ — this thing is blazing fast, but as stated above, it’s also been an iteration of upgrades to get to where it’s at today. Time and budgeting to purchase the right components. Start small, one by one.


My Computer Specifications for a Baseline

First, let’s start with the setup that I am currently working on and why I went that route. When I started to rack up plenty of photos, I started to have a spaghetti mess of USB cables connected to hubs with power supplies on surge protectors and it just got really difficult to manage. By moving to a build, I now have ALL of my hard drives connected inside of the case.

  • Building your own PC allows you the flexibility to flex up in performance and storage space

  • It’s important to say many times — the right build and computer case will allow you to house your hard drives INSIDE your computer for less cables and faster read/write times with editing photographs

  • You control your future when you do it yourself and there are hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos to support putting it together and configuring and setting up - it’s not easy, but it’s worth it

The build I choose is as follows…. let’s goooooooo!


The Case: Find One that Designed to House Multiple Hard Drives


The Define 7 XL is a monster of a case and perhaps you need +20 Hard Drives to store video and images. For this unit, I went with the Define 7 which allows for about 15 drives when combined with 3.5” HDD, Solid State (SSD), and NVMe slots on the motherboard. This will be a personal decision and based on your needs for editing and storage.


  • When looking for a case, find one that allows you to put additional drives inside of the case. And find a motherboard that has plenty of SATAIII (or whatever the connectors are at the time when reading this) connectors to connect to the hard drives. This means that you can move the external drive from outside of the PC into the tower to eliminate USB connections and power plugs all over

  • There are many cases that will allow for plenty of drives, heck some up to 18-20 drives to be placed inside of the case. Wowza.



English, please, what does that mean? With the right case and motherboard you can move your hard drives from on your desk to into your computer. Standard HHD 3.5” drives are cheaper. Start there and move toward Solid State and NVMe drives that have no moving parts and are significantly faster with read and write.

Sincer hard drives are not cheap, edit your photos on the ones that operate quicker like SSD and NVMe and then move the final products to the HHD 3.5” cheaper versions. Programs like Adobe Lightroom allow you to drag and drop files. For the standard HDD 3.5”, they are spinning on plates and can fail easier, but most all hard drive failures are related to dropping them, moving them while they are on, spilling something on them, or just being old. I believe the Toshiba HHD 3.5” below is rated for 1,600 TB of data transfer capacity per year or something ridiculous, especially if the drive is 4TB or so.

Power Supply: Ensure That You Have Enough Power for the Hard Drives


The power supply that I originally purchased was a 500W. At the time, I didn’t account for potential additions to the unit with hard drives and other peripherals. The key with power supplies is deciding between fully-modular and semi-modular. The fully option allows to plug in which connections need power and order when additional is needed. This is convenient when working with multiple SATA connections.


Motherboard: Seek Out a Board That's Designed for Studio Editing


The ProArt Creator board allows for additional RAM slots and has dual NVME options with a host of PCI/PCIe options. There are many motherboards that offer similar features. Additionally, the motherboard allows for the graphics card to be ported into the system for access to Thunderbolt connectivity. For this, research and determine which slots you will need. For my needs, this is the right combination of accessibility.


  • According to ASUS, this motherboard was designed with the “creator in mind,” it has small things like additional slots for RAM - up to 4 cards. When you edit photos, RAM is important especially if you are using programs like Adobe Lightroom

  • Additional slots for NVMe storage which is a version of solid-state drives, there are 2 slots available for this. You can also buy an adapter online for additional NVMe slots. And while this type of storage is expensive — it’s super fast

  • Thunderbolt 4 ports for your monitor and other peripherals, the stuff you connect to your computer


CPU/Processor: Make Sure You've Got Horsepower


The processor is all a matter of preference. Selecting the Ryzen 9 was overkill. However, I did not want to have a bottleneck and the additional $150 to change between the 7 to the 9 was marginal when you consider the all-in cost. Even though I started with the 5, this one ended up working out for me.


  • I started with the Ryzen 5 and quickly found that I wanted faster speeds on the processing power. I immediately regretted the decision to go with the Ryzen 5 and took it back to Microcenter. They have a great policy for returns but I encourage you not to abuse the system, they track it

  • When you’re looking at processors, whether it’s Intel or AMD, think about the Cores and Threads. The Cores act like additional processors and are important to horsepower in Adobe Lightroom

Check out the Puget Systems benchmark for Adobe Lightroom Classic to get a flavor of what performance you’ll get out of each of the processors you’re considering. I believe that they only go down to i5 and Ryzen 5.


RAM: Again, Make Sure You Have Horsepower to Run Applications


Ram is another one that is preference. There are published minimal specifications for software applications that you are running. Consider the other applications that are running on your hard drive and consuming RAM. The backup software I run was important and wanted to make sure that there was plenty of headroom for memory.


*Note: Check the compatibility of your RAM to your Motherboard and especially your Processor. The RAM and Processor compatibility is IMPORTANT.


Make sure that your RAM frequency matches what your processor can handle. For example, the Ryzen 9 can handle 3200Mhz RAM if you look at the specification sheet. If you Google RAM for the Ryzen 9, it points to the G.Skillz Trident and "the sweet spot is 4 x 8GB." I wanted a little more RAM, so went with the RipJaws but kept at 3200Mhz.


  • Lightroom works best with a minimum of 16GB and for this system, I had 4 slots so I started with 32GB (2 cards x 16GB) and after a while upgraded to 64GB (4 cards x 16GB) to fill up each of the slots. Start small and migrate to bigger and you’ll notice with each change a little bit better performance

RAM is important. Adobe Lightroom publishes minimum standards and amounts that they recommend. Adobe recommends a minimum of 16GB.

GPU/Graphics Processor: GPU's are Used More and More for Editing, Get a Good One

ASUS KO GeForce RTX 3060ti 8GB GDDR6


Again, this is preference. Many of the resources that you’ll find on the internet will call out the need for minimal graphics processing if you are working with video and images. Since these are in short supply at the moment, I was relegated to the options that were available while I waited in line on a cold morning at Microcenter. The support team at Microcenter helped with the best option for what was available.

  • When I built this computer, the store didn’t have any cards. Blame crypto-mining or something. So I purchased a lower-end GeForce 1030 general purpose card to start

  • Shifting eventually to the higher-end graphics card, talk to the team at Microcenter or your local computer store about things like specifications … for example, for GDRR and the 8GB v. 12GB, etc. Just because the size is larger, doesn’t mean it’s better. In fact, the 8GB card I have now outperforms the 12GB because of the speed

  • Additionally, all the reading stated that I was better off going with the RTX card v. the GTX. I am sure there is plenty of information on why, but most of the bench testing proved that these cards outperformed

Starting your build may not require a high-end card, but you will have lag on your editing. When you click between photos and try to change exposures and touch-ups, you will notice a lag in performance.

Hard Drives: All of the Above … HHD, SSD, NVMe - Storage is Important


My operating system boots off a Solid State Drive and my storage is standard hard drives are traditional 3.5” HDD, and the NVMe drive is a temporary drive I use to edit photos. When I get home, I move my photographs from the CF-Express card the camera uses to the temporary NVMe drive. I edit the photos and then use Adobe Lightroom to move the files to the HDD 3.5” standard storage disk.

  • Crucial SATAIII 2.5”: Solid StateHard Drive since it houses the operating system and my computer files, it’s fairly straightforward

  • Crucial P1 500GB NVMe SSD: Used for editing the photos before I move them. I use Lightroom to move the photos over when I am done editing. It’s only 500GB, so it can’t hold all the files

  • Toshiba N300 NAS HDD (and Western Digital Red + Seagate Ironwolf NAS): These are my storage drives. They are SATA III drives that are NAS-rated. NAS-rated means that they are intended to run 24-hours a day, unlike normal desktop drives. I am not sure this matters, but it was one of those things in the back of your mind that you’d rather have it than not. With virtually no cost difference. Plus the N300 spins at 7,200 RPM, unlike the other drives that are right about the same price with a cache of 256MB. If you buy a standard hard drive in a box like a WD MyBook connected with a USB, you’ll find that they are 5,400RPM and some only have a cache of 64MB. That impacts the editing and if the photo pauses in between viewing and lags with edits

  • Backblaze (I’ll talk about Cloud backup below) publishes their data center hard drive failures, use this as a resource for deciding on drives to purchase. I mainly only look at brands and the percentage of failures to get a feel for reliability, which is probably flawed - but what can you do

Hard Drive types are important - if there is no moving parts they are typically faster with read and write speeds and less likely to fail. The solid state drives are move expensive. For photography and editing in Lightroom, you’ll want to work off the fastest computer possible, like a solid state drive. Find a case that will allow you to expand to the capacity that you need. If you shoot gigs and gigs of file, you need to consider how much hard drive space you need.

Crucial: Solid State Hard Drive … about the side of a deck of card.


NVMe Solid State Hard Drive … the same size as a slot of RAM (about the size of a stick of gum increased by 1.5x, I guess)


Toshiba NAS Drives … they work with SATAIII just fine


What did I learn the hard way with building a computer for Photography?


This is a long list, but there are a few lessons that I learned quickly. I am not an expert at computers, I know enough to be dangerous and navigate the space — and through the transitive property of asking dumb questions at Microcenter and them being really patient, I was able to glean significant information about what I did need. If you are seeing a trend here, it’s that I like Microcenter. My fingers are crossed that there is one near you.

  1. Get the Right Case: Find the right case for your build — make sure that if you are doing it for photography that you plan for the number of pictures that you take per year and the storage that you will need. I burn through about 70GB per week. That’s roughly 4TB per year … add in some long vacation trips, and it’s closer to ~+6-8TB per year. Note: I plan to move to all a combo of SSD + NVMe drives as the price starts to come down. I’ll say it again — use the case to move your hard drives internal to the system, they will operate faster, it’s fewer cords, and are consolidated to one place. Yes, there are trade-offs, but for me, it’s better than the spaghetti mess.

  2. Processor: The AMD Ryzen 9 is exceptional. The AMD Ryzen 7 (or Intel equivalent) is probably reasonable, the Ryzen 5 (or Intel equivalent) is probably ok too. I think that the graphics card upgrade with the Ryzen 5 would have been fine. Use the Puget Systems benchmarks to check the performance and what to expect.

  3. RAM: Make sure that the RAM frequency is matched to your motherboard and ensure it is aligned with your Processor, it can cause issues if this is incorrect and also DDR3 v. DDR4 v. DDR5, etc.

  4. Hard Drives: Figure out your hard drive situation. Use Adobe Lightroom or an equivalent program to move your files between your faster editing hard drives (so you can edit on the ones that are fastest with read and write speeds) and your storage drives. Adobe Lightroom is extremely powerful with managing files, but without the right computer, you may get irritated waiting every second for the photograph to load and show the edits on the screen. It’s marginal, but when editing hundreds of pictures, it gets old. As soon as you upgrade, it makes it enjoyable or at least easier to work with.

  5. Graphics Cards Matter a Little, Sort Of a Lot: It’s not the worst to have a general purpose to start, but know that your performance will increase significantly when you get a solid $500 card inside your computer. I would recommend that this is high on the list as you start to think about performance. AND not on the list above, but equally important…

  6. Backup Your Files: Find cloud software that works for you with backup, I use CrashPlan Small Business for $10 a month. A quick snippet to follow on that.

These are just a few of many learnings, but a great place to ground yourself with your build.


Backup Strategy


Wait, this is a computer build, why are you mentioning backup? Because hard drives fail and while the computer is important, don’t do all this work and get everything situated and have a plan for workflow and then forget about the worst-case scenario and lose everything you have stored on it. Consider a solution to backup your files offsite and in the cloud.

To start, I don’t buy drives that are bigger than 4TB because I don’t want to recover files from the cloud for ‘65 days or whatever the timing is if one of them should fail.’ That may become an issue when I started to get above 64TB (4TB drives in all the available slots), but we’re a ways away from 64TB.


For me, I use CrashPlan by Code42, it’s used by many companies, institutions, and universities alike. The software is a little more tricky to configure but easy enough that you can figure it out. At one point I was using SpiderOak but they capped the backup limit and Crashplan was there when I needed them. Ever since then, I have stuck with them. There are two choices that I hear frequently recommended for cloud backup services: CrashPlan and Backblaze.


CRASHPLAN


  • Pricing: $10 per month

  • Space: Unlimited - external drives included, NOT NAS (network-attached storage)

  • Recovery: Online (this is where Backblaze is better)

The alternative that you’ll hear frequently is Backblaze. This is very similar in software and frankly, you would be slicing hairs if you were to compare the two providers. Someone has compared them. According to the comparison, Crashplan was better — but it was marginal.

BACKBLAZE


  • Pricing: $7 per month, sometimes they have sales where it’s $6 per month

  • Space: Unlimited - external drives included, NOT NAS (network-attached storage)

  • Recovery: Online plus ‘Rapid Recovery via Hard Drive’ … max of 8TB


I hope that this was just a little bit helpful. I’ll dive into some of these topics in the future, but for now - enjoying the process of building a PC, editing your photos from the trail, and really understanding what is needed (and works best). Now get back outside and take some pictures of those hikes and adventures. Happy hiking and shooting!


Resources

Backblaze Hard Drive Failure Rates: Backblaze Hard Drive Stats

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