The modern digital photography has brought a lot of significant innovations, not only in photographic equipment in itself, but also in every other instrument that belongs to the image creation’s process. In this article I’ll cover a topic of prime importance: setting up a PC for photo editing.
As in film photography the dark room is the place in which the shots take tangible shape, the same is the computer in digital photography.
If the use of a computer allows creativity freedom and unmatched flexibility, on the other hand it’s important to be able to use softwares and to be conscious about the system’s potential and its limits. To reach maximum efficiency from the photo editing workflow, a computer specifically set up for this is recommended: just one inadequate or unbalanced component and the system will slow down dramatically. So, the most important hardware to do photo editing are processor, RAM and mass storage.
Currently the most balanced choice between parallelism of the computation units and per core raw performance is a quad core processor: taking into account that every software takes advantage of the processor’s architecture in different ways, it’s possible that in some cases many cores are useless and in other cases they are essential. So everyone should read up about the software that will use. Anyway, a quad core processor is a perfectly balanced choice. Moreover the market offers many choices about preferring a powerful integrated graphic card (like the latest AMD A10 of “trinity” generation) or power-efficient units (such as Intel i5 and i7 of Ivy Bridge generation).
RAM, the system memory
Talking about RAM, luckily nowadays it’s possible to provide the system with large quantity of memory without breaking the bank, so the more you use the better it is. In the case of a PC for photo editing, a starting point of 8Gb lets you to work without issues but, if you intend to make use of many software at the same time (like RAW pictures manipulation, photo editing suite with plug-ins, 16bit type heavy files with many layers), using 16Gb of RAM prevents slow downs caused by swapping of virtual memory on hard drive.
It’s important to use Dual-Channel certified memory, because otherwise the bandwidth between CPU and RAM would be halved. Generally, kits of two or four DDR3-1600 / DDR3-1866 memory modules are the best choice. It’s useless to choose a low latency kit, because modern processors take advantage of high frequency instead of aggressive timings. Moreover preferring modules with nominal voltage of 1,5V instead of 1,65V allows to limit overall heating and power usage. In my opinion the most reliable memory kits are the ones of Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston brands (just pay attention to avoid the low end “value select”, “value ram” or “value plus” series).
Hard Drive and SSD, the mass memory
The choice of mass memory is the most thorny matter, especially in the field of content creation machines, like the PC for photo editing: in computer performance chain, it is the weakest link, so it’s important to find the fastest and most reliable solution.
In my opinion the best configuration consists in setting an SSD (Solid State Drive) as a system drive in which install the Operating System and every other software, storing the whole personal files and works (like photo catalog and other “static” files) into classic mechanical drives.
Going deeper in details, using an SSD for Operating System and programs makes the whole system extremely reactive because of the very low latency timings and high read/write speed: apart from the sequential r/w speed (which can reach up to 550Mb/s, that is 4 times faster than a traditional HDD drive), the most notable differencies can be found in 4K cluster management and access time latency to them. In this area an SSD can be orders of magnitude faster than a mechanical hard drive, a dramatic improvement.
But be careful in choosing the right SSD: a lot of them make use of controllers not 100% reliable, such as not so convenient and long-lasting NAND modules (such as the TLC NAND). I think that the best and most reliable units in consumer market so far are the Samsung 840 Pro, the OCZ Vector, the Crucial M4 and the Plextor M5 Pro Extreme, to say only a few. Their price is quite high (about 20% more than the others) but performance and data safety in particular are crucial factors in this case.
Talking about mechanical hard drive, to store static and voluminous data, I can’t refrain from suggesting the use of reliable units (not the “green” or “value” ones) in RAID1 or RAID5 mode. Losing years’ work is an incalculable damage so, relying on cheap drives without redundancy is the same as playing at Russian roulette.
Remember to check if the motherboard supports the SATA 6Gbit standard with RAID modes. Moreover keep in mind that in a RAID setup a certain amount of disk space is reserved for parity. For example: RAID1 with two hard drives of 1Tb each, makes available only 1Tb because all data written on a drive are simultaneously cloned on the other one. RAID5 with three drives (the minimum required) of 1Tb each, makes available the 66% of the whole disks capacity, that is 2Tb.
There are also differencies in speed: the RAID1 mode is as fast as single drive, while the RAID5 mode is nearly double compared to a single drive.
The most important feature of these RAID modes is the high reliability: in both cases, if a drive fails the whole user data is still safe. Replacing the broken drive with an identical one, the array will be automatically restored and resynchronised.
I think that the most reliable units in consumer market are the Western Digital RE (RAID Edition) or Velociraptor (for higher performance). In both cases the outlay will be quite high compared to cheap “green/value” drives, but reliability and performance will be on a much higher level.
About data safety: it’s best practice to do a backup of all your data on an external drive (such as an USB hard disk or a NAS unit) to connect to computer only in this case. Having a copy of all your work is an important insurance.
Other parts to consider
Amongst other internal PC components, in my opinion the graphic card has not an important role yet: just a few softwares take advantage of GPGPU acceleration and not even in all their features.
The power supply and the CPU heat sink, instead, are as important as ignored: the first one grants long life and operational stability to every system component, if it’s a high quality unit. Some PSUs which surely deserve to be mentioned are Seasonic X series, Corsair AX series and Enermax Modu 87+ or Platimax series. Be careful not to confuse the Watt output with the quality itself: with the abovementioned unit an output value higher than 650W will hardly be necessary; so don’t look for 50$ 1000W PSUs but rather look for 150$ 550W units.
The CPU heat sink is a component that allows the processor to work at low temperature even during long stressing calculation sessions. The stock one is the bare minimum required, but it’s usually quite noisy and not so efficient. The choice of a dedicated quality heat sink let’s the system to work at lower temperature and in silence: to reach maximum levels of efficience, all the best heat sink make use of heatpipes, high number of fins, solid copper base and big fans which operate at low speed. Brands like Noctua, Thermalright and Prolimatech, for example, have in their catalogues some of the best existing cooling units.
In summary, when you choose the components of your PC for photo editing, be careful to find the most efficient and reliable ones, so to rely on a balanced and stable system which lets you to work without hassles.
I hope that this article may be a good overview about an essential instrument in modern digital photography.
Obviously, I intentionally omitted an element absolutely crucial for digital photography: the monitor. Since it requires a thorough discussion about technical informations, notions about color and other techniques, I’ll discuss this topic in one of the next articles: “monitor, color and calibration”.