Photography Computer Building Guide 2020
Building a digital photography computer can be exciting! It can be highly customized and affordable by paying more for components that matter while saving on others. This is the greatest difference compared to a pre-built system. Manufacturers offer multiple tiers by making every component more expensive at each level. This guide explains every component and how to choose the right one.
Computer Component Overview
All computers are built around a similar set of components:
- CPU: The Central Processing Unit which controls the entire computer.
- Heatsink: Component which prevents the CPU from overheating by draining heat away from it.
- Motherboard: The backbone which connects all components together.
- Memory: Where the computer keeps data being actively worked on.
- Hard Disk: Storage for everything that is needed when the computer starts up.
- GPU: Component that bridges the computer and display.
- Display: Where images and software are shown.
- Sound Device: Component that bridges the computer and speakers.
- Network Adapter: Component that connects the computer to a network.
- Computer Case: What protects and keeps all components together.
- Power Supply: Component which converts A/C into D/C current and distributes it.
- Optical Disk: Device which read and possible writes optical disks for long term storage.
- Card Reader: Device to quickly transfer images from memory cards to the computer.
- Keyboard: Principal user input.
- Pointing Device: Secondary user input.
A number of these parts exist integrated together. The most common are network, sound and graphics which are frequently integrated into a motherboard. For a photography computer though, it is best to avoid built-in graphics to achieve reasonable performance while working with images.
CPU & Heatsink
Literally the central component of the computer, the CPU is where all processing happens. It handles everything from minor tasks to assembling gigapixel panoramas. A more powerful processor is capable of performing work faster and doing more simultaneously. CPUs are incredibly complex and it is impossible to measure their performance using a single scale, just like megapixels alone do not determine camera performance.
Common numbers associated with CPU performance are speedMeasured in gigahertz (GHz), number of cores and cache sizeMeasured as MB split into 3 levels: L1, L2 and L3. A crucial metric for digital imaging the Front-Side-Bus (FSB) speed, which is rate of data being transferred in and out of the CPU. Different combination of these number exist which makes CPUs tricky to compare.
There are two CPU manufacturers, AMD and Intel. Both offer every level of CPU from low-power entry-level models to ultra-high performance ones. Both made the most powerful processor at some point but AMD always prices their offers for better value. As of 2020, AMD enjoys a significant performance lead over Intel.
AMD currently offers 46 different Desktop processors split into 10 Ryzen Threadripper and 36 Ryzen models. As one can guess by the naming, both are based on the same architecture but Threadripper models are more powerful. These processors offer up to 64 cores with a huge amount of cache and consume a substantial amount of power, between 180 and 280W. The top-of-the-line offering is the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X which commands a substantial premium price of $4000 USD or $5400 CAD. The least powerful Threadripper that is still more powerful than any simple Ryzen model is the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2970X which costs around $1150 USD.
The Threadripper family is extremely powerful but unlikely to deliver an advantage for photographic applications for two reasons: First, a processor can only process images as fast as it is loaded from memory and the FSB speed is the same across all 46 processors currently offered by AMD. Second, most imaging applications do not heavily parallelize work across many cores. This makes performance more closely related to processor speed than its number of cores. Any AMD Ryzen 5000-Series is likely to deliver a similar level of performance for digital photography while their price ranges from $300 USD for the 5600X to $800 USD for the 5950X which all start shipping in November 2020.
Among current generation processors, the most highly recommended for a digital photography computer is the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X, closely followed by the AMD Ryzen 7 3800X. For the ultimate value, the budget Ryzen 5 3600X and 3700X offer nearly the same performance. Here they are starting from the most powerful:
AMD no longer supplies a heatsink with their CPUs, so one must be purchased separately. Without a heatsink, a CPU will overheat and stop working permanently in a matter of minutes. Plenty of third-party manufacturers make compatible heatsinks. Universal ones are actually a huge pain to install, so the best is to look for something specifically made for the right CPU. In case of Threadripper processors, what is needed is a TR4 heatsink, which is the name of the socket those processors fit into. Other Ryzen processors use the AM4 socket.
Even though AMD offers a heatsink, it is very loud with 45db of noise. The Noctua U12S-SE-AM4 is much quieter at 23db, although its rather tall size requires a wider case than most. For a slimmer build, there is the Noctua L9x65 SE-AM4, a low profile cooler that supports the AMD Ryzen 7 3800X and lower, with just 24db of noise.
Motherboard & Memory
Every single component inside a computer is connected to the motherboard. Motherboards are built for a specific platform with a distinct CPU socket. For AMD processors, the latest Threadripper CPUs require an sTRX4 socket while older ones use the short-lived TR4. All other current AMD processors fit the AM4 socket.
Start by looking for a motherboard with a socket for the desired CPU family. The next choice is a Chipset, a secondary processor that act as controller between components. Among ultra-high-end platforms, there is actually no choice: All sTRX4 motherboards rely on the TRX40 chipset and all TR4 ones use the X399 chipset. Performance wise, the TRX40 platform is significantly ahead of X399.
For AM4, there are actually 9 possible chipsets. This is an unusually high number of options with two being much more advantageous for a digital photography computer: X570 and B550. The full list of these chipsets with a nice table describing their differences is available from AMD. The important distinction is that both X570 and B550 offer PCIe 4.0 connectivity. The former globally, while the latter to graphics and NVMe only which is pretty much all that matters for our purposes anyway. While motherboards come in 4 sizes, ATX the ideal choice for a digital photography computer. For the curious, a detailed explanation appears in the right column.
Gigabyte produces best motherboards around. They are extremely reliable and have a unique Dual BIOS feature for safety and keeping a second BIOS that can be booted from in case one fails. Their AM4 models start around $165 USD, with X570 chipset ones starting at $220 USD and their high-end offering for $430 USD.
Although memory is a distinct component, a motherboard determines which type of memory is supported, the maximum amount and its maximum speed. Luckily, AMD uses Dual-Channel 3200Mhz DDR4 memory interface across its current lineup which makes choosing simple. Looks for a pair of identical 3200Mhz DDR4 memory modules. The dual-channel architecture requires for memory to be installed in pairs, so get two or four. More memory is pretty much always better, so get the most you can afford that matches the speed of the FSB.
The brand of choice for memory is Kingston. They sell modules already in sets of two or four which ensures that they function perfectly together. For a powerful photography computer, starting with 32GB is a good idea since it gives much better performance than 16GB.
Storage takes a number of forms. The highest capacity and lowest costs are standard Hard Disk Drives (HDD) but they are also the slowest. The have an incredibly long lifespan although they cannot handle being hit or dropped. For people with a huge collection of images, a HDD is must and, preferably more than one to keep at least one backup in case of disk failure. The only brand worth considering is Seagate. They make HDDs up to 16TB in size which are the most cost-effective. Seagate 8TB HDDs are also very well priced.
Solid State Disks (SSD) are about 5X faster than standard hard-disks and are extremely robust. Since they have no moving parts, they can handle drops and some are even waterproof. Essentially, an SSD is a very large memory-card, similar to Compact Flash and SDXC. This speed comes at highest cost and lower maximum capacity. SSDs up to 4TB exist but they are much better priced in 1TB size. Given that these are simpler to build than traditional hard-drives, there are plenty of SSD manufacturers, including most memory-card makers. Remember than photos can be irreplaceable, so paying for a reliable brand is worth it. Sandisk and Kingston are highly recommended for their durability and competitive pricing.
The latest persistent storage technology are NVMe that are even more expensive than SSDs yet can be over 8X faster. This high-performance storage option plugs in directly into a dedicated M..2 socket on the motherboard which is available in very limited numbers, if at all. Consider a motherboard that can support at least one NVMe for the ultimate performance. This should be used for the most frequently accessed data. Note that there are different physical sizes of NVMe and it must fit in the available space.
HDD and SSD drives both use SATA connectors which are generally available in sets of 6 or 8. This gives plenty of room to add disks later. Consider starting with an NVMe or SSD for the operating system and application and a pair of SSDs or HDDs for images, depending if your collection fit on SSDs you can afford.
Known as a GPU, a Graphics Card is an add-on board that acts as an interface between the CPU and display. It contains very specialized circuitry to handle rendering of geometry and images much more efficiently than a CPU, although certain modern processors include similar circuitry. As mentioned already in this Digital Photography Computer Buying Guide, some motherboards include a GPU but these are never powerful and they consume extra resources such as memory and bandwidth. For these reasons, it is always better to use a dedicated GPU rather than a built-in one. The difference is easily notable when processing images which software like Lightroom do automatically when a supported GPU is detected.
Just like CPUs, there are only two mainstream manufacturers of GPU. AMD, which got this technology when it acquired ATI, and its rival NVidia. Again, both produce graphics card than span the entire range from low to ultra-high end. Image processing is not particularly demanding of a GPU. So, having a graphics card significantly improves performance over built-in graphics but there is little difference between a mid-range and high-end GPU when working with images. In fact, some better-rated GPUs perform less on images because they are primarily optimized for 3D rendering.
The Best Graphics GPU for Most People in 2020 is known to be the AMD Radeon RX 5700. When buying a graphics card, multiple brands create different cards with a specific GPU. Performance is usually quite similar between offerings but they can offer different connectors. These days, all with have at least one Display Port to connect a modern display but, if you are planning on using an existing monitor, make sure to choose a compatible graphics card. Gigabyte, Sapphire and PowerColor all make excellent RX 5700 graphics cards.
While the RX 5700 is undoubtedly a super GPU, it is rather pricey but there is no need to pay that much for a digital photography computer. Any graphics with an AMD Radeon RX560 or above (Note the one-digit shorter model number) delivers a level of performance that is virtually indistinguishable when processing images.
Display & Calibrator
The component that makes the most difference for photography is the display. The two critical features of a monitor are color-space coverage and accuracy:
- Color-Space Coverage is an indicator of which colors a screen can show. It is measured as a percentage relative to a color-space. sRGB is the most common color-space and is the default for all digital cameras and images and so a good display should cover at least 95% of sRGB. Prints have gamut and people often prefer working in AdobeRGB, in which case a high coverage if preferable.
- Color-Accuracy is distinct from coverage. It determines how accurately individual colors are shown from the color-space. Display monitors usually 8-bits per-channelComputers often show this as 24-bits-per-pixel or 32 which includes 8 extra for padding or transparency. which gives them 256-levels of each primary colors. Anything lower is not worth considering. Luckily those are pretty much limited to laptop and TV screens. Some displays offer 10, 12 or 14-bits per-channel which greatly improves potential accuracy.
Color accuracy is ensured using monitor calibration which captures light emitted from the screen and calculates correction factors that are loaded into LUTs in the display. The best monitors use internal 14-bit 3D LUTs that can very precisely control color-accuracy. Without LUTs built into the monitor, it is possible to calibrate the graphics card which improves colors while also introducing banding artifacts.
The Gold Standard of computer monitors is NEC. They make Color-Critical Displays that spans sizes from 23" to 32" with excellent color-space coverage and accuracy. Many cover 100% of sRGB and the higher-end ones reach at least 96% AdobeRGB coverage. Their mid-to-high-range offerings come standalone or in SpectraView version, models ending with SV, which includes a calibration device and software.
Resolution is also important when selecting a computer display. This is the number of pixels that make the display. Unlike on digital camera where it is measured in megapixels, monitor resolution are specified by horizontal and vertical number of pixels. The most common lately is 1920x1080 which is the same resolution as 1080p HD video and corresponds to 2 megapixels. Ultra HD monitors are 3840x2160 and so have roughly 8 megapixels. An intermediate QHD resolution has 2560x1440 which is 4X the resolution of 720p video.
Modern computer screens commonly use of same 16:9 aspect-ratio as HD video which is not ideal for viewing images but works fine with software that place their tools on sidebars. Slightly taller 16:10 monitors are sold with resolutions of 1920x1200 and 2560x1600 which improve the image viewing area. 17:9 or even wider monitors exist too.
When selecting a monitor, it is important to consider its DPI. Just as with digital images, DPI is determined by size and resolution. For 22 to 24" screens, 1920x1080 is very sharp yet comfortable. High resolutions, even 4K, exists in those sizes but results in such small pixels that strain eyesight. QHD is ideal for a 27" display while 4K below 30" is difficult to see. This forces a rather high price on those looking for large high-resolution and color-accuracy all in one display.
The budget brand of color-accurate display is Viewsonic. Their VP-Series comes in 24 to 32" sizes with resolutions of 1920x1080 to 3840x2160:
- The Viewsonic VP2468 is an incredibly cheap 24" 1920x1080 monitor with a 14-bit LUT and comes factory-calibrated to a high-degree of accuracy with excellent sRGB coverage.
- The Viewsonic VP2768 is a very affordable 27" 2560x1440 screen also equipped with a 14-bit LUT and comes precisely calibrated. There is rather sharp 4K version called the VP2768-4K as well.
- There is a slightly more expensive Viewsonic VP2785 which offers 2560x1440 at 27" with full 100% coverage of both sRGB and AdobeRGB. Again, it is fully calibrated at the factory. There is rather sharp 4K version called the VP2785-4K as well.
- The huge Viewsonic VP3268-4K is a 32" screen with 4K resolution. This one fully covers sRGB but not AdobeRGB. It still supports 14-bit internal LUTs and comes accurately calibrated, so is an excellent choice for those that work exclusively in sRGB.
EIZO makes professional monitors with similar accuracy to NEC yet are even more expensive and harder to find.
Sound & Network
All computer motherboards include audio input and output supported by the chipset. For most by the most demanding audiophile, these are sufficiently good. Modern chipsets support at least 5.1 audio. Wired network is also supported by every current motherboard. Some also include WiFi and Bluetooth support which can easily be added via a cheap WiFi 6 Expandion Card.
Sound can be output via a simple pair of stereo speakers or up to 8 spread around a room: Front Left, Center, Front Right, Subwoofer, Side Left, Side Right, Rear Left and Rear Right. Obviously, this is irrelevant to photography. The stereo output of any computer accepts headphones. Additionally, computers with Bluetooth support can use Bluetooth speakers, headphones or a headset.
Computer Case & Power Supply & Optical Drive & Card Reader
At this point, these parts make little difference in terms of performance. The only requirement is that the power supply is sufficiently powerful and that all parts fit. Buy the most powerful power supply that fits in the case of your choice. An 800W model is sufficient for most use but will be operating near its limit when a high-end graphics card is present, more so with a Threadripper CPU. A 1000W power supply will offer more breathing room.
Power supplies come with an efficiency rating which is important to keep energy costs low and to reduce heat. The Gold label should be the minimum to consider these days with Platinum being even more efficient. The ultimate Titanium efficiency label is better but quite expensive for less than 5% difference in efficiency.
While an ATX case will fit any ATX motherboard, these cases different mostly in number of drive bays. A drive bay is where disks, including the optical drive, are mounted, so you must choose a case with sufficient bays of the right size. An 5.25" External Drive Bay is required for any optical drive and another External Drive Bay is required for an internal memory-card reader. These readers usually mount directly into 3.5" bay. If there is a 5.25" bay and no 3.5" one, then is easy to buy a 3.5"-to-5.25" mounting bracket which is very cheap.
By far, the best mounting bracket is the ICY DOCK Dual-SSD 3.5-5.25". This brackets makes clever use of space by providing 2 slots for standard 2.5" SDD to mount in the space left above the 3.5" device. They also make a completely internal 4 x 2.5" SSD bracket for those who do not need the 3.5" external opening. An external card reader may be used on any computer instead of an internal one.
A card reader is a great addition to speed up the digital photography workflow. It must support the type of memory cards your camera(s) use. There are so many memory-card formats and variants now that there is no longer one reader which can read them all. Be particularly careful when evaluating readers that is supports the right memory-card variant:
- SD, SDHC and SDXC are all physically identical but they are only downward compatible. An SDXC reader can read SDXC, SDHC and SD cards but an SD reader cannot read SDHC or SDXC. Given that large memory-card are common now, it is best getting an SDXC reader to avoid getting a new one when you upgrade your memory-cards.
- Compact Flash comes in Type 1 and Type 2, which are thicker cards. A Type 1 card can be read in a Type 2 reader but not the other way around.
- XQD and CF Express Type B have same form-factor but very few readers are capable of reading both.
- Speaking of CF Express, there are 3 versions, all with different shapes. Type A is slim and similar to the SD format. Type B is the same as XQD and Type C is larger, closely resembling Compact Flash.
Just as people thought all memory-cards formats would converge, many for introduced. There is also CFast which is in use on a few cameras. These cards are quite rare and readers for them are hard to find.
Keyboard & Pointing Device
The right keyboard is a matter of personal preference. They can be rather cheap yet sturdy and spill proof with a lifetime guarantee such as the Kensington Keyboard for Life which retails for about $22 USD.
More sophisticated and expensive keyboards exist. A backlit keyboard is nice to have when working in a dim environment which is useful for judging color. The main decision point is between quiet keys and mechanical ones which are both louder and more expensive.
A good high-precision pointing device is a must for working with images. Ergonomics are very important for long hours. While most users are accustomed to the common mouse, a trackball provides as much precision with greater comfort since it lets the hand stay in a resting position. Nothing compares to the Logitech Ergo MX that offers high-precision mode, a tiltable scroll-wheel and adjustable angle.
Although a trackball or mouse is sufficient, people who frequently retouch images all use a digital tablet. Wacom is the tablet specialist and has such a high reputation that software is frequently built with specific support for their tablets. They offer a range of models, split into the Intuos and Intuos Pro lineups. Larger tablets are more precise and comfortable.
Building a Digital Photography Computer
Putting everything together is not that difficult. The majority of cables are keyed so that they can only fit in the right connector with the correct orientation. The most time is required to attach the motherboard to the computer case which requires a lot of screws and patience! A few more screws are required for the power supply and one for each add-on board, including the GPU. Some cases offer tool-less drive bays but otherwise, you need 4 screws per disk which is quick. Within two hours, pretty much any system can but put together.
Installing the operating system and software is going to take much longer. Make sure you have the operating system disk on hand and we highly recommend a copy of drivers to be downloaded onto a USB key or memory-card. This can save trouble if the OS does not manage to activate the network to get drivers and updates.
All parts mentioned here are available from Amazon. They offer plenty of choice, great prices and flexible return policy should certain parts not work. Buying from this and above links helps support Neocamera at no additional costs.
Motherboards come in 4 distinct sizes. The original ATX is the most common and has been around for decades. It can handle a large number of components and peripherals, plus handles at least 7 expansion slots.
Extended ATX is a longer version of ATX to support extra expansion boards. It is reserved for highly specialized builds and requires an extra large case. Generally the only reason to get an Extended ATX motherboard is when one needs many graphics or network adapters, plus speciality expansion boards.
Micro ATX is a smaller form-factor designed for a compact computer. It can normally accomodate a standard graphics card, so it could be used for builting a small photography computer. There are other implications though such as reduced airflow and space which limits the size of the heatsink. Smaller heatsinks produce more noise since their fans must spin faster to produce the same airflow.
Mini ITX is an even smaller form-factor with seriously limited expansion capacity. It is not recommended for a powerful computer of any kind.
Neocamera Blog is a medium for expressing ideas related to digital cameras and photography. Read about digital cameras in the context of technology, media, art and the world. Latest posts links:
2020 Digital Photography Computer Building Guide
Everything to know about building a Digital Photography Computer in 2020.
Fujifilm X-T4 Review
Fujifilm APS-C flasghip mirrorless with 5-axis builtin stabilization mechanism using the same high-speed 26 MP X-Trans CMOS 4 sensor as the X-T3. New 15 FPS mechanical shutter and builtin HDR. Professional mirrorless with mechanical controls, dual control-dials, dual memory-card lots, a built EVF with Eye-Start Sensor and a huge feature set.
Canon RF-Lens Info
Info on all Canon native RF-mount lenses added to the Canon EOS R5 preview.
Canon EOS R5 Preview
Preview of the Canon EOS R5 flagship Full-Frame Mirrorless with 45 MP sensor on a 5-axis stabilization system effective to 8-stops. First 8K video capable digital camera. 20 FPS electronic and 12 FPS mechanical drive.
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III Review
Third-Generation OM-D that packs a 20 MP Four-Thirds CMOS on a 5-Axis Stabilization System. Fast 121-Point Phase-Detect AF, 30 FPS Continuous Drive, Cinema 4K Video and more in a weatherproof and freezeproof body. Features dual control-dials and a builtin 2.4 MP EVF with Eye-Start Sensor with 0.69X magnification and 100% coverage.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III Review
20 MP Micro Four-Thirds Mirrorless with 7-Stop 5-Axis Image-Stabilization, 121-Point Phase-Detect AF 30 FPS Continuous Drive and Cinema 4K capability in a weatherproof and freezeproof body with dual control-dials and dual SDXC memory card slots.
M.Zuiko 12-45mm F/4 PRO Review
A review of the M.Zuiko 12-45mm F/4 PRO added to the Olympus Premium Lens Roundup.
Peak Design Travel Tripod Review
Review of the unique Peak Design Travel Tripod with its own ballhead and the universal ballhead adapter.
Nikon Z-Mount DX Lens Roundup
Review of Nikon Z-Mount lenses for APS-C mirrorless digital cameras. Covers all current Z-mount DX lenses available.
Nikon Z50 Review
The first Nikon APS-C mirrorless is built around a 20 MP BSI-CMOS sensor with ISO 100-204800, 209-Point Phase-Detect AF, 11 FPS Drive and 4K Video capability. Compact body with dual control-dials and 2.4 MP 0.39" EVF with 0.68X magnification, 100% coverage and an Eye-Start Sensor.