Choosing a Computer for Digital Photography

So you’re a digital photographer, videographer, graphics designer, or other creative? Faced with choosing a computer for digital photography, video editing, or heavy graphical design?

Here are some computer buying tips for the photographer or other creatives, summarizing some deep experience (this works regardless of the platform – Mac OS X, Linux, or Windows 7 and up):

Buying Tips In Order of Importance

  1. Lots of RAM, as much as can fit. It’s dirt cheap now, and 8 GB is a practical minimum, with 16 GB a worthwhile option. First, if you don’t have enough RAM, a fast CPU or expensive SSD hard drive won’t help on a modern operating system.

    Add RAM first!

    Modern photo and video editing software swaps your images and videos, plus dozens of hidden temporary files, the program itself and its extensions, out to RAM while you’re editing. No substitute!

  2. A multi core CPU, such as an Intel i5 or i7. All modern operating systems support this now. It’s far more important than absolute speed such as 2.5 GHz versus 2.7 GHz, which is trivial, all else being equal.
  3. Fast disk drives. A modern 7200 RPM drive is very fast and an economical alternative to a SSD drive. Power saving “green” drives are the worst in this application.
  4. Multiple internal disk drives (desktop machines only): one for the main platform and one for your data. Again, conventional drives are very cheap now, and quite fast. It’s also makes it much easier just to back up your irreplaceable data separately (you can always restore the platform and Photoshop, etc.)

Actually item 0 is: Get a 64-bit operating system – but all modern operating systems are 64-bit.

Think About Your Requirements

If you are on a budget, you can’t have everything, so you have to prioritize.

If you can buy whatever you want, just maximize everything (biggest, fastest and the most amazing components) and this would be a very, very, very short thread indeed. Some suggestions here are just trying to make recommendations in order of importance to keep the cost down.

What is your overall budget? And what are your overall requirements? For instance:

  • Does it have to be portable, or can it be a desktop computer? One monitor or two? Will you be calibrating the monitor for accurate color?
  • Are you editing videos in addition to photos? Editing motion graphics for the videos?
  • Are you compositing multiple HDR photos? Merging big panorama pictures?
  • Do you need a ton of space? Do you tend to save everything, or do you clean up a lot?
  • Are you leaving enough in your budget for a robust back-up system? Multiple drives? Multiple locations? Paid off-line storage?

About Performance

“Opening” software and “running” software are two very different things.

About Backups

This assumes you have yet another completely different external drive for backup – plus off-site backup.

The Bottom-Line

If you are looking to keep your costs down, $700 is a good budget.

The mid-priced Mac Mini is literally $699. It’s a desktop computer and a very tiny one at that.

Or, you can buy a ready-to-go Windows 7 machine for a similar price. Desktop machines are always less expensive for the same hardware, so you can use that to your advantage. The irony of this very long thread is that all these computers are so amazing today that you almost can’t go wrong with anything. So I just say an Intel i5 or i7 processor, eight or more gigabytes of RAM and personally I prefer to have two separate internal disk drives (system + data). Remember, you’re going to pay a lot more for a solid-state drive for a lot less space, so you have to decide if they need more space than speed. Eight gigabytes or more RAM should make up for it.

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