Photo editing often requires specialist hardware under the hood of your PC or laptop to produce high-quality images for clients or personal use.
While domestic all-purpose laptops and computers can edit large photography and video files, most are not built for precision editing or editing in a commercial environment.
Furthermore, with over 200 globally known computer companies worldwide, choosing the correct hardware that suits your needs can be a headache.
Nowadays, consumers can choose from workstations, desktops, laptops, notebooks, tablets and smartphone computers, and while some of the above are great for editing RAW or Jpeg files, others are not fit for purpose.
In this article, I focus more on the hardware you need for a custom-built computer for professional photo editing; in addition, I’ve included some advice and tips for laptops too.
Therefore, before parting with your hard-earned cash, please consider the following first:
A motherboard is a printed circuit board that contains the main components of a computer or other device, such as the CPU, GPU and RAM.
The motherboard connects all your hardware to the processor, distributes electricity from the main power supply and defines the types of storage devices, memory modules, graphics cards, etc, that connect to your computer.
Motherboards offer various form factors such as general specs encompassing circuitry arrangement, overall size, number of ports, etc. It’s also important to note that only specific motherboard models fit into certain computer cases/chassis.
Laptops are usually fitted with specialist motherboards in which “most” of their hardware is already permanently soldered onto their respective circuits, often limiting RAM and storage upgrade options. This is due to the laptop’s smaller frame and lighter build.
Unlike most laptops, Personal Computers (PCs), motherboards can be replaced with a more powerful motherboard. In addition, PC motherboard components such as the WiFI, RAM, storage and graphics card can also be upgraded.
There are various motherboards on the market, however, choosing the right one for your needs is essential. For example, for domestic use, the ASUS Prime Motherboard with 65GB of storage capacity and USB 3.2 Technology is excellent for domestic or amateur photography editing usage.
That said, the ASUS Prime Motherboard has no I/O shield, standard Wifi, and no heatsinks for the lower two M.2 slots. However, it does what it says on the tin and is suitable for gamers and content creators.
However, if you’re operating on a commercial basis, editing hundreds of photos per week, and need that extra boost, the MSI MPG Z490 Gaming Plus for Intel and the Gigabyte B550M DS3H AC for AMD motherboards are more up your street.
The MSI MPG Z490 Gaming Plus supports 10th Gen Intel Core processors and has Twin Turbo M.2 with M.2 Shield Frozr for ultra-fast SSDs.
Meanwhile, the Gigabyte B550M DS3H Ac has dual channel ECC/Non-ECC unbuffered DDR4, 4 DIMMs, and 5+3 phases of pure digital VRM solution for stable performance while running multiple photo editing programs.
When choosing a motherboard for professional photo editing, make sure you check the following on your list before parting with your cash:
- Reliability: An advanced motherboard for professional photo editing should be able to work under heavy workloads 8 hours a day, seven days a week.
- Memory: A motherboard with four or more memory slots to allow plenty of memory expansion upgrades with options for 64GB.
- Storage: For professional photo editing in a commercial setting, two M2 slots are ideal so that an M.2 NVMe SSD can be specified. The use of super-fast SSD drives will improve your computer’s response times.
- Connectivity: Systems for photography need a lot of high-speed USB ports. Ideally, systems will also feature super-fast USB 3.1 Gen2, which operates at 10Gbps (USB 3.1 Gen1 works at 5Gbps) and at least one USB 3.1 Gen2 Type C port compatible with the latest incarnation of Thunderbolt.
It’s also important to note, that should you consider upgrading your motherboard with a more advanced and powerful motherboard, you’ll need to match up your new hardware to your existing hardware—or you can buy a set of all-new equipment. The most crucial bit is that the motherboard and CPU must match. More specifically, the motherboard CPU socket must fit the CPU’s socket.
- Power Supply
A power supply unit (PSU) is a hardware device that converts AC electricity into DC electricity and then distributes it to the rest of the computer.
On a standard desktop computer, the PSU is where the power cord plugs into and usually has an I/O power switch.
A laptop has no power supply inside the case that converts power. Instead, it has an AC adapter that works the same as the power supply and provides the power to the laptop.
The Thermaltake Toughpower GF3 is probably the best choice of PSU for professional photo editing PCs because it’s quieter, more stable than pre-built PSUs on the market, and fully compatible with Intel’s ATX 3.0 specification. Furthermore, it’s designed for next-gen GPUs and CPUs.
- Processor (CPU)
A CPU provides the instructions and power the device needs to do its work. Slow CPUs are unsuitable for professional photo editing and will frustrate you with their sluggish performance.
An ideal CPU speed for domestic use should range from 3.50 to 4.20 GHz; however, a CPU speed of 5.8 GHz is preferred for professional photo editing, of which the operator can run multiple programs such as Bridge, Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.
As of 2023, the Core i9 is considered the best processor for professional use. The Core i9 has a whopping 24 cores and 32 threads, which is more than enough power under the hood.
- Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) & Graphics Card
A Graphics Processing Unit or (GPU) is a specialist process initially designed to accelerate graphics processing within the primary graphics card. GPUs are useful for machine learning, video editing and graphics rendering.
An ideal GPU of 4GB of VRAM is suitable for domestic and professional use. However, you may want to consider a GPU with 8-12GB of VRAM for more advanced photo and video editing, though it’s not essential, and 4GB of VRAM is more than enough.
Some of the best professional photo editing devices I’ve seen on the market this year (2023) are running a Sapphire Radeon RX 5600 XT graphics card in which the GPU speed is 6GB VRAM which is plenty for domestic and professional use.
- Random Access Memory (RAM)
RAM or Random Access Memory is a form of computer memory, or to be blunt, a computer’s short-term memory in which data is stored that your device needs to run your applications and open your files.
Furthermore, RAM helps your computer/laptop to load apps, browse websites, and edit documents. RAM is the second most important piece of hardware because it simultaneously increases the number of tasks the CPU can handle.
Opening up Lightroom or Photoshop uses 1GB of RAM; however, once you’ve opened each app up and begun scrolling through images and videos, your RAM usage can increase to 4GB of RAM per app.
If your device only has 8GB RAM and both Lightroom and Photoshop use 4GB RAM simultaneously, you may notice your apps beginning to lag.
Therefore, you will need a fair amount of RAM for smoother filtering for photo editing software applications. Otherwise, your apps will begin to lag and crash. 4GB of RAM is not enough to run specialist photo editing apps and still be able to browse the web.
In hindsight, you will need 16GB RAM for moderate amateur or semi-professional photo editing.
However, 32GB RAM is more up your street if you require high permanence for demanding tasks. With 32GB RAM, your device can handle high-performance tasks such as 3D animation, complex photo and video editing, and data analysis.
- Solid State Drive (SSD) & Hard Drive
A solid-state drive is a solid-state storage device that uses integrated circuit assemblies to store data persistently, typically using flash memory and functioning as secondary storage in the computer storage hierarchy.
A hard disk drive (HDD), hard disk, hard drive, or fixed disk is an electro-mechanical data storage device that stores and retrieves digital data using magnetic storage with one or more rigid rapidly rotating platters coated with magnetic material.
The question is, of course, which one works best? SSDs were developed to be faster, eliminating read-write heads and spinning disks, saving space and enabling more immediate memory recall and work best in laptops with limited space.
A system with an SSD would be ideal for domestic use in which you’re not storing insane amounts of data and working as a non-commercial photographer.
However, an HDD and SSD integrated into a PC are more for you if you want that extra fast speed and the bonus of additional storage.
If you’re considering a laptop with just an SSD for professional use, go big rather than small; for example, a 5 or 15TB SSD drive is plenty for moderate professional usage.
- Internal & External Storage
As mentioned above, you’ve two choices regarding internal data storage options, SSDs or HDDs. For domestic use in which you’re not editing daily, a 5TB SSD or HDD is plenty.
For professional photo editing in a commercial setting, you want a large internal storage capacity of 10-30TB integrating both an SSD and HDD.
SSDs are best for laptops, while HDDs and SSDs can be used for PCs. It’s also important to note that most brands of laptops are rarely fitted with HDDs nowadays. So, it’s best to consider your options carefully if you choose a laptop.
External storage USBs are also wise if you’re a mobile photographer working on a laptop or similar device or want that extra storage.
I use a 5TB USB plugin drive for my PC and laptop, which can easily store an estimated 83,000 MP3 music files, 1,250 feature-length movies, or 160,000 digital photos, which is ample storage for most average users.
- Cooling Systems
Traditional air cooling fans with heat vents are okay for consumer and professional PCs/laptops. In my opinion (and with over 30 years) of using laptops and PCs, anything else, i.e. water cooling, is just a gimmick and a waste of money. However, they can help with challenging video editing and pro-gaming by lowering the temperature of the CPU and GPU.
- Drawing Tablets
I’ve always used a mouse for photo editing on a PC; however, a Wacom Intuos Pro is best for more detailed photo editing and works with both PCs and laptops.
The Wacom Intuos Pro helps you deliver accuracy and precision when using brushes and pens in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.
Drawing tablets are well-liked by artists and pros because of their accuracy, positioning, control and comfort; the Wacom is also wireless, which takes editing and comfort to a new level.
Wacom is compatible with PCs, Macs, Tablets, and most advanced mobile devices.
Loupedecks are just as good as the Wacom and do precisely the same thing. Loupdecks combine analogue with digital precision for all creators, allowing users to move through workflows with speed and fine-tuning adjustments at the touch of a button or dial.
A mouse is a small hardware input that usually connects to a PC though it can also be used on a laptop. A mouse controls the cursor movement and allows users to move and select files and folders, copy and paste, etc.
A mouse is much more versatile than a tablet, and they’re cheaper too. That said, cheap and poorly designed mouses are unfit for purpose and can lead to injuries such as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).
A mouse has programmable buttons, adjustable DPI, and ergonomics, and some even come with adjustable weights that allow you to move the mouse more freely or slowly.
The Logitech MX Master mouse is great for domestic and amateur photo editing, which comes with longer working times, super ergonomics, innovative shift options, smooth actions etc.
However, for professional photo editing in a commercial setting in which the operator requires comfort and precision, the Logitech MX Master 3S Bluetooth Wireless Mouse is more of a suitable option to choose.
The Logitech MX Master 3S has even more excellent tactility, performance, flow, quiet buttons, and an 8K optical sensor for use on any surface, including glass.
In addition, the MX Master 3S can work between Windows and macOS operating systems and stays powered for 70 days on a full charge.
If, like me, you spend long hours in front of the PC photo editing, then investing in a decent keyboard is essential.
A decent photo editing keyboard should be backlit for editing in dim environments and come fitted with legs for use at an 8.5-degree angle for typing or a 4.5-degree angle for smooth photo editing, thus reducing RSI injuries. Keys should also be low profile but full-sized too.
Wireless keyboards compatible with PCs, laptops, iPad, iPhones, Android smartphones and various tablets (Samsung Galaxy, Surface) etc. are also essential if you plan on editing on the move or away from your main home or office desktop.
Ideally, your keyboard should be lightweight, compatible with secondary devices you use in the home, office or on the move, and slim built for mobile photo editing on public transport.
The key features to look for in a keyboard are:
Sound design and arrangement of keys, dials, etc.
For Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.
- Back Light
Back lights are essential for editing in dim-lit environments.
For connecting external devices such as a mouse, tablets etc.
Wireless keyboards are great for editing and switching between different devices in any location.
A battery life of 70 days on one full charge is ideal with power-saving options.
- Creative Input Dial
Creative input dials are great for managing workflows, making contrast adjustments in Lightroom, exposure changes in Photoshop, or text enlargements in Powerpoint. The Input dial is highly intuitive.
If you’re using multiple devices such as PCs, Macs, tablets, etc., one size fits all is best, i.e., a keyboard compatible with all your devices in the home, office and on the move.
You’ve ample room to move your hands and fingers freely.
- Scissor Switch or Mechanic
Scissor switch keyboards offer a slim design and quieter user experience, i.e., the keys are not loud when plunged. Mechanical keyboards, however, are known for their durability and higher quality keystrokes but are noisier than scissor switch keyboards. The latter is excellent for the office, whereas the mechanical ones are not so great for quiet environments such as libraries and some long-haul public transport.
Professional photo editing in a commercial setting requires specialist hardware under the hood of your laptop or PC.
In the 30+ years of using both systems, I’ve found consumer pre-built shop-bought laptops and computers, while okay in the short-term, are awful in the long run.
Most pre-builds are designed for domestic use, such as web browsing, emailing, gaming, and “moderate use” of video and photo editing.
In addition, pre-builds often come with RAM and storage limitations, and while you can upgrade some models with a bit of extra storage, RAM or SSD drive, that’s about as far as it goes.
Therefore, if you’re considering purchasing a new laptop or PC, looking into a custom-built system integrating some or all of the hardware mentioned above is wise.
Custom builds are also cheaper than pre-builds because you’re also paying for the convenience and warranty of a pre-built PC or laptop.
With a custom-built system, you can choose what you want and don’t need under the hood, thus reducing the cost. Moreover, you’ve more options regarding upgrades.
With all that said, “specialist PC and laptop hardware” for professional or domestic photo editing comes at a price.
Good motherboards, power supply units, processors, graphics cards, more RAM, storage, etc., are pricey because these components are in short supply but in great demand.
Whereas with domestic pre-builds, manufacturers save money by putting cheaper parts in “less important” areas of the PC. Pre-built computers focus on “core components” such as the CPU and GPU because of their direct relationship to PC power rather than specialist hardware.
Whether you use a laptop or a desktop, your choice of computer makes a massive difference in the speed and reliability of your photo editing workflow. Lightroom, Photoshop, and other photography software can be sped up dramatically if you choose the right computer components to upgrade.
And while there are some great models in the consumer market, such as the Apple iMac Pro or HP Pavilion 27 All-In-One, these models, like others, do have limitations.
For example, upgrading iMac Pro memory requires dismantling the entire computer to gain access to the memory slots. This is a highly complex process that requires a skilled technician. And while this may seem trivial, this action increases the chances of many complications while an upgrade takes place.
The same can be said for the HP Pavilion 27 All-In-One, which lacks storage with only 256 GB of SSD space. 256GB may seem quite a lot of storage; however, once you begin uploading apps, multimedia, large picture files, etc, that storage will soon decrease. And while the HP Pavilion 27 All-In-One can be upgraded, its limits are 16GB.
Therefore custom-built laptops and PCs are considered the better option for professional photo editing. Custom builds offer higher levels of reliability and security. You have complete control over components, price and customisation options.
Moreover, custom builds come with increased speed and reliability, that is, if you add these parts to your build list.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.