GEAR TALK – High Resolution PC for a professional photographer

150726E 85mm F1.8ILCE-7R-10

I finally got my hands on the amazing Sony a7R II camera. All computer-crushing backside illuminated 42 RAW megapixels of AWESOME SAUCE are finally mine to process–assuming I’ve got the computer powerful enough to process it.

And I do. The a7R II wasn’t my first romp with high resolution photos–the a7R was. And with my experience with that camera, I was able to customize a machine tailor made to my purposes.

You see, when much of my workflow involves delivering images expeditiously, I have to remove all bottlenecks. The computer has the potential to be the largest bottleneck to my productivity.

In my workflow, if my computer is a hindrance, my entire process is stalled.

So how can I make sure my computer can slice through hundreds of images and have enough computing power to play some music while I cull into the wee hours of the morning? Keep in mind that each Sony a7Rii RAW file is over 40 megabytes. To add, I usually have multiple RAW files open at the same time.

I have built my computers for as far back as I can remember–finding it both cathartic and cost effective. I like controlling what goes into my machine and not let a big-box computer company tell me what parts belong in my computer. I also like to swap out a part for something else if it will give me better performance or that part happens to be what ails my computer rather than have an entire system out of commission. This ideology precludes me from going with laptops or going to companies like Apple or shopping at pre-made places like Costco. Also, my work in photography requires key applications that prevent me from going to Linux distributions.

Because of that, my computing world is PC-based. And in that PC-based world, the most important things for me as a high resolution professional photographer are redundancy, parallel processing, and efficiency. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain the components in my computer system and how it contributes to what I feel are important.


2 SSDs
5 internal mechanical hard drives
1 Drobo

I do not skimp on my storage. First–SSDs. I have two of them. One contains my operating system and applications. The second contains my scratch disk and Adobe Lightroom catalog.

The mechanical hard drives are my “staging environment” where I save the RAW files, other documents, and recorded videos. The mechanical drives also are “enterprise” quality rather than normal consumer quality. My external Drobo drive (which contains four additional mechanical hard drives) contain my processed files. My network attached storage (NAS) devices contain timed encrypted backups of my client files, and are located in various areas of my house, connected to my wired network. I also have several uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that condition and protect my computer and storage during power outages.

Task Manager

Parallel Processing:

12 core CPU
64 GBs of RAM
2 3D accelerated video cards

What does parallel processing mean? Essentially, that means my computer can multitask. When my computer is on, it rarely has only one program open. Usually I have a web browser with multiple tabs open, a music streaming service (I use Rdio), Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, as well as Capture One 8 Pro. I also have my email client open, and a variety of utilities that support the tasks I am working on. For instance, I have been trying out a product from Palette Gear, that allows me to cull and edit my Lightroom catalog. I also have software that maintains my color calibration for each of my computer screens. All of the hardware devices plugged into my computer require some type of software driver. It needs to work harmoniously. The newest versions of Adobe photo editing software (Lightroom and Photoshop) can actually leverage the powerful 3D accelerated graphics cards to improve performance in the application. For instance, Adobe Lightroom can use the 3D card to instantly display the changes that a slider (exposure, blacks, clarity, etc.) move makes to the image.




Water cooling
80 Plus Platinum Power Supply

Why do I use water cooling? 12 cores of processing power get hot. Air cooling would work, but a smaller fan mounted on top of my CPU would need to spin fast, making it too loud for my office. When the cooling task is spread across two larger fans (as opposed to smaller ones) by way of a liquid radiator, it allows each fan to spin slower, letting my computer run cooler and quieter. “80 Plus Platinum” is a rating given to the highest performing efficient power supplies. That means more power is used by your computer and not lost unnecessarily to heat and noise. Also, the hotter a power supply is, the less efficient it is. So it allows the power supply to run cooler.

So how does it perform?

It’s fast.

The programs open immediately and my photos load with minimal lag, going from image to image quickly and rendering the image modifications nearly instantaneously. And this is with Adobe Lightroom, arguably a resource intensive software that, while extremely feature packed, has been known to be slower with each recent release. I can have multiple image editing software open simultaneously and have each one executing a task (for instance, I can have Capture One exporting hundreds of images, Photoshop can process a HDR image, and Lightroom can make edits to another image).

Is it expensive?

Your camera–wasn’t it expensive? Yes, this computer is not cheap.

I may not be the typical computer user, but as a photographer that processes high resolution images, I know I cannot be the only one with this elevated processing echelon. Your requirements might be different. In fact, many others who process the 4K video might need something even beefier.

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