What Photographers Should Look for When Buying or Building a PC

As cameras have rapidly evolved over the last decade, so have the requirements to get the most out of them. Specifically, what a photographer should care about when it comes to a computer has gone from simple, to somewhat complicated and often nuanced.

Though the photographer’s workflow has evolved rapidly as the medium has grown ever more digital, many photographers still find themselves in uncertain territory when approaching the varying specifications and components of their personal computers. Until recently, this comfort gap was mostly manageable: the average laptop or PC was good enough for post-processing, and most systems were never in much danger of being overwhelmed. RAW imagery changed these calculations, however, increasing the necessary processing power and creating wide disparities in performance between machines.

While we at PetaPixel frequently post reviews, rankings, and lists of various computers on the market, for many, the nuts and bolts of what we are describing are still relatively foreign.

With that in mind, we decided to create a detailed explainer of what exactly goes into your personal computer, how these components can help or hinder your craft, and guide you toward a few items that can take your post workflow to the next level. Whether you are buying a new, pre-built computer or sourcing your own parts for a DIY build, these are the primary hardware options to consider.

This guide is broken into multiple sections, and we encourage you to focus on chapters that you are less familiar with in order to expand your understanding of what is important in a computer for photo editing.

At a Glance

CPU

What is a CPU?

Credit: Tester128 | Shutterstock.com

The CPU is your “Central Processing Unit,” often referred to merely as your processor. The CPU is an electronic circuit responsible for executing the series of instructions that make up any computer program. Essentially, every program you run on your computer is ordering something and needs it now and your processor is the component fulfilling those requests, which is why you need one as smart and quick as possible.

It is also important that it is good at multitasking. Once Intel and AMD released the Pentium D and Athlon 64 X2, respectively, in 2005, the clock began counting down to the end of single-core CPUs for personal computers. Now every desktop and laptop on the market is fitted with a processor that contains multiple cores. For reasonable applications, this number can range from just two (as in Intel’s low-end Celeron processors) up to 16 (as in the Intel Core i9-12900K and AMD Ryzen 9 5950X). With the use of this multitude of cores, the software can split the processing load, with each core reading and executing different operations at the same time.

How Does the CPU Impact a Photographer’s Computer?

Programs crucial to photographers — Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or whatever it may be — come with relatively small system requirements, which can mislead many into believing the CPU is of low import or that the outdated one they use is good enough.

This could not be further from the truth. Of all the components we will discuss today, your processor is arguably the most crucial. The reason for this is simple: photo editing requires a lot of math and a lot of problem-solving. These are CPU-intensive tasks that are done in CPU-intensive programs.

What Should a Photographer Look For in a CPU?

Image via AMD

For our purposes, there are two primary manufacturers of processors to consider in PCs: AMD and Intel. Then, there are four key factors here: Cores, Clock Speed, Tier, and Generation. However, comparing cores or clock speed across the aisle from one brand to the other doesn’t tell you the entire story — each uses a completely different architecture, to name one of many other reasons. Eight cores on an Intel CPU is not directly comparable to eight cores on AMD. Similarly, 2.4Ghz (clock speed) on a 10th Gen CPU is not necessarily worse than 3.2Ghz on a 9th Gen CPU.

Ever since the revolution of multi-core technology, photo editing software has grown alongside processor capability — continually optimized to take advantage of as many cores as possible — so core count is a consideration. With that said, it is not the only metric when evaluating a CPU. Photoshop, for instance, can truly sing with 8 cores, but beyond that, you hit some extreme diminishing returns. Lightroom makes use of far more, but even still, once you move past 16 cores, the performance gains become harder to justify with the increased cost.

Clock speed is the measurement of the number of cycles your CPU executes per second. A higher clock speed indicates how rapidly a CPU can process data. This comes in quite handy with a program like Photoshop, which values clock speed over an insane number of cores.

Tiers are fairly easy to understand even for the layman. For the purposes of a guide such as this, I will not get into Intel Xeon or AMD EPYC processors, which are workstation/server processors found only in the highest-end computers. I am also going to exclude AMD’s Threadripper and Intel Core X (“Extreme”) processors since no one reading this needs anything more than the Intel Core or AMD Ryzen models — these are also what you will find in virtually any electronics store or website or on build-your-own-pc sites like iBuyPower. Within these types, there are several tiers that represent each manufacturer’s lowest to highest end products within the Ryzen and Core families. Luckily, they are very easy to cross-compare thanks to their naming structure.

Image via Intel

Intel Core processors include Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9. AMD Ryzen includes Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7, and Ryzen 9. I must imagine the similar naming scheme is quite obvious. So, in general, Ryzen 3 is comparable to Core i3, Ryzen 5 to Core i5, and so on. If you want the highest-end processor available — again, excluding Intel Core X, Xeon, AMD EPYC, and Threadripper — go straight to Core i9 or Ryzen 9.

Finally, make note of the CPU’s generation. With every passing iteration, CPUs improve in ways not always readily obvious when merely scanning specs. A newer-generation CPU with a lower clock speed may still outperform an older generation with a higher clock speed — the same goes for core count between different generations.

As an example, the Intel Core i5 11600K (six-core) bests the Core i9 10900K (10 core) in Photoshop benchmarks, despite the significant differences in both core count and clock speed (Puget Systems Benchmark). In this example, we are comparing an 11th Gen CPU (the i5) to a 10th Gen CPU (the i9), and thus we cannot look at the numbers alone. This is where benchmarks become quite useful — and thankfully they are extremely easy to find online through numerous testing sources.

The generation is easily found with Intel processors in their name: Core i9-12900 is 12th Gen, Core i5 10500 is 10th Gen. AMD is trickier, but virtually all of the new Ryzen processors on the market are Gen 5 and all use AMD’s AM4 socket. Basically, if you’re looking at Intel, keep the generations in mind. If you’re looking at AMD, don’t worry about it.

AMD Versus Intel

As mentioned, the CPU market is dominated by Intel and AMD. While currently, AMD is slightly less preferable for Adobe software, the company is busy working on exciting advancements for their CPUs. They also tend to outperform Intel CPUs across the board, especially when comparing models of similar cost. While Intel and AMD have traded the crown back and forth over the years, Intel became mired on the 14 nanometer (nm) process (AMD’s Zen 3 are 7nm process) for the past several years, allowing AMD to pick up steam and surpass them with CPUs that delivered more cores, more speed, and much lower power requirements. AMD also offers the best price-to-performance option out there. Well, at least they did.

Enter Intel’s Alder Lake processors.

Image via Intel

Officially launched on November 4, 2021, Intel’s 12th Gen “Alder Lake” CPUs saw the company lurch forward and past its competitor — no doubt in large part thanks to its 10nm “Intel 7” process. Alder Lake is possibly the most exciting advancement from Intel since its Core 2 CPUs in 2006 and seems forward-thinking in a way that is extremely appealing. Alder Lake seems to be the beginning of Intel’s answer to Apple’s revolutionary SoC (“System on a Chip”) M1 processors. The important thing to know right now is that these are processors designed not only to be the best today but promise to be the beginning of some exciting future technology as well.

AMD is poised to release its new Ryzen Zen 4 processors (currently they are on Zen 3) in Q2/Q3 of 2022. Zen 4 promises to catch up with a number of Alder Lake advantages such as support for PCIe 5.0, Thunderbolt 4, and DDR5, and possibly surpass Alder Lake in other performance areas, no doubt thanks to its 3D V-Cache and 5nm process. But that comes with a caveat: Intel will purportedly be ready to strike back with its 13th Gen Raptor Lake processors around roughly the same time, which will be compatible with the current Alder Lake socket (meaning a motherboard that supports an Alder Lake processor can also support Raptor Lake).

It is easy to look at CPU benchmarks for Lightroom or Capture One or Da Vinci Resolve or Final Cut and see how each currently existing CPU compares to others on the market. But there are concerns beyond the processor performance itself that are relevant to photographers.

The motherboard in a computer determines a lot of things: the type of supported RAM, PCIe hard drive support, support for graphics and accessory cards, support for additional storage, the integrated ports on the motherboard itself, and… the type of processor. Any given motherboard will support either AMD or Intel, but never both. The motherboard may support multiple generations of Intel or AMD processors, but this depends on the socket.

AMD has been more conservative than Intel regarding its socket type, allowing more forward compatibility and the ability to upgrade the CPU without replacing the motherboard as well. Current Ryzen processors use the AM4 socket, 10th and 11th Gen Intel Core processors are fitted to an LGA 1200 socket, and Intel’s newest 12th Gen Core processors are LGA 1700.

Currently, only Intel (11th or 12th Gen only) supports Thunderbolt 4, PCIe 5.0, and DDR5 RAM. We will get to the last two soon enough, but let’s talk about Thunderbolt 4.

Thunderbolt 4

Image via OWC

Anyone who has used Thunderbolt 3 knows how much of a game-changer it was for speed. But there are enormous advantages to Thunderbolt 4 over 3 as well, including 8K or dual 4K monitor support and data storage/transfer. The biggest of all, for me, is its Multi-port Accessory Architecture, which is the ability to use a Thunderbolt 4 Dock or Hub to expand one port into three (and further daisy-chaining options), which was previously not possible. No matter which way you spin it, Thunderbolt 4 is the future and is a feature that no photographer or videographer should overlook when buying or building a new workstation.

Thunderbolt 4 is the latest generation of Thunderbolt, and it uses the same connection standard as Thunderbolt 3: USB-C, also known as USB Type-C, USB 3.2 2×2, USB4, and DisplayPort. Any device with a Type-C connector can connect to any of these ports but be aware of the cable: not all Type-C cables are the same. Using a basic USB-C cable with a Thunderbolt 3 or 4 device/port will either not work (if the device requires Thunderbolt specifications like power) or will not fully exploit the benefits of Thunderbolt (like data speed).

Image via OWC

Thunderbolt 4 is the highest tier of the Type-C connectors. It provides numerous advantages over Thunderbolt 3 with its support for two 4K monitors or one 8K monitor (versus two 4K or one 5K), charging power up to 100W, PCIe data transfer speed increased from 16Gbps to 32Gbps, ability for users to wake their computer up using a keyboard or mouse connected via a Thunderbolt 4 port, and accessories (like docks) with up to four Thunderbolt 4 ports, to name a few.

USB4 is the newest USB protocol standard. It carries a minimum 20Gb/s speed requirement, USB 3.2 10Gb/s, and 7.5W minimum power for accessories. Thunderbolt 3 is USB4 compatible, but not compliant, though it does offer other benefits such as 40Gb/s minimum speed. Thunderbolt 4 is USB4 compliant but goes above and beyond in many ways, including those mentioned above. Put simply: Thunderbolt 4 is Thunderbolt 3 + USB4 + steroids, and it carries the strictest minimum requirements. It is the future and is something that any serious photographer should be thinking about when buying or building an editing machine that they expect to last for a few years or more.

Few off-the-shelf desktops or laptops use Thunderbolt 4. Some Windows computers do, but they are few and far between and are generally limited to one or possibly two ports. But with more and more PCs coming with Thunderbolt 4, along with Intel Alder Lake and future AMD processors supporting the protocol, it will not be long before its commonplace.

Not all USB-C cables are created equal. Luckily, they’re marked. Or should be. | Image via Intel

Intel 11th and 12th Gen processors support Thunderbolt 4 — so you don’t even need the newest Alder Lake to have access to it. Unfortunately, AMD will not be supporting Thunderbolt 4 until it releases Zen 4, which could be as late as Q3 of 2022. And, again, when it does, Intel will presumably be ready to respond with Raptor Lake. Such is the nature of technology. And for some reason unknown to me, there are only a few (two, to my knowledge) AMD motherboards currently on the market that even support Thunderbolt 3, and finding a pre-built computer with one of them is a task unto itself.

If you are looking to buy or build a computer right now, my strongest recommendation is to aim for Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs given their superior performance, additional features and support, and almost certainly future socket compatibility with Raptor Lake. There are some pre-built desktops with Alder Lake processors: CyberPowerPC options, iBuyPower options, and Dell XPS options, to name a few. But otherwise, choices aren’t plentiful in that arena. If you are looking to build your own, current options for the CPU alone are the Core i5-12600K, Core i7-12700K, and Core i9-12900K. Additionally, Core i5-12600KF, Core i7-2700KF, and Core i9-2900KF variants are either available right now or coming soon, depending on which retailer you check.

No matter how you spin it, for top-of-the-line, no holds barred performance, the 16-core, 3.2GHz (5.2Ghz Turbo Boost) Intel Core i9-12900K, with 24 threads and Intel UHD 770 integrated graphics capable of driving one 8K monitor or four UHD monitors with HDR, currently wears the crown — it simply cannot be beaten, especially at its $649.99 MSRP. Best of all, it’s often found for even less than that depending on the retailer, despite being a very recent release.

If you’d rather look elsewhere — at either AMD Ryzen or Intel’s 10th or 11th Gen CPUs — you have far more options. For those seeking a decent budget computer for everything from basic to intense workflows, you will do fine with current Ryzen or 10th/11th Gen Intel Core processors. It simply depends on how future-proof and upgradeable you want to be.

But, ultimately, the right CPU for a photographer boils down to several major factors: single-core performance, multi-core performance, I/O (input/output) support such as Thunderbolt 3 or 4, what the photographer does, and of course, price. Sites geared toward benchmarking in Photoshop and other photo or video applications are best — many benchmarks are primarily centered around gaming, which is a poor metric for photo and even video editing performance. Try to find benchmarks that are tested using the programs you personally use, or at least something somewhat close if those are not available. Because, as mentioned, the way Photoshop uses CPU resources is different from Lightroom which is different from Capture One, and so on.


RAM

What is it?

Image via Corsair

RAM (random-access memory) is volatile memory where data is stored as the processer needs it. This is not the same as the long-term data that is stored on your hard drive. RAM is all about what your computer needs to remember to do what it is doing right now. Hence the “volatile” — every time you restart your computer, the RAM’s data is completely wiped, and no data is stored on a RAM stick should you, for example, remove one from your computer. Hard drives are an example of non-volatile memory.

As technology has progressed, the speed and capacity of RAM have increased quite considerably. In fact, RAM has improved so quickly that new motherboards have been created just to support its advancements. Like any new technology, it also gets cheaper every year, especially once newer versions are released, not unlike regular hard drives or solid-state drives. DDR4 RAM will drop significantly once DDR5 becomes mainstream, for example.

How Does RAM Impact a Photographer’s Computer?

While using a photo editing software like Photoshop, RAM is used to process images. Too little RAM and you will see what is known as “swap” in your task manager — essentially, these programs need more RAM than what your computer has, so they offload the excess data to the hard drive, which is absolutely not ideal.

More RAM means your computer can work faster and more efficiently. With that said, the law of diminishing returns still applies. For the average photographer, you will certainly benefit from doubling your RAM from 8GB to 16GB, but if you go from 32GB to 64GB you may see little or no difference. Like most things, it depends on your workflow and what you do.

What About RAM Should a Photographer Care About?

The three keys for RAM are: Clock Speed, Capacity, and Type.

Clock Speed is simple enough: the faster the memory stick is, the better off you are. The clock speed is represented in megahertz (MHz). This number is important for you to know and understand for reasons beyond “Faster = Better” though. It is important to make sure you are working with a motherboard capable of handling the speed at which the stick operates. Otherwise, you are upgrading or buying more expensive RAM for no reason.

For example, if you purchase a cutting-edge stick of RAM that promises 4400MHz but are working with a motherboard that can only accept 3200MHz of RAM, your shiny new RAM will run at… 3200MHz — the motherboard will throttle you down, slowing the sticks to match its own speed limit. And that’s just a waste of money — 16 gigabytes of Crucial Ballistix DDR4 2666MHz RAM runs $80.99, while the same at 4000MHz runs $176.99.

Image via Corsair

This is also important to factor when purchasing multiple sticks of RAM that are not identical. If you pair a fancy 5333MHz stick alongside 3200MHz, the lowest speed is the speed at which both will run. Similarly, say your computer came with one stick of RAM and you want to add one; make sure you purchase one of both the same speed and capacity.

The reason for this is because of how DDR (“Double Data Rate Synchronous”) RAM works — it is dual channel and both channels (each stick is one channel) are read simultaneously. Thus, RAM of equivalent speed and capacity should be paired together. If you have four memory slots (as most desktop motherboards do), you could do: 8x4x8x4GB for a total of 24GB, or 16x8x16x8 for 48GB, or 4x4x4x4 for 16GB, and so on. Whereas 16x8x8x8 would not be ideal, as that third slot should also be 16. RAM channel pairs are always every other — they are never side by side — first and third are one, second and fourth are the other. They are often color-coded but not always. Because of all this, buying RAM in kits (e.g. a 32GB kit comprised of two identical 16GB sticks) is always best — it’s also cheaper.

The more obvious component of RAM is its capacity. For modern DDR4 or DDR5 RAM, you can find sticks anywhere between 4GB all the way to 1.5TB. As wide as the capacity gap is there, so too is the difference in price. That monstrous 1.5TB of RAM will run you over $13,000. Luckily, as a photographer, you need nowhere close to that amount. For the lightest, most casual use, 8GB is survivable, but 16GB is the real sweet spot, especially for those working one photo at a time, using a smaller number of layers. For anyone whose workflow demands heavy layering, stitching, batch editing a hundred photos at once, or other demanding tasks, you may want to consider 32GB and above.

Image via Kingston

The final consideration with RAM is its type. RAM, like all tech, is constantly churning through new iterations, and in this case, newer truly is better. The most recent RAM types are DDR4 and DDR5. While DDR5 is still in its infancy, all signs point to it being a true leap, featuring slightly less power consumption, self-regulation of its own voltage, and nearly double the clock speed of DDR4. Note that it will not be cross-compatible. It is the way of the future, but that future may be a long way off for 99.9% of us — when SK Hynix launched the first DDR5 RAM in October 2020, they said it “targets big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) applications.” In other words, it isn’t for anyone reading this, at least not for quite a while.

The number of providers for RAM is too immense to name, which is why keeping clock speed, capacity, and type at the forefront of your mind when purchasing is a must. But with that said, our recommended manufacturers of RAM are: Corsair, G.Skill, Kingston/HyperX, PNY, Patriot, XPG, and OWC. Additionally, Crucial is a great budget RAM brand.


GPU

What is it?

Image via Asus

The GPU is your “Graphics Processing Unit,” a specialized circuit designed to rapidly manipulate and alter memory to accelerate the creation of images intended to be output to display devices. GPUs are designed with a parallel processing structure, making them, in many cases, more efficient than CPUs. Often, you will hear these referred to as your “video card” and many of the most popular options come emblazoned with the word “gaming” on the box. This is no surprise since GPUs were first developed to accelerate the rendering of 3D graphics.

The GPU has, over time, grown ever more complementary to the CPU, expanding its use and reach within your PC. GPUs can either be integrated or discrete. Integrated GPUs occupy most of the market and are hardwired into the motherboard, allowing for reduced weight and power consumption. Integrated GPUs are also much cheaper to produce. At the forefront of integrated GPUs are those made by Intel, giving average consumers options that save on battery life while still yielding usable results.

For users running more intensive graphics applications, including games, video editing software, or 3D visual effects, a discrete GPU, sometimes referred to as a “dedicated GPU” is the more logical choice. Discrete GPUs are in most cases far more powerful than their integrated counterparts, and as such require their own unique cooling solutions to run at maximum efficiency.

How Does a GPU Impact a Photographer’s Computer?

Based on the description above, you would be within reason to assume that something known as a “Graphics Processing Unit” would play a heavy role in the toolkit of a photographer, but this is surprisingly not the case. Again, photo editing software works chiefly off the CPU.

Photoshop, for example, does contain certain features that make use of the GPU, but not to the degree that it should inspire you to spend massively on this feature. Conversely, Capture One exploits the power of the graphics card more so than many other photo editing programs.

Image via BenQ

Where a mid to high-end graphics card might legitimately come into consideration is for photographers who need high-resolution displays, HDR, or true 10-bit (many are labeled “10 bit” but are actually 8-bit + FRC, and for a greater explanation of this I recommend our best monitors guide) monitors — not all graphics cards support true 10-bit monitors that many photographers use, nor do all cards support multiple 4K monitors or even a single 8K monitor. Hybrid photographers and videographers will certainly benefit as well, where a powerful discrete GPU can make all the difference in the world — everything from Adobe Premiere, After Effects, Da Vinci Resolve, and Final Cut heavily lean on the GPU’s processing abilities for many tasks. In fact, Da Vinci Resolve will not even open if you do not have the minimum required graphics capabilities — integrated GPUs will not suffice for such work.

What Should Photographers Look For in a GPU?

Due to a variety of factors, for some time now the GPU market has been extremely tight, ballooning the cost of these processors sometimes two or three times higher than MSRP. It is far more common to see the words “Out of Stock” or “Sold Out” than “Add to Cart” these days. This shortage is expected to level off sometime later this year, but for now, as a photographer, you should be looking for what can get the job done and little else. It is not a vital component of your machine, and now is not the time to splurge.

Image via Newegg

The best discrete GPUs on the market are made by NVIDIA. Its recently released 30 series is the best on the market and will continue to be until late 2022 when the title will likely be taken by their “Lovelace” project, expected to roll out as its 40 series.

Again, as a photographer, this is not pressing. You will find even the lowest tier of the 30 series overkill for your day-to-day workflow needs. As PetaPixel reported in 2019, all NVIDIA RTX cards now offer 10-bit color support and are more than capable of handling multiple 4K displays, which is likely the only matter of any pertinence for your focus. But, if you need multiple high-resolution monitors or 10-bit color, you would do well to investigate in a lower-end NVIDIA or AMD card — the NVIDIA GeForce 1660 series is an affordable option, though they are hard to find in stock like all others. But it is quite easy to find a pre-built PC with a graphic card that works for your needs.

For those building their own computers, the acquisition of a graphics card is a bit of a task right now. Even mid-tier end cards are selling for inflated prices online on many sites. Honestly, if you really need a mid or high-end GPU (maybe you do hybrid photo and video work), you are best off financially to use a site like iBuyPower, Origin PC, NZXT BLD, or Xidax and have them assemble your computer — I did this recently when I needed a new video editing/VFX machine after I found that sourcing my own components and building a PC with an RTX 3070 would have cost me three times as much money, half of that going to the GPU alone.


Storage

What is it?

Storage is simply a catch-all term for any of the devices used to retain your digital data — typically by “storage”, we mean non-volatile storage. Hard drives, flash drives, SD cards are all non-volatile — that is to say, when they lose power, the data remains.

The key distinction to discuss here is HDD versus SSD.

HDD (left) vs. SATA SSD (top right) vs. NVMe M.2 SSD (bottom right) | Image via B&H Photo

The HDD, or “Hard Disk Drive,” is an electro-mechanical device using one or more rapidly rotating platters coated with magnetic material. This was the traditional storage device since the dawn of the home computer.

The SSD, or “Solid State Drive,” performs the same function but does so via a series of interconnected flash-memory chips capable of retaining the data even when there is no power flowing through them. These are now the de facto standard in almost every computer you see on shelves — very few are still sold with mechanical hard drives, though it isn’t uncommon to see computers with both SSDs and HDDs.

In this case, the SSD is used for the main operating system and programs, while the separate HDD is used for mass storage. This is because, as you would expect with more recent technology, SSDs are much smaller, more energy-efficient, more dependable, and much, much faster than their mechanical counterpart. For any given capacity, they are also more expensive — though prices have dropped sharply since their introduction.

How Does Storage Impact a Photographer’s Computer?

RAW photos take up space; a lot of space. Not only that, but accessing large files of this nature costs you time. You want to make sure you are building or purchasing a PC with an ample storage plan in place, and one that will not leave you wasting precious moments as a professional.

Consider that in Lightroom, each time you make changes to a RAW file, the program needs to access it. Shaving seconds in such situations, especially for those working with a high volume of images, can translate into hours a week, hours you may not have noticed you were even missing.

What Should a Photographer Look For in Computer Storage?

Since we are discussing storage, it makes sense that one of the critical aspects you will consider when making a purchase is, well, the amount you can store. For most photographers, 512GB as your primary system drive within your PC will be plenty, though if you work consistently and need larger archives, upgrading this to 1TB will not break your bank.

SanDisk 2.5″ SATA SSD | Image via SanDisk

The reality is, the best approach to storage at the current time is a healthy mix between HDDs and SSDs, be they internal or external. The incredibly affordable price of an HDD makes it ideal for secondary or tertiary backups, and storage of the work you have completed, where the relative slowness of a traditional mechanical hard drive is of no real detriment. You can easily source HDDs with up to a whopping 18TB capacity, while SSDs will top out at 4TB. An 8TB Seagate Barracuda HDD is quite affordable at $149.99 and quite sufficient for several years’ worth of work for 99% of us.

The second component to consider — which is arguably the most important — is reliability. The company BackBlaze, which specializes in online file backup, researched well over 25,000 drives and the results were fairly clear: Hitachi’s drives experienced the lowest failure rate. Seagate and Western Digital are other known players in the market who consistently produce trustworthy storage.

While all HDDs are mostly the same, SSDs are not. 2.5-inch SATA SSDs are the cheapest and use the same connector as a regular SATA HDD. These are blazing fast and blow regular HDDs out of the water, but in recent years, trends have pushed toward NVME m.2 SSDs, which are about five times faster than SATA SSDs and about 35 times faster than HDDs. NVME SSDs look much like a stick of RAM and slide into a slot on the motherboard, whereas SATA SSDs and HDDs are mounted in a bracket and connected to the motherboard with a cable. There are also SATA m.2 SSDs, which slot into the motherboard as well but are operationally no different from 2.5-inch SATA SSDs.

In my opinion, these are pointless — simply make sure you get an NVME drive if you want that extreme speed, which is best for your main operating system. The much cheaper 2.5-inch SATA SSDs are perfectly fine to store files or function as a working drive for your current projects, whereas HDDs are best for long-term archival storage after a project is finished.

Crucial NVME M.2 SSD Installed | Image via Crucial

Great brands for internal SATA or NVME M.2 SSDs are: Samsung, Crucial, Patriot, Western Digital (WD), Seagate, XPG, Sandisk, and PNY. For standard 3.5-inch internal HDDs, Seagate and Western Digital are the most common.


Don’t Get Bogged Down by the Options

As a photographer, it is important to keep up with advancements in personal computing in a way that provides you confidence in your purchases, speed in your workflow, and security in your data. At times, progress occurs so rapidly we scarcely realize we have been left behind, and in ways we hardly understand in the first place. At the same time, it’s best not to get mired in the seemingly-daily rapid advancements in computer technology, otherwise, you might find yourself chasing increasingly diminishing returns because of spec sheets and online testing sites. Sound familiar? G.A.S. is not limited to the domain of the photographer.

Hopefully, this explainer has provided you with a ground floor of knowledge regarding which components you should spend your focus (and your hard-earned money) on, as well as a keener understanding of how these components benefit you specifically in your photographic journey.


Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.

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