How to Build the Best PC for Photo Editing and Graphic Design
Last updated: November 2018
Photo editing and graphic design encompass all kinds of 2D visual software work, including work in programs like Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, PhotoDirector, and many more. If you want to put together a PC that will give you the best performance for producing high-quality photo editing and graphic design work at the lowest price, then you’ve come to the right article!
By building a PC for yourself, you can ensure that it is tailor-made for your exact needs with as little waste as possible. Below you’ll find four sections to take you through everything you need to know.
We’ll explain which components are the most important for creative work, and how to get the most out of your new workstation.
In Section 2, we’ve got a part-by-part explanation of how to select components for your photo editing build.
NOTE: Anyone reading this that that works (or wants to work) in photography should also check out our camera and camera equipment buying guides for any budget over at Logical Cameras!
Section 1: Example Photo Editing PC Builds
These builds are designed to provide sufficient computing power for editing and rendering images in programs such as Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, Lightroom, InDesign, PhotoDirector, GIMP, paint.net, Illustrator, CorelDRAW, and all the rest. General info on how these parts were selected and prioritized is available in section two below.
Note: When building a new PC, you’ll need to install an operating system. For maximum compatibility with available photo editing software, we recommend using Windows. You can purchase Windows here. Some people are eligible to get Windows free through school or work, so you may also look into that.
The Cost-Effective Photo Editing Build ($500)
This budget build for photo editing incorporates everything you need to get started. It includes a reputable CPU at the low end of AMD’s new Ryzen line, 8 gigabytes of dual-channel RAM, and 2 terabytes of hard drive space.
Even at this level, the graphics processor selected here is capable of displaying up to a 4K resolution on a 4K monitor (given the correct input compatibility for the monitor), which will be important for when you are working with 4K images (NOTE: this iGPU is not suitable for 4K gaming).
With a MicroATX form factor for both the motherboard and the case, this machine would also work well for those looking to build an inexpensive, portable photo editing machine to supplement a more powerful, general-use primary PC.
CPU: AMD Ryzen 3 2200G
Graphics Card: Stock (Vega 8 iGPU)
Motherboard: ASRock AB350M-HDV
RAM: 8 GB DDR4 (2 X 4 GB)
Storage: 2 TB HDD
Power Supply: SeaSonic 520 W
CPU Cooler: Stock
Case: Fractal Design Focus G Mini
Operating System: Windows 10
Balanced Price-to-Performance Build ($1100)
As usual, building at the higher mid-range yields an incredible machine for the price. This build features an i5 CPU, a somewhat improved graphics card, and room to upgrade in the future.
At this level, you get an SSD that can fit not only your OS and your important programs (and thus have them running noticeably faster), but also projects that you are actively working on.
This build features an unlocked Intel processor, so you are free to overclock if you choose. But even at its stock performance, this CPU should capably handle the kind of single-threaded applications typical of photo editing and graphic design work.
Unlike in the cheaper build, no money had to be significantly shaved off anywhere. The case is a full-featured mid-tower, and the non-stock CPU cooler is efficient and quiet.
CPU: Intel i5-9600K
Graphics Card: Radeon RX 560
Motherboard: MSI Z379-A Pro
RAM: 8 GB DDR4 (2 X 4 GB)
Storage 1: 240 GB PNY SSD
Storage 2: 2 TB HDD
Power Supply: EVGA B1 600 W
CPU Cooler: CryoRig H7
Case: Corsair 100R
Operating System: Windows 10
High-Performance Photo Editing Build ($1500)
Very high-performance build, although not twice as powerful as the higher-value ‘Balanced Price-to-Performance’ build.
The CPU in this build features some of the best single-threaded performance on the market today, which is easily one of the most important metrics for the performance of photo editing and graphic design software.
Furthermore, this tier introduces a professional-grade graphics card, designed specifically for use in workstation PCs. It is capable of supporting up to four 4K monitors, and it features HDR (10-bit, High-Dynamic-Range) color; all of that means it will give you one of the most accurate digital depictions of what you’re working on that it is currently possible for you to have, and can do so on multiple monitors. (While this ability is present in the powerful new consumer-grade cards from NVIDIA and AMD as well, those cards are much more powerful—and often more expensive—than needed for a pure photo editing build.)
NOTE: The video card in this build is specialized to perform well in certain professional applications, but as a result is not designed for high-performance gaming; a general-purpose video card would likely outperform this card in gaming applications. If your build will also be used for gaming, consider substituting the pro card for a GTX 1060 6GB or an RX 580.
CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 2700X
Graphics Card: PNY Quadro P600
Motherboard: ASRock X470 Master
RAM: 16 GB DDR4 (2 X 8 GB)
Storage 1: 500 GB Samsung 850 EVO SSD
Storage 2: 4 TB HDD
Power Supply: Corsair CSM 650 W
CPU Cooler: Scythe Fuma
Case: NZXT S340
Operating System: Windows 10
Professional Photo Editing Build ($2600)
If you’ve got 2D design work to do in a professional capacity (and especially if you are considering the possibility of a multiple-monitor set-up), then this workstation monster is the build for you.
What really sets this build apart as a PC build for professional photo editors and graphic designers is its inclusion of the Quadro P1000 graphics card. This choice is a high-end professional-grade video card which, like the card in the above build, supports up to four 4K displays with 10-bit High-Dynamic-Range color for incredible clarity and accuracy in your workspace. And unlike the card in the above build, the P1000 has twice as much VRAM (4 GB) which runs almost 30% faster (up to 82 GB/s).
Other notable aspects of this build are its top-of-the-line CPU with incredible performance, both single- and multi-threaded; its one-terabyte M.2 SSD for the fastest possible boot and core program operations; and its full-featured, spacious ATX Full Tower case.
NOTE: The video card in this build is specialized to be a beast at certain professional applications, but as a result is not designed for high-performance gaming; in fact, a general-purpose video card would likely outperform this card in gaming applications. If your build will also be used for gaming, consider substituting the pro card for a GTX 1080 or an RTX 2070.
CPU: Intel i9-9900K
Graphics Card: PNY Quadro P1000
Motherboard: MSI MPG Z390 Pro Carbon
RAM: 32 GB DDR4 (4 X 8 GB)
Storage 1: 1 TB Samsung 960 EVO M.2 SSD
Storage 2: 4 TB HDD
Power Supply: Corsair CSM 750 W
CPU Cooler: CryoRig R1 Universal
Case: Corsair 780T
Operating System: Windows 10
Section 2: Choosing PC Hardware for Photo Editing
The CPU is the single most important part of a computer whose primary job is editing and creating 2D work in photo editing and graphic design programs. It is responsible for accomplishing all of the tasks that you instruct your computer to do during the normal course of a photo editing session.
As a result, the CPU should be the first part selected for a photo editing build, and should be the most expensive single component of the build. This is the case in each of the example builds above, in section one.
That said, the most prominent photo editing software options, such as Photoshop and Paintshop Pro, take much greater advantage of increased single-threaded performance than increased multi-threaded performance, especially beyond four cores.
As Puget Systems puts it in an article on the subject, “Photoshop is an application that tends to favor lower core count CPUs that run at a higher operating frequency, so the new CPUs from both AMD (Ryzen 7) and Intel (Skylake-X) with six or more cores are not really all that interesting for pure Photoshop users.” As a result, Intel’s CPUs (which typically feature better single-core performance and worse multi-core performance than AMD's CPUs) generally perform better in these applications, even when compared to AMD chips at a similar pricepoint (see that same Puget Systems article for specific benchmarks backing up this claim).
Although it may be natural to assume that the graphics card is a big player in a computer built for graphic design, that assumption would generally be incorrect.
Until you get a pricey card, it is unlikely that the typical photo editor or graphic designer will notice much of any improvement in their workflow brought about by upgrading their graphics card. Beyond (1) making sure that one’s build features a graphics card that can display 4K images on a 4K monitor and (2) making sure that one’s build has a reasonably balanced choice of discrete graphics card for its other components, one should feel comfortable being fairly conservative in choosing a graphics card.
As for the aforementioned high-end route, however, there does exist graphics card technology that can be important to photo editors and graphic designers: the Quadro series from NVIDIA, for instance, is capable—even at its lowest-tier—of displaying 10-bit High-Dynamic-Range color, which justifies its inclusion in a professional build (like the final two builds in section one of this guide).
This capability is also present in the newest consumer-grade cards from NVIDIA and AMD, but comparable consumer-grade choices cost even more, and (along with the price increase) provide a level of power that is unnecessary for a pure photo editing or graphic design build. Consumer-grade cards, however, are great choices for PCs that are meant to handle numerous kinds of work and entertainment—including 3D Design, recording/streaming video, and gaming.
RAM is not going to be one of your biggest concerns. Modern consumer systems all use DDR4 RAM. The lower-end systems here use dual-channel RAM, while the higher-end systems use higher-capacity dual-channel or quad-channel. A Dual-channel configuration provides slightly better performance than a single stick, and quad channel is slightly better than dual channel.
Just make sure you’ve got at least 8GB, as the previewing process that makes up the view window of some design programs can be a bit RAM-hungry. If you find that you need more RAM, adding more is always easy.
Storage (HDD, SSD)
While any photographers reading this do not need this to be said, raw photographs can be truly massive files relative to other image files. Many professional cameras take photos with raw, uncompressed sizes well above 4K resolution. Given that this is the case, it is sensible to have enough hard drive space so that concerns over space will seldom or even never be a limiting factor on your work.
For this reason, all of the example builds above sport at least 2 terabytes of space. That said, it is relatively easy to install additional hard drive space as needed, so it is unlikely to be wise (unless you already have some very big plans) to start out with more than 5 terabytes of total memory for a photo editing build.
And, as usual, if possible we recommend getting an SSD to hold your operating system, key programs, and work-in-progress files. HDD space is cheap and abundant, so it is still a great candidate for long-term storage, record-keeping, and most miscellaneous files and programs . . . but SSDs are a distinct and noticeable speed improvement over HDDs. You will not regret having an SSD as a boot drive.
Power Supply (PSU)
Getting a PSU that doesn’t support a sufficient wattage for your build, or (even worse) getting a budget PSU that may not have been well-made, increases the risk of catastrophic failure for your build. The specifications or numbers on the packaging don't tell the whole story, so unless you're an electrical engineer, the best way to find a good power supply is to ask an expert.
Don’t risk damaging your components. Get a high-quality PSU. Unlike many other components, the quality of power supplies does not increase as much over time. A high-quality power supply bought today, will still be a high-quality power supply in 5 or 10 years.
While not a build component per se, your choice of monitor is absolutely crucial for a photo editing build. Every one of the example builds in section one is capable of supporting at least one 4K display, and the two higher-end example builds can even handle 10-bit High-Dynamic-Range color. Such technical capabilities may prove vital to a line of work where accurate color and detail is often the foundation of each job.
But these features are useless if your monitor doesn’t support them as well! So, while a 4K display can be pricey, carefully consider what kind of display will match your build best. For a simple 4K monitor, perhaps something like Dell’s Ultra HD will suffice. For a full-fledged HDR 4K monitor, the U Series is a well-reviewed option. If you want to look over additional monitor options, head over to our chart of monitor recommendations.
Section 3: Frequently Asked Questions About Photo Editing
FAQ 1: Does a photo editing PC require a powerful CPU?
Yes and no. Unlike PCs built for video editing, gaming, or 3D design work, you will be unlikely to need a monstrous CPU.
But the CPU is still the single most important component in a photo editing build. And unlike in gaming or 3D design, you will not be able to tip the balance toward a more powerful GPU in order to obtain better performance, without first upgrading the CPU (Unsure why? See FAQ 4, below).
So if you’re trying to decide where to put the majority of your build budget in this article, for photo editing and graphic design, the CPU is the place to do it.
(This is in some contrast to the priorities of a gaming PC, by the way; if you’re more interested in prioritizing PC gaming over other program tasks, take a look at our general gaming PC recommendation chart instead.)
FAQ 2: How much storage space does a professional photo editing PC need?
A lot! I mean, don’t go completely insane, but collections and work-in-progress folders of 1080p and 4K images can quickly eat up storage space. I would recommend making sure that you have at least two terabytes of storage space right off the bat, just so that you are unlikely to worry about space for the probable lifetime of your machine (even if you’re not the best at clean-up and organization).
It is true that other media, such as games and videos, are even more space-consuming than image files, but don’t underestimate how much space a folder of 4K images stored in an accurate/space-inefficient format like .png can eat up!
FAQ 3: How should I adjust my build if photo editing is only part of my work? What if I also do video or audio editing?
While the build philosophy and example builds in this article should perform admirably on most modern software, these builds are targeted specifically for use with photo editing and graphic design software.
The most important change that someone should make from this guide if they use a broad spectrum of software in their work (video editing, 3D design, games, music production, etc.) is to balance out the components more evenly. This means placing less stress on the CPU, RAM, and sheer storage space—and more stress on a capable consumer-grade graphics card.
For a more precise account, compare this article to our article on how to build a PC for video editing and to our general gaming PC builds.
FAQ 4: What CPU and GPU should I get for photo editing?
FAQ 5: Why don’t photo editing and graphic design programs always require (or benefit from) a powerful graphics card?
While it is understandable to assume that graphic design programs would make extensive use of graphics cards, the answer to this one is actually fairly straightforward: the kind of graphics-related tasks accomplished by graphic design and photo editing programs are not very taxing on modern graphics hardware.
Consider: modern graphics cards are developed to handle games, video editing, and GPU rendering; all of those tasks require consistent output of max-resolution graphics at least dozens of times per second—sometimes for hours at a time. But the majority of photo editing work involves manipulating a single image or a small set of images which, regardless of resolution, remain largely static while working.
That said, some tasks related to photo editing and graphic design, such as GPU rendering of images from 3D design work, can and do take advantage of the power of modern graphics card technology. Furthermore, at the highest end of professional-grade and consumer-grade cards (like the Quadro cards featured in the higher-tier example builds in section one, or one of NVIDIA's/AMD's newest lineup of mid-range through high-end cards), there are graphics cards capable of the highest possible accuracy with respect to color fidelity.
FAQ 6: Is the software for photo editing work expensive? Are there alternatives?
No, it is not expensive. Professional-grade photo editing software typically costs less than $200, and is therefore not nearly as expensive as professional-grade software for other types of computer work like video editing, 3D modeling, 3D design, and some programming work.
And to make things even easier in the realm of photo editing, several of the most well-known programs (e.g. Photoshop and Paintshop Pro) are all capable of roughly the same level and rate of work, given a user’s relative familiarity with each one. So you will only really need to acquire and learn one of them. You should check, by the way, whether your employer or your school (or even the company that develops the software) can provide the software to you at a discounted rate.
There do exist a number of free alternatives, such as GIMP and paint.net. GIMP is a very thorough and powerful image editing software, but has a steep learning curve and is generally not considered to be user-friendly. Paint.net, on the other hand, is more intuitive and easy to work with, but not nearly as powerful or feature-rich as GIMP, Photoshop, or Paintshop Pro. As a result (even though GIMP is a powerful program), you’re unlikely to see either GIMP or paint.net used by professionals.
After you’ve selected which image editing software to learn, you’re unlikely to need to acquire a second. The only big exception is if you also require a vector drawing program, such as Illustrator or CorelDRAW.
Section 4: Photo Editing and Graphic Design Software
Alright, so you’ve got a PC now, or at least you have one in mind. Next, you’ll need one or more programs to do your design work. Here’s an overview of the most prominent pieces of software for photo editing and graphic design:
Developed by Adobe, Photoshop is easily the most broadly used and recognizable photo editing and graphic design software on the market. It boasts intuitive design, deep capabilities, universal compatibility, and extensive support. Any professionals or aspiring professionals would do well to start here, unless deterred by the recurring cost.
Photoshop is available in a bundled subscription with Lightroom for $119.88 per year from Adobe’s website.
Developed by Corel, Paintshop Pro is a professional-grade photo editing and graphic design software. It boasts a similar set of features to Adobe Photoshop, but due to it being less well-known and less broadly-used in professional communities, it is available cheaper and does not require a subscription. This lack of a recurring cost makes it desirable for people new to photo editing as well as small-team or freelance workers. But those intending to transition into a larger or established graphic design company or position may need to make use of Photoshop.
A single-user commercial license of Paintshop Pro can be purchased for $79.99 from Corel’s website.
Developed by Adobe, Lightroom is a robust photo organizing and basic photo editing software designed to work in conjunction with Photoshop. It is a program which Adobe develops alongside Photoshop as a means of organizing, cataloguing, and doing initial/quick edits to photos that are shared across all of your devices.
Lightroom is available in a bundled subscription with Photoshop for $119.88 per year from Adobe’s website.
Developed by Corel, CorelDRAW is a suite of related Corel programs focused on digital drawing and sketching; logo and font design; and graphic design. Likely Corel’s most well-known software, CorelDRAW sees use by a lot of creative professionals. But due to the large set of features it provides (and despite its lack of a recurring subscription cost), new users may find it prohibitively expensive.
A single-user commercial license of CorelDRAW can be purchased for $499.00 from Corel’s website.
Developed by Adobe, Illustrator is a vector drawing graphic design program. It is used for the creation and editing of logos, artwork, and illustrations. It is capable of automatically tracing and converting line work into vectors, and sees a lot of use by graphic design professionals.
Illustrator is available as a subscription for $239.88 per year from Adobe’s website.
Developed by The GIMP Team, GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is a free and open-source image editing and photo retouching software. GIMP boasts a wide array of very thorough features and capabilities, on-par with most professional-grade paid software; the trade-off is that GIMP has a steep learning curve, a lack of some ease-of-use/automatic functions available in the big-name options, and a sometimes-unintuitive user interface.
You can download GIMP for free from The GIMP Team’s website.
Developed by dotPDN, paint.net is a free (but not open-source) image manipulation and pixel drawing tool. It began life as a free alternative to Microsoft Paint, developed by a single person. But as it was developed (still by a very small team), it slowly incorporated some additional functionality which is more typically associated with Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, and GIMP. Although not nearly as feature-rich as those competitors, paint.net instead provides intuitive, simple, and easy-to-use interfaces and tools.
Developed by Adobe, InDesign is an industry-leading graphic design software geared specifically toward layout design for magazines, journals, websites, news publications, and the like. While not an image editor per se, InDesign is an important part of the creative process at many journalistic, graphic design, and creative companies.
InDesign is available as a subscription for $239.88 per year from Adobe’s website.
Developed by CyberLink, PhotoDirector is a basic, consumer-grade image editing software. Similar in many ways to the kinds of image editing functions natively provided by Windows and Mac stock photo applications, PhotoDirector is not suitable for professional users who need a wide variety of powerful options in their software.
It may, however, be suitable for users who just want a cheap and simple solution that will allow them to make adjustments to images in software with an accountable support staff. It may also be suitable for users who are already familiar with CyberLink’s UI design, due to working with their more well-known video editing software, PowerDirector.
You can purchase a single-user commercial license of PhotoDirector for $99.99 from the CyberLink store.
A great photo editing PC is one that allows you to do all of the work you want to do, while never getting in your way by slowing you down or limiting you. In order to achieve this, put the weight of your resources toward your build’s CPU, followed (in order) by storage space, GPU, and RAM.
Consider following one of the example builds above in section one, so that you can be sure that your build will be suited for its role and also reasonably balanced. And always check for compatibility between the programs you want to use and the hardware you want to buy. (We do our research here, but it would be almost impossible for our team to check every possible combination of software and hardware on our own.)
Follow this guide, and in no time you’ll have a workstation PC up and running for photo editing and graphic design!
Daniel is the Content Editor for Logical Increments.
He also does all of the graphic design, writing, and web development for The Gemsbok blog website and The Gemsbok YouTube channel, where you can find articles and videos on books, games, movies, and philosophy.
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And for those of you that are photographers, check out our camera and camera equipment buying guides for any budget as well!