How to Build the Best PC for Photo Editing and Graphic Design
The builds in this guide are designed to work very well with Adobe Photoshop and other photo editing programs.
Last updated: August 2019
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.
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 ($400)
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, 8GB of dual-channel RAM, and 1TB of very-high-speed 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 R3 2200G
Graphics Card: Stock (Vega 8 iGPU)
Motherboard: ASRock B450M-HDV R4.0
RAM: 8GB (2 X 4GB) DDR4-2400
Storage: 1TB Intel NVMe M.2 SSD
Power Supply: SeaSonic Focus 450
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 R5 CPU, an improved graphics processor, and room to upgrade in the future.
At this level, you get twice the SSD space, which should accommodate all programs and projects for the majority of users working on images at ordinary resolutions.
This build features an unlocked 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: AMD R5 3600X
Graphics Card: RX 570
Motherboard: ASRock X570 Pro4
RAM: 16GB (2 X 8GB) DDR4-2666
Storage: 2TB Intel NVMe M.2 SSD
Power Supply: SeaSonic Focus 550
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U12S SE-AM4
Case: Corsair 275R
Operating System: Windows 10
High-Performance Photo Editing Build ($1600)
Very high-performance build, although not twice as powerful as the higher-value ‘Balanced Price-to-Performance’ build above.
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. The rest of the parts simply complement the CPU, including more and faster storage, more and faster RAM, and an even better (still de-emphasized) GPU.
CPU: AMD R7 3700X
Graphics Card: GTX 1660
Motherboard: ASRock X570 Steel Legend
RAM: 32GB (2 X 16GB) DDR4-3000
Storage 1: 1TB Samsung NVMe M.2 SSD
Storage 2: 2TB Intel NVMe M.2 SSD
Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA 650 G+
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U12S SE-AM4
Case: Corsair SPEC-Omega
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.
Notable aspects of this build are its top-of-the-line CPU with incredible performance, both single- and multi-threaded; its 4TB of NVMe SSD space for the fastest possible operations; its upper midrange graphics card which would be as comfortable doing GPU rendering as doing high-end photo editing; and its full-featured, spacious ATX Full Tower case.
CPU: AMD R9 3900X
Graphics Card: RX 5700 XT
Motherboard: Gigabyte X570 Aorus Ultra
RAM: 64GB (4 X 16GB) DDR4-3200
Storage 1: 2TB Samsung NVMe M.2 SSD
Storage 2: 2TB Intel NVMe M.2 SSD
Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA 750 P2
CPU Cooler: be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4
Case: Corsair 750D
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 featured better single-core performance and worse multi-core performance than AMD's CPUs) had historically performed better in these applications. This situation is changing, however, with the past two generations of AMD CPUs; now AMD and Intel are extremely close together in single-core performance.
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: displaying 10-bit High-Dynamic-Range color, which justifies the inclusion of non-bargain-basement GPUs in professional builds (like the final two builds in section one of this guide).
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 1 terabyte 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 at least 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.
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 Managing 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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