How to Build a PC for Photographers

Graphics Card

The GPU is increasingly important in today’s computational environment. Photo and video editors are rapidly incorporating GPU acceleration into their products. The graphics card doesn’t just serve to accelerate the display and scroll the canvas; it also acts as a parallel compute engine for a number of filters, particularly blur filters.

Why worry about GPU acceleration? Photo-editing applications are increasingly offloading some work onto the graphics card. Most of these applications use OpenGL and OpenCL, two key software programming standards. OpenGL focuses purely on graphics, while OpenCL allows developers to use the GPU for general-purpose parallel compute tasks, such as blur filters. For example, Photoshop CS6 uses both OpenGL and OpenCL. Corel AfterShot Pro uses the graphics card to assist in file-format conversion. Chinese programmers have built an entire photo-editing application, MuseMage, from the ground up using GPU acceleration.

That said, you don’t need one of those $500 objects of gamer desire to power your photo editing. I confess that I’m running a Radeon HD 7970 in my system, which is priced close to $500. As I mentioned before, though, I also use my system for PC games. If you’re not a hard-core PC game player, you can get by with a relatively low-cost, midrange card. You can find a Radeon HD 7770 for around $150. If you want a little more GPU horsepower, a Radeon HD 7850 costs about $250, and it can do a pretty good job on the occasional PC game too.

Nvidia-based cards also work well; the main reason I’m currently using an AMD card is that AMD has enabled its OpenCL driver. As I noted, OpenCL is a standard for graphics compute chores, such as in Photoshop blur filters. Given the pace of driver updates, however, that could well change in the near future.

A discrete GPU for a laptop is nice to have, but the latest Ivy Bridge processors from Intel have improved the performance of integrated graphics, including GPU compute performance. In the end, a discrete GPU probably will still perform better.

Displays

If you’re serious about photo editing, you should choose a display that you can calibrate to be color-accurate. No monitor is perfect, of course, but some offer much better color fidelity than others do. Prior to buying a monitor, you might want to read up on LCD panel technology.

My general rule of thumb is to use high-quality displays with IPS or IPS-based LCD technologies. Unless you’re doing pro-level print work, you don’t necessarily need a professional-grade monitor, but you do want a display that will fully support true 8-bits-per-pixel color. IPS displays used to be fairly pricey, but their cost has come down considerably. You can find good-quality 24-inch IPS monitors supporting 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution for under $400.

Similarly, if you’re looking at laptops, try to find one with an IPS panel. They exist, but they tend to be among the more premium models. Asus, Dell, HP, and Sony all ship laptops with IPS displays. More pixels are better on a laptop, as well--look for a native resolution of 1600 by 900 pixels or better.

Note that many modern LCD screens offer wide-gamut options. Be sure to set Windows to display the correct gamut for your monitor. Just type color management into the Windows Start menu search box, select Advanced Color Management, and then choose the Advanced tab.

You’ll also want to set the correct ICC profile for your display. Usually you can find the profile included on a CD that ships with the display, or you can download it from the manufacturer’s website. If the process seems a little overwhelming, you can bypass all these confusing settings by using simple tools to calibrate your display.

Monitors: More Is Better

More pixels are better--and more displays are also better.

On my desktop system, I have three 30-inch displays that each support 2560-by-1600-pixel resolution. My main display is an HP ZR30w, which is technically capable of 10-bits-per-pixel color. I also use an older HP 3065 and a Dell 3008WFP, though the Dell often pulls double duty by being connected to one of my test systems. I've calibrated all three using the Spyder 4 Pro calibration puck and software.

You don’t need three displays, but having two is extremely handy. Generally I run Photoshop on the ZR30w and have Adobe Bridge running on the 3065. Even lower-cost applications, such as Lightroom, support dual displays. Simply put, having two monitors makes your workflow more efficient. Note that you don’t have to use two high-end displays--the secondary monitor can be a lower-cost model, though having similar displays is ideal for calibration purposes.

Shoot!

Photo editors, like cameras, are merely tools to get the photograph. The art and craft of the photographer are what really makes photographs shine. You get better as a photographer only by shooting and editing photos. Having the right PC hardware and software, however, will make editing chores just a little bit easier.

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