What Kind Of Computer Do Real Estate Photographers Need?

March 24th, 2016

HardwareLast week Lee in Seattle asked the following:

I need to upgrade to a newer computer. Help, please, with advice on starting point for basic choices?

1. Which Windows computer model is ideal for PFRE image processing and management Windows or Mac?

2. Regardless, are there any guidelines for minimal hardware configuration, processor, RAM, hard drive, video card, etc?

I will be doing serious Photomatix, Lightroom, Photoshop, PTGui, plus minimal to moderate video editing.

First of all, which operating system you use (Windows 10 or Mac OS) has more to do with what you are used to and which ecosystem you are attracted to than any inherent suitability for photo post processing. I love the smooth interoperatibility of the Apple ecosystem and wouldn’t give it up but many others could make the same case for Windows 10. Here are some general rules of thumb for hardware:

  1. RAM: Don’t skimp on the amount of RAM you get. In the overall scheme of things RAM is cheap and generally makes more difference that the speed of your processor. I always get 16 gig of RAM on any machines I buy. Maybe you could get by with 12 gig, I don’t know. But with 16 gig RAM there is NEVER any memory issues. I’ve tried 8 gig, and that’s not enough for Lightroom and Photoshop to perform well all the time.
  2. Processor: Get the fastest you can afford but in the end, the amount of RAM and the speed of the disk drive is probably more important the processor speed.
  3. SSD drive: For my last desktop I got with a 250 gig SSD drive (250 gig of RAM that that looks to the OS like a disk). Wow! I’ll never buy another computer without one! Instant booting and instant everything else.
  4. Top of the line graphics card (GPU): Back in the days of Lightroom 4 and 5 Lightroom didn’t make use of a GPU but since Lightroom CC/6 Adobe says Lightroom makes use of the newer GPUs. For details see Eric Chan’s explination.
  5. High Quality 27″ or 30″ monitor: Lightroom and Photoshop work nicely with dual monitors. If you are doing much post-processing work you need a large monitor. Get two if you can afford it.

If I were to replace my mid-2010 27″ iMac right now I’d get a 27″ iMac with Retina 5K display, 4 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM and an AMD Radeon R9 4GB GPU. I’m sure there’s Windows 10 equivalent configuration out there that someone can suggest.

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23 Responses to “What Kind Of Computer Do Real Estate Photographers Need?”

  • I recently retired my late 2009 27″ iMac for a late 2015 iMac Retina 5K, 27″ with a 3.3 GHz Intel Core i5 with 24 GB of RAM and a AMD Radeon R9 graphics card. The Retina screen is definitely worth the money. Post processing time has been dramatically reduced. In some cases I have been able to cut my computer time in half. I owned a photo lab in Silicon Valley for 35 years and Intel was one of my customers and I thought it was interesting that their graphics department all used MAC’s before they made chips for Apple.

  • If you are doing many paying jobs, the fastest computer that you can budget for will save you money over the first year. Especially if you are editing video. $3k may sound like a fortune for a Mac Pro, but if it shaves 20 minutes off of each job x 60 jobs/month, that’s 20 hours/month or 240 hours/year (10 days). That’s being very conservative. SSD drives are great for working disks, but have a limited number of read/write cycles so moving things off to a regular drive and regular backups is a good idea.

    I went to dual monitors years ago and hate it when I only have 1. I have 4 monitors on my desk (2×2). The bottom 2 are my Mac Pro. The others are for my server (Mac Mini) and my laptop (13″ MacBook). I also run Windows on my Mac Pro, so I can have one monitor with Windows and the other with Mac OSX.

    I work with Windows (xp and 7) and Mac. I prefer the Mac, but some software I need to run is only available on Windows. The nice thing is that I don’t allow the Windows partition to access the internet. I haven’t had a virus in years.

    Strangely enough, a majority of NASA engineers use Macs. Unix generally runs on the workstations that are used on missions, but if you want to apply for a job at JPL, you have to use a PC and Internet Explorer (and an older version at that).

  • I should have stated that I do all of my photo editing work under OSX with LR, Enfuse, Photomatix, Photoshop, Nik Filters, Flaming Pear filters and Graphic Converter.

  • The top three things (in this order): Fast, fast, and FAST. After that make sure it’s fast!
    Having the ability to run two monitors (or more), and run multiple programs like Photoshop, LR, and others at the same time is key.

  • I have used a Mac for a good number of years now. My main reason at first was Final Cut Pro. Now I can’t see myself moving off of the Mac OS.

    One note about buying a Mac. I always get the lowest RAM that is available from Apple and then upgrade it myself. I typically buy Crucial RAM as it will save you quite a bit over the Apple Factory RAM if it can be replace. This doesn’t void the warranty and saves you money. I’ve upgrade both my MacBook Pro and IMac.

  • You can get good systems for both OS and Windows. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. However, when comparing the 2 make sure that you compare apples to apples. I have found many of the comparison of the two too be between standard Windows machines vs high end OS machines. Also watch out for the off-the-shelf systems, you tend to pay a premium for the name and for being able to walk out the door with the unit. Instead, find a local business that builds computers or better yet build your own.

    Memory is important for photo and video editing. More memory is of greater importance than faster memory, within limits. Look for computers that have dual or quad channel memory. That will allow the system to access 2 or 4 memory cards concurrently.

    The number of cores in the CPU is also very important. Photoshop and Lightroom still rely heavily on the CPU. Most off the shelf system come with 4 core. A system with a 6 core CPU will have 40% boost when compared to a quad CPU with the same Ghz number.

    I found that a 250G SDD drive was too small. For $60 more you can get a 500G drive. Also think about having 2 SDD units. One for programs and the windows cache, one for the Photoshop cache.

    Since you will be reading memory cards from your camera, make sure the system has one built in. It will read the card faster than one connected via a USB port.

    The GPU is important, however even so Photoshop and Lightroom both use the GPU they rely on the CPU more. This may and likely will change in future versions. A higher core CPU is currently more important than a better GPU card. Go with a good, higher end GPU card, but not top of the line. Make sure it supports multiple monitors (A higher end card will). Cooling on a GPU card is just as important as cooling the CPU. So all the following comments about cooling also apply to the GPU.

    Last is cooling. Heat will force your system to run slower and reduce life. That goes for the CPU, GPU, motherboard and drives. I am a fan of liquid cooling. The self contained units are almost as easy to install as CPU fans. Why not go with the better system. Also, good systems use good fans. The system I just built has a total of 6 fans, yet the only way you know the system is on is because of the blue lights. You can’t hear the unit run when it is sitting at your elbow. Also, make sure that the drives have cooling. At least one fan should be blowing directly across the hard drives. Built in dust filter on the case are also nice.

    For about $2K you can build a Windows machine that will blow your socks off and leaves that $3K Mac Pro in the dust.

    Check out Tom’s hardware page for advise and rating on various computer components.

  • Mike as a follow-up question to your comment. Please share how using two monitors helps your process. Thanks

  • @Brandon-
    That’s all good if you have one of the very few machines that Apple makes that can be upgraded. Now that Cook has taken over, the vast majority of their computers can not be upgraded (and phones), all so they can pad their pockets more. Main reason why I left them. I built a screaming Windows 10 machine for less than $1400, and can easily do any upgrade I want in the future.
    I find it terrible that I can’t upgrade a computer I spent a ton of money on.

    @Bill-
    I have a two monitor set up, and it’s really nice to have my tool windows (Photoshop) on a separate monitor. More real estate for my images. Plus, having it for things like email, calendar, etc., it just makes it easier. Right now I’m working on my main monitor but SportsCenter is on the other monitor!

  • My recommendation is to save your money and buy the quickest machine you can possible afford. PLEASE don’t settle for “good enough”. I got serious about my RE shooting about 24 months ago and I’m already on my third rebuild in that time because I kept settling for “good enough”. Images start packing more data, file transfers get slower, merges get larger, storage gets larger, etc. I’m currently running a full tower case with 2 x 3TB drives (RAID), a 250GB SSD drive, a 128gb SSD drive, 4TB storage drive, 32 GB of ram, Asus 280x R9, FX-8350 8-core processor, etc. and I STILL feel like I could use more. When time is money you’re computer can never be “good enough”.

    Just my opinion.

  • I recently upgraded from my 2011 MacBook Pro to a 27″ iMac Retina 5K, 3.2 GHz i5. I bumped the memory up to 32gb but the drive is NOT an SSD. So far, I have not see the speed bump I was hoping for in the new hardware. A colleague mentioned that he’d heard of a known bug in the latest versions of Lightroom and Photoshop (I’m on Creative Cloud) that might be the culprit. For example, using the adjustment brush in LR usually means in paint in my changes and wait anywhere from 2-5 seconds for the changes to appear on screen. Anybody else heard of or experienced this?

  • Reading all the comments I notice one missing item to increase the speed of any computer.
    Place 2 or 3 128gb ssd drives in line (serie)

  • @Ron – I am assuming that by “in line” you are referring to a Raid 0 configuration. That configuration would have a speed increase. Since SDD are already very fast, I’m not sure how much of an increase there would be. It can also be used to allow several drive units to act as a single drive. But, It also has a major downside. Should any one of the disks fail, you loose everything on all the disks.

  • @Neil – My IT guy has upgraded his private computer with 3 128ssd, as you called Raid 0, and it really becomes very, very fast. Ssd drives, Samsung, do not have moving parts, was told. That means little change of failing, right.
    But not all motherboards can handle even two separate harddrives. My computer, 5 years old, has an Asus i5 board and windows 10, but can not handle a standard harddrive and a ssd drive. Constant problems. Monday it will be upgraded.

  • @Jim – You are correct on some of the newer models having soldered memory and it does suck! My next upgrade is a new IMac which can still be upgraded by the user.

  • Very timely, as need to update wife’s ‘hand me down’ build from spare parts when I built my i7 machine in 2011 that is also showing it’s age. My initial plan was to purchase her a stock 27′ 2tb fusion drive iMac, and myself a special order i7 version giving her my ram to total 16 and upgrading mine to 32. Part of my devious plan was during this month in Europe, getting her use to my 15″ MacBook Pro Retina. While she is getting use to the OS, the biggest frustration she has (as well as myself) is Apples handling of photos of all things. Forget Apple Photos and it wants 100% of photos to upload to iCloud – even my 1 Star to be deleted in Lightroom. I download from camera, import into Lightroom, export and then only the best over to Apple Photos for display on multiple devices. The biggest frustration wife has is posting to Facebook as the thumbnail are micro size – spacebar to view full, but multiple is a pain. It can be corrected in Finder as there is an option to adjust the thumbnail size and it remembers it, but third party programs – Facebook, Photoshop, etc, that option is mysteriously missing and even if the directory is adjusted in Finder, it reverts to the micro size thumbnail in other programs.

    I am seriously thinking about building a Hackintosh which would have multiple advantages over an iMac running bootcamp/parallels. When return to the States will experiment with my current build as I have a spare 250 SSD from when I upgraded to 500, so would cost me nothing. Expandability is probably the biggest advantage vs the closed system of the newer iMacs, and extreme difficulty working on them. My long term goal is to dump Adobe, and in addition to Final Cut Pro, Apple has some interesting (3rd party) programs. The well received Affinity photo program has a sister program under development as a potential alternative to InDesign…which doesn’t even exist win the Windows world.

  • I recently upgraded my PC and now have 2x Eizo 24″ monitors, i5 CPU, 32GB DDR4, Geforce 950 GTX, Gigabyte MB + SDD. All runs very smoothly with Windows 7. The one thing I would like to have better is the CPU, but Intel gets mad with prices, so I said no. Anyway, i5 is more than enough for editing photos.

  • Any advice on an i5 motherboard and cpu is appreciated.

  • I’d like to have a Retina 5K display. Seriously; who wouldn’t?

    But, for business and superior editing a couple of GOOD IPS monitors makes waaaaay more sense. HP 23″are on sale now for $129. They test dangerously close to monitor costing 10X more. Yes, you’ll need to calibrate them (just like any monitor regardless of cost) so there’s another couple hundred dollar investment – calibrators will last for years.

    Next step: Throw the monitors out after a year and buy 2 new ones, for another $260… Make no mistake, ANY monitor with over a year of hard use on it is suspect. No matter how much you paid for it.

  • @Ron Geenen

    While most dont need anything fasted than a regular single SSD, if you really feel you need more speed going raid 0 is definitely NOT the way to achieve that for a few reasons:

    1. The obvious reason (that Neil mentioned above) that you are increasing your overall failure rate from 1x to 3x (in a 3 ssd raid 0). Moving parts or not, dont kid yourself that they dont fail, it doesnt have to be the drive that fails, it could be your raid controller etc. I have had 1 Samsung 850 pro already fail in the first year. Running your OS on a raid 0 setup is just not smart, especially when it comes to business use.

    2. Normal SSD’s use a SATA III connection at a transfer rate of 6Gb…1 new, high performance SSD (eg. samsung 850 pro) will saturate that with its 550Mb/s speeds.

    3. While benchmarks look great, you will see very little difference in performance, especially photo editing (and/or video editing), if you dont believe this, google the topic, especially over at the adobe forums.

    Bottom line is the minimal speed increase that you will actually see is not even close to the increase in failure rate (I have tried 3x Samsung 850 pro)

    If you are building a new cpu the far better option is to:

    1. buy a motherboard with a M.2 slot with PCI-E 3.0 x4 connection (many new motherboards have this), this give you max transfer speeds of 32 Gb/s

    2. buy a SAMSUNG 950 PRO, which would cost you roughly the same as 3 good regular SSD (eg samsung 850 pro 128gb), and you are getting more space at 512gb (vs 384gb)

    3. because of the 32Gb/s M.2 slot, the speeds advertised are actual speeds, not just unreliable raid 0 speeds that look great on a benchmark.

    Using a M.2 slot and the SAMSUNG 950 PRO gives you the latest (and fastest) generation of SSD without increased failure rates and without relying on your motherboards raid controller.

    Is it worth the money?
    I would say YES, but only if you are building a new cpu and getting a new motherboard anyway. You are getting 4.5 times faster in sequential read speeds (2,500 MB/s vs 550 MB/s) and by over 2.5 times faster in sequential write speeds ((1,500 MB/s vs 520 MB/s) for the extra $100 (Samsung 850 PRO 512gb (SATA III) is around $220 and the Samsung 950 PRO (M.2) is $322).

    Will you notice the speed increase?
    You definitely will, just how much depends on what applications you are using, and especially how many at the same time , but for the extra $100 its well worth it and gives you the latest technology. For example, for premiere pro users it completely eliminates the need (that adobe used to recommend) to spread the load over multiple SSD’s and speeds up rendering times.

    More info can be found here http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=9SIA12K3U60461&cm_re=SAMSUNG_950_PRO-_-20-147-467-_-Product

  • @Christian: Thank you for the advice.

  • @ron green…excellent advice by Christian on the M.2 SSD. It is the newer standard and very quick, followed by SATA, the USB3 and/or thunderbolt on externals. One thing to be aware and varies by motherboard, using a m.2 slot blocks or electronically disables SOME, but not all, of the available USB3, SATA or PCI-E slots. Downloadable instructions of a specific motherboard will explain and help planning the design as you will know which slots you need..

    In terms of an overall build (or purchase), think in terms of a gaming level machine even if you don’t play games. In terms of the i5 cpu (or i7) get the newest Skylake processor (6000 series). I looked at the previous Haswell’s (4000 series) and the price difference was only about 10% savings. Skylake requires a 1151 slot motherboard, so the older 1150 boards will not work. Also, Skylake accepts the newer DD4 memory as well as the older DD3. With Intel processors if the model # has a “K” at the end, it can be overclocked. Since you typically won’t need overclocking, get the non-“K” model and save money. Motherboards, you don’t need the most expensive gaming board as midrange or lower is fine. My build preferences are Asus, MSI, or Gigibyte boards and you can compromise with the H170 class, but my preference is the Z170. I am leaning towards the Gigibyte GA Z170X GAMING 5 or the GA Z170X UD5. Both are in the $130-150 range if you shop around. GPU? That is a delimma, but an easy upgrade as the standard stabilizes – but at any rate, disable the on-board video and add a card. Nvidia or AMD? Adobe utilized Nvidia’s CUDA cores to accelerate the processing, but AMD’s processor engine is becoming the newer standard where Nvidia hasn’t fully utilized in it’s application. End result, Adobe runs better on Nvidia and FCPX better on AMD. My planned compromise is the Nvidia GTX 960 2GB which will also allow me to use my current 750w power supply – and could get by with a 600w on an i5 machine. AMD requires far more power so think of 750w min on an i5/AMD machine. 2GB video memory is fine, but 4GB if multi-monitors are used. At any rate, review the card settings to be sure it will support 4K (3840×2160) output. Dell’s 5k monitor is very card specific for parallel connector hookup, and outrageously priced. It is actually cheaper to get a 27′ iMac! I am looking at their 4K U2715Q which you can find on sale in the $500 range from normal $699 (vs $2000 for the 5K). While well reviewed, Mac users should note that it apparently does have an issue with autoswitching inputs if using on a mixed system.

  • @Larry Gray:
    Thank you for the technical information. I will meet with my IT guy the coming week and I will take your info with me as a guide.

  • Check out DigLloyd.com, There is lots of info on computers for photographers if your up dating. Lloyd himself can personally recommend what the work best after consulting with you on your needs.
    Back in 2009 I consulted with him and it was the best decision I made. Purchased a 2009 MacPro 8 core 2 x 2.93 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon. Installed 64GB Ram last year;-), sure increased it speed. At this time I have SSD Accelsior E2 480GB for my boot drive in PCIe slot. Four hard drive bays are 2 drives 3TB raid for Master and 2 4TB raid for Time Machine Backup. It does everything I need and FAST.

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