How-To Build the Ultimate Digital Photo Studio PC

Cody Cardarelli

We show you the complete system configuration for the photographer who wants to create more than snapshots and Facebook photos

THE MISSION As a digital photography and video enthusiast, I needed a system that could handily withstand the rigors of Photoshop and make my occasional work in Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 move more smoothly. High-end enthusiast PC parts seemed like the way to go, allowing me avoid the crushing cost of professional workstation components.

But a fast PC isn’t the only ingredient. I also needed to consider the peripherals. For instance, by going with an ultra-high-resolution display, my editing can be much more exact, saving me time in the long run, and enabling me to produce high-quality results. A high-end photo printer gives me a means for displaying my masterworks with poster-size prints.

INGREDIENTS

Total for PC: $4,245

Total for system plus peripherals and software: $8,665

Choosing the Hardware

Choosing the components for the PC was pretty easy. Perhaps the most exotic choice was the Corsair 24GB kit, consisting of six 4GB DDR3 DIMMs. Using a solid-state boot drive, which also holds the apps, is de rigueur these days. Using a RAID 1 configuration for the hard drives rather than RAID 0 was the result of some careful thought; I ended up opting for a little security over write performance. Had this been primarily a video-editing system, RAID 0 might have made more sense.

I went with the EVGA GTX 470 because the GTX 470 is currently the minimum graphics card officially supported by Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 for full CUDA acceleration of Adobe’s Mercury playback engine. That acceleration provides a huge improvement in responsiveness over past versions
of Premiere Pro.

The ZR30w LCD is in the mix for its huge size and color fidelity, though you may want to calibrate the display for serious photo or video work. The star of the show is the 24-inch, roll-fed DesignJet 130r printer. This is a bulky monster, but that’s the price for getting gorgeous 18x24 or 24x30 poster prints.

The Software Side

This system is aimed squarely at turning editing and printing with Adobe Photoshop CS5 into a smooth experience. Its second purpose is to make working with Premiere Pro CS5 less frustrating. I’m currently shooting with a Nikon D300s, and often shoot action shots in poor light—like indoor gyms and football fields at night—which means using high ISO settings. All my images are shot in raw format. My workflow relies on Adobe Bridge as the browser, and Camera Raw to bring photos into Photoshop. The lens-correction engine is one of the features in the latest version of Camera Raw I find myself using a lot. I’m not using it for automatic corrections, but rather going to the manual tab and using the horizontal and vertical correction sliders to tweak the angles of some images.

Adobe Bridge provides a handy browser window that helps me organize my workflow

High-ISO shooting often generates lots of digital noise in the images, so part of my mix is Noiseware Professional noise-reduction software. Noise-reduction software is not a panacea—used too aggressively, shots of people resemble wax dummies. It’s worth spending some time tweaking in Camera Raw first.

I don’t use any special add-ons for Premiere Pro; my needs are modest, albeit somewhat more involved than a standard consumer-level editor. And I’ve grown accustomed to the silkiness of the Mercury playback engine on an Nvidia card. Switching to software in which I’d have to wait for preview renders isn’t particularly appealing. I also use Adobe Encore to build Blu-ray discs capable of playing in a consumer Blu-ray player.

Noiseware helps mitigate high noise levels in images shot in poor light at high ISO settings.

The Inner Workings

  • COOL AND QUIET: Corsair's H50 CPU cooler facilitates airflow through the case and keeps noise to a minimum.
  • NEAT AND TIDY: It's easy to route cables so the interior of the case remains uncluttered, improving airflow (and aesthetics).
  • THE FAST LANE: The Crucial SSD enables very fast boot times and speeds up application load times.
  • GOING FOR GOLD: The Corsair AX750 PSU's 80 Plus Gold certification means pleanty of clean power with minimal power draw.

Bringing It All Together

Building the system was about as easy as it gets. The Corsair 600T case is a genuine pleasure to work with, and routing cables behind the motherboard tray is a snap, making it simple to create a clean-looking interior. I set up all the fans, including the H50 cooler radiator fan, to be controlled by the BIOS. Since I wasn’t overclocking, I ran in silent mode. The noise levels and temperatures were quite low, though the EVGA GTX 470 fan kicked in pretty hard when I tried the system out for some gaming.

The Asus Sabertooth X58 proved to be a real surprise. Its layout is clean, although Senior Editor Gordon Mah Ung thinks the PCI slot could be better located. It’s easy to set up, stable, and fully supports the six-core CPU plus 24GB of RAM—all for about 200 smackers.

A couple of tests—JPEG conversion and building a Blu-ray disc with Adobe Encore—saw huge performance gains on the six-core digital photo system versus our quad-core graphics test bed. On the other hand, the Photoshop filters batch test and the Noiseware plug-in benchmarks posted only about six percent gains. Noiseware itself seems to only support two cores. The Core i7-970 clocks 133MHz lower than the test bed’s i7-975X, but the cache is larger, which may have been the main advantage on the filters testing.

With this power trio at your disposal, you can perform serious photo- and video- editing chores and produce high-def prints and discs.

I didn’t run comparative benchmarks for printing, but a high-quality, 24x18-inch print takes about 15 minutes to print on the HP DesignJet 130r. The output is quite stunning even at print resolutions as low as 160 pixels per inch.

If I dropped the $880 CPU and opted for a Core i7-960, that would have resulted in substantially slower performance on the Blu-ray build and batch JPEG conversions, but only marginal performance losses on day-to-day use. It’s also likely that 12GB would have been more than enough DRAM. So, if you opt for a Core i7-960 and 12GB of RAM, you can build a very similar system for about $1,200 less. Dropping the SSD would net another $560 savings.

Still, I’d be loath to drop down to a lesser system. As more apps get tuned for Intel’s 32nm CPUs, we’ll likely see more performance gains, particularly for photo- and video-editing applications. The combination of six-core CPU plus GPU compute is just too damn compelling to give up.

Why the HP DesignJet 130r?

The HP DesignJet 130r is one of a generation of fine-arts printers. At roughly $1,350, it’s one of the least expensive 24-inch roll-fed printers you can get. HP makes a lower-cost model, the DesignJet 111, which is intended more for office use than fine-arts photography. There’s also the 24-inch Z2100, with its built-in spectrophotometer for paper auto-calibration, but that’s priced well north of $2,000.

The 130r uses six inks, and output looks very good. Since the Nikon D300s I use is only 12 megapixels, print output was around 160dpi for a 24x18-inch print, which looked terrific even fairly close up.

The HP DesignJet 130r

Bear in mind that this class of printer is also physically large. The 130r weights more than 50 pounds, and requires two people to move because of its bulk.

Of course, HP isn’t the only company selling large-format printers. Canon and Epson both build high-end printers for fine-arts output. If you don’t need 24-inch-wide printing, the 17-inch, roll-fed Canon iPF5100 looks intriguing, but costs about $1,800.

Epson just announced the Stylus Pro 4900, which is certified to cover 98 percent of the Pantone color guide, something primarily of interest to professional graphics designers. However, large, gorgeous output is not cheap—in this case, it will cost you $2,450.

If you don’t need—or don’t have the budget for—a mega-expensive roll-fed printer, the Canon Pixma Pro 9000 Mark II is under $500 and is capable of gorgeous photo reproduction at sizes up to 13x19 inches.

NEVER BUILT A PC BEFORE?

Your case, motherboard and cooler all come with useful instructions, but be sure to check out our most recent step-by-step guide at http://bit.ly/bldcreed .

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