Simple SSD Configuration Guide for Photo-Editing Desktop Workstations

It’s 2020, and you should definitely be using Solid State Drives (SSD) for your photography workflow to be efficient in ANY photo editor. However, this is especially important for RAW image workflows in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, and Adobe Photoshop CC.

If you’ve only been using Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) until now, it’s time to make the switch. Here’s how you can switch over the right way.

So, what’s the most practical configuration for an SSD based RAW photo-editing workstation computer?

We actually suggest that you set up your workstation with multiple SSDs to make the best use of multiple data pathways to and from your CPU, GPU, and RAM. Here’s what that setup may look like.

Optimal Setup for a Desktop Workstation

If you’re editing photographs on a Desktop workstation, here’s our recommended setup:

  1. SATA3 500GB SSD dedicated to your boot OS drive
  2. SATA3 500GB-1TB SSD for scratch disk / paging file
  3. M.2 NvME 1TB SSD only for your projects and files
  4. SATA3 4TB or 8TB HDD RAID array for archival of completed projects.

Optimal Setup for a Laptop Workstation

And here’s our recommended setup for a laptop that has an M.2 NvME expansion port.

  • 1TB M.2 NvME SSD for your boot OS and program files
  • 1TB SATA 3 SSD for your project files.

We get into the details of why we chose these particular configurations in the latter half of the article, so read on for our rationale.

What are SATA 3 and NvME (and where does M.2 fit in to this story?)

You may have noticed that we mentioned 3 different hardware interfaces, and SSDs are available for all three. So why pick one over the other? In short, because of pricing and performance differences.

This article delves into SATA3, NvME and M.2 in more detail than we can cover here. You can open it up into a new tab to read later, because the summary is right here.

SATA, NvME and M.2 (The Summary)

Computer Storage Devices: SATA3, M.2 – SATA3 and NvME

Here is a quick summary: SATA is a standard from the days of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) which had physically spinning platters. SSDs are capable of data access and transmission speeds that exceed the SATA3 standard of 6Gbps. This means that people took to accessing SSD data feeds via the PCI Express bus, which led to the NvME standard. So SATA 3 and NvME are the actual standards.

M.2 is just an SSD form factor / Interface that is slim and space saving. This is especially useful since SSD hardware doesn’t need the 2.5″ or 3.5″ fomat bays that HDDs needed. M.2 drives could be either SATA or NvME, so watch out for this difference when buying your motherboard and SSDs.

1. SSDs for your Boot Drive

Your primary boot drive has your operating system, and usually all your programs too. You’ll want your OS and editing programs to load up quickly. With your OS running off an SSD, your computer could be up and running in mere seconds, as against a few minutes with a HDD.

Using an SSD for a boot-drive ensures that your operating system is not bottle-necked, and it has all the fast RAM / paging file access that it wants, so that your interface remains smooth and responsive at all times.

It also makes sense to install all your applications (program files) to this drive for the same reasons. We would suggest using a fast 500GB SATA3 SSD for this purpose. Feel free to get 1TB if you want to, but try to avoid storing your projects and RAW files here. We have them on a different drive to ensure that they’re not competing for bandwidth.

Suggested Drives:

2. SSDs for your paging files / scratch disk

The second SSD is for your OS’s paging file (aka Swap file), as well as Photoshop scratch disks, Lightroom cache, Premiere Pro or DaVinci Resolve cache files, etc. Basically for files that have high traffic during program use, but that don’t need to be part of any of the other functions.

The size requirement for this drive could vary quite a bit, based on the type of work that you do. You may be able to get away with as little as 120Gb, but I suggest 250Gb to 500Gb as these drives are rather cheap these days, and should be more than sufficient for most systems, even when working on medium sized photography and video projects at the same time.

We discuss setting up your Lightroom Classic, and Photoshop CC installations to use your SSDs optimally in this in-depth article.

As before, this is on a separate drive to ensure that access to your RAW photographs is not hindered by applications writing to, or reading from the drive that they’re stored on at the same time.

If you don’t want to dedicate one entire drive to your paging files / scratch disk folders, you can still use your primary OS drive for this function, but don’t use a hard disk for this purpose.

3. SSDs for your current projects

You need all your RAW image files to be accessed as quickly as possible. The fast read speeds of SSDs meant that data is quickly accessible for processing by the CPU and Graphics card, with as little latency as possible. This is very important if you want photoshop or lightroom to work with as little wait-time as possible. This is especially important if you have large, multi-layered PSD files.

If you do create large files, then you know that your PSDs can easily become a few hundred MB in size. Loading and Saving these files takes some time, and from experience, I want to save as often as possible. Thankfully, Photoshop now allows background saving.

So, all your current work is on a fast SSD while editing in lightroom, and photoshop, great! What next?

Once your files have been finalised, your files will not be accessed as frequently, and can be shunted into your long-term storage or backup solutions. This means RAID, or HDDs.

Suggested Drives:

4. Hard Disks for your finished projects

Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) have the upper-hand when it comes to price per GB of storage. This is why you’d choose HDDs instead of SSDs for long term archival storage, and why you would probably choose to use 8TB Hard Disk Drives. You could possibly even choose to use multiple HDDs in a RAID configuration for redundancy.

As we said earlier, once your projects are edited and published, they go into your archives… You’ll be storing all the projects that you’ve finished working on, and will access only rarely on these HDDs. I save these files in a year-based folder hierarchy. Perhaps you do too!

You could also save your non-critical files, like personal photographs, videos, computer games and more on the HDD.

Suggested HDD Drives:

So what SSDs and HDDs should I buy?

You’ve already seen the recommendations under each section, but you may want to make your own choices. That’s probably exactly what you should be doing anyway. But before you go, I have a few pointers for you.

SSDs aren’t all that simple to understand. There are multiple terms to understand, and a few things to watch out for, so spend some time getting to know them. We can get to that in a later article if needed. However, let me also give you a few rule-of-thumb guides for your SSD purchases.

  • Avoid the cheapest SSDs. They can sometimes be quite slow. The literature only lists their fastest speeds. These are the WD Green and similar drives that offer high capacities at ridiculously low prices. The performance of these drives makes them ones to avoid.
  • Avoid the most expensive SSDs. They’re probably good, but you probably don’t need them.

And here is also some quick guidance about how the most common SSDs are ranked. Check out the two images below for a hierarchy of SATA and NvME SSDs to suit your needs.

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