How much RAM do I need for image editing?

We all need to optimize our hardware for productive image editing in order to work as efficiently as possible, using the very best tools at the very lowest cost and in the least possible time.

Those who have ever used Windows XP on a machine from the late 1990s or early 2000s can relate to the long time spent on disk-thrashing sessions. The process of shuttling data to and from the swap file slows things down and even worse if you try to open a new program when your memory is full.

In the early days, you might have spent $40,000 for 8 MB of RAM. Yes, megabytes, not gigabytes.


If you’re buying new equipment for your image editing tools, or upgrading your own computer, it’s good to know where you should be spending your budget to get the most out of your money.

One of the surprising facts is that more memory doesn’t always mean better performance – in fact, you may need less RAM than you think. A typical budget PC come with 4GB of RAM, but some high-end might go as high as 16GB or more, so Windows relies much less on virtual memory.

While Windows 8 supports up to 128GB of physical memory (assuming you’re running the 64-bit edition), and Windows 8 Pro can go up to 512GB, you really need to know how much RAM is enough for you, do you need that much?


How much RAM is enough?

Memory is an area where many photographers indulge in false economy, you shouldn’t!


There’s no “one size fits all” answer to that question. You can get an idea of how your usage is or could be by exploring how much memory is used in various scenarios through the Windows Performance Monitor, a handy system tool that lets you keep track of dozens of important operating metrics, including “committed bytes”. This represents the total memory that’s been allocated to your applications and OS components (note that it doesn’t include the SuperFetch cache, which is automatically flushed if the RAM is needed by a “real” program).

Overall, the difference in the performance between a 4GB system and an 8GB one was only 3% in a study that has been made, which makes you consider a lot to justify a whole computer upgrade, but it’s nowhere near as transformative as you might expect.


Why do I need RAM?

Random access memory (RAM) is used by Photoshop and Lightroom to hold your file temporarily while you work on it. If you quit the program, or you have a power flicker/failure, your work disappears, unlike saving it to your hard drive, which is permanent storage.


This memory is less expensive than it’s ever been, which will impact Photoshop or Lightroom’s performance, as these will happily use more RAM to speed up your work.

More RAM is one of the least expensive components to upgrade, and one of the best ways to improve the user experience of working on your computer and extending its life. This is one case where more is a really good idea.

Most computers can be upgraded with more RAM after you purchase, but some require that you select the amount of RAM you’ll always have at the time of purchase. This is because the RAM chips are permanently wired to the motherboard, and can’t be swapped out.


If you’re buying a new computer, it’s better to go top of the line and get yourself the best when it comes to RAM. If you’re planning an upgrade, think how much this could affect the performance before going for it.

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