Outfitting the Digital Darkroom Part 4: The Computer

This is part four of a series on the hardware and software you need to outfit a digital darkroom. It is Apple-hardware centric, so if you’re looking for advice on windows hardware, I can’t help you. the software tools for the most part are cross-platform and will work on either platform.

Photographers love to talk about camera gear — almost as much as they seem to enjoy buying it. Lenses, bodies, bags, tripods. And without a good camera kit, it’s difficult to take good images consistently.

Photographers show a lot less enthusiasm for their digital darkroom. Often, it’s seen as a chore and a drudgery, something that they have to do but don’t enjoy, and I know lots of photographers willing to show off their new lens or other field trinket who are grinding away on a six year old computer running software the developers stopped supporting years ago.


Again, I’m only going to be talking about Macintosh hardware here. Serious processing workflows on mobile devices and tablets is not ready for prime time yet (but give it a year or so), and I don’t have the experience with Windows-based hardware to speak on it well.

I’m not going to speak about specific models of Macintosh here, because Apple refreshes the product line on a regular basis. Instead, I’m going to give some general advice to help you decide what works for you in in your budget.

The Computer

Apple sells four main lines of computers: their laptops, their Mac Mini, the Mac iMac models, and the Mac pro. Each line has advantages and compromises. Any macintosh manufactured in the last three or four years would be capable of processing images in Lightroom under normal circumstances, although is you have some specific special needs, you ought to consider one of the more powerful models. Those special needs include working with a large megapixel (> 20Mp) camera sensor, how often you do large stitched panormals, or if you do time-lapsing or video. If you plan on doing work like that, budget for a more powerful machine.

In general, if you invest a little more into the computer when you buy it you’ll be able to use it longer before your processing needs make you consider replacing it. You’ll have to make the trade off between spending money now and the long-term investment in hanging onto the computer an extra year later, but I usually recommend people spend a little more on the system and avoid the low-end models. At the same time, unless you have serious processing needs, like doing a lot of video, the high end models are overkill and not a good value. Your options include:

  • Laptops: If you are going to be on the road and want to process, you might want to consider a laptop that you can carry with you. This line breaks down broadly into two groups, the Macbook Air and the Macbook Pro. Macbook Airs are smaller, lighter, have better battery life and will be easier to use on the move, but they maximize battery life at the expense of CPU performance. They’re better email systems than heavy lifters in image processing, but if you use a moderate Megapixel sensor and aren’t doing a lot of the complex operations like HDR or Panoramas, it should work fine for you. The Macbook Pro line runs from smaller, lighter models like the 13″ model to the high end 15″ model. When I was looking to buy my current computer I did some in-depth evaluation of technical specs and found out that CPU benchmarks varied more than I expected: the mid-range 15″ was more than twice as fast in the benchmarks as the 13″ models. That can make a huge difference in the speed at which you can process images.
  • Mac Mini: This is a small, stand-alone computer about the size of a small brick. It’s a self-contained unit but requires an external monitor. These are the units to consider if mobility isn’t a priority and you want to use a specific monitor.
  • Mac iMac: This is Apple’s all-in-one, consumer-centric computer. It comes with the computer built into the monitor, so there’s no need to put anything together to get it running. The nice thing about an iMac is that it’s simple, and because everything is built in and integrated by Apple, it’s less expensive that an equivalent Mac Mini and Monitor. The disadvantage is that if you want to upgrade your monitor or your computer later, you have to upgrade everything, not just one component. Because of everything being built together it costs less for Apple to build them and they can be great values for the price.
  • Mac Pro: Apple’s high-end model. They look great. They cost a lot. They have massive processing power. Unless you spend most of your life in Final Cut or Xcode, you don’t need one. But you probably want one.

Some other configuration options to keep in mind:

  • Memory: you want 8 gigabytes of RAM. If you can afford upgrading to 16GB, that’s good, but I’ve found the incremental improvement isn’t significant — unless you  are doing video, time-lapsing or large panorama stitching.
  • Disk: Apple has converted most of its line to SSD from spinning media drives. SSD drives are much faster but more expensive for the size. I usually recommend 500Gb SSD drives for the internal boot drive in a laptop, Mini or iMac, and then buy a good, fast, external drive to store most of your files. On a laptop, learn to keep the data you need on the road on the internal drive and the rest on the external so you don’t run out of space, and you can live on a smaller drive nicely.

What I use

I refreshed both my and my wife’s computers in 2013; our old gear was 3-5 years old.

I like the ability to go mobile is important to me so my preferred computer is a laptop. My previous model was a 13″ macbook. After researching this, I bought a mid-range 15″ macbook pro because it had much higher benchmark results than the low end or 13″ models. I’ve been very happy with the results which ran me about $2200. I use it with an external monitor on the road, and I configured it with 16Gb of RAM and a 500GB SSD. All of my external data lives on a NAS now.

My wife prefers a desktop computer and something small and portable on the road, so she has a Mac Mini for her main computer, and a Macbook Air for her portable. It’s enough to let her do processing of images on the road, but she brings them home to do the intensive work on the mini. The reason we went with the higher end mini over an iMac is because we already had the monitors in place, and she was upgrading from an older Mini. if we were building this out from scratch, I would have bought an iMac. Note that as of now, a smaller-config 13″ macbook air and a Mac Mini combined ends up costing about as much as my Macbook Pro did, so the costs end up about the same for similar capabilities.

What should you do?

First, don’t buy a Mac Pro. Great machines, massive overkill, expensive and for most of us, more than we need.

If you have a monitor, the Mac Mini is a good option if you buy one of the more expensive models; I feel the lower end ones are inexpensive but underpowered. If your monitor is older than four years, now would be a great time to invest in a new monitor because the technologies have really improved and their color rendition is much better.

I really like the Macbook with external monitor combination. A mid-range 15″ macbook pro combined with a good monitor will give you more processing capability than all but the highest end Mac Mini setups, and you can unplug the monitor and take your environment with you. A 15″ monitor screen is the smallest I can comfortably processing photos on, and the 13″ and smaller laptops take a big hit in processing power that you probably want to avoid.

If you want a machine that doesn’t move around much, I really like the 27″ iMacs. They are the best value in the Mac line, if you ask me, because the integration allows Apple to put a lot of capability in them at moderate costs. The 21″ imacs are less powerful but good values on a budget, as long as you don’t mind the smaller screen — I admit I really like a large screen for photo processing, to the point I’ve considered putting one in a Pelican case to carry with me to hotel rooms.

My suggested preferences would be:

  • 15″ Macbook pro with external monitor for home use
  • 27″ iMac
  • 21″ iMac
  • High end Mac Mini with external monitor
  • 13″ Macbook Air with external monitor

In all cases, I’d want 8Gb of RAM and a 500GB SSD.

Please note that when SSDs do fail, they tend to fail badly and recovery of data off of them can be expensive if its possible at all. You should always be doing backups, but if you run a system using SSDs, backups become even more important.

Posted in Photography

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

Every winter the elephant seals arrive at Piedras Blancas, where the females give birth and nurse their babies. The males build harems of the females because a month after they give birth, they go into heat and it’s mating time. This means the males are going to spend their time fighting with each other, and everyone else tries to stay out of their way. Between the males, it’s usually the case that bigger wins and the smaller ones have to know when to get out of the area.

For more info on the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals and their rookery, check out the Friends of the Elephant Seals web site.

  • Species:
    Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris)
  • Date Taken:
    January 28, 2013
  • Location:
    Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
  • Camera:
    Canon 7D
  • Lens:
    Canon EF 70-200F2.8L IS II + 2.0x TC
  • Tags:
    California, Elephant Seal (Northern), Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Luis Obispo County
Posted in Photo of the Day

Outfitting the Digital Darkroom Part 3: Plug-ins and Apps

This is part three of a series on the hardware and software you need to outfit a digital darkroom. It is Apple-hardware centric, so if you’re looking for advice on windows hardware, I can’t help you. the software tools for the most part are cross-platform and will work on either platform.

Photographers love to talk about camera gear — almost as much as they seem to enjoy buying it. Lenses, bodies, bags, tripods. And without a good camera kit, it’s difficult to take good images consistently.

Photographers show a lot less enthusiasm for their digital darkroom. Often, it’s seen as a chore and a drudgery, something that they have to do but don’t enjoy, and I know lots of photographers willing to show off their new lens or other field trinket who are grinding away on a six year old computer running software the developers stopped supporting years ago.

Plug-ins and Apps are computer programs built to pull an image out of Lightroom, allow you to process the image in some way, and send the changed image back to Lightroom for storage. This complicates your workflow and means you lose the non-destructive nature of Lightroom, but you get the ability to do some things with the images not otherwise possible. It’s common for me to run an image through a number of plug-ins during processing, each creating an intermediate image file. My normal workflow policy is to keep the original RAW image (marked as the original copy), and the final, finished image as a TIFF (marked as the master copy for the image), and then any other work I do — sizing and cropping for printing, for instance — happens from that master. But since I’ve got the original RAW, I can start over any time I want if I want to process a different way.

There are three main vendors of Lightroom plug-ins today.

Google recently bought Nik Software, maker of the Nik Collection. This collection contains Dfine Pro for noise reduction, Sharpener Pro for sharpening, Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversions, Color Efex Pro, which is a grab bag of many color and other image processing effects, Viveza, which allows you to do processing  by selecting areas of similar color to create what Nik calls control points and which act very much like layer masks in in Photoshop. Other tools available from Nik include their HDR Efex Pro and a fairly new tool called Analog Efex Pro, which is a plug-in that gives you much of the capabilities people are using presets for, but with more flexibility. Google lowered the price of this package to $149, which is an amazing bargain for the capabilities.

OnOne makes the Perfect Photo Suite of plug-ins. This package includes eight plug-ins: Effects, which is similar to Color Efex Pro, Enhance which has some of the capabilities of Viveza, but which is more of a general purpose image processor; Portrait, which specializes in the kind of operations you do retouching portraits like skin softening and blemish removal, Resize, which lets you resize images to the appropriate dimensions for a given use, B&W for black and white conversions, Browse is an image browser within the Perfect Suite environment similar to Adobe Bridge, Layers brings Photoshop’s layer capabilities into the Lightroom workflow, and Mask is a powerful masking tool.

Topaz Labs is the third company with a suite of Lightroom plug-ins. Their 14 tools cover a wide variety of capabilities, although some have very specific uses. The standard tools are here: Adjust, which is like Enhance or Viveza, B&W Effects for black and white conversion, DeNoise for noise removal, Detail for sharpening. They also offer tools like Clarity for intelligent contrast enhancement, DeJPEG to resolve JPEG artifacts in images, InFocus which improves sharpness by removing shake and motion blur problems, ReMask to create masks (similar to OnOne’s Mask), and special effects tools like Simplify, Star Effects and photoFXLab.

Most photographers I know choose one vendors plug-in suite and generally stick with it. I am a Nik user, although I also use OnOne’s Resize for image resizing. I’ve experimented with all three company’s tools, and any set will help you out a lot, but each company has it’s own idea of how to build the user interface and design the way the tools work; they all have free timed demos and it’s worth experimenting with them to see which ones you’re most comfortable with.

There are a few other plug-ins I’ve found useful over the years:

  • LR/Mogrify by Arctic Whiteness is an image manipulation plug-in that interfaces to Lightroom’s export and publish modules and allows you to attach image manipulations to the image on the way out, including adding frames and borders or watermarks. It’s a lot more flexible than Lightroom’s built in options, so I use it on almost every export/publish preset I build.
  • Jeffrey Friedl’s Export and Publish plug-ins — this is a large set of plug-ins that are primarily built to improve the export and publish operations of Lightroom, although Friedl also has built tools for working on various internal parts of Lightroom as well. there are tools to export to most of the major image publishing systems like Flickr, Smugmug, and Twitter. He’s also written a lot of “utility” tools — among the ones I use are his Data Wrangler and Creative Commons plug-ins, the Collection and Folder publishers, and in the past I’ve used his Megapixel Sort tool to help me track down and remove images that were too heavily cropped to be useful.  His export tools are better than the built-in ones Adobe ships, and they’re worth grabbing and paying a nominal amount to unlock and use.

A sample plug-in workflow

My workflow for Plug-ins is pretty simple: I start by doing as much work as I can in Lightroom, since it’s where I normally work and it’s non-destructive. when I feel I’ve  gone as far as I can I’ll load the image into Viveza where I can do larger, global adjustments and cleanup. The second round is with Color Efex Pro where I’ll clean up the contrast and adjust the image structure (which is Nik’s tool that does a similar job to Adobe’s Clarity; I think Nik does a better job in many cases). After that I’ll do basic sharpening and noise reduction with Sharpener Pro and Dfine, and that creates my master file.

From the master file I can split off a separate copy for processing into Black and White with Silve Effects and create a 2nd monochrome master. The master file is what I start with to do cropping and sharpening or print. Sometimes print needs custom adjustments to the image and I’ll generate a new print master incorporating those. If I want to print large or create an image of a very specific size (like for wallpapers), that’s where I’ll use the resize tool.

When to use Plug-ins

My philosophy on plug-ins is this: there are very few images that need to be run through a plug-in to get a good image, but if you use the plug-ins carefully, you can make every image better by putting them through your plug-in workflow. The problem, to me, is that not every image is worth the time and effort needed to run them through the plug-ins. I can process most images in five minutes or less in Lightroom; if I choose to go through my plug-in workflow, 30 minutes or longer is more typical, plus you’re now managing multiple versions of the image you need to keep straight and organized. That’s not difficult, but it complicates things and takes time, and time is always a key resource to be efficient with.

Because of this, I generally limit my use of plug-ins to my best images, and only those images that need the extra power of the plug-ins to really bring their quality out. Where you draw those lines in the sand around your images is completely up to you. Overall, between 2-4% of my published images end up going through the plug-in workflow.

Other Tools

Depending on what types of photography you do, you might want some other tools to help you with some specialty processing needs. Here are a few I use:

For HDR processing I use Nik’s HDR Efex Pro. The other well-regarded tool for HDR is Photomatix by HDRSoft. I’ve used both, I like both, but right now I prefer Nik’s processing to Photomatix. These tools have had a tendency to leapfrog each other for image quality as they both upgrade their processing engines, so it’s worth evaluating both and see which one you prefer.

If you’re doing stitched panoramas you have a few choices. I use Photoshop to do this. If you don’t have a copy, this is a good reason to buy Photoshop Elements. I’ve experimented with Panorama Maker by Arcsoft and it works well as a dedicated tool, but the cost difference between that and Photoshop Elements is small enough that I think Elements is a better value and can be used for other tasks as well.

For building timelapses, I’ve used a tool called Time-Lapse, available through the App Store. It’s simple and inexpensive.

If you do focus stacking, the tool to use is Helicon Focus.

When I’m building my animated slide shows I use Animoto. For non-animated slideshows and portfolios, I’m using Apple’s Keynote or Pages.

For video work I’m studying Final Cut. Video is it’s own discipline and well beyond the scope of this article (and sometimes it’s own private hell), so that’s all I’ll say about it here.

Overall Lightroom does an amazing job at handling the needs of most photographers most of the time, but every so often finding a specialty tool to help out makes sense. Plug-ins can give you capabilities and control that you can’t get with Lightroom, at the expense of time and effort and complexity. I think most photographers will do just fine living within Lightroom; Fine Art photographers who turn out few highly crafted images may find a 100% plug-in workflow works for them, and they might use Lightroom only for organization and image meta data and management. The nice thing is that Lightroom is flexible enough to adapt to almost any workflow you design to get your images from the camera to their final destinations.

But before you can do that, you need hardware to run the software on.

Posted in Photography