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.
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.