Outfitting the Digital Darkroom

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.

Digging into the Digital Darkroom

In the film days, if you didn’t like to work in the darkroom, you could send your film out to a lab and they would develop and print it for you. Today? The digital darkroom is a crucial part of creating the image, but I still see many photographers who treat that as a hassle and not as a critical part of the image creation process. I’m not minimizing the importance of doing your best in the field with your camera — instead, what I’m suggesting is that the time at the computer processing the image has been proven to be as crucial to the final quality of the image, and needs to be treated as seriously. So do the tools you use in your digital darkroom. In practice, you’re likely to spend as much time, if not more, processing images in the digital darkroom as you do taking them in the field. And I believe your tools in both parts of the image creation process should be up to the task. This guide will help you make decisions on how to outfit your digital darkroom. We’ll start with the software.

Software in a Digital Darkroom

Probably the easiest question to answer in digital photography today is “What processing software should I run?” because the answer is Adobe Lightroom. We used to be able to argue about whether Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture was better, but although Aperture was first to the market, Apple didn’t upgrade it as quickly or as extensively as Adobe upgraded Lightroom, and so Aperture became less and less of an option. Apple finally (in 2014) announced it was retiring the program and they and Adobe would work on ways to migrate Aperture users to Lightroom.

If you are currently an Aperture user there’s no reason to panic, because it’ll be upgraded to be compatible with Yosemite, the version of OS X coming out in 2014, and that means, practically speaking, that the program will still be usable for a few years after that. Eventually, though, the hardware that will support the tool will become obsolete and it’ll be impossible to buy a computer that will run the program — and Aperture users will want to retire the tool before that happens. Still, there’s a lot of time to plan that migration and there’s no need to think about changing out hardware or software until your next computer upgrade. (If you want more info on the realities of this change, Jeff Carlson has a good piece on it in Macworld).

Alternatives to Lightroom

What options do you have do you have if you don’t want to run Lightroom? I’m speaking as a Mac user here, so if you’re running Windows or another operating system, you’re kind of on your own. Lightroom is cross-platform and Adobe has worked hard to make sure it works the same on both Mac OS X and Windows (sometimes to the detriment of the program on both; it could take better advantage of the strengths of both OS’s), but I don’t have any experience with tools on other platforms so I can’t make any recommendations on them.

  • iPhoto: On the Mac, the other tool that is on almost every computer is iPhoto. iPhoto is a good program, but is aimed at the more casual photographer. It doesn’t give you the power and flexibility of Lightroom, and most users grow beyond its capabilities fairly quickly as they get serious about their photography. It’s a tool you might consider trying, but anyone who’s thinking about the concept of a digital darkroom probably won’t find the application powerful enough. A separate issue is that iPhoto is also going to be retired with OS X Yosemite, in favor of a new application called Photos, which should be similar to the app of the same name in IOS. Unfortunately, we don’t know what features or capabilities the new program will have but the expectation is it will have similar capabilities to iPhoto, and aimed at the casual user.
  • Adobe Bridge: Adobe Bridge is a tool that ships with Adobe’s Photoshop product, and is an image organizer. Image processing is done in Photoshop, and in the days before Lightroom, this was the go-to tools for doing image processing. Bridge, however, doesn’t have the functionality of Lightroom, and today, it’s used primarily be photographers who learned how to do processing before the days of Lightroom and who have refused to change their workflows. I also think that since Adobe is now bundling Lightroom with Creative Cloud, the days of Adobe Bridge are numbered and I wouldn’t build workflows around it.
  • Darktable: Darktable is an open source project working to create an alternative to Lightroom. I haven’t used it, but in talking to some people who have, it’s not yet a peer of Lightroom, but if open source is something you want to support or the price (free) is a primary motivator it’s worth experimenting with.
  • Capture One Pro: This is an alternative image processor to Lightroom and Adobe’s Camera Raw.  I haven’t used it, but I know photographers who swear by it. It’s not cheap, but there’s a free demo you can download to try it out. Dan Bailey has posted a review of Capture One Pro 7 and his Fuji XT-1, and he loves it.
  • DxO Optics Pro:  This is another alternative to Adobe Camera Raw. It also has a base of strong supporters who love the quality of images it creates.

My bottom line: Use Lightroom.

Do Photographers Need Photoshop?

In the early days of digital photography photographers used Photoshop to process images because that was all there was. The problem was that Photoshop was really built for graphic designers and was expensive, which turned it into a big seller for Adobe as the digital photography revolution picked up steam — and also turned it into one of the most commonly pirated pieces of software out there.

Apple then released Aperture at a lower price and that started the competition against Photoshop. Adobe released Lightroom to counter Aperture. By Lightroom 4 it had clearly surpassed the capabilities of Aperture, but Lightroom has never fully matched the capabilities of Photoshop.

It doesn’t need to, though. With Lightroom 5, the program now does almost anything a photographer could want, and you can extend Lightroom with plug-ins for specific capabilities if you want to. In reality, very few photographers need Photoshop today, and for the last few years, my recommendation has been to not buy it until you run into an image processing problem you can’t solve without it. Most photographers I know who’s workflow was not Photoshop-centric to start with (because they learned processing before Lightroom or were taught by someone who did) are finding they can live without Photoshop.

One really nice thing about Lightroom is that if you’re working with raw files, your processing is non-destructive; it doesn’t modify the original image. Instead, it’s stored as a set of steps that are applied to the image when needed. This means you can experiment to your heart’s content, reset the image back to the starting point, and try something else, all without worrying about damaging the image. If you want to experiment on a processed image, you can create a virtual copy, hack away at it until you’re happy, sync the changes back to the first image and delete the virtual copy — or keep both if you want. The power and flexibility of Lightroom lets you try things without having to worry about damaging an image and not being able to get back to a known state.

Because of the capabilities and flexibility of Lightroom,  the number of images I send to photoshop for processing today is almost zero. 99% of my use of photoshop these days is my graphic design and similar work, not photo processing. If I run into a problem I can’t solve to my satisfaction in Lightroom, I’ll use a plug-in before kicking the Photoshop program on the image. About the only things I use Photoshop for today is panorama stitching (and I could use a number of inexpensive tools to do that if I wanted to), or the very rare occasion where I need to do some really complicated masking and layers — and in practice, almost all of those situations can be solved using Nik’s Viveza or Color Efex Pro instead. Prior to Lightroom 5, my printing workflow was through Photoshop because Lightroom 4′s print engine wasn’t as good, but with Lightroom 5, it seems to have caught up, so I now do my custom image printing using Lightroom.

So my recommendation to most photographers is: don’t buy photoshop. Lightroom will solve your needs. There are a lot of people who’ve written a lot of training classes that tell you otherwise, but with Lightroom 5, their techniques are obsolete. You can save yourself a lot of money by buying Lightroom and a good set of plug-ins and not committing to the cost of Photoshop — the advantages and processing techniques that photoshop bring that can’t be reproduced in Lightroom today (a big one are luminosity masks) but I think you need to be a fairly advanced post-processing geek to understand and take advantage of those.

Most photographers don’t need Photoshop, or the bill that comes with getting a copy to use. For those of you who are uncomfortable not having a copy of Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements is available. It’s Photoshop’s little brother and has a little brother price tag (under $100). It doesn’t have the full capabilities of Photoshop, but the features I found missing it in were all things that I needed in graphic design, not photography. It’s a good compromise to paying for the full Photoshop that will likely keep you from ever needing the full package.

And of course today you can buy both Lightroom and Photoshop Elements without having to commit into Creative Cloud.

What about Creative Cloud?

In 2013, Adobe announced it was replacing it’s Creative Suite product with a new setup called Creative Cloud. Instead of paying for the software up front, you would sign up for the service, and for a monthly fee, get access to all of Adobe’s tools, and lots of promised (but not yet shipping) cloud-based stuff.

And as you might imagine, the internet has a cow over it. In reality, Adobe made a bunch of mistakes with Creative Cloud in the early days — it was too expensive, it wasn’t reliable enough, much of the value was based on promises of things it intended to do, and the way they structured the products didn’t take into consideration the needs of photographers very well.

To give Adobe credit, they listened, they made changes, they adjusted pricing, and they created a product tier for photographers (Photoshop and Lightroom only) at what I feel is a fair price. They also have shown a good track record in the last year of shipping updates and new features, and the major 2014 update they’ve announced has a number of interesting enhancements.

That said, Creative Cloud isn’t perfect. Adobe’s aggressive anti-piracy stance and activation tools cause problems when a computer is off the network for too long or at the wrong time — or when the activate servers at Adobe go down, which they have at least twice so far. I wish there were better pricing options for those of us who might need Photoshop and one or two tools and not the entire suite. I wish there were ways to buy this more ala carte because I don’t need or want their cloud services; so in some ways Adobe is still ramming stuff down my throat I don’t want with no options to not pay for it, and pricing things so I’d have to move to a too-expensive-for-me tier if I want more than the base functionality.

That’s nothing new, that was their pricing model for Creative Suite, too. I don’t expect it to change, either. But for most photographers, it’s not a big deal, and there’s a $9.99/month tier that gives you access to Photoshop and Lightroom and all of Adobe’s cloud services (if you find them useful), and to me, that’s a fair price and a good value. Adobe has made it clear that tier won’t go away (something that wasn’t clear for far too long in the early days of Creative Cloud), and so I can recommend it.

The question is, buy a copy of  Lightroom 5, since I keep telling you Photoshop is unnecessary, or sign up for Creative Cloud and get Lightroom as part of that membership? And my answer is: it depends.

I know, sorry. But if you’re just getting serious about photography, buy a copy of Lightroom and don’t sign up for Creative Cloud. The cost of a copy of Lightroom is the cost of about a year of the basic Creative Cloud membership, so if you use it for a year and then decide you want to switch to Creative Cloud, the net cost will more or less wash out. If on the other hand you find you might need other Adobe tools (Indesign for ebook publishing, for instance), maybe Creative Cloud is worth having.

I’m a Creative Cloud user and I’m pretty happy with it today, but I use Photoshop for other things than photography and in fact rarely use it on photos any more. If I were using it just for photography, I’d buy Lightroom and not subscribe to Creative Cloud.

Ultimately, this turns into a “everyone’s needs are different” problem — and if you’re starting out, the least expensive way to get started is purchasing a copy of Lightroom, and using it until you understand your needs well enough to know if you need more than Lightroom. Most photographers, at least until they reach the advanced level in their post processing, don’t today. Lightroom solves their problems well and is very affordable.

What about Using an iPad to process images?

An emerging option is using an iPad to process your images. Adobe has rolled out Adobe Lightroom Mobile, which is starting to bring organization and processing workflows for raw images to your mobile devices (for Apple Geeks, an iPad). If you are on the fence about buying Lightroom vs Creative Cloud, this might be the thing that convinces you to go with Creative Cloud, since it’s part of the basic bundle.

In reality, it’s pretty neat stuff. I like Adobe Lightroom Mobile. I haven’t yet integrated it into my official workflows but I”m experimenting with it, and I love the potential. I think it may be a year or so out before it becomes really useful, but I do think that’s going to happen. In my view, though, today it’s a great sign of Adobe’s future direction for Creative Cloud and it’s a very positive one, but it’s still early and experimental and I’m not ready to depend on it. If you want to explore this more, Jeff Carlson is doing a lot of great writing about it, and has published The iPad for Photographers to guide you through this new set of technologies.

Plug-ins, Presets, and Apps

Lightroom 5 does a very good job of processing images, but there are some circumstances where you might want to supplement it’s capabilities, or you need an extra tool to cover an operation Lightroom doesn’t handle, such as Panorama stitching or HDR. There’s also a growing market in helping you make stylistic or processing changes in a controlled manner through use of presets, which are effectively recipes you can install into Lightroom that will twist the knobs and pull the levers in a very specific way to give you a specific look.

 

Presets are simple recipes that affect the settings on an image. I’ll admit I don’t use presets very much, the one exception being a set of sharpening presets I got from Jared Platt and his Creative Live class. There are a number of photographers who’ve published bundles of presets you might want to look at, including Platt, Trey Ratliff,  Nicolesy, and Lindsay Adler. Most of these bundles are quite reasonably priced, and there are also a lot of free presets out there, and you can experiment with them, see if they make sense in your workflow, and if they do, experiment around looking for the ones that work for you.

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.

Hardware

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.

Monitors and Calibration

Unless you buy an iMac, you’ll want an external monitor. Even if you have a Macbook with a monitor, a nice, large monitor on your desk is a great way to improve your processing and the quality of your images. the emergence of IPS style LED monitors has really improved them in the least few years, and if you’re monitor is a bit older and isn’t an IPS unit, I think you should seriously consider upgrading. The good news is IPS LED monitors can be great values so you don’t need to spend a lot of money.

My current monitor is the Dell IPS-LED 27-Inch LED-lit Monitor which will run you under $300 new. They have a 23 inch model for under $150. I’ve found the color rendition of these monitors to be quite good and their color stability is outstanding. I just calibrated mine for the five time in five months, and I found that the calibration hadn’t moved at all. That’s a good thing for a monitor you’re using to manage your images.

Any monitor you use, you’re going to want to calibrate. If you don’t know that the colors you see on the screen are accurately representing the colors in the image, how do you know how the image is going to look? you can’t force someone to look at the image on a calibrated screen, but you can make sure it’s processed on one which will remove a lot of possible complications as your images move from camera to printer or into the eyes of your client.

I use the ColorMunki by X-Rite to calibrate my monitors. It’s fairly expensive, but it also calibrates my printer and my printing papers to my printer inks, so it helps me control the entire workfor from camera to final print. If you don’t need the printer calibration X-rite has less expensive options, but I also really like the Datacolor Spyder for about $150.

If your budget won’t stretch to buying a calibrator, you can rent them for a few days from a site like Borrowlenses; I’d recommend at least twice a year, preferably quarterly — but the cost of rental will fairly quickly pay for that Spyder at that rate.

You should probably calibrate your monitors monthly. Since I know my Dell IPS is stable, I can get lazy about that, but I still need to calibrate my laptop screen on a regular basis. Most of us probably won’t do this.

Calibration displays a series of colors on the screen and looks at the color as it’s actually displayed and compares it to the color that should be there. If they differ, it creates a calibration configuration that changes the colors being displayed so that they do show up as the colors that are being sent to the monitor. All monitors vary from the ideal to some degree or another, and if you don’t calibrate them, you’re basically guessing about whether your colors are right or not. I suggest everyone should calibrate every monitor they use to display or process images.

Disk space and backups

As your image collection grows, you’re going to need disk space to house it, and a way to back it up to protect yourself from failures. The one thing to realize about your disk needs is that they will grow faster than you think and you will find more things to stick on them than you expect. Buy bigger disks than you think you need because otherwise you’ll be buying more sooner than you expect, and it’s cheaper to buy bigger early and grow into them. At some point the complexity of managing all of the data will become a chore in itself, and that’s when a Network Attached Server (NAS) becomes an option. I feel that point is around 4 Terabytes of data.

Now, 4TB seems like a huge number — and it is — but as we do more video, as our photo collections grow, we’re reaching it sooner than ever, and the pace that our data needs grow will only be accellerating in the future.

I cover the issues with disks and NAS selection, setting up and managing backups and all of the details of wrangling your disk needs into submission in a couple of articles:

Should you consider upgrading your home network to a NAS?

More than you want to know about backups (the 2013 edition) 

Other Stuff

Do you need a Wacom Tablet? I know a lot of photographers who swear by Wacom tablets for processing their images. I have to admit, I’ve tried them a few times and I just don’t see the value. Many of the photographers who depend on Wacom are using them in a photoshop-centric workflow, not a lightroom-centric one, and I think that makes a different. This is a useful tool to experiment with, but in all honesty, I rarely use mine, and I don’t miss it.

What about a printer? I’m a huge fan of printing as part of my processing workflow. I use an Epson R2880 as my image printer. I don’t print every image, but I take images I really like and print them, first at 8×10 and later at larger sizes, because flaws in the image that don’t show up when looking at them online or on a monitor will show up and hit you in the nose to get your attention. Printing images and studying them will help you make better images, because the print form is a lot less forgiving than online imagery is, and it  will help you learn how to avoid or fix problems in your images that you may well miss if you only look at them on your screen. I talk about this in more detail here and here for your amusement.

Why you should budget for and schedule upgrades along the way — a rant

Before we close this out, one more thing. Having spent many years in the computer industry being part of, working with or complaining about IT organizations, one thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t put the resources into keeping up your hardware and maintaining and upgrading your software, you end up waking up one morning in a big world of hurt when something breaks and can’t be fixed, and whatever you need to buy to replace it is not compatible with the software because you haven’t kept it current. This crisis always seems to happen on deadline, in the middle of the night, over a weekend, when you’re support to be at a family member’s birthday or wedding or off on vacation.

The best way to minimize the chances of those stress-inducing, deadline-destroying crises is to understand the lifecycle of your software and hardware and commit the time and budget necessary to maintain your darkroom gear and software. The reality is that if you upgrade your gear on a rational schedule, you can save yourself time and money — and the stress and hassle of having to drop everything and even shutting down your operation for a day or a week to deal with the realities of a failure at a time not of your choosing. Likely with clients screaming for their files.

You don’t need to upgrade software every time a patch is released, and you don’t need to buy every upgrade they release — before Creative Cloud, I was in the “every other version of Photoshop” camp myself. But one advantage of upgrading your software more often is that the incremental upgrades are going to be more reliable than waiting a long time and then trying to upgrade everything at once. Incremental upgrades are tested pretty well with recent releases, but the further you push back that upgrade chain, the more likely you’re going to run into a problem and turn that upgrade into a living hell. One big reason to keep your software current is that it reduces the likelihood of you running into a problem that was fixed — but not on your computer — that leads to a lot of pain and lost time while you track it down and fix it.

Deferred maintenance is like credit card debt. It may seem harmless, and you may go months or years without a problem, but at some point, it all catches up with you and when you do hit that problem, it generally escalates into a big one where if you invest a little time and a little money along the way, you can avoid it completely, or you can keep it simple and small.

My bottom line on this is simple: there’s no free lunch. You can invest time and money on incremental upgrades and patching your software a bit at a time and keep things up to date, or you will hit a point where something breaks badly and you have to do it all at once, under duress, when you really need to be doing something else, and not only do you end up paying for all of those upgrades anyway, you end up paying more in the end because you’re doing things on an emergency basis — and I’m not even factoring in the stress and lost time this causes. Avoiding upgrades is a penny-wise-pound-foolish guessing game that nothing bad will happen, and the reality is, sooner or later you’ll pay for it. You can minimize that pain by avoiding it and keeping your software current. Your tools are your lifeblood for producing images; not investing in them is a bad investment, and one that you will eventually pay for in bad ways.

The same is true of hardware. It wears out. It fails. The best way to avoid the pain of having a hardware failure creating a crisis during a deadline is to understand the lifecycle of the hardware and not wait for it to fail to plan and implement upgrades. How often you upgrade your gear depends on what it is and how well you treat it. A hard drive in a desktop unit will last longer than one in a laptop, because the laptop tends to get bounced around as you carry it.

I typically like to replace a laptop after four years, give or take a year. Hard drives with spinning disks I replace more often; the drive in my laptop I replace yearly — because the best backup is one you never need, and the easiest way to avoid disk failure is never let  drive get old enough or banged up enough to fail. That’s not 100% protection against failure — you still need backups — but it reduces the chance by a huge amount.

My stationary drives I rotate less often; the drives in primary use get turned into backup drives after two years, and turned into powered-off archives after 4. My goal is for all of my data to be on drives 3 years old or younger, and my extra archive drives fully retired at about five years. As it turns out, the American Library Association recommendation for data archived on electronic media is that it should be copied to new media every five years to avoid media degradation or failure and to keep it on media modern enough that finding something to read it with — good luck reading that 8Track tape or Zip drive today, folks; you need to bring all of your data forward to modern hardware over time, and if you don’t commit to this, when you need that data, it might not be there.

SSDs are different, and I don’t yet know what my replacement plan will be for them. They should last longer than a spinning drive, but I haven’t yet seen data that has let me decide what my rotation schedule for them in my computers will be.

What I’m suggesting here is simple: if you’re a photographer, your tools are crucial things needed to go from what you want to photograph to a finished image. Most photographers get that with their camera gear, but they tend to ignore their darkroom gear. What I’m telling you is that if you do that, eventually you’ll pay for it. That’s something you want to avoid. It’s not a matter of if these failures will happen, but when. I can’t promise you 100% protection from system or software failure — but if you take care of your tools over time, you can do a lot to minimize the chances of that happening.