Computing and Processing in Photography: The Basics
As promised, this article is serving as a follow up to my previous article on the gear I use for Landscape Photography. While the gear out in the field is important to capture the files, a computer and software need to be used to prepare digital images for later use. This article will not dive into specific post processing beliefs and techniques, but rather focus on the hardware and software that I use and would recommend to anyone from a casual hobbyist to a serious working professional if it fits their need in the moment. However, these are the tools I use and just because they work for my needs and workflow, does not mean they will work for everyone. So, without further ado…
For me, especially because I do not travel and work photography 24/7, I believe that a 2-computer setup is the most convenient (maybe not the most cost effective perse, but definitely a quality investment and one that I haven’t looked back on). Also, I would like to caveat this whole section with I am not advocating Mac or PC, I think both systems have very solid options and will try to keep any advice I do give very general. But, for those wondering, I do use a PC Laptop and Desktop. Let’s talk about the Desktop first.
You really have two options here, build one or buy one. Building a desktop computer may seem daunting, but I assure you it really is as simple as choosing your parts and putting them together like Legos and one of the best decisions I have ever made. It is not the only option, although, and you can purchase quality desktops for great prices too. Before getting into the specifics I would also like to note that not all these parts are the newest or the best, but they’re the parts I went with at the time of my build.
Processor: i7 7700K. For the most part, any 7th or 8th generation i5 or i7 Intel processor or equivalent AMD Ryzen processor will do the trick. Note that generally photo editing software utilizes the Speed of the processor more than the number of cores, although Adobe is recently attempting to change this. A high GHz 2, 4, or 6 core setup would be the best for photography processing (video encoding is an entirely different story, however).
Ram: 16 GB ought to work these days for most people. I use DDR4 RAM and obviously the faster the better but in my opinion there’s no reason to go crazy.
Video Card: I have a GTX 1060 with 2 GB of GDDR5 Ram. Again, photoshop and lightroom don’t use graphics cards to their utmost capacity so there’s no reason to spend hundreds of dollars but a good quality, workstation or gaming video card will be fine.
Storage: The most underrated part of the machine. This is where all your images go! I use a 250 GB M2 Drive as my program and operating system drive and I have a 6TB WD Black for my pictures. I’d love to upgrade that to an even faster, and quieter, SSD or bigger M2 drive, but solid-state storage is still very expensive. In my opinion, if you have extra money to spend somewhere, a lot of the time I would spend it here.
Backups: You don’t want to lose your hard-earned pictures and memories, do you?? Of course not. Just like I recommend shooting redundant to two cards in the field, you shouldn’t go long before backing up your photos into another drive (or cloud option).
Obviously, there are more components to a desktop (the casing, power supply unit, mother board), but the options listed above are the ones you can choose most easily if buying a pre-built desktop and among the bigger considerations if you are building your own.
This topic can also be tricky. If you want to only get one system, you generally need to sacrifice somewhere. To get the power you could out of a desktop on a laptop, it will generally get extremely expensive or extremely big and heavy. This is why I like my 2-computer setup where my desktop is primary machine when I’m at the office but when I'm travelling, or just want portability for some other reason I also have it. It’s also powerful enough to get most editing done without getting frustrated.
The laptop that I use is the Dell XPS 15 9570 spec’d as follows: https://amzn.to/2MCOacR
Processor: Intel Core i7 8750H
RAM: 16 GB
Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 1050Ti with 4GB of GDDR5
256 GB M2 Solid State Drive
I went into considerably less detail here because when picking out a laptop, especially if your in a store, you usually have much less freedom and flexibility in the specs you want. Most of you can find something that suits your needs in your price range as long as your honest with yourself. The most important thing here is to list out must haves for yourself, and nice-to-haves. My must haves were an 8th Gen i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, Discrete Graphics, Full HD Screen, SSD hard drive, and to be small and lightweight and was willing to spend a pretty penny for it. Sacrificing any of these could still make for a great machine and considerably less expensive so just think critically about your needs and purposes.
Here is (nearly mine) for reference: https://amzn.to/2MCOacR
All the hardware in the world can’t read and edit your Raw files if you don’t have the proper programs. There are a variety of generic raw processors and the biggest ones are: Adobe Lightroom, Capture One, Luminar, On1 Photo RAW, and Aurora. Unless any of those companies or brands really strike you for some particular reason, save the headache and get Adobe Lightroom. Yes, this is a subscription which many people do not like but for the same price per month as Netflix you’ll have two world class, industry standard, editing programs at your fingertips.
Lightroom is generally all that you need and has several key advantages, the primary one being cataloging. To keep it simple, your pictures are not stored in Lightroom, they are just indexed and referenced there. This allows for super easy file management, keywording, and live editing.
Speaking of editing, the reason we all buy the program. The Interface in the Develop Module is extremely easy to work through which makes anything from basic exposure adjustments to complex masking and graduated filters a breeze. And don’t worry, when something can’t be done inside in Lightroom, just send the image over to Photoshop, where the possibilities are literally endless.
Photoshop has the been the industry leading graphical manipulation and editing software for well over a decade and it doesn’t look like that crown is going anywhere anytime soon. There are far more things possible inside Photoshop than any one person could ever master. The basic layout may seem confusing, but once you develop a rhythm for your nonlinear Photoshop workflow, you’ll find yourself making the Lightroom-Photoshop round trip more and more.
There are also A TON of plug-ins available which can streamline editing processes and give images a filtered (preset-like) look that can be really interesting. Some are free, some cost money but nearly all of them offer free trials. Some of the most common are Alienskin Xposure X3, Macphun Luminar, DXO Nik Collection, Portrait Pro, B&W Effects, just to name a few. They are great tools and can really give your images that extra pop sometimes!
Wacom Tablet and Pen: For me, these are absolutely essential to my editing workflow. Photographers end up working at their computer for long hours at a time and not only does this relieve the stress on my hand and limit potential for a problem like Carpel Tunnel down the road, it is just such an artistic, gestural, and natural way to work. Anything from painting in custom areas of sharpness to curves to contrast to warmth or other tonal adjustments, this setup feels the way art and photography should in my opinion. Cannot recommend this accessory enough.
Mouse and Keyboard: As I just mentioned, photographers end up on the computer a lot and I personally am not always using the Wacom Tablet so its important to have a comfortable keyboard and mouse. Mine aren’t anything special, I had some laying around the house that I grabbed after building my computer, but they get the job down and don’t annoy me or limit my productivity.
Monitor: This is a tricky subject these days. sRGB or Adobe RGB. 4K vs Full HD. Matte vs Glossy. And it is entirely up to personal preference. Monitors can go from pretty cheap to extremely expensive very quickly depending on which options and feature sets you want. I would recommend getting a monitor with as much of the Adobe RGB gamut as possible but after that unless you watch a lot of high quality videos, Full HD will generally do, and matte vs glossy really comes down to whether or not your screen is by a window or other lights very often. For reference, my desktop monitor is a FHD Glossy, 24-inch display, while my laptop is a FHD, matte, 15-inch display and neither are state-of-the-art.
External Storage: Good news! External storage used to be realllllyyy expensive, but now pretty good and reliable external storage is relatively cheap. WD makes great external Drives at extremely large capacities (4 and 8 TB) which makes backing up at a desk setting extremely convenient. They also make some smaller drives that are great for backing up work on the go.
Hopefully this article shed some light on some of the questions you may have had on my computing and software set-up and hopefully I didn’t miss too much. I tried to be as thorough as possible but understand that I left some areas out to avoid getting too much in the weeds of it all. As usual, let me know if you have any questions and I’ll be sure to explain some things in further depth, provide recommendations specific to your needs, or just have a great photography or computer-based discussion! My next article will be about my specific photography workflow, from before I decide where I want to go, to the field, back to the office to finalize my image. Stick around!