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Computers for Photographers

Computers for Photographers

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Which computer should you, as a photographer, choose?

Let’s step back in time for a minute!

It used to be that:

  • You had your camera
  • You loaded a film and took some pictures
  • Then you sent it for developing and printing and started all over again…simple

You just needed your camera and some film.

Nowadays, unless you simply take your memory card to a local printer for printing, you are going to need a whole new set of tools. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

When you start to really get into digital photography, you are going to eventually want to start playing with and enhancing your images before you print them. This is quite standard practice for any photographer wanting to be a bit more creative. For me, when I converted to digital from film photography, this process opened up a whole new dimension to photography as an art form.

For some, digital imaging or image manipulation plays a BIGGER part than the actual photography itself.

I have seen some stunning creations from such people who have really delved into the digital imaging world. I won’t get into the argument that digital manipulation isn’t true photography here. This is neither the time nor the place. Let’s just say it is entirely up to you how you create “your art” and leave it at that.

How to choose a decent, workable computer

So, you have your camera equipment, tripod and memory cards. You now need to display, work on and save all those wonderful images. This is where the mighty computer comes in.

You can use any basic computer these days to:

  • Transfer images to a hard drive (internal or external…in the computer or on a separate hard drive).
  • Store them into separate and memorable folders, i.e. family, sports, nature, dates etc.
  • Manipulate them using specialised software (more on this later).
  • Print them on a home printer.
  • Email them to friends and family.
  • Upload them to online stock photo agencies or photo hosting websites/forums etc.

Note: Pretty much ANY computer you buy these days has the power and capability of doing all of the above. All you pay for with more expensive computers in general is SPEED and processing power.

The more powerful a computer, the faster it will work on whatever tasks you throw at it. However, you don’t need to spend a fortune on a good computer.

PC or MAC?

​One of the biggest choices for anyone starting out in photography or video is do you go PC or MAC? MAC is the choice for many professional creatives and they swear by them. You have the entire Apple eco-system at your fingertips with superb compatibility and ​reliability.

PC's these days, alongside the Android Smartphone and Tablet systems also have superb compatibility, power and speed. Reliability is way better than it used to be too.

The choice you make is entirely down to you. If you have used PC's all your life so far, then look at a powerful PC or laptop. If you have yet to decide, study the MAC systems and see if you like the way it operates. Both have a bit of a learning curve so choose wisely : )

Personally, I have always used PC's ​and am reluctant to change. After all, it's what you produce that matters and both will do the same thing with most software titles available for PC and MAC.

Specs (specifications)

As I said earlier, you don’t need an all singing, all dancing computer for most photography functions. I am amazed at the power of “off the shelf” computers these days. If you plan to do other things such as video editing (especially 4K video) or playing modern, fast- paced games, you will need a lot more processing power as well as other aspects.

At the time of writing this (2019), I am still using a 5 year old computer running the Intel® Core™i7 Eight Core Processor Extreme i7-5960X (3.0GHz) with 20MB Cache, 32gb of RAM and a 4gb Graphics card. It is also using Samsung solid state hard drives.

This is more than enough to run Photoshop CC and render and burn full High Definition Blu Ray or 4k movies with ease. I will look back at this in years to come and laugh…

So, let’s just run through some basic terminology and what they mean.

Processor or CPU (Central Processing Unit) – Usually Intel or AMD Athlon

We are not going into huge detail here as things in the computer world are constantly changing but basically, the processor is the number crunching part of a PC, it is it’s brains. This coupled with the RAM or Random Access Memory (see below) will determine how fast you computer works.

RAM (Random Access Memory)

RAM works in pretty much the same way as your camera’s buffer that we mentioned earlier. In a nutshell, the more RAM you have, the faster your machine will work.

Imagine RAM as a funnel through which all the processing data needs to travel (when you are processing images or transferring them to a hard drive for example). If the funnel is small (low RAM), the data can “bottleneck” and take longer to process. If we widen the funnel considerably (higher RAM), the data is able to move through much quicker thereby speeding up the processor and keeping it cool.

Graphics Cards

As with the RAM, if you are going to be doing a lot of photo/video work or gaming in particular, your graphics card will need a certain amount of memory so that it can process information that much quicker.

A graphics card with around 256mb of memory will just about run Adobe Photoshop CS6 well. However, it will not be enough for working on video (it will but your computer will be painfully slow at rendering the graphics).

It will also not be able to run the most modern of games (but we don’t play games do we ; )

A 2-4GB graphics card will sail through Photoshop CC and walk all over video rendering (even HD or 4K video). It will also enable you (or your children/grandchildren) to play the funkiest and latest games as long as you have a good processor (CPU) to compliment it.

Hard Drive Capacity (Internal)

The internal hard drive of a computer is not only used for storing your photos, videos, email and any other documents you load to it. It is also used to store all the programs and software that you install.

I remember buying my first computer in Spain in 1998/9. The guy selling it to me said it is very unlikely that I will ever need more than 20GB (gigabytes) of internal memory. How wrong he was.

Note: Nowadays, just ONE short video clip from my 4K RAW camera can fill that amount of memory!

Most prosumer computers come with just one internal hard drive (C: drive) with maybe 750GB – 1TB of memory. This is sometimes split into two partitions (C: and D:) with 50% each. The reason for this is so that you can use C: to store all your programs and leave D: for personal documents, photos, video etc.

Note: A program can use up to 1-2GB or more of hard drive space once loaded onto your computer. If you only have 250GB, you can only safely load 30 or 40 high end programs because you still need free space for the processor to use as well as defragging (defragmentation) of your hard drive. Obviously if you were to keep photos, 4k videos, music files and documents on the C: drive too, the amount of programs you can use lowers significantly.

Defragmentation (of a hard drive)

Some say this is important to do, others say it isn’t. To be safe, you should “defrag” your computer’s hard drive once a month if you can. Your C: drive needs about 15% capacity free to enable it to defrag itself so if you fill the hard drive up, this will not work quickly, efficiently or effectively.

What is fragmentation?

When you do ANYTHING on your computer, fragments of information can get a little “lost” or duplicated. They get left behind when you move data about (photos, documents etc), kind of leaving a breadcrumb trace. When the computer is “defragged”, you are simply vacuuming up the mess you left behind and putting things back in their place. This can keep the computer running smoother.

Note: Did you know that your brain can become fragmented too through the input of too much useless information or stress? It could be the cause for weight gain through slow metabolism, tiredness, lethargy and even some illnesses. Studies have shown that listening to pulsating music such as, (or which includes) alpha/beta/delta/theta sound waves can relax and re-balance your brain waves’ rhythm. Hectic, daily life, toxic foods and damaging, strong emotions can all contribute to a breakdown in the normal production of our “healthy” brain wave patterns.

It is good to defragment as the C: drive needs more memory free to allow the RAM to work more efficiently when using any of the programs installed. If you fill the C: drive completely, the RAM has nowhere left to “manoeuvre” the data as it works on it. therefore it will spill itself into the D: drive and use any available memory there.

Then when the D: drive gets full, the computer will get slower and slower and probably ultimately fail. How do we get around this?

Here are some guidelines for freeing up memory

  • Only use the C: drive for installing programs, do not keep any personal documents on it.
  • Only use the D: drive for personal documents and photos etc. If you do not have a D: drive, get an external hard drive and keep personal documents on there.
  • Should your computer crash and need reformatting and reinstalling, you will lose all data on the C: drive but not the D: drive or any external drives. Worth bearing in mind.
  • Always do a back up of both drives, maybe once a week or month depending on usage.
  • Buy a separate, external hard drive for all your personal data, photos etc…priceless!

Important Note: Please remember that whatever you do, whether it is on the internet, using programs working on photos or videos and so on, your computer will also store a “footprint” of it in the hard drives’ cache.

For example...when I load, work on, render and burn a DVD video from footage on my video camera within a video editing program, the computer will store all that data in its cache (for that program) which is hidden deep inside the drive. Even after I finish the work and delete the original files or move them to an external drive.

This is so that it can pull on those “resources” if I decide to do the same processing later on. This will speed up the process as the computer doesn’t have to do all that processing work again.

Obviously if you are not likely to do that process again, that space used by the cache (which can add up to quite a few megabytes) is being wasted. It annoys me that high street stores do not explain all this when you buy a PC. I guess they figure that when people’s computers grind to a halt because of it, they will come and buy a new one!

Clean up software

It is easy to fix and there are many programs available at good prices. Software that you can use to clear not only your computers cache but all other useless things such as footprints and traces that are stored unnecessarily. I use CCleaner (Crap Cleaner : ) and have done for many years!

External Hard Drive

Probably the best advice I can give is to get one or two external hard drives and keep adding to them as you go. By keeping your personal files separate from your computer, should your computer irrecoverably crash on you, you will only lose programs on the C: drive. These can be easily reinstalled in most cases.

If all your personal documents are on an external hard drive you will thank your lucky stars!

I have about 20 external hard drives ranging from the very handy and portable 160GB pocket hard drive to many larger 4TB hard drives. All contain various family photos or videos, weddings, documents, corporate work, files etc. Eventually, these will all be transferred to the “more secure and robust” solid state drives.

Important Note: It is better to have many smaller hard drives than one HUGE one…why? My theory is that if you use one huge hard drive, you are constantly accessing, adding, deleting and moving information about, which all takes its toll on the inner working mechanisms.

These large drives will be used for months or even years before they are full so imagine how much “wear and tear” they receive. Not only that, you are keeping all your eggs in one basket.

By using smaller (and cheaper) hard drives, you simply use it until full and then safely store it away for future reference. You then relax knowing it is still in pretty good condition and you are spreading the risk of a failed hard drive. Make sense?

CD’s, DVD’s and Blu Rays

I sometimes recommend storing your most important work to a CD, DVD or Blu Ray disc because:

  • CD’s have around 800MB of storage
  • Single-sided DVD’s have around 4.5GB of storage (double sided have 8.5GB)
  • Blu Ray disks have either 25 or 50GB of storage space

Note: Blu Ray is a great technology and the drives/software are pretty cheap these days. It is great for HD video due to the huge capacity.

Even external hard drives can fail (or CD’s and DVD’s can become corrupt). So as a precaution, keep multiple copies of extremely important work on different media. More and more people are using online cloud storage websites for safekeeping. I am reluctant to put anything online, cloud storage or otherwise, if it is super-important.

Disk Drives

A disk drive is the drive that opens and closes on the front of your computer (or the side of your laptop). This is where you insert CD’s, DVD’s or Blu Ray disks. Bear in mind though that not all disk drives are the same and not all computers come with these nowadays.

  • Some will ONLY PLAY DVD’s and not record to them
  • Some will ONLY play and record CD’s
  • Most DVD drives will also play CD’s
  • Some DVD drives will PLAY and RECORD to CD’s and DVD’s
  • CD drives cannot play or record DVD’s
  • A few will have the ability to etch specialised DVD’s (Lightscribe)
  • Some will ONLY PLAY Blu Ray DVD’s
  • Some will play AND burn Blu Ray DVD’s
  • A few will play AND burn Blu Ray disks AND HD DVD videos
  • Some will play AND burn Blu Ray Disks, HD DVD’s, CD’s AND DVD’s…Everything!

Work out what you will want to do out of the above and buy or upgrade your computer accordingly. Like I said above, not all computers or laptops come with disk drives these days. Most software is now downloaded and installed without the need for a DVD.

Monitor and Screen Calibration

Believe it or not, a screen can make all the difference to your enjoyment of photography. Many times I have seen people send digitally enhanced images to a lab for printing only to get them back with strange or different colours than what appeared on their monitor.

Most monitors work pretty well straight from the store. Even so, it is good to get a print done immediately from one of your images and hold it to your screen that has the same image on it. Are they as close in colour reproduction as they can be? If so, great! If not, you may need to calibrate your screen.

This is pretty simple using software and tools readily available.

You simply set it up and let the computer do most of the work with a little input from yourself. Then you just need to get the reds, blues and greens in order to a point where they match your prints.

I use the old Spyder 2 Pro but there are other, cheaper and even some free tools out there. Beware though, they may not be as accurate. The following video is fairly old now but gives you an idea of how screen calibration works.

Also, go for a second screen if possible. Having two screens will make working on your images that much easier and more pleasurable. I use two 24 inch flat screen HD monitors but may upgrade to 4K soon. One is used for the image and the other for the programs and editing tools (but I do this professionally).

Mouse and Keyboard

The ergonomics and feel of a mouse and keyboard are more important than you think. If you are working on photos or a computer for extended periods of time, it is important to feel comfortable (for your health more than anything)! Make sure you feel good with what you are using.

The features and functions are all pretty similar these days but I use a mouse mat with wrist support and can't recommend it enough!

Cables and Wires

My wife calls me the cable guy. I have a cable for all occasions and needs, and then some.

The most I have ever spent on a single cable is £100.

That was for a 2 metre, 24 carat gold contact HDMI cable with “maximum signal transfer and corrosion resistance, silver-coated conductors for superior signal transfer and ultimate high-definition video, Advanced nitrogen (N2) gas-injected dielectric to ensure maximum signal strength and ultra-high density quad-layer shielding” for HD (high definition) video.

LOL…of course, this is way OTT but I love the Blu Ray picture quality!

You more than likely received a pile of cables with your camera when you bought it. The majority are probably still in the box.

All you really need is:

  • The AC cable for charging batteries or powering the camera
  • The USB/Micro USB/USB-C cable that will connect your camera to a PC
  • Maybe an external memory card reader

Of course, in time, everything including power transfer will become wireless using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Until then you will need the basics above.

Later on you may get a cable release or other gadget for your camera. This will enable you to do all sorts of things with your camera in low light as well as keeping the camera steady when shooting at slow shutter speeds.

​Homework

1

​Computers

Before you go out and upgrade your computer, just check to see what specs you are currently running. That may help when explaining to a computer store or company when looking to upgrade. 


I would also recommend that you try processing a batch of images and even try editing some HD or 4K footage if you are into video.


You will soon know if your computer can handle it or not.

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