Ok, I lied about the popcorn. But grab a coffee and snack folks, this is a long (and hopefully informative) post! Brides, this one is for my photographer friends out there :).
(Image courtesy of www.apple.com)
This was the question I asked as I tried to export a few TIFFs from Lightroom 3 into Photoshop, and watched the little timer circle turn round and round. My selection sliders were lagging. Changing opacity, saturation, *anything* resulted in a noticeable pause. When one edits 3 images, it’s ok. When one has to do this 500 times, it gets annoying. More than that, these lags start adding up and impacting workflow. I started wondering how much quicker and more accurately I could be doing this if I could actually see immediate changes when I moved sliders. Shooting with a Canon 5d Mark II in RAW2 setting, this was half the mega pixels the camera was capable of. Shooting and editing in full 21mp feels like watching the world’s strongest man pull a train: it can be done, but done really slowly. It gets boring real quick.
First, some caveats and confessions. Everyone has perspectives and assumptions. I’ll get them out of the way so that you won’t say I never told you :). I like gear. I will get the best thing I can afford. I like Macs. After ohhh, 15 years of terror with Microsoft, I converted and never looked back (Couldn’t be happier!). I don’t know everything (as if that’s new). But here, I speak from the lay research I’ve done and my own experience. I can’t talk about numbers or processor benchmarks like some websites do. I don’t profess to have absolute and objective knowledge. Feel free to disagree, but I wanted to share some of the things I read and my experience as a professional photographer looking to buy a solid machine for a few years of editing. My thoughts and experiences are my own. There are many factors that will influence your decision to buy a computer, including the type of your workflow, the amount of work you do, and what your budget is.
I looked around online for articles that would point me in the right direction, but instead, I found a host of threads on different forums, websites that offered little content and a lot of ads, and well written but way outdated articles such as Ken Rockwell’s page.
Even though I spend a lot of time talking about Macs, I think there are plenty of general principles and bits of information that are helpful for purchasing any computer with photography in mind. Here is my attempt to contribute something that will one day be outdated, but hopefully contain nuggets that are applicable for at least a month ;).
One of the points of interest/contention is the debate between a Mac and a PC. Truthfully, you can find plenty of argument in both camps. I have cast my lot with the Macs. Pros? They are reliable. They are low on viruses and spyware (although probably not as completely immune as Apple would have you believe). The operating system seems much more stable. Plug-and-play hardware seems to work a lot better and cleaner than with PCs. These are what the big industry pros in design, photography, music, etc use, and not just because they look cool and are trendy in coffee shops. Cons? The cost. They are expensive, without a doubt. If you bought a similar PC machine, you would spend a good amount less. Also, they are not as customizable, hackable, or game-able as some PCs are. But my assumption here is that you’re not buying a machine to hack or play games on. If you’re reading this article, you want a reliable machine that handles your digital darkroom workflow, and handles it well.
Can a PC do it? Yes. Definitely. Many photographers use PCs. All professional editing software available on a Mac is available for Windows. But my years of using PCs were pretty sad, and my years after moving to a Mac have been exponentially better. Even with all their iPhone antenna issues, expensive hardware, and fanboy hullabaloo, Apple has kept their standards high and consistently made amazing workhorses. I personally believe the extra money is worth it (especially if you get a good used machine, which I’ll touch on later). Don’t let my bias dissuade you from reading on though!
This should be the first question you ask. What kind of work are you doing? If you are editing family pictures of your kids and dog, your needs are different than a photographer who does color-sensitive commercial advertising shoots. Do you need a 30” monitor and an 8-core Mac Pro tower to work on photos in iPhoto? Probably not. (In fact, you probably don’t need an 8-core Mac for the professional software in the market today… we’ll touch on that later as well). But if you spend enormous amounts of time in Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5 (like I do), need to deliver color accurate prints to clients, and have to edit through thousands of images after a shoot, you might need something with a little more beef. And not insignificantly, is your photography an income-generating business that can afford expensive equipment?
With that said, this is being written on a 15” aluminum Macbook Pro with 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and 4 GB of RAM. Why then, did I just buy a 2.66 GHz Mac Pro tower with an Intel Nehalem Quad Core and 8 GB of RAM?
Beef, aka speed, aka processing power. When working with hundreds and thousands of images, importing, RAW conversion, exporting and working in Photoshop, takes a lot of time. When you’re working with such volume, you want your controls to be reactive. You want those sliders and adjustments to actually make an immediate difference on your image so that you aren’t sitting around listening to your computer make grunting noises while nothing happens. You don’t want the process of opening a few Photoshop files to incapacitate your computer. (After all, I need to stream Pandora while I work!) It’s simply inefficient and becomes increasingly painful, even if you can get the job done.
I’ve done most of my editing on my 15” MacBook Pro laptop with a 20” Apple Cinema Display attached. For a good while, it worked alright. (It was certainly better than my white MacBook purchased in 2005). However, as I upgraded to Lightroom 3 and started using Photoshop 5 more and more, I started noticing the limits of my machine. I thought more about my long term computing needs, and decided that a computer that could handle bigger screens and faster hardware trumped my need for portability.
Again, can a laptop handle editing? Yes, definitely, especially if you stuff it full of RAM (which I haven’t). But at some point, there are limits to a laptop, and thinking forward, I wanted something that could last me longer via upgrades.
Companies try to sell things. Computers are made for different people with different needs. Below, I list some of the major things to consider when purchasing any sort of computer with photography in mind, a laptop or a desktop.
- Memory- RAM is important. Programs like Photoshop and Lightroom are RAM intensive programs. The more you can afford, the faster your computer will fly, probably more so than if you simply upgraded your processor. For Macs, you can go to a site like Other World Computing to find the RAM that your computer needs. It’s far cheaper to upgrade after you buy the computer than to pay Apple for their overpriced memory. Personally, I kicked up my Mac Pro’s RAM from the factory 3 gigs to 8 gigs. I would have put more in, but even aftermarket memory starts getting expensive in those high numbers.
- Processor- For a while, I was looking at 8-core machines. Very expensive. But as I did more reading, for instance here at Mac Performance Guide, I discovered something weird. One would assume that if more is better for RAM, then more is better for processors as well right? Well, yes, but no. Yes, technically, an 8-core processor will handle more. If you’re working with heavy duty video editing and 3d rendering or music production, then the extra cores seem to be helpful. But believe it or not, sometimes using an 8 core for programs like Lightroom and Photoshop for editing may actually be slower than using a 4 core processor. Why is this? The linked article above does a good job of explaining the complexities and inefficiencies of overhead, but it basically boils down to the fact that the software (as of right now) does not efficiently use the extra cores. I believe this issue will eventually be resolved in the future, but currently, if photography is the central part of what you do, getting an 8-core machine is unnecessary, and even detrimental to that speed you want. The nice thing is you won’t be paying for what you don’t use.
- Hard Drive- Some people don’t realize this, but your hard drive speed matters. Your processor can be amazing, but if the hard drive doesn’t spin quickly, speed in calling up photos and saving will be limited. 7200 RPM drives seem to be pretty standard these days for a good hard drive. But they have their limits as well. A relatively newer (and currently much more expensive) type of drive, the Solid State Drive (SSD) seems to break those speed barriers. The traditional hard drives are like stacks of disks that turn when you save or retrieve information (hence the RPM measure). However, SSDs have no moving parts (much like your flash drive), which makes the mechanical aspect negligible. Even the slowest SSDs are faster than the fastest HDDs. However, because SSDs are a newer technology, there seem to be issues that still need to be worked out. Different companies have different quirks, some less than others. If you really want to understand how SSDs work, here is an in-depth article at Anandtech. Basically, be careful about which SSD you buy, as not all are created equal. Currently, when balancing price and performance, the OCZ Vertex 2 seems to be the most reliable and economical choice. Given the small size and expensive price of these SSDs, I would recommend buying one and using it as a boot and application drive. (For a bit more nuanced process, see here.)
- File Import- So you spent a day shooting, and now you have 24 gigs worth of images to download onto your computer. Plug that $8 USB card reader in and grab some reading material yea? Wrong. Go with Firewire. First, make sure that your computer you have/are geting has a firewire port, and then make sure you buy the correct card reader for that type of port. Your file downloads will feel like you just entered the Autobahn after putting along in the countryside.
- Video Card- Admittedly, I don’t know that much about video cards. I do know that the cards that come stock with Macs are more than sufficient for running programs like Lightroom and Photoshop. Those who need more powerful video cards are gamers and people working with heavy-duty graphics rendering. A thing to keep in mind about your video card is its ability to handle multiple monitors, which I will talk about below.
- Other things- Like CD burners. As a professional photographer, I always have backups of my work. A copy is in a hard drive, edited copies are hosted on my SmugMug site (which I also use for proofing and orders), and all the RAWs are burned onto CDs in case the hard drive ever fails. Burning DVDs on my laptop took forever. Even after moving to Double Layer DVDs that store 8 gigs, it still took a long time to back up a shoot. Now my Mac Pro has 2 burners, and I have another external Lightscribe burner I use to burn disks I deliver to clients.
When I first started editing and sending images out to print, I sometimes wondered why my prints didn’t come back the same way they looked on my computer. A little bit of simple digging will tell you that color management is important for photographers. Think about it this way: Your monitor is the only piece of hardware that actually tells you what to expect when something is printed. If this monitor has a colorcast to it, or is cheap and doesn’t show all the shades, you are working with an image based on a monitor that doesn’t reflect reality. Therefore, the file you send off comes back completely different than what you see on your monitor. Bad news bears.
(The HP 30ZRw. Image courtesy of www.hp.com)
First, about monitors. All monitors are not created equal. Monitors today can be extremely cheap, or pretty expensive. What’s the big difference? Most of it has to do with the type of screens they use. There are different ways of constructing monitors, but what photographers and those who work with graphics need to know is that IPS monitors are the best for editing. I’m more familiar with S-IPS monitors, but you can find a current list of the available monitors through this link. I currently use a 20” Apple Cinema Display and just ordered a 30” HP 30ZRw, an S-IPS display that rivals the more expensive 30” Apple Cinema Displays. Some people think that 30” is too big, but I love the screen real estate. Also, stay away from those glossy screens when at all possible. Sure, they’re more awesome for watching movies on, but they can be really annoying to use when reflections are interfering with your editing. Unfortunately, I don’t know that much about traditional CRT monitors, so I’ll leave that to someone else. If you ever want to see the crispness of a real good screen, head to an Apple store and check out their monitors.
Why 2 monitors? Again, this is not a necessity, but something that makes working easier. For Macbook laptops, you can get a monitor and plug it into your computer (assuming you get the correct plug adaptors) and you’ll have two screens. I like to keep one screen for tools, documents, web browsing (aka email and watching movies/tv shows while working ;), and the other (larger one) as my main editing screen. The main thing here is making sure that your video card is capable of supporting 2 monitors. As mentioned before, Macbooks can have another monitor plug in, and my Mac Pro tower can handle two 30” monitors if I wanted.
Monitors aren’t the end of the story to color management. An LCD screen will change over time and start to lose its color accuracy. Because this is an incremental and sometimes very slow change, your eyes might not pick it up. This is why professional photographers need to use hardware-based calibration. Sure, you can use the software that comes with the computer, but the results are inaccurate and the process is tedious. Hardware based calibration takes a screen sensor that you attach to your screen, it runs a program and uses the program to read the different color outputs, and automatically adjusts your monitor to the proper settings so that what you see will be what you (and your clients) get. I currently own a Spyder 2, but it seems the Spyder 3 is already out and about. What it does better or differently, I have no idea, since my Spyder 2 works just dandy.
We are not, unfortunately, all made of money. The Mac Pro I purchased, if bought from the Apple Store, would have cost $4200+. Instead, I paid $2150 for it, and then added some memory and hard drive upgrades myself. How did I manage that? With our friendly neighborhood eBay.
There are certainly a lot of benefits of buying new. You know you are the first owner. You know that the warranty is in place if anything goes wrong. And let’s be honest, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction to having something new. There are drawbacks to buying used. You can only take it on faith that the item was taken care of. You don’t know its history or if its had repairs. And if you’re lucky, there may still be some warranty on it. But the price difference may be significant.
In my case, the Mac Pro tower was purchased 5 months ago, with a warranty that lasts another year and a half. That was a big selling point for me, to know that if anything goes wrong, Apple will still take care of any problems. It took a little bit of sniffing around on eBay and Wikipedia to figure out how old the machines actually were based on their specs. Then it took a little bit more patience to find a machine that had what I wanted, along with a healthy dose of warranty left. Lastly, in winning auctions, I always “snipe,” which means to bid at the last few seconds, mostly via a program like eSnipe that I have used for years. I won’t get into the details of why sniping is helpful, but suffice it to say it helps prevent unnecessary bidding wars.
I’m more hesitant to buy a used monitor. I know I wanted a 30”, but didn’t feel like shelling out what Apple wanted for a new one. I looked around for a used one, but remembered my mediocre experience in purchasing my used 20” Cinema Display. When I received it, it performed well with the exception of having a faint magenta tint to it. Because I bought it second hand and it was out of warranty, there was little I could do about it. When buying a used monitor, you never know how long it’s been used for. Sometimes there are dead pixels, sometimes there are color casts. In this case, I’m glad HP came out with a much more affordable yet highly rated S-IPS monitor, the HP ZR30w. Shopping around a bit online, I could get it at the same price I would have probably paid for a good used Apple Cinema Display.
At the end of the day, you have to decide what your needs are and what you can afford. Unless you’re swimming in money, there’s very little point in getting a machine that does far more than you need it to. However, if you are a serious amateur or professional who demands a certain level of performance and dependency, then those things come at a price, albeit one that may not be as high as you’d think. If you’re willing to shop around a bit, get hands a little dirty on the inside of a computer, you may come out saving quite a bundle on a nice machine.
I hope that this article was helpful. I know that computer information changes at a rapid pace, and what is new one day is ancient the next. Prices drop, hardware gets better, and new features come out. Perhaps next month, most of this information will be old hat. Nonetheless, I wanted to share my own personal experience with a hope that it’ll help others who are shopping around to make wise and informed decisions.
Good luck hunting!