Unless you are shooting film and printing in a darkroom, you’re likely to need a computer to deal with and process your images. If you’re looking at purchasing one for photography, there are several things to consider:
- Colorimeter for profiling
- Graphics cards
- SSD or conventional
- External drives
- External hard drive or NAS
So let’s consider each of these in turn, both from the point of view of a cheaper alternative and what’s the best you can have.
It’s better to have at least a reasonable quality monitor. If your monitor is too cheap or too old, it may not be capable of showing accurate colour. The main monitor types are TN and IPS. It is better to go for an IPS rather than a TN monitor because the appearance of TN monitors changes according to viewing angle and therefore may not show you an accurate picture of your image.
The best monitors are NEC and Eizo. Having an excellent monitor makes life easier especially for printing. My impression is that NEC is pretty much as good as Eizo at a much lower price though some Eizo users may disagree. One example of such a monitor is the NEC PA272W. Such monitors are not cheap.
Another option at an even higher level of expense is a 4K monitor with a resolution of something like 3840×2160 instead of 1900×1200. There are not many available and photographic quality ones can be very expensive, as with the NEC PA322. You will also need an expensive graphics card to drive it. You will get amazing resolution and excellent colour but you may have problems with some software. For example, the Nik software suite is unlikely to work well on 4K because Google do not appear to be updating it.
If your budget is more limited, the choices are more complex because it is a question of how much you are willing to pay and how far you are willing to compromise and there is a multitude of choices out there. Here are two reviews though of the BenQ2700PT by Joshua Holko and Martin Bailey, a much cheaper monitor than the NECs and Eizos.
A good colorimeter is almost essential, especially for printing. Your eyes can adjust to see both daylight and tungsten light as normal so they are not good tools to adjust monitors, so you should use a good colorimeter to calibrate and profile your monitor. The best colorimeter is the X-Rite i1 Display Pro. (Online prices start from just under $300).
If you have an old computer and it works for you then it works for you. You might get more life out of it with more RAM but then new computers are cheaper than they used to be. If you are considering a new one:
- Generally you would want at least 16GB RAM though you may get away with less.
- The CPU is not so critical as long as it’s not too old and slow. You don’t really need a state of the art gaming chip.
- These days, it’s better (and faster) to boot up off an SSD rather than a spinning drive. (An SSD or Solid State Drive is like a larger version of a flash drive or an SD card). SSDs are getting cheaper and you might even choose to go for a second SSD for your Photoshop scratch file and Lightroom catalogue.
- Your graphics card can also be relevant as with many graphics cards you can enable GPU processing to speed up the display and transformation of an image on the screen.
- Your motherboard is relevant as it will determine what generation of chip your system can support and whet you can plug in. For example, the newer M.2 generation of SSDs is much faster provided you have a board that supports them. The current generation of architecture is based on the Skylake chip.
For ultimate performance, you may want a custom PC. You could either build this yourself or get someone to build it for you. In Canberra, this might be MSY (don’t expect salesmanship and demonstration from them; you need to know what you want first).
Here are some guides to a custom PC:
- Build a powerful PC for Photoshop and other imaging applications by Image Science
- The Ultimate PC Build for Photography Needs – Skylake Edition by Nasim Mansurov
- Information on a custom Photography PC from Puget Systems
- Lots of info but likely too expensive to get one from them in Oz
And here is a couple of guides if you are in the market for a Mac:
Another thing to consider is storage. It depends partly on how many images you delete and how large the image files are from your camera, but it is common in the digital age to need lots of space for image storage. SSDs may take over in due course because they are faster and probably more reliable but that’s still some way off so for most storage we still rely on spinning disks.
Larger spinning disks are now available. You would want a 7200rpm drive rather than the 5400rpm ones which are more suited to backup and Western Digital Black drives now go up to 6TB. If that is not enough storage you could combine several drives in a RAID array. This can both speed up operations and give some protection against disk failure. Your motherboard and operating system would need to support the size of drive or type of RAID you might want.
One last thing that may be worth considering is a UPS or Universal Power Supply that will protect your PC against power spikes and enable you to save your work in the event of a loss of power.
(I will consider printers in a separate article).
There is a huge variety of laptops available in all sorts of different configurations. For most photographers the main purpose of laptops is for travelling. For some, the sole purpose is storing images in which case RAM and screen resolution are not so important. Others want a machine they can process images on in available time while they travel. RAM and screen resolution then become much more important. In either case, USB 3 inputs will make a big difference in speed of importing images. So will SSD hard drives. It is possible these days to purchase a laptop with a 4K screen, 32GB RAM and a 1TB SSD hard drive though such machines are not yet readily available in Australian retail outlets and will not be cheap.
The alternative to a travel laptop is lots of SD or CF cards but this may not be practical on a longer trip.
This page from Puget Systems shows what might be possible with a very highly specified custom laptop though at 3.4kg this is a desktop replacement unit rather than one for travel. (Click the [Customise] button for specification options).
It is common for people to be sanguine about backup until the first time their computer goes down and they lose lots of files. Ideally you should have two or three backups and one should be stored offsite in case of fire or other disaster. These could be single external drives or you could use a NAS, which combines multiple hard drives in a RAID array and which you may specify for access from a home network.
If you rely on SD cards or CF cards while travelling, you may not have your images backed up and would therefore be at risk of losing them. If using a laptop while travelling, you should also be backing up to external disks. External SSDs are a much lighter option than conventional drives and can readily fit in a pocket. They are still more expensive but becoming more affordable.
To backup files you need backup software which can be Windows (which I admit I haven’t tried for this purpose), a third party product such as Acronis, or possibly software that comes with your hard drive.
It can also happen that your C Drive crashes or gets a virus. To cover for such an event you should make a system rescue disk so you can still boot up your PC from it, and save a system image so you can quickly get back your C Drive in a functional state.