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Since the dawn of digital photography technology, the debate between Mac and PC for storage, editing, and printing of photographs has raged. My personal opinion on this topic has always been to stick with the interface you are most comfortable with. There is no question whatsoever that BOTH Mac and PC computers can, if properly equipped, run Lightroom, Photoshop, and any other editing software with equal efficiency and performance.
This article focuses on the ideal Mac hardware solutions for photography.
As a general rule, I believe that desktop machines (i.e. the iMac) are better suited for editing photographs than are laptop machines (i.e. MacBook Pro), but that’s just a personal opinion. I like the ease of which you can hook up external monitors, an external keyboard (especially an external keyboard), mice, and other periphery such as large storage arrays to a desktop machine. Others prefer the portability of a laptop. It’s all just a question of what you prefer because the performance of a Macbook Pro laptop and an iMac desktop computer is pretty much equal.
In this article I will go over both Mac desktops and laptops.
THE MAC MINI
This little entry-level machine is ideal for beginners, or for PC users who are looking to give Mac a try. It’s sort of a stripped-down, more affordable version of a Mac Pro. The properly-equipped Mac Mini can handle Photoshop and Lightroom with no issues, while the machine itself occupies an impressively small footprint in your home office.
As you can see in the image above, the Mini gives you both Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0 options for running an external storage device.
The Mac Mini does not come with a monitor, so you would need to purchase one. If I had to pick just one monitor to use for editing and working with photos, the NEC PA272W-BK 27″ model is a good combination of performance and price. Keep in mind that the Mac Mini does not come with a high quality graphics card, so your monitor’s performance might not be as seamlessly smooth as, say, the same monitor affixed to the Mac Pro.
You will also need to add an external storage device. The 256GB flash drive is plenty large enough to hold all of your software programs on the Mini…and it’s an exceptionally fast storage option. But you will need more space than that to hold your photo library.
The Mac Mini offers either a 1TB or 2TB “Fusion Drive”. The Fusion Drive is a combination of a small amount of flash storage (for files that are quickly and commonly accessed like software programs), and conventional hard drive storage (for stuff like your photo library).
Personally, I would rather go with 256GB of flash storage instead of the 2TB Fusion Drive, and spend $200 on a larger external storage device like the LaCie 4TB listed below.
Here is how I would configure a Mac Mini for Photography storage and editing. Keep in mind that since I consider the Mac Mini to be an entry-level machine, my recommendations are based around an entry-level budget-oriented setup:
Cost of Setup: $1,817.99
THE MACBOOK AIR
As its name suggests, this thin, little laptop is very light and portable. What you gain in portability, however, you lose in functionality. The MacBook Air, in my opinion, is not much more than a glorified Word Processor.
For the casual photo hobbyist, the MacBook Air is sufficiently powerful enough to surf the web, respond to emails, work with Microsoft Word/Excel, and handle basic editing tasks in Lightroom.
But, for the discerning serious hobbyist or pro who wants to run more intensive editing in Photoshop or other detail-intensive editing software, I would recommending stepping up to the MacBook Pro.
Keep in mind that the MacBook Air does NOT come with a Retina display (Retina displays are Mac’s version of high-end laptop screens), so your photographs will not look as sharp, nor will color be as accurate as they will appear on a MacBook Pro with a Retina display.
The 13″ MacBook Air does have a Thunderbolt port, so if you wish, you can drive an external monitor. But, the graphics processor in the MacBook Air leaves something to be desired…it is not powerful enough to handle intensive Photoshop editing tasks.
If you have your heart set on a machine that maximizes portability, here is the ideal MacBook Air for photo editing:
Cost of Setup: $1,418.99
THE MACBOOK PRO
Simply put, the best laptops money can buy. Of course, Mac knows this, and prices them accordingly. If portability is a necessity, and you also need a graphics processor capable of easily handling anything Photoshop can throw at it, I recommend the 15″ Retina display with a dedicated graphics card:
Cost of Recommended Machine: $2,718.99
In my opinion, all things considered, the iMac is the finest machine built for the purpose of storing, editing, and printing photographs.
Mac offers two versions, a 21″ and 27″. I recommend going for the 27″…the current 27″ iMac has a 5K Retina display…there are very few 5K external displays available on the market right now.
The iMac also offers a 3 TB “fusion” drive, which is 1TB larger than the Fusion Drive offered in the Mac Mini. In my opinion, there’s a very big difference between 2TB and 3TB…2TB is toeing the line on how much storage you will probably need for photos, videos, and your music library…but I think 3TB is likely enough for most people.
With the 3TB fusion drive, you probably won’t need another external storage device, unless your photo library surpasses the 3TB size.
Cost of Setup: $3,249.00
THE MAC PRO
Overkill for Photographers. It’s essentially a Mac Mini on steroids. If you do serious 4K video editing, this is a useful machine. For editing and storing still photographs, this machine is obviously plenty fast, but the added expense of the machine vs. the iMac doesn’t really net you any increase in performance in Lightroom or Photoshop.
The Mac Pro looks like Darth Vader’s trash can…one single chunk of black aluminum in a cylindrical shape. It’s shape makes adding internal upgrades almost impossible, creating a deceptively small footprint in your home office. You will need to add an external storage device, and you must purchase an external monitor because the Mac Pro doesn’t come with one.
Cost of Setup: A late model Honda Accord. OK, I’m kidding. It’s “only” $5,417.99
If you go with flash storage in your machine (highly recommend because Flash storage is extremely quick for common and routine tasks such as opening and running software programs), you are going to need an external source to store all of your photographs (unless you get the aforementioned Fusion Drive).
Even if you are just starting out in the wonderful world of photography as a hobby…assuming you own your Mac for several years, you are going to compile a couple terabytes of photographs in no time…espcailly if you shoot in RAW uncompressed format (the average uncompressed RAW photograph the Nikon D810 cranks out is around 50MB).
Here are a couple of storage devices I’d recommend:
LaCie 2TB or 4TB Rugged Thunderbolt or USB External Hard Drive
I’m a fan of LaCie’s portable hard drives. I own one of these to hold all of my iTunes music and movies. They come in either 2TB or 4TB size, and also come in either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt connection format. For a couple hundred bucks, you can’t beat this device. It comes with a rubberized protective bumper which helps keep it safe from drops, or from your average 3 year old tossing it around for their amusement.
These devices are highly portable…excellent for matching up with a MacBook. And, they have a very small footprint on your desk.
For those of you who need even more storage, I like the Thunderbolt G-Technology 6TB USB 3.0 Hard Drive. It also comes in an 8TB size:
If you absolutely need the fastest storage option out there, a Thunderbolt RAID Array is awesomely quick and offers a multitude of different kinds of redundancy and protection from disk failure. A RAID Array over Thunderbolt can copy or transfer several TB of photographs in no time. But, you have to pay a nice premium for the technology.
The Promise Pegasus2 R6 Six Bay RAID Array is stupid fast, and holds 6 hard drives:
So, for example, if you stocked it with six 6TB hard drives, in a RAID 0 format you’d have 36 TB of storage. That’s a lot of photographs. And it can move data at upwards of 1,000MB/s in RAID 0. WAY faster than any Photographer would ever need, but very helpful for videographers who work in 4K format. I use one of these as my Time Machine drive, which holds all of my backups for my machine.
With six 3TB hard drives (18TB of total storage) included, the Pegasus2 R6 checks in at $2,249.00.
My personal favorite RAID array is the Areca 8050. It runs via Thunderbolt 2 interface, with the bays capable of holding up to 48TB of data:
The Areca is very simple to setup through its web-based control panel. I’ve owned it a couple of years without having a single issue with it or any of the drives inside of it. This machine holds all of my old Lightroom library catalogs, and also serves as the backup to my current Lightroom library catalog. The price for one of these, without drives included, is $1,699.00.
One thing I did not include in any of the aforementioned setups is a backup storage device. While not absolutely essential, I do consider a backup device every bit as important as your main storage unit. Hard drives have small pieces of machinery inside them which move around at high speeds. Just like any other machine that has moving parts, eventually they will break. And when they do, you REALLY want a backup of all of that work.
All Mac operating systems come with a software program called “Time Machine”. I consider Time Machine to be one of the best backup programs ever invented…and it’s free with your Mac. Use it to backup your storage regularly. It runs automatically in the background, and you can pick which hard drive to store your backups on.
In case you’re wondering what I use, for the past 2+ years I’ve had a Mac Pro…here’s my basic setup:
I was one of those silly people who mistakenly believed having the Mac Pro would offer a tangible performance boost over the iMac for working in Lightroom/Photoshop. I was wrong. If I could do it all over again, I would have purchased an iMac. But, I have owned the Mac Pro for over two years now, and I am very pleased with its performance (notwithstanding the initial price tag). Knock on wood…it has never had a single mechanical problem.
If you have any opinions on any of this stuff I would love to hear from you.
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For any questions or comments, feel free to email me at jeb@jevanphotography. Or, you can head over to my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JEvanPhotography/.
I would bet that practically every passionate landscape photographer embraces the opportunity (and good fortune) to shoot into a just setting or rising sun. It’s those few minutes when the sun is barely over the horizon line which casts beautifully dramatic light over a scene. Every sunrise or sunset has its own fingerprint…no two ever share the same exact light.
Here’s how I usually approach shooting landscapes with a just setting or rising sun as part of the scene:
Most of the time I shoot at a relatively high f-stop (small aperture) in this environment, and set the camera to underexpose by 2/3 of a stop in Aperture Priority (my D810 has a tendency to overexpose a little). Not only does the high f-stop increase your depth of field, but it can also help create attractive starburst rays. Also, I use the lowest possible ISO (more on that later).
What I look for in the final exposure is the best possible balance between the dark foreground and the bright horizon/skyline. Since I’m shooting directly into the sun, I’ll usually spot meter for the sun itself (or near the sun)…ensuring the sun and/or horizon won’t be blown out in the photograph. The foreground and/or parts of the landscape which aren’t illuminated by the sun will be underexposed, but I can deal with that later in post.
Whenever in doubt, I usually underexpose a little. Darker shadows can be corrected in Photoshop (as long as they aren’t too dark), but I have a heck of a time trying to recover blown out highlights.
For our example image, I’ll use one of my favorites of Annapolis, MD. It was taken a few years ago, during a boat race.
Here’s the digital negative (RAW image), converted to jpeg. There is no discernible difference in appearance between this compressed (but unedited) jpeg and the original RAW file:
Clearly I have some work to do here…but that’s expected. In this image, you can see that the sun and areas surrounding it are in pretty good exposure (I spot metered for the sun, which was nicely diffused by the boat’s sail), but the foreground is underexposed. This is pretty much what I wanted out of the RAW image.
After uploading the photo into my Lightroom library, the first few steps I take toward properly exposing the image are done in Lightroom’s “Develop” module.
Once in the “Develop” module, I begin by adjusting the “Highlights” slider, which pulls back the highly exposed portions of the image, adding more definition to those areas (in this case the sky and horizon). How much I bring down the highlights depends on how bright the horizon initially appears:
The only change I made in the image directly above was to move the Highlights slider to -75. If you closely compare the above image to the unedited photo, you can see the horizon and sky dimmed somewhat from the previous image. There is a little more detail and clarity in the clouds, and maybe a touch of deeper color around the sun.
That’s pretty much all there is to developing the horizon and sky. Now we begin to work on the foreground…
The next step is to bring out the shadows by using, you guessed it, the “Shadows” slider:
In the image above, I moved the “Shadows” slider all the way to +100…as far as it goes. This brings out more light, color and texture in the shadows/foregound.
At this point, if the photo isn’t finished, I head over to Photoshop for more specific editing. The foreground needs some extra attention…it’s still too dark…so into Photoshop we go…
In this particular image, I want to further expose the boats and shore, while leaving the horizon and sky alone. To select only the portion of the photograph I want to work with, I highlight the boats and shore with marching ants. Then, I select the “Exposure” button and adjust the slider to give the shadows a boost:
After adjusting exposure, I adjust the “Feather” slider to soften the harsh boundary between the highlighted area and the horizon. You can access the “Feather” slider by clicking the “Mask” button, which is located next to the “Exposure” button in the “Properties” tab. See the image below for the example:
Now that our foreground is adequately exposed, I head back into Lightroom for the final step of the process…
One unfortunate consequence of bringing out the underdeveloped areas of a photograph in post is the introduction of grain and noise into those areas. There are three main variables which determine how much noise you get: 1) How heavily underexposed the areas were to start (the darker the areas are, the more noise you will get when you bring out those shadows), 2) What ISO you used (the higher the ISO, the more noise your sensor will pick up), and 3) How bright you decide to make the underdeveloped areas (the brighter you make them, the easier it will be to see any noise that the sensor absorbed).
This is why using the lowest possible ISO is important when shooting into the sun, or, really, whenever you are going to be working with underexposed areas. In the image we are working with here, I shot at ISO 400.
As long as the noise/grain isn’t too noticeable in the photograph, I can fix it in Lightroom by using the “Luminance” slider. For more intensive editing of noise, I use Photoshop. In the photograph we are working with here, I adjusted the “Luminance” slider to +20, and we are left with the final product:
The entire process shouldn’t take more than about 5 minutes, depending on how underdeveloped the digital negative is. If I find myself still working on an image after 10 or so minutes, that’s a sign that I either didn’t do such a hot job getting the photograph out in the field, or that there is some other issue with the photograph that needed work (i.e. cloning).
A few images I dug up from my Lightroom library:
An important limitation in DSLRs, or in any camera, is the dynamic range of dark shadows to bright highlights which the camera’s sensor can “see”. The human eye can see roughly 20 stops of variance in a given scene. But, the highest-end DSLRs can typically only see about 14 stops of light. So in other words, the human eye can see a wider range of dark shadows to bright light than an individual exposure taken by a camera.
One way to increase the dynamic range of a photograph is to combine multiple exposures, with each exposure increasing (or decreasing) the number of stops. This process, at its most basic level, is typically called “High Dynamic Range” imaging…or HDR. Usually, most cameras are able to take three or five exposure HDR composites, with some cameras able to take as many as 7 or even 9 exposures.
Typically, when I photograph the interior of homes, I take a 3 exposure HDR image, with each shot separated by 2 stops of light. This ensures that I have one underexposed image, one balanced image, and one overexposed shot.
In a three shot HDR composite, the dark image exposes for the brighter areas of the scene (i.e. windows and artificial lights), the overexposed image brings out the darker areas, and the balanced image captures the parts of the scene which are in well-exposed light. Once combined via software, a composite image is created with ideally all areas of the HDR photograph in good exposure.
The following three images are the uncombined individual exposures of a kitchen:
Then, once these three images are combined, we have the resulting HDR composite:
If you want to create an HDR image, here’s a simple guide to follow:
What You Need:
Keep in mind that it is extremely difficult to create HDR composites out of subjects which require camera movement between the individual exposures. Perfectly still subjects which don’t require camera movement are best suited for HDR photography.
For example, one can capture an HDR image of a waterfall as the subject…because, while the waterfall itself is in motion, one does not need to move the camera at all between individual exposures.
Try and look for scenes with a wide dynamic range…in other words, a scene that has a wide disparity of light emitted between dark areas and bright highlights. Sunrises and sunsets are always good examples of scenes which are conducive to creating HDR composites, as are daylight shots of the interior rooms of a home which has windows.
If your camera allows you to, shoot in RAW format. JPEGs are compressed by the software in your camera which cut down on file size and speed up processing time…but a smaller file size reduces the detail available in the file. RAW files contain the most information possible in the individual exposure…they take up more memory, and take longer for the camera to process…but it’s worth the extra time and space it takes to create RAW files. RAW files are more malleable and conducive to editing than JPEGs. The more detail and information available in each file, the better your resulting HDR composite will look.
Since RAW files take up more space, make sure you have a memory card which is large enough to hold the number of images you’ll be capturing. I always bring along a couple of extra cards in case I shoot more than one card can handle. Also, it’s always a good idea to have a spare card handy in case the one you’re using fails on you.
In no specific order, my six favorite Photography websites:
1) B&H: (website is here)
B&H is a Manhattan, NY-based store which sells equipment for Photographers, Audiophiles, and Videophiles. They also sell all kinds of computer equipment (they are a certified Mac dealer) and other various accessories (i.e. furniture, clothing for photographers, etc…) for pros and amateurs alike. In my opinion, it is the finest store on the internet. That includes stores for any kind of product…even Amazon. I have never been to B&H’s brick and mortar store in New York, but going there is high on my bucket list.
B&H’s website is organized and designed exceptionally well…it makes shopping for stuff efficient, educational, and fun. I could (and do) burn up hours at a time reading information on all kinds of photography equipment at B&H’s site.
Through personal experience, I have found reviews posted by those who own the products to be relatively trustworthy for the most part. Obviously, I would weight the reviews which are packed with details much more heavily than the ones which aren’t.
They also buy and sell used equipment…their used product ratings are very reliable. I’ve bought countless used items from them, and I’ve sold countless items to them as well. They make the process as simple and painless as dealing with your next door neighbor (the one you like, not the other one).
Also…they have a very comprehensive return policy. If the product is damaged or defective in any way, B&H will email you a shipping label so you don’t have to pay a penny for sending it back. I recommend you keep the boxes they ship items in…they are strong and handy for a variety of uses. I reuse their boxes when I sell stuff on eBay.
2) Scott Kelby’s Site: (website is here)
Want to learn practically anything photography-related? Techniques, Photoshop, Lightroom, Using Flashes/strobes, Modeling, Landscape Photography, etc…Kelbyone.com is a virtual online university for anyone who wants to learn about anything related to photography.
When I first started out learning about photography as a hobby, I learned a TON of helpful advice from Kelby and the other instructors on the website…and to this day I still learn and research information from new videos uploaded there. He employs experienced pros in the industry from a variety of genres to help guide you through the comprehensive instructional videos.
Kelby’s site is how I found Matt Kloskowski’s Photoshop videos, which became my gold mine of instruction for post-processing photographs.
3) Ming Thein’s blog (website is here)
Ming is an incredibly gifted writer…and he’s also one of the finest photographers out there. His blog is a virtual bottomless well of thought-provoking ideas and inspirational photography.
You know you’re reading a good blog post if you re-read it several times, and each time pick up new thoughts and ideas. Ming’s work, both in writing and through his photography, always provides interesting and unique perspective.
4) Digital Photography Review (website is here)
DPR is a wonderful resource of detailed and accurate reviews of practically any camera and lens, as well as other photography equipment. This is where I always go first to get information on a camera or lens I am interested in purchasing.
Their reviews are more in-depth than any website I know of; they are chock full of helpful information, including a ratings scale for quality comparisons. They also have a member’s forum which is helpful to get feedback from others who may know the answer to a question you have.
5) Digital Photography School (website is here)
DPS is an education-based website littered with helpful tips, solutions to common questions and problems, and instruction for beginners, experienced pros, and everyone in-between.
Like Digital Photography Review’s website, they also offer reviews on photography equipment which I find to be quite useful. Their articles are written by experienced photographers who have a wealth of perspective on a given subject. And the articles, generally speaking, are an easy read and well-written.
6) Strobist (website is here)
I couldn’t compile this list without mentioning Strobist’s blog. Strobist is a website dedicated to learning and discussing the use of strobes and flashes. It is the single most helpful website for me when I want to learn/research anything about artificial light.
Their blog post “Lighting 101” (check it out here) is a must-read for anyone who is interested in learning the basics behind using an on-or-off-camera flash.