Cloudy Sunset

Nikon D810, Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 at 14mm, f/22, ISO 64, 78 seconds.  Singh-Ray 10 stop Neutral Density filter.

A cloudy sunset from a few days ago in Hunt Valley, MD.  A healthy wind was responsible for causing the motion blur on the trees to the right.

I was testing out the Lee SW150 Mark II filter holder, a contraption which mounts on the front of the lens via an adapter.  The SW150 II allows you to use up to two 150 X 150mm square filters, by sliding the filter into the grooves on the front of the filter holder.

For an explanation of filters, you can check out this article:

If you want to use a filter with the Nikkor 14-24mm, a filter holder is mandatory due to the large front lens element, which does not allow standard circular filters.

The SW150 II seemed to do a fine job last night.  Used with the Singh-Ray 5 stop ND filter, no significant vignetting or light leakage was noticeable, even at the widest focal length of 14mm.

I used the original SW150 for many years, and the Mark II never version is much easier to assemble and carry.


Lee SW150 Mark II filter holder.

Singh-Ray 5 stop Neutral Density filter, 150 X 150mm square version.


Happy Shooting!!

Improve the Sound Quality of the Music Played By Your Computer

For any questions, please feel free to email me at:


This post has nothing to do with photography, per se…but if you enjoy playing music through your computer, and have ever wondered about ways to increase the quality of the sound output, read on…

Recently, I’ve taken an interest in attempting to maximize the quality of the music I listen to through my computer, without permanently scarring my wallet.  At my desk, I’ve always used iTunes via my Mac Pro to play music…and when I’m not at my desk, I use an iPod Touch.

I have about 3,000 CDs I’ve acquired over the years, and occasionally I’ve purchased some music through the iTunes store.  A few years ago, I went through the painful process of ripping all of my CDs into iTunes, by using the Macintosh “Superdrive” (which is basically just a bare-bones CD reader/writer with an annoyingly short USB cable):

The Macintosh "Superdrive". There's nothing super about it.

The Macintosh “Superdrive”. There’s nothing super about it.

I had to manually place each one of my CDs into the Superdive, which ripped each CD onto my hard drive in AAC file format.  What’s “AAC” format?  Read on…

I like think about the difference between various types of music files they way I would think about digital photography:  When you take a picture with a digital camera, you can usually choose between creating two different file formats: 1) uncompressed RAW files, or 2) compressed Jpeg files.  Inexpensive digital cameras only allow you to record compressed Jpegs, while more advanced cameras let you choose between RAW files or several different types of compressed file formats, including Jpegs.

Uncompressed RAW files essentially show you exactly what your camera’s sensor saw the moment you took the picture (save for minor adjustments your camera will make).  A Jpeg, however, since it’s compressed, will shave off some of the information contained in the RAW version of the same file.  Jpegs are smaller files, and are therefore significantly more ubiquitous in online media.  They are easier to send, receive, and view, and you can store many more of them on a hard drive than larger RAW files.

But, with that compression, you tradeoff quality.  The quality of the Jpeg depends on how much compression takes place.  A higher quality Jpeg file will shave off less of the information contained in the RAW image than a lower quality Jpeg file.  Obviously, the lower the quality of the Jpeg file, the smaller the footprint of the file on your hard drive.

If you do any kind of editing, cropping, or wish to create large prints, you probably work with RAW files, because they contain more information about the image (i.e. a wider color gamut) than a compressed Jpeg version of the same file.

Digital music files basically work in very much the same manner.  In iTunes, you can choose to rip a CD in uncompressed format (i.e. an “AIFF” file), which essentially creates an exact digital replica of the music on the CD (it’s music’s version of a digital RAW photograph file).  You can also choose a variety of compressed music files (i.e. AAC), which shave off some of the information contained in the music files on the CD in order to create smaller files.  The ever-popular mp3 format is an example of a compressed music file.

An AAC file is sort of similar to a Jpeg in digital photography; they are both compressed versions of the original uncompressed file.  Since an AIFF file is uncompressed, typically it will sound better than the same file saved in AAC format (provided that: 1) the original recording is good enough to hear the difference, and 2) your hardware is capable of playing higher quality, uncompressed music…more on that later).

If you want to really dig into learning about the differences in various audio file formats, check out this article:

When I ripped my CDs via iTunes a few years ago, I wasn’t really concerned with the quality of the sound (nor was I aware of the differences between compressed and uncompressed audio files), and chose to rip all my CDs into the compressed AAC format.  Furthermore, whenever you buy music in the iTunes store, you’re purchasing a compressed audio file.  iTunes does not sell uncompressed file formats.

Well, a couple of months ago, when I became interested in extracting more detail and clarity out of my listening experience, I did a lot of research on the various file formats, their advantages and disadvantages, and the hardware/software required in order to help your computer churn out higher quality music files.

I eventually concluded that ripping CDs into an uncompressed format (such as AIFF) will pretty much create the highest quality music file my ear is capable of hearing.  Higher quality uncompressed music files are available for download in online music stores which technically contain more information about the music than a standard music file on a CD. However, there is intense debate over whether the human ear can hear any difference between those better-than-CD quality files, and the exact replica of the same music file on a CD.

So…guess what I decided to do?  I satiated my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by starting all over again, re-ripping every single one of my CDs on that damn Mac Superdrive, this time recording them in uncompressed AIFF format, instead of compressed AAC format.

Quick side note:  Just like converting RAW files into Jpegs is a one-way street, the same holds true for uncompressed music.  Once you compress a music file (i.e. converting an AIFF file into an AAC file), you cannot reverse the process.  You can’t convert a compressed file back into the original, larger uncompressed file.  Once you shave off that info to compress the file, it’s gone forever. That’s why I had to re-rip all of my CDs.

AIFF files are significantly larger than AAC files, roughly about ten times larger.  Fortunately, the 2 TB Lacie Rugged external hard drive that I used to hold all of my AAC files was still more than enough space needed to hold all the AIFFs:

The Lacie 2TB Rugged external hard drive. It can be yours for around $140.00.

The Lacie 2TB Rugged external hard drive. An excellent, cost-efficient choice for an external storage solution.

After that catastrophically boring process of re-ripping my CDs, I finally had my all of my music saved in the best possible file format for audio quality.  Next up on the agenda was figuring out what hardware I needed to buy in order to process the detail and clarity of the AIFF files…without needing to take out a HELOC on my house.

Basically, there are three very important pieces of hardware required to pump out high quality sound from a computer:  A DAC (Digital Analog Converter), an amplifier, and a set of speakers and/or headphones.

The DAC takes the digital music files and converts them into an analog signal.  Don’t ask me to explain why the DAC is needed, or how it works…because I have no clue…that’s way above my pay grade.  All I know is that a DAC is required if you want high-fidelity sound.  Most Macs (and other types of computers) have a built-in DAC.  Your computer has a built-in DAC if it has a headphone jack…if it does, then congrats, your computer has a DAC.  However, most external DACs do a far better job of processing the digital information than a computer’s internal DAC. The price of external DACs range from under $100 into several-thousand dollar territory.  My search for an acceptable combination of affordable price and good quality led me to the Schiit (yes, Schiit is really the name of the product…I laughed too) Modi 2 Uber DAC, which costs under $200:

The Schiit Modi 2 Uber.

The Schiit Modi 2 Uber.

The amplifier is somewhat self-explanatory:  it takes the analog signal created by the DAC, and amplifies the sound waves.  This not only makes the music louder, but it also enhances the detail and clarity of the audio.  It “cleans up” the sound.  Like the DAC, the price of an amplifier ranges from around $100 into the several-thousand dollar range.  I stuck with Schiit products and purchased the Schiit Magni 2 Uber amp, which also costs under $200:

The Schiit Audio Magni 2 Uber.

The Schiit Audio Magni 2 Uber.

You can purchase Schiit right from the Schiit website:

What I really liked about the Modi and Magni is that they are exactly the same small dimensions; stacking them on top of each other was a breeze, making organization of the system extremely simple next to my computer:

The stacked Schiits are to the right of my Mac Pro. To the left is the Mac Superdrive. I hate that thing.

The stacked Schiits are to the right of my Mac Pro. To the left is the Mac Superdrive.

Hooking up the Modi and Magni couldn’t be easier: All you need is a USB cable from your computer into the Modi, and a standard two-prong RCA cable from the Modi into the Magni.  Then, another two-prong RCA cable runs from the Magni into my desktop speakers.  The Magni also has an audio jack if you wish to listen to headphones instead of your desktop speakers.

The desktop speakers I chose are the Audioengine A5+, with the Audioengine S8 subwoofer.  High quality speakers run well into the thousands of dollars (see the trend here?), so I needed something that balanced good quality with a decent price.  A pair of A5+ run $499 on Amazon…and they sound pretty good:

The Audioengine A5+ speakers on my desktop.

The Audioengine A5+ speakers on my desktop, at 7:52 pm.

Like I said previously, when I’m not at my desk, I use an iPod Touch to listen to songs.  To pull more detail and clarity out of the music the iPod plays, I purchased the Chord Mojo portable amplifier.  It’s literally the size of a credit card, and it does a FANTASTIC job amplifying the sound into my headphones:

The Chord Mojo

The Chord Mojo.  It looks like a cheap M&M dispenser, but it’s really an excellent amp.

Last, but definitely not least, are the headphones.  Absolutely no single piece of hardware can improve the sound quality of the music more than a good pair of headphones.  I spent weeks trying to find the ideal set of headphones that balanced affordability with quality.  I settled on the Sennheiser 800.  They aren’t cheap, but I can’t come up with the words to explain how good they sound.  They literally take listening to music up a whole new level for me:

The Sennheiser 800.

The Sennheiser 800.

With the Sennheiser 800, I can actually hear instruments in the background of some songs that I had never been able to pick up before.  And, if the quality of the recording is excellent, I can sometimes actually hear things like the guitarist’s pick pluck (say that fast 5 times) the guitar strings.

If you’re looking for a more sensibly-priced set of headphones, I would recommend the Sennheiser 650.  They are really good, as well.

Now, one very important point I should make is that, regardless of what type of music file you use, and regardless of what hardware you use to listen to the music, if the original recording of the music in the studio wasn’t great, then the music will never sound great.  Great audio equipment is all about fidelity…in other words, all it can do is reproduce the existing sound recorded in the music file.  If the artist wasn’t able to or didn’t want to create a high-quality recording in the studio, then all good equipment can do is faithfully reproduce the sound of the low quality recording.  But, if the artist made a high quality recording in the studio, then good equipment will faithfully reproduce that excellent recording.

Again, I think of it the same way I would a photograph:  A great computer monitor won’t make a poor quality digital image look great…the monitor can only faithfully reproduce the level of quality of the original file.  It’s all about fidelity.


Happy Shooting Listening!!


La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove is a beautifully cozy, small beach surrounded by rocky cliffs in southern California, only a short drive from downtown San Diego.  There’s a park adjacent to the cove, and eccentric shops lined along the streets which pass through La Jolla.

If you’re ever in the San Diego area, I recommend visiting La Jolla…both the town and the cove.

Leica M9 with Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 at f/13, ISO 160, 1/180s.

Late afternoon in La Jolla: Leica M9 with Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 at f/13, ISO 160, 1/180s. Click on the image to view in full-size (5212 x 3468 px).


The image below was taken inside the cove, along the western edge of the beach.  I hung out in the cove until after sunset (it’s an awesome place to take in a setting sun), and dropped the tripod down just outside the reach of the relatively peaceful and cooperative tide.  The sun set behind me, which provided almost perfectly warm, diffused lighting of the rocks and beach inside the cove.

I used an ND filter to slow down the exposure to 15 seconds; the long exposure made the ebb and flow of the tide splashing against the rocks look like a soft, foggy mist.

Image was converted to black and white via Adobe Lightroom.  Click on the photograph to view in full-size (7103 x 3503 px):

Nikon D800 with Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm at f/16, ISO 100, 15s. Singh-Ray 5 stop neutral density filter.  Really Right Stuff TQC-14 tripod.


Happy Shooting!

The Ideal Mac Hardware for Photography

Mac Family

One big happy Mac family…


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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.



mac-mini-2014-gallery1 mac-mini-2014-gallery3

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:

  1. 2.6GHz Dual-Core Intel i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz)
  2. 16GB 1600MHz LPDDE3 SDRAM
  3. 256GB of Flash Storage
  4. NEC PA272W-BK 27″ ($899.00)
  5. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

Cost of Setup: $1,817.99




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:

  1. 13-inch MacBook Air with 1.6GHz Dual-Core Intel i5
  2. 8 GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 SDRAM (8 is as high as you can go….they don’t hold 16GB unfortunately)
  3. 256GB of Flash Storage
  4. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

Cost of Setup: $1,418.99



MACBOOKPRO ports_hero


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:

  1. 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display
  2. 2.5GHz Quad-Core Intel i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.7GHz
  3. 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
  4. Intel Iris Pro Graphics + AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB GDDR5 memory
  5. 512GB of Flash Storage
  6. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

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.

Recommended setup:

  1. 27″ iMac with 5K Retina display
  2. 3.3GHz Quad-Core Intel i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz (Mac makes an iMac with a faster i7 processor, but I don’t believe the marginally faster processor is worth the extra $250 it costs.  The 3.3GHz processor is plenty fast for editing photos).
  3. 32GB 1867MHz DDR3 SDRAM  (always maximize the amount of RAM…that’s one of the easiest ways to speed up your machine)
  4. 3TB Fusion Drive
  5. AMD Radeon R9 M395X with 4GB video memory

Cost of Setup:  $3,249.00



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.

Recommended setup:

  1. 3.7GHz Quad-Core with 10MB of L3 cache
  2. 64GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC RAM
  3. Dual AMD FirePro D300 GPU’s with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM each.
  4. NEC PA272W-BK 27″ 16:9 IPS Monitor ($899.00)
  5. LaCie 4TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive ($219.99)

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 8050

The Areca 8050

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.

Happy Shooting!!