The Need for Speed

This is a detailed article about rebuilding my computer, using new technology for very fast and heavy-duty photographic processing. I originally wrote it at the beginning of the process and have comprehensively updated it at the end.
(Note: This is still an interim update; Not quite finished yet).
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Index

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Asus Hyper M.2 x16 Card, Backup, Computer Upgrades, Computers, Equipment, Laptops, Motherboards, Photography

The super-fast tongue

(Panther Chameleon, Peyrieras Nature Reserve, Madagascar).

From the images I took, at 9 frames per second, I estimate the full extension of the tongue takes about 1/5th of a second.

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Context

COVID-19 may impel many people to upgrade their PC, either for working from home or because they are now going to spend more time there. I am also going through this process, though both my cause and my objective is different. I need to replace the motherboard of my PC and I am looking to upgrade my PC specifically for heavy duty photographic processing.

I have both Nikon and Fuji cameras. My main Nikon camera is 47MP which produces very large files (52MP) and for either Nikon or Fuji I may perform computer-intensive operations to combine many exposures. This can be for increased depth of field, extending tonal range, creating panoramas or some combination of those. Processing infrared images in Photoshop and scanning film can also be demanding on resources.

Many of these operations I either was not performing or with much smaller files when I last upgraded my motherboard. Therefore I prefer to take account of these greater tasks and the possibility they may increase in the future in ways I now don’t anticipate. I hope that if I have a more efficient computer I may be able to free up some of the time I now spend processing.

I’m hoping that anyone can understand what I write and that it will also be useful to people with detailed knowledge. I’m definitely aiming at a high-end PC but I’ll also cover alternatives for people who have lesser financial resources or lesser processing needs. Feel free to ask questions.

I have already written an article on Computers for Photography which is more general than this one and which contains links to other informative sites. This article includes new technology that is not covered in any of those links.

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Priority for Speed

My main objective is a search for processing speed. As linked to in my earlier article, Image Science suggests that the order of priority for spending money on a computer is:

  1. Monitor and Calibrator
  2. Disks
  3. Fast Ram
  4. Video Card
  5. Processor
  6. Motherboard
  7. Case

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Some Component Considerations

– Types of Hard Disks

I’m going to ignore the monitor and calibrator here (See information on that in the other article). The next priority is disks and the reason for that is that different types of disks and different combinations of them have very different speeds.  Note also that I’m talking about disks and not drives.  You might have a C drive and a D drive that are merely logical partitions of the same physical disk.  Here I’m referring to the physical disks.

  • Disks can be SATA or NVMe. SATA disks are usually powered by SATA cables though sometimes can mount directly to the motherboard. NVME disks mount directly to the motherboard and are much faster.
  • HDDs or spinning disks are those big heavy things that have been around for decades. They are one kind of SATA disk. An example is the Western Digital (WD) Black, which spins at 7200rpm. Another example is the WD Blue, which spins at 5400rpm and is slower.
  • Standard SSDs are small and oblong but squarish, and also SATA. They don’t have moving parts and are rather like a big USB stick. They are faster and more expensive than HDDs and many people use them as their C Drives or boot disks.
  • M.2 SSDs are a more recent standard. They are long and thin and smaller than a “normal” SSD and mount directly to the motherboard.
    • SATA M.2 SSDs have about the same speed and cost as a “normal” SSD.
    • NVMe M.2 SSDs are more expensive and significantly faster.
  • Your motherboard can also allow you to combine disks in a RAID array either for increased speed or increased security or both. They are usually of the same model and capacity of hard drive and can be SATA or NVMe and HDD. or SSDs. There are four different kinds of RAID. Let’s say we have four hard disks.
    • RAID 0 writes to all disks simultaneously and appears as one disk. The four disks make it four times as fast as a single disk but if one disk fails, you lose all the data on the RAID.
    • RAID 1 appears as two disks but each of those virtual disks contains two disks, one of which has a copy of the other disk. You lose no data if a disk fails and the speed is the same as a single disk.
    • RAID 5 appears as one disk, simultaneously writes to three disks and uses one disk for data validation. You should able to recover your data if a disk fails. It is about twice as fast as a single disk.
    • RAID 10 appears as one disk, simultaneously writes to two disks and uses two disks for data validation. You should able to recover your data if a disk fails and maybe also if two disks fail, depending on which ones. It is twice as fast as a single disk.
    • Some people have experienced problems with the reliability of HDD RAID but this has improved over the years, and SSD RAID should be more reliable than HDD RAID

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– The Hard Disk Race for Speed

So how do these disks compare for speed? Let’s have a race to find out.

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Asus Hyper M.2 x16 Card, Backup, Computer Upgrades, Computers, Equipment, Laptops, Motherboards, Photography

Serpent Column and Thurmose III’s Obelisk at Constantinople Hippodrome.

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This is an image from the Hippodrome of Constantinople/. This is where they did their chariot racing, at least until Constantinople was occupied during the Second Crusade in 1202. The first event of the ancient Greek Olympics is also believed to be a chariot race. Chariot racing was the pinnacle of speed in the ancient world.

In the background is the Obelisk of Thutmose III, Pharaoh 1479-1425 BC. It was brought to Constantinople in 390AD, and only the top third survives. In the foreground is the Serpent Column. This was originally erected in Delphi in 478 BC to commemorate the final defeat of the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. It originally had three serpent heads that supported a golden bowl but the bowl was lost or stolen during the Third Crusade and the heads fell off in 1700. (The upper jaw of one remains in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum). Both of these were on the Spina, or the ridge in the middle of the Hippodrome that the chariots raced around.

These days we have various kinds of football clubs (though currently inactive due to COVID-19). The Hippodrome crowds divided into Blue and Green factions (and originally there were also Red and White). They were also a bit like criminal gangs, and disputative to the extent of starting civil war. The Constantinople Hippodrome was 750 metres long and 220 metres wide (including seating). A lap was about a kilometre and a race was 7 laps, so the race was over 7 kilometres. There were two very tight turns at the end of the track for each lap. For the main races, the chariots were pulled by four horses.

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– and we’re off and racing!

The Hippodrome is U-shaped and the mouth of the U houses the starting bays. We have six chariots lining up for the race, representing different hard disks. We have a WD Blue HDD, a WD Black HDD, a 4 disk RAID 5 array of WD Red HDDs, a Samsung 860 EVO SSD, a Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD and a 4 disk RAID 0 array of Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSDs. (Times will correspond to read times, write times are somewhat slower.)

The 7 kilometre race is over in 8 minutes 25 seconds, won of course by the 4 disk Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD RAID 0. After all, it is a new chariot pulled by four strong horses. In that time, the WD Blue has covered 90 metres. I guess you can’t expect too much from a donkey and a cart. In the same time, the WD Black covered 125 metres, the WD Red RAID 5 array 200 metres and the Samsung 860 Pro SSD 460 metres. All of these have been lapped seven times and didn’t make the first turn, at 500 metres. The single Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD did better, completing one and three quarter laps, or 1,750 metres, and was lapped only six times.

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– Costs of Horses and Chariots (or Hard Drives in modern parlance)

Of course there’s a cost for better and more high tech chariots, quicker stronger horses and more accomplished charioteers, or in general, for increased performance. This also applies to the different kinds of hard drives. If we take one terabyte disks as an example, a WD Blue HDD costs about $70, a WD Red HDD $95, a WD Black HDD $135, a Samsung 860 EVO SSD $260 and a Samsung M.2 PCIe 970 EVO Plus SSD $350. (Current prices in Australian dollars, though they may change quickly in these times). There are always compromises but square wheels don’t help much in chariot races while only the generals can afford horses from the Arabian Peninsula.

The kind of disk you choose and whether you combine them can have a huge effect. So this is why disks are the most important component in computer speed these days.

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– USB and disks

Speed of disks is one thing, if you need to connect an external disk to your computer, the connection speed or USB speed is another. This should be straightforward but a number of aspects are unnecessarily confusing. Speed is commonly given in Gbps – but that’s not Gigabytes per second, it’s gigabits per second and there are eight bits to a byte. Also, the changes in naming conventions have become downright bizarre. I’ll give a summary here and express speeds as megabytes per second with Gbps in brackets. Then I’ll explain how that compares to speeds for the different kinds of disks.

  • USB 2 has a speed of 60MB/sec (480Mbps)
  • USB 3.0 has a speed of 625MB/sec (5Gbps)
    • but its name has changed to USB 3.1 Gen 1, then USB 3.2 Gen 1 and all names are concurrent (!)
  • USB 3.1 has a speed of 1250MB/sec (10Gbps)
    • Name changed to USB 3.1 Gen 2, then USB 3.2 Gen 2. Equivalent to Thunderbolt 1.
  • USB 3.2 has a speed of 2500MB/sec (20Gbps)
    • Name changed to USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. Equivalent to Thunderbolt 2.
  • USB 4 will have a speed of 5000MB/sec (40Gbps) but is not yet generally available.
    • It is equivalent to Thunderbolt 3.
  • Note that USB-C merely refers to a different plug though is usually USB 3.1 or higher.

Now let’s compare that to hard disk speeds.

  • A big heavy clunking hard drive (HDD) has a speed of say 120MB/sec to 150MB/sec. So connecting it with USB 2 will slow it down by 50% or more but USB 3.0 will work fine. Anything more than USB 3.0 will work but will be superfluous though because the HDD can’t match the connection speed.
  • A smaller squarish SATA SSD (or a SATA M.2 SSD) will have a speed of around 500MB/sec. In this case, connecting it with USB 2 will slow it down by nearly 90% but USB 3.0 will be fine and anything higher will work but be superfluous.
  • The very small oblong NVMe M.2 SSD (and not the identical-looking SATA M.2 SSD) will have a speed of 1700MB/sec to 2400MB/sec. So you need USB 3.2 to take full advantage of this one. This is an emerging option but you can already get relatively inexpensive and compact NVMe M.2 enclosures and plug them into a USB port. (This would be the ultimate option for backup while travelling).

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A normal approach to a fast photographic PC

Now the usual approach to upgrading the motherboard for a reasonably fast photographic PC would be as follows:

  • You’d want a motherboard with DDR4 RAM and it would be good to have at least two M.2 PCIe ports. There are lots of choices, one is an Asus Prime H370-A for around $200. It needs to be able to fit into your case though (This one is for an ATX motherboard. You can have micro ATX, ATX and extended ATX cases).
  • Then the CPU, though you really don’t need the fastest and most expensive CPU. You might get an Intel i7-9700 CPU, perhaps an i7-9700F for about $550.
  • You’d also need an appropriate CPU cooler from maybe $60 to $150. (Also needs to fit in the case).
  • Then you might add say 32GB RAM from a good brand such as G.Skill or Corsair for between $230 and $300. (You could also get by with 16GB though 32GB is better for Lightroom and Photoshop).
  • You’ll also need a suitable graphics card but it doesn’t need to be a high end one, perhaps a GTX 1660 with 6GB memory for around $360.
  • Then you’d need to add hard disks which you might be able to transfer from your existing PC. With this motherboard you could add up to six SATA disks, which could include an SSD as a boot drive (C Drive). Then you have two M.2 PCIe SSDs as fast processing drives. Alternatively, don’t have the SSD and have one M.2 PCIe SSD as your boot drive and a larger one as your processing drive.

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The approach I’ve taken

I’ve opted for seriously fast processing disks, including four M.2 PCIe SSDs combined in a RAID array. This is the chariot and four horses that can blitz the field at the Hippodrome. To do that I’m using an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card which can mount four such SSDs. You can see a detailed overview of it in this review (which has six pages, in case that’s not obvious).

– CPU, Motherboard and PCIe Card

You will have a number of slots on your motherboard called PCIe slots that you can mount cards in and they come in different lengths. You probably have a graphics card in one of the full-length ones. You can also have different cards for different purposes and one such card is the Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card. It is only $90 which makes it sound like a cheap option but to mount all four SSDs you need another fully powered full length (x16) slot. This requires an expensive CPU and motherboard. Specifically, you need a CPU that supports at least 44 “PCIe lanes”. So in terms of Intel CPUs, neither an i7 9700 nor an i9 9900 fit the bill and I went for an i9 10900X ($1070). For the motherboard I went for an Asus Prime X299-A II ($600).

I have 6.7TB of data, including 6TB for photographic images. The old computer had a 2TBx4 RAID 10 array for 4TB of storage plus a 6TB WD Black and a 500GB M.2 PCIe SSD. I had 2.9TB on the RAID 10 for images, 3.4TB on the WD Black for older images and other files, and 365GB on the M.2 SSD for the Lightroom Catalogue. There was also a 256GB SSD for the boot drive. (It is essential to have at least 10% free space on a drive and preferably 20% or it may become unreliable.)

I intended to have both a SATA RAID 5 of HDDs on the new computer as well as a RAID of NVMe SSDs. It was only later I found out in Intel FAQs that I couldn’t have both (Asus documentation didn’t cover that and Asus Support didn’t know). So since the NVMe SSDs are much faster than SATA HDDs, I’ve opted for an NVMe RAID and single SATA HDDs. So I’ll keep the 6TB WD Black, I’m currently using another HDD and I may replace that with a 4TB WD Black later. I chose an Intel option because it seemed to offer a SATA RAID 5. Had I realised that wasn’t going to work, I probably would have opted for AMD which is currently cheaper and more powerful.

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– M.2 NVMe SSDs

The new motherboard allows up to three M.2 NVMe SSDs on the motherboard. I have a Samsung 960 EVO in one as my boot disk and a Samsung 970 EVO Plus in another for my Capture One catalog. I also expect to have four 500GB M.2 NVME SSDs on an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card which I have specified as a RAID 0 array using Intel Virtual RAID from CPU or VROC. They are Intel 760p SSDs and for X299 motherboards they have to be Intel SSDs which is another thing not mentioned in the Asus documentation but that I found later in an Intel FAQ.

People with older PCs can potentially add an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card to get an M.2 slot even where the motherboard doesn’t already have one. Your CPU won’t support a VROC RAID but depending on your CPU and the PCIe lanes on your motherboard, the card will support one or two M.2 SSDs, though not the full four.

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– RAID 0 Precautions

RAID 0 gives a very fast drive but if any of the SSDs fall over, all the data is lost. This may be a bridge too far for some people but here is why I am comfortable with it.

  1. I have everything backed up to a local Drobo and to the Cloud. The Drobo is a black box of drives connected to the PC and I back up using Acronis. For my Cloud backup I use CrashPlan though for most people BackBlaze is cheaper and would be sufficient. For more on backup see my article Backup for Photographers.
  2. My Lightroom catalog will be on the RAID 0 drive. I have a separate and frequent backup for just that catalog. Lightroom working files can take up a lot of space but most of that is previews. Currently my Lightroom working files take up 350GB but the catalog itself is only 2.4GB. It’s not essential to get the previews back because you can always regenerate the ones you need in Lightroom whereas restoring the catalog itself should be very fast.
  3. I will have a copy of my working photographic images on a SATA HDD (in the computer) as well as the RAID 0.
  4. For both Lightroom and Capture One, I save changes to the catalogue rather than to sidecar files. The RAW files are unchanged. So if I lose the RAID 0, I would simply need to point the catalogue to the SATA HDD with the other copy of the files. This would cover all of the original files and any changes in Lightroom. The only files I would need to restore from backup (as needed) would be JPEGs and TIFFs I have generated in other programs such as Photoshop, Zerene Stacker, Autopano Giga, SNS-HDR or Capture One
  5. The SSDs have a 5 year warranty so failures should be infrequent. They should be much more reliable than HDDs.

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Asus Hyper M.2 x16 Card, Backup, Computer Upgrades, Computers, Equipment, Laptops, Motherboards, Photography

Iceland Farmhouse uploading to The Cloud.

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– Intel and AMD

My Intel X299 motherboard only supports Intel SSDs for RAID (VROC RAID), either on an Asus Hyper M.2 x16 card or the motherbard. If you want a RAID 5 or RAID 10, this requires a $250 hardware key but RAID 0 does not require a hardware key. Other SSDs such as Samsung SSDs are not compatible for a VROC RAID either on an Asus card or on the motherboard though they are fine to operate as single disks.

You can also get hardware keys for non-Intel SSDs such as Samsung, at $170 for RAID 0 and $400 for RAID 5. They definitely don’t work with X299 motherboards, either for an Asus card or directly off the motherboard, and Intel’s X299 VROC FAQ says only Intel SSDs are compatible so I’m not sure where you can use them.

I understand AMD motherboards don’t have this problem, you don’t need to pay extra for a hardware key and you can use non-intel SSDs. An AMD alternative, specifically an Asus Prime X399-A motherboard ($460) and an AMD Threadripper 2920X CPU ($800) is quite a bit cheaper than the Intel alternative and appears a better option though you can’t have a RAID 5. I haven’t checked out the fine print for this option though.

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Concluding Comments

You can buy an off the shelf PC or get a custom one; if you want a high performance PC specifically for photography you may prefer a custom one. You can buy a custom PC from somone like Aus PC Market (as recommended by Image Science) or specify it yourself and either get someone to put it together or do that yourself. You can get a new PC or upgrade the components inside your case.

The prices I cited above will of course change over time and new options will become available.

Some thoughts on issues when renewing a PC:

  • You should read all manufacturer specs and the manual, and also consult the Qualified Vendor List (QVL) to make sure the components are compatible.
  • I found the Asus documentation was deficient in important respects and I also needed to consult Intel FAQs.
  • If you are upgrading RAM, you need to replace all your RAM rather than adding more, even of the same specification. Otherwise, your RAM is much more likely to fail.
  • Some vendors are better to deal with than others, especially if you encounter compatibility problems and need to return an item. I recommend Scorptec.
  • Back up your computer image and make a boot USB
  • Acronis lets you transfer your operating system to different hardware.

I don’t claim to be an expert, I just investigate what seems to be appropriate, do my research and follow my own path. I’m also not responsible for what you may encounter if you follow my example. Not many people would need a PC like this one, it all depends on your processing requirements and your budget. What you already have may be quite sufficient.

Also consider my earlier article, Computers for Photography which is more general and contains useful links.

Feel free to make comments or ask questions, though, to which I will respond to the best of my abilities.

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Appendix 1: Links about computers

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Appendix 2: Links about building a PC

Backup for Photographers

I am back from Ladakh and in the meantime will post technical articles I have already published for the Canberra Photographic Society Blog :

  • Computers for Photography
  • Why Print?
  • What do you need for Printing?
  • How to Print
  • Getting Lightroom to Fly
  • New Auto Changes in Lightroom
  • Backup for Photographers

Next, I will start posting on the trip to Ladakh, then the Atacama (2015), then the Caribbean (2016).

 

Backup for Photographers

 

  • Why backup
    • Hard disks will fail
    • System files can become corrupted
    • Working files can be deleted or corrupted
    • Viruses can hit (worst case: Ransomware)
  • What to backup
    • Create boot disk (or USB)
    • Create system image
    • Three levels of backup
      • Local backup
      • Backup to Disk
      • Remote backup
  • How to backup
    • Create boot disk
    • Create system image
    • Create local backups
    • Create remote backups to disk or Cloud
  • Backup while travelling
    • Laptop plus external drives
    • Portable storage device
    • Cards

Analogue backup: Warehouses in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, during the Otaru Lantern Festival (and in heavy snow)

 

Why Backup

Often people only become convinced of the necessity for backup when they lose their hard drive and their computer stops working. They may have lost all their data. All hard drives fail. Some may last for a long time, some may not.

Apart from the hard disk dying, system files may become corrupted so your PC doesn’t work any more and images or working files can become corrupted or be accidentally deleted.

Your computer might get a virus that could render it inoperable. A good anti-virus program safeguards against that but it won’t catch everything. In the worst case it might be a ransomware Trojan that encrypts all your files and demands money to recover them which then may still not happen. Potentially, this could include connected backup files and other computers on your home network.

Macs are less susceptible to viruses than Windows PCs but can still get them so anti-virus software may be appropriate there too.

What to Backup

If you have not already done so, you should create a boot disk for your computer on a CD, DVD or USB stick. Then if your operating system dies, you can most probably still start your computer by booting up from the boot disk.

You should save a system image for your PC. This includes all the programs on your computer and all the hidden system files. Then if you get a virus, your operating system becomes corrupt or you need a new C Drive, you can restore everything the way it was.

Of course, you should also backup your data files. For a photographer that will include all your images, RAW, TIFF, PSD or jpeg. In fact you should have three backup copies of your files because the hard disks you backup on may fail too.

  • Your first level backup might be directly attached to your computer as a hard disk or as a bunch of disks in a box that operate together (called a DAS or a NAS depending on direct or network access).
  • Your second level backup might be to hard drives not usually connected to your computer.
  • Your third level backup might be to hard drives stored at work or at a friend or relation’s house, or it might be to the cloud. If your house burns down you still have your images.

How to Backup

  • How to create a boot disk (or recovery drive):
  • How to save a system image
    • For Windows
    • For Mac
    • Note: At least for Windows, you can’t restore the system image to upgrade your system to different hardware (i.e. to a different kind of hard disk or from a hard disk to an SSD). For that you need Acronis or another backup utility with this capability.
    • Another option is to clone your system disk to a spare one. Then, if you get a virus, you swap the spare disk in. You can do it on the fly with Acronis; with other programs you would need to start your computer off a boot disk first.
  • How to create local backups
    • From inside Windows
      • This should work but will only allow you to back up files to a schedule of a minimum once a day.
    • Using a free program
    • If you are using a Norton antivirus product such as Norton 360 or Norton Security Premium, that will include a backup utility that is better than the one that comes with Windows.
    • Acronis provides a full-featured backup option with many other useful tools. The stand-alone version is likely to be better value than the subscription. It is the market leader but there are also many other alternatives.
    • For Mac

How to create remote backups

  • You can create local backups to disk as above and take the disk to another location. The problem with this is that your backups are likely to be out of date.
  • Backing up to the cloud has become affordable and viable. Since photographers have lots of images, a cloud backup that allows unlimited backup is best. You also need an ISP such as iiNet that allows unlimited uploads and downloads. Initial upload is slow (months if you have many terabytes of data) but after that it works unnoticed. Downloads are faster but may still take considerable time for large amounts of data. So you still need local backups due to speed of recovery and because no backup is 100% secure. There are two main options:
    • BackBlaze for $US50 per year or about $A70
      • Carbonite is another option but it costs more and I don’t see any reason to prefer it to BackBlaze.
    • CrashPlan for Business for $US120 per year or about $A160.
      • BackBlaze only stores deleted files and previous versions of files for 30 days whereas CrashPlan stores them indefinitely.
    • For more information see the updated Blog article Cloud Backup for Photographers.

Backup while travelling

You should really have three copies of your images while travelling. At least one should be stored separately, in a coat pocket for example, just in case.

  • A laptop and portable hard drives are an obvious option. Samsung T3 SSDs are very small, pocketable portable hard drives. If using a tablet, it will need to have sufficient USB ports for importing and saving or backing up images.
  • A more compact option is a portable storage device. Some of the more expensive ones you may be able to synch wirelessly with a hard drive for backup.
    • Another cheap option is the RAVPower FileHub Plus where you can use your phone to backup an SD card to a portable hard drive.
  • If you are going for an extended walk in the wilderness where there is no electricity, you may have no alternative but to take multiple CF or SD cards for storage and backup. However, if you’re not travelling too light there may be additional options such as Anker solar panels and batteries.

What do you need for Printing?

I am back from Ladakh but not yet ready to start posting on the trip.  In the meantime, I will post technical articles I have already published for the Canberra Photographic Society Blog:

  • Computers for Photography
  • Why Print?
  • What do you need for Printing?
  • How to Print
  • Lightroom Previews and Getting Lightroom to Fly
  • New Auto Changes in Lightroom
  • Backup for Photographers

Following this, I will start posting on the trip to Ladakh, then the Atacama (2015), then the Caribbean (2016).

 

What do you need for Printing?

In this post we will cover the following topics:

  • Fume Room
  • Camera
  • Computer
  • Monitor and colorimeter
  • Software
  • Lighting
  • Printer
  • Ink
  • Paper
  • Cost of printing
  • Matting
  • What to do with the prints

 

Fume Room

The chemical darkroom is essentially out of scope for this series, though you could potentially pick up say a second hand Mamiya RB67, compatible enlarger and accessories quite cheaply.  Printing from film in a darkroom is likely to actually work out much cheaper than a digital workflow, even with film costs, but also much more difficult and much more time-consuming.

 

Camera

Printing requires you have an image.  Creating an image usually requires that you have a camera.  So how good a camera do you need?  Do you need say a Nikon D850 with a professional lens for example?  Well, let me answer this at first by example.  The following image is of Selfoss in Iceland and it won a 5 (out of 5) in a monthly competition last year.  It was taken with a good camera – Nikon D3s and a good lens (85mm f1.4) but I discovered later there had been a problem.  I had been grappling with the settings of the camera while it was inside a raincover a week or two earlier in Greenland and hadn’t realised that instead of the usual 16MP RAW files, I had it set to save 2.8MP TIFF files.  After cropping the size of the file was 2.2MP.

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Admittedly, my choice of paper helped.  I printed it on a matte paper which has a texture and less resolution.  I don’t think a glossy paper would have worked.   But what this shows if you can have sufficient inspiration and skill and get to the right place at the right time,  the camera doesn’t matter very much, at least as long as you understand the limitations of the camera and operate within them.

 

Computer

I’m not going to say much about computers because I just wrote an article about purchasing one.  You need something with enough RAM to process your files and enough disk space to store them.  It helps if it does something when you turn it on.

 

Monitor and Colorimeter

Having a good monitor makes a big difference and having it well profiled is almost essential for printing.  You can get away without that but you are likely to lose a lot of time in testing, you may find it difficult to achieve accurate colour and it may end up costing you more.  I’m not going to say much about monitors because I covered that in the Computers post.   NEC and Eizo make the best monitors; anything else is a compromise though no doubt a necessary compromise for many.  It is an advantage to have a monitor with an aRBG gamut (Adobe RGB) rather than an sRGB gamut because you will be able to more accurately see the colours of an image for printing.

Profiling the monitor is important because if we are not seeing accurate colour, we will find it difficult to print accurate colour.  Whether a monitor looks good anyway is besides the point.  Our eyes are very good at making lighting sources as different as daylight and tungsten light (old-style lightbulbs) appear normal.  Consequently, we can’t expect our eyes alone to adjust monitors.

To profile your minotaur monitor you need a colorimeter and the best one is the XRite Display Pro (at around $300).  Be wary of cheap options or old colorimeters as they may not be accurate, they may not allow important adjustments and they may not work well if you have a wide gamut monitor.  Some may wish to generate their own paper profiles with say an X-Rite ColorMunki Photo but this is optional; it probably won’t make much difference and profiling your monitor is the really important thing here.

 

Software

There are many software choices for editing images and printing them.  If you have a profiled monitor though, what makes a big difference in printing is using a program you can soft proof with.  That means you can simulate how your print wil appear, on your screen.  It’s not perfect but it can be very helpful.  Photoshop is an option but these days most people use Lightroom which is a very powerful program that is also very easy to use.

These days, you can pay $14 per month for perpetually up-to-date versions of both Lightroom and Photoshop.  This is very good value compared to what prices used to be though if you stop paying you can no longer use the programs to modify your images (though you can still access the images).    There are many instructional videos for Lightroom and Photoshop on the web, such as those of Julianne Kost.  There are also comprehensive sets of videos on Luminous Landscape for both Lightroom and printing if you are willing to pay their subscription of $US12 per year.

 

Lighting

Ideally, the room you process your images in should have dim consistent lighting and be neutral in colour.  If you are in a room with bright purple walls, it will affect your colour perceptions of your images on screen (as well as possibly your state of mind).  Preferably, you should also wear neutral clothing for the same reason.

Once you have generated a print, you need a neutral light source to assess it.  This can be sunlight, although its colour temperature changes throughout the day and may differ between direct sunlight and shadow.  Ordinary lightbulbs of whatever type are problematic, even if they are labelled “daylight”, unless you are printing for that specific light source.

The best light source for proofing is Solux bulbs, which are very accurate, and most people prefer a colour temperature around 5,000°K.  The problem is that they are MR16 bulbs – in other words they have two little round prongs like the small round lights that may be in your kitchen ceiling and they take low voltage direct current rather than 240V DC.  Fine if you can get them installed like your kitchen lights.  Alternatively, you could use a Graflite fluorescent desk light which is almost as good though the larger one, more suitable for A3+ prints, costs $300 (at Imagescience).

There is a way around this, if you’re adventurous enough.  From a local store such as Southside Lighting, you get an ordinary lamp and also a small inline transformer that converts from 240volt DC to a small direct current suitable for MR16 bulbs.  You get an electrician to insert the transformer in the lamp’s electrical line before the switch.  Now it’s no good for ordinary bulbs anymore.  Next, you order online a B22 (large bayonet) to MR16 converter or a E27 (large screw) to MR16 converter depending on your lamp fitting.  These are not available in a shop because they don’t meet Australian safety standards since someone might use them with an MR16 bulb without a transformer and effectively cause a short circuit.  When this arrives, you put the Solux bulb on it, insert it in the lamp and you now have a colour accurate light source for printing.

 

Printer

The choice for a photographic printer is likely to come down to different models of Epson inkjet printers.

It’s possible to print a photograph with a laser printer but it won’t handle the range of media that inkjet printers can, the colours and densities won’t be at all accurate unless you profile it yourself and even then it’s not likely to produce the quality of an inkjet printer.

Canon and HP still produce ranges of very large printers for the professional market, but HP has dropped out of the consumer market and Canon has a fairly low profile.  In any case, I’m not familiar with Canon printers and will confine my comments to Epson.

Here are some likely choices:

  • P800 (A2 printer): $1,900+: Excellent quality colour and monochrome images.
  • P600 (A3+ printer): $1,300+: Excellent quality colour and monochrome images.
  • P405 (A3+ printer): $900+:  Excellent quality colour but not as good for monochrome due to smaller ink set.
  • Artisan 1430 (A3+): $350+: Uses dye-based inks rather than pigment-based inks.  Probably excellent quality for colour images on glossy and semigloss paper.  May not be so good on matte and may not be very suitable for monochrome.  Will have higher ink cost due to small cartridges.

 

Ink

If you have an Epson printer, you should definitely use Epson ink.  You can get very cheap third party ink but that doesn’t mean it’s good value.  Such inks can kill your printer.  Also, you may need to get custom paper profiles which otherwise are not really necessary.

 

Paper

These days there is a bewildering variety of papers available.  At least initially, just have one or two and get to understand them.  If two, perhaps a semigloss paper and a matte.  Maybe try a few test packs to help decide.  Glossy and semigloss papers show brighter colours and deeper blacks than matte papers so they are suitable for different kinds of images.  Matte papers can give a subtler effect for lower contrast images.

If you want a first paper to start with on a new printer, perhaps Ilford Smooth Pearl is a good and relatively economical place to start.  It is suitable for both printers that use dye-based and pigment-based inks.  You need to be careful if you have a dye-based printer that you purchase suitable papers, not ones for pigment ink printers only.

 

Cost of Printing

You can of course print A4 prints but for purposes of a cost comparison, let’s say you decide to print for yourself and enter A3+ prints in CPS competitions for a year.  That’s sixteen A3+ prints in monthly competitions, two in Image of the Year, say four for Out There exhibition and five A4 prints for the Hedda Morrison portfolio competition.   That’s 22 A3+ prints and 5 A4, equivalent to around 24.5 A3+ prints.  We will not consider here what other prints you may generate.

An article by Mark Segal suggests ink costs of around $2 for an A3+ print from an Epson 3800 printer.  This should be about the same for a P800 or a P600 (the current models).  Say you’re printing Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, that will cost about $3.30 per A3+ sheet.  Assuming 25% for testing and wastage, that makes about $7.50 per A3+ print. That’s about $180 for printing costs for a competition year.

Getting Harvey Norman to make the same prints would cost $410 but they would have to be on a cheaper paper and lower quality and the paper sizes are slightly smaller.  Next step up, getting Bica to print them would cost $588 for “Premium Prints” and $1,031 for “Custom Prints” (and for A3 rather than A3+).  Next step up, getting Stephen Best to print them will cost $1,005 plus postage, or picking up from PhotoAccess on a Thursday or Friday, or trips to Braidwood.

I recently sold my Epson 3880 printer for $550 (to upgrade to a P800).  I had bought it six years ago for $1900.  My overall printing cost for that period was equivalent to getting prints made by Harvey Norman at much lesser quality and much less convenience.  I saved 60% (or $3,700) over getting custom prints made by Bica or Stephen Best.   So, buying a printer can pay off as long as you’re going to use it.

 

Matting

Prints in CPS competitions are usually matted.  It helps if you print in standard sizes because then you can reuse the matte for other prints.  Unlike prints, there is no particular reason to produce your own mattes; it’s a question of convenience and cost. There are three approaches you can take:

  • You can get some cut. Last time I did this it cost $15 each, but that’s a few years ago and it may be more now.
  • You can take the cheap option and use a Stanley knife for straight edges and a Dexter matte cutter for bevelled edges. Entirely possible but slow and painstaking.
  • If you will be cutting a fair few mattes, you may consider a “proper” matte cutter such as those from FrameCo.

Just briefly, if you are matting a print to permanently mount in a frame, you should use archival matte board and archival tape (from a specialist retailer) and hang the print from the top edge only so it can move in the frame.

 

What to do with the prints

A question some people ask is “what do you do with the prints?”.  Well, to some extent, this may not be the right place to start.  If you want to produce some outstanding prints that are truly yours because you printed them, you have to work at it.  The prints you produce after a few years may be greatly improved and you will have needed to produce the earlier ones to get there.

You can of course hang some on your walls and rotate them.  You may be able to give some away as presents.  In this case you need to be sure it really is your best work (probably no point even holding on to seconds) and also that other people really will appreciate them.  The Society competitions help to give you a good feel for that.  Similarly, you might like to send some prints to people you met while travelling.  You might want to hold an exhibition at some stage, when you feel you really understand your craft and have something to say.  You might even try selling some though that’s easier said than done and certainly extremely difficult to generate a significant income flow from fine art prints.

You can store them in the old boxes that the paper came in (or special boxes for the same purpose) or you can get special transparent envelopes to store them in.  I have also found album folios that can store 48 A3+ prints.  This is a very convenient way to show your prints to guests.

 

Why Print?

I am back from Ladakh but not yet ready to start posting on the trip.  In the meantime, I will post technical articles I have already published for the Canberra Photographic Society Blog:

  • Computers for Photography
  • Why Print?
  • What do you need for Printing?
  • How to Print
  • Lightroom Previews and Getting Lightroom to Fly
  • New Auto Changes in Lightroom
  • Backup for Photographers

Following this, I will start posting on the trip to Ladakh, then the Atacama (2015), then the Caribbean (2016).

 

Why Print?

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on printing:

  1. Why Print?
  2. What do you need for Printing?
  3. How to Print

These days when we are deluged with digital images and creating them is so readily available, why even bother to print? The short answer is that printing is an important learning tool that will help you to grow as a photographer and an artist.

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Ansel Adams 1902–1984: “The Tetons and the Snake River”, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942. Vintage signed print. National Archives Unrestricted.

(Click for larger image).

There is a sale record for this print on Christie’s auction site. There is also a short article on some of their prints for auction and a brief video about Ansell Adams.

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More often than not, a print will win Image of the Night in our Canberra Photographic Society monthly competitions, even when there are more digital images than prints. This is because a successful print has a special presence. It’s a tangible thing, a finished object, something with texture as well as tonality. In creating it, the process of closely examining an image, fine-tuning it and optimising it for a print will also show you a lot about your work that you might miss in merely preparing digital images.

OK, so you want to enter some prints in Society competitions or just generate some for your own purposes – so the next question is “Should you print them yourself?”. I believe the answer to that question should be Yes!. In short, it’s your best route to quality, it will probably work out cheaper and the final print will be all your own work.

You can of course get your images printed and there are many reasons to do this. It might be more economic if you make few prints, you don’t have a suitable printer, you may want a larger print than your printer can make or your printer may have died. There are many print competitions for which you submit digital images and then if you are a finalist they will print your work. Canberra Photographic Society competitions also allow commercially printed entries.

However, if you make your own prints, you should easily be able to get better results than a cheap commercial printer (such as Big W or Harvey Norman) and after a while you should also be able to get better results than a custom printer. This is because only you can understand your artistic vision and for that matter, making your own prints will help to develop it. While some prints may pop right out from screen through printer to print in completely satisfactory form, others may require considerable time and effort to optimise.

And I think the most compelling reason to do your own printing is that otherwise it’s not really your own work.

Former President Brian Rope told me a story that illustrates this from a more general perspective. Ostensibly, all that is required for an image to be yours (including a print) is that you pressed the shutter button on the camera. Some time ago, a photographic competition in China received a number of identical images from different people. It turns out they had all been to the same workshop. The convenor of the workshop had set up his camera on a tripod, carefully composed the image and made all the required technical settings. The attendees of the workshop all went through, put their cards in the camera and pressed the shutter button. Those entries were all disqualified from the competition of course. They might have pressed the shutter button but apart from that it was not their work.

In the Canberra Photographic Society we believe in freedom of information, assisting anyone who requests it and working cooperatively. Even so, ultimately I believe that everyone has to take responsibility for their own work, specifically the technical and artistic aspects that require an exercise of skill. There’s definitely skill in printing, both technical and artistic, and these skills are definitely worth picking up and exercising.

In summary:

  • Printing is an important part of Photography
  • Learning it and practicing it will help you to grow as a photographer and an artist
  • Printing your own prints should lead to better quality than a commercial print
  • You can probably make prints more cheaply than cheap commercial prints (details next post)
  • If you want it to really be your own work, you should print it yourself.

Any value judgements expressed above are entirely my own. Feel free to discuss any issues or ask any questions in the comments below.

Computers for Photography

I am back from Ladakh but not yet ready to start posting on the trip.  In the meantime, I will post technical articles I have already published for the Canberra Photographic Society Blog:

Following this, I will start posting on the trip to Ladakh, then the Atacama (2015), then the Caribbean (2016).

Later technical articles:

 

Computers for Photography

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:

  • Monitor
    • Colorimeter for profiling
    • Graphics cards
  • Computer
    • RAM
    • Storage
      • SSD or conventional
    • Chip
    • Software
  • Laptops
    • External drives
  • Backup
    • External hard drive or NAS
    • Software

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.

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Study-2

Monitors

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.

Another choice is “normal” gamut (sRGB) or “wide” gamut (aRGB). Wide gamut monitors are especially valuable for printing bceause you can fairly accurately simulate on screen the colours and densities of a printed image.

Another level of choice is resolution. The ultra high resolution 4K monitors have a resolution of something like 3840×2160 instead of 1900×1200. Photographic quality ones can be very expensive. 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 may not work well on 4K because Google is not maintaining or updating it. You also need good eyesight or the extra resolution may be wasted.

Use them if you have to, but cheap monitors will not give you accurate colour and tonality. The best monitors are NEC and Eizo. NEC is pretty much as good as Eizo at a much lower price. However, NEC monitors are now unfortunately out of contention because NEC Australia has a new policy that it won’t replace monitors with up to 8 dead pixels (2 bright, 6 dark). So this leaves only Eizo for the highest quality monitors.

Fortunately there is a new player on the field -BenQ. While not as good as the Eizos they are still photographic quality at a much lower price.

Prices from Image Science are as followed, wide gamut unless otherwise indicated (you may be able to get a bit cheaper on the web):

  • 24″: $1,400 (Eizo CS2420) or $760 (Eizo EV2455, standard gamut)
  • 27″: $1,900 (Eizo CS2730) or $1,300 (BenQ PV270) or $1,000 (BenQ SW2700PT, previous model, uniformity not as good)
  • 31″ 4K: $7,500 (Eizo CG318) or $2,000 (BenQ SW320) or $1,900 (BenQ PV3200PT, previous model)

Here is an article from ImageScience on buying monitors.

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.

Articles from Image Science:

Colorimeters

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).

Computers

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 Kaby Lake 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:

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).

Laptops

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).

Backup

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.

Computer problems – RAID and backup

I may make very few posts during the next six weeks or so.

One reason is that I’ve been spending a lot of time rebuilding my computer data storage.  First the backup of my travel images became corrupted so I tried to recreate it.  Then one of the backup drives failed.  Then one of my data drives failed.

My main data drive was a RAID 5 array with four 1TB drives.  This means that three of those drives were for storage, with “striping” or writing across drives for speed, and the remaining drive was for backup.  My backup system is a Drobo S, with five 3TB drives, functioning similarly to RAID 5.   I had a lot of spare space there so when the drive failed it just rebuilt to the remaining four drives but that made it unusably slow for backing up for several days in the meanwhile.

Then, when one of the drives in the RAID 5 data drive failed,  I managed to backup Antarctica, Japan and New York and just two TIFF files from the North Atlantic trip before it died completely.   This was good because I had no backup of the images I restored and for the travel files I didn’t manage to restore, I still had all the RAW files on the laptop.

I now have all backups restored.  I lost about 250 TIFF files from the North Atlantic trip where I worked in Photoshop CC, Vivesa, Silver Efex Pro, SNS HDR or AutoPano Pro.  Those I can always regenerate from the RAW files though.  However, it appears I failed to create a backup for Blues Festivals in 2011 and 2012 and I have lost all those images, about 7,000 in all.  The best 1,000 or so are published to the web on JAlbum (in reduced size) but losing the source files is unfortunate and there’s no redress.

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The original file for this image is now lost. This is Darren Jack at Thredbo Blues Festival 2012.

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The conventional wisdom is that you should have three copies of your data, including one in a remote location in case say your house burns down.  I thought I could get away with two because they were both in systems that can usually cope with drive failures.  I almost did get away with that but then the main problem was that I was missing a backup.

I have rebuilt the data drive with four new 2TB drives as a RAID 10 array.  This means that two of those drives store data while the other two are backups (mirroring the data).  The drives are also “striped”, writing between each other for speed.  That can cope with losing up to two drives, provided they are not both drives of a mirrored pair.

I have many spare internal drives and a “disk caddy” to access them.  So I will create a second set of backups on those drives.  Finally, I will backup selected images to the Cloud.  These will probably be those with three stars or more in Lightroom, only essential images to minimise expense.

It’s also important to have a backup of your computer’s image, i.e. your C Drive including all the hidden system files.  You can use that to restore all your functionality and programs if you get a virus or your C Drive crashes and even (with a higher version of Acronis) to a different disk that replaces your C Drive.  This didn’t come to play in this situation but has a couple of times in the past.  I have saved images from both Acronis and Windows.  There’s a link here that shows you how to do it on Windows 8 which also has the benefit that Windows will use this image if you elect to Refresh PC.  Otherwise refreshing the PC just wipes everything.

I lost ten days with all of that.  I had about ten posts prepared in advance but not any more.  I’ve started preparing posts on St Kilda where I took about 400 images and another 420 sailing around the islands.  This will take a while and there’s also a lot to say.  Then this coming weekend I’m off to cover the Thredbo Blues Festival and it will take me at least two weeks to process the images I take there.  After that I’m in India for most of February (more on that soon).  I may not get much opportunity to post from there.  There may be very few posts between now and early March.