My gear : computers, backup drives and associated software (part 1)

In the digital world of high-megapixel cameras and fast frame rates you’re going to have a lot of large photo files to upload, process and store. In this respect a good computer is an essential item of equipment and, as such, I’d be remiss to not include some information about my systems. But, although I’ve probably been using a computer as long as anyone, I’m certainly not a techie or IT expert, so I’m not going to go into too much detail as my aim is simply to outline the equipment I own, how it’s set-up and how I use it. I also have no intention of trying to justify using a Mac over a Windows PC other than to explain my reasons for switching to a Mac, as that debate is no different to Nikon v Canon. Each operating system will have its pros and cons. The internet has masses of information to help you decide which is best for you. There are many factors to consider and what suits one person will probably not suit the next. The same will apply with photo processing software, external hard drives, and other peripherals such as card readers or printers. For example, my photos are imported, developed, catalogued and stored, with the better images uploaded for web viewing. I do not sell my photos and only very rarely want hard copies so have no need for a decent quality photo printer. If I need photos printed I’ll use a specialist company such as Whitewall.

So, with the above preamble and associated disclaimers out the way, I’ll expand on the list that was shown at the end of the original ‘my gear - introduction’ page with some background, equipment specification details and any relevant notes regarding set-up and usage.

In the beginning ….

Even for those of us that are old enough to remember an IBM/PS2 operating Microsoft DOS, and with floppy disc storage, it’s difficult to think back to what life was really like before we had computers, let alone the internet and the facility to correspond by e-mail. I’m struggling to put a date on when I had my first computer at work, but it was sometime during the late 80’s. By today’s standards it was an extremely basic machine, but it was a machine that had a massive affect on the way the office functioned. Previously I was dictating letters that I’d get back a day or so later from the typing pool. But now, like many other office workers at the time, I had my own computer on my desk, and the means to type my own letters, produce lists and notes, compile basic databases and start exploring the wonderful world of spreadsheets.

Obviously it wasn’t that simple - far from it in fact! We’d only just got to grips with the marvels of the fax machine, so to be faced with new technology that most of us hadn’t seen before was a challenging and somewhat daunting experience. But, it was a new era and one that had to be embraced, and that’s what we did. We were all in the same situation so we learnt from our mistakes and off each other. There was little option, as you couldn’t exactly Google an answer or e-mail someone for guidance. This was the late 80’s and the internet and e-mail were still a couple of years off, and Google wasn’t even a twinkle in Larry Page’s eye back then - in fact, a Google search now confirms that the company wasn’t even registered until 1997.

We were still in the pre-Windows era at a time when Lotus WordPro and 1-2-3 were the software of choice. I didn’t use a Windows operating system until the early 90’s when Windows 3.0 was launched. And it was another couple of years on from then before the business moved from Lotus software to Microsoft ‘word' and ‘excel'. So, that’s where I started, and I carried on using a Windows PC at work up to the time I retired in October 2014.

Not surprisingly, when I purchased my first home computer it was a Windows PC. It was a system I was familiar with, so there was no point looking for anything different. The only purchasing decision was the make of computer. This was sometime in the late 90’s and was probably a Windows 98 machine as that was the first version designed specifically for home use. I started with a basic desktop computer package, upgrading to a better system around 2003 not long after the release of Windows XP. I got a lot of use out of that machine albeit with various hardware and software changes along the way, which of course you can do with a PC.

I then got the itch to switch to a laptop as I thought it would be a good idea to have something more portable. So in 2008, shortly after purchasing my first DSLR, the D300, I upgraded again to a reasonably high-specced 17” HP Pavilion laptop running Windows Vista. In those early days I did little developing so didn’t look any further than the standard Nikon View NX image transfer and Capture NX editing software that came with the camera.

I obtained my first copy of Lightroom in 2010 - a purchasing decision that was driven more by the software’s excellent ‘library’ module for organising and storing my photos than the ‘develop’ module. But, this changed very quickly once I started using it as I loved the interface and found the whole concept and layout of the modules so logical. Initially I was still switching back to Capture NX for some tasks as I liked the control-point method of adjustment. However, after a couple of months or so I was solely using Lightroom.

Switching to Apple …..

Whilst a Windows PC was almost undoubtedly the right platform to use at the time within a business environment where the main functional requirements were word-processing, excel spreadsheets, power-point presentations, databases and e-mails, the Apple Mac was becoming the system of choice for graphic designers, developers and other creative professionals.

From a personal point of view I was drawn to Apple for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the Apple OS-X operating system was proving to be far more stable and secure than Windows. Microsoft was always having to issue updates to guard against viruses or other security issues, whereas OS-X wasn’t encountering those problems. I felt that was almost a good enough reason on its own, but I had a dilemma as I really wanted to carry on using Microsoft ‘word' and ‘excel' rather than having to move over to Apple’s offerings with ‘pages’ and ’numbers’. I used those programmes a lot and had quite a few working documents and spreadsheets that I couldn’t afford to lose and didn’t want to try converting. My worry was quickly resolved though as I found that I could effectively have the best of both worlds by installing Microsoft Office for Mac. I still use those programmes on a regular basis but, even now many years on from making the decision to switch to Apple, I find that Microsoft Office still needs updating at least once a month due to another critical requirement to improve security and fix vulnerability.

The second reason for making the move was that I wanted to go back to a desktop computer with a bigger monitor, but it had to be compact as my space was limited. The all-in-one iMac design suited my requirements perfectly, plus it looked great and seemed the logical answer particularly as I already had an Apple iPhone and iPad. I also liked the fact that Apple design and manufacture both the software and the hardware, whereas Microsoft didn’t and, consequently, with Microsoft you’d end up looking at different computer systems from companies such as HP, Dell, Toshiba, Acer etc. Buying an Apple iMac was much easier. And finally, I also liked the idea of the automatic in-built Time Machine backup facility that could be linked to a Time Capsule combined hard drive and wireless network hub.

Those were the main reasons, so in early 2011 I took the plunge and purchased my first iMac. It was the smaller 21.5” (1920x1080) model, configured to use the higher specification 3.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, with 8GB SDRAM (subsequently increased to 16GB) and a 2TB hard drive. Most of the files and associated software that I wanted to retain from the laptop were transferred over relatively easily, although I have to admit that I was very nervous about moving over my Lightroom 3 catalogue, but I shouldn’t have been as that part of the switch was probably the most painless. The biggest problem was migrating my e-mails across - that proved to be a real bitch of a job, but that’s another story.

I was up and running, and happy with the decision to switch, but most of my computer time was still at work on my Windows PC so it took me far longer than it should have to become familiar with the operating system and Apple's terminology, such as alias for shortcut etc.

File size issues …..

It seems that whether it’s cameras, lenses, bags or computers there is always some need or desire to upgrade. If you buy a long lens, you’d obviously give thought to the fact that you may need to purchase a longer bag in order to store and transport it. But, when you’ve got a decent computer set-up already you don’t expect that it may need upgrading or changing when you buy a new camera! Well, despite a few warnings I’d read on the internet, that’s exactly what happened following my purchase of the D800. Obviously the 36MP specification is going to produce pretty large RAW files compared with say the D700, but you don’t appreciate just how big they are until you start using the camera.

There are three considerations - the capacity and write speed of the cards you’re using (in my case CF), the method and speed of transfer of the image files to your computer, and the processing power of the computer. I didn’t have a problem with the first potential issue as the Lexar Professional 800x CF cards I was using worked perfectly fine - maybe not for video, but I certainly didn’t experience any issues. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for my USB2 card reader, as the time taken to upload a card full of D800 images was considerably longer than I’d previously experienced. The computer didn’t have USB3 connectivity so my only option was to try to obtain a firewire connected CF reader. I found one eventually, but they’re not easy to come by. It was definitely a bit faster than USB2, but it still seemed to take forever to upload a card. I remember coming back from one trip with ten or so 32GB cards full of images, which took virtually took all day and half the night to transfer! Admittedly I could have reduced the time somewhat by adjusting some of the import settings, but there are certain tasks that I prefer to deal with upon transfer rather than later on. I’m also talking about uploading directly to Lightroom and not through other software such as Photo Mechanic where again I appreciate that time can be saved. Rightly or wrongly I use Photo Mechanic when I’m travelling, but not at home. I prefer uploading all my images so I can look at them properly on a large screen before I start culling, so all my RAW files are converted to DNG and rendered 1:1 on import. I also apply some copyright metadata and some basic develop presets as part of the transfer process. I just accepted the fact that uploading new files was a time consuming exercise.

However, trying to process large 35-50MB files in Lightroom was a different matter. You can go and do other things when cards are uploading, but when you’re sitting watching the whirly wheel go round every time you make an adjustment you get very frustrated and irritable. Well, I certainly did, which is why I took advantage of the situation in January 2014 when my wife expressed an interest in switching to a Mac. I knew there there would be issues with transfer and another ‘learning curve’ to go through, but I considered that the pain I’d endure in helping her switch would be worth it. So she inherited my 21.5” iMac which was totally adequate for her requirements and I purchased a new one.

Click here for part 2 if you wish to continue reading about my current system and how I keep weight down when travelling