My gear : computers, backup drives and associated software (part 2) .....

My current system …..

I didn’t start out with the intention of moving up to the larger 27” iMac screen size, but was led that way due to the hardware configuration options that were available. Certainly notwithstanding the bigger screen which is great, the main benefits of upgrading were to have a faster processor, the ability of maxing out the RAM at 32GB and having a machine with both USB3 and Thunderbolt connectivity. I considered having a fusion drive (a conventional hard drive plus separate flash storage for the operating system and Lightroom), but decided against it, instead favouring to spend money on a Thunderbolt connected RAID storage system for my original photo files.

The full specification of the computer and RAID system are :-
  • Apple 27” (2560x1440) iMac, currently running OS-X 10.9.5 - with a 3.5 GHz (turbo boost to 3.9GHz) quad-core Intel ‘Core i7' processor, 32GB (4x8GB) 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 3TB 7200rpm ATA drive storage and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4GB graphics card.
  • Promise Pegasus2 R4 8TB (4 x 2TB) RAID 5 configured system with Thunderbolt 2 connection to the iMac.

I then added a Lexar USB3 card reader that uploads at a fraction of the time of the old USB2 connection.

Additionally, I have two identical stacked LaCie ‘Porsche design’ 3TB backup drives with USB3 connection. One doubles as an external drive for the in-built Time Machine backup facility plus an additional backup of the Lightroom catalogue and associated files. The other as a safety backup for the RAID system. The routine backups to these drives are run through Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC), which is an excellent utility for user-defined backup tasks. I then use another similar LaCie unit as a removable drive for monthly offsite backups.

In respect of software, I’m currently using Adobe Lightroom 5.7 for virtually everything. I have never had a desire for Photoshop as most of my processing is limited to normal RAW developing in terms of colour and exposure adjustments, sharpening, noise control and cropping for final composition and output. Now and again I may want to locally clone or heal an area to remove or blend-in a distraction such as a twig or blade of grass over the face, but in general I try to avoid too much tampering. I’ve never swapped a background or found the need for layers to carry out an adjustment that I can't do in Lightroom. I like shots showing wildlife subjects in their natural environment so, although sometimes the background is busier than I would like or the bokeh not as smooth, it would go against all my principles if I was to start manipulating an image to that extent. It’s a personal choice, and although I’m fully aware that there are programmes that, for example, allow backgrounds to be easily switched, I’m not sure where you’d draw the line if you started doing it?

However, I do, and I hope this doesn’t appear a contradiction, very occasionally find that selectively adjusting the colour balance or brightness of the background slightly to be of benefit. Additionally I may find that I can achieve better control of sharpening, noise control and certain healing operations in another programme. I can almost remember every time I’ve found that necessary as I only switch programmes when there’s an absolute need, but for open disclosure I confirm that I have recently installed the ON1 Photo 10 suite and the full (now free) Google Nik collection. However, although each of these applications includes various modules, to date I have only dabbled with the erase and retouch brush in ON1 ‘Enhance’ and with the Nik ‘Dfine' noise control and ‘Viveza' selective colour adjustment tools.

My printer is an Epson Expression XP-610 'all-in-one’ A4 colour inkjet. It just about copes with my day-to-day printing requirements, but is certainly not a printer that I’d recommend in any way, let alone for photo printing.

Travelling light …..

Generally speaking I do not back up cards when I’m away travelling as I often decide to leave the laptop at home, either due to weight restrictions or the simple fact that where I’m staying I’m not going to have power readily available for charging. If there was a need to back up a card in order to reuse it then I would first copy the files to my laptop and then back up from there to a separate small hard drive. But, of course, that means I would have to take the laptop, charger and backup drive with me. Notwithstanding those initial issues I also consider whether I really want the extra weight and responsibility of carrying more expensive equipment with me. Every trip is different.

If I’m going to be away for more than a couple of weeks, or I'm going to a destination such as Galapagos where I think that I’ll run out of cards, then I’ll obviously plan to take the extra kit with me, otherwise I will simply ensure that I have sufficient cards for the trip. From talking to other photographers we meet when travelling it’s clear that the vast majority don’t do this. Most seem to carry a very limited supply of cards, relying on their computer for backup. This is another example where two very different approaches can be used to effectively achieve the same result. The decision and method is a personal one, but the important thing is that you need to give thought to how you’re going to safely store your images until you get home. The two extreme situations are perhaps comparing a trip where you’re based at a hotel or lodge with constant power and perhaps internet connection, to one where you may be travelling between remote camps where even charging batteries needs planning. And, of course, if you’re travelling long-haul to a remote location it is (hopefully) very likely that you could be coming home with many thousands of images!

Anyway, my usual method as I noted earlier is to take plenty of cards, regardless if it's a trip where I can take the laptop. Ideally I like to change the card at the end of every day, so I’m starting the next day with a new formatted card. Each card is numbered and when cards are changed I simply make a written note confirming the date and the card used, plus any other information that will prove useful when I get home such as the location we were in on that day or the names of any new species photographed. I will also have a few spare cards with me to allow changing during the course of the day if the situation requires. Whilst I always adopt this procedure with my main camera, I won’t necessarily do it with my second camera if I’m using one, as generally that camera is only being used for a small percentage of that day’s photography. That may sound slightly illogical, but it’s a system that works. Without wanting to digress too far off the subject matter of computers and travelling, I would note that as I currently use two D810 cameras I’ve found it useful to change the file numbering prefix in the setup menu so that when I have those files up on the computer at home I can instantly see which camera was used. I simply use my initials and a number, ie. TE1 for my original D810, and TE2 for the newer one.

So, to get back to the subject line of 'travelling light …..', what do I use? Well it probably won’t come as much of a surprise if I said I use an Apple laptop. But, it’s a MacAir not the conventional MacBook Pro, which would certainly be more suitable if I used it for more than I do such as wanting to have Lightroom on it. Now and again I can see the benefit of that approach as it could save considerable time later on, but I’d still prefer spending the time sorting images at home rather than when I’m away. Again, it’s a personal choice. The MacAir is thin and light and fulfils all my requirements. I even plumped for the smaller of the two models, because although it’s only slightly lighter than its bigger brother its footprint is considerably smaller thus making it more of a notebook than a laptop. Again, if you wanted to put Lightroom on it then you would definitely want the higher specification and larger screen of the bigger 13” model. The other point to note is that whilst the following is effectively a notebook sized laptop it sill comes with 2x USB3 ports and thunderbolt connectivity.

The full specification of the laptop and accompanying backup hard drive are :-
  • Apple 11" MacBook Air, currently running OS-X 10.9.5 - with a 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel 'Core i7' processor, 8GB 1600 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 512GB SSD storage and Intel HD graphics 5000 1536 MB graphics card.
  • WD 'My Passport - Air' 1TB USB3 backup hard drive.

For importing photos I use a compact Scythe USB3 CF stick.

I noted earlier that I do not use Lightroom on this MacBook primarily because I don’t have, or don’t want to spend, time when I’m away sorting and developing photos. If I’m importing image files for backup or viewing I’ll use either Photo Mechanic 5 or FastRaw Viewer v1.3, both of which I have installed. I previously used Photo Mechanic, but following recent updates and changes to the interface I’ve been trying out FastRaw Viewer, which I now prefer.

The only other point that might be worth mentioning is that this small MacBook has, by design, pretty limited storage and, consequently, consideration needs to be given to how it will be used. I use mine for travel purposes and for convenience at home when I don’t want to be sitting at my desk. When I’m travelling I need to be sure that there will be sufficient free space on the SSD for backing up my cards, so I have a disciplined approach to the way that’s used at home to ensure that I always have around 450GB of the 512GB capacity free. I do not have any irrelevant or superfluous applications loaded and, although I have Microsoft ‘word’ and ‘excel’ installed for file viewing purposes I do not hold any related documents directly on the SSD. All of my standard documents and spreadsheets are on my iMac. If I want to be able to view, or work on, one of these documents on the MacBook I will save it in Dropbox. For all other word processing and note taking use I will use Evernote, which I’ve been using more and more recently. In fact I never appreciated how useful, convenient and flexible Evernote was until I made a concerted effort to use it for more than general notes and web clips. I now consider Evernote and Keeper (password security) as my two most essential applications.