The computer, monitor and printer have replaced the analog darkroom. On this page, we look at the components and how to set up a reliable and cost effective digital darkroom.
After the digital revolution, the computer, monitor and printer replaced film, chemistry and paper. The analog darkroom became the digital darkroom. The next few pages will provide an overview of the various types of computers, how computer components work together and are most effectively set up for efficient workflow and how to keep your work safe from accidental erasure or corruption.
Desktop workstations are still the best computer choice in a production environment. They are the most powerful, modular, expandable and upgradeable processing machines available. Although laptop computers can be attached to external drives and high quality monitors, they still do not have the ultimate processing power or support as much RAM or internal hard drive space.
Desktop computers come in two basic configurations: tower systems and all-in-one systems. ￼
Figure 1 A traditional tower system consists of a computer and a separate monitor. It may also include external storage devices.
The traditional configuration for a desktop computer is a tower with a separate monitor, as shown in Figure 1. They offer several advantages over a laptop or all-in-one that might have a similar processor speed.
- These machines offer greater flexibility in upgrading individual components.
- They can offer a lot more processor cores than the other machines.
- They generally allow for more RAM to be installed.
- They also let you choose monitors based on your specific needs.
- They typically have room for multiple hard drives, and offer fast internal connections.
- They offer the ability to add expansion cards. The most common expansion upgrades are GPU cards and additional storage connectivity.
This class of computers presents some real advantages in exchange for some trade-offs of expandability. Here are some of the benefits:
- They offer a compact form factor.
- They are typically less expensive than a comparable tower system.
- They may support generous RAM installation.
- They may offer very fast multi-core processors.
There are also some real drawbacks to some of these systems for some users.
- They probably do not support upgrade of video card or processor.
- The RAM capacity generally won’t be quite as large as in towers.
- You may not like the built-in monitor.
- There will be fewer connections available for hard drives. ￼
Figure 2 An all-in-one system might look very appealing, but it may have some drawbacks, such as the more limited RAM capacity and the probable inability to support video card or processor upgrades.
Check the specifications of these machines when you purchase. Apple, for instance, has made a major commitment to these computers and produces some with few practical limitations other than lack of modular video card, and some limitations on drive connections.
Laptop computers are increasingly powerful and modular and have the advantage of being portable. If a laptop is connected to a high quality monitor and external hard drives, they can come very close to the performance of a desktop machine. The Achilles heel of the laptop has been its screen quality. Laptop screens can be calibrated and profiled, but until recently, they had a much smaller gamut than stand-alone high quality graphics monitors. The newest LED backlit laptop screens have made great strides in closing this gap.
The four most important factors to look at when choosing a laptop are processor speed, total memory (RAM) capacity, the graphics processing unit (GPU), and external data connection options.
Adding a second hard drive
Some PC laptop computers are sold with multiple hard drives. In the MacBook Pro line it’s possible to replace the optical disc drive with a second hard drive for additional storage. If you can install two drives inside your laptop, you should consider if one of those should be a Solid State Drive (SSD).
Adding a Solid State Drive
The use of a Solid State Drive can speed up image editing tasks by improving the performance and access of video files. Many choose to use the SSD to hold only their Lightroom or Aperture catalogs and leave the other drive to hold system applications.
If budget permits, the best combination for photography is to have two computers, a laptop and a desktop. The laptop can become an essential tool for location work. You can download and process while on location. This can be particularly valuable to check for critical focus and other issues of image quality. Once back at the studio, a more robust desktop can be used for other post-production tasks, and as your main photo archive.
If you are forced to have only one computer, consider whether performance or portability is the most important factor in your decision. The systems are easier to upgrade for performance and will have a longer useful life than a laptop.
Workstation performance depends on several factors that include the CPU (central processing unit), the amount of RAM (random access memory), the hard drive configuration, especially Scratch Disk set-up, and the GPU (graphics processing unit).
Your monitor is a critical component of your digital photography computer. We have a thorough write-up of the issues surrounding monitor selection and set-up in the color section of the website.
The primary data storage on any computer is provided by the hard drive. Computers can have a single internal drive, multiple internal drives and any combination of external drives. If you have multiple drives, you’ll want to pay attention to how they are set up for optimum performance.
We suggest using hard drives as your primary storage media, but best practices in data storage require the use of some other kind of backup media as well. Hard drives are subject to a number of hazards that don’t affect other media, particularly write-once media. These hazards include viruses, hacker destruction, voltage surges and accidental damage or deletion. Optical media can provide a cost-effective backup solution that protects your image collection against these hazards.
Figure 3 Optical storage media can provide a cost-effective backup solution.
The fail-safe backup of choice for institutions is digital tape, in one of its many forms. Digital tape is expensive to set up, but the cost of adding more storage once it's been implemented is small. The best digital tape to use is LTO-5.
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Consider Ergonomics as a fundamental element in your workflow. The goal should be to determine and establish a working environment that promotes safety and increases productivity.
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