New HP Z Workstations

Hewlett-Packard just announced the next generation of their highly respected Z workstations—a range of computers designed from the ground up to meld high performance while running sophisticated content-creation software programs with rock-solid reliability and security along with upgradability over time.  Nothing stands still for very long in technology, and tools like these integrate both backward and forward flexibility, at least until the next big breakthrough.

As always, it’s important to choose the proper tool for the job.  Digital imaging now takes many avenues (still, motion, etc.), and personal workstyles and preferences inform choices regarding the best combination of components to run your software of choice in the most efficient manner.  No one computer will do everything well, and establishing priorities is as important as ever.  If you are primarily a still photographer using the latest versions of Lightroom and/or Photoshop, there are plenty of guides for making intelligent hardware choices to maximize software performance (such as this one at Puget Systems).  But in a nutshell, the basics have not changed—one or more fast 64-bit processor(s), the fastest primary and secondary storage available, as much high-speed RAM as you can afford, and a high-end graphics card.  (Similar component choices apply for video, though the emphasis will likely fall in slightly different directions.  Serious video production requires a really serious computer system.)

Computers are incredibly complex devices.  Thankfully, one does not need to understand all the intricacies and protocols at the chip level, but having a basic understanding of recent developments is beneficial.  For example, storage—the non-volatile memory used to store the operating system, programs, and data files.  Information is read to and written from storage, whether it is opening a program or saving an image file you’ve just optimized.  The more quickly your storage does this, the more efficient your system is.  Currently the highest performing non-RAID consumer storage devices (Samsung’s 960 Pro M.2 SSD) perform reads as high as 3,500 MB/s and writes as high as 2,700 MB/s, whereas the best 7,200 rpm conventional hard disk drives can achieve less than 250 MB/s.  That’s a data rate difference most folks would appreciate.

There are plenty of nuances and tradeoffs in scoping a new computer for photography, including, of course, the cost.  HP’s new Z workstations are elegantly crafted tools at varying levels of expense and performance that represent the cutting edge.  If you use Windows and are anticipating a new system, take a long, hard look.

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Lexar Resurrected

A few days ago the Lexar trademark and branding rights were acquired by Chinese company Longsys.  Time will tell how the transition works out for this long-respected line of memory cards and storage products.

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Industry Changes

Some sorting out is going on.

In late June, Micron Technology–parent company of Lexar, long-time maker of high quality memory cards and flash drives–announced that they would be discontinuing the Lexar brand and its entire removable storage retail business.  If that happens (it seems there’s a remote possibility it could be sold and rejuvenated), it will be a sad day in the evolution of digital photography.  I’ve used Lexar cards and readers for many years and experienced top performance and zero failures.

In May, Google announced they will no longer be updating the Nik Collection or adding new features.  Several Nik tools have become very much a part of my everyday workflow as Photoshop plug-ins, but as time goes on the inexorable move to 64-bit protocols in computing devices will eventually result in incompatibilities unless the Collection is updated.  Maybe someone else will be able to acquire the code and move these valuable tools on into the future.

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Binoculars

One of the indispensable non-photographic tools for outdoorsmen is a good set of binoculars.  Determining what defines a “good set” is as much a compromise as any other tool choice.  Narrowing the purpose, then deciding which factors are most important to you will help reach a prudent decision.

Without a doubt there are some exceptionally fine binoculars on the market.  Brands like Swarovski, Zeiss, and Leica are renowned, with the price of top-of-the-line models approaching $3,000.  Numerous other brands cover the range at much lower cost, some with quality that’s hard to distinguish from the high-flyers.

I’ve had considerable personal experience with Pentax optics, both top-model binoculars and an 80mm spotting scope.  One of the most important binocular choice factors for me (since I wear glasses) is eye relief—the distance from the last surface of an eyepiece within which the user’s eye can obtain the full viewing angle.  Pentax’s ED and WP models have 22mm eye relief, more than any other quality binocular I’m aware of.  That may not be an important factor for you, but it’s a deal-maker for me.  While using two different pairs of top-end Pentax roof prism units for a decade and a half I’ve found the optical quality superb, weight less than most other top-end units, and cost less than half of the rarefied European brands.  Everything is a compromise, but this is a compromise that’s worked very well for me.  See the Pentax ZD 8×43 ED here.

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They’re Back

Mew Gull, Potter Marsh, late April.

The gulls and geese have returned for the “summer” season.  It may seem a bit early, since ice has not yet melted from all the lakes and ponds and foliage is mostly still brown.  But the annual transition has begun, and in just a few short weeks all the migratory avian species will court, mate, nest, raise young, and depart again for southern climes.  While most of the landscape looks pretty dreary, there’s plenty of action just before new growth colors everything green.  The pulse is quickening—it’s time for rejuvenation once again.
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Main Focus

There are numerous fine authors discoursing online regarding the making of photographs and the use of tools to accomplish that purpose.  One I like to follow is Thom Hogan, and I especially appreciated his recent “Existential Crisis” post.  Good to take a deep breath now and then and refocus on what’s important.

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Fujifilm on the Rise

Fujifilm’s mirrorless camera bodies have been the talk of the town of late.  While the crop-sensor line has had a growing following for some time, and the recent updates for the X-Pro2 and X-T2 have only accelerated user enthusiasm, it’s the medium format GFX 50S that has been saturating the press.  With its 51.4MP sensor, modest size and weight, excellent ergonomics, and relatively reasonable price, it is creating a sensation.  GFX-50S

Clearly the GFX 50S is not a casual camera.  With a body-only price of $6,500 it’s in a separate category from all but the highest-end “35mm style” DSLRs.  Lens choices are good for a brand new system with three currently available and three more to follow in the very near future.  Early field tests and image galleries describe a camera that will appeal to a host of serious shooters.  See some initial reviews here, here, and here. 

While it’s early in the piece, not all commentary is quite so laudatory.  Part of this stems from the inherently technical nature of digital photography advances.  To say that all the factors surrounding the capture of photons and conversion to electronic data is complex is a vast understatement, but there are plenty who delight in parsing the details.  One such discussion compares the GFX 50S sensor and current lenses to other “full frame” sensors on the market and finds little overall theoretical advantage.  Whether this will be borne out on a practical level remains to be seen.  On the other hand, the completely opposite discussion as to whether equipment matters at all will continue unabated. 

On the lower end, the X-T2 has made a big leap forward as well.  With a very traditional-looking “SLR” style and actual hardware dials for basic settings, this small body with an upgraded 24MP APS-C sensor delivers very high quality results.  Every brand’s system has its own combination of features, aesthetics, and overall philosophy that set it apart, and Fuji has done so more clearly than many.  Fujifilm seems to have a bright future, even in the era of declining camera sales.

One item of note is the clear sense that “digital” has pretty much matured.  While there will continue to be technological improvements—some incremental, some larger leaps—tools are now available to support just about any photographic enterprise and meet any image quality need, even though this will do little to stem the eternal debate regarding the importance of “gear” versus “artistic expression.”  Most would agree that the proof is in the final product.

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New Option for Fast External Storage

Most photographers would like to spend more time shooting and less time editing and developing image files on a computer.  One way to speed up the process is to select equipment that accelerates those tasks. 

There are plenty of resources with suggestions for maximizing efficiency with Photoshop and Lightroom in both hardware and software setup (such as here and here.)  In a nutshell, on the hardware side a fast CPU with 4-6 cores, an SSD for OS and programs, adequate GPU (growing in importance, but still a modest factor for most Photoshop operations), and fast storage for where the files reside are the guidelines for top performance.  However, the last element in this string often escapes emphasis.  When you work with files, they eventually have to be saved, and the saving process takes time; if you can speed that up you gain incremental efficiency.

Storage devices, until recently, have been slow to increase data throughput.  Spinning hard drives (HDDs) have been around for decades and though their capacity has grown greatly their speed for transferring (saving) data hasn’t.  Solid state drives (SSDs) have leaped ahead in terms of transfer rates, especially those with the most recent form factors and interface specifications. Data pipelines inside computers make a big difference.  SATA has been the predominant storage interface until recently when PCIe has significantly raised the throughput ceiling, especially with the NVMe specification.   A prime example is Samsung’s 960 Pro M.2/NVMe which has a maximum sequential read speed of 3,500MB/s compared to modern 7,200RPM HDDs average speed range of 80-160MB/s.  Price and capacity are still major factors where HDDs prevail, but that differential is gradually closing too.

So, is there a way to improve one’s desktop editing efficiency by melding several current technologies without springing for the very latest expensive cutting edge equipment?  Yes there is—OWC’s new Mercury Elite Pro Dual Mini external enclosure for 2.5” drives.

owc-elite-pro-dual-mini-hero@2x

What sets this small device apart is the recently upgraded USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface which allows data transfer speeds up to 10 Gbps (1250MB/s).  The unit will house two 2.5” SATA HDDs or SSDs, and can be configured as independent drives (IND), Span (combines the two drives together into one volume without a speed increase), RAID 0 (fastest solution), or RAID 1 (mirroring for protection against data loss).  The connector is a USB Type-C plug and the unit is bus-powered (or optionally with an external wall plug).

Here’s the payoff.  When using two SATA 2.5” SSDs in RAID 0, OWC advertises sustained data transfer speeds of up to 738MB/s, well above the ceiling of any individual SATA III (600MB/s) drive.  By comparison, with two HDDs (instead of SSDs), OWC lists a max of 291MB/s throughput using RAID 0.

There’s a caveat here of course—you need a computer with USB 3.1 Gen 2 capability.  Quite a few recent laptops and some desktops are so configured, or, if you have an open PCIe slot (4, 8, or 16 lane) you can add a card (similar to this one, though many different brands are available) to supply the connectivity.

My plan for this device?  Two Samsung 850 EVO 2TB SSDs in RAID 0 as the primary drive for original photos immediately backed up with two or more HDDs.  That would provide one location for most of my image files with the fastest time to save within my current desktop system.  I fully expect the next generation of desktop computers will have motherboards with at least one M.2 slot with PCIe/NVMe interface for blazing performance and we’ll wonder how we put up with slow data transfer rates for so long. 

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Avian Winter Residents

Black-capped chickdee and red-breasted nuthatch at peanut butter feeder in Anchorage, Alaska in January.

Not all birds migrate. Among the winter residents in Southcentral Alaska are black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches seen visiting a peanut butter feeder above.  Boreal chickadees, and both hairy and downy woodpeckers also stop by regularly.

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Powerful Mini PC

skull-canyon-1

Looking for a tiny Windows computer with enough muscle to process images with speed and efficiency as well as connect with cutting-edge peripherals using the latest protocols?  Intel has one for you.  It’s called the NUC6i7KYK, and nicknamed Skull Canyon.

Packed in a space about the size of one and a half 3.5” hard drives, this slim black box contains an Intel Core i7-6770HQ 4-core processor (6th generation Skylake), and Intel Iris Pro Graphics 580, room for two M.2 SSDs, and slots for up to 32 GB of RAM.  Ports include USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 3, and/or USB 3.1 Gen 2 via USB Type-C connector.  The caveat here is that the device is sold as a kit and you need to add storage, memory, and Operating System, which will obviously eliminate it from consideration for some; but all are easy to install, or you can purchase fully assembled kits through third parties.  [By the way, if you’re not enamored with the skull depiction on the lid, you can replace it with a plain one which is included in the kit.]

Why the appeal?  Storage for one.  You make the choice, and one option is Samsung’s 960 Pro, in capacities up to 2TB—not cheap, but the fastest consumer SSD you can currently buy.  And if your wallet could stand it, room for two (M.2 only—no space for 2.5” SATA drives).  Memory would be kind of a no-brainer—fill to the max with 32 GB.  OS?—Windows 10 Home or Pro.  Keyboard and input device to your taste (Kensington Expert Wired Trackball is still my preference).

The question some might have is graphics—is the integrated variety enough?  Of course that depends; if your demands include using lots of filters or merging huge files maybe so, but this is Intel’s top-of-the-line consumer integrated graphics system for the 6th generation processors and should work well for a great many photographers.

So—tiny size, very robust computing power, state-of-the-art connectivity, and an option for the fastest storage currently available at the consumer level.  Tantalizing to be sure.  More than good enough for a primary computer for most, or a superb backup machine in case your big-gun workstation takes a temporary vacation.

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