Monitor Evolution

A bedrock requirement in a discriminating digital workflow is a monitor (or monitors) that exhibit accurate, consistent color. Unless one starts with a known set of parameters (white point, gamma, and intensity), all subsequent adjustments to image files are more or less arbitrary and will likely have a different appearance when viewed on other systems than your own.

Color gamut is another issue. Electronic devices have differing capabilities of recording and displaying colors in the light spectrum visible to humans. The rather small sRGB color space has been the defacto standard for images on the web, though more and more devices are now able to achieve wider gamuts. The popularity of video has also ushered in additional color spaces like DCI-P3 and Rec. 2020 to help standardize capture, projection, and viewing experiences.

I’ve been using a pair of NEC LCD2690WUXi monitors for a number of years with great satisfaction. Among the early wide gamut displays, these units also offered hardware calibration using NEC’s SpectraView II software and a specially tuned colorimeter to ensure color accuracy and uniformity. The calibration is relatively quick and painless, precise, and provides direct feedback each time the process is run, instilling a high level of confidence that all the hard visual work optimizing image files is conducted from a known and repeatable baseline. But technology marches on. CCFL (fluorescent) backlights have given way to LEDs, and the types of LEDs continue to evolve to deliver additional benefits to discriminating photographers.

Until recently, NEC has been using GB-R LED backlights in their high-end PA-series displays to achieve over 99% coverage of the Adobe RGB color space. In their latest new PA243W-BK model they have begun using a W-LED backlight and the color space coverage is even greater than before. Also of note, their specs now list additional video-related color spaces.

The NEC PA-series of displays has a dedicated following among many well-known photographers and has a sterling reputation for critical color accuracy as well as value in this specialized field. I expect to see updates to both the current PA272W and PA302W units soon.

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Laptops

While the field workflow for outdoor and nature photographers has evolved considerably, laptop computers are still a big part of the equation. If you’re an Apple devotee, then obviously some version of MacBook is the answer; on the Windows side there are many more choices.

There are lots of considerations in choosing a laptop. If it’s primarily a field tool to backup files and do a quick review and sort, the emphasis may be on size, weight, and battery life. But if you intend to do serious image optimization, the quality of the screen becomes very important as well as storage speed and graphics muscle. To date, I know of no laptop that can duplicate the accuracy and consistency for color critical work that high-end monitors with hardware-calibration offer, so some compromises are in order.

Many manufacturers offer Windows laptops combining desirable features for photographers, especially Dell, HP, Microsoft, and Lenovo. Lenovo’s latest version of their ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 2 is a good example (additional link to a third party review). While the standout feature of this model is the optional OLED screen, additional upgrades include an NVMe SSD with scorching performance, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and a higher amp-hour battery in a package that exudes quality. While it does not include a dedicated GPU, the integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 should satisfy most users for the intended purpose unless this will be your primary computer.

Back to the screen. OLED is a relatively new technology, especially in laptops, but general impressions are very positive with reviews claiming great contrast, high saturation, and deep blacks, along with excellent viewing angles. In addition, in the Lenovo Companion software bundle on the X1 Yoga is a Wide-Gamut Display Setting panel in which you can select from among several color modes for a specific color profile. For example, the “Photo Pro” setting prescribes an Adobe RGB color space with 2.2 Gamma and D65 White Point—preferred parameters for many photographers. For those interested in truly arcane details regarding the OLED display see this review (note that this panel is the same one used on both Gen 1 and Gen 2 X1 Yoga OLED models). The takeaway is that while calibration from the factory could be better, for those who have the need for the highest color accuracy and have the tools to do their own calibration, the result can be a screen that measures up to professional-grade color-critical work, a rarity in laptops.

Note that the weight of this unit is less than three pounds. Something with a larger screen, dedicated graphics, and more RAM will weigh more, and likely cost more. There are always tradeoffs.

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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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