New Dell Laptop

Intel just released their latest 8th Generation mobile processors, code named “Coffee Lake-H”, some with 6 cores, and an i9 version that Intel claims can provide “the ultimate content creation experience” in a laptop. Several laptop manufacturers also announced new models with these chips, including an updated XPS 15 from Dell. The XPS 15 has gained a strong reputation as a photographer’s mobile Windows workstation (John Shaw uses one), and this model (9570) raises the bar even higher. All tool choices are compromises, but if one is looking for a powerful 15” Windows laptop with a screen covering the Adobe RGB color space, high-end discrete graphics, very fast storage, lots of RAM, and only weighing about 4.5 pounds, this is definitely one to consider.

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Spring Migration

Waterfowl are beginning to show up again on their annual flights north. A small patch of open water in Anchorage called Spenard Crossing is one of the better spots to observe early arrivals. Today a pair of trumpeter swans, several common goldeneyes, one Barrow’s goldeneye, a bufflehead, and a pair of common mergansers worked the open leads between snow-covered banks of ice still covering much of the impound. Three gulls were also sitting atop light poles along the roadway. Geese and terns will be here soon as well.

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First day of spring and breakup is definitely underway in Anchorage. There’s still lots of snow in the Chugach Mountains east of town though and it will be some time before things begin to green up, but migrating waterfowl are expected in just a couple of weeks.

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Winter Finches

While many avian species migrate out of Alaska to more temperate climes during the winter, there are quite a number that remain in the Anchorage area year-round. Among them are Common Redpolls, colorful small finches of the Arctic tundra and boreal forest that tend to travel in busy flocks. Populations can vary widely with their erratic migration in search of food supply, at times reaching unusually large numbers termed “irruptions.” Feeders with nyjer or thistle seed are at the top of the list for attracting these energetic foragers.

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2017 Ending

It’s been an interesting year! While there has been plenty going on in the photo technology world, social and political events have forcefully intruded in a near-overwhelming fashion. We simply can’t escape it. Read John Shaw’s blog.

Mirrorless has been on the march, led by the Sony a9 and a7R Mark III. And one of the more interesting aspects of these two models has nothing to do with sensor resolution or frame rate, but the power source! The new NP-FZ100 battery used in both cameras provides sufficient charge for serious shooting without needing to resort to a pocket full of spares. That’s a big deal…big enough that one writer on DPReview is awarding the battery his choice of Gear of the Year.

Batteries are one of the significant issues that have separated mirrorless cameras in general from DSLRs. There are many other factors of course, and a very interesting (though somewhat rambling) interview with Rob Galbraith covers some of them. The discussion is focused on photojournalism and sports, but the observations translate well to wildlife photography. Before taking a position as a photojournalism instructor, Rob ran one of the most popular and informative websites on digital photography—DPI—which is still active but hasn’t been updated since 2013.

With mirrorless (especially M4/3), one of the glaring gaps in equipment coverage has been large-aperture long lenses. Until recently the Olympus 300/4 Pro was the most significant offering. Less than a month ago Panasonic announced their Leica Elmarit 200/2.8. Along with the lens, the Lumix G9 was made public—a high-end body specifically targeted (in part) at nature still photographers. Expect more reveals at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show the second week of January.

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Nik Rescued

Sometimes good things happen. DxO has acquired the Nik Collection and U point technology from Google. The current Collection is available free, and DxO plans to update it next year. They’ve already rebranded OpticsPro as PhotoLab to include U point. More perspective from Thom Hogan here.

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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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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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