I grew up with a PC and, trust me, I know my way around Windows. For seven years, I have been using and teaching digital photography on both Mac’s and PC’s. If you want more proof of geek status: 1) I am an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop CS4 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and 2) I still have a couple of Star Wars toys somewhere in the basement!
If your computer skills match or exceed mine, then this post is probably not for you (the uber-geeks). I am writing this one for my students, particularly for the folks who are more interested in learning professional grade digital photography than the secrets of this or that computer operating system.
It pains me to say this, but the time has come when I can no longer recommend any Windows systems. Please know that I write these words with a heavy heart, but I just can’t, in good faith, suggest any machine with the Windows Vista operating system nor can I recommend retro-fitting a brand new computer with an antiquated copy of Windows XP Pro. Sadly, Microsoft and I are going to have to part ways, at least until something better comes along.1
Old friends will tell you that I have always tried to put out equal suggestions for both Mac and PC shoppers. Three years ago, I would have tried to convince you that the choice of operating system was merely an aesthetic one. Three years ago, I would have told you that there was no clear technological advantage to either platform for digital photographers, but times have changed.
Today, I have no choice but to throw my full support behind the Mac. I am convinced that there are significant stability and usability advantages with the Mac system for the serious digital photographer who is not already a Windows IT expert.2
Before I make some specific recommendations, please let me point out that the computer, technically the CPU, is just one link in the whole digital photography hardware chain. While I am certainly endorsing the Mac operating system, I have no particular love for Apple monitors, keyboards, mice, and other peripherals. At home, I use a refurbished 15″ MacBook Pro with a calibrated Dell 2408 WFP monitor, a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic keyboard, and a Microsoft Ergonomic mouse. Just because you buy a Mac does not mean you need to pay a ridiculous premium for their mice and other accessories.
With long-term value in mind, I came up with some specific criteria for a new system. I picked these systems because I feel like they will hold their value for at least the next four years. For professional-grade digital photography in 2009, I think your computer must meet or exceed these benchmarks:
- Dual Core or Quad Core Intel Processor
- 4GB of RAM
- 256MB of Video RAM
- Firewire 800 Peripheral Connectivity
So what meets these standards? Well, tops on any list is the Mac Pro tower. You can find a more detailed review of the Mac Pro tower line here, but to sum up my review, these are some of the biggest, strongest, and most powerful machines on the market. Fully-loaded, a Mac Pro tower costs more than my car, but we photographers do not need to max these machines out! Basically, a mid to low-level Mac Pro build is plenty of power for anything I might do to my pictures.
In the Mac Pro Tower line, I suggest:
- Two 2.8GHZ Quad-Core Intel Xeon Processors
- 2GB (2x1GB) RAM* (I’ll get at least 6GB more RAM for it later from Crucial.com)
- 500GB 7200-rpm Serial ATA Hard Drive
- NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT 512MB Graphics Card
- One 16X SuperDrive
Pair one of these towers with a calibrated widescreen monitor and two Firewire 800 external hard drives, and you have a fantastic system. With a Mac Pro you will be ready to handle any photographic project and I would be willing to wager that today’s mid-level Mac Pro will still be your studio’s go-to workhorse machine well past 2013.
If lots of power and portability matters, then I have to recommend the new 17″ MacBook Pro. The truth is, though, that I am not fond of 17″ laptops. I think that they are too big for serious travel and I think that you pay a heavy premium for the extra couple of inches of screen space.
So, if I dislike 17″ laptops, why am I endorsing one now? The answer is RAM. The 17″ MacBook Pro is the only Mac laptop model which officially supports more than 4GB of RAM. If you are wondering why I think this matters, let me express my answer as a logic game (A is to B as B is to C, etc.)
More RAM = Faster Results in Photoshop / Lightroom = More Productive / Profitable Photography Business
Having lots of RAM is more important than ever for serious photographers. Two things have happened in the past year which I think justify spending money on a computer that can handle more than 4GB of RAM. The first big change over the past year is in the potential power of my image enhancement software. Last August, Adobe released Lightroom v.2 which can run a whole lot faster when it is used as a 64-bit application on either the Mac or the PC. The catch is that you need more than 4GB of Ram before you see any performance improvement from the 64-bit code.
Adobe has also made it clear that Photoshop CS5, which is currently in the development stage, will be a 64-bit ready application when it is released for the Mac. CS4 is already 64-bit ready on the right PC platform. If historic release trends hold, Photoshop CS5 will be available sometime near the end of 2010 which is well within the useful lifespan of today’s brand new computer.
Software performance aside, the second big change in the past year is in my file sizes. The latest round of professional grade cameras like the Canon 50D, the Canon 5D Mark II, and the Nikon D3X all create gigantic files. Cameras of this magnitude are the new standard for most professionals and it seems very unlikely that we will ever go back to the 6 megapixel days.
If you want to play at today’s professional level with complex Raw files and lots of Smart Objects in Photoshop, you need to be ready to work with big, big files. Processing big files, or cutting video, is a very memory-intensive process. You can certainly get by with a smaller megapixel camera and a less powerful computer, but photography is a cut throat business and the bar–both for technical quality and artistic creativity–climbs higher each and ever year. I fear that I will not last in this business if I don’t keep pushing my work out into new terrain. To go further, though (into HDR / tone blended images, 3D, video, panorama, or expanded focal composites), takes a strong machine. Please click here and then scroll down to the end of the article to read Scott’s detailed advice on the new 17″ MacBook Pro.
So what to do if these Mac models exceed your budget, or if you need a smaller, lighter computer? My advice: build yourself as powerful a 15″ MacBook Pro laptop as you can afford.
You have a choice of processor speeds with the 15″ MacBook Pro. Higher numbers in Gigahertz equate to faster computational speeds and since this is one part of the computer that you can never upgrade, my advice is to get the fastest processor you can afford. Second to the processor, I suggest spending the extra money on a 7600 rpm internal hard drive.
Eventually you are going to want to max out the RAM on this computer, but if your budget is limited, you can always add more RAM in at a later date. Trust me, adding RAM to a MacBook Pro is very easy and you will get a much better price if you purchase the chips from a third-party supplier like www.crucial.com. Like all the other systems, I urge the 15″ MacBook Pro shoppers to plan on purchasing a nice external monitor, a monitor calibration system, and at least two external hard drives.
In case you’re buying, here’s what I want in my new laptop:
- 15-inch MacBook Pro
- 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor
- 320 GB Serial ATA 7200 RPM Hard Drive
- Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter
- AppleCare Protection Plan for MacBook Pro
I hope these suggestions help, and if you’re curious why I keep recommending multiple external hard drives, please check out my next post. You might also want to click here to read Scott’s in-depth review of the entire the Mac Laptop line.
1 Bit of Truth: I still use, and love, Windows XP Pro only I am running it within my Mac! I use XP and Quicken for Windows everyday through VMware Fusion 2′s virtualization engine for all of my bookkeeping Talk about getting the best of both worlds in one machine!
2 Please let me make it clear that there are plenty of digital photography experts who will vehemently disagree with my current Mac endorsement. If you are still thinking of a PC, please follow this link for my Dell 64-bit recommendations.
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