Saturday, November 20, 2010

Considering Buying an iMac for Photography?

The new Apple iMacs look incredible. You can even get a quad core 27" one now. That beautiful screen and fast CPU with multiple cores is perfect for photography... right? Well, yes, but at some point, you'll probably wish you had sunk a little extra investment in a Mac Pro.

The Problem
I bought a 24" 3.06GHz dual core iMac in late 2008 when I was shooting with a Canon 40D in full 10MPx RAW mode. The iMac handled it perfectly - it was awesome. Aperture 2 had no problem with those RAWs, and my nearly empty hard drive zipped along. I figured that two cores running at 3.06GHz should be enough for years ago come... But things started slowing down quickly, and there was little I could do about it.

In late 2009, I upgraded my camera to a Canon 5D Mark II. I now had 21MPx of RAW goodness, but of course that came with a price - slower processing and twice as much hard drive usage. I quickly filled up my iMac's "measly" 500GB drive, and since you can't upgrade the hard drive in an iMac, I had to go external. I bought a Drobo RAID enclosure and a couple of drives to start me out. The Drobo's great and offers data protection, but the housing alone is $300, and the file transfer speed went from 100MB/sec internal to 25MB/sec external. Believe me, you notice that your RAW files are coming across Firewire or USB, and it hurts.

In early 2009, Aperture 3 came out with brushes and other new features that I had been waiting for, but they too, came with a price - performance. I started waiting for brush strokes to catch up with my mouse, and got used to seeing the "Apple beachball". More RAM probably would have helped, but I was already maxed out at 4GB. By now, my Drobo had three drives instead of two. Needless to say, I was quickly outgrowing my iMac.

What made matters worse, because of my RAM situation, I had to close every app when running Aperture to eek out any little bit of performance I could. I would have had *no* problem shelling out $500 for 8GB of RAM at that point, but it wasn't an option - the box would have said "sorry buddy, I'm full".

The Solution.
When the 2010 Mac Pros came out, I went for it and got a 6-core 3.33GHz Mac Pro with 12GB of RAM and an extra slot for 16GB if I need it. If I wanna sell my car, I could go up to 32GB (it's too expensive now, but will come down by the time I "need" it). It's amazing. Since Aperture doesn't use all of the cores, it's not *that* much faster than the best performance I ever saw on the iMac, it's just that it *never* slows down and I can do anything else on the computer at the same time without ever seeing the spinning beachball. I've run two VMs along-side Aperture with no problem. I think you get the point. I'm now a little more future proof than before. There's plenty of hardware to spare, so by the time Aperture 4 or the 5D Mark II comes out, it shouldn't phase this machine a bit.

Also, with 5 available hard drive bays, I was able to turn off my Drobo and get back to 100MB/sec drive access. I even now have the option getting 2X, 3X, 4X, or 5X that performance by RAIDing the drives internally. Or, I could go nuts and get solid state drives which run up to 285MB/sec (as compared to a really fast spinning hard drive at 100MB/sec). All of these options come with different price tags, but they're only getting cheaper, and they're always available. I currently have 2TB of internal storage with plenty of room to grow. I can also upgrade my graphics card, monitor/display, and even add on components someday like Intel Light Peak and USB3 PCI cards. I can add on things that I don't even know about yet.

I also have the choice of displays with a Mac Pro. Many photographers are frustrated that Apple chose glossy for their displays instead of matte. Glossy screens basically become a mirror when you're viewing a dark scene or if your computer room is brightly lit. I just bought my Dell 27" U2711 and love it.

Don't Worry If You're Not A Nut
All of this craziness is because I refused to shoot JPG mode. If I had, the 2008 iMac would still be great. Someone out there is loving their new 24" iMac they just bought on eBay and questions why anyone would have sold it. If you're a sensible person, then just be happy with your JPGs, but if you're like me, and want the fully quality of RAW mode photography, then give some serious consideration to a Mac Pro over an iMac. I believe that I'll still be using this computer (with various upgrades) 4-5 years out, where I couldn't stand the iMac anymore after 2 years. The extra price of a Mac Pro becomes worth it when you realize how much longer you'll be using it.

If you shoot RAW mode and don't want to scream at your computer in a couple of years, then consider a Mac Pro over an iMac. You can still buy brand new 2009 model Mac Pros for cheap. Consider this one - an 8-core 2.26GHz for $2500, or this one - a 4-core 2.66GHZ for $1899.

If you're a serious photographer and you can convince yourself to go for it, I'm sure you'll be glad you bought the (more) future-proof Mac Pro over the sexy, but what-you-see-is-what-you-get iMac.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

ETTL in the Studio

Strobist info:
* Key: 580EX II and 430EX II in a Westcott 28" Softbox above, camera right
* 430EX II in Morris 15x18" Softbox, camera left

* Savage 107" Seamless Charcoal Paper

In my past studio work, I'd use an Alien Bee B800 and several old Nikon speedlights triggered optically and by Pocket Wizards - all in full manual mode. This gives total control, but requires a lot more setup and tinkering. If the subject will stay still, you're set, but if you meter for the subject to be three feet from the key light and they move back a foot, they've just underexposed themselves a little bit. If they move closer by a foot, the difference is even more obvious, and you might clip some highlights.

This is where ETTL (Canon's fully automatic flash metering) really helps out. Here, I used a 580EX II on-camera to trigger three remote flashes - a 580EX and two 430EX II's. The remote 580ex and one of the 430ex's were in my softbox, camera right in group "A" and the other 430EX was in group B.

With ETTL, I can set the ratio of the two groups (A:B) in-camera - their power isn't determined until a split second before the shot. As I press the shutter, the on-camera 580EX quickly sends out coded pulses of light that tell each of the remote flash groups to send out a pulse of light at a known power. The camera quickly meters those pulses, then figures out how bright each flash needs to be. It then sends out another message to the flashes telling them how much power to use, and to fire at the same time. This all happens immediately before the shot - just about too fast to notice.

The drawback of ETTL is that two back-to-back shots might have slightly different exposures, but in the case of shooting children, the benefits outweigh it. If the kid moves forward, the flashes will fire with less power. If the kid moves back, the flashes fire with more. If the kid moves toward one light or the other, each light compensates accordingly.

In this shot, I used A:B mode on the flash with a ratio of 4:1 - the fill flash was 2 stops weaker (1/4 as bright) as key, just to fill in the shadows a little bit. Total flash exposure compensation was +2/3eV, which, sure enough, meant darkening it 2/3 stops in post-processing (but that's okay, because it actually reduces ISO noise to darken a photo). I was impressed at how well ETTL did. The on-camera flash was told not to contribute to the shot - just to master the remote slave flashes.

You may be wondering why I used two flashes in the key softbox - I've never done that before, and I didn't plan on it this time. It was a quick hack at the last second, because the 580EX II key light wasn't recharging as fast as I wanted, so I ball-bungeed a 430EX II next to it. With two flashes, each didn't have to work as hard, so recharging was faster.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why I Shoot RAW (shoot-to-the-right edition)

Because horribly overexposed shots like this:

Roger Rabbit - original

Are still usable, so long as you don't clip any important highlights. You still have the option to drag the exposure slider in Aperture or Lightroom down by three stops to end up with this:

Roger Roger

In fact, this'll actually produce a cleaner image than if you expose it properly at the same ISO, since the highlights receive more bits in the RAWs than the shadows. Without RAW, the photo would have been stuck as is. Just make sure to turn on the "flashies" (highlight clipping) option in your camera. This'll blink black and white every place in the photo where you've shot it too bright to fix. As long as you don't see the flashies on anything important, you should be fine.

If you find yourself constantly darkening photos in post-processing, then you're doing it right.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Slowly Getting Organized in Apple Aperture 3

view the final photo

My Aperture 3 library has grown into a giant bin for photos to go and never be seen again. Organizing would take so much time, that I just figured that I'd get to it someday. The library now contains around 60,000 photos and shows no signs that it'll magically clean itself up, so I've started to move in that direction with some simple steps.


1. Tack on only a small bit of time at the end of my current workflow
2. Start geo-tagging photos "good enough" - within 1/2 mile of where they were shot
3. Create more logical projects/albums broken down into shooting locations
4. Tag photos with at least very general terms, being more specific with those I'm exporting to Flickr


Find a photo to share

From time-to-time, I'll randomly browse my collection using the "Projects" view, looking for a photo to share.
Create a new album
When I find a project containing photos I'd like to share, I open the project, (which was most likely a single compact flash card import), then select all photos from the same shooting location. Assuming I want to keep these photos in their current project, I create a new album (Command-L for new album, or Command-N for new project), give it a name, and check the "Move selected items to a new album".

Geo-tag photos (think "good enough")
In the new album, make sure all photos are selected (Command-A). Then from the Metadata menu, select "Assign Location".

Search for the location in the modal window. If you find the exact match, use it. If not, you can click on one of the "Google Results", move and resize the blue circle, then give that location a name that will be available to you later on.

Assign General Keywords

Again, make sure all photos in the album are selected (Command-A). Open the "Batch Change" tool from the Metadata menu, or with the shortcut Command-Shift-B.

Make sure "Append" is selected so that we won't lose any existing tags. Check the box next to "Keywords", then enter some very basic tags that apply to all images in the album such as the location name, city, state, and anything else you can think of. Click "OK" to apply those keywords to all photos in the album.

Here, I'm adding the tags "Florida", "Kennedy Space Center", "NASA", and "Orlando".

If you care to specify more tags for other groups of photos, just select the subset of photos you'd like to add tags to, then follow these steps again. As long as you have "Append" selected, you won't delete any existing tags, just add new ones.

Create a general caption for all photos

Flickr recognizes Aperture's "Caption" field as the description under a photo. I generally use this to give the name and location of where the photo was shot.

Select all photos in the album again (Command-A). Open the Batch Change tool again (Command-Shift-B), check the box next to "Caption", and the radio button next to "Replace". I will also add the location's city and state in this step. Click "OK" to apply this description to all photos in the album. Here, I'm setting the value to "Kennedy Space Center, Orlando, Florida" to all photos in the album. I might replace or add to the description for individual photos later, but this is good enough for now.

Exporting to Flickr
Before I export an individual photo to Flickr, I select the "Metadata" tab for that photo (seen at the top of this post), set the version name to what I'd like it to be displayed as in Flickr, add tags that are more specific to this photo, and consider adding to, or replacing the caption, which shows up as the description under the photo in Flickr.

I'm still in the stone age when it comes to exporting to Flickr. I haven't looked for exporting plugins, and I hate Aperture's Flickr export, so I just manually export to my desktop, then upload using Flickr's tool. This works for me, since I usually like to set the photo order, and only upload 5 at a time anyway. Flickr will pick up all of the tags, captions, and GPS locations set in Aperture. This makes it easy to find photos in your library that are on Flickr. There might be a Flickr setting that I'm not aware of, but for now, I open each photo on the site and click "Add this photo to your map!". The popup window will already have the location you set in Aperture, so just click "OK" to make it public.
Keeping Flickr sets organized
I'll write more on this topic later, but I've recently started using the 3rd-party tool called SuprSetr to automatically manage my sets by keyword and other metadata. If I have a big album like my shots of Kennedy Space Center that I know I'll be uploading from often, I find SuprSetr very time-saving. I create a Flickr set in the tool named "Kennedy Space Center", and tell the tool to automatically add all photos that have the tag "Kennedy Space Center" into this set. Every time I run the tool and select "Refresh all sets", every photo with this tag will be added to the set, and reordered by interestingness, descending.

Future Goals

I'm looking for ways to keep track of what I've exported to Flickr. I haven't decided if I want to create a Flickr album or maintain a custom metadata field with tags such as "Flickr" or "Blog".


The steps above might sound time-consuming, but once you get used to the key shortcuts and have done it a few times, it really only takes a minute or so. Even if I'm only exporting one photo from a shoot to Flickr, I'll bring a couple dozen to several hundred closer to being organized with these simple batch steps. I can always add more detailed tags or GPS coordinates if I want to, but these very coarse brushstrokes really do make a huge difference in my library. If I see a photo in Flickr that I'd like to find in my library, I can use the name of the photo, its tags, or drill down through my map using the "Places" tool.

During this process, if I have time, I'll see if there are any photos that I can delete from my library. I'll let them stick around in the Aperture trash for a while in case I change my mind later.

If you're using Aperture, give these steps a try - it's a very powerful organizational tool - all you have to do is find a simple way to fit it into your routine.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Apple Aperture Exporting on a Hexacore Mac Pro

I recently upgraded from a 2008 Apple iMac to a 6-core 3.33GHz Mac Pro. The iMac is an awesome computer with a beautiful screen, and I never complained about its speed (3.06GHz dual core) until I bought a Canon 5D Mark ii DSLR. The 21mpx RAW files and stunning HD video took its toll on my hard drive and processor.

In the week that I've had the Mac Pro, I've been nothing but pleased with how great this machine is. Along with that, however, is the painful realization that most software has yet to take advantage of all twelve of those logical cores. Aperture is *much* faster than it was on my old machine, but I'd expect to see more parallelization of bulk tasks such as importing.

Importing isn't ideal, but I just noticed that exporting is! Here's a screenshot from iStat of an 80-file export, successfully using my machine's full potential.

I won't hold my breath for better use of the cores in other areas of the app right now, but I will definitely enjoy knowing that exporting will be nearly as fast as it can be.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Noise Ninja - Why don't I use this more often?

I purchased Noise Ninja several months ago, but never spent much time with it. I dusted it off tonight, and now I'm wondering why it doesn't have a fixed spot in my photography workflow.

I need to read up on the science and techniques of noise removal to understand better how to use Noise Ninja, but after 5 minutes of basically just using their automatic settings, I was able to clean up this ISO6400 shot from earlier this year.

Click the following to see the difference (open in new windows)


After Noise Ninja: