Photographers have no shortage of hardware. It all begins with our cameras and lenses. Then we quickly learn about all of the other photographic accessories that are needed to highlight our basic kit. We need filters, batteries, flashes, tripods, etc. In the “film age” that is where the purchasing typically ended. Except for purchasing the film to create our masterpieces. This is just the beginning of how-to manage digital photos.
Now that we’ve entered the “digital age”, this basic kit is just the beginning. In addition to our camera equipment and accessories, it is time to start building a secondary hardware and software kit. We will use this kit to manage our digital photos.
We need the computer, monitor, hard drives, card readers, tablets, output devices like printers, and on top of all this, software to manage digital photos. This entire system allows us to download our photos from our cameras, organize our photos, process our photos, protect our photos, and then export our photos for sale, marketing and sharing. All of a sudden, we have a decision crisis related to managing digital photos. Let’s begin with discussing the best software platforms available to photographers and progress into the hardware from there.
Non-Destructive Photo Editing Software
There are at least a dozen software platforms available to photographers to catalog and edit their photos. I am becoming fairly opinionated on which software works best for photo editing. We need to look for a non-destructive photo editor. This basically translates to the software generating instructions for any of the edits that we apply to our photos, and not altering any part of the original RAW file.
Like I said, there are many platforms out there. I feel that these four will allow your photo collection to grow, without you outgrowing the software. Before buying any software, I suggest that you download any free trials, only after you watch some of the corresponding video tutorials. This will give you a head start on how that software functions, so you aren’t spending time trying to blindly use it as the clock ticks down on your trial period.
Buy any Mac device and Apple Photos is FREE. Apple Photos is definitely the most limited software platform in this bunch, but honestly, it gives you the ability to organize and sort your photos in addition to applying global adjustments. Apple has opened their Photos platform to developers to build plugins to extend its use. There are apps out there that will give you the ability to apply local adjustments and much more to a software that is, again, FREE with your Mac.
Apple Photos allows users to make global adjustments to photos. As well as organizing them via face recognition, sorting by dates and also locations. One feature that is pretty cool, is the automatic syncing of all you photos to your iCloud account. This makes photos available on ANY of your Apple devices. Now, I thought this was just a another way for Apple to suck money out of its users, but you can get 200GB of online storage for just $2.99/month and a whopping 1TB for just $9.99. And when you need it, all of your photos are available online automatically.
Right after a recent trip to Patagonia my wife damaged her iPhone. We used her iPhone to conduct video interviews, shoot supporting story stills, and even 4K behind the scenes video of our trip. I thought all was lost, but she has everything that she creates with her phone automatically uploaded to her iCloud account. After logging in, EVERYTHING was still available after her phone was not. That made me VERY happy.
Apple Photos grew out of Apple discontinuing updates and support for Aperture – that was my first photo editor when I started using digital cameras over film based ones. Apple actually started the whole non-destructive photo cataloging and editing software concept and then Adobe chimed in with Lightroom so Windows users had the availability of a similar product.
Adobe Lightroom CC / Photoshop CC
For a meager $10 per month you can license Adobe’s Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC photo editing platforms. Lightroom has been my main photo editing and cataloging platform for close to a decade now. Adding the local adjustment functionality of Photoshop allows you to fix just about any issue within any photo. While Lightroom is completely non-destructive, Photoshop requires you to save your RAW file as a jpeg, tiff, or psd to work on it. From there Photoshop adds adjustment layers that in turn give that file non-destructive edits, but your RAW then becomes a secondary file.
Over the last two years I have become a disgruntled user of Lightroom. I feel that Adobe is trying to flex its muscles now that Aperture isn’t available as direct competition. The software crashes often on my system and its performance has slowed dramatically. I am running Lightroom on a Retina 5K iMac that is completely loaded, so the software should be able to perform.
I feel that some of the issues lie in the number of features Adobe keeps trying to add into Lightroom. Although face recognition and being able to edit photos within Lightroom Mobile are great, I wish there was a way to include or exclude modules from the software to just have what you personally need. I also feel that Lightroom’s RAW processor is stuck in the past, at a time when digital files were tiny.
Lightroom is Good
All that being said, Lightroom gives you so many options that you may discover faster ways of organizing and editing your photos. It allows you to map your photo’s locations using camera GPS and the Map Module. You can create slideshows using your photos. You can produce coffee table books and send them to print with blurb.com or any other printing company that accepts PDFs. Lightroom will also allow you to print directly from LR and build a web gallery if needed too. In addition, there are numerous companies producing plug-ins to extend how Lightroom works both on the library and developing side of the software.
Lightroom has become a one stop office solution for many photographers. Again, you need to think about what direction your photography will be going in the future. How many photos do you plan on taking? How many photos do you plan on storing? I have close to 250,000 photos in my current catalog, this may be one of the reasons why Lightroom is really slow for me. The future is becoming brighter and brighter though.
Capture One Pro 9
We have begun testing and using Capture One Pro 9 in my office recently. Phase One created Capture One to work with its high-megapixel cameras. If you are a company that produces 100MP cameras you are probably going to need a sophisticated software to manage those monstrous digital files. And that is exactly what Phase One has done.
Imagine a software platform that combines some of the best features from Lightroom, Photoshop, and Aperture, then throws in their own innovation and you have Capture One Pro. Your photos will look better on Capture One. I don’t know how they do it, but photos display with more detail and look sharper. The system seems to function faster as well, although at this point in time I don’t have my entire catalog loaded into it.
Capture One Simplicity
Adobe keeps adding options to Lightroom which I feel is slowing it down, making the simplicity of Capture One function faster. Don’t get me wrong, Capture One Pro is not simple in any way. In fact, I think it caters more to the professional than any photo cataloging software to date. The user interface feels and looks like something you would expect from Apple. You have all of the metadata functionality of Lightroom, as well as all of the global adjustment features. You can even print from the software platform.
Capture One has a better local adjustment feature then the competition mentioned in this article. Also, all of the local adjustments made within Capture One are non-destructive. Capture One uses masks like Lightroom, but it adds those masks to layers, which can be later refined and adjusted as if you were in Photoshop. It also allows you to create masks using a variety of selection methods, including color selection.
I am going to produce another feature article here on the Pro Journal about Capture One Pro at a later date. Plan on this article covering more detail on all of Capture One’s features and how I am using it in my day-to-day workflow. For now though, know that I think this software platform has great promise.
On1 Photo Raw
I don’t really have that many details on the forth coming Photo Raw software from On1, but it may have a feature set that many photographers are currently looking for. On1 is touting that this software is REALLY fast. Photo Raw apparently doesn’t use a catalog/database style system to work on photos. It is eliminating the read/write function that Lightroom and Capture One need to perform as you apply adjustments. This allows you to work on any file that is on your computer without importing it into the software first.
Since On1 doesn’t have a trial available, I haven’t been able to test Photo Raw yet. However, once I get the chance, I will update this article to highlight how it compares to Lightroom and Capture One Pro.
Which Software to Manage Digital Photos
Just because I feel that Capture One Pro is right for me doesn’t mean it will be a perfect fit for you. I manage a large catalog, I work on photos every single day of my life, and I don’t necessarily want the mobile connectivity, map, and web functionality that is built into Lightroom. If those are features your yearn for, Lightroom could be a perfect fit for you.
Remember YOU need to think about where your photography is headed. You need to think about what YOU need to manage your photos now and into the future. My wife is not a photographer, but has 12,000 photos/videos she has taken with her iPhone. She manages them all with her iPhone and the additional storage within her iCloud account and is extremely happy.
If you thought that building your kit of photographic equipment was difficult and costly, our hardware choices are becoming a difficult process as well. I may alienate many of you with this statement – buy Apple hardware. I know that it is typically more expensive than windows compatible hardware, but you get what you pay for with Apple.
If you travel, you will almost certainly need two computers. Even though today’s laptops are really powerful computers, they still don’t match the power of the office desktop. An additional issue that photographers run into is the connectivity between computing hardware and software. Computer manufacturers are always designing their newest hardware to beat out their previous versions. This in turn has software developers re-coding their programs to run on the fastest hardware out there.
Older hardware devices tend to slow down drastically as we update to newer software. Add in different software platforms that access different parts of the hardware platform and we head into a quandary as to which machine and option package will work best for us.
I always tell people to spend what their budget allows and to consider how they plan to utilize the equipment over the course of next few years. If your current computer setup works for you right now, it isn’t necessary to go out and buy the latest and greatest, just because it is out there. Wait until you truly need the upgrade and then upgrade.
I typically upgrade hardware only when absolutely necessary and disregard what the rumor forums are saying regarding what is just on the horizon. If I truly need an upgrade now, six months of waiting is only going to add more aggravation to my current situation. I tend to run on a three year cycle for replacing my office computer and a bit longer with my travel laptop. Software is updated as it comes out, so I typically don’t run into issues with things not getting along.
Some Hardware Definitions
So let’s talk about how our computing hardware relates to our photo software and why that all corresponds to MONEY. There are 4 core components to any computer – the processor (CPU), memory (RAM), internal storage (disk space), and graphics processor (GPU). The newest computers are replacing what we have come to know as the disk drive with what is now called PCIe-based flash storage.
The beauty of this new type of storage is that it is devoid of moving parts. Disk drives contain a writable disk which spins just like a record. Thus over time it can wear out and fail. Especially if dropped. The additional upside to the new PCIe storage is that it is extremely FAST. So fast, that it can make a slower processor seem much faster than its advertised clock speed.
The downside to PCIe storage is that it is still pretty expensive and not available in the large sizes we are accustomed to with a standard internal disk drive. Because its size is limited for even its current price point, we have to take this into consideration when purchasing. Essentially, we need to ask ourselves, where are we going to put everything? The answer is externally, via Thunderbolt or USB 3.
Unfortunately, the photography software we use is built to access different parts of the 4 hardware system components in different ways, making our choice as photographers much more difficult and expensive to satisfy all of our glamorous desires.
I have a second generation MacBook Air which is now 6 years old and still functions perfectly fine for when I am traveling. It is not only super lightweight, but also a very simple computer compared to what photographers believe they need. I have used Lightroom and Photoshop on this machine without any problems and it doesn’t have a super fast processor, a ton of storage or even a bunch of RAM.
However, my office computer is a beast. It is a completely loaded Retina 5K iMac with 10TB of external photo storage and 10TB of external backup storage.
Let’s talk about your computer options. Again, you have some decisions to make regarding where your are headed with your photography. You need to think about hard drives, RAM, and processor speeds. I have found that new SSD (solid state drives) offer better performance when coupled to modern day processors. I think this is because SSDs eliminate the movement part of the conventional hard drive.
The Mac Pro and external 5K display (if you can find one) may be considered the best setup to some, but reality is, it probably isn’t necessary for photography – fully loaded without monitor you are looking at $9678. This would be an amazing system if you were headed into the realm of video production. Searching on B & H specifically for a 5K monitor, I have discovered that you are pretty limited. There are pages of 4K monitors, but the 5K seems to be a bit of an anomaly even at this point.
One of the pluses of heading down the route of the Mac Pro is that you can buy an entry level machine and then upgrade it as you need more speed.
The reason I am talking about the 5K monitor instead of the 4K is…
The Retina 5K iMac – Loaded without any additional options this computer is $4099. This is the office machine that I work on every day. I have the fastest RAM (currently faster than the Mac Pro), largest processor, and even the largest amount of SSD storage that I could put into the computer. I purchased it loaded because making upgrades in the future is a bit of an issue, so when this computer slows down, and it will, I will purchase a new one.
Apple computers have a pretty good resale value on eBay as well. I sold my last iMac for $1800 (50% of what I paid for it) when I bought my current Retina 5K iMac. If you think you could pull that off with a Windows based machine good luck to you.
Time for an Upgrade
Now, after six years of using the same laptop, I am looking for a replacement. There is a ton of rumor material out there regarding updates to the MacBook Pro computers. I am waiting to see what happens in the coming month before making any purchase decisions. My laptop may be functioning fine right now, but at six years old I am thinking about its replacement.
If you feel that you need or want a laptop, a fully loaded 15 inch MacBook Pro will cost you $2699. Then, if that becomes your only computer, you need to factor in a monitor and external storage as well.
You can now get away with just a laptop, external storage, and an external monitor as your complete photography computing setup. Again you need to make decisions about how you plan on using all of this technology within your photography goals.
You could also head down the path of using something like an iPad Pro when you travel as well. Further simplifying your system. One thing is for sure, technology is changing so quickly at this point, that it seems you will have new options every day.
Storing Your Photos
Photo storage is going to be the piece of this puzzle that you upgrade the most. Four years ago, I needed 3TB of hard drive space to store all of my photos. Now I have 10TB of photo specific disk drives with an additional 10TB of backup. This is all located internally in my office. Our goal over the next two years is to get the majority of my favorite photos online and for sale on my new stock photo website. This in turn will become my offsite photo storage.
There are a host of reputable hard drive companies that I would currently recommend. Lacie, Western Digital, G-Technologies, and Promise all offer great options for any level of photographer. Think about the speed and future when it comes to storage. You can upgrade and build on your system in the future, but you will need to think about the progression before you start buying.
We have chosen to use Lacie drives for our photo storage. I feel that they offer the best “bang for the buck” in the industry. My office hard drives are the Lacie 5big Thunderbolt in the 10TB size. This hard drive unit is available up to 40TB now. In a couple months our goal is to upgrade to Lacie’s rack mounted Thunderbolt 2 storage. This will allow for unlimited expandability for the future.
We also use Lacie drives for travel. We continuously bang their Rugged Thunderbolt line of SSDs around in airports, cabs, and rental cars. The reason for SSDs while traveling…again no moving parts within the hard drives. They are also extremely fast. I am planning on another article just about storage in the future that dives way deeper into the numbers and options.
Right now the fastest hard drives are utilizing Thunderbolt 2, although Lacie has a new video storage system utilizing Thunderbolt 3. I suspect that the next generation MacBook Pros will utilize Thunderbolt 3 as well. So accessing your photos will become faster and faster as the camera megapixel numbers continue to grow.
Throughout this article I have spoken a bit of how my wife has chosen to deal with her photos. Again, she uses her iCloud account to automatically upload all of her photos and video as she creates her content on her iPhone. Also remember, that I mentioned that Apple offers 1TB of online storage for only $9.99 a month or less than $120 per year. This makes iCloud a cheaper alternative compared to the system that I have in place in my office. So assess where your storage numbers are, you could save by utilizing something as simple as iCloud.
Once you have your capture tools, editing tools, and storage tools in place it is time to figure out how you begin to manage your photos. There are photographers out there who believe an initial RAW capture is the end point, but this couldn’t be any further from reality. Camera manufactures build their equipment to capture middle ground. Middle ground exposure, middle ground color, and middle ground contrast. The reason for this is simple, they need their cameras to work for many different types of photographers.
A wedding photographer needs a very different photo than a wildlife photographer. If we have defined RAW as middle ground, it then becomes the starting point for your artistic interpretation of the scene in front of you. Adding contrast, exposure adjustments, and color saturation to a photo is not manipulating it, it is perfecting it. In the film days we had to choose how we wanted to portray a location before we photographed it. Now we go photograph and figure out the look later, after we download our photos.
Thousands of Photos
When you get tens of thousands of photos in your catalog, you need to have a workflow in place to be able to manage them. It is far better to have this workflow in place before you get to a larger number of photos.
Add keywords, locations, and captions to your photos from the start. You will be able to quickly locate photos in the future when your catalog grows into the tens of thousands of photos. Make sure your keywords make sense. Use descriptive words and phrases. Apple Photos and Lightroom allow you to tag faces and the software will then try to recognize future photos of those people. Further helping the speed of the editing process.
Be hard on yourself when you edit. This saves disk space, but also makes you a better photographer. If you don’t know what is good, take a class with a professional photographer to gain insight on how to get better.
Processing Your Photos
Learn to process your photos. Slide those sliders in your software of choice to see how your photos change. Study websites and books of photographers who inspire you, then try to make your photos look like theirs. The number one thing that I find photos lack these days is contrast. I think the HDR days messed with a lot of photographers, myself included. FORGET HDR! We don’t need to see all of the detail in every shadow. Photos that possess contrast allow us to guide our viewer through that photo and give the photo greater depth.
I adjust exposure, contrast, blacks, whites, vibrance, and then perform local adjustments to ALL of my photos. My business model is about telling stories and highlighting locations, not capturing snapshots. My goal is to NEVER add subject matter to a photo that wasn’t present when I created it. I don’t even merge exposures at this point – Capture One Pro gives me amazing dynamic range with my RAW captures to better help with this as well.
The most important concept I can stress about How-to Manage Digital Photos is to think about your photography first. Think about where you are and where you want to go with it. Photographers are creating serious photographic content that needs some sort of management at this point. I don’t feel that Capture One Pro is for everyone, but it is definitely working for me now, whereas Lightroom is not. Could this change in the future with the forthcoming On1 Photo Raw release? Absolutely.
Over the course of the last decade as a full-time professional I have made many changes to how I work. We built this website to help our clients become better photographers. My commercial and editorial clients have a website geared toward their needs. I am updating my photo catalog daily to better perform for me. My marketing and business plans have been evolving as technology changes as well. My point here is that we should not remain stagnant in any aspect of photography.
The key is to never fear change. Embrace it. Discover it. And figure out how you can make it work more efficiently for you and your goals as a photographer.
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