Whether you’re starting from scratch or augmenting your current workspace, the basic tools you’ll need for a digital darkroom are a computer, a monitor screen and a printer. You’ll also need backing-up systems and, possibly, a scanner.
A calibration device will help you keep the colour and tonal rendition of the monitor screen consistent. There must also be a workspace for setting up your equipment and appropriate editing software.
Your workspace can be based on a laptop computer when you need a set-up that can be used on location and while travelling. (Image source: EIZO.)
Whether your workspace is a permanent setup or a collection of portable devices, they must be able to perform the required tasks. While there’s no need to work in total darkness, subdued lighting is best for image editing.
Once you’ve established your requirements, turn to individual components, starting with the computer.
Regardless of which operating system you use – Windows or Mac OS – a desktop computer provides the best ‘bangs for the buck’ for power and flexibility, although a laptop can suffice. Many photographers use a laptop plus a graphics tablet for basic editing while travelling and shooting on location.
Portable graphics tablets are handy for on-the-spot editing when travelling or on location shoots.
If your existing computer isn’t adequate, you can upgrade one or more sub-systems (CPU, RAM, graphics processor or storage). Concentrate on processor speed, the amount of RAM (random access memory) and the ability to handle graphics.
The best processors (CPUs) have similar specifications to processors used in gaming computers. A quad-core or higher processor with a clock speed of 3.5 GHz to 4.0 GHz is a good starting point.
Gaming computers should also have graphics processing units (GPUs) powerful enough for image editing. You also need at least 16GB of RAM (random access memory) to handle the data throughput – although 32GB of RAM is the ‘sweet spot’ for serious photographers.
Make sure there’s enough storage space for the image data. The built-in solid state drives (SSDs) should be adequate for data coming from the CPU and GPU, and most systems include hard disk drives (HDDs) for longer-term data storage. You may need a separate back-up drive for storing work in progress plus another for archiving original files. Back-up drives are essential when working on a laptop.
The first rule is: don’t let direct light fall on the monitor screen. Direct lighting reduces contrast, fades colours and creates unevenness that can make it impossible to edit properly.
Your monitor is a critical device. It must display an adequate colour range and reproduce the hues and tones in images with consistent accuracy. That’s a big ask – as we’ll outline below.
Laptop users are stuck with the monitor attached to the keyboard. While the latest OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens produce impressive-looking images, they can be expensive and difficult to calibrate and they can’t display as high a dynamic range as some advanced IPS (In-Plane Switching) screens. Most photographers prefer high-end traditional LCD screens with IPS technology which can reproduce rich colours.
Some people – particularly laptop users – opt for a supplementary desktop monitor for editing, and ‘park’ editing tools on the laptop’s screen. Dual screens make cut-and-paste editing easier and also allow you to have multiple views open simultaneously.
This illustration shows a professional-level monitor with a shading hood fitted to prevent stray light from falling on the screen. (Product image source: EIZO.)
When choosing a monitor, prioritise colour accuracy over pixel count. Most software is designed for screens with a native resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels. At this resolution, text will be reproduced at a comfortable viewing size.
While Quad HD (2560 x 1440 pixels) and UHD 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels) screens will resolve more details, the text may appear too small to be readable. The Settings menu in the computer should allow it to be adjusted.
Check the screen’s colour space. All monitors should be able to display the ‘universal’ sRGB colour space but they may not cover the Adobe RGB colour space, which encompasses a wider colour gamut. More colour information is preferable when images will be printed. Other colour spaces are only supported by high-end professional cameras but very few printers.
For video, sRGB is the default colour space but videographers should also consider the professional DCI-P3 (‘P3’) option or Rec. 2020, which is designed for 4K high dynamic range (HDR) displays with high colour depth, such as OLED TV sets. Neither is common in amateur equipment.
Monitors require regular calibration (see Chapter 3) because screen parameters ‘drift’ over time. You must be able to adjust brightness (‘luminance’) and contrast (‘gamma’), colour temperature and set the ‘white point’ (native tint) of the screen. Note: Check monitors before buying as some are sold with one or more of these controls locked, which prevents accurate profiling.
When shopping for a monitor, follow these essential steps:
1. See how much you can enlarge a picture on the screen before individual pixels become visible.
2. Check the display’s angle of view. Although most of the time you’ll be looking directly at the screen, it can be handy to have a display that provides an accurate view for people who view your image from one side when you’re working on it.
3. Move an image from side to side and top to bottom of the desktop, watching for changes in colours, brightness, contrast and sharpness. A good monitor should maintain consistency in all four parameters throughout the display area.
The three key factors to address when choosing a printer are: the space available for setting it up, the size of the prints you want to make and the surfaces on which you want to print.
Space: Check the footprint (the desk space covered) of the printer in the specifications list and note much space you need to leave for paper to pass through the printer. If the paper hits something while it’s being printed it will probably buckle and crease.
This diagram shows the space required behind an inkjet photo printer to allow paper to pass through as it is printed.
Size: While most office printers produce A4 output, desktop photo printers come in two sizes: A3 and A2. A3 printers can make prints up to 329 mm wide, while A2 printers can extend to 420 mm wide prints.
Most printers can print on longer papers than standard cut sheets using Custom paper settings in the printer driver. A typical A3 printer can make panoramic prints close to a metre long, while an A2 printer extends that to around 1.5 metres.
Surfaces: Inkjet papers typically fall into one of two surface types: glossy or matte. Glossy media include ‘lustre’, ‘semi-gloss’ and ‘pearl’ surfaces, while the matte classification covers everything from smooth to textured ‘fine art’ papers and also canvas. Your preferences can influence the type of printer inks used: dye or pigment (see Chapter 7).
Note: Some printers come with ‘starter’ cartridges that have just enough ink to fill the ink lines between the cartridges and the print head, and allow users to make a couple of prints. It’s worth checking the printer you plan to purchase as you may need to buy extra cartridges when you buy the printer.
Excerpt from Digital Darkroom pocket guide, by Photo Review tech editor Margaret Brown.
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