A checklist of the improvements you can make to your existing set up for photo editing and output.

Your digital darkroom plays a vital role in your imaging workflow so it’s important to keep it up-to-date.

It’s likely you already have a digital darkroom of some kind containing the same basic tools: a computer, a monitor screen, a system for backing-up image files and a printer. But have you considered how your existing setup might be more efficient and produce better results by updating your workspace equipment? Regardless of whether it’s permanent or portable, there may be some simple things you can do to improve your comfort and editing capabilities.

In this feature we outline the considerations for when you want to update your digital darkroom, ranging from cost-free adjustments through to high-end investments. We also set out the costs and benefits of making each change.

Workspace requirements

Free (or almost free) changes you can make include simply re-arranging your workspace to make sure no light falls on your monitor screen. For editing photos, subdued lighting is easiest to work in and will ensure the best results. Light falling on the screen reduces contrast, fades colours and makes it difficult to see the effects of the changes you make.

You can save space in your working area with a device like Loupedeck Live, which provides a compact console for live streaming, photo and video editing with direct buttons, dials and LED touchscreen for accessing key editing functions. It is compatible with leading photo and video editors.

Look also at other aspects of your workplace layout to see whether all the devices linked to your computer are within easy reach. Make sure connection ports are securely attached and cables are well out of the way of your feet. Nobody wants to trash an editing session by tripping over an unsecured cable – but it can happen!

A comfortable chair to sit in is also important. Both your chair and your computer keyboard and mouse (or graphics tablet) should allow you to look straight at the screen(s) without straining your neck muscles.

Also consider updating your computer. The CPU, RAM and graphics processor should be your main focus. Sometimes you can get by with replacing only one or two components. If all three areas require replacement, a new computer may be cheaper.

The table below lists the main specification needed for editing stills and basic video movies. Note: these specs are suitable for both PC and Mac since there isn’t much difference in the hardware.

Your PC Minimum specifications Recommended specifications
Processor Intel 6th Gen or AMD Ryzen 1000 Series or newer Intel 7th Gen or newer CPU with Quick Sync – or AMD Ryzen 3000 Series / Threadripper 2000 series or newer
Graphics card NVIDIA T600 NVIDIA RTX series, Quadro series, TITAN series or GeForce RTX series
GPU 2 GB of GPU memory 4 GB of GPU memory for HD and some 4K media;

6 GB or more for 4K and higher

RAM 8GB Dual-channel memory with 16 GB of RAM for HD media, 32 GB or more for 4K and higher
Storage 8 GB of available hard-disk space for installation plus  additional high-speed drive for media Fast internal SSD for app installation and cache plus additional high-speed drive(s) for media
Monitor 1920 x 1080 pixels 1920 x 1080 or higher, DisplayHDR 400 required for HDR workflows
Interface connections At least 3 USB ports (USB 2.0 or better), at least 2 USB-C ports, HDMI port, DisplayPort, Networking Port, Headphone/Speaker Port, Mic/Aux Port (3.5mm Audio In); Wi-Fi and Bluetooth interfaces, Wired Internet connection

Another essential item is an uninterrupted power supply with voltage monitoring and filtering so you don’t lose work in the event of a power failure. Also consider adding one or more storage drives, particularly if your main computer is a laptop.

While magnetic hard disk drives (HDDs) are relatively cheap (you can get a 2TB drive for less than $100 and 4TB for less than $150), solid state drives (SSDs) are more compact and robust since they don’t have moving parts. But they’re also more expensive, with 1TB drives ranging from about $100 to $200, 2TB drives starting at around $400 and 4TB drives at $800 or more.

Fast, high-capacity back-up storage drives are essential for keeping track of multiple edits, regardless of whether you’re working on photographs or video clips. This G-DRIVE PRO device from WD provides plug and play convenience for MacOS computers and is easily reformatted for Windows.

A memory card reader can be handy – but is non-essential if you’re happy to transfer files to your computer via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or the cables supplied with your cameras.

Monitor requirements

Upgrading your computer monitor – or adding an extra monitor to your set-up – is also worth considering, particularly if your main computer is a laptop. If the screen can’t display an adequate colour range and reproduce the hues and tones in images with consistent accuracy you won’t get consistent colour reproduction either and you’ll waste a lot of ink and paper if you try to print your photos.

Multi-monitor set-ups are commonly used for video editing, as shown here, but having two monitors can also be very handy when editing photographs as they provide additional space for displaying editing tools and comparing before and after images.

An extra monitor is advisable if you’re using a laptop because laptop screens are relatively small and can be difficult to calibrate. Few laptop vendors provide detailed information on what panel technology is used in the screen and which parameters are adjustable. For those with desktop systems, an extra monitor gives you more ‘real estate’ for ’parking’ editing tools while you work and also makes it much easier to do side-by-side comparisons of images and edits.

When choosing a monitor you don’t need ultra-high resolution; most software is designed for screens with a native resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels. Always prioritise colour accuracy over pixel count and look for monitors that claim to cover at least 95% of the Adobe RGB colour space. (All monitors should cover the full sRGB colour gamut.) The screen must also have brightness, contrast and colour adjustments that allow it to be calibrated (see box on page ??), and that requires adjustable controls.

When shopping for a monitor, follow these three 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.

A monitor hood can help to stop angled light falling on the screen. Most attach to the screen with magnets and some have sliding hatches through which you can pass a calibration device without having to remove the hood.

Monitor calibration

Calibrating your monitor and creating profiles is the best way to ensure the results of edits will match your intentions. You need a device known technically as a spectrophotometer, which measures light energy at various frequencies from the brightest white to the deepest black and across the red (‘R’), green (‘G’) and blue (‘B’) wavebands.

The two main manufacturers are Datacolor – which makes Spyder calibrators – and X-Rite – which offers i1 and ColorMunki calibrators. Both manufacturers provide the required software with their devices, which can take you step-by-step through the process.
If you haven’t calibrated your monitor before, this process can make a big difference to your image quality and make it much easier to keep it consistent. Calibrator prices start at around $200, with most priced at around $250, which is worthwhile for a tool that will last for many years.

Regular calibration ensures your monitor shows colours and tones with consistent tonality and accuracy.

(See Photo Review’s monitor reviews here.)

Printer requirements

If you enjoy printing your photos, it could be time to upgrade your printer, although there haven’t been many new models released over the past year or so. 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.

Many printers include multi-function capabilities like scanning and copying, although single-purpose printers are also available. Both types of 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. Printers that are capable of printing on thicker ‘fine art’ media, require you to leave space for the paper to pass through the printer, while ‘office’ type A4 printers normally don’t.

Some multi-function printers can produce very nice photo prints as well as useful items like greeting cards, calendars and transfers for textiles.

Multi-function printers are designed mainly for general ‘office’ printing, although some can also be used to print photos. Most are restricted to a CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) inkset and the inks aren’t designed for long-term durability.  They are also designed for printing mainly on plain office paper.

Models with inksets that include grey, light magenta and light cyan inks are marketed as ‘photo’ printers. They can usually handle thicker media and use longer-lasting inks.

For dedicated photo printers you’ll need to choose between dye and pigment inks. Dye inks are liquid so they are easily absorbed into the coated surfaces of glossy and lustre (semi-gloss) papers. Pigment inks contain microscopic colour particles that are deposited on the surface of the paper, which are suspended in a quick-drying, water-based liquid. The roughened surfaces of matte media hold the particles in place. (See Photo Review’s printer reviews here.)

Dye-ink printers are usually better at reproducing detail and display bolder colours on glossy and semi-gloss papers. Pigment ink printers work best with matte and lightly-textured papers but they are also best for heavier ‘fine art’ media, including canvas.

Dedicated photo printers produce the best-looking and most fade-resistant prints and many support A3+ or larger output sizes.

Pigment inks normally offer superior fade-resistance, although the latest dye-based inks from Canon (Chromalife) and Epson (Claria) can come close in optimal conditions. There’s no ‘right’ printing paper for every image and every situation; it’s usually a matter of personal taste and subjective judgement.

Many manufacturers sell sample packs in A4 or similar sizes to give photographers a low-cost way to try out their papers. Where the brands themselves don’t make up sample packs, some professional resellers make up their own packs, usually containing one or two A4 sheets of each paper type within a particular range of between three and eight different papers.

Check with your local camera shop or search online for inkjet media sample packs. Prices usually range between $12 and $35, depending on the type of paper and the number of sheets in a pack.

Article by Margaret Brown (see Margaret’s photography pocket guides)

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 97

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