Computers for workshops

The workshop I finished last week in Italy got me thinking about lap top computers, digital imaging and photography workshops. When I started teaching photography workshops, almost twenty years ago, arguably the biggest concern was how to get film processed in a timely manner, so we could look at the work the students were doing. Early on, we worked with black and white negative film and then with color transparencies, each media having strengths and weaknesses. Today, the digital revolution has eliminated that set of problems. On the other hand, it has opened up a whole other can of worms when it comes to computers digital imaging and photography workshops.

I am not nostalgic for film by and large. Because of the economics of film, students were less likely to experiment. Also, the immediate feedback of a digital image on the back of a camera is a great teaching tool. When reviewing black and white proof sheets, it was also very hard to share the work with the entire class in the way you can now do easily with a digital projector. The one thing I did like about film was that the mistakes students made were more glaring and no one ever thought about “fixing it in Photoshop.”

In the recent workshop in Italy, we had a mix of computers running both Macintosh and Windows operating systems. I happen to use Apple computers, but I am not going to write about what system to use (or why.) Since most digital imaging programs are now cross-platform, the differences between Macintosh vs Windows are ever fewer.

A computer, like a camera is a tool, a tool that solves a given set of problems. Each photographer has different set of problems so one size could not possibly fit all. Many people use the same laptops for work as they do for their photography, so that is often what dictates which operating system to use.

A corollary to this is that when people ask me what camera brand to buy, I usually ask, which brand of camera lenses do they have access to through friends, families or peers? Back when I worked at newspapers, that was very important when it came to borrowing specialized super long or super wide lenses from my peers. One student in my Italy workshop made a particularly interesting adaptation of this strategy. She bought an Apple laptop since she lives right around the corner from an Apple store so she can get help when needed.

Based on what happened in the class, I was prompted to write about how I would suggest to set up a computer for a workshop, something serious photographers should know how to do. In the workshop, though we collectively looked at the tightly edited set of images from each person, I worked one on one with each student beforehand to chop their entire shoots down to a selective few to share with the group. These one on one edits were how I encountered the many different types of laptops.

So what should be on a photographer’s lap while taking to a workshop?

First thing is a laptop computer that is either a Windows, Macintosh or Linux machine. If it has a CD burner, built in or as an external device that helps but is not a requirement in my eyes. (This comes form the user of a Mac Book Air, which does not have a built in CD burner.)

The computer should have some image viewing/editing software installed such as Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop Bridge, Photoshop CS__, Photoshop Elements, iPhoto, Expressions Media, Photo Mechanic, etc. I wou;d also make sure that the default image viewing program such as Preview on a Mac or the equivalent in Windows is handy on the machine. I was surprised how often we ended up using those simple but effective image browsers.

I would suggest installing the image editing software from the camera manufacturer, especially if the computer and imaging software are a bit older and the camera is newer. This is a “just in case,” but this is doubly relevant when shooting RAW files. I would also have the latest DNG converter installed on my laptop. I blogged recently about DNGs (and the RAW file format wars) at: http://www.bhinsights.com/content/steering-clear-raw-format-wars.html These last two are back ups, but they can come in handy when you have a new RAW file format (or when your class mate has a computer issue and needs to ask to share machines.) That happens in classes more often than you would think.

I use a program called Media One, which used to be called Expressions Media and before that it was called iView Media Pro. Media One is unique in that once you create a catalog of the images you want to review and it builds Quick Time image files of those same images, those individual image files are stored as part of the catalog file as long as you keep the catalog. That means if you want to browse through a set of images they will be at the full viewing size permanently (and instantly.) In this recent workshop I learned how. with Lightroom, you can set the program to render the preview images one to one and to not delete those same previews. In the end, though that sped up the editing in Lightroom, each image took a moment to load and those “moments” added up quickly as we were looking at a few hundred images.

My workflow, which I have blogged extensively about before, involves shooting and then editing down thousands of images but only turning a select few into finished files. For me, having the absolutely fastest image browser possible is a must and so I still use Media One/Expressions Media/i-View Media Pro. It does mean I have to make a separate keystroke to open the selected image(s) in Lightroom or Photoshop, but that has never bothered me.

On the desktop, of your laptop, I would keep PDFs of any and all instruction manuals. A PDF of a manual is so much easier to carry that the actual thing. The instruction manual for your camera is the obvious one to have. On the other hand, my wireless flash is fast becoming as complex as my actual camera, so I like to have that handy.

Elsewhere on the desktop I would have as little else as possible. It is hard to emphasize how important it is to double (or triple) back up all the files on your laptop. Then leave those backups at home and clear all those files off the laptop hard drive so you have room to store the work you will do in the workshop. In my workshops, I encourage students to shoot RAW files, which give better final file quality, but they also eat up huge amounts of hardware space. To speed up the editing, I encourage students to shoot both RAWs and JPGs which makes the editing super fast, but it does create more storage “issues.”

If you are taking a Photoshop specific class then you certainly want files to work on in the class to be on your desktop. On the other hand, the new images you create in class, doubly so with Photoshop layers, eat up even MORE storage space. Ditto with family photos. You may want a few to share with class mates but you more likely need the hard drive space for workshop related images.

I would also have on the desktop, a SMALL portfolio of your work. SMALL! What I ask for is:

1. 10 of your very best images as low-res JPGs.

2. Examples of imagery that inspires you,as low-res JPGs. (It may be paintings or photos or…)

3. Some disappointments… We can look at them as low-res JPGs and help you figure out how to turn those disappointments into great images next time around.

Keep in mind that the closer your hard drive gets to full, the slower your laptop will work. That means if the hard drive is half full when you start the workshop and then you fill it up with more images, you will quickly hit the eighty percent full point, which is where hard drives really start to slow down the computers.

Elsewhere in the computer bag should be power adapters and cables for the laptop and digital camera(s.) This may include pin adapters that change the pins on American electrical plugs to work in European or Asian electrical sockets. Since 90% of the transformers and battery chargers use both 110 and 220 voltage, current converters are a thing of the past, but the pin adapters are as necessary as ever.

In the same bag, you should also have at least two portable external hard drives. You really need two, so you have double back up in case one fails. Ideally these are ones that do not require AC power from a wall plug. They need to be pretty large capacity to back up all the work you will do in the workshop. Ideally they will be the same size so when you are backing up files to both, they fill up at the same pace.

I previously used portable battery powered hard drives/photo-wallets to back up my images directly from the memory cards via the card readers that were built into those drives, such as the Epson or Wolverine machines. Since I am increasingly bringing my laptop along, I am using those less and the conventional portable hard drives more.

In the class we ran into an issue with what are known as BUS powered hard drives. Most of the newer portable hard drives can draw their power directly from the laptop they are connected to via the USB cord, which transfers information and supplies power. In the older Windows machines, that may not work. In that case you would need to power the hard drive with power drawn from one USB port and send the information to that same hard drive through the other USB port. If this sounds like the argument for a USB hub of some persuasion, it is!

I have been shocked to see how people handle their laptops and their hard drives. Hard drives are most vulnerable to damage (resulting in catastrophic failure) when they are hot. So, after removing the hard drive from the computer, as per the different operating systems, the best thing to do is let that hard drive sit for half an hour to cool down. After that, I store my hard drives in padded pouches, which are just like the ones I use for my cameras and lenses. My laptop is equally secure in a similar padded case, which is inside a padded shoulder bag. I have never had a hard drive fail, on the road or at home, (knock on wood) but I am paranoid about how I treat those so…

I know it is obvious, but before you head off on a workshop, make sure you are familiar with your computer. Buying a new machine right before a workshop is recipe for disaster. Keep in mind that computers are machines, nothing more. They do what they are told. In my experience, 95% of the problems people have with computers (including me) are operator failure and not a computer issue.

A laptop is a tool, just like a camera. For most people, their laptops do double duty, used for work/home as well as for photography. That is not inherently a bad thing. But before I would take my laptop to a workshop, I would set it up for a workshop.

Before you go to a workshop you prepare your gear, your clothes, your transportation, your accommodation and your schedule. Your laptop is an awfully big part of the workshop process so why do anything less in its case?

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