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A photographer friend complained recently about a designer who had Photoshopped one of his portraits, the end result was a digital mess and it was all the fault of 'you digital guys, who are ruining photography'. I could see he had a point and examples like this do highlight the fact that in the age of computer imaging our photography risks becoming marginalised. We should of course assert our rights against derogatory treatment but also take steps to understand what is going on. I know computers and digital imaging don't suit everyone, but all photographers owe it to themselves to at least learn a little about the new processes.

Having concluded that I wanted to achieve hands on knowledge of digital imaging, I was keen to acquire my own computer system. If you are thinking of doing likewise, then let me first caution you. PhotoShop (the leading image editing software program) may seem easy to start with, but it will take about six months solid study for you to become fluent and productive. Not only that but you'll need to become system savvy in order to deal with the many crashes and system conflicts that lie ahead. This is because image editing pushes any computer to the limits of its performance.

I use a Power PC Macintosh because my friends and colleagues use Macs and I personally prefer the operating system. You could use the same argument to justify buying a Windows based machine, especially if you've used a PC in the past and already own a lot of Windows software. PhotoShop runs fine on Windows but Power Macs still have the edge when it comes to image editing and remember you can only get Live Picture (an image editing program for advanced users) in Mac format, nor can you run the later versions of Adobe Illustrator with Windows. Power Macs can read windows documents and with the addition of a special card or software, operate like a PC.

The shopping list I've compiled is based around the latest Power PC 4400/200. Because the price of DIMM memory is at an all time low right now you could purchase this complete system for under 2,000. However, these prices may differ in different countries. The most important feature of the 4400 is its expandability (none of the other level entry Macs are really suitable). As computers have evolved to be more powerful so has their propensity to crash. The older Macs didn't mind running on minimal RAM memory, Power Macs are unforgiving and demand lots of memory before you can reap their full potential. I suggest starting with 32 MB of RAM memory (16MB fitted memory + an extra 16 MB chip) but you'll need to plan for further upgrades (see separate panel) in the near future.

The Apple multi scan 17" monitor will suit Mac and PC users and only costs a couple of hundred more than a 15" screen. Don't buy anything smaller since you will be spending a lot of time looking at the screen. An additional 1 MB of Video RAM (DIMM VRAM) will be just enough to display your photographs with a decent colour depth at the higher screen resolutions.

The internal CD ROM drive is essential these days and will enable you to access Kodak Photo CD images. The Adobe PhotoShop software program varies in price enormously. Some people prefer to buy PhotoShop bundled with a flatbed scanner or some other special promotion. You can even access PhotoShop and Live Picture for free with certain computer magazine CDs - these are fully working demo versions which are save disabled. Other software you'll find useful are RAM Doubler from Connectix and Norton Utilities from Symantec. The latter will help keep your hard disc in good shape, and cure many of the common system faults that occur with regular use.

Other extras to buy, would include a removable media storage device like a Zip drive or Magneto Optical system. You need these to backup your hard disc, to store all your image documents (the hard disc should be kept as empty as possible) and for transferring documents to a bureau for printing. Bureaux should be able to satisfactorily print PC format files. SCSI devices such as these external drives necessitate the installation of a SCSI card if you use Windows PC. A digitizing pad and pen replaces the mouse, is easier to draw with and also pressure responsive. There are a few good books to buy about PhotoShop which compliment the Adobe manual. Deke McClelland's PhotoShop Bible is thorough and explains everything in detail, the PhotoShop Wow! book is easy to access and contains good practical examples and expert tips.

The best way to shop is by browsing through the computer magazines. Mail order companies are best for price though in my experience service ranges from excellent to appalling. Therefore always try to find out if anyone else has had a bad experience with a particular dealer before parting with your cash. Computer trade shows are a good place to find special offers, but again check who you are dealing with. Remember prices are always dropping - the system you buy today could be selling for half the price next year! Your capital investment is not going to hold its value.

I've learnt a lot about computers over the last few years, and I think become a better photographer for that. I use the computer now when there is a reason to do so and have learnt to avoid the creative trap of 'mousing about' just for the hell of it, which I think is what my colleague I referred to at the beginning of the article was so agitated about. Being prepared and ready to take an active role in the post production process allows me more overall creative control, whatever happens in the future.

Improving PhotoShop performance

Microchip processing speed is expressed in Megahertz, but performance speed also depends on the chip type. Pentium chips are faster than 608040 Mac but not as fast as the Power PC 604. When it comes to image editing, the amount of RAM memory you have installed is the key factor - a minimum of 24 MB application memory is recommended for PhotoShop and Live Picture. When buying a computer, you want a machine that can be upgraded with more RAM at a later date. Newer machines can be upgraded 1 memory chip at a time, with others you have to install SIMMs in pairs. PhotoShop files require 3 times the file size in available RAM to work in real time (to store the current version, last undo and last saved). When memory requirements exceed the physical RAM memory, PhotoShop uses the free Hard disc space as what is called a 'scratch disk' . Therefore keep your hard disc as empty as possible. As your system requirements grow you'll need to buy a fast hard disc such as the D2 1 Gigabyte, keep that empty and assign that as your primary scratch disc.

Displaying a digital image on the monitor is another bottleneck to overcome. This can be solved either by installing more video RAM or fitting a special card (circuit board) into one of the Nubus or PCI slots. Doing this will both accelerate display redraw times and increase the colour depth to millions of colours and at finer resolutions.

RAM Doubler maximizes the available RAM and enables you to run other applications simultaneously. With RAM Doubler, Live Picture can be assigned all the RAM you have installed. If you don't have much RAM installed, PhotoShop performance should improve, but only if you allocate the full system RAM minus 1,500 K (see example). Some people suggest it is best not to use RAM Doubler with PhotoShop if your machine already has lots of RAM installed.

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1) (About this Macintosh) The 'About this Macintosh' dialogue box in the Apple Menu will show you how much RAM is used by the system and how much application RAM is available - see Largest unused block.

2) (Get info dialogue box) Find the unopened application icon and choose 'Get Info' from the desktop File menu to change the 'preferred size' setting .

Megabytes and output sizes

How large does a file have to be to output as a print or a transparency?

Prints @ 320 lines per inch Grayscale Colour
A6 2.5 MB 7 MB
10"X8" 8 MB 23.5 MB
A4 9.5 MB 28 MB
A3 19 MB 56 MB


Transparencies @ 1,200 lines per inch Grayscale Colour
6X6 cm 6.5 MB 19 MB
5"X4" 19.5 MB 58.5 MB
10"X8" 93 MB 279 MB

(above information courtesy of Metro Imaging)

Shopping list for Macintosh starter system

Power PC 4400/200Mhz 603e chip with 16MB RAM, Internal 8X CD, 1.2 gig Hard disk.
1X 16MB EDO RAM module
1X 1MB VRAM module
Wacom Art Pad II
Apple 17" Trinitron monitor
Iomega Zip drive
Adobe PhotoShop 4.0

Copyright - Martin Evening 1996. Main photograph of Sylvana at Gavins models

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