Plugged In: Click computing up a notch for better prints

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

A reader recently asked about updating her computer because the 3-year-old system she uses to process photos runs too slowly with modern software.
If you only occasionally touch up and post a JPEG image file or two, then virtually any modern computer system will be adequate, even inevitably slower notebook systems. However, if you make a lot of images using an RAW file format and post-process them on your computer, as you should for best quality and flexibility, then you’ll soon feel the need for speed. That’s particularly true when you’re running video-processing software or especially demanding still-photo programs that require fast performance.
A few months ago I experienced much the same problem as our reader when I began using DXO Optics Pro as my initial processing step before final correction with Adobe Lightroom. DXO uses brute-force computing to achieve its excellent sharpening and noise reduction, but at the price of very long processing times. When it takes three to 10 minutes to process a single image file, it’s painfully obvious that the time has come for a faster computer.
So, this week and next, I’ll discuss the top-end components I chose when recently rebuilding a faster computer system for photo processing and printing. Such a system would certainly be adequate, as well, for demanding business applications. I’ll confine my suggestions to Windows-based PC systems because I’m not adequately familiar with Apple’s closed-system, proprietary products. Let’s start with voice recognition software, as well as video displays and color calibration, two of the most critical but overlooked aspects of any computer system used for photo processing.
But first, I’d like to invite readers to the opening reception for my new photo show, “Fleeting Images,” from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. The show hangs at KPC through Oct. 10.

Voice recognition

Voice-dictation software is both useful and affordable. As with scanning, video processing and photo software, effective voice recognition and transcription requires high-performance computing for adequately responsive use.
To demonstrate how far voice recognition and transcription has come, the remainder of this week’s article was dictated using Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium Version 13 software, without later manual correction of misrecognized words, typos, incorrect punctuation or other errors except for correcting one critical error described near the conclusion. So, should there be any other such errors, I’m of course blaming the software rather than myself or the editor!
Nuance’s most recent software is easy to install, comes with a basic dictation headset that plugs into standard computer board audio ports, and generally does an admirable job without fuss. I expect that I’ll be using it more often for business purposes than in the past. However, because spoken dictation tends to be rather loose and informal, I strongly recommend rereading and editing any important dictated documents to ensure logical organization and clear phrasing.

Display

A good color monitor, properly calibrated, is crucial for top-quality photo imaging and for an effective and efficient workflow. There are very few monitors available on the market for less than $1,000 that can accurately show the full range of colors and tones saved in your photographic files. Without a properly calibrated, high-quality monitor, you are essentially working blind.
I’ve tried many monitors for photo processing. Although some are adequate for less-critical use, the best affordable monitor is Dell’s U2711 (about $800), which is specifically calibrated at the factory for the more accurate and professional Adobe RGB color space. Dell also sells the less-expensive 2713, which, unfortunately, cannot show the full Adobe RGB color space range and thus is less useful. Both monitors include high-resolution 2560-by-1440-dot displays.
Monitors limited to standard RGB color can only show eight bits of color and tone range while monitors that include Adobe RGB capability can show a tonal range of 10 to 12 bits per color, a far broader color range that’s a better match to what your camera actually captures in RAW. Amazon sells both Dell models with free Prime shipping to Alaska. The Dell U2711 is a more-expensive monitor than most, but worth the price if you do a lot of photo and video processing.

Video cards

Some video cards speed up photo processing software by using the video card’s graphics-processing unit. I bought an MSI video card based on the ATI 7770 chipset although other reputable brands using the same chipset would likely work just as well. ATI video chipsets ending with 870 as the last three digits tend to have even higher performance and might further speed photo processing, but they cost more than I was willing to spend.
Typically, monitors and video cards include several different types of connectors, including DVI, HDMI and traditional 15-pin RGB output. You’ll need the appropriate cable to connect the video card and monitor. DVI is a current high-end standard that I recommend because it provides maximum color, resolution and calibration capability, which is not always the case with other forms of connection. Although it’s possible as a last resort to get usable adaptor cables with different connectors on each end, it’s best to match the video card’s output and the monitor’s input at the highest resolution, bit depth and quality level.

Calibration

You will waste far less material and get much better results if you calibrate your camera, your specific monitor and your printer. Calibrating your camera is relatively simple with X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passport reference and software (about $100 at Amazon). If accurate color is a concern, then camera calibration is a good first step. Be sure to calibrate the camera in different seasons and lighting conditions, because correct calibration will vary. Adobe’s Lightroom and other software allows you to set the program to use these calibrations rather than the default. Be sure to set the software to the correct calibration.
Then, use X-Rite’s ColorMunki to calibrate your display (preferably the wide-range Dell U2711) to a known standard.
(The prior phrase initially contained Dragon’s sole significant voice transcription error. My dictation stated that you should calibrate “to a known standard,” but the software transcribed that wording to calibrating “to a nonstandard.” That software transcription error completely changed the meaning, so I felt compelled to correct it. I also manually corrected the nonstandard spelling of X-Rite and ColorMunki, both of which are brand names. These are good examples of why you should always carefully review any transcribed dictation.)
Also using the X-Rite ColorMunki, calibrate your printer to your display so what you see is truly what you get as your final printed output. By combining calibration of camera, monitor and printer into a single system, you have reasonable assurance that your final printed output will be reasonably accurate. Of course, if your final image files are later used with a different monitor or different printer, then correctly calibrated results cannot be assured.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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