7 Hardware Essentials for Your Photo Studio

APRIL 29, 2014

By Theano Nikitas

Image editing almost always brings up visions of software, but perhaps even more critical to speeding up your workflow is the hardware that powers your digital darkroom. We’ve chosen a mix of the latest and greatest computers, monitors, printers and other gear we consider “must haves” to speed you through even the biggest photo editing jobs.

HP Z1 G2 Workstation ComputerHP Z1 G2 Workstation

“Power without the Tower” is one of the taglines HP uses for its latest all-in-one workstation. The computer is relatively compact and measures 20.8 x 26 x 16.5 inches (H x W x D) including the stand. It features a beautiful 27-inch adjustable backlit screen that opens to reveal the inner workings of the computer. This quick-access, no-tools-required design makes it easy for users (or IT pros) to service and upgrade the device. (We have an older desktop model that utilizes the same tools-free design and it really is convenient, even if you just need to get rid of accumulated dust.) Windows and Linux compatible, the Z1 G2 is available in various configurations including a new ten-point touchscreen option, which adds $300 to the price but can be especially useful if you need to rotate images or 3-D models as part of your workflow. Given the recent addition of 3-D printing to Adobe Photoshop CC, this feature may come in handy. Other options include the choice of various graphics cards and memory (the Z1 G2 can accommodate up to 32 GB of RAM); six external USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports; single microphone in and headphone out jacks; and an SD 4.0 media card. HP also offers the option of installing two Thunderbolt 2 ports. While a fully tricked out Z1 G2 can run up to $6,000, the basic configuration starts at a much more reasonable $1,999—and since the workstation is so easy to upgrade, you can add what you need along the way. Yes, we know that most photographers are Mac users but we think the Z1 G2 is worth a serious look.

Price: Starting at $1,999

LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 hard driveLaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2

Chances are you have a solid backup system in place for your images, but sometimes you need a bit of extra speed when you’re on deadline. LaCie’s latest Thunderbolt 2 drive can help move things along when you’re in a hurry. One of several LaCie products introduced at CES this year, the Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 drive is small enough to take on the road but powerful enough to use in the studio—especially since up to six units (or other Thunderbolt devices) can be daisy-chained with a single included cable. Available in 1 TB capacity, the hard drive weighs 1.4 pounds and measures 1.6 x 5.5 x 3.3 inches. Its aluminum enclosure with a thermo-regulated cooling fan is built around a preconfigured RAID 0 striped set of two PCI Gen 2 SSDs. Alternatively, you can set it up as a mirrored RAID set (RAID 1) for extra security if one disk fails. The hard drive also supports JBOD (“just a bunch of disks”) so you can use each SSD separately. Read and write speeds average 1,375MB/s and 1,180MB/s (megabits per second), respectively, and LaCie reports that 250 GB of 4K footage can be transferred in under ten minutes. Of course, speeds depend on configurations and computers but that’s pretty impressive for a device that can fit in the palm of your hand. The Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 comes with a Thunderbolt cable, external power supply, drive stand and quick install guide. It’s due to ship the first quarter of this year but, as of press time, we don’t have an exact date. Sign up to be notified of availability and price at the LaCie site.

Price: $1,299

Lexar Professional Workflow Reader SolutionLexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution

A four-slot hub housing a mix-and-match assortment of card readers is the perfect solution when faced with the time-consuming task of downloading multiple media cards after a shoot. A fast USB 3.0 connection and the ability to simultaneously download data from up to four cards make short work of transferring images to a computer. But even if your software doesn’t support simultaneous downloads (Photo Mechanic does; Lightroom and Photoshop do not), consecutive downloads are zippy thanks to USB 3.0. No need to hang around to change cards either; just load ‘em up and let ‘em rip. The hub is bundled with a USB 3.0 cable (backwards compatible with USB 2.0), four covers to help prevent dust from entering unused slots, a power supply and two plug adapters. Removable and interchangeable card readers are purchased separately for CompactFlash/UDMA-7, CFast 2.0 (coming soon), SD/SDHC/SDXC (including UHS-1) and XQD media. Each reader can be unplugged and used on its own, and comes with a USB 3.0 cable and a silicon dust cover. You’ll need Mac OS 10.6 or higher but the hub, which is compact at 3.3 x 4.3 x 6 inches, is also compatible with Windows 7 and 8. We tested the device when it first came out and haven’t unplugged in from our computer since.

$100 for Hub; $37 for CF Reader; $37 for SD Reader; $45 for XQD Reader

Dell 28 Ultra HD 4K MonitorDell 28 Ultra HD Monitor

Given the infusion of 4K (aka ultra HD) video into camcorders and cameras (the Sony AX100 and Panasonic GH4 are two examples), and the increasingly higher resolution sensors in digital SLRs and medium-format cameras, a 4K display may be the next piece of editing gear on your wish list. Perhaps the most surprising 4K peripheral at this year’s CES was Dell’s 28-inch 4K monitor with a base price of only $699. This widescreen monitor features an optimal resolution of 3840 x 2160 at 30Hz. Of course, to get this resolution, your graphics card and drivers have to support it but we haven’t heard of a more affordable entry into 4K than this monitor. The non-glare display features a USB 3.0 Super-Speed Hub for upstreaming, and comes with an adjustable stand so you can pivot/tilt/swivel for the best view on your desk. Or, if you prefer, it can be mounted on the wall. There’s a built-in cable management system, too. With the stand, the display measures a minimum of 17 x 26 x 8 inches (H x W x D). Without the stand, the panel itself measures 15.03 x 26.04 x 2.21 inches and weighs 11.42 pounds. The monitor comes with power cables, DisplayPort cable, USB 3.0 upstream cable, drives and documentation. We haven’t seen the display in person so we can’t comment on quality but, if you want to get a 4K monitor, you won’t have to dig too deep to afford this one. Plus, Dell will exchange the panel for free if “you discover even one bright pixel” during the three-year limited warranty.

Price: $699

Epson Stylus Pro 3880 Photo PrinterEpson Stylus Pro 3880

Though you may outsource most of your printing, having an inkjet printer on hand for proofing and/or personal projects is a must. One of our favorites is the 17-inch, wide-format, eight-ink Epson Stylus Pro 3880. It’s been around for a while but consistently delivers excellent color and black-and-white images using Epson UltraChrome K3 inks. The bundle also includes a user-replaceable ink maintenance tank. The 3880 is compact for a 17-inch printer, with a footprint of 27 x 15 x 10 inches (W x D x H) and weight of 43.2 pounds. Features include high-speed USB 2.0 and Ethernet ports, and three paper-loading options. The high-capacity top load feed can handle as many as 120 sheets of plain paper or 50 sheets of photo paper, ranging in size from 4 x 6 inches to 17 x 22 inches; the second top-loading option is for fine-art media; and a front, straight-through manual feed is available for thicker (1.5mm) media. The print head, which is one-inch wide and uses 180 nozzles per color, has an ink-repellent coating that allows droplets to flow through the head more smoothly to provide higher accuracy when placing dots on the paper. The printer is decently fast and we were able to print out 11 x 14-inch prints at 1440 DPI in eight to ten minutes. Print times, of course, vary by subject matter. While you may not use an inkjet printer for high-volume jobs, the Stylus Pro 3880 makes a great addition to your studio.

Price: $1,295

Wacom Intuos Pro TabletWacom Intuos Pro

Tablets have become an integral part of photographers’ desktop setups for editing images and the Wacom Intuos Pro is one of the best there is. Formerly called the Intuos5, the Intuos Pro is a far cry from the boring beige tablets that Wacom used to be known for. This all-black tablet is sleek, and features eight Express Keys, a Touch Ring control, wireless capability and a touch-sensitive surface. Available in three sizes, the Intuos Pro is Mac and PC compatible, and comes with a Grip Pen, pen stand, assorted replacement nibs, a 6.6-foot USB cable, quick start guide, installation CD, and a license key for free software including Anime Studio Debut 8, Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 and Nik Color Efex Pro 4 Select Edition. Beyond the benefits of 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity, the Intuos Pro provides an extraordinary number of options for programming Express Keys and the Touch Ring. Even touch gestures can be assigned tasks and application-specific custom settings to suit different workflows. If you ever forget the function you’ve assigned to one of the keys, just gently rest a finger on any key to launch the Express view display, which identifies the settings for all the keys. A Radial Menu option can be customized with up to eight different functions so you can quickly select the one you need from the on-screen menu. The Intuos Pro is a real powerhouse and helps streamline your workflow so you’re editing images more accurately and efficiently. If you haven’t used a tablet before, be sure to check out this model. If you’re already a Wacom user but don’t have the touch-enabled Intuos Pro, this is definitely a good upgrade.

Prices: $249 for small; $349 for medium; $499 for large

Apple Mac ProApple Mac Pro

Hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer. But only recently has Apple alleviated the sinking feeling that the company was no longer interested in supporting (or updating) the Mac Pro. The tower is surprisingly small with a height of 9.9 inches and a 6.6-inch diameter. It weighs about 11 pounds and offers four USB 3.0 and six Thunderbolt 2 ports, along with dual gigabit Ethernet, HDMI 1.4 UltraHD port and a headphone mini jack with headset support. Of course, the Mac Pro has wireless and Bluetooth as well. Photographers and videographers who work with multiple screens will appreciate the ability to connect up to three 4K or six Thunderbolt displays. As always, Apple offers multiple configuration options starting with the bare minimum: quad core processors, 256 GB PCIe-based flash storage and 12 GB RAM. We configured a Mac Pro on the Apple site for the most powerful setup and the price, without trackpad, keyboard or display, came to a whopping $9,599 for a 1 TB, 12-core model with 64 GB of RAM. On the other hand, if you need a real powerhouse for large RAW files and 4K video, the Mac Pro can deliver. Just be prepared for sticker shock.

Prices: From $2,999 for Quad Core; from $3,999 for 6-Core

Related Articles:

The Best Software for Managing Your Studio & Photography Business
5 Photo Printers for Big Prints
8 Great Photo Storage Solutions

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