Beauty & The Beast

Tame the large files produced by a high-resolution digital SLR

Beauty & The Beast  They’re beautiful—one look and I’m captivated. I stare and find myself absorbed by every detail. If this isn’t love, it’ll do. As a card-carrying photo geek, I admit that looking at digital files produced by the new 12- and 16-megapixel SLRs leads to a rush that normally means a trip to the confessional. Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but not by much.

What’s so thrilling about a super-megapixel camera goes beyond bragging rights, No, it’s the large file it produces and the imaging possibilities that file holds. So it’s with anticipation that I sit down at my computer and begin applying filters, adding layers, and enhancing colors, contrast and sharpness. I’m having a ball tweaking and shaping the image to perfection as the file gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Suddenly, my joy is assaulted with sluggish progress bars and intrusive error messages declaring I’ve exhausted my system resources. My excitement quickly turns to frustration as I consider the creative fixes to apply to my computer, none of which are effective.

Managing Size With Speed
You’ll be hearing a lot about 64-bit processing in the coming months, particularly with Microsoft’s announcement of its Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. Navigating through the marketing hype to come, what’s applicable to photographers is that the release of the new operating system (OS) will take full advantage of the 64-bit processors that have been built into computers using AMD and Intel chipsets for the last several years. Most importantly, it’s going to provide performance improvements that make handling large image files a pleasure rather than heartbreakingly painful.

Right now, the maximum amount of RAM a current computer can handle is 4 GB. With Windows XP Pro x64 working in tandem with a 64-bit processor, that jumps to a whopping 128 GB. Now, that won’t make a huge difference if you’re working with a single image file. If you’re a photographer who’s creating a panorama using dozens of 19 MB RAW files, however, you have the means to easily handle the resulting file that’s measured not in megabytes, but in gigabytes.

All of this is achieved without sacrificing compatibility with 32-bit based software, which includes Photoshop. According to Adobe, 64-bit systems still will deliver performance gains with Photoshop CS2, although it won’t be able to take direct advantage of RAM capacities beyond 4 GB. That’s because Photoshop CS2 indirectly can make use of additional memory installed in the machine as part of the OS disk cache.

Mac users aren’t being left behind. Apple Computer’s release of OS X 10.4 (Tiger) provides better utilization of Apple’s 64-bit G5 processors and its system resources.

Time For A Makeover
If you’re skittish about starting a relationship with a brand-new operating system, there are computer upgrades that can lengthen your honeymoon with your high-resolution system.

Having plenty of RAM makes all the difference when it comes to performance. Skimp on RAM, and your computer is forced to start swapping data with your hard drive, which is much, much slower. Depend on your hard drive to manage data and you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that watching paint peel is a more productive use of your time.

It’s not enough to simply buy the fastest RAM chip you can afford; you need to look at what you already have to determine what you need. Your computer manual or the system resources dialog in Windows will provide the necessary information. The mistake you don’t want to make is to install RAM that doesn’t match the speed of the existing memory. If your new chip is faster, you’ll see little performance gains, as the system will default to its lowest common denominator.

Crucial Technology has made it easy by including a software utility on its Website called Crucial Scan. Download it and it will analyze your system and recommend the best memory. If you decide to take advantage of a faster chipset, it’s best to also replace the existing RAM, rather than supplement it.

How much RAM should you get? As much as your system and pocketbook allows. Although 512 MB may be enough to get the job done, it really becomes a question of how long you want to wait for it to do it. As I’m often accused of having the attention span of a gnat, I vote for more memory, and at today’s prices, it’s much more affordable to do so.

Drives to store those hundreds and thousands of images are getting bigger as well. While internal desktop hard drives are reaching capacities as high as 500 GB, external hard drives with capacities of a terabyte or more are available.

Devices such as the LaCie Bigger Disk Extreme feature capacities ranging from one to two terabytes. It includes both FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 interfaces, the latter of which uses a data transfer rate of up to 88 MB/sec. That’s smoking!

USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 deliver fast throughput, but remember that your system is only as good as its weakest component. Choose a large hard drive with a slow rotation speed (4,800 rpm) and those small delays will slowly add up.

Where Pixels Make A Home
Your memory card size will have to increase. That 1 GB card may have been adequate with your lower-resolution camera, but you’ll find that same card holds only 52 RAW images (19 MB each) from your high-resolution SLR. That’s less than two rolls of film. And if you’re shooting RAW+JPEG, you’ve finished even before you started.

CompactFlash cards are available in capacities of 4 GB, 8 GB and even 12 GB. Although such cards become pricier as you increase capacity, they may be well worth the investment if you expect to shoot hundreds rather than dozens of photographs. Size alone shouldn’t be the only consideration, however. You’re going to have to think about speed.

A memory card’s read and write speeds are a major factor when it comes to performance. Cards designed specifically for digital SLRs may be identified by a speed factor of 20x to 80x (Lexar) or by a name such as Extreme III (SanDisk). For example, the Lexar Media 8 GB Pro Series 40x provides write and read speeds of up to 80x, with a sustainable data transfer rate of up to 12 MB/sec. The SanDisk 4 GB promises to deliver a minimum of 20 MB/sec. These high-performance cards will execute much better than just a standard CompactFlash card.

In order to obtain these fast speeds, your camera will have to support the technology, and you can expect that various camera models will perform slightly differently even with the same card. If your camera doesn’t support such fast cards, it will make use of the capacity, but not the increased speed.

Reining in these large files is possible, whether you upgrade your existing system or buy a new computer. And even though the beast may never turn into a prince, you’ll at least make him a little easier to look at.