The essentials for setting up a computer for photography as your own digital darkroom

Computer set-up for photographyWe often refer to a computer set-up for photography as a digital darkroom, as they have taken the place of the traditional wet darkrooms for many photographers. A digital darkroom not only replaces the processes of old – it improves on them and offers control and capabilities far beyond traditional processes too. The heart of any system is the computer itself; it is the powerhouse that works behind the scenes to perform all the ‘number-crunching’ processing quickly and effectively. 

The age-old debate as to whether a PC or Apple Mac computer is the best option for imaging continues, though differences in their abilities and performance is negligible and both are more than capable of complex image-editing tasks.

Digital means getting results fast, but you’ll need a system to match your needs. A computer set-up is easily obtainable from a variety of manufacturers and can often be customised to the specification of your choosing. But with ‘quad core’ this and ‘gigahertz’ that, what exactly should you look for, what do these specs mean and why might you want to invest more money in certain areas? We show you the basic info to look out for when buying…

Your MonitorComputer set-up Monitor

Your monitor is your only real representation of your image before you print it, so its ability to accurately display colour and tone is paramount. A higher quality monitor will offer a better colour reproduction (or wider gamut), so it’s worth investing in a decent screen. If you don’t intend to print your images, however, (keeping them online, for instance) you need to be less concerned with the full range of colours the monitor offers. Screen resolution is also important as it provides more real estate to work with.

A standard screen will offer 1280×1024 pixels, while the new 27in iMac, for example, has a larger-than-Full-HD 2560×1440 resolution – perfect for video editors setting a full 1080p clip in the centre with plenty of surrounding space for software tools, such as an editing program. The resolution is also great for seeing large stills while editing too, so there’s less need to magnify the images within the program.

Hard DiskComputer set-up Hard Disk

Images and video take up a lot of space. So when it comes to internal hard disk space, think big. Terabytes big. The more you have the better, though it’s an absolute essential to have backup external drives, as any mechanical device (including your hard drive) can fail and precious data can be lost. Most new models offer at least 200GB hard drives as standard but for imaging it is worth investing in a 500GB drive, or 1TB (terabyte) if your budget can stretch to it.


Computer set-up Processor Essentially the computer’s brain, the processor executes program instructions, as measured in hertz (cycles per second). A 1GHz processor, for example, can execute one billion instructions per second. And with technology getting ever more demanding, multi-core processors have become more common. The latest Intel processors are the i3, i5, and i7 models, with AMD offering similar performances from the latest Athlon and Phenom models.

Graphics Card 

Computer set-up Graphics cardThe graphics card deals with ensuring images are displayed correctly. For a static image, where pixels remain in the same place, the graphics card has a relatively easy job. However, video processing, 3D modelling or other such complex displays are more intensive on your graphics card. Graphics cards have dedicated RAM specifically for this visual-relay purpose, with a 256MB or 512MB card becoming more common and useful for complex editing.

RAM Computer set-up RAM

‘Random Access Memory’, the computer’s RAM, is like a short-term memory bank. Unlike hard disks that require mechanical movement, RAM is flash-based for immediacy that then feeds the processor. 

Different derivatives (DDR SDRAM, for example) are the beefed-up versions that are most compliant with current motherboard and processor speeds, but are built on the same original principle of operation.Generally speaking the more RAM the better, as more programs can sit loaded ‘in wait’ for quick and/or simultaneous use.

But if your operating system is 32-bit it can only directly connect with about 3GB of RAM, any more being redundant. 64-bit operating systems can connect with 4-8GB and potentially even more, though this comes at cost and the performance gain won’t rise too steeply. 2-4GB is plenty for a standard setup.


The two common standards for connections to your computer are USB and Firewire. In the coming months USB 3.0 will likely become more commonplace, and for good reason – it’s incredibly fast. However, you’ll need the full hardware in place to be USB 3.0 compliant. The next-fastest standard is Firewire 800, followed by USB 2.0. Another worthy venture is to look for a computer with an SD port as this may come in handy for quick transfer of images.

To find out more about the hardware you need to make your computer a complete digital darkroom, visit…

Computer accessories for photography

Making your computer portable for photography 

Our Backup choices: External hard drives