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Gear Inspiration

The post-production equipment for the ultra-portable photographic studio. What laptop for your Fuji?

· 22.January.2016

In the past posts I wrote about my Fujifilm cameras settings and accessories, and about my ultra-portable studio equipment. Today I want to talk to you about the last part of my ultra-portable “photographic office” set-up: my post-production set-up. We’ll see what are my requirements, what it’s currently available on the market, and how my set-up solution makes me able to go on location light and easy, and still be able to produce full quality works from the ideas (sketching), through the shooting, to the final post-production.

My previous set-up was a 17inch MacBook Pro, accessorized with a SDXC Card slot and an Intuos graphic tablet. Since I started working with the Fujifilm system and setting up my ultra-portable studio, this post-production equipment quickly became the Achilles’ heel in portability, with its large size, need for space for the 17inch and the tablet, and the overall weight of 3.5Kg. So, when the MacBook started giving me performance and stability issues I started looking into other solutions.

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What I wanted was a lighter and smaller laptop with a pen and touchscreen precise enough to replicate the pen/tablet interaction I was used to with the Intuos. Luckily for me, such laptops now exist. They are the ones equipped with active digitizers, a technology currently produced by Wacom, N-Trig, and Synaptic, that allows the laptop to work with pens much more accurately than the common capacitive screens. There are quite a number of laptops in the market that mount such digitizer, but only a very few are equipped with hardware appropriate for intense photographic post-production. In this category fall the Cintiq Companion 2, by Wacom, the Surface Pro 4, by Microsoft, the Spectre X360, by HP, and the Canvas, by Vaio. They all run Windows 10, no Apple solutions here.

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All these options are great tools for a photographer that wants to be able to go on full retouching on the field. They all work well. They are all better than a MacBook + Intuos combination. That said, I had to choose one, so here are my considerations. I spent a couple of hours trying the Cintiq Companion 2 at the Wacom store in Rome. It had the best pen, provided the best drawing experience, but didn’t have a keyboard that could be attached to it, the stand was external and weird, and every configuration with an i7 would costs over 2000 euros. At another local store I had a chance to try the Surface Pro 4. It had the second best pen, provided the second best drawing experience, had a detachable keyboard, was gorgeously designed, but it had only one USB port, no integrated SDXC card slot at all, and there appeared to be some weird performance throttling with the i7 version, plus here in Europe it was more expensive than the Cintiq Companion 2 (considering the 150 euros for the keyboard). The Vaio Canvas seemed like a fantastic workstation, it was the only one in the group that hosted a quad-core processor, plus it mounted a matte screen, better suited for drawing and post-production. However the new Vaio company did not export its product in Europe, so no sellers and no assistance. No party.

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The Spectre X360 was instead kind of a mysterious object. There was no referencing about its digitizer on HP’s website, and no mention about pens’ compatibility, however as usual the web knows it all, once you spend enough time on google. So I eventually found out that it had a Synaptic digitizer, that it worked best with the Dell 750AAC pen, and that I could use the Wacom Remote with it. Luckily all of these items were available on Amazon, which provided 30 days of full return policy, so I decided to give it a try. The pen is the worse among the group, so it is the drawing experience. But, for as bad as it is, the overall experience it’s still very good for photographic post-production. With respect with the Companion and the Surface, the Spectre is a full featured 13.33” laptop, meaning that it has a full sized keyboard and touchpad, mounts an excellent screen that can rotate 180° till becoming essentially a tablet, the batteries have very good autonomy, the design is gorgeous, plus it sports three USB port, an SDXC card slot, an HDMI port, a mini display port, and has a very convenient Windows button on its side. The cherry on the cake is the price, less than 1600 euros. Once I added the pen (36 euros) and the Wacom remote (100 euros) I was still well behind the Wacom and Microsoft options.

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So, how does the Spectre work as a “graphic tablet with integrated display” for a photographer? Once set it up correctly with the pen and the remote, it’s almost perfect, especially thanks to its small size, the tablet mode option, and the overall weight of 1.5Kg (2Kg less than my previous set-up). The Dell’s pen gets automatically recognized, while the Wacom remote needs the Cintiq drivers to be installed and the little usb dongle to be plugged in. Good thing the Spectre has three usb plugs! In tablet mode the lack of a physical keyboard is well balanced by the two buttons on the Dell’s pen and the 17 buttons plus ring of the Wacom remote. The pen’s button can’t be configured, with the upper one operating as a “right click”, and the lower one as an “eraser” on software that allow for it, such as OneNote, SketchBook, and Photoshop. The Wacom remote, instead, can be configured in every possible aspect, with specific configurations depending on the software in use. It’s really a tremendous asset that never, ever, made me wish I had a keyboard during my sketching or post-production sessions. The palm rejection is another aspect I had to tune. While every digitizer technology allows for palm rejection, its overall functionality depends on the ability of the screen to detect the pen presence before it hits the screen. Wacom’s digitizers are the best in this respect, they “see” the pen when it’s well far from the screen, so it’s very difficult to mess with the palm while holding the pen. The Synaptic’s digitizer is quite bad in this respect, detecting the pen only at less than 1cm of distance. I created a script, which I “pinned” to the Windows 10 Start, that disables the touch features of the screen, leaving only the digitizer on. I launch the script whenever I’m in a drawing or post-production session, and I deactivate it when I’m done and I want the touch features back on. It’s really a breeze to switch the touch on and off now, and I don’t have problems with my palms anymore.

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My normal creative workflow starts with a sketch of my latest idea. The sketch is fundamental to “move” the image from my imagination to a more tangible form. During the sketching process I question the composition, the perspective, the lightning, and the overall equilibrium of the idea. New details inevitably pop out during the process, and at the end I have a visual reference for planning the shootings needed to create the final picture. I usually prefer Autodesk Sketchbook to Photoshop for sketching, even though I didn’t upgrade to the full version, so I’m limited to a few levels and brushes. The Spectre runs Sketchbook very well, and with the Spectre in “tablet mode” the drawing experience with the Dell pen is good enough for my sketching abilities.

The second step in my creative workflow is to plan and then perform the shootings. It’s really a pity that neither the X100T nor the X10 can be tethered with Lightroom, because that would have been really a great asset. True, Fuji cameras with integrated WiFi can use the PC Auto Save utility which allow for wireless transfer of the photos, but to be useful it should work in background as my Eye-Fi cards do, otherwise it’s just a slower and battery demanding way to upload photos. What I like, instead, is the Fujifilm design of USB connection, that allows for camera charging during downloads: no need to worry about the camera switching off during file downloads. Eyefi cards work as well as usual and, with Lightroom’s autoimport feature, photos automatically show up in Lightroom with selected presets already applied.

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Once the files are downloaded in Lightroom, I use the Spectre in either laptop or tablet mode to apply some quick corrections to the raw files and to select the good shots. I set the remote buttons to help me scroll through libraries, navigate through photos, reject or flag, etcetera. When I’m ready to test a photograph in Photoshop I simple right click to it with the pen and select “Edit in Photoshop CC”. 

And it’s with Photoshop that my set-up really shines. Cutting a subject out of a photo and pasting it on another, as well as operate super fine adjustments, has never been so easy and precise. I can work directly on the image, applying for example the dodge and burn tools directly on the areas I want to dodge or burn. It’s a matter of speed, straightforwardness and precision: working directly on the image makes me faster and more effective in applying the brushes, the retouches, or in making the selections.

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Now I can start working on an idea anywhere, by sketching it down, I can bring the sketches with me during the shootings, I can download the photographs on the spot without removing the camera from the tripod, I can archive and tweak them in Lightroom, and even do the heavy post production in Photoshop directly on the spot, I don’t need extra space or extra luggage, it’s all light, portable, fits in a backpack, with no compromises in the final quality!

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