Duncan Davidson’s Sweet Mac Setup

Who are you, what do you do, etc…?

I’m Duncan Davidson and I am a photographer, writer, and recovering software developer. Possibly my most recognizable affiliation is as the main stage photographer for TED. I’ve been exploring video and learning all I can, including bridging between stills and motion with a lot of time-lapse work, such as my recent Tribute in Light project. Finally, I’m a partner in Luma Labs which makes some awesome camera slings.

What is your current setup?

Duncan Davidson's Sweet Mac Setup

Duncan Davidson's Sweet Mac Setup

My desktop is an eight-core, early-2008 Mac Pro with 14GB of RAM, an upgraded ATI 4870 video card, an SSD boot drive in the bottom DVD drive bay, and 24TB of online storage across several arrays, both internal and external.

My primary display is a late-2008 24″ LED Cinema display. Tunes are pumped out through a set of old school USB Harman Kardon SoundSticks. Input is handed using an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard and Magic Trackpad and a Wacom Intous 4 tablet. For voice input, I use an Audio Technica AT2050 microphone hooked up to an Apogee One, and I monitor on a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M40fs headphones.

Document scanning is handed with a Fujitsu SnapScan. Photographs are scanned with an Epson v500 flatbed scanner. Most of my print needs are handled by an Epson 3880 printer, but for bigger jobs I also have a 24″ HP Z3200.

My primary laptop unless I’m in the throes of heavy photo or video work is a mid-2011, 13″ MacBook Air with 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. I went with the i5 instead of the i7 in the hope of getting the maximum battery life possible.

My secondary laptop which I pull out when I need to use FireWire drives on the road or when I know that the GPU will come in handy is a late-2008, 15″ MacBook Pro that I’ve upgraded to 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. This laptop is almost effectively retired, but not quite.

An iPhone 4 keeps me connected most of the time. A first generation iPad is what you’ll find me using on the couch or in seat 6A when I’m traveling.

Why this rig?

A desktop-plus-portable strategy is the only one that can satisfy my need for power, speed, and storage at home while also keeping things as light as possible for when I’m traveling fast. If I could go with a simpler setup, I would in a heartbeat. So far, however, the trend has been that my storage needs are ramping up quickly over time and dealing with over a TB a year of new data is the big challenge.

On the other hand, nothing beats being able to throw my MacBook Air and a Fuji X100 into a small bag and head out the door for a day or a weekend.

What software do you use and for what do you use it?

I manage my photographs using a combination of Aperture, Lightroom and Bridge. Aperture is taking over my primary catalog needs from Lightroom. I use Bridge when I need to scour through the archives of photographs that aren’t in my active catalog.

When I need more in the way of photo editing tools than I get from Aperture, I use Photoshop. When I need less, I use Acorn and sometimes even Preview.

For video, I use Final Cut Pro X and love it. I also use Compressor and After Effects for various tasks, including stitching together still frames into video clips.

When I’m in code mode, I use BBEdit or Xcode depending on the task at hand. For straight ahead writing—including all of my blog entries as well as the writing that currently isn’t seeing the light of day—I’ve become a huge fan of iA Writer.

To get things done, I use OmniFocus. At least I try. Sometimes I do better than others. Keeping all of my non-media data in sync between machines in handled by Dropbox. 1Password is essential for passwords. Mail, iCal, Safari, Numbers, and Pages are all open on my computer right now.

How does this setup help you do your best creative work?

For the most part, it lets me do what I need to do in the kinds of environments I like to be in.

At home, I’ve arranged my desk so that when I’m working on my desktop, I can look up across my living room and out my huge living room windows across downtown Portland. Watching the weather go by is therapeutic to me. The MacBook Air lets me work in cafés near home and as well as anywhere in the world. It’s even useful for the kinds of light photo editing I do on the road.

How would your ideal setup look and function?

I’m pretty close to my ideal right now. If I could change anything, I’d have a view of midtown Manhattan out my window from 25 floors up and I’d have a 15″ MacBook Pro that wasn’t much heavier than my current Air but which did have a GPU. The former is a pipe dream right now. The latter might happen any month now. Hopefully.

I used to use two screens on my desktop, and I might consider do so again. However, I’ve found that using one screen increases my ability to glance up and look outside my window. A second screen cuts that down quite a bit. As well, I’ve discovered that parking my laptop on one side lets me keep various websites or other reference material in easy view while I work on the desktop.

Finally, a closer-to-ideal setup would include a data solution for my media files that was a bit less maintenance intensive. I think the best I’ll be able to do in the near future is consolidate my various hard drive arrays into two Promise Thunderbolt R6 arrays when I upgrade my desktop machine. That jump will probably happen sometime in the next six months.

More Sweet Setups

Duncan’s setup is just one in a series of sweet Mac Setups.

Duncan Davidson’s Sweet Mac Setup