The iPad for Photographers – Part 3

A number of highly respected experts have posted recently on how to use an iPad effectively as a tool for photographers. Different people have different requirements, and these are my thoughts on how the iPad is already a useful tool in my photography, and will probably get better as more applications become available, and existing ones are improved.

In part one of this series of articles I identified, based on the work I do, four main stages in workflow in which the iPad is potentially very useful; in the second article I looked at how the iPad can be used to view the image at the time the photograph is taken, or at least within a few seconds. In part three I shall look at how the iPad might provide a stand-alone solution to some of the tasks needed to store, manage and do some very basic image manipulation when portability is paramount – such as on holidays when travelling on public transport.

Please note that I’m aware that this series of articles consists of some long and detailed discussions, and I now plan to add a fifth part, which will be an ‘Executive Summary’ of what I have found best meets my needs.

There are quite a number of possible methods for doing the tasks involve in using the iPad as a stand-alone system, so the discussion which follows will be quite long, and some readers may prefer to just turn to the Conclusions and Recommendations section!

Why a tablet computer?
This simply comes down to the question of portability, and the need for it. If I am going to do any work on photos (apart from the situation described in part 2 of this series!), then I would much prefer to work on a larger, more powerful computer, with a bigger screen more storage, more powerful software etc – providing I don’t have to carry that equipment around! If you are out for a day, then usually the processing can wait until you get back to base, and can use a computer there. If you are working in the field for a day or on a longer holiday and you need computer access, then a laptop is fine if you are using a car to transport it and the photographic equipment. However, If you are a way for several days or weeks, and you are travelling by train, bus, plane, bicycle, walking etc then having to carry the equipment on and off the transport, carry it around with you during the period you are away, and even cope with luggage restrictions imposed by the carrier, while also carrying the photographic equipment and clothes can make things difficult, and saving weight and bulk is crucial. A basic iPad, with charger, should be less than half the weight and bulk of any laptop computer. But can it do enough to make it adequate for such situations – certainly I think it is fair to say from the start that it won’t be as versatile or powerful as any laptop computer, but this may well not matter when one is out doing other things most of the time, and time for working on the computer is very limited, and even more of a chore than is normally the case!!

My existing workflow when working away from base for several days
I’ve been on many holidays, mostly photographic workshops lasting a week, where I’ve wanted and needed to process my work to some degree at the end of a day. Time is usually limited (unless the weather is bad) – we want to be out shooting rather than sitting at the computer. On several of those workshops I travelled by train and bicycle, so I was limited in what I could carry – even now I have gone back to using the car (due to age and infirmity), I really don’t want to carry more equipment than is really necessary. It is getting on for 10 years ago, but on one workshop that was specifically on Photoshop, I travelled by train to Glasgow and then rode a bicycle over 50 miles to Inversnaid, and I was the only person to have brought a computer with them, even though the others travelled by car, and it was a Photoshop workshop! I’m not boasting about this, it is just that having portable equipment and planning how to use it can be advantageous (on that workshop there were only 3 computers available, including mine).

I’d like to review my workflow when I have a laptop and other resources available – not that I think it is much different or any better than anyone else’s, but to put into perspective the way that I shall assess the iPad as an alternative. May I add that I don’t just see the iPad as an alternative, but as support if a main laptop should fail (on a holiday by car I usually take not only at least two complete camera systems, but two computers, cables etc – what would you do if any part of your system failed?).

Step 1 – Backup and save images on disc
The first thing I do when I get back from a day’s photography is not to rest, have a shower, change clothes or have a drink, but to copy the contents of the camera memory cards to disc. And not just one copy, but usually THREE, on different hard drives. I don’t think about clearing the card until not only have I done this, but also imported the images into Lightroom or Aperture, to confirm there are no problems. Just copying the card to the computer and then clearing it for re-use is NOT backup at all – the computer disc might fail! Sorry – rant over for the moment, but it is relevant to how well or badly the iPad can be a substitute for a laptop computer!

Of course nearly all photo programs have facilities for copying the images direct from a memory card, but personally I feel uncomfortable about entrusting the copying of my files to this sort of program, so I do this manually and then use the facilities in the program to import the images from the folders I have created.

My personal preference is to store the images in a ‘Photos’ directory, which has sub-folders for each year, and then directories relating to the particular shoot, which start with he date and are followed by a brief indication of the contents, such as 2011-04-10Mull). I rely mainly on keywords to identify images, but this file structure can be useful if I don’t keyword properly, or want to find some images without accessing my photo-management software later.

Step 2 – import the data into a program for managing the images
If I am on a photographic workshop, usually we aim to project some of the day’s images in the evening after dinner. Even if I am just doing my own thing, I like to do some basic organisation of my photos as I go along, even though the essential back-up has been completed. For me this is really about managing the images, not just looking at them, and Lightroom and Aperture are for me by far the best solutions – basic input and image management is simple, quick and intuitive, but almost all the image manipulation I may need can be done later without using any other software, and no effort is wasted. Yes, they can look quite complicated, but only if you want to use all the available facilities – it is perfectly possible to use them in a very simple way. Some programs like iPhoto can do much more restricted importing and management of the images, but they are quite limited in terms of more serious image manipulation, and if you then have to go into another program to achieve what you want, they involve much more work. Lightroom is available on both Mac and PC platforms (not Linux, which is a reason why I have almost given up on using Linux for useful work), but APerture is only available on the Mac; but recently Apple reduced the price of the DOWNLOADED version of Aperture to around half that of Lightroom, so if you have a Mac it is certainly attractive. Both are of course much cheaper than the full version of Photoshop, and will make Photoshop unnecessary for most people most of the time, and I find programs like Photoshop Elements are excessively constrained, dumbed-down, unintuitive and frustrating!

During the import into the programs mentioned, you can generally apply some settings if you want – I usually would choose to add some copyright information to the metadata (ie not a modification of the picture itself) and also a global keyword (eg ‘Mull 2011’), though I will be able to modify these later.

Step 3 – basic rating and selection of images
Once I have my images in a suitable program (Lightroom or Aperture for me), I want to decide which are the ‘best’ ones. If I am on a photographic workshop this will be important, as I will probably want to display them later in the evening, but even at other times I like to decide as soon as possible which images may be worth further work. I would quickly view each image and give it either a reject rating (only for shots of my feet, grossly blurred images etc), worth looking at again, or really very indifferent. My initial objective in rating the images is that 1 star photos will be poor, 2 star only a bit better, 3 are certainly at least ‘record of the event’ quality, 4 star are candidates for serious work either now or later, and 5 star are the best, at least for this shoot.

After thinning out by rating 1 or zero stars, or reject, I do a second (filtered) pass and rate the better images 2 star. This goes on, bearing in mind the final objective of my ratings. If I am on a workshop and need images for later in the evening, I will probably go all the way to the 5 star rating (though I may review these images against 4 star ratings when I get home). If I am not needing under 10 images later that day I may only go as far as filtering to 3 star level, and will complete the review at a later date.

Step 4 – Save images for use later that day
If I am a workshop and need a few images (5-10) later that evening, then I filter to select only the 5 star images, then do some very basic image manipulation, such as crop, rotate, and level adjustment. I probably apply my standard clarity and sharpening to all the images at this time too, simply because I normally find this appropriate as a starting point.

Finally, I would export JPEG versions of the selected images to a folder, copy them to a USB stick and pass them on to whoever is in charge of the projection session in the evening.

Possible iPad solutions
The iPad differs in many respects from a more conventional computer, and therefore it would be a mistake to try to exactly replicate the workflow which suits such a computer and its software when using the iPad. For that reason, in what follows I shall be describing a slightly different workflow for the one described above, although the main steps are essentially the same.

It has to be said from the start that at present the iPad does not provide such a complete, smooth and straightforward workflow as that I am used to on a computer with Windows or OS X. This is largely down to the limitations in Apple’s iOS operating system, the built-in application Photos, and unfortunately the way that iOS allows, or rather limits, the way in which applications written by third parties can access photos.

Step 1 – Back up and save images in a program for managing the images
The iPad’s operating system has no independent file system, so data is directly associated with an application. If the data is to be worked on with another application, the second application will need to work with the first application in order to gain access to the data. For this reason I can’t manually copy files into directories and then import them into an application, I have to do the equivalent of the loading direct from card that programs like Lightroom and Aperture provide, but which I don’t normally use.

With the iPad loading the images from the camera can be done either using the camera kit for the iPad, which loads the images into the iPad’s Photos application, or via Shuttersnitch if your camera has a wi-fi attachment (expensive and bulky – see Part 2 of this series) or using an Eye-Fi memory card if the camera takes SD cards.

If your camera does not take SD cards, then you may have a problem in either case unless you have a camera manufacturer’s WI-Fi attachment, and few cameras have one available, and those that do are expensive and bulky. The Eye-Fi card is only available in SD format, and the rare SD to CF card converters that are available usually shield the card to the extent that it won’t work as a wireless transmitter. There is no official iPad to CF card adapter – there is a third party one, but reports suggest this is not entirely reliable. However, all is not lost, as the Apple iPad camera connection kit provides not only an SD card reader but also a USB adapter to allow the camera to be connected directly to the computer, so you can use that solution instead. The other apparent option might appear to be to connect one of the many card readers which are available to this USB connection, but unfortunately the iPad cannot provide enough power to drive such a reader. What I have tried doing, successfully, is attaching a powered USB hub to the USB adapter on the iPad, and then connecting a card reader to the powered hub. While it worked with the D-Link hub and Sandisk reader I tested, I am not sure that it would work with alternative makes and models.

Although Shuttersnitch is a great program for importing images for quick display, wireless transmission is quite slow, and using it to copy over 100 RAW files to the iPad would be very time consuming, and therefore I would tend to rule out this and the Eye-Fi card for getting the full-sized images into the iPad (as opposed to using it for getting small JPEGs in just for viewing, as described in part 2 of the series). There is another problem too in using that method – as we shall see, you will need to keep the original images on the card until you get back to a conventional computer with external disc storage in order to have a back-up, so you would probably need multiple Eye-Fi cards, which would be expensive. Although you might only send the JPEGs of a RAW+JPEG image to the iPad using an Eye-Fi card and Shuttersnitch, this would mean no back up at all of the original RAW file in the card, and would probably mean that any viewing and rating work done in the iPad would be lost when loading the RAW image into a computer after returning home.

Since the iPad cannot store data to external discs or USB pen drives, there is no immediate means of backing up what you have loaded into Photos, so you will need to retain the data on the card as a backup until you have access to a computer with proper storage, ie you cannot safely clear the card. In practice this is not as much of a problem as it might seem, since normal (ie not Eye-Fi) SD cards are relatively cheap and are certainly small and light, so you just need several of these and manage them until backup is available via a conventional computer; of course you only have a single backup until you have access to a computer, rather than the 2 I normally keep even when working in the field. Could you use ‘cloud’ storage as an alternative for backup (ie transmit the images to Dropbox, MobileMe or some similar service)? Apart from the fact that you would need to pay for an account with perhaps 50G storage, the transmission of 100 or more images at the end of a day would be prohibitively slow, even if you have access to an internet connection via Wi-Fi, which may not be the case in some remote locations.

If you use the Apple camera kit connection, which emerged above as really the only practical solution for loading a substantial number of RAW files, the images will be loaded automatically into the iPad Photos application. Unfortunately this is depressingly primitive – almost everything is loaded into one ‘folder’ (although fortunately it is possible to identify images by ‘event’, which means the date on which they were shot), and there is no way in the iPad itself to split this up. There are no rating or selection facilities at all, other than discarding (permanently erasing) images. To add real insult to injury, the Apple iOS operating system does not allow third party developers of software to access the images stored in iPhoto except through a particular software interface provided by Apple, and that interface does not at present provide some important information which is in the image, not least the file name! Thus all these third party applications designed for working with images in Photos have to rename the image file with some arbitrary sequential number, which can make managing images later much more frustrating and difficult. Images captured direct using wi-fi by Shuttersnitch are not subject to this limitation, as the data does not have to go through Apple’s Photos app, but, as already noted, it is not practical to import large numbers of large RAW files via wi-fi. Apple’s ‘vision’ seems to be that managing and organising images will be done a conventional computer, and that we will rely on iTunes to transfer the resulting images back to the iPad – unnecessarily limiting and unhelpful in the situation we are considering here, where we won’t have access to a computer for several days.

So basic data capture is likely to have to be done using the camera kit and the images will be in Photos, but with little organisation, no means of re-organising, rating or even selecting the images, and loss of file names and other data for applications which might allow us to do more work on the image. Additionally we will need to keep the original cards with the images on as backup until we have access to a computer with external disc drives. However, all is not lost, even though there is no ideal solution available at present.

Photos, at least if used with a program like Photosmith, may allow us to backup our cards, and view all the images without modification, but it is on its own sadly inadequate at present.

Step 2 – Basic rating and selection of images
If the previous step presents some problems, then at present things don’t improve much as we progress to this next step.

Apple’s own Photos application may suffice to view pre-prepared albums of photos downloaded via iTunes from a computer, but it seems of little use for anything else. All photos loaded by the camera kit simply go into one single folder (admittedly, you can view this by ‘event’ ie date shot), they cannot be rated, the order cannot be changed, and you cannot extract a selection. You can delete (ie completely erase) images, and you can run a slideshow of all these images in the original order, but that is all.

Since Photos is of little use to us, we have to consider other applications offered by other developers, and as explained already these are hindered by the limitations imposed by Apple on how they can access the data. So any programs which access data captured by Photos at present will be unable to use the original file names generated by the camera, and some other data cannot be retrieved and displayed, though it still exists in Photos and will not normally be lost when the images are transferred later to a conventional computer. The only current exception that I am aware of is images directly input wirelessly via Shuttersnitch, since they do not go through Photos, and hence the original filename is kept. Although Shuttersnitch can also import images which have been input into Photos, which is very handy, these photos will lose their original file name, due to the limitations of the Apple iOS programming interface.

The applications I consider potentially most useful for doing basic rating and selection of images at the present time are Photosmith and Shuttersnitch. Although Shuttersnitch was originally a wi-fi image acquisition facility, it now has the ability to do some simple selection using star ratings. You can also import images from Photos and rate these in the same way, though losing the original file names. Unfortunately the only output facilities currently are to send reduced resolution/quality images by email, and to run a slideshow. Unless or until some export facilities are available, this really rules out Shuttersnitch for what we are doing in this part of the series, especially as wi-fi input of large RAW files would be very slow. However, it remains excellent for quickly viewing images immediately after they are taken, as described in part 1.

Photosmith is an ambitious project, and the first public version was release only a few weeks ago. It is intended for taking images from Photos and allowing them to be viewed, rated, colour labelled and keyworded in the iPad, and then exported to a computer directly into Lightroom using a small automated plug-in within Lightroom (a possible implementation for Aperture has also been mentioned, though given the amount of work still to be done to meet all the possible wishes of Lightroom users, this seems very unlikely in the near future). At the time of writing this is really only a one-way process – in theory I believe that images imported this way, and kept on the iPad, should automatically update ratings etc if these are changed in the host computer (assuming of course you make a connection!), but this does not work at all reliably at present, and there is no facility for transferring older images from Lightroom to Photosmith for rating etc, though this and other improvements are planned, if not imminent.

For the basic process of accessing the images from Photos (without the original file names), viewing, rating, keywording and selecting images using a filter, Photosmith already works reasonably well, though I have not found a way of selecting multiple images at the same time to apply the rating and keywords to all of them (another horrendous limitation of Phots, where as far as I can see you have to select each image individually in order to delete it when you have finished working on it). New ‘Collections’ can be created, and you can send selected images or collections to Dropbox, Flickr, Email or Facebook direct, without having to wait for access to a conventional computer, so some degree of publishing is possible. Although there is no slideshow function at present, by creating a suitable collection and then going into full screen mode the images can be viewed on the internal screen, and with an iPad 2 and the appropriate connector it should be possible to view them using an external monitor or digital projector. Unfortunately there is at present no way of doing even the most basic modification of the image.

Although in these very early days Photosmith has a few problems, it is potentially very exciting, and well worth trying – we must just hope that the developers maintain their enthusiasm.

One other program which I will mention here is Pixelsync. This in some respects aims to do what Photosmith does, but with Aperture and iPhoto. However, due to the problem of not being able to access the filename, the developer has chosen not to provide any means of importing images from Photos at this stage (he states he had a prototype version working, but considers the limitations unacceptable and will not provide this until Apple provide all the data for the images held in Photos – sad, but I respect his unwillingness to compromise). This means the application is unable to help us at this time, but for downloading images from Aperture, rating them, and syncing back to Aperture it is useful, and we will mention it again in part 4 of this series. A new version (1.3) is due in June, and I await this with interest.

Photosmith allows images to be exported to Dropbox etc, and of course will send them direct to Lightroom, but there is another way of copying images from Photos in the iPad back to a computer (and vice versa), namely PhotoSync. This is quite effective, and allows images to be placed into specific folders. Since you can select the photos to be sent to the computer by ‘event’, ie Photos import session, it is possible to split up the images by date when exporting them. The Dropbox application on the iPad also provides some facilities for exporting images from Photos to the cloud version of Dropbox (and thence automatically to your computer), but be warned that it reduces the quality in the process, with no means of recovering it, so it is to be avoided at all costs!

Given the limitations of Photos, it is very surprising that Apple has not provided any cloud-based support for storing and properly managing images within its own MobileMe facility – it is to be hoped that they may at some point do so, and in the process perhaps alleviate some of the limitations of the current version of Photos.

Stage 3 – Save images for later in the day
The process of selection has been described in stage 2 above. If I need images for projection, as I often do on a photographic workshop each day, I would normally want just a few images (less than 10), and really would want to do some very basic editting – cropping, level horizons, and ideally simply adjust exposure, black point and brightness (equivalent to a ‘levels’ adjustment in Photoshop). Although there are programs which can do this, and which I will describe in part 4 of this series, they usually work by copying images from Photos, making adjustments and then saving a new copy. They do not fit in well with the workflow I have described so far, and the adjustments are ‘baked’ into the new copy of the image which is created. They also require substantial working space in storage. At present I don’t really have any solution to this basic editting which I regard as satisfactory.

There are also some problems associated with getting images into a form for projection. We cannot output from the iPad to a USB memory card, so if we want to project the images we currently have to either:

  • Export wirelessly to a cloud service like Dropbox, and then rely on the assistance of someone with a computer to access the Dropbox and copy to a USB memory card on their computer.
  • Connect the projector direct to the iPad and display the images that way. The original iPad 1 limited the use of an external monitor/projector to specific applications, though the iPad 2 reportedly provides output to projectors or monitors at all times if fitted with the appropriate adapter. As mentioned earlier, if you are using Photosmith then although it does not currently have a slideshow option, you can use full screen display and manually advance through selected images in a way which would be adequate for showing to small groups, though it would probably be rather unsatisfactory if the audience consists of clients you want to impress! The other alternative would be to create a presentation using the equivalent of Powerpoint (eg Keynote or Quickoffice), but even for a small number of images this would be very labour intensive, and quite frustrating on an iPad, as each image would need to be imported and resized individually.

Is the iPad a practical alternative for light storage, photo management and editting when portability makes a laptop computer an encumbrance?
The answer to this has to be yes and no! At the time of writing you will need to make some significant compromises to use the iPad for this purpose, notably in the need to keep the original data on cards until you have access to a computer to back up, the loss of the original file names, and at present the applications available are at a relatively early stage in their life. Photosmith probably offers the most potential, especially for those who use Lightroom on a conventional computer (Mac or PC). The present version works quite well for basic operation on images imported into Photos using the camera kit, and will subsequently transfer these images, ratings etc to Lightroom. At present though it has problems with some RAW formats, in that for example resolution may not be correctly displayed (though the image is not affected), and some ‘features’ need to be addressed. Quick, very basic edits of selected images are also not really very practical at this time.

The alternatives which are obviously available for those requiring maximum portability are:

  • Take no computer at all. Any work on images and any backup will then be impossible unless you can prevail upon someone to let you use their equipment, or you know there will be access to a means of doing this at the destinations.
  • Take a small laptop computer – it may not be as powerful as a larger computer, but will still provide more and better backup options and the ability to do work on the images in, for example, Lightroom, and will not mean any duplication of that work when you return to base. A number of very modestly priced netbooks are available which will meet these needs, though the low resolution small screens can be limiting, and an 11 inch MacBook Air would also be an attractive proposition, albeit at a substantially higher price.
  • The nearest direct competitor to an iPad at present would be one of the new Android tablets, but at present they are at least as limiting as the iPad, and quite possibly more so.

Conclusions and Recommendations
The iPad can be used as a sole computer for photographers when maximum portability is required, such as on holidays using public transport. However, at present there are significant compromises that have to be made compared with using a laptop computer, notably in terms of loss of file names and serious limitations on even mild ‘tweaking’ of the image. To provide any true backup you will need to keep the images on the camera cards until you have access to a computer with disc storage, and outputting selected images for projection will be a problem. Many of the limitations are due to the current very limited capability of Apples iPad Photos application and the limitations it also imposes on other software developers to provide better facilities.

Compared to a reasonably high-performance 14 or 15 inch laptop computer, there is a substantial saving in size and weight, but a huge loss in capability – the savings may justify the losses though. Compared with a much small netbook computer, or for example a MacBook Air, the savings in size and weight are quite small, and although such machines may be limited compared to a higher performance laptop, they still offer substantially more facilities for a photographer than an iPad does at present – price of a small netbook may be lower too, though a MacBook Air is substantially more expensive. If portability is really important, but one does not want too many compromises in terms of storing and processing the images away from base, I would opt for the small netbook and 1 external drive in preference to the iPad solution. When I go on such photographic holidays I usually take two laptops (backup in case of hardware problems), and in this situation I would be happy to substitute an iPad for the second laptop.

Above: Small lightweight, high-performance kit(s) assembled with portability in mind. In the centre is a Panasonic GH2 and the very versatile 14-140 lens, with 5 additional 8G memory cards, spare batteries and charger, plus a polarising filter. On the left is the iPad option, charger, SD card reader from the camera kit and a lead to allow it to be connected to a projector or monitor (more on this later). On the right is an alternative computer system based on a Samsung NC10 netbook, with power supply, mouse (I hate touch pads on PCs), an optional 500G external hard drive and a USB memory card to allow images to be transferred to another computer for projection; the drive and USB card give extra capability compared to the iPad, so perhaps should not have been included. The angle of the photograph does not show that the Samsung is 2-3 times the thickness of the iPad, and the weight is about double (around 2.5 pounds v 1.3 pounds). Not shown, but I would be unwilling to go without it, is a tripod – larger and heavier than either of the computer systems above!

The Future
Much depends on Apple improving their Photos application on the iPad, and more importantly modifying the programming interface so that other application developers have full access to the image data, especially file names. Applications like Shuttersnitch and, especially, Photosmith, are relatively new, and are still being developed, but have enormous potential, especially if Apple allow them more access to photo data. Although at this time I find an iPad limiting in terms of storing and working on photographic images, if these problems can be overcome the situation could change dramatically in quite a short period of time, and an iPad could be a satisfactory solution when portability is crucial.

I shall certainly be watching development with keen interest, and I’ll be continuing to experiment to see how I can use the iPad in this respect.

In the next part of this series of articles I’ll look at using the iPad to do some basic manipulation of the images – this will be a much shorter article than the present one! The final part which will follow that will summarise all the conclusions.

Additional references
As I mentioned at the start of this article, and the whole series, a number of other people have written on this subject recently. Personally I have found some of these reports are a bit disappointing, but I certainly have found Rob Galbraith’s web site and Terry White’s Tech Blog extremely useful.

Adorama have produced a video outlining the use of Photosmith on the iPad – you can see it HERE.

About Mike Hessey

I'm a BOF (Boring Old Fellow) and MOS (Miserable Old Soul) whose main interests are photography, cycling, walking and computers. Regrettably recent problems with my legs, back and heart have reduced the cycling and walking.
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