The iPad for Photographers – a recap and update

In the first part of this series on using the iPad in working with images I identified the four main areas in which I think it is most useful. In the subsequent two parts which have been published so far, I have looked at two of these in great detail. Developments in hardware and software are still in progress, so this seems a suitable point to summarise what I wrote in those two parts, and also to mention some of these developments as far as they are relevant to what I have written previously – new information is italicised in the text below.

As with all these articles, these are just my own views – you may not agree, it’s up to you!

Image capture and near-immediate display
There are many situations, primarily in studio photography, where immediate display of the captured image is extremely useful, for example to check for shadows, evenness of lighting, depth of field, pose, and getting customer approval (the cameras’ built-in LCD screens are usually too small to be useful for these purposes). Although with some cameras it is possible to tether the camera to a computer, having to move to the computer screen to view the results is often inconvenient, and cables between camera and computer are a hazard. In looking at how the iPad can help in this situation we found that those with cameras which can use an SD card have a good solution available, namely using the Eye-Fi wireless SD memory card in the camera, and either Eye-FI software or better still the ShutterSnitch app in the iPad. If you shoot JPEG, or perhaps even more so if you shoot RAW plus a low-resolution JPEG, the image is displayed on the iPad screen within a few seconds, and provides an excellent means of assessing the image. Transmitting large RAW files wirelessly is rather time consuming, and could upset a shooting session, but as we only want a basic check of the image, it is quite acceptable to send a (smaller) JPEG wirelessly, and then subsequently copy the RAW file to the final destination computer in the normal way using a card reader.

I’ve used this workflow with Eye-Fi cards and Shuttersnitch a number of times, and I found it highly effective in terms of getting a chance to view the image, adjust lighting etc, and avoid the hazard of a trailing cable between the camera and a laptop. This solution remains as good as when I first wrote about it, and I’m not aware of any changes that have taken place. The only problem lies in using cameras which do not use SD cards (incidentally most newer cameras can use SD cards – even the expensive pro cameras which have used CF cards in the past now accommodate an SD card as well as CF cards). Some of these cameras will accept a proprietary wireless gadget (usually very large and very expensive), and of course these can be used to communicate with an iPad with ShutterSnitch (and perhaps a portable wireless router). However, if you can only use CF cards, and don’t have any wireless option, there is currently no solution that I am aware of that will allow you to use the iPad in this way – adapters to allow SD cards to be fitted into a CF connection exist, but the additional screening of the casing usually means they will not work reliably or at all with an Eye-Fi card.

ShutterSnitch will allow you to export images to the Photos library if you really want to (this would make them accessible to other apps as well), but it really seems more appropriate to limit it to immediate display, and transfer the original RAW images from the camera card to the main computer later.

Using the iPad in place of a laptop when mobility is essential (eg longer trips using public transport)
Except in the situations described above, where immediate display is necessary, on a day project there is rarely any real value in taking computer equipment with you – you can
wait until you return to base later in the day to back up, examine and perhaps process the images. However, if you are away for several days, or even a week or more, then you will usually want to make back-up copies of the images, and probably look through them, and perhaps start picking the best images. If you are travelling by car, then taking a laptop computer and one or two external portable disc drives is no real hardship, but when travelling by train, bus, ship, plane, bicycle or on foot, weight and size of the equipment becomes a serious issue, and if the iPad would suffice then is would be a huge saving.

Apple offer an adapter to allow an SD card to be plugged into the iPad, and another adapter (both are part of their camera kit) to allow connection of the camera and hence its memory card (any type) – in both cases the iPad Photos application then imports the images into its library. Although there is no direct provision for CF cards, Sony Memory Sticks etc, you could use the camera and USB cable so that the camera itself acts as a reader. Although Apple themselves do not offer a CF card reader, there is a third party adapter which will take both a USB cable connector or a CF card direct. Some reports have suggested that this reader is not always a reliable connection at least with some CF cards. I have bought one of these adapters recently, since I wrote on the subject before, and tried it (not very exhaustively) with 4 different models of CF card, without any problems. The same company also offers an adapter which will take either SD, micro SD cards, or a USB cable – again I have tried this with 4 different SD cards (no micro SDs) and it appeared to perform properly.

The basic problem remains that Apple’s Photos application is very limited at present – you cannot re-organise the images in the iPad, nor select from them. As a back-up, providing you keep the original images on card, it would suffice, but it is of little use for any more than this on an extended trip – Apple assume you will connect your iPad to a computer (with a cable!), and even then they assume that you will be copying images from the computer to the iPad, and not the other way round. Of course you must keep images on the cards anyway until you return to base. Images can be copied from the iPad to the computer at a later date (and the other way round too), using the excellent iPad app PhotoSync app – I’ve used this successfully several times. Of course, the announcements earlier this week regarding iOS 5 and iCloud indicate that Photos will improve later this year, and may reduce the need for PhotoSync and some of the other apps I am considering here.

At the present time, all apps which allow you to work on photos imported into the iPad via Apple’s Photos app are hindered by the fact that they cannot access the original image file name, and so have to re-allocate a fairly arbitrary name to the image. This is undesirable, and in fact could create problems in the future as the original image on the card will not have the same file name as the one which such applications use, and which they may later export back to a computer on return to base (this is not a problem with PhotoSync). One exception to this is ShutterSnitch, which imports images direct from the camera wirelessly, and so does not have the limitations imposed by the Photos app. However, as it would be very slow to transmit large numbers of large RAW images to the iPad wirelessly, this is not a good solution to the problem, and indeed if we hope to do much with the image in the iPad, it would not solve the problem.

So, what options are there if we want to do more with our images in the iPad than just back them up, and look through them all sequentially?

Ideally I would want to look through the images and do some preliminary rating of them – 1-5 stars typically (as I would with Lightroom or Aperture on a laptop). This would allow me to pick out some images for showing to others during the evening on a photographic workshop, for example. I’d also like to be able to keyword the images at this time (I could do this on return to base, but I find it better to do these chores as soon as possible, and not to have hundreds of images to work through at the end of a week). I might also like to do some extremely basic tweaking of selected, ‘best’, images – cropping, rotating to get a level horizon, and the equivalent of a Photoshop ‘Levels’ adjustment (alter black point, highlight and brightness). I’d also want some way to be able to pick out the best images and combine them for use in a slideshow – preferably either on the iPad or by handing them to someone who can use them in an evening slideshow with a digital projector.

Apple’s current Photos app is of no use for any of these tasks. The best program I have found so far for doing these things is Photosmith. This is designed to be used for the first part of what I have described (selecting and keywording the images), and then to import all this information into Lightroom (and only Lightroom). This is ideal for my general workflow, though unfortunately they do not do a version for Aperture users at this time. Photosmith is still a very new product, and although development and removal of bugs is progressing very rapidly, it is still work in progress, and of course like other apps it is hindered by the fact that it uses images imported into Photos, and hence currently has to rename the image files. Once the images are imported into Photos though, Photosmith detects the new ones, and will import them into its library, and they can then be selected and moved to a specific project, which you can name. The images can be scanned and 1-5 stars, colour labels and keywords can be assigned. The main limitation here is that each image must be processed individually – you can’t select several images at the same time and assign the keywords (or ratings) once for all those selected images. Like all other apps of this kind, there is a free program which you run on your main computer (PC or Mac) later to allow the images to be exported to that computer’s Lightroom library, retaining the project information and the ratings etc that were assigned. Data can be transferred back to the iPad from Lightroom, though there are some limitations in how this works at present. Usefully, you can transfer your Lightroom keywords to the iPad, so that you can pick from these when keywording your images on the iPad. At present there are some overall limitations, and not all RAW formats are fully supported, though the developers are working on this. You can also export images to Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox, or email etc. There is as yet no editting capability to manipulate the image in any way (cropping, rotation, ‘Levels’ etc), and indeed this would probably be difficult to implement and keep synchronised with a Lightroom master. A new version, 1.4, has just been released, although it is mainly a maintenance release, with some more RAW support.

Another app of potential interest is PixelSync. This is designed to link with Aperture on the Apple Mac. At the present time it does not meet our requirements for use in these types of projects, as although it syncs with Aperture very effectively, and allows us to rate images, it does not do keywording at present, and more importantly, the images must come from Aperture – there is no means of importing images from Photos or anywhere else when working away from a conventional computer. The reason for this is basically that the developer considers it unacceptable to be limited by the way images can be accessed from Photos, which as mentioned before does not make the original image file name and some other data available. Apparently a pre-production version of the app did import from Photos, but the developer decided the limitations were unacceptable, and so has not implemented the feature yet. However, if Apple overcome this shortcoming of Photos and its programming interface, then presumably PixelSync will take advantage of this, and the program will be very attractive to Aperture users. A new version is imminent, which may add a keywording capability.

The only other option at present for the purposes being discussed here is to use one of the several programs available which allow some editting of images stored in the Photos library. I will be looking at some of these in part 4 of this series, but suffice it to say that they are really intended for working on single images, and aren’t as well suited to selecting and rating images, and they create a copy of the original image and destructively edit it – ie the edits are baked into the final copy, so to modify those edits you would have to go back and start again on the original image, or suffer a degrading of the image.

How well does it work?
Although it is possible to use an iPad as a substitute for a laptop when weight and size is critical, it has to be admitted that at present it is far from ideal, partly because at present the iPad (and iPhone) really has to be used in conjunction with a computer for transferring data etc. However, at the WWDC event earlier this week it was made clear that Apple’s intention is to make the iPad independent of a PC link, using wireless communication for all purposes, from upgrading the internal software to transferring documents and images via iCloud. So although it is not a great solution at present, it is likely to improve significantly in the near future, not only as a result of Apple’s upgrades to their services, but improvements in third part applications.

In the next article in this series (before the one looking at editting tools), I will describe the workflow and applications I currently use which would meet the need for a means of backing up and doing basic selection followed by some editting of a few selected images.

The Future
The announcements regarding iOS 5, upgrades to applications such as Photos, iCloud are very interesting, and may change the situation and recommendations I have made above. Both are due to be release ‘in the fall’ of 2011, though a few of the iCloud features (not relevant to photography) have appeared already.

1. The iPad for Photographers – Part 1
2. The iPad for Photographers – Part 2
3. The iPad for Photographers – Part 3
4. Eye-Fi
5. ShutterSnitch
6. Photosmith
7. PhotoSync
8. Pixelsync
9. M.I.C Store(CF card reader, etc, for iPad)

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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