Back pain is a common to most pro photographers. It’s the ridiculous loads we carry. Camera makers seem convinced their top-range models need to be seriously heavyweight to qualify as professional, so with a couple of these, along with a few pro-spec lenses, some lights and computer equipment, we put tremendous burden on our back and shoulders.
Which, as a working photojournalist, means I’m always on the lookout for ways of cutting down the heft of my gear. I was an early adopter of the first Apple Mac Book Air, which with its incredibly thin size made a big impact my pull straps, but with its 13-inch screen was still rather large. So, now that there’s an 11-inch version, I thought I’d see if it’s fit for everday assignments on the go. And while I was at it, I gave the iPad 2 a go too.
The iPad wasn’t really intended for this, designed for content consumption rather than creation, and most of the photography-related apps are a bit gimmicky. Nevertheless, I’ve often found myself reaching for my original iPad rather than my 15-inch Mac Book Pro, and on a recent day off, I ended up shooting an assignment for The Times, using the iPad to edit and transmit the pictures.
The major drawback to using the device as part of this kind of workflow was the lack of an app for raw conversion. Now that there is one, it’s time to take the iPad more seriously, especially as version 2 has much more processing power.
The iPad 2 and 11-inch Mac Book Air are similar in size (24.1 x 18.57cm compared to 29.95 x 19.2cm), although the latter is significantly thinner, and has nearly two inches of extra screen across the diagonal (and 1366 x 768 pixels compared to the iPad’s 1024 x 768).
Although both are extremely light when compared to regular laptops, the Air weighs much more at 1.06kg, compared to the iPad 2’s 613g. From there on in, of course, they offer very different user experiences. The Air is more of a conventional laptop design – or, rather, a netbook, with a real keyboard and a screen that hinges open, but no CD port.
The whole thing can be placed comfortably on your lap, and both hands used to type and control the touchpad. The disadvantage, though, is that it’s much harder to use on the move. The iPad 2 is held in one hand and easily controlled with the other using its touchscreen interface. So if you’re on the hoof, covering a demonstration, for example, it’s easier to use to edit pictures and send them through to the picture desk.
The Macintosh operating system, now at version 10.6.7, has had a long time to mature and develop, and most imaging software is fully up to date with it, though you need to be realistic about what a netbook – even one as advanced as the Air – can deliver in terms of processing power. Even the top-of-the-range model tops off with a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor with 4GB of Ram. In practice though, it does run Aperture well, which I used in this test (although I would definitely recommend switching off the processor intensive Faces feature, unless absolutely necessary).
By contrast, Apple’s operating system for its smartphones and tablets, iOS, is still in its infancy, and finding professional imaging apps that are of use to the pro is a little harder.
One of the most vital for your image-processing workflow is Photo Raw, which though a little slow, is still very usable, and is of course an essential if you don’t want to be confined to JPEG, which had limited the iPad’s appeal to photographers previously.
The app offers fairly basic raw processing: the image is saved as a JPEG and then opened in one of a number of complementary apps, such as Photogene, a fully featured imaging program that lets you process pictures, add IPTC metadata and trasmit files via email or FTP. It has a very usable and easy-to-learn interface that works well, and in tests it proved faster and more straightforward its rival, Filterstorm Pro, so I used this for my timed trials.
Need for speed
For my side-by-side test, I used both devices to import one Canon 5D Mk II raw file, process the image, add IPTC metadata and save a JPEG version ready to send to a paper, library or magazine.
Using the iPad 2, importing an image, doing a basic raw conversion using Photo Raw and saving the file as a JPEG took five minutes and 11 seconds (the Canon was attached using Apple’s camera connectivity kit). Photogene took 5 minutes and 10 seconds to process the image, making a total time of 10 minutes and 21 seconds. I have no doubt that with practice a minute or two can be shaved off this time.
By contrast, the entire procedure took two minutes and 59 seconds on the 11-inch Air. Apple’s use of a solid-state drive has clearly reaped benefits here, so the speed gains are tremendous. From a cold start the machine is fully ready in 17.6 seconds compared to the iPad 2’s 28 seconds (which does include typing in a four-number pin), but startup from sleep is a little different, with the Air taking 4.5 seconds (including typing the user password) compared to one second for the iPad 2.
Neither is perfect, of course. The iPad would really benefit from the option of a memory card reader, and there is talk of metadata issues, with colleagues reporting it being stripped by some FTP servers. Photogene seems to be more stable in this. You have to make sure the image is exported via the app and not just saved.
With the Mac Book Air, you now have two built-in USB ports, which is a welcome addition to the one on the original Air, but I’d like to see the option of more Ram, and wish that it also had a Firewire 800 port.
Where both of these platforms come into their own, though, is their absolute portability; they are so much smaller and thinner than other solutions, and still offer decent battery life. For the photographer merely looking to travel a little lighter on assignments, the Air offers more, with its access to myriad imaging programs and built-in connectivity, not to mention the clear advantages in speed and capacity. But if you truly need to be mobile, the iPad will give you an edge.
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