The iPad as photographer’s travel helper — a review…

Since I episodically do bursts of travel for my (non-photographic) job, and am barred from using my work laptop for non-work-related tasks, I’ve been looking for a device to help me with photography while on travel. Something that will let me back up and do a little light editing on images — but doesn’t have the heft and complications of carrying a second (non-work) laptop. Something lighter and smaller and with decent battery life.

iPad 1.jpg

So when my wife and I started discussing what we’d like for wedding anniversary presents this year (it’s a decadal anniversary, FWIW), I asked for an iPad. I wanted a way to look at images on a decent sized screen (so I at least have some chance of reshooting a photo I messed up), and to back up my images to a second device (vs. the memory cards) on the road. In a pinch, I also wanted a way to get particularly valued images to an offsite backup — via WiFi or 3G cell connection, whatever works. And in the future, I’m toying with the idea of creating a “Seldom Scene” iPad app — but more on that in a future post.

Anyway, the iPad arrived, I signed up for the unlimited 3G plan (just before it closed to new customers), and shortly afterward we left on a family road-trip vacation. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the gadget a workout. I anticipated having enough memory card storage for all the pictures I’d take, so if the iPad misbehaved I wasn’t in too much trouble. Meanwhile, most of the trip would be spent camping in our pop-up tent trailer — so we had 12 V DC power available as needed (trailer battery, topped off by a solar panel), but only occasionally wall power. Perfect for a device that recharges over USB.

So how well did it work for me? Well, I’m happy with it — although, of course, there’s always going to be room for improvement.

Image management

Getting images from the camera to the iPad couldn’t be easier. With the iPad Camera Connection Kit (purchased separately, can be a bit hard to find in stock), you pull them from your camera via USB cable or straight from the memory card (if you’re shooting to SD cards). Plug your gear together and the iPad will do the heavy lifting for you — the images get imported into the iPad’s Photos app, and the device handles duplicates intelligently (i.e., if you connect the same card / camera to the iPad multiple times without erasing the card’s memory in between, it’ll let you choose whether or not to import images it thinks are duplicates). Unfortunately, all the images you import into your iPad show up in a single (“All Imported”) album within the Photos app. There’s no way to further organize your shots on the iPad, you can’t create Albums / Events or move images between them — you’ll have to wait to get home to your main computer for that.

When it comes to getting your images *off* the iPad, that’ll be a function of the computer you’ve got, and what software you’re using. I’m a Mac guy, and use Aperture for organizing and doing the majority of editing of my images. In Aperture (screen capture below / left), images imported from an iPad show up as daily “Events” — although imports from multiple cameras create separate “Events” with the same date. It’s a bit clumsy, but nothing you can’t easily clean up afterwards by just moving images around on your Mac.

Aperture folders.jpg iPhoto folders.jpg

If you use iPhoto (above / right), you’ll get one event per day (regardless of how many cameras fed the iPad), but sometimes the events will be untitled. Go figure.

I was originally a bit concerned about how reliably the iPad would handle a mix of RAW images from my Olympus DLSRs and JPG / AVI files from my Canon point-and-shoot pocket camera. At least for my cameras, this rig handled RAW images perfectly — the images made it from camera to iPad to (later) desktop without any problems. And on the iPad, they worked just like a JPG file — due to the fact that any edits you make on your iPad are made to the JPGs embedded in the RAW files. Meanwhile, the point-and-shoot JPGs worked fine as well, as did the AVI video I took with the little pocket camera.

Note, though, that since your iPad only edits the embedded JPG from a RAW image, any saved edits (made via one of the dozens of iPad photo editing apps) will also be JPGs — and of reduced size, and saved to your iPad’s “Saved Photos” (vs. being mixed in with the “All Imported” photos). In Aperture, “Saved Photos” get their own album — while in iPhoto, they get mixed in with the “All Imported” photos as a function of date.

I haven’t experimented with my iPad and my wife’s Windows PC — so I can’t yet say how this combination plays together.

Offsite backup

If you’re really concerned about (at least some of) your photos, you’ll want to go beyond having just the original images on memory cards and a backup on your iPad. After all, they’re probably in near proximity of each other and could be lost in a pretty straight-forward accident or episode of theft. To deal with this, you need some way to back up a copy of your most important photos on hardware physically separate from your iPad and card wallet.

This is where life gets interesting.

Again, we’re assuming that you’re traveling with your camera gear and your iPad — no laptop or desktop to help you until you get home. Given that there’s no way (short of jailbreaking your iPad and dealing with UNIX shell commands) to connect an iPad directly to a flash or USB drive, you’ll need to look at wireless options for getting photos to a remote location. I explored four approaches:

  • Via email directly from the Photos app
  • Via email, using copy / paste (i.e., copying from the Photos app and pasting in Mail)
  • Via FTP (using an iPad app called FTPOnTheGo)
  • Via the use of Dropbox

I also briefly flirted with the idea of using MobileMe’s gallery as a way of exporting images from the iPad — but found that it seems to have “issues” with RAW images.

Anyway, the main complication that you’ll run into has to do with the iPad’s use of reduced-size versions of your images. Remember how I said that onboard editing of a RAW image resulted in a reduced-size JPG output file? When it comes to sending photos from your iPad to a secure place, some methods will send your full-size RAW file, while others will send a reduced-size JPG version of it. Some methods will even send a reduced-size version of a JPG original.

For my experimentation (I did this part at home before the trip), you’ll need to know that my DSLRs have a RAW image size of 3648×2736, while my point-and-shoot camera has a maximum image size of 3072×2304. Here’s what came through to my desktop machine:

Method Output from RAW image input Output from JPG image input
Email from Photos Full size RAW Reduced size JPG (2048×1536)
Email using copy / paste Reduced size JPG (1600×1200) Full size JPG
FTP using FTPOnTheGo Reduced size JPG (1600×1200) Reduced size JPG (2048×1536)
Using Dropbox Reduced size JPG (1600×1200) Reduced size JPG (2048×1536)

So if you want to do off-site backup of images you’ve transferred to your iPad, unfortunately your best approach is a function of your image’s file format. In either case, you’ll be emailing an image somewhere (I’d recommend gmail, since the file sizes will be large), but dealing with RAW images (emailing directly from the Photos app) is less convoluted than copying from Photos and pasting into an email in the Mail app.

Also, in my experience, sending images from the road via WiFi is dramatically faster than using 3G — most coffee shop WiFi links I’ve tried have respectable upload speeds (100s of kbits/sec), while at least in the U.S., 3G upload speeds are far slower (kbits/sec).


An iPad may not be perfect for every photographer’s needs, but they provide a nice mix of capability, weight, and size at a not-too-exorbitant price. Would I use one for backing up images from a high-stakes professional shoot? Not on your life — you’d really want a Chase Jarvis bombproof workflow with laptops and multiple hard drives in multiple locations for that. But for providing extra security for your more-valuable photos that you capture on the road (and at the same time, providing other fun and useful capabilities), an iPad is a great solution.

And of course, there are other photographic uses for an iPad too — they make great mobile portfolios, for starters.

7 thoughts on “The iPad as photographer’s travel helper — a review…

  1. Thanks for the detail on providing the tips and workflow you use. This is a great example of making technology work to your advantage while enjoying the benefits the device offers.

    It is frustrating that there is no card reader ability on the iPad-it would make this so much more smooth. I think people are averse to buying yet another accessory for the device to make it work for their workflow.

    • Thanks, Bill!

      As for card reader slots in the iPad — I don’t know. Having spent a chunk of my career in the development world, sooner or later you have to say “no” to additional features before the thing you’re making gets completely bogged down with extra “stuff” and the accompanying extra cost.

    • Thanks, Max!

      Your post is quite interesting — I agree with most of your conclusions, but didn’t experience your Aperture import bug. My desktop machine (2.8 GHz i7 iMac) slurped all the images (about 1,000) off my iPad in a single shot. It took a while, but it did the job in one go. I have to agree with you that deleting images from the iPad is more painful than it needs to be — but here’s what I do:

      In Photos on the iPad, click on the arrow in the upper right corner of the screen. Now click on all the thumbnails you see — the red “Delete” button should now say “Delete (42)” or some similar number. Click on it, then on the big red “Delete” button that pops up. It’s a pain when you’ve got hundreds (or thousands…) of images on your iPad, but it’s better than deleting them one at a time.

      And I definitely agree that life would be easier if you could review / score your shots and organize them in folders on the iPad. Oh, well — hopefully in iOS 4!

  2. Pingback: The iPad as photographer’s travel helper — a review… « Le blog à Max

  3. Pingback: Digital camera memory cards — advertised vs. real speeds – Seldom Scene Photography

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