Facebook Pixel The iPad as a Photographer's Travel Helper [a Review]

The iPad as a Photographer’s Travel Helper [a Review]

If you’re like me (and maybe even if you’re not), you’ve been looking for a photographer’s helper for your travels. My situation is that in addition to vacation trips, I episodically deal with bursts of travel for my (non-photographic) job, and am barred from using my work laptop for non-work-related tasks. My needs (or, to be more honest, desires) when it comes to travel gear didn’t really seem that challenging, but have gone unfulfilled until lately:

  • Back up the images on my cameras’ cards
  • View the images on a screen of sufficient quality that I can spot motion blur and focus
  • Gear needs to be lighter / smaller / less complicated than a second (non-work) laptop,
    particularly when dealing with airport security
  • Decent battery life, with small / flexible recharging accessories — this is particularly
    helpful for non-work (vacation) travel, when AC wall power can be hard to come by
  • Provide a way to get particularly valued images to an offsite backup — via WiFi or 3G cell
Hooking up

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. No, it’s not the cheapest solution — but it definitely sounded promising. And, to be honest, I was already wanting to develop an iPad app or two for my site later this year.

So after the wait for the gadget to arrive (it’s amazing how four weeks can feel like an eternity…), I signed up for an unlimited 3G cell plan (just before it closed to new customers in the U.S.), and only days later we left on a two-week family road-trip vacation. Atypical, but it 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 12V DC power available as needed (from the 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.

Copying images to the iPad

Getting images from the camera to the iPad couldn’t be easier. With the iPad Camera Connection Kit (purchased separately, expect a wait to receive these), 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. So you’ll have to wait to get home to your main computer for that.

As an aside, I’ve read reports that the iPad Camera Connection Kit works with USB card readers — this has yet to work for me, at least with compact flash cards. So your best bet is to use the kit’s SD adapter if you shoot to SD cards (or some variant of them), or your camera’s USB cable for other memory card formats.

Working with / using images on the iPad

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. I’ve been told that an iPad can handle any RAW format that the Mac OS can tolerate (namely, any but the very newest formats), and haven’t seen anything to contradict that — so, no need to shoot in RAW+JPG unless you want to. Meanwhile, the point-and-shoot’s JPGs worked fine as well, as did the AVI video I took with the little pocket camera.

So from this perspective, an iPad is a great way to preview images you take on a trip — the big screen is fantastic for helping you judge whether a reshoot is desirable before you head home.

If you’d like to do a little light editing of images on the road, there are dozens of photo editing apps available for the iPad. But of course, the iPad’s relatively limited processing power means none of these apps will be replacing Lightroom or Aperture or Photoshop any time soon. You also need to know that since the iPad edits the embedded JPG in a RAW image (vs. the full RAW image itself), any edits you make will also be saved as JPGs. The resulting edited images will also be of reduced size (vs. your RAW images), and saved to your iPad’s “Saved Photos” (vs. being mixed in with the “All Imported” photos).

Getting images off the iPad

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. So when I plug my iPad in to synch it with iTunes, any pictures I took are automatically ready for inport to Aperture as well (the Mac OS treats the iPad much like a camera in thus regard). Once 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 by just moving images around on your Mac.

Aperture folders iPhoto folders

If instead 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. Also note that 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. Folks using Windows PCs will be importing images to the Windows Photo Gallery (Vista or Windows 7), or whatever program they’ve set up with their PC’s Scanner and Camera Wizard.

Offsite backup

If you’re really concerned about protecting (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 together 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 — particularly since the iPad’s security philosophy makes it a lot easier to copy material to an iPad than from it.

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 separate (much less remote) location. I found six approaches that work with varying degrees of success:

  • Email directly from the Photos app
  • Email, using copy / paste (i.e., copying from the Photos app and pasting in Mail)
  • FTP (using an iPad app called FTP On The Go PRO)
  • Via Dropbox
  • Via MobileMe’s gallery
  • Using Photo Transfer App (WiFi only)

Again, the main complication that you’ll run into has to do with the iPad’s use of reduced-size versions of your images. 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.

To interpret my experimentation, you’ll want to know that RAW images from my DSLRs have a maximum size of 3648×2736 pixels, while my point-and-shoot camera has a maximum image size of 3072×2304. Given these starting points, 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 FTP On The Go Pro Reduced size JPG (1600×1200) Reduced size JPG (2048×1536)
Using Dropbox Reduced size JPG (1600×1200) Reduced size JPG (2048×1536)
Using MobileMe Gallery N/A (can’t handle RAW files) Reduced size JPG (1024×768)
Using Photo Transfer App Reduced size JPG (1600×1200) Full size JPG

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 likely 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 supported respectable upload speeds (100s of kbits/sec or better), 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 it provides 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 type of 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 lightweight solution.

And of course, courtesy of their screen size and quality, iPads also make
great mobile portfolios.

About the author

Argos is the nom de plume of a full-time engineer / part-time photographer in metropolitan Denver, Colorado. You can see his work on the Seldom Scene Photography blog. Note that this post is an expanded version of an earlier review on that blog.

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