Jeremiah Rogers

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Travel Photography Workflow on the iPad Air

Note: When I originally wrote this I was confused about the state of iCloud photo support. The new iCloud Photo Library, which is currently in beta, may support full backup of raw and jpeg files. If it works properly it will address many of my complaints about iOS for photo backup. However the built in Photos app still can’t generate a preview of a raw image or show the filename. This makes chosing images to delete from the camera roll difficult. Apple should also still let third party backup programs run in the background. This is just a switch they turn on and its far simpler than reinventing tools that others have already written.

As you might expect, the images were shot on my usual camera and synced to the iPad using a standard SD card reader. The blog article itself was written using Markdown in Editorial, synced to a Dropbox folder on my server, and rendered from Markdown to HTML automatically with a bash script. This part is easy because I’ve worked over the past few months to streamline it.

The actual photo editing and publication workflow is more novel and interesting and something I wanted to document and share for anyone considering switching to an iPad full time.

Workflow Basics

Once the images are on an the iPad there’s a big question of how to manage them. With the absence of a user-accessible filesystem, keeping files well organized on an iPad gets tricky. If you keep all of the images in the camera roll the image count quickly gets overwhelming, but if you copy them into another app you lose access to Apple’s fantastic Photos app editing and management tools.

The solution I’ve settled on is like this:

  • After importing the pictures, I create a photo album called 2014 10 Malaysia Originals and stick the files in there. Unfortunately they only are only there as a reference so all deleting must be done from the camera roll.
  • Image edits are generally done inside of PhotoGene. I like PhotoGene because it can edit raw files and pulls files seamlessly from the standard iOS Photos library. Some other editors involve importing files or needing to store edited copies, PhotoGene works just like Lightroom a Mac by saving non-destructive edits somewhere inside the app instead of to the original image. The native Photos app can supposedly do this but it’s buggy in iOS 81. The only bug I’ve noticed in PhotoGene is that sometimes it downsamples the photos to a lower resolution and I need to erase and redo the edits to get the original size back.
  • Any edited JPEGs that I want to keep locally are exported to an album called 2014 10 Malaysia Edits. Normally, however, I just use PhotoGene to push edits directly into a DropBox folder.
  • Backups of original files are done with PhotoSync and copied to Dropbox. Long term I’d like to find a way to move them from Dropbox to my personal Amazon S3 backup but it’s low priority.

Walk through of the workflow

I started by first creating an album of the images I wanted to publish, that album was called 2014 10 Chinatown Chickens. Here’s how that looks in that native Photos app:

I then open the album in PhotoGene and edit the images one by one. Since these pictures were shot at night it made more sense to edit them into black and white. Here’s the image I’m most proud of as it sat in the editor. Editing an image in PhotoGene on the iPad.

Now another a view of every edited image together in the album view in PhotoGene. Notice how the album has the same layout as the native Photos album called 2014 10 Chinatown Chickens. If I add or remove a file from the album PhotoGene updates automatically to show the changes.

Album view in PhotoGene on the iPad.

After the images are finished editing I export them to Dropbox. PhotoGene can do this directly in the app and lets you choose a folder for export, file size, and JPEG image quality. If the files are big and the data connection is slow you’ll need to keep PhotoGene open while the upload is happening.

Exporting an image from PhotoGene on the iPad.

As you can see, the images get copied over to Dropbox with their original filenames intact. Once they’re in Dropbox a script on my server goes to work making small, medium and large thumbnails and adding watermarks. Whether the filename gets maintained tends to vary with the app I use to upload. Sadly Transmit for iOS renames every image upon import so I don’t use it even though it looks great.

PhotoGene exports as saved in Dropbox.

As a final step I make a backup of the original images to DropBox using PhotoSync. I’ve also tried using iFiles for backups but I prefer how PhotoSync figures out new images to backup on it’s own and can start itself up using geofencing. There are more details on backup in the next section.

Backing up an album of original JPEG files into Dropbox using PhotoSync.

Backup

I like to keep at least two copies of my photos at all times. I’m not very paranoid about losing an image and I’ve had nothing stolen on this trip, but it’s prudent to be careful.

I’ve found no great backup solution so far. iCloud by default doesn’t backup raw files, iCloud Drive doesn’t give me a way to confirm that a backup exists, and Dropbox backups take a very long time since iOS keeps interfering with the upload. In practice I use all three, which is a waste of bandwith but otherwise provides a reasonable solution. Full details are written below.

Backing up with Photo Stream. The easiest backup is to trust iCloud and Photo Stream. iCloud is the only service on the iPad permitted to perform backups in the background while other apps are running. By default iCloud backs up your Photo Stream, so all of your JPEGs should be safe. Unfortunately iCloud only backs up a 200x200 pixel version my DNG raw files (it may backup yours better, but it’s unclear given Apple’s documentation). At a basic level this is good enough so that you’ll have some copy of the image as long as you shoot raw+JPEG images.

I don’t fully trust iCloud and I want to be certain that my original, unscaled, JPEG and RAW files are stored somewhere away from my iPad. For that I’m using two additional backups in addition to Photo Stream: a backup to iCloud Drive using iFiles, and a backup to Dropbox using PhotoSync.

Backing up to iCloud Drive. With iFiles I just import a full photo album into the local iCloud service within the app. This copy into iFiles is basically instant and the backup to iCloud in theory occurs in the background over wifi. Unfortunatley I haven’t figured out how to confirm a remote copy of images on iCloud and that makes me nervous.

Backing up to Dropbox. To be less nervous and maintain more control I also backup using Dropbox and PhotoSync. Unfortunately these backups are killed roughly every 10 minutes unless I open the app. They’re killed even when the iPad is in the app but the screen is turned off. This means that my overnight backups with PhotoSync require the screen of the iPad to stay on — needlessly wasting electricity.

What I’d Like to See. If Apple wants to support professional photographers using only iOS as a system they should make backup easier. I’m paying for 200 gigabytes of iCloud storage, so let me backup my DNG files there. Also please let people authorize certain apps to use background data any time that they want over wifi. It’s obnoxious to have to open an app every few minutes to keep it from being killed.

Tradeoffs of using an iPad

About a week into using the iPad as a full time computer I had big reservations last night while trying to publish this. I wanted to throw it out the window.

For most uses the iPad is sublime. For most uses doing a single thing at a time is much more productive than attempting to multitask. I love writing on the iPad. I love editing my photos directly using my fingers on such a beautiful screen. It’s also wonderful to have one device always with me to show off my portfolio, and it’s great that iPad is so small and charges over USB.

However, the iPad does kind of suck when you find an HTML error in your site, need to SSH into it, and then refresh the page in a browser to see if the change stuck. There is a cottage industry of apps that perform two tasks at once (writing and browsing, tweeting and browsing) that will die once Apple adds split screen multitasking to iOS. I hope that feature comes soon.

Should you use an iPad full time? Probably not. The compromises are steep. I think that the iPad Air (generation one) is a good enough combination of speed, weight, capabilities, battery life, and display technology to be used as the sole computer for myself, but just barely. There are some minor pain points with backup and multitasking, but those only affect about 10% of the experience. The other 90% of the time on the iPad is better than using a desktop computer.

Other Options: Looking at rumors it seems vaguely likely that Apple will release either an iPad Pro with multitasking or a Macbook Air next year that runs a hybrid of Mac OS and iOS. If a Macbook Air existed for around 2 pounds with a Retina display I’d probably be using that today, but the current Macbook Air devices have bad screens for photo editing and the current Retina laptops are too heavy to carry all day comfortably.

I also tried using Linux and Windows 7, 8, and 10 on a 795 gram NEC Lavie laptop. It wasn’t a bad solution, but the device severely lacked battery life (2-4 hours) and didn’t feel rugged enough to surive a trip through India. Linux has good software and UI but broke more often than I wanted to deal with and can’t handle high volumes of disk IO without freezing. Windows has all of the great Adobe photo editing software like Lightroom but doesn’t have the same volume of writing and task management apps or UI refinements found in iOS or the Mac.


  1. Another reason for using PhotoGene instead of AfterLight or FilterStorm’s native camera roll integration is that PhotoSync gets confused about which image to backup. I’ve noticed that PhotoSync will backup the edited image even when I specifically ask it to backup an original. Opening and editing images from within the iOS Photos app is awesome, but it freezes and needs to be hard reset after three or four images. Another bug is that FilterStorm Neue just crashes when I try to use it to edit an image from iOS 8. iOS 8.1 is the buggiest iOS I remember using. [return]