Is the iPad Pro the Perfect Travel Computer for Photographers?
When Apple announced their new M1-powered iPad Pro in April of 2021, I totally ignored it. I thought to myself, “Why in the world would anyone be willing to pay a grand for an iPad?!?”
Of course, I didn’t know that I was an idiot until later on that year when I played with one. Immediately, I recognized how powerful the M1 processor was and the more I explored the opportunities, the more convinced I was that this was something that would benefit my workflow, particularly when traveling. So, after a busy summer of travel, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what the iPad does well, and areas that still have room to grow.
While I travel less frequently now than when I was a full-time professional, I still travel often enough to appreciate anything that makes the experience a little better. I always try to travel with as little as possible; that applies to clothing and equipment. I assess the reason for travel, consider the job requirements if there are any, and pack only what is needed. Even with a pseudo-minimalist approach, arriving with your equipment intact at your destination can be a challenge. Those reading this who have experienced the unyielding joy of the TSA checkpoints in the United States or the every-man-for-himself approach to security standardization in Europe know this pain.
In general, I aggressively avoid checking my equipment. I love my Pelican 1510 cases because they fit in the overhead compartments and are practically bulletproof. My favorite case has a built-in laptop sleeve and padded dividers. I have found this to be the most versatile and adaptable to the different needs I encounter. The problem that I have run into is not what will fit in the Pelican case, but how much the case weighs, particularly once I switched to the GFX system from Sony and started using an assortment of Pentax 67 and Hasselblad V mount lenses. Bigger batteries, bigger lenses, bigger everything. Now the 22-pound maximum carryon weight for Ryanair is a real consideration.
What typically happens is that I am placing my laptop in my small backpack (Camelback Rim Runner 22) along with my other travel essentials. It fits but takes up precious space and is difficult to retrieve should I go through security checkpoints where my TSA PreCheck does not apply. Pair that with the oversized charger required, and my perpetual social anxiety of being the moron holding up the line, and I wanted an alternative.
What I Loved
I debated which size and storage variant to purchase for longer than I care to admit. I ultimately purchased the M1 iPad Pro 11” with 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. I also purchased their Magic Keyboard and the Apple Pencil bringing the total cost to a little over $1500.00 USD. While the price tag is hefty, I found a surprising number of things I really liked about it.
Size and Weight
I was very concerned about ordering the smaller version of the two considering I am 6 feet 3 inches tall and have yet to find gloves that fit my hands well. My laptops have been 15-inch screens, and I imagined the 12.9-inch was going to be a sacrifice. A friend of mine recommended that I interact with one in person and I’m so glad that I did. The 11-inch has proven to be a fantastic size. It is small, but not uncomfortable to see or use.
The weight is 1.3 pounds with the keyboard compared to the sizable 4.8 pounds of the 16” MacBook Pro. I am not the enthusiastic backpacker who saws off the handle of their toothbrush to save weight, but when sprinting to my next flight, pounds matter a lot to my shoulders and arms.
Battery Life and Charging Time
Apple claims “up to 10 hours for surfing the web or watching video.” I found this to be closer to 8 hours of surfing and about 6 hours of photo editing. I hate editing, so being limited to 6 hours is actually a pretty nice excuse! I have been really impressed with how quickly it charges. With the 20watt included charger, recharging averaged about two hours from the 20% mark. Considering this quick recharge time, battery life concerns have been a non-issue for me even with heavy use.
While it has the same M1 chip as the Macbook Pro, iPadOS cannot fully utilize the power of the chip. I opted for the 8GB of RAM because the operating system for the iPad can only take advantage of 5GB of RAM max per application at this time. While this may change in the future operating system updates, I would caution anyone that is thinking about this as a complete laptop replacement to temper their expectations a bit.
It is fast, really fast… for a tablet. I did not find myself annoyed with the available power or wishing for more. It does the job of editing in Lightroom, Photoshop, and Affinity Photo very well. It just doesn’t have the same maximum RAM capacity that your laptop might. I would also like to offer one more thought. The M1 MacBook Pro is a crazy fast and capable processor, so even if this doesn’t live up to that performance, the iPad Pro is still an incredible piece of hardware compared to where we have been in computing over the last few years.
Mobile Digital Asset Management
This was a huge factor for me. I need to be able to edit and cull on the go, but backing up files may be the most important function of a laptop while traveling. This is part of my daily ritual; every evening, I back up that day’s work to an external drive.
I purchased a small USB-C hub from amazon that allows me to copy files from my SD card and put them directly onto my Samsung T7 SSD. These two pair together to offer a very fast and compact option for my needs. When the transfer is completed, I place the SD card with files still intact into the Pelican memory card case to serve as a duplicate.
I have been very impressed with the traditionally desktop software options available for iPadOS. Both Lightroom and Photoshop are available and work in a similar fashion to what I am used to. Affinity Photo is also a very nice option and arguably a better experience if you have the Magic Keyboard than Photoshop. While they aren’t exactly the same in menu layouts and tool options, in my experience I was able to do most general editing with no major objections.
Until very recently, Capture One was not available and at this moment, tethered shooting is not an option. I originally listed this as a con as I almost always tether to Capture One when working in the studio. However, last month Capture One demoed a future update that will include this feature that will hopefully be available soon. Cascable is still a great option if your camera version is supported and you need tethered shooting.
While it has taken some time to get used to, I have really enjoyed having native applications like Amazon or Netflix. I still frequently open chrome and navigate to these services, but that habit is becoming less and less frequent. I think that the wave of mobile-first design somewhat hindered desktop UX/UI focus and often times these applications offer a more streamlined experience. In many ways, they have provided a productivity boost that I had not originally anticipated.
The Apple Pencil is amazing. It is expensive at $129 but works extremely well. As much as I like the Magic Keyboard, using the trackpad for editing is too clunky. The Pencil adds Wacom tablet control and I have found it to be an absolute must-have if you do targeted corrections using masking in Photoshop or similar software.
Outside of editing, note-taking with Nebo or Concepts has become an indispensable tool for me. I purchased a PaperFeel screen protector to add a bit more analog feel and I love it. As a Moleskine fanatic, it has been a difficult transition for nostalgia’s sake, but having organized notes that are converted to text is incredible.
I feel confident in saying that most people despise emails and bookkeeping. As great as the iPad has been, this is one area that has not been made better for me. However, I’m not sure anything other than hiring someone to do it for me would. It isn’t made better, but the Office Suite and Google Docs work as well as on a laptop. If you access cloud-based software, I have been pleasantly surprised to find the desktop pages are typically fetched automatically and work seamlessly.
One feature that I have been surprised to love is how easy it is to convert speech to text. It has been possible to do this with laptops and desktops in the past, but the overlay at the bottom of the screen has the microphone button available and is convenient enough to use more frequently.
What I Didn’t Love
The configuration I purchased was around $1500 and currently, this is almost the same price as a 13” Macbook Pro with similar storage and ram. The iPad is not a more cost-effective option than a laptop. As I mentioned before, I do not believe that this is a laptop replacement when considering performance. So, if you are weighing purchasing one or the other, you would need to decide whether you need greater portability and the pencil, or greater performance. I don’t know that I could recommend the iPad Pro as the only device for a photographer to have right now, while it is good, the price is quite steep. The M1 iPad Air came out after I purchased the iPad Pro and that might be a reasonable middle ground worth looking into for some.
No Color Calibration
Currently, Apple does not support the creation of .icc profiles like a traditional desktop or laptop would. This means that while the colors of the iPad are nice to look at, they may not be entirely accurate. If you or your customer’s main utilization is for digital display, this is not the end of the world. If you are creating work that will be printed in physical form, you may want to wait to do any critical editing until it can be done on a profiled device.
This seems really ridiculous to write, but it is one of the things that annoys me about the form factor. The Magic Keyboard is lightweight and slim, so lightweight and slim that the combination is top-heavy. When sitting in a chair or on a couch, it frequently tips over when I shift my weight. Not the end of the world, but it does annoy me.
Sometimes Clunky Software
Because I am typically working with files on an external drive and not stored on the iPad, not all software has a simple way (or any way) to navigate to the external drive. Additionally, you should not expect that all software is laid out the same or has the exact same features as you might be used to. For me, the benefits outweigh the re-acclimatization process, but not everyone might feel the same way.
Lightroom CC Only
In the spirit of not all software being the same, this applies to Lightroom specifically. The only version of Lightroom available is a modified version of Lightroom CC. For my workflow, I typically utilize Lightroom catalogs that are stored on the external drive where the files are kept. This ensures that the catalog and the files are always together and minimizes any re-linking required.
This is not an option for Lightroom and takes away one of the things that would have been the greatest benefit in my mind. I don’t do final editing on the iPad, but it would be nice to sync general adjustments and cull images in this form factor.
Less Than Great Video Editing Options
This may not apply to everyone reading, but not having access to Adobe Premiere has been a little aggravating. I originally did not anticipate video editing as an option, but after seeing the capacity of the processor, it seemed to be more feasible than I originally expected. The problem is not the processor, in this case, it is the software. Adobe Premiere Rush is an absolute nightmare of instability and while LumaFusion is a solid alternative, it has some timeline navigation quirks that drive me nuts. I don’t expect to be able to edit feature-length films here, but doing quick promos for social media distribution would be handy.
No Floating Windows or Apps
At this moment, iPadOS 16 has not come to my device, but when it does it will mitigate one of my greatest aggravations with multitasking. I would love to have the option for floating windows to speed up simple daily tasks like checking account balances against invoices or researching locations with the Maps app. Once version 16 is released the new Stage Manager application will help tremendously with this, but at this moment, a bit of an aggravation.
I am thankful that I can utilize the USB-C Hub for HDMI out, charging, card reading, etc… I did struggle to find a hub that worked well for my needs. Not all hubs are created equal, so when you are looking for one that fits your needs, pay attention to the reviews and consider verifying with Reviewmeta.com or a similar service to make sure you are getting a good product.
No Extensions for Chrome
I am a Chrome Extension junky. From popup blockers to full-screen text grabbers, I love extensions. Currently, there is no option for extensions for Chrome. There are options for extensions with Safari, but at the moment, I have built a network of plugins that works really well for my needs and I miss them.
Even though I feel like the price tag is quite high, I am truly happy with my decision. I do not consider myself to be a technology futurist, but at the current trajectory, I do wonder what mobile computing will look like in 5 years. It seems that Apple has poured substantial resources into the iPad ecosystem and with cute taglines like “your next computer is not a computer” I do not envision them moving away from this direction.
That does not mean however that this is the right choice for you. While initially interested in a travel computer alternative, I find myself reaching for this more times than my laptop. Everything from client and colleague meetings to hotel rooms and the couch at home — it works well for me. I would encourage anyone on the cusp of a new computer purchase to carefully evaluate your needs 3 years from now and be certain that whatever you buy now will help you then as much as now.
About the author: Kyle Agee is a photographer and instructor based in Northwest Arkansas. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find Agee’s work on his website and Instagram.