The iPad vs Photography

15 Mar 2016

I’m mostly writing this so that someone can tell me I’m wrong and I can then be happy.

When the iPad Pro came out last year, there was much made of its abilities as a content creation platform, something I was reminded of when Quentin shared the link to the nicely done review by Serenity Caldwell of the Apple Pencil. Unfortunately, as a photographer who’s been trying to embrace the iPad as a workflow piece for a while now, I’m still finding the whole thing hugely unsatisfying. I’m not quite sure whether it’s Apple or Adobe who are to blame here, or (as one must always consider) perhaps it’s both.

I upgraded my iPad about 12 months or so ago on the hope that a modern iPad would now have enough power to do interesting things (Apple at the time hyping it’s 64 bit processor IIRC). I was also at the time trying to get back into photography, partly by slimming down my workflow that had made photography such a time consuming task. I thought if my X-E2 can talk straight to the iPad (which it can) then I can do simple edits there and upload, and life would be good. It wasn’t. But it’s no longer the hardware’s fault, that appears to be plenty fast. It’s the software that’s holding it back.

I am a bit of an archivist in nature, so like to have my photos stored somewhere I know I’ll be able to get them later. I used Apple’s Aperture software for this until Apple discontinued it (sigh), at which point I moved to Adobe’s Lightroom, the only real competitor. For the record, I dislike Lightroom, which I find much more clunky than Aperture, and doesn’t seem to integrate any better with Photoshop, which I thought might be the one big advantage. But I digress, as there’s no real competition here, I’m stuck with Lightroom.

When I saw Lightroom was available on the iPad, I thought my switch to a iPad only workflow would be achievable. But no, I was mistaken; Lightroom on iPad is not really Lightroom as anything other than as a branding exercise. Yes, it’ll sync with the bits of your desktop Lightroom library that you have already synced to Adobe’s cloud storage, but it’s no good for general library work (you can’t edit metadata for instance) and its editing tools are very limited compared to the desktop version too. It’s basically a something that lets me see my Lightroom photos I’ve remembered to sync on my iPad, but not really much else. Thus, I abandoned my dreams of camera to iPad to web, and accepted I was going to need a laptop again for photography.

When the iPad Pro launched Adobe was certainly on stage with Apple showing off their latest round of photo apps, including Photoshop Fix, all working nicely with the Apple Pencil, so I thought that here was time to re-evaluate. But, as improved as these things are, they still offer a much more limited experience than on the desktop, and still require that you use the desktop for storage management. It’s still amateur hour on the iPad basically.

What does it take to fix this? There’re two missing bits in my mind that either Adobe need to fix or Apple need to provide for Adobe to use (ignoring any business side worries Adobe might have about the iOS side eating into their cash cows).

Firstly, there’s a UX problem. As I said before, the Lightroom UI on the desktop is very clunky, and although more minimal, so is Photoshop (albeit much less so than Lightroom). These UIs rely on panels popping in and out, lots of sliders places close together; it’s all very fiddly. Making something that has the same number of dials on the iPad is going to require a rethink. What they’ve done to date is not even try, which is better than failing, but as a photography nerd, I want the ability to make the photo how I want it to look, and not to be restricted to the tiny subset of tools that can be made to work with how the current way of thinking about touch UIs for photography dictates (basically, it’s like Instagram wrote the book how we should do touch photography, which is a very depressing). This is a very hard problem, but someone needs to solve this if the iPad is going to replace the desktop for editing photos at above the casual consumer level.

Secondly, there’s a storage problem. I shoot raw format so I have the best image possible saved should I need it later, but raw photos are big: 40 photos to a gigabyte is my rule of thumb for that. The iPad is going to fill up very quickly at that rate. Even my X-E2 camera won’t let me off load photos to the iPad in that format, only sending the JPEG preview. What we need is a way to do the Adobe cloud sync thing with my raw images so the iPad is a conduit to the cloud, and then I can pull down the ones I want to edit and sync them back up once I’m done. That won’t be cheap for Adobe to run, but as a prosumer type I’d be happy to pay for that, as I need to back up my photos some how, and this service can double as that.

Ultimately, the iPad hardware got good enough with the iPad Air, but it’s just the software that’s holding it back here. I’d love to move to an iPad workflow one day, but it’s going to take a chunk of hard work to make it at all viable. Perhaps some plucky startup can show them the way.