When I’m traveling, my computer is used for three things: reading, sharing photos, and writing, in roughly that order. Though a MacBook of some sort has been in my travel bag for many years, the iPad has been taking over little by little; two years ago, it became my primary reading device for web and book content, then gradually became useful for smaller writing tasks such as Facebook status updates and tweets. Now the third-generation iPad has now replaced my MacBook Air for photo sharing, too. This weekend marked the first time I never took my laptop out of its bag, despite publishing around 100 photos and doing virtually everything else I used to do on a larger computer. (You can see some of the photos here.)
The purpose of this editorial is to underscore just how far the new iPad has come as a photographic tool thanks to its Retina Display and new software—something we’ve noted in our comprehensive third-generation iPad review and iPhoto for iOS review, but wanted to spotlight after more extensive comparisons and testing had taken place. For now at least, it’s fair to say that a $499 iPad with a $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit and $5 iPhoto for iOS app delivers a considerably better photo previewing, editing and sharing experience than the lowest-cost MacBook Air, say nothing of a PC laptop with a comparable screen. There’s currently every reason for budget-conscious photographers—and even some professionals—to pick an iPad for on-the-road editing, and we say that despite our considerable respect for Apple’s current MacBook Air laptops. They’re great do-it-all notebook computers, but as we’ve noted in past Air coverage, they make serious color accuracy sacrifices to achieve their form factors, so they’re relatively poor choices for cleaning up photos on the road. The new iPad’s screen isn’t perfect, either, but it’s so much better than the Air’s that even professional photographers could rely upon it for very solid first-pass editing and sharing of images. At this point, software is the single biggest reason to prefer a Mac over an iPad, but that’s quickly changing.
The four images above show the differences between color correction of a “decent” original image on the 11” MacBook Air, the third-generation iPad, and an iMac—each one specifically corrected as best as was possible using the device’s built-in screen. While none is perfect, it’s noteworthy that the new iPad’s correction was achieved using the $5 iPhoto application, while the others were done with Apple’s higher-end $80 Aperture software, which allows granular fine tuning of virtually every adjustment option it offers. That the iPad came so close to the iMac is pretty remarkable, and since roughly 95% of photos I shoot are at least this capable of post-processing, there’s no reason to prefer the MacBook Air most of the time.
The next four images show the differences between color correction of a “poor” original image on the same three devices. I call this “poor” because the lighting, exposure, and camera shake made the original shot all but unusably bad as-was, creating multiple challenges during the process of correction—roughly 5% or fewer of my shots are similarly rough and in need of such aggressive post-processing. While the “fixed” image still wasn’t fantastic on any device, it at least conveyed a better sense of what the item was. It should be noted that this picture represents the only situation in which the MacBook Air outperformed the iPad, as iPhoto wouldn’t make more aggressive corrections that the Macs’ Aperture software permitted. One iPad workaround—editing the photo as much as was possible with iPhoto, then saving it and re-opening it for a second pass—didn’t look much better than this version. Until and unless the iPad’s software improves, the Mac may have it beat for really damaged images like this one.
It should also be noted that pictures taken in bright sunlight with modern point-and-shoot or DSLR cameras will need little to no color correction in order to look great when shared. This set of two images, shot with both a Canon 5D Mark II and an iPhone 4S, are substantially similar despite tremendous differences in their sensors and lenses—that’s because great lighting and respectably optimized low-end camera hardware can deliver entirely usable, web-ready images. The iPhone 4S can’t match higher-end dedicated cameras under many conditions, but in others, it does a very good to great job. And if you’re happy snapping lower-quality images with any iPhone or iPad, you can run them through a filter app (such as Instagram), then share them. Under this usage model, the quality of the screen and power of the software you’re using don’t matter much. Most users these days are more concerned about sharing something interesting quickly than achieving optimal results.
There are only small gaps at this point between what the new iPad and iPhoto combo can deliver by comparison with an iMac running Aperture. Even importing photos on the new iPad is surprisingly fast. While Apple’s two-year-old Camera Connection Kit could benefit from a more case-friendly Dock Connector redesign, the accessory works even better with the third-generation iPad than it did with its predecessors. It took only a couple of minutes to ingest dozens of large (20-Megapixel) images in bunches, a far cry from the days when early iPods struggled to copy 3-Megapixel images to their hard drives. While this isn’t as quick as a Mac with a FireWire 800 card reader or integrated SD card slot, it’s good enough for almost any situation, and between the iPad’s superior battery life and smaller size, there are other reasons some users may actively prefer it over a laptop, too.
On the other hand, there are some very real limitations when using the new iPad for photo editing, though bear in mind that the “real limitations” here are actually quite minor by comparison with ones users encountered only a year or two ago.
Limited advanced color correcting options. Apple’s minimalist, gesture-based iOS iPhoto interface does away with sliders that enable Aperture (and even the Mac version of iPhoto) to fine-tune white balance, exposure, highlights, shadows, and color levels with advanced settings. Users may luck out or actively tweak their way to similar results, but the results on an iMac (or MacBook Pro) with precision controls can be much better.
No RAW support. Serious DSLR users prefer to save their images in RAW format, which iPhoto for iOS does not support.
No on-the-go wireless ingest system. Spurred on by the iPhone’s ability to broadcast its photos anywhere using cellular or Wi-Fi, camera makers and memory card companies have been adding wireless sharing features to their products for years. Yet Apple has been very slow to add wireless photo ingesting features to iOS, precluding the iPad from grabbing images from Eye-Fi cards, Wi-Fi-enabled cameras, or even other iOS devices without special software. Photo Stream, the “beam” feature of iOS iPhoto, and some third-party apps work under certain circumstances, but iOS itself should have the on-the-road ability to grab photos from devices without relying on cables.
Weak import UI for photos. Introduced in 2010, Apple’s initial iPad interface for photo importation was designed to be simple: plug in the Camera Connection Kit and your camera, watch as the screen fills with thumbnails, then select the images you want to import before hitting an “Import” button. Simple. But as iPads have improved as photo tools, highly capable of processing multiple pictures, the whole “tap once per selected photo” thing has gotten old. Multi-touch and/or box-style selection tools to pick many shots at once would be a great alternative to “import all.”
iPhoto versus Photos import/export conflicts. Because Apple’s selling iPhoto as a standalone app, it maintains its own photo library, requiring additional time and steps to import and export photos relative to the built-in iOS app Photos. An “Updating Photo Library” message displays for several seconds—sometimes more—every time iPhoto has to synchronize its own photo database with the iPad’s separate photo library. Ideally, iPhoto would be more tightly integrated into iOS and serve as the primary tool for photo importation after it was installed.
Small issues aside, however, photo editing and sharing on the new iPad are now very close to great. Pictures processed on an iPad come very close to looking as good as they would on a much larger and more expensive computer, and the several-tap ease with which they can be shared online is phenomenal—limited more by data connectivity issues and the photo sharing services themselves than Apple’s own hardware and software. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that the iPad’s performance will only get better from here, though it’s obviously worth keeping an eye on the next-generation MacBooks and MacBook Airs to see whether they will reassert their former strengths with hardware that’s not quite ready to squeeze into an iPad’s shell. We’re anxious to see what happens next, but for now, the iPad delivers a really excellent experience, all things considered.