Can an iPad Pro Replace Your Laptop for Travel Photography?
An experiment of flirting with the future
In March of this year I took the plunge and bought an iPad Pro to use as my photography editing and storage device while traveling. Tired of the size and weight of my 15” 2014 MacBook Pro, I wanted to see if I could replace my laptop while on the go. Five months and a multitude of domestic and international trips later, I absolutely love it. The experience hasn’t been perfect, so today I want to detail both the positives and negatives of handling my post processing of photography on the new iPad Pro, while on the road.
What This Review Will Cover
I want this review to be focused on what I use the iPad Pro for, so I’m not going to cover use cases like watching movies and email or answer questions like whether an iPad Pro can replace your laptop for everything. The question I’m here to answer is whether iPad Pro can replace your laptop for when you’re traveling and taking photos. Can you go on a trip or an assignment and leave your laptop at home? To do that, we’re going to go through the iPad Pro as a device and piece of hardware, compare it to traveling with a laptop, and go through the workflows from import to export for travel photography. With that all cleared up, let’s jump right into it.
The iPad Pro as a Device
When you pick up the new iPad Pro the first thing you’ll notice is how great it feels in the hand. As is to expect from Apple, the iPad Pro is thin, the build quality is top notch, and the design is attractive and well thought out. The unit I bought is a 12.9” iPad Pro with 256 GB of storage and LTE. The bezels on this generation of the iPad Pro are significantly smaller than previous versions, causing it to be both lighter and smaller while maintaining the large, beautiful display. This means handling this larger version of the iPad Pro for extended periods of time isn’t cumbersome like previous generations.
The battery life has proven over the past 5 months to be fantastic. When I’m out on the road I don’t find myself worrying about whether I’ll be near an outlet, because the iPad Pro has proven to last for days at a time under my normal use. The display is also both incredibly bright and sharp, and the variable refresh rate Apple puts in these iPad Pros makes using the device feel extremely fluid and responsive.
In terms of power, the iPad Pro has more than it knows what to do with. Benchmarks of the iPad Pro stack up to a lot of the MacBook Pros in recent years, and it’s hard to find anything that will slow it down. To no ones surprise, the iPad Pro is a great device, and it’s just fun to use.
Workflows on the iPad Pro
Now that we have the device itself out of the way, let’s talk photography workflows. I’m going to go through my process from importing photos onto the iPad all the way to exporting, and tell you what each step looks like and what the experience is like.
It’s a bummer we have to start on a low note, but getting photos onto the iPad might be the biggest pain point of the entire photography experience on the iPad Pro. The good news is that a lot of the major gripes I have with getting photos from your camera into Lightroom will be eliminated with iPadOS coming out in the fall, but until then this is the sad reality.
Whenever you plug in either your camera or an SD card into the iPad Pro, the Photos app opens and prompts you to import your photos. If you’re a photographer you most likely want to get your photos into Lightroom, and you’d presume Lightroom would have access to that plugged in storage device, allowing you to import the photos directly into Lightroom. This is not the case. In order to get photos into Lightroom, you first follow the import process in Apple Photos, and once that’s finished, you can open up Lightroom and add those images from Apple Photos.
I bought the iPad Pro knowing that this was going to be the case, and while this isn’t a deal breaker for the iPad, the extra time being spent on the process feels like an unnecessary inconvenience. Thankfully, Apple has listened to consumer feedback, and with iPadOS that will be coming to the iPad Pro in the fall you will be able to import photos directly from an external device into Lightroom. Once you do add photos into Lightroom though, this piece of the puzzle is complete and you can move on to editing and organizing your photos.
Organizing Photos in Lightroom
The version of Lightroom that Adobe has created for the iPad is almost identical to Lightroom on the desktop in terms of functionality and UI. As someone who uses Lightroom Classic on my computer it took a little getting used to. You have albums that you create and add photos to, and you can create folders to hold those individual albums. It’s easy to use and manage on the iPad, but I had to do a bit of googling to find out how albums in Lightroom on my iPad Pro transferred to Lightroom Classic and where those photos would go in that library.
It turns out all the syncing is done automatically, and the “albums” that you see on iPad are added to your Collections in Lightroom Classic. Once you understand this relationship, everything is easy to navigate, and organizing photos is a breeze.
For my use case I wasn’t looking to store my whole library on my iPad, I just needed a staging ground to hold onto photos and start editing and sorting through them until I got back home. Thus, the extent of my organization came in the form of sorting photos by location or product, and doing my initial rating and deleting. The iPad Pro handles this use case well, shortcuts from Lightroom on the desktop transfer over to Lightroom on the iPad if you use the iPad Pro with a keyboard case which is a nice touch.
Overall organization works well on the iPad, even if you’re a Lightroom Classic user most of the time. If you decided to only use Lightroom on both iPad and desktop and leave Lightroom Classic behind you wouldn’t have any complaints, and most everything you’re looking for in terms of organization can be found in this version.
Editing Photos in Lightroom
The version of the Lightroom that Adobe has created for the iPad is surprisingly powerful. You can do most of what you would want in terms of editing, but it is still a paired down, lighter version of Lightroom (no pun in tended).
Talking about features and what you can and cannot do will only paint you part of the picture, because it’s editing on this device that makes the experience. Editing on the iPad might be the easiest activity to get lost in. The iPad Pro’s gorgeous display paired with the touch interface makes it feel like there’s nothing between you and your photos. Getting efficient on the iPad Pro happens quickly, and you will find yourself getting lost in the process of making adjustments with your fingers and watching your photos transform before your eyes.
When you add in the Apple Pencil the editing experience becomes magical. Using the Apple Pencil in Lightroom is the greatest precision I have ever had in editing photos. Making selective edits with the Pencil feels like you’re painting your edits directly onto the image. The high refresh rate of the iPad paired with the low latency of the Pencil is part of what makes this experience so fluid. This is where the iPad shines because it’s an experience you can’t get on any other device.
While I intended to use the iPad Pro as only the introductory point in my editing process, often times I found myself finishing images in their entirety. For a recent trip to San Diego, I ended up organizing and editing all of my photos from the weekend all on the iPad Pro.
That being said, Lightroom on the iPad doesn’t cover all use cases, one thing I have run into time and time again is the lack of Photoshop on the iPad. While editing in Lightroom on the desktop I frequently open images in Photoshop to make final adjustments, but Adobe has not yet released their full version of Photoshop for the iPad. It is scheduled to release this year, but is without a definitive release date. This goes back to use case though, if you’re just using the iPad as an on the go device, this won’t really matter, but if you are looking to use the iPad for all of your editing, it will be a wall you will inevitably run into.
If you do find yourself in the position where all that is left is to bring an image into Photoshop, once you get home and hop on your computer, all of your edits are going to be waiting for you right where you left them inside of your Lightroom Classic library thanks to Adobe’s Cloud.
To state it one last time, I didn’t buy this iPad with the intention of exporting many photos on it. I’m glad that was the case, because exporting on the iPad does leave much to be desired. Unlike in Lightroom Classic where you can get granular and have lots of control over your image during export, Lightroom on the iPad only gives you the option of exporting at the maximum size available, or one smaller size. You cannot control the name of the image on export, cap its file size, change the metadata, or do any of the other things you would be used to with Lightroom Classic. This is frustrating as an image often requires certain constraints when exporting, so it would be nice for Adobe to give more options in the future. For now though this is what you’re stuck with.
An option that is available during exporting is exporting images to Apple’s Files app. This is great if you’re trying to organize images inside of directories or some sort of file structure for delivering them to a client or uploading them to a photo delivery site like Pixieset.
With every generation of the iPad the question has always been whether it can replace your laptop. Tech reviewers every year ask if this is the device that is going to make the dream of only owning a tablet a reality. In my opinion, this argument is often trivial and silly as every user’s use case is drastically different. I am a Software Engineer by trade, and the iPad doesn’t do 5% of what I need it to do for my job. But for my photography work on the go, it definitely fits the bill.
Even after the high price tag, slight inconveniences inside of Lightroom, and limitations set on by Apple themselves; the iPad Pro is going to continue to be the device I take with me when I travel. The size and weight make the actual act of traveling a breeze, and everything I need it to do for getting photos off of my camera, initial editing, culling, and editing of photos is overall a great experience. With iPadOS coming in the fall, a lot of my biggest gripes like being unable to plug in an external hard drive and not being able to import directly into Lightroom are going to be eliminated. This is a device that as time goes on will continue to get better, and I will be along for the ride.