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Would you replace your Macbook with an iPad Pro for daily photography tasks such as post processing?

I did! Not completely, of course, but partially.

Towards the tail end of 2017, I desperately wanted to adjust my workflow to be more flexible and allow me to make edits, cull images and manage my catalogue anywhere. I didn’t want to be confined to a desk and I didn’t want to have to drag a Macbook Pro around, at least not while I knew an iPad could potentially do the job. I mean, my 12.9” iPad Pro can fit into my backpack a lot easier than a 15” or even a 13” Macbook Pro!

Fortunately, iPad’s have come a long way! I wouldn’t necessarily say that they can replace a Macbook for photographers, at least not yet, but they can certainly work alongside them.

With RAW support, improved hardware and a beautiful true tone display, the new Pro models are amazing devices to slot into your workflow. Sure, you’ll still need a full machine for long-term storage/archive management and the more complex editing tasks, but for the other 90% of work, they’re perfect.

iPad Pro 2 12.9

Out With The Old, In With The New

The transition to an iPad centric workflow was relatively easy since I was already a long-term user of Lightroom with a CC subscription. This meant I could easily start synchronising smart previews from Lightroom Classic to Lightroom Mobile.

I should note, when I talk about Lightroom, I’m specifically referencing the original CC version that was awkwardly renamed to Lightroom Classic CC in October 2017. I’ve not yet made the switch to the “new” cloud only Lightroom CC, and don’t intend on doing so any time soon due to the forced cloud storage, lack of classic features and flat photo management style. Besides, even if I wanted to, there’s no way I could! Good luck trying to upload over 1TB of RAW files to CC through Australia’s poor internet speeds. @Adobe: Selective sync please?

In saying that, the new cloud only version of Lightroom does actually simplify an iPad workflow because all RAWs are stored online by default.

Adobe Lightroom Mobile

And just before diving into the specifics of such a workflow, here’s a list of the hardware/software that I’m using for it.

  • 2017 iPad Pro 2 12.9″ 256GB – Amazon
  • Apple Pencil – Amazon
  • Lightning to SD Card Reader – Amazon
  • Adobe Lightroom Classic CC + Lightroom Mobile – Adobe
  • iCloud Storage – iCloud

Lightroom Synchronisation – Existing Catalogue

Now, back to the smart preview synchronisation.

The whole premise to an iPad centric workflow is the synchronisation of smart previews between Lightroom Classic and Lightroom Mobile. Smart Previews were originally introduced into Lightroom as a way of maintaining optimal performance and allowing photographers to continue working on images that weren’t stored locally. These Smart Previews are lossy DNGs with a maximum long edge of around 3000px that get stored in the same location as the Lightroom catalogue. This came in handy when you wanted to store original RAW files on an external drive, but still be able to work on them, after import, without having to keep the drive plugged in.

Fast forward to now, where Lightroom Classic auto creates Smart Previews to be synchronised to Lightroom Mobile via Creative Cloud. They can now be edited on LR mobile in exactly the same way that a normal full sized RAW file would be. There is, however, a caveat to this.

There is no easy single-click method of synchronising an entire Lightroom Classic Catalogue. Rather than syncing at a catalogue level, Lightroom syncs at a Collection level; a positive and a negative. A positive in that it forces you to selectively sync, that’s to say, you have to manually create Smart Collections and choose what images you want included. The negative… well, it can be a bit of a slow process depending on the size of your catalogue and how you choose to manage those collections.

Adobe Lightroom Mobile

Personally, my catalogue and storage is structured into a “Year > Month > Date > Location/Event” hierarchy, so a typical folder might look like “2017 | December | 31 | NYE”. To keep things organised when working on Lightroom Mobile and easily keeping track of synced images, I simply make Smart Collections that mimic my folder structure. The bonus to this, since syncing is switched on at an individual collection level, is that I can turn of the sync of all images from a specific year or month when I no longer need to access them via the iPad.

Importing and Accessing New Images

With historical photographs now synchronised to LR mobile, it was a matter of working out the best way to include new images going forward. This is where the workflow becomes a little more convoluted than what it would be if working solely with a Macbook.

Before the iPad, it was as simple as hooking the DSLR to a Macbook, importing all images, creating the relevant backup archives (physical and cloud) and then loading them into Lightroom Classic.

Now, it’s a matter of importing images to the iPad using an Apple Lightning to SD Card adaptor which, due to lack of cloud support yet, means they’re sent straight to the camera roll. Once the import is finished, it’s a matter of bulk selecting all images and uploading them to my backup archive in iCloud. From there, it’s as simple as opening Lightroom Mobile, creating a new collection and importing each of the new images from the camera roll.

Here’s the best part.

I mentioned earlier about how Lightroom Classic only synchronises Smart Previews through Creative Cloud. The other way around however, LR mobile to LR Classic, is a different story. Once the new images are in LR Mobile, Creative Cloud will actually synchronise the full original RAW files up to Lightroom Classic.

Adobe Lightroom Mobile

I’d initially expected that Smart Previews would also be generated from the iPad’s end, meaning I’d have to keep the original RAW files saved on the iPad’s limited storage. So having them sync back to the Macbook was a welcome relief. Keep in mind though that on slower internet speeds the synchronisation process can take some time, but you will still be able to continue working on them during that process. Once they’ve been synced, and you have them safely in Lightroom Classic, you’ll be able to delete them from the Camera Roll.

Knowing that I’ve already made an iCloud backup of the original RAWs, and have them synced to LR Classic, I don’t need to rush to create a second physical backup. After all, if I did do that right away, I may as well have just imported via the Macbook anyway. Instead, once a month, I’ll sit down with the Macbook and merge any new images synced from LR Mobile into backup archives that are housed on rugged Lacie drives.

My Thoughts On The Whole Process

It’s been a few months now and I’m still really impressed with this workflow. The iPad Pro, or more-so Lightroom Mobile, feels so much quicker than Lightroom Classic. Culling and rating images is super smooth, editing, especially with the Apple Pencil, is really responsive, and the Creative Cloud synchronisation works almost flawlessly.

The Retina True Tone Display is beautiful to work with as well. It’s perfect for environments with variable lighting due to the automatic white point and color adjustments, and it features the new P3 Color Gamut which offers around a 20% greater color range than what the older sRGB displays do.

Adobe Lightroom Mobile

With that said, I do have a couple of negative points.

First up, keywords don’t sync between Lightroom Mobile and Lightroom Classic. This is a real pain in the rear end since it’s a relatively important aspect to photo management. It seems strange that Adobe would allow for rating and flagging synchronisation but not keywords. Unfortunately, now that the new Lightroom CC is live, I highly doubt we’ll see support for keyword syncing come to Classic.

There’s also the issue of full sized exporting. Since we’re running off of Smart Previews, there’s no option to export the full sized image unless the original RAW file is stored locally on the iPad. It’s not such a big issue, but it is annoying to have to jump over the the Macbook to do this. Also, since the Smart Previews are lossy DNGs, smaller details, when editing, don’t appear as sharp or clear when zoomed in, compared to working off of a full quality RAW file. Again, not a massive issue but it’s still worth a mention.

Lightroom Mobile also has a few missing features such as HDR merge, camera profiles, spot removal and preset management (I like being able to store my own base preset to speed up the process), amongst a few others. It’s these missing features that I’ve seen to be the reason preventing others from making the switch to an iPad based workflow.

What’s Next?

I’ll definitely be continuing to use the iPad as a core part of my workflow and, hopefully, at some point in the future, depending on iOS updates and app developers, there may be a time where it can act as a full replacement.

In terms of the missing features in Lightroom Mobile, I’m relatively confident, aside from keyword sync, that we’ll see them come in future updates. Adobe is making a big push on the new Lightroom CC, so it only makes sense for them to continue development on LR Mobile and aim to integrate as many of the desktop features as the hardware will allow.

Until then, Affinity Photo, from the team at Serif, is available on the app store for a small price. It’s essentially an iPad replacement for Photoshop and is capable of taking over from Lightroom on the missing feature front. I haven’t had a chance to use it extensively yet but based on what I’ve read, it does a pretty decent job. I’ll be testing it out a bit more over the coming months.

iPad Pro 12.9 Apple Pencil

And that, for the most part, sums up how I’ve integrated an iPad into my workflow. Keep in mind, I’m not a professional photographer so this is all from the point of view of a hobbyist.

If you’ve made the jump to an iPad centric workflow, I’d be keen on hearing about your experience. Let me know in the comments below.

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