Integrating the Apple MacBook Air into a pro workflow
As the mountain biker crested the hill, my assistant yelled, 'They're coming!' This was my cue to press the shutter on my Apple QuickTake 100 and wait the three seconds for the camera to power up and capture a photo.
After the race finished, I sprinted to the media center where a solitary phone cord was waiting for someone to come and connect to the Internet. I needn't have rushed, because in 1994 I was the only 'online' journalist covering the US mountain bike race circuit, and my PowerBook 540c and I would spend countless solo hours in media centers uploading images via my 14.4 kbits/sec modem.
The workflow of the professional photographer hasn't changed much in the nearly two decades that have elapsed, but the tools have evolved radically and the deadlines are much shorter.
|This 2013 MacBook Air was ideal for my on-set assignment this summer at Radio City Music Hall.|
While many photographers I work with now opt for the most powerful laptops (the 15-inch Retina Display MacBook Pro is incredibly popular in media centers these days) I've been optimizing a system that's based on speed - something that has become an increasing priority with my clients. Still, I can't sacrifice performance, so my current workflow is based around the limber, slim MacBook Air.
Take, for example, my international airline client that needs a selection of best-of-shoot images during an assignment. One event I've documented several times is an annual charity flight the company hosts, where sick children are flown to the 'North Pole' to meet Santa. In reality we take an hour long flight around New York State and land at a gate that's been decorated to look like Santa's studio.
All along the way the airline employees, the families and the assembled media are posting images to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more. The airline, naturally, wants to get images out in the world at the same time and at a higher level of quality than the smartphone photos.
That's where I come in, and it's my job to beat the smartphone to the punch with a high-quality, high-resolution file that looks better than an employee's snapshot ever could. But to do this, I need to be quick on my feet and even faster with my workflow.
Trying to run (often literally) around an airport with a bag full of camera gear in order to capture an event like this, the last thing I want is a 5.6-pound computer with me. The two-pound difference between the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro means I can pack an additional lens—or run just a little bit faster.
For years now my go-to computer has been the MacBook Air, but on a recent multi-day shoot for a network TV's reality contest show, I decided to dial in my workflow with the latest iteration of the MacBook Air, which features a higher-capacity battery, a faster processor and better Wi-Fi connectivity.
Power to Burn
When the first MacBook Air came out in 2008 I ordered one the instant it was on sale and found out quickly it was woefully underpowered for even the smallest photographic jobs.
To be fair, it wasn't billed as a tool for photographers; I was just desperate to shed weight on location shoots. Early-on, I used the Air as a substitute for a Polaroid, popping cards into a reader and checking focus and composition on the 13.3-inch screen.
Now, four generations later, the MacBook Air provides all the power a photographer needs and then some. The MacBook Air now comes with up to a 1.7Ghz Dual Core i7 processor (that can boost its speed up to 3.3Ghz under heavy load), Intel HD Graphics 5000 video processor, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD hard drive.
That build-to-order configuration comes to $1549, compared to $1199 for the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro and $2700 for the 15-inch model. While the MacBook Air comes in less powerful (and also a smaller 11-inch) configurations, it's the speed and capacity of this custom build that makes it such a great photographic tool.
You might ask why I don't opt for the super-compact 11-inch MacBook Air. The choice simply comes down to screen real estate. While the 11-inch MacBook Air is lighter and even more compact than its 13-inch companion, the diminutive screen makes image editing too difficult. The 13-inch is light without sacrificing image-editing space.
A major selling point of the newest MacBook Air is its 12-hour battery life (in moderate use), which is huge for the location photographer. I've gotten seven to eight hours of real-world photo-editing use out of the battery, making it one of the longest-lasting computers I've ever used.
The MacBook Air is also one of the first products in Apple's lineup to have 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which offers greater range and speed (especially when used with other 802.11ac devices, like Apple's new Airport base stations).
For connectivity, the MacBook Air has an internal high-speed (100MB/sec) SD card reader, USB 3.0 ports and Thunderbolt. That gives the MacBook Air the fastest connectivity on the market.
In the Field
Getting back to that television client, it's easy to see the value of a computer as light and fast as the MacBook Air. When I was originally brought into the project, the idea was to capture images on my iPhone and send them to the social media manager via email.
After my arrival on location, and some discussion, we decided to modify the workflow and use the compact digital camera I had brought with me (because I always travel with a camera). SLR-sized cameras are allowed on set only for the official still photographer, but other people can use compact digitals.
Since I hadn't planned on shooting with anything but my phone, I didn't bring my MacBook Air. As a result I spent 12 hours performing my own little version of a stair-climbing marathon. The social media team was located in the center of the house, while the contestants were being held in a location in the lower lobby and back stage in the green room.
To capture images I'd run down fifty steps to the holding area, capture between 10-20 images at a time, and then run (more slowly) back up the stairs to the computers and transfer images to the social media laptops, where someone would have to edit selects.
Sprinting to the holding room and to the backstage green room happened a dozen times an hour, and by the end of the day I was wrecked.
The next week I brought my MacBook Air and set up a workflow that took advantage of several of the key features of the computer.
First, the Air was light enough that I could simply tuck it under my arm and walk around with it. I'd often photograph with one hand while holding the Air in the other.
After I captured a few images I'd put the Air down on any available surface, slide the SD card into the Air's built-in reader (which operates at a blazing 100MB/sec) and suck the images into Aperture 3.
I simply created a project for the day's shoot, imported the images and clicked the 'Last Import' smart filter, displaying only the images I'd just imported. Then I'd flag my selects to send to the producer.
There is a private Wi-Fi network available for production to use during the show, so I simply created a folder on Dropbox and exported my flagged photos to a folder shared with the social media managers.
The result is that my total number of images the second day of the shoot rose by more than 100% compared to the first day, but more importantly the managers were able to use more of the images, as I was doing the first pass of editing in the field and spending more time actually shooting images instead of running them across a theater.
Thanks to the 12-hour battery life, I was able to go the entire day without plugging in the MacBook Air by simply putting it to sleep between import/export sessions.