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Tool or Toy? The Apple iPad 2 for Photographers

March 2011 | By Barnaby Britton, with additional content by Simon Joinson


Article based on a production Apple iPad 2 (16GB WIfi) running iOS 4.3

Note: this article is not intended to be a review of the Apple iPad 2 but instead to establish whether or not the iPad, and devices like it, have the potential to become serious tools for working and enthusiast photographers. Obviously there are other tablet computers available, but we chose to focus on the iPad 2 for two main reasons. Firstly, the iPad is by far the most popular device of its type and therefore has the most relevance. Secondly, Apple's App Store is currently the largest available for any platform, containing almost 4,000 photography-related applications.

A casual visitor (if such people even exist) to this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas could be forgiven for thinking that tablet computers were the only consumer products that anyone released in 2010. A little over a year ago, hardly anyone was talking about tablets, but now it seems like virtually every major electronics manufacturer is rushing to get one to market.

In fact, tablet computers, mostly running modified versions of Microsoft Windows, have been around for years, but until very recently they only accounted for a tiny proportion of the consumer computing market. There are many reasons why 'traditional' tablets didn't take off, amongst them the fact that it is difficult to tweak desktop operating systems to work well on mobile devices. Add 'ugly and expensive' into the mix in most cases and in retrospect it is clear why tablets never achieved mainstream acceptance amongst consumers. As far as photographers are concerned, although the concept of a small form-factor, 'all in one' computer will always be hugely appealing they never took to tablet computers en masse, preferring dedicated portable viewing/storage devices or conventional laptop computers when travelling or working in the field.

However - as the expression goes - that was then, and this is now. With the launch of Apple's iPad in spring 2010, the tablet computer was reborn and with it, our expectations of what it is possible to achieve with a mobile device. Derided by some critics at the time as little more than a scaled-up iPhone with many of the same limitations (and a stupid name to boot), the iPad confounded the naysayers to become one of the fastest-selling consumer electronic devices in history.

What is the iPad?

Essentially, what distinguishes the Apple iPad from other, 'traditional' tablet devices is exactly what it was criticized for when it was launched. The iPad is not really what most people think of as a computer in the traditional sense. It isn't exactly a scaled-up iPhone, but it isn't far off. Available in three capacities, 16GB, 32GB and 64GB, the iPad runs the same touchscreen-based operating system as the iPhone and iPod touch and shares much the same styling and operational ergonomics. Considering its specification, it is relatively inexpensive, too. The basic 16GB, WiFi-only iPad 2 retails for $499.

The iPad 2 is 9mm thick, and weighs 1.3 pounds (590g). Starting at $499 it is considerably less expensive than any laptop computer approaching its size and weight, but boasts 512MB RAM and a 1GHz dual core processor.

Applications for the iPad can be downloaded using the device itself or online, from Apple's App Store - again, just like the iPhone - and it is synchronized and charged using the same type of (proprietary) connector cable. The first iPad was released in April last year and its successor, the iPad 2 (hereafter simply referred to as iPad), features improved graphics performance and an upgraded dual core processor in a slimmer, lighter form factor. It also features a camera, but don't get your hopes up on that score...

iPad 2: Headline Specifications

  • 10in, 1024 x 768 pixel, touch-sensitive (capacitive) LCD screen
  • Apple-A5 1Ghz dual core processor with 200MHz bus
  • 512MB RAM (not upgradable)
  • 16GB, 32GB or 64GB built-in flash storage (not upgradable)
  • Front and rear-facing cameras (front used exclusively for video calling, rear 0.7MP)
  • 3.8V, 25 Watt-hour lithium-ion battery
  • Inbuilt compass
  • Inbuilt gyroscope
  • Camera Connection kit ($29, optional) allows images to be imported from SD memory or a digital camera

Inbuilt Camera

The iPad 2 has two cameras - one front-facing, and one rear-facing. Neither is suitable for serious still photography. The front-facing camera is designed purely for video conferencing, and the rear camera's resolution of 0.7MP makes it suitable only for recording videos. Still photography with the rear camera is possible, but the low resolution makes it almost useless for anything other than visual note-taking. The camera of the iPhone 4 is far superior, although interestingly, the iPad 2 copes far better with the artificial light in our studio scene (see example below). In daylight, the iPhone 4's camera delivers much more natural color rendition than this.

iPad2 (0.7MP) iPhone 4 (5.0MP)
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Since the first iPad was launched, Apple has released several updates to enable amongst other things, limited multi-tasking, the ability to print images and documents wirelessly from the iPad, and wireless home media streaming. Amongst a growing range of accessories, Apple also produces an HDMI adapter which allows the iPad's screen to be mirrored on a larger display, and a 'Camera Connection Kit' which allows you to download images from either an SD card or your camera, directly to the iPad's photo library.

On paper then, the iPad has the potential to be a fairly powerful tool for photographers. It is small, lightweight and powerful, it features a large, high-resolution LCD screen and 10+ hours battery life. But can it really replace a laptop computer for the travelling photographer? Read on to find out...

Camera Connection Kit

As we've seen, the Apple iPad 2's built-in camera isn't suitable for serious photography. Core to the iPad's photographic potential is the Apple Camera Connection Kit. The kit itself is fairly basic, and consists of two adapters for the iPads's connector port, one to attach an SD card, and the other a standard USB port. Despite appearances, the USB adapter is only designed to connect the iPad to a digital camera (or iPhone). Other devices are not supported, and sadly as well as USB 'sticks', this also includes other types of card reader. Although we have seen reports that certain CF readers do work with the Camera Connection Kit, we haven't had any luck. What this means is that if your camera takes Compact Flash or other media, you'll probably have to physically attach it to your iPad using the USB connector (see below).



The Camera Connection Kit consists of two adapters, one to connect a digital camera via USB (left) and one to connect an SD card (right) With an SD card or camera connected, the iPad's Photo app is automatically launched, from where you can select images to import, either as a batch, or individually.

Using the Camera Connector kit is extremely easy. With a memory card inserted into the SD adapter, or when your camera is connected (and turned on) via the USB adapter, Apple's Photo app is launched automatically, and brings up thumbnails of all the images on the card/camera. If you want to import everything you can select all of the images as a batch, or if you prefer, it is also possible to manually check individual images. Before importing, Photo will ask you whether you want to keep the selected the images on your memory card or delete them after they are imported, and once the import is complete, images appear in the iPad's photo library.

Original RAW files are not displayed, but the iPad will recognise and display their accompanying (low resolution) JPEG thumbnails. Interestingly, if you use Apple Aperture or Photoshop Lightroom, you can import and adjust RAW files uploaded to the iPad's Photo library when the device is connected to your computer.

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