Integrating the Apple MacBook Air into a pro workflow
2 Speed vs. weight: MacBook Air in a pro workflow
While I absolutely could use a more powerful (and heavier) laptop like the MacBook Pro, why would I? Colleagues who use the MacBook Pro on shoots talk about the power of the Pro relative to the Air, and that's valid for some types of shoots.
But while it's true that the Pro is a powerhouse, it doesn't mean the Air can't hold its own. To get an idea of the power in the machine let's take a quick look at Benchmarks. The MacBook Pro has a 'geekbench' (a popular benchmarking tool) score of 12,397. The MacBook Air (2013 model) has a score of 7,242 which is about 58% as fast, so they do have a point.
Of course, if the MacBook Air only replaced an iPhone and a stair climbing routine, it wouldn't be of much good. A few iterations ago I would take a MacBook Air and a MacBook Pro on a location shoot with me, leaving the Pro in the hotel and using the Air to simply work as a quick capture tool, using Aperture 3 to import images into a Library, which I'd save on an external hard drive and launch on Aperture on the MacBook Pro back at my hotel room.
On a few occasions that's still proven to be a good working solution, mostly when I'm working as a digital tech on a commercial shoot. In that case we often station an iMac and a RAID in the hotel room, capturing images into an Aperture Library on an external SSD Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 drive.
The great thing about this workflow is that it allows us to move the Aperture library from the iMac back to the MacBook Air to continue working on it with clients. Recently I worked with a corporate shooter who sat in the back of a rental car with the art director, picking final selects from a shoot while I drove to the airport. By the time we were checking our bags, the full-sized final files were in the hands of the client.
I regularly work with images from a Nikon D3, D4 and Canon 1DX with no slow down. That's due to a few factors. The first is the aforementioned high-speed data path from card to internal drive and then back out to a SSD Thunderbolt drive, which allows the whole image workflow to occur on a solid state drive.
One of the things I like about Aperture is its default use during transfer of the built-in JPEG preview embedded in a RAW file. That allows me to import files from cameras like the Nikon D800 and even Hasselblads, and perform the first round of selects without having to tax the processor.
Aperture begins its copy process by grabbing the embedded JPEGs first, and then performs a transfer of the images themselves. That means I can import photos from a camera that records extremely large files and begin to make selects before the images have been moved off the card.
That frees up a lot of power, and by the time I start adjusting images, I've already culled the ones I don't need.
On the Go
Speed, of course, wasn't the original goal of the MacBook Air; portability was, so as a result it has not been adopted as readily by photographic professionals, even though the Air has grown in performance. It was the lack of high-speed FireWire or USB 3.0 connectivity that caused many photographers to stick with the MacPro. Any savings in productivity due to portability of the Air were offset by the slow data transfer speeds from USB 2.0. Now that bottleneck is gone.
With the most recent MacBook Air, I now have the option to transfer CF cards via a USB 3.0 reader, which makes the Air a much more powerful photographic tool than it was just a few years ago when the Air only had USB 2.0. As a result I will often lay the MacBook Air next to me and ingest images from one card while I'm capturing with another card, and then swap them and continue.
An added little trick: I sometimes have to ingest while moving, so I start to import my images and then tuck the rubberized cable of the card reader between the screen and they keyboard, preventing the screen from closing and drop that into my camera bag. The MacBook Air keeps importing and I can walk around shooting. Potentially this might damage the screen if the camera bag were to be suddenly banged or dropped and the screen compressed on the cable, but in years of doing this I've never had an issue.
When I'm ready to get my images to clients I can use Wi-Fi (with added range thanks to the 802.11ac) or transmit them over my iPhone via LTE. When I'm ready to send selects to my client I simply connect the MacBook Air to my iPhone over Bluetooth or USB and upload images to my client on location from the airport, during the shoot.
I've used the MacBook Air in the utter darkness of a theater and the bright sunshine of a field and it's always bright and readable. In fact, my most common 'office' is the passenger seat of my car where glare is usually an issue, but the fidelity of the MacBook Air screen is phenomenal.
I can rely on the MacBook Air to have enough juice to run for a whole shoot and since it has the horsepower to process any camera file I throw at it, I know I can reliably work a full assignment on a single charge without the computer bogging me down.
On a shoot that's a day or less, I'll use my Compact Flash cards as a data backup, transferring images but leaving them on the cards. If the shoot is more than a day, or likely to run more than the 450GB of free space I usually have on my MacBook Air's 500GB drive, I'll bring a collection of drives like the LaCie 1TB Thunderbolt/USB and use one as a repository for my images, and one as a backup.
Once I'm home, the same high-speed Thunderbolt port moves images from my drives over to a RAID system on my iMac. The new MacBook Air is part of high-speed data transfer system that connects all of my workflow.
Part of a Solution
Photographers are often caught in a world where they need to find the most powerful solutions possible and cram them into the smallest places. While the MacBook Air used to only satisfy the size part of the equation, the newest member of the family makes it a powerful and compelling choice for photographers. It's one of those rare beasts that provides a professional level of power in a diminutive package without sacrificing functionality.
But it's only part of most photographer's arsenals, so in my next article I'll look at a Thunderbolt-based data backup and storage solution that's ideal for the working photographer. It's one that maximizes the high-speed data port in modern Macs and data redundancy to help keep images safe.