Tablets for photographers: Best options for on-the-go workflow
1 Galaxy Note 10.1, Google Nexus 7 & BlackBerry PlayBook
When you’re in the field, whether shooting on location or just meeting with your next client, gear that’s powerful and portable is a must. This is where tablets come in to make a photographer’s job easier. With high resolution touchscreens for easily sharing portfolios or proofs, the capacity for dozens of dynamic apps that provide photo capture and editing capabilities, typically lightweight construction and built-in cameras that are quickly improving in megapixels and performance, tablets can be an attractive supplement to a photographer’s bag of tricks. Add in larger screens that offer more versatility and control than smartphones and ready access to online resources through a data connection (if you can get it), and you’ve got a device that can supercharge your photography workflow without draining your wallet.
But with all of the tablets out there, it can be difficult to figure out which one to buy. And the criteria is way different for photographers than it is for your average Best Buy shopper. Even though the built-in cameras on these tablets won’t be your first choice when you have your smartphone and DSLR with you, it’s nice to know what they could do when you’re in a pinch.
We field tested five of the most popular consumer tablets currently on the market to determine which ones make the best mobile photo accessories, and which ones are only good for flinging colorful birds at those meddlesome pigs.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
- Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
- Weight: 21.1 ounces / 598g
- Screen size and type: 10.1-inch 1280 by 800 LCD screen
- Cameras (type and megapixels): 5 megapixel rear camera and 1.9 megapixel front-facing camera
- Battery life: About 8 hours
- Price: $499 (16 GB model); $549 (32 GB model)
Best Feature for Photographers
The included stylus adds versatility to this tablet. Pressure-sensitive, the stylus makes editing and more robust photo retouching not just possible, but enjoyable. You can even split the screen between several apps, the perfect addition to multi-task out in the field. It won’t work with every app, but it’s a welcome addition when you need to take notes or check out tips online while reviewing your photos. This kind of functionality really sets the Note 10.1 apart from the iPad, instead of making it an Apple clone that runs an Android system.
Camera and Display
The native camera options rival those of paid photography apps we’ve reviewed in the past. From the main camera screen, you can choose to use the rear camera (5 megapixels) or the front camera (1.9 megapixels), but that's not a decision that's likely to take long. Turn the LED flash on or off (or set it to automatic flash), adjust the exposure (from +2 to -2 EV), set a timer (to 2, 5 and 10 seconds), apply a filter or toggle the scene settings, which adjust shooting parameters based on your environment (think nighttime, indoor and landscape, to name a few).
Various shooting modes offer further versatility. The “Smile Shot” mode only takes the picture when the subject is smiling (and it works well). More practical and just as impressive is the panorama mode. Hold the tablet up and the onscreen arrows guide you through leveling your shot and making sure each of your eight shots stitch together seamlessly. Other features include photo sharing that recognizes friends who are in your shot and lets you share the picture with them with a few taps of the screen.
While the display isn’t HD like the Nexus 7, the 10.1-inch screen size is generous. Shots look great (helped by that 5 megapixel rear camera and 1280 by 800 resolution) and photo editing is a breeze with this much space.
Usability and Portability
The Note 10.1 is the second heaviest tablet in our roundup, but the weight doesn’t feel cumbersome. A simple, thin design distributes the weight well when you hold it up to shoot. I would have liked to see a rubber-grip back like on the Nexus to make this tablet feel a little more rugged. Instead, you get a smooth, gray back that looks like it would scratch easily on the go.
In camera mode, the menus and options are clear and easy to use. You can even tap and hold onscreen icons to customize what settings appear on the viewfinder screen. With so many features to choose from, that level of customization helps make navigation simple for those using the same settings over and over.
The Note has one problem that’s big or small, depending on your needs as a photographer: there’s no 3G or 4G support. That means you won’t be able to access the Internet without a wi-fi hotspot nearby. If you’ve got apps and information pre-loaded, working in less wired areas won’t be a problem. But if you want to take advantage of instant photo sharing or multi-tasking between websites and your photos—then you have a problem if shoots take you away from wireless Internet. Your needs will determine how much of a deal-breaker this is for you: if it is, the closest analog to the Note is the iPad 3, which has a wi-fi and cellular 16 GB model that’s $100 pricier.
If you’re an Android fan and looking to augment your photography kit, this is the tablet for you. The price is competitive: $499 for a 16 gigabyte model (the same as the 3rd generation, wi-fi-only iPad), and while the display may not be as gorgeous as Apple’s, the features, apps and ease-of-use make the Note worth the money. Buyer beware: if you need ready access to the Internet on location, go with the iPad.
Google Nexus 7
- Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)
- Weight: 12 ounces / 340g
- Screen size and type: 7-inch 1280 by 800 HD display
- Cameras (type and megapixels): 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera
- Battery life: About 10 hours
- Price: $199 (8 GB model); $249 (16 GB model)
Best Feature for Photographers
Picking up the Google Nexus 7 tablet and looking at the crystal clear display, I thought: this is what a tablet should be: lightweight, sleek and sporting a beautiful HD screen. While a 10-inch tablet like the Note might give you more space to edit, the visual clarity of the Nexus 7 makes this an editing contender in the 7-inch category, and an ideal tool for showing off your work. Photos are crisp, and apps run without any noticeable slowdown.
Camera and Display
The Nexus’s camera is where it’s lacking.
For one, it took some time to find it, namely because there’s no native camera app. Yes, you have to download a third-party application to launch the camera. It’s an annoying extra step right out of the box. I used Camera Launcher, a free app that includes some nice features like white balance settings that adjust the picture for daylight, incandescent lighting and fluorescent lighting. It also gives you exposure settings and a basic zoom function.
Pity you won’t be using them much. The Nexus only has one camera: a front-facing one. Unless you’re a connoisseur of self-portraits, chances are you’re going to look elsewhere for a tablet camera.
That’s a shame, because even with just 1.2 megapixels, the shots look fine and you can simply swipe your finger to look through your photo album, then swipe back to the camera without leaving the app.
Usability and Portability
The lack of a viable camera might not be enough to turn off photographers looking for a fast, slick tablet to use for all other purposes at an unbeatable price.
But I’d recommend getting a good stylus if you’re editing on the device. Without it, the 7-inch screen is just too small to do more intricate work. But with a stylus, you can do everything you want on a bigger Android tablet for about half the price. While the screen dimensions impact editing, the small size can also be a big asset. The Nexus 7 is the lightest of the tablets we reviewed, but it doesn’t feel cheap or delicate. Its rubber, ribbed back provides a great grip and makes it feel that much more rugged. You could easily slip it into a large jacket pocket.
Because of the $199 price point, the Nexus 7 could offer real value as a way for photographers in the field to preview photos and share them with others online, while using apps to take care of business functions like signing digital release forms and contracts. You might not spring for a 10-inch tablet for those functions. But the Nexus 7 is a surprisingly good middle ground option.
Menus and screens look crisp, and the purpose of menu buttons is usually apparent. I would have liked to see a physical button that returns you to the home screen (a la the iPad), but its omission is understandable given the small size of the Nexus. The end result? A tablet that you won’t be taking photos with, but could offer convenience at a low price for photographers who need to support their shoots with apps and sharing functions.
Transferring any photos you do take to your computer is dead simple. Connect the USB, enable the camera connection function in the setting menu and drag the photos to your desktop.
Unfortunately, you won’t connect using anything other than wi-fi with the Nexus. That shouldn’t be a problem, since if you’re looking for a photographer’s tablet, you really should be looking elsewhere.
The Nexus 7 is light, portable and stylish, but ultimately worthless as a camera. However, as an accessory that might have some useful capabilities on location in terms of apps and photo sharing, if wi-fi is available or connectivity doesn’t matter, the price is right: the 8 gigabyte Nexus 7 that I reviewed costs $199. The 16 gigabyte model is $249.
- PlayBook OS 2.1
- Weight: 14.9 ounces / 422g
- Screen size and type: 7-inch 1024 by 600 LCD screen
- Cameras (type and megapixels): 5 megapixel rear camera and a 3 megapixel front-facing camera
- Battery life: About 10 hours
- Price: $199 (16 GB), $249 (32 GB), $299 (64 GB)
Best Feature for Photographers
The PlayBook isn’t the lightest tablet out there, but it’s over a third lighter than something like the iPad 3 (8.4oz, to be precise). The device never feels cheap or breakable, though. It’s easy to slide the PlayBook in a purse, backpack or even a large jacket pocket, making this one of the more portable tablets reviewed.
Camera and Display
The BlackBerry PlayBook sports a 5 megapixel rear camera, as well as a 3 megapixel forward-facing camera. The camera screen features a zoom function and a button to switch between front-and rear-facing cameras. With no magnification, the quality of photos seems serviceable, but nothing to write home about—especially with a 1024 by 600 resolution screen, lower than other tablets reviewed. However, it’s worrying that things appear to become grainy the further in you zoom. The same goes for the tablet’s general display: it’s mostly crisp, but the 7-inch LCD screen is nothing that excites at 1024 by 600 resolution.
Usability and Portability
The PlayBook was meant to be held horizontally or vertically with two hands—and that’s it. The zoom function is controlled by a slider on the left side of the screen, while the shutter button sits on the right. To its credit, the zoom slider is perfectly calibrated: it’s easy to fine-tune it to your desired settings, which is a feature some other tablets and apps have trouble with. Once adjusted, simply move your right thumb over the shutter button and snap a photo. Easy enough, right?
Not if you’re using a stand or a mount with the tablet to stabilize a shot. With the tablet propped up, I found the zoom slider unwieldy and, frankly, a little illogical. Many tablets use the screen gestures popularized by Apple: pinch the corners of the screen with your index finger and thumb to zoom out, slide them apart to zoom in. That works reasonably well; this functionality doesn’t.
It’s a strange choice, considering all the PlayBook’s menus and navigation are controlled exclusively by screen gestures (there’s no physical Home button to return you to the main screen). Those come in handy: simply slide your finger from the bottom of the screen up and the PlayBook minimizes the camera and takes you to a dashboard with your recent apps and menus (including, in this case, the device’s photo album). That makes it easier to navigate between the camera and the photo album than on other devices that require you to close the camera down, and then open the photo album.
The physical buttons the PlayBook does have are a problem: the volume buttons don’t feel responsive, and the power button (which puts the device to sleep) requires quite a bit of pressure to work. That button gets used a lot, which makes this failing more noticeable than simply having to punch the volume button a few times.
Downloading apps and using online resources on the go isn’t simple: currently, PlayBooks are wi-fi only. A wi-fi and cellular network version is in the works, but until then, you’ll need to be near a hotspot.
The PlayBook might be a viable option because of its size: it’s not big enough or high-res enough for photo editing, but it’s cheap enough that it could be worth it for the ability to share photos or access the Internet. Unfortunately, the PlayBook doesn’t do those things any better than the Nexus 7. In fact, the Nexus 7 has a screen advantage over the PlayBook: it looks much more crisp and sports higher resolutions. If you’re really in the market for a 7-inch tablet, look elsewhere.
Whatever other failings of the PlayBook, it suffers most from the relatively tiny BlackBerry App World store. At last count, Apple’s App Store had around 650,000 apps and Google’s Android store features half a million. In comparison, App World has just under 100,000. Less choice certainly isn’t a nail in the coffin, but the booming popularity and (relative) profitability for developers lies in iOS and Android. That means fewer high-quality apps.
The PlayBook is a solid tablet if you’re a BlackBerry nut—but it’s not a solid tablet for photography. The portability is there: the visual quality, versatility and usability of some other offerings on the market aren’t. Granted, at a sub-$200 price point for the 16 GB model and the reasonable $299 for the 64 GB model, it could have been worth adding to your kit for the size and portability alone—if it offered equal or better features than the Nexus 7, which it doesn’t.
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