Friday, November 25, 2016

A mobile workflow with Lightroom?

Because of a recent trip to New York I decided to try whether I could work with a exclusively mobile workflow (i.e. no laptop) using just an iPad Pro and the sd card reader for lightning. I've read quite a bit about this and certainly Adobe plays up this workflow on their blog and with videos with well-known photographers singing its praises. I have certainly enjoyed the option to shoot dng files with my iPhone's built-in camera straight into Lightroom, and so to save a bit of weight and to see if this worked as well as advertised, I decided to try it for myself and only take an iPad and my cameras. To put the bottom-line up front, what I found is that this workflow shows some promise but is still very much a mixed bag. It works great if your needs are modest. It does not work when you are importing multiple days of images and when you have more than a few images. Part of the problem lies with Apple and part lies with Adobe. Let me explain my conclusions in a bit more detail.

The Brooklyn bridge at night. Shot using a handheld Nikon D600. Raw image file imported to Lightroom mobile using Apple's lightning sd card reader and edited using Lightroom mobile. The file automatically transferred to my desktop machine from where I edited the detail settings and uploaded it to my web service.

importing images

I use the excellent 9.7" iPad Pro that has the wider color gamut screen. This works great with Adobe Lightroom and it even color manages in Lightroom, Safari and other apps. This is quite nice. Also, the little Apple sd card reader works well but there are a few major problems to be aware off. First, you have to use Apple's Photos app to import your raw images from your camera's card. This is probably an Apple-imposed limitation but it causes some major issues. If like me, you have Photos set up to have your photo library mirrored through the cloud, it will immediately start uploading your raw files to Apple's cloud. Also, most people have limited space on their tablets so you do not want duplicate files in the end. So you have to as quick as you can go into Lightroom mobile and import the raw files from your camera roll. Then when it has imported them, go back to Photos and delete the raw files from there twice (first from the camera roll and then permanently delete them from the trash). The reason to do this of course is that you generally do not have very good internet connection when traveling like this and your tablet will be hogging your internet connection completely if you're not careful. However, this will cause a big problem the next time you import from the card as I explain below.

When you insert your card for the second time (say at the second day of your trip), you will be presented by something like the below:

There are two main problems here. The first is that it takes very long for the thumbnails to show and second that because we (forcibly!) deleted the raw files from the device's camera roll to save space and bandwidth, the device does not know which images were already imported. You basically have to remember and wait until the device finally gets around to the new images before you can select the images to import. This is a pain. You can avoid this by also deleting the files of the sd card, but this is a really bad idea as you will not have a backup of your images. Needless to say that is absolutely not what you want to do. The importing step into Lightroom is very easy however and fairly painless.

Conclusion: importing is not a good experience. This might be fixed if Apple opens up the sd card reader to third-party apps.

Editing images

Lightroom mobile works surprisingly well to edit images. Many things are supported such as gradient filters, and a fairly complete suite of editing tools. There are some major omissions though that turn out to be close to deal breakers for me. The first is that the camera profile defaults to "Adobe Standard" and you cannot change it (or even see the setting!) on the mobile side. This is problematic as the Adobe profile is not good for many cameras. I generally default to "Camera Standard" or to a profile I created from a passport color checker chart. You can't do this in Lightroom mobile. As a result, you're unlikely to get the color you would normally have on your desktop. The second major problem is that Lightroom will not show you the full resolution of the image and you can't change any of the detail settings directly. I could not easily reduce noise in high ISO images and could not optimize any sharpening. This felt very limiting to me. There are a few sharpening and noise reduction presets hidden in the presets submenu that do a bit of what you need, but clearly this needs a full set of settings. Thirdly, you can't stitch panoramas in LR/mobile. Oftentimes when I want to save weight, I will simply only carry a kit lens and shoot wider-angle views by simply moving the camera and stitching afterwards. This is not possible on just mobile. Last, but not least, the "upright" tools are not there. This means that for many of the shots I took in Manhattan and shooting many of the amazing buildings, I could not do any perspective corrections.

Last light reflected in the World Trade Center towers at the 9/11 memorial plaza. I highly recommend the 9/11 memorial museum at the site of the old WTC. A very powerful experience. I shot this using three shots using my Nikon 1 J4 camera at 10mm, imported into LR/mobile and did initial edits to it. When I got home, the images synced (after a looooong time - see below) to my desktop and I could stitch a panorama and do an upright correction to get the buildings vertical.

Conclusion: Editing works OK but is missing some essential features

Syncing images to the desktop

There is only one description for this: painfully slow even on very fast connections. It works for just a few pictures, but if you have more than a few such as the about 50-100 I had every day, it is not a good experience. It would be great if you could get home and have your images waiting for you. In practice, this will not happen. One major reason for this is that Lightroom mobile will not upload the images to Adobe's creative cloud while it is not in the foreground. This means that you have to stay in Lightroom and you have to keep your tablet awake. Also, it seems to use only a tiny fraction of the upload bandwidth and so expect it to take hours during which you can't do anything else with your tablet than Lightroom. To make matters worse, once your images have finally transferred over, your desktop machine does not have any clue that it has the images already in its library when you insert the memory card from your camera in your computer. This seems like a small problem but in fact, many people might take the approach to the above problems to only import a few files into LR/mobile and when you get home to import the rest from your card. This will ensure you end up with many duplicates! I do not understand why Lightroom Desktop does not recognize it already has the image files as it should screen on filename, capture date etc. All data that is exactly the same.

Conclusion: syncing your raw images to your desktop is not a very good experience.

Sharing images on social media

This is one thing that worked well. It is quite easy to just hit the share button in Lightroom and share directly to instagram (example), Facebook, twitter (example), etc. There are some issues with image quality however. The "small" 2048 pixel (how is that small?) has lots of jpeg compression artifacts. You also cannot easily add a watermark without going through another app on your iPad. There should be more options for image size and quality.

Conclusion: sharing your images on social media works well but can be improved.

Final thoughts

To sum up, A complete mobile workflow for people shooting raw files is not here yet. For now I recommend you take a ultralight laptop such as a MacBook Air or a Microsoft Surface and just run the desktop Lightroom on it. I am sure this is set to improve in the near future though. LR/mobile has rapidly improved over the last few months from a mere curiosity to something that at least comes close now and I am sure Adobe will keep improving the software. It is quite amazing that you can now edit raw images on a mobile platform fairly well I think. However, dealing with hundreds of raw files does not work well and has to be avoided for now.