With all of this talk of the post pc era, what limits do the lack of a traditional laptop or desktop computer impose on digital photography? If I want to use a modern day DSLR and a device such as the iPad for a weekend, vacation, or even permanently as my main computer, what am I giving up with the current technology?

I want this question to focus more on tablet technology vs the traditional desktop darkroom. I do not want to speculate about future technology, but rather what limitations are fairly set in stone for this type of technology (for example, I can't switch out a different display).

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    \$\begingroup\$ DSLR used as the camera, iPad used as the "darkroom". No photos with iPads please, I have to laugh out loud every time I see people taking photos with tablet computers. Especially in the middle of wedding ceremonies :) \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Dec 20, 2011 at 3:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dpollitt, i just came from a wedding, where a guy was recording the proceedings with his Mac Book Pro webcam :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Vikas
    Dec 20, 2011 at 3:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually you can use a larger display with a tablet - apple.com/ipad/features/mirroring.html \$\endgroup\$
    – ab.aditya
    Dec 21, 2011 at 8:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ab.aditya - Yes, but you can't really swap main displays as in a desktop PC. Considering it is also the input device, etc etc. It might have been a bad example, but you get the idea :) \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Dec 21, 2011 at 14:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @dpollitt Just wait and watch what Apple does with its Thunderbolt display. It's pretty much a docking station for their MacBooks - anandtech.com/show/4832/the-apple-thunderbolt-display-review. Only a matter of time before it extends to the iPad. \$\endgroup\$
    – ab.aditya
    Dec 22, 2011 at 2:23

3 Answers 3


I have an iPad and I've used it some for photography while traveling, and here's some things I've come up against.

  • With the iPad 2, resolution was limited to 1024×768. The new model's 2048×1536 is much, much better, but the screen is still quite small.
  • Lovely for finger-painting, hard to get precise control for fine work.
  • Can't color calibrate at an OS level. This might be fixed eventually, but that's the current state. You can get gallery apps which use color calibration (there's one from Spyder), but I don't think there's any photo editing / image manipulation tools for the iPad which are color-managed
  • Limited software support. There's some pretty impressive image editors for iOS, but mostly they compare to Photoshop Elements, not to more full-featured tools.
  • A subset of that but worth calling out: very limited RAW development options. I understand that there are a few apps that do this, but it's not like you can run Lightroom. (Although Aperture is rumored, I wouldn't hold my breath). I haven't tried any of 'em, instead using my camera's built-in after-the-fact raw conversion or simply waiting til later.
  • Limited workflow. Apple has weird restrictions on its "photo gallery" API, and apps using the "camera roll" and standard folders can't do things like create folders or delete images. This means they need to maintain their own file hierarchy, which is kind of ungainly. And apps that do that have no good way to communicate their "internal" files with each other.
  • Apple's silly $30 "camera connector" kit is required and another thing to lug around (and lose). Android tablets have SD card readers built-in.

Rumor update: Adobe has done back-room demos of Lightroom for iOS, and apparently there was an accidental information leak on their web site, implying that it will be available for a $100/year subscription, which might be worth it. If that happens to include integrated color calibration, that might address most of the points above.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I really hope RAW support is improved. This is a big sticking point. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Dec 21, 2011 at 20:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm Any changes in thoughts regarding the limited software support post iPhoto (effectively the rumoured Aperture) for iOS - suntimes.com/technology/12383842-478/… and the new iPad with its higher resolution & better colour calibrated screen? \$\endgroup\$
    – ab.aditya
    Jun 9, 2012 at 13:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ab.aditya — the resolution change makes a difference, but iPhoto still doesn't cover RAW conversion. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Jun 9, 2012 at 14:07

The most notable difference at the moment will be:

  • The computational power difference between a PC & a tablet - tablets give you the computation power of a PC that is 6-8 years older, so even if you get the workflow on par with the PC, the speed will definitely be a lot slower. If you are working with the RAW format, then just exporting them after processing will take a lot longer than on a PC - even the fastest hexa-core desktop CPU today equipped with an SSD takes 11 seconds in the Photoshop CS4 retouch benchmark.

Quoting from an article on Blackberry vs iPhone (written in 2008, well before the iPad, but quite relevant to the PC vs tablet computation power discussion) regarding the rate of progress in computation power:

...in just nine years, the specs that then described Apple’s top-of-the-line desktop computer now describe their phone.

  • The storage space available - tablets top out at 64 GB, so you are going to be severely limited even if you just go the JPG route

  • Connectivity options to transfer images from the camera to the tablet - more of a lack of or non adherence to standards than anything else though

  • Interface - Point & click may be a better accurate paradigm when trying to edit photos precisely. However, you can get over some of the limitations using a keyboard dock and\or stylus combo.

At present, a MacBook Air or Ultrabook is the most portable replacement for a full size laptop, and even a desktop that doesn't involve as many trade-offs as a tablet.

Update (post iPhoto for iOS): Touch devices do open up new forms of image editing, particularly from the ease of use point of view (once you learn the interface). There is a precision vs simplicity trade-off, but this should be good enough for all but rigorous editing. Do check out Andy Ihnatko's experience where he has shared some of the killer features. There are also quite a few iPhoto clones coming out now.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it is important to note that when discussing the "post pc era", we must consider the cloud as our long term storage rather then the internal memory of these devices. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Dec 21, 2011 at 20:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @dpollitt I agree that the cloud will be an important component of the ecosystem, but at present bandwidth & ubiquitous connectivity are significant constraints - especially when travelling. \$\endgroup\$
    – ab.aditya
    Dec 22, 2011 at 2:19

Let's start with what you gain from a tablet alternative to a traditional laptop computer.

  1. Lightweight, highly portable with much longer battery life.
  2. Simple interface, simple to use, no moving parts.
  3. Instant ON, no booting required.

As to "limitations", that depends on what you want to do.

  1. High Resolution Viewing - well your window may be limited to 1024 x 768, but with photo management apps like Photo Shack Pro, you can use that window to zoom in up to 16 megapixel photo resolution.
  2. Fine movement control - is only an issue when fine movement control is needed. If your primary goal is photo organization, viewing, photo analysis, and tagging (titles, comments, star ratings), this isn't a problem a simple interface can't easily resolve.
  3. Color calibration - shouldn't be an issue as long as you don't plan to print directly from the tablet. Most workflows would use the tablet for preprocessing of photos before transferring to a desktop platform.
  4. Limited software support - depends entirely on the App's developer. Some apps, such as Photo Shack Pro, are excellently supported.
  5. RAW support - some apps, such as Photo Shack Pro, support many RAW formats when directly imported from the camera or SD card.
  6. Limited workflow - is easily overcome with quality photo management apps such as Photo Shack Pro. PSP allows you to create your own libraries containing your own folders containing your photos in the order you want without restrictions of any kind.
  7. Camera Connection Kit - its required on the iPad to interface directly with cameras or their SD cards. No big deal to most people.

The key to understanding a tablet's role in your photographic workflow is to first recognize that it is not a notebook computer. It's a device in its own category, that sacrifices some additional higher level/detailed functionality for greater ease of use and greater portability in terms of complexity, size, weight, and battery life. Perhaps you should view it as an extension to your camera, rather than a replacement for your notebook.

Disclaimer: Photo Shack Pro is a product of my company Appglasm-Apps.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Our FAQ asks to add a disclaimer whenever you're referencing your own products; I've added it for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Imre
    Dec 21, 2011 at 11:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ron — this really reads like an advertisement, despite Imre's added disclaimer. I think you make some good points but to me that is kind of lost in the constant repetition of one product as the "example". \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Dec 21, 2011 at 11:30

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