Is the iPad Pro ready for real photo editing? I ditched my MacBook to find out

With an eight-core A12X processor, the iPad Pro (2018) promised enough power to handle tasks normally reserved for laptop computers — and photographers took note. At launch, the iPad’s processor, Liquid Retina screen, and ultra-thin profile held big promise for creative pros on the go.

Unfortunately, the reality was less dazzling than the dream, dampened by the inability to use external storage and the annoyance of uploading photos twice if you wanted to use something other than Apple’s default Photos app, such as Adobe Lightroom.

That was 2018. Now, iOS 13 supports external hard drives and photos can be imported directly into third-party apps, bypassing the camera roll.

It isn’t just Apple working to make the iPad Pro live up to its name. Adobe released Photoshop for iPad in 2019, and high-end camera manufacturer Hasselblad even has an app for tethering to the iPad Pro from its X1D II 50C medium-format camera.

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More than ever, the iPad is poised to take over tasks photographers normally reserved for a laptop or desktop computer. So is it ready to be your sole editing machine? I left my MacBook at home and packed only the iPad Pro on a 4-day international photography trip to find out.

Small device, big benefits

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is less than half the weight of the 13-inch MacBook Pro (and much less than the 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro that’s my main machine). The difference was noticeable from the moment I started packing. 

I managed to fit the iPad, all my camera gear, and 4 days of clothes into a camera backpack and a small carry-on. The iPad did require bringing more accessories, including a USB-C SD card reader, the keyboard folio, and Apple Pencil, but it’s worth noting that the new MacBook Pros also need an external card reader. And even with the accessories, the iPad took up noticeably less space.

Typically, my laptop stays put in the hotel room once I arrive at a destination. But with the iPad Pro, I could take it with me everywhere. It was light enough to keep in my camera bag, even for a 2-mile hike through Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park in 90-degree weather. It was great to be able to pull out the iPad between shoots to get some work done (or some reading, as it also replaced my Kindle).

Being able to comfortably carry your editing machine with you is a big advantage for everyone from travel bloggers, who might want to get some work done over lunch in a remote area, to commercial photographers working on location who need a quick way to show images to clients. Even if you’re going to do final edits on a desktop machine later, making your selects and doing other basic tasks from the iPad can jump-start the process.

Photo editing on the iPad Pro

I uploaded the entire trip’s photos directly to Lightroom CC, thanks to its ability to now read images directly off the SD card. That eliminates the extra step of importing to the camera roll first, and means you don’t end up with duplicate files.

Getting photos off the iPad is just as easy thanks to support for external hard drives. Once I got home, I could easily export those photos to the hard drive that houses my photo archives. (Using Lightroom CC, photos were also synced over the cloud, but manually exporting to a hard drive is faster when you don’t have access to good internet.) The iPad Pro may have up to 1 TB of storage, but active photographers will fill that space quickly. External storage is a must for anyone who doesn’t want to pay to store images in the cloud, or who needs to offload high numbers of photos where internet is not available.

One of the biggest issues with the device itself — and not the software or operating system — is the single USB-C port. You can’t charge the iPad while uploading photos, or import photos from an SD card to an external hard drive. There are USB-C splitter hubs, but that means packing another accessory.

Hillary K Grigonis/Digital Trends

The iPad Pro had sufficient battery life that I didn’t need to charge while uploading — around 1,000 images at a time — but the missing ports are still a significant difference between the iPad Pro and the MacBook Pro.

But when it comes to performance, the iPad didn’t lag behind. I had to learn Lightroom CC’s touchscreen interface, which is quite different from Lightroom Classic, my preferred desktop editing app, but eventually I almost forgot that I was working on a tablet. Image previews loaded quickly and the iPad sped through edits.

The touchscreen quickly became a high point of editing on the iPad. Even without keyboard shortcuts, culling photos is nearly as fast as on desktop thanks to Lightroom’s gesture controls that let you swipe to flag images. Localized editing tools, like healing and adjustment brushes, are also easier to use with the Apple Pencil than a mouse or trackpad.

However, and I found Lightroom on iPad to be missing a few key abilities. Selecting a thousand photos to add to an album is a pain, as there is no equivalent to a Command-A shortcut to select all. Instead, you have to slide a finger over every image. Even with the keyboard attached, Lightroom on iOS apparently doesn’t supported the same keystrokes as its desktop counterpart.

But the real reason photographers are now considering the iPad for full-time photo editing is Photoshop, which only recently made the jump to the tablet. While the eventual goal is to have the same toolset as on desktop, Photoshop for iPad has a long way to go before becoming the powerhouse editor that the desktop program is.

Despite everything that’s missing — including frequently used options like image resizing and Select and Mask — Photoshop for iPad focuses on the most-used tools as well as those that benefit most from a touchscreen. I could still make selections easily enough with the Apple Pencil and work with Layers to composite files, but many of the fine-tuning controls are missing.

Should you give up your laptop for an iPad?

While traveling, I didn’t miss my laptop. The iPad kept up with my basic culling and editing tasks with only minor annoyances. Most of the hiccups were from the apps, not the hardware.

But at home, I picked up right where I left off on my laptop. Not because of performance, but because of the bigger screen, a full keyboard, and access to a full version of Photoshop and Lightroom Classic. 

Could the iPad replace a laptop for photo editing? For travel photographers, or anyone who doesn’t work with massive libraries or need the full power of Photoshop, the answer is yes. (You may also want to check out Affinity Photo, a full-featured alternative to Photoshop that’s available on iPad.)

For other photographers, the iPad is still best as a complement to a laptop, rather than a replacement. Thanks to streamlined importing and the ability to work with external drives, the iPad is the perfect tool to take with you while still playing nice with your laptop or desktop when you get back home.

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