I'm one of the many photographers out there who's made an honest attempt to use any/all tools available to improve my production and post-production workflow. I think I've finally figured out a new addition that sticks: Duet Display + an iPad + Lightroom.
Let me backup a minute and outline my 'problem'. Lightroom is fantastic, I have almost no complaints about Lightroom. It works well. Whether its on a Mac or a PC, it's reliable and a great piece of software that handles post-production incredibly. So how come I have a problem? Well, there's this really great tool in Lightroom called the 'Adjustment Brush'. It allows us to 'paint' an adjustment onto our image. Exposure, white balance, clarity, you name it. So again, what's the problem? 'Painting' the adjustment brush using a mouse is like painting with a rock. It's cumbersome. It's unnatural. It feels nothing like painting. If you have to do it a lot, its really frustrating.
So what solutions exist? Well, there are 4 that I can think of that make the most sense:
- Use a Wacom pen/tablet (or some other brand if you'd like)
- Use a Wacom Cintiq tablet
- Use a Microsoft Surface (or something else with a Windows 8 touch-screen)
- Use Lightroom on an iPad
My opinions come from trial and error, not fanboy-ism, so please hear me out.
The Wacom pen/tablet is probably the cheapest solution of all of them. It's about $100, it sits next to your computer, and you can draw/paint/point all day long. It even has pressure sensitivity that plays nicely with most programs. The drawbacks? Visual feedback. You draw on a tablet, not the screen, so it's a separation of the pen, your hand, and your eyes. I find it to be the best when you're drawing on the image, not next to it. BUT, you can't have it all for roughly $100. It's cheap. It's portable. It draws power from the computer so nothing needs to charge. It's not perfect, but it's a really good option.
Next, the Wacom Cintiq. Same company, completely different ballpark (both price and abilities). It's essentially another monitor for your computer, only it has a touch panel display that supports a pressure-sensitive pen (plus programmable buttons). Everyone who's used one seems to like them. So what's the problem here? Well, it's very expensive and really only serves one purpose for photographers - the adjustment brush. Yep, you can use the pen to 'click' on things other than the brush, but its annoying. The targets for settings are too small, the scrolling doesn't work like it does using a mouse, your hand blocks a quarter of the display when you use it. So if you're buying it just to use the adjustment brush, it's really not worth it. If you are also an illustrator, then this might be a good choice because it support pen pressure. But photographers don't really need that.
The Surface Pro 3. Pretty cool computer, some photographers seem to like it. Its a good choice if you need to buy a new computer and like Windows. Not so much if you just want to add touch-screen abilities to Lightroom. It's pricey (add the keyboard, a stronger CPU, and more storage and you're now above the Cintiq display) and still doesn't address the UI issues previously mentioned with the Cintiq. The legacy UI of Windows 8 and the current version of OS X stink for touch. There's no way around it. Tap around the screen. Try and close a window. Try and right-click. Try and scroll around. It is an infuriating experience. The touch-versions of these platforms (the touch-friendly part of Windows and iOS) are anything but frustrating, because they were built with touch in mind. Lightroom doesn't run in that touch-friendly environment, which leaves everything super-tiny (even when scaled up), your finger too fat, the pen too cumbersome for anything beyond brushing, and your patience wearing thin after using it for about an hour. The Surface Pro 3 may be a great middle-ground for those who want tablet/computer hybrids, but be prepared to spend most of your time as a photographer in the legacy UI of Windows. Again, if you're doing this just for the adjustment brush, you are way better just picking up a Wacom pen/tablet and calling it a day.
And the last option that comes-up short is Lightroom for iPad. Of course, I'm referring to the companion app that Adobe ships, the one where you have to be a CC member, the same one where the iPad version is useless without the full app running on a computer. I really like that Adobe has rethought the UI of Lightroom for touch. It shows they thought it through and works pretty well. The downside is that you need to first download your photos to your main computer, so that it can upload smart previews to CC, then your iPad can download those previews, and you can begin a watered-down editing process. At the moment, you don't have access to everything in the develop module of your computer, so you'll still have to go back to your computer and use the develop module for some tasks. I think we can all chalk that up to it being new-ish. There's room for improvement. But the problem I see with it is the infrastructure of how images are added and modified. The iPad app cannot exist on its own. You must go to your computer for the initial stages (import) and final stages (export) of the shoot. Maybe that's in part because iOS doesn't really have a user-accessible file system, there is no 'Finder', so how would one go about importing to a specific folder? And maybe that answers the big question of 'can photographers ever go tablet-only'? Sure, someone can pull a stunt and try it, but can we realistically do it just as effectively as with our computers? The companion app of Lightroom isn't a viable solution because it cannot exist on its own, thus requiring a convoluted workflow that would ultimately detract from an efficient post-production process.
OK, so where does leave us?
Duet Display + Lightroom:
I discovered Duet Display when it made a splash in the blogosphere a little while back. It takes your existing iPad (that's assuming you have one, obviously) and turns it into a display. If its a retina display, no fears, it can display it at full resolution. I was using Duet Display for about a month as a secondary display to the right of my current display when I accidentally touched it and I saw that it performed a 'mouse click'. I then thought to myself how dumb I was for not knowing that was possible, then I thought about the practical implications that would have in Lightroom. Eureka, the adjustment brush was finally usable without the mouse - I could use my finger, or better yet, a stylus. Nope, it's not pressure-sensitive. Nope, it's not a fine-point. But neither of things matter for photographers in Lightroom. Auto-masking and feathering are important, and those are possible by default. So here's my workflow: Use Lightroom on the normal laptop display for 98% of the edit, drag it over to the iPad once the adjustment brush is needed, make my brush adjustments using the stylus on the iPad screen, then bring it back to the large display for the rest of the edit. It's such a simple, cheap, and effective method to use Lightroom the way it was designed: using the best tools (keyboard and mouse) and then augmenting the experience by introducing a stylus as the input method of the adjustment brush, then returning to the traditional UI to finish the job. I really like this workflow. I highly encourage anyone with an iPad to try it out, you might be surprised to see how great it is.