How to Ditch Your Laptop and Make A Mobile Photography Workflow

August 26, 2015

By Greg Scoblete

Depending on your inclination, the mobile revolution has either been a boon to productivity or a deathblow to downtime, enabling us to squeeze in work when we would otherwise be idle. For photographers, mobile devices have matured not simply as cameras but as tools for editing, organizing and synchronizing photo libraries captured with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. 

Despite this progress, the mobile workflow is still fragmented. How much you’ll get done and how efficient you’ll be depends heavily on the capabilities of your camera, your mobile device and the apps you’ve elected to use. While the JPEG workflow on mobile devices is robust, RAW capabilities are still embryonic. 

Still, it’s getting easier to leave the laptop at home, even if the photographers we spoke with are still a bit reluctant to do so.


While Wi-Fi is by no means universal on professional-grade cameras, it’s increasingly becoming the rule rather than the exception. With in-camera Wi-Fi comes companion apps for Android and iOS devices that support remote operation and image transfers from memory card to phone (or tablet). Most of these apps—from Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.—won’t transfer RAW files—only JPEGs—to mobile devices, on the theory that all you really need to do on your phone is post the image to social media. 

For photographer Tamara Lackey, that’s indeed been the primary use for in-camera Wi-Fi. “I primarily use camera Wi-Fi for rapid sharing—sharing images with clients and for social media sharing,” she says. 

In cases where in-camera Wi-Fi isn’t available, wireless memory cards like Eyefi’s Mobi Pro or Toshiba’s FlashAir can tackle wireless transfers from camera to mobile device. In the case of the Mobi Pro card (reviewed in this month’s issue) it also transfers RAW images, making it one of the few wireless solutions available for moving RAW images from camera to phone. Another option is the CamRanger ($300–$365), which is a bulkier, more costly solution than the $99 Mobi Pro, but also a lot more functional, providing not just the ability to transfer RAW files to mobile devices, but extensive camera remote-control options as well.

If moving RAW images to a mobile device is a priority, you can bypass the vagaries of Wi-Fi and camera apps and connect the old-fashioned way. Apple’s Camera Connection Kits are available for both 30-pin and Lightning connections for about $30. Card readers with micro USB ports for Android devices can be had for under $10.

While there’s no shortage of apps that can edit JPEG images on phones and tablets, the selection dwindles sharply for editing RAW images. Apple devices can save RAW files, but the iOS Photos app will only display the embedded JPEG preview that most RAW files create. Any edits you make in Photos impact that preview, but you can only share JPEGs, not RAW images, from Apple’s native app (you can upload the RAW file to iTunes, but it’s a circuitous process). 

Still, third-party iOS apps like Photogene ($3) and PhotoRaw ($10) can edit a wide variety of RAW images. And with Photogene, you can export XMP sidecar files that can be read by programs like Adobe Lightroom when you want to switch to desktop editing. 

Android has a slightly more robust eco-system for RAW files now that Android Lollipop supports RAW (DNG format) photo capture. Popular apps like Google’s Snapseed can now edit DNG files, while Photo Mate R2 ($9.50) can non-destructively edit and process RAW files from a variety of cameras.

For photographers who want to keep their mobile and desktop activities under one roof, Adobe has been slowly building up the capabilities of Lightroom Mobile. Unlike the apps mentioned above, Lightroom Mobile can only import or edit a RAW file directly in Android, not iOS, which is why for iPhone-toting photographers like Dan Carr, taking Lightroom on the road still starts with a laptop. 

“There’s a great new feature that snuck under the radar in Lightroom 6, and that’s the ability to immediately put photos into a collection on import,” Carr says. It’s these collections that sync with Lightroom Mobile and give Carr the ability to leave the laptop behind and work on his files on his iPhone 6 Plus. This work consists primarily of culling down the day’s shoot, rejecting images, assigning ratings and, occasionally, a few light edits. “I’ll go through a shoot whenever it’s convenient—while I’m traveling, while I’m waiting for the light,” he says. For Carr, this mobile culling has proven to be a big time saver. “I hate sitting in front of a computer and this lets me get back outside and focus more on shooting,” he says.

Lightroom Mobile syncs small, DNG-based “Smart Previews” with the Creative Cloud server. These lightweight files can be edited and rated even when the mobile device itself is offline, with changes syncing back to the desktop version and the full-resolution files once you’re back online. 

Indeed, file synchronization is becoming a key feature as files move between camera, mobile device, laptops and storage drives. The Eyefi app that accompanies the wireless memory card can transfer and sync both JPEG and RAW images across desktop and mobile devices, plus archive files in its own cloud service, but it will only sync JPEG edits, not RAW edits.

Lackey has used the relatively new Mylio software to automate her archiving, since it keeps RAW edits synced as well. Like Carr, she still starts at her laptop to ingest RAW files but then leverages Mylio for archiving efficiency. Prior to Mylio, Lackey would download a shoot onto an external drive, then manually back the images up to a wireless server and a cloud storage service. Now, she says, it’s a simple import into Mylio where the program “manages all those duplications for me automatically.” 

The mass synchronization provides another benefit. “From a marketing perspective, it’s been really powerful,” Lackey says. “Any image I want to show someone, anytime, anywhere, I have it with me all the time.”

The Case for Convertibles

One way to make an end-run around your mobile device’s RAW limitations is to spring for a more functional mobile device. While Apple have long been a favorite of the creative community, Microsoft’s Windows 8 (soon to be Windows 10) has created a new hardware category tailor-made for the mobile creative—the hybrid, or convertible. It’s a device that blends the portability of a tablet with the power of a laptop. You can use a convertible exactly as you would a smartphone or iPad—transferring images via Wi-Fi—or you can take advantage of the convertible’s more generous selection of inputs to attach card readers, external drives and keyboard covers, and work with it like a typical notebook. 

More importantly, you won’t have to settle for the mobile variants of your favorite tools. Take Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 3 ($800). It’s a 12-inch tablet that can run full versions of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, and includes a stylus for pen-based editing. There’s only a microSD card slot on the Surface Pro 3, but thanks to its full-sized USB 3.0 port, you can connect card readers and external storage drives to transfer and backup your RAW images. Toshiba’s Portege Z20t and Wacom’s Cintiq Companion 2 boast similar functionality (and the Wacom can double as an editing tablet when connected to a PC). If you own a Mac computer, Adobe’s Creative Cloud license lets you install Photoshop and Lightroom on a secondary computer, even if it’s—gasp—running Windows.

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