When Apple debuted the iPad in 2011, many photographers and videographers were salivating at the thought of using the tablet as a tethering device for their cameras, leaving their laptops behind. Fast forward four years—a veritable eternity in the tech world—and Manfrotto has finally delivered such a solution in the Digital Director. Was it worth the wait? We teamed with New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño to find out.
The Digital Director is the only Apple certified tethering interface for the Air/Air 2 tablets, though the wireless CamRanger can do much the same thing. The Director uses a dedicated CPU housed in an iPad bracket and connects to your camera via USB. Once connected, you use a free app to gain remote control, live view and touch focusing capabilities over your camera. The app provides live, dynamic control over white balance, shutter speed, image quality, ISO, aperture and more. You’ll be able to view a histogram, audio levels and use touch-focusing as well.
The Digital Director can save high-resolution JPEGs to your iPad as well as generate and save high-res preview JPEG images if you’re only shooting RAW (RAW images won’t be saved to the iPad). The app can play back videos stored on a memory card, but won’t save video locally to an iPad.
The app has some basic sorting functions, such as star ratings, and supports email, FTP and saving to the iPad’s camera roll. There’s no direct connection to social media accounts, though, which is a shame. Any image you’d like to post to social media needs to first be saved to the iPad’s camera roll and uploaded the old fashioned way.
The Director is only compatible with select DSLRs from Nikon and Canon, including Canon’s 1Dx/c, 5D Mark III, 6D, 7D Mark II, 70D, 60D and 1200D and Nikon’s D4, D810, D800/e, Df, D610, D700, D5500 and D5300. It’s a fairly limited assortment. What’s more, the $499 Digital Director doesn’t quite work the same way on every camera. For instance, if you shoot with the Canon 6D or 70D and Wi-Fi is turned on, you won’t be able to control the camera using the Director. Manfrotto also warns owners of the 70D that some servo AF settings can interfere with the Director’s operation. In fact, nearly every camera that’s compatible with the Director comes with a caveat or warning that certain camera or Director features won’t work in certain settings. If you shoot with multiple cameras, you’ll have to really commit the Director’s unique characteristics to memory as you swap between models.
The Director draws power from an AC adapter but also runs on 4 AA batteries, with a very solid 15 hour battery life (your iPad and DSLR however, may tap out before then). If you connect via AC power, the Director will recharge your iPad.
The Director’s plastic clamp is built only for a full-size iPad Air (model MVDDA13) or the Air 2 (MVDDA14), or in Patiño’s words, it’s “one size fits one.” Since the connections are hardwired, there’s no option for Android or Windows tablet owners.
Your iPad slides into the plastic holder but is held in place by a plastic clip that’s not all that sturdy, though with the iPad attached to the Lightning connector, the hold was more secure. You can mount the Director to any 3/8-inch pin or the Manfrotto friction arm to attach it to your tripod.
Patiño found the Director somewhat slow to focus when using his 5D Mark III. However, live view was very responsive—camera pans were quickly relayed to the connected iPad Air. Even if it proved a tad sluggish, the ability to touch focus and magnify portions of the scene on the iPad vs. the relatively tiny screens on the back of your DSLR is definitely liberating—you’re able to get a much better view of what you’re shooting. What’s more, the Director brings focus peaking to DSLRs that lack it, though Patiño found the strength was a bit weaker than he’d hoped for.
For stills, Patiño told us that the Director/iPad combo couldn’t truly replace tethered shooting using a laptop. Instead, he told us, the device felt like an extra step inserted into his workflow—one that can’t process RAW images like a Capture One or Lightroom and can’t store/archive RAW images. While the Digital Director will automatically load JPEG images onto your iPad as you shoot, you will have to manually delete them if you don’t want them clogging up your tablet’s memory, which is a hassle.
For video, however, Patiño says the Director was definitely useful as a monitor and remote, particularly because it connects via USB, so a camera’s HDMI output is still free to mount an extra monitor/recorder like a Shogun.
The most obvious competitor to the Digital Director is the CamRanger, which offers much the same functionality for Canon and Nikon DSLRs but via a wireless connection. The CamRanger is less expensive and more widely compatible with mobile devices and laptops—it works with Android and Windows devices, not just two models of the iPad. The CamRanger also provides you the freedom to wander away from your camera, but at the expense of the responsiveness of your control and live view feed. The Digital Director and its USB connection deliver a more responsive signal from the camera and much faster downloading of high-resolution JPEGs, but at the price of mobility.
You can also see the Director competing with field monitors such as Small HD’s 702. If you discount the price of an iPad, the Director is far less expensive, but also lacks features like 3D Look Up Tables that serious filmmakers need for previewing footage. Products like the Atomos Shogun, while more expensive, are able to deliver both video monitoring and file storage. What neither external recorders or field monitors can do is control the camera, and that is where the Digital Director carves its niche.
UPDATE: As this went to press, Manfrotto released an update to its Digital Director app that enables users to adjust the strength of focus peaking as well as remotely control the company’s new LYKOS and Litepanels’ Astra LED lights via Bluetooth, among other enhancements.
PROS: Keeps HDMI output free; battery read outs for connected devices; intuitive and responsive app; responsive video link; delivers focus peaking to DSLRs that lack it.
CONS: Uneven feature set among cameras; limited compatibility; touch focusing is slow; JPEGs must be manually deleted from iPad.