We had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.
On the Road
Jack Kerouac’s writing still resonates with the mythology and romance of life on the road, with a sense of freedom and adventure, and a lightness of being. That’s why so many of us love traveling. Photographers are especially drawn to the road, to distant places and unknown lands. And cameras are made for life on the road. On the road, though, a heavy load becomes a burden, equipment creates obstacles, and that lightness of being is no more than wishful thinking. So, on the streets, or when traveling for leisure and personal projects, I really want to keep my kit as lightweight and streamlined as I can make it. The simplest solution would be a smartphone loaded up with a few apps; it can pretty much take care of it all if I want to shoot, process, write up and publish a quick and dirty photo essay or prepare some images for Instagram, but in terms of quality and ergonomics the technology doesn’t yet make the grade in many situations. Adding a camera with WiFi capabilities creates a fairly compelling mobile kit, but I’d like the flexibility of processing and publishing photos while on the go without sacrificing the calibre of the tools I use, the quality of the creative process or of the work I produce.
Now I think that for my own work while I’m on the road, be it an overnight city trip, a few days by the sea, or a few weeks abroad, I’ve found a toolkit and workflow that does just that. It’s based around a Fujfilm X100T camera and an Apple iPad mini. It’s a lightweight, compact solution that offers flexibility and doesn’t compromise the quality of my output.
When it comes to carrying my stuff around while I’m out and about, I like messenger bags. I have a few but I find that the bigger the bag, the more I tend to pack, so my go to bag is a Freitag Hawaii 5-0: it’s small, light and nearly indestructible—and will hold all the tools I need. I’ve fitted it with a simple Muji fabric bag insert, which gives me various pockets and compartments. The camera with a spare battery and my phone are the tools I carry anytime, anywhere; all the other items—which I’ve listed down below—I pack and take along but carry only as required. For instance, if I’m out sightseeing and shooting all day, I’ll take the converter lens and the tripod along with the camera, but likely leave the iPad and keyboard back in my room.
Two steps back
Before getting into how I process my images on the go, I think it’s useful to take a short detour through my approach to photography and to the processing of my photos. As a photographer, left to my own devices I prefer the serendipities and candid discoveries of street and travel photography to the planning and constructions of studio work, which has its own requirements as far as tools go, and while I enjoy processing my photos—and processing always has been an intrinsic part of photography—I prefer being out in the world finding and taking the shots. This is not writ in stone, and there are exceptions, but I generally sympathize with Mary Ellen Mark’s approach to photography: I’m a photographer, not an illustrator, by which I mean I don’t heavily manipulate photos; rather I enhance—to a greater or lesser extent—what the camera captures. So, I wouldn’t for example consider adding a plane or moon in the sky where there wasn’t one or combine a sky from one shot with a landscape from another, but I will level the horizon of a photo or crop out someone’s foot on the edge of frame if it’s a distraction in the composition. Generally though I’ll just make adjustments to contrast, curves, saturation levels, dodge or burn areas to improve the exposure or enhance the mood of the image so that it better matches how I, rather than the camera, saw the scene. My most ‘unnatural’ manipulations are when I simply convert color photos to black and white—such as with my Sculptural series where I wanted to emphasize the geometry of the architecture—or when I adjust the color palette for narrative mood—such as with my Habitat series on park dwellers. Now I mention all this not to make judgements on different processing philosophies, but because my usual approach to my photos and my usual way of using editing software happens to work well with the current crop of mobile devices and software. For someone who likes to composit images or make other complex manipulations in Photoshop this mobile workflow may not work out so well. Photographers who can’t or prefer not to spend time working on images in front of a computer might find this information useful.
A Case Study
Over the Christmas break, as part of an end of year getaway, I spent a few days in the Japanese city of Fukuoka, where among other things I shot photos for a visual essay I wanted to do on the city’s yatai food stalls. My normal workflow would have been to either keep the images on the camera’s SD card until I returned to Tokyo or take along a MacBook and import the images at the end of each day. This time I handled the image files differently. I took photos of the riverside food stalls on two consecutive nights, using the camera without the wide lens converter, and had around 65 images in total, which I loaded onto my iPad mini using Apple’s SD card reader—part of the Apple camera connection kit. If there were only a few images to load and I were working with JPEG files I would’ve used the Fujifilm Camera Remote app on the iPad and the in-camera Wi-Fi on the X100T, which is a nice way to move image files from the camera.
On the iPad I browsed through the images in the Photos app and favorited the ones I wanted to use, removing photos and making minor crop or leveling adjustments as needed.
The bulk of the editing, the processing that would normally be done in Aperture and Photoshop, was done in Photogene 4, which handles RAW files—although I’m mostly happy working with the wonderful JPEG files that Fujiilm cameras produce. Using this app, I processed one of the images until it matched the look I wanted for the food stalls. I created a preset from that image, which I then applied to the other photos in the series, tweaking the settings on each as needed. It’s possible to adjust the histogram, curves, temperature and so on as well as add gradients, dodge and burn areas, and make other adjustments typically found on desktop class photo editing software. Photogene let me edit IPTC metadata and add copyright information. I could’ve also added a watermark or date stamp if desired. I chose a DPI setting and resized the processed images before exporting them as JPEG files—TIFF is also an export option. I exported them back to the Photos library but I could have sent them directly to a host of other places. Another app, Metapho, which works as an extension to Photos, lets me view basic metadata so I can confirm file sizes. This app also lets me delete an image’s metadata or add location data to an image file.
Now that my photos were ready, I wanted to write some thoughts about the yatai to add to the essay. My preferred focused writing software is Byword, a minimalist word processor that works on and syncs content across a Mac, iPhone and iPad on which it lets me type on a blank screen. For short texts, I find the on-screen iPad keyboard adequate, but adding a hardware keyboard makes typing a lot easier—especially for longer pieces of writing that I would otherwise prefer to write on a laptop. Logitech make a number of nicely, responsive keyboards that double as screen protector cases for the various iPads: the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover series. While the mini keyboard is a little cramped for someone with large hands, it still provides a nicer, more tactile writing experience and allows for a full-screen writing space. It’s also really light and takes up almost no space. An added advantage of writing a draft on the iPad is that it’s nice to be able to return to it later and read and edit it without the keyboard. An obvious question could be asked: Why not an iPad Pro? To me, given its size and the need for a matching keyboard, it would make more sense to pack a MacBook Air and have the advantages of integrated USB and SD card ports and robust pro software tools like Photoshop and Lightroom.
Time to publish, and this is the first time in the process I’ll need Internet access, which is provided by the hotel, a local cafe or my iPhone. My portfolio site is hosted on WordPress, which has an iOS app that is unfortunately a stripped down WordPress experience—good for simple blog posts, checking statistics and comments, but not much else, so I prefer working on WordPress in the Safari, Chrome or Firefox browsers on the iPad. With the smaller display it’s not an ideal user experience, but it gives me more flexibility when setting up pages and posts and organizing photo galleries. With my essay published, I used the Instagram and Tweetbot apps to post sample photos and advertise the new essay to my social networks.
I’ve already mentioned many of the following, but here is the detailed list of tools I use for my mobile creative workflow.
> Freitag Hawaii 5-0 (series 1): Pictured above, it’s my daily carry bag; not too big and, made of truck tarpaulin, it can take a beating
> Freitag Surfside 6 (series 2): Same bag basically, but a little bigger; not only a good sized daypack, it’s also a good carry on bag for airplane and train trips assuming you’ve checked in or stowed bulkier luggage.
> Fujifilm X100 camera: my favorite tool—instrument might be a better way to describe it; compact, with a stellar 35mm equivalent lens and wonderful handling, it’s quite possibly the perfect street and travel camera
> WCL-X100 wide conversion lens: not essential, but this small add on is great for landscapes and cityscapes when traveling, providing a 28mm equivalent focal length
> iPad mini: a late model smartphone could do the job, but I think the phone displays are just too small for serious writing or photo editing; the mini is a seriously compact word processor and darkroom—although with RAW uploads you need to keep an eye on device storage limitations (there are compatible external drives that would boost storage capabilities, but that’s another device to lug around, while cloud solutions require good connectivity, which isn’t always available); the mini also has other uses on the road: as a decent sized photo viewer, sketch book, book reader, movie player and gaming device
> Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover: with bluetooth connectivity and long battery life, it provides an enhanced writing experience
> iPhone: the modern Swiss army knife—indispensable
> Mini telescopic tripod from my local camera store modified with Velbon mini ball head: I rarely use a tripod on the road, but it’s nice to have the option for long exposures or video; it’s also small enough that it can be used as a hand grip and the telescopic legs give it added flexibility
> Shutter cable release: a benefit of having a threaded shutter button on the X100T: not essential, but cheap, takes up no space and is good with a tripod set-up
> Hoya 49mm polarizing filter: adds to shooting options when photographing skies and water or other reflective surfaces; screws onto the lens hood adaptor ring that functions as a hood on the camera and the conversion lens
> Battery charger/spare battery for the camera: one spare battery a day is usually plenty for the way I shoot on the road; I’ve ditched the charger cable for a plug attachment that fits directly into the charger, and also pack any necessary international plug adaptors.
> Apple Camera Connection kit (SD Card reader)/Apple lightning to 30-pin adapter: the best way to move multiple image files from an SD card to an iPad or iPhone; a must for transfering RAW files. I keep the original files on the card to download to my MacBook later; I also pack a spare SD card or three, depending on the length of the trip
> Alupen stylus by Just Mobile: another nice to have but non-essential tool—it is good for more precise brushing adjustments
> iPad and iPhone chargers/cables: I dream of a day in the future when these things will no longer exist and batteries will automatically recharge
> Keyboard charging cable: used with the iPad charger—Logitech claims a full charge is good for three months with two hours of use each day, but somehow devices always manage to die when you need to use them
> Cleaning cloth, lens tissues & mini blower brush
> Notepad & pen: there are times when nothing beats pen and paper
> Business cards: it’s always good to have a few cards with contact details on hand
> Fujifilm Camera Remote app: a useful remote control for the X100T camera, it also lets me transfer JPEG and video files to an iOS device—I usually use my iPhone for remote shooting and the iPad for transfering photos
> DOF Slider app: can be useful in working out depth of field settings—this is also on the iPhone
> Photos: Apple’s photo manager is adequate for the task of holding image files; it also handles minor processing asjustments
> Metapho: reveals basic image metadata in Photos and lets me add location information
> Photogene 4: excellent photo processing and editing app that can handle RAW files—RAF file loading times can be a bit slow given the file size but large JPEG files are easy to work with (UPDATE: unfortunately this software is no longer in development and has become obsolete since iOS 11. The best replacement I’ve tried is Polarr, which comes close to matching Photogene’s functionality, offers far better UX design and cross-platform compatibility and does away with the need for the Metapho app as it also shows photos’ metadata at a tap. It has, however, moved to subscription pricing for new users.)
> Snapseed: versatile all in one photo editor that will also handle RAW files—though it downsizes images dramatically when saving; it’s my go to editor for photos taken with my iPhone
> Whitagram: Instagram now shows photos in various aspect ratios, but this well designed app lets me add a square frame around an image and preserve its aspect ratio—it also automatically reduces the file size
> Byword: minimalist writing app with enough customizable bells and whistles—font size choice, night mode, etc.— to let me create an optimal word processor
> Notes: Apple’s own note taking app is now quite versatile and great for compiling notes and images for trips or projects
> 2Do: this mobile project management tool has all kinds of options; I only use these types of organizers when I have to, but for travel, a busy schedule or a complex project 2Do is a useful tool
> Dropbox: infinitely useful app for moving and sharing files
> Social media apps of choice: I use Instagram (coz nothing else will let me upload photos to their platform) and Tweetbot for Twitter (because it spares me all those sponsored tweets)
> WordPress: This is unexpectedly the biggest compromise in the entire process. I find the in-browser software is way better to work with than the iOS app when publishing new essays, but the iOS app is fine for simple posts
> X100T in-camera software: This is an honorable mention, because the in-camera RAW CONVERSION feature lets you make quality JPEG versions of RAW image files with all kinds of adjustments: from exposure and white balance to film simulations and dynamic range.
When it comes to hardware and software, there are so many options, and others may have different preferences, but the tools and apps above generally work quite well for me. However, as noted above with Photogene 4, software becomes obsolete, technology improves, and I’m more than happy to replace a tool I use if another one can do a better job.
I really like working with this set up—this piece and the photos below were also created with the same mobile toolkit—but obviously the professional applications on a regular desktop or laptop do offer more flexibility and power. The thing is, when I’m on the road I don’t want to lug all that horsepower around with me and I’ve realized that unless I’m doing specific photographic work for clients I don’t have to. In most cases I can get comparable results that I’m happy with by using the tools listed above. Also, when it comes to photo editing, there’s something about the tactility of working directly on a photo on a screen, unmediated by a mouse or trackpad, that makes it a more enjoyable experience than on a desktop or laptop. Who knows, although it still has a ways to go, as the hardware and software continue to improve, this could one day become my everyday toolkit.