Putting the iPad Photo Workflow to the Test: The Mongol Rally

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Dateline: Eastern Kazakhstan

The weather has cleared and we're making good time across the seemingly endless rolling grasslands that cover this half of the ninth largest country in the world.

We're still spending a lot of time dodging potholes that would be considered mappable geographic features in any other country, but this road from Astana to Pavlodar is dramatically better than many of the roads we've driven on.

While the road continues to pound the wheels and underside of our small, 1.2-liter Fiat Panda, I sit inside it mulling my decision to bring an iPad rather than a full laptop computer, a decision which has presented some interesting challenges.

Broken exhausts, punctured tires, lack of a good histogram—these are the kinds of problems an iPad-based photographer faces on an event such as the Mongol Rally, a charity road rally that I have been participating in for the last nineteen days. (You can learn more about the rally, and how I prepared for it, here, and learn more about what gear I chose, and why, here.) We're making our final push out of Kazakhstan and into the beautiful Altai region of Russia, before making our last border crossing into Mongolia. There, things will turn much more difficult, and quite a bit more complicated, and so, lest we don't make it back, I decided I'd take a moment to consider how well the iPad has worked, and what I might do differently on my next expedition to a remote place in a stupidly small car.

iPad Hardware

My original impetus for choosing the iPad over my MacBook Air was ruggedness. Dust and water will be issues in Mongolia, and I didn't want to have to worry about the delicateness of the Air—or any other laptop computer. What I hadn't counted on was how important durability would be, day-to-day, in the car. The Fiat Panda is a very small vehicle, and when you load it with enough food, camping equipment, and gear for two people for a month, it becomes even smaller. Especially when one of the people, who's not me, is 6'7". Just loading him into the car is issue enough. If I had a laptop, I would be having to consider whether something heavy was sitting on top of it, if it had slipped and fallen into a space that was bending it, and so on.

I keep the iPad in a neoprene case and slide it under the seat in the morning. It's very easy to pull out and use, or store it in a different place, and all without having to worry about its physical safety. And while I'm using it as the car bounces and jostles—occasionally catching a bit of air—I don't have to concern myself with the fold-up screen of a laptop being unduly stressed by the extreme motion.

I used to have a folding Bluetooth keyboard that I liked very much. Unfortunately, I gave it away and have not found a replacement that I like as much. I have tried the Verbatim Bluetooth folding keyboard, but the space bar is unworkable. At the airport, I picked up a Brookstone Bluetooth keyboard, but it has a very stiff key action which aggravates my hands. So, I've ended up typing exclusively on the iPad's virtual keyboard, and I'm finding it to be very workable. I've been doing a lot of writing on this trip, and while the virtual keyboard can be frustrating, it's less frustrating than any of the portable options I've tried, and I don't have to hassle with finding a place to use it. I'm writing this article on it right now, in my lap, while we're driving.

My biggest complaint with the iPad virtual keyboard is that I can't touch type with it, and at certain times of the day, glare on the screen makes it difficult to see. Also, when using it at night in a camp site, the screen will attract moths, which definitely reduces typing accuracy.

Of course, the biggest problem with the iPad virtual keyboard is the miserable mechanism that Apple uses for selecting text. Does anyone at the company really believe that the whole "tap and hold to bring up a magnifying glass, and then drag little map pin things around" mechanism is actually a better idea than arrow keys? Surely not. Selecting text with this mechanism is especially problematic in a bouncy car.

Overall, though, I feel like the iPad is definitely a better choice than a laptop when environmental conditions are a concern. Is solid, slabby nature is well-suited to this kind of travel.

Media Storage

For image storage I tried to bring enough CompactFlash cards so that I wouldn't ever have to erase any cards. I'm shooting raw with a 5D Mark III, and so far have plenty of space. For the sake of redundancy, I have a ColorSpace UDMA battery-powered hard drive, which has worked okay. Sometimes it says it can't find it's internal drive, but a quick reboot fixes that. Nevertheless, this occasional bug is a little unnerving.

In the future, I might want to pick up a different device but, honestly, it's hard to find a dependable one. The ColorSpace has not cost me any images, or proven undependable, and it has features that I like, such as the ability to serve files back to the iPad via WiFi. In also lets me carry movies, which can be streamed back to the iPad. When stuck at a days-long border crossing, this is a great way to relieve tedium, without taking up precious space on the iPad.

It has some annoyances, as well. Battery life is not great, it can't display raw thumbnails, there's no way to save movies back to the iPad, and it doesn't provide tools for zooming when it streams an image back to the iPad. But it is giving me a layer of redundancy for all my images, which is something that film photographers never even had an option for.

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