A Pro Photographer Who Uses a MacBook Air?

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I have blogged, lectured and argued for many years that a camera is nothing more than a tool that solves a given photographer’s problem. A camera brand is not a symbol of loyalty to one kind of photography, nor is it some kind of credential for membership in some kind of “club.” The sooner each photographer starts to figure out what their particular challenges are, and which camera works for them to resolve those challenges (regardless of brand), the sooner they will start making the kind of photographs they want. Recent experience has taught me that I need to start talking the same way about the laptop computers that photographers use for digital image processing.


I write this blog on my main computer, a MacBook Air laptop. In the background, on the same machine, I have Lightroom running to convert RAW files into JPGs, and the Adobe DNG converter making DNG files from some of my RAW files. Half the people reading this will be shocked to read that I am a full-time professional digital photographer, and yet I use a MacBook Air. The other half, wisely, will want to know what motivates me to use the computer that I use.

Real pros—you will often hear—use MacBook Pros. You have also heard that “real pros” use only certain brands of cameras. Long-time readers know that I counter this thinking because I am a long-time Olympus user. (Disclosure here: I am now an Olympus Visionary, but I was using Olympus cameras long before I had any relationship with Olympus.) I have previously blogged about why I use Olympus cameras, and that is simply because they solve my problems. See those entries here, and here.

A computer—like a camera—is a tool and nothing more. So what is my particular problem, in terms of computers, and how does a MacBook Air solve that problem better than a MacBook Pro? I travel very frequently, so carrying a MacBook Air (because of the weight and size) makes my life MUCH easier as compared to a MacBook Pro. I looked long and hard at using an iPad for the same task(s), but there is nothing out there now, or on the horizon, that will allow me to do what I want, the way I want. (Read further to better understand my particular workflow.)

The MacBook Air that I use had the most memory, the fastest processor, and the best graphics card that was available at the time I bought it. In fact, it is NOT the cheapest, by a long shot. It costs as much as a MacBook Pro—but weighs less. The exact configuration is:

Processor Name:                Intel Core 2 Duo
Processor Speed:              2.13 GHz
Number of Processors:      1
Total Number of Cores:      2
L2 Cache:                            6 MB
Memory:                               4 GB
Graphics card:                     NVIDIA GeForce 320M

I use Lightroom, Final Cut, Photoshop, etc. on my “Air,” sometimes simultaneously, with no problems—but.... and here is the big but: I do not evaluate my images to decide which to dump and which to keep, using Lightroom. Lightroom is a processing HOG, and using it to quickly review a large set of images is a VERY slow process. It will clog up and/or shut down my “Air.” It does the same with my MacBook Pro too, by the way!

I use an image browser program called Media Pro One, manufactured by Phase One, which was once called Expressions Media (and before that, iView Media Pro). Media Pro One is unique in that once you create a catalog of the images that you want to review, it builds Quick Time image files of those same images. Then those individual Quick Time image files are stored as part of the catalog file, as long as you keep the catalog. That means if you want to browse through a set of images, they will be at the full viewing size permanently (and instantly).

In a recent workshop, I learned how—with Lightroom—you can set the program to render the preview images one-to-one, and tell the program not to delete those same previews. In the end, though that sped up the editing in Lightroom, each image took a moment to load, and those “moments” added up quickly as we were looking at a few hundred images.  

My workflow, which I have blogged about extensively before, involves shooting and then editing down thousands of images, but only turning a select few into finished files. For me, having the absolutely fastest image browser possible is a must, and so I still use Media Pro One/Expressions Media/iView Media Pro. It does mean that I have to make a separate keystroke to open the selected image(s) in Lightroom or Photoshop, but that has never bothered me. My subsequent archiving strategy is explained here and here.

The key is that I load the images into Media Pro One, go have a coffee, and when I come back the viewable files are made. Once I hit save, those Quick Time image files are permanently stored. Thus, I do not use Lightroom for editing (or reviewing images). I know Lightroom can be used for reviewing images, but I prefer my way, which enables me to use the MacBook Air.

I use Lightroom, as I am doing right now, to convert RAW files into final processed files, whether TFFs or JPGs. I also use Final Cut Pro on this same machine, to make videos. The trick to using the “Air” with the more demanding programs, is understanding the limits of the machine, as they intersect with the demands of the program. That just means that when I need to have Lightroom or Final Cut working on a big project, I set it up to work in the background, and then I do something that requires much less processing power, such as writing a blog or answering emails.

So am I advocating that every traveling photographer go against conventional wisdom (and the Apple store advice) and build their system around a MacBook Air? No, probably because most people want to have an all-in-one program like Lightroom, where they can review images AND then make final files in the same software. I am suggesting that photographers look at their particular set of issues and buy their gear (and set up their system) accordingly. I am clear that I give up processor speed for weight/size. 

I use a two-step process, which works well for my workflow. Since I make my living primarily as a stock photographer, I have developed my own particular workflow. I make MANY images of the same situation to get the image right in capture. I do almost no post-production cropping or reworking of the images. I need to be able to review all those images to find the few that I will make into final images—and I need to do it fast. Waiting for a few moments per image as Lightroom is “building preview,” adds up to time wasted that I cannot spare.

A few other caveats in terms of the MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro debate: The keys on the MacBook Air keyboard are NOT back-lighted, which can be annoying. The memory on the “Air” is not that big, and to maintain the processor speed you need to keep the “Air's” HD relatively empty, so I store little on the “Air,” and most of my “road” files on my TWO portable external HDs.  

Yes, a MacBook Pro makes storing on the machine itself easier, but I hate the weight. Yes, the “Air” and the two HDs weigh as much as the “Pro,” but I am breaking up the weight into smaller pieces in terms of weight (and size). One of the unintended consequences of the “Air’s” smaller memory is that it forces me—in a good way—to be very diligent about keeping things backed up on external HDs.

Amidst all this discussion, my daughter (who is going off to college in September) and I were at the Apple store recently. Based on the larger internal HD and back-lighted keyboard, she went with the advice of the folks at the Apple Store, and we bought a MacBook Pro. I am teaching her to back up her files on external HDs. I am hoping she learns that lesson, preferably not the hard way.

As an aside, readers may wonder why I am such a dedicated Mac user. It is NOT because Macs are a symbol of loyalty, nor is it some kind of credential for membership in some kind of “club.”  I use Apple computers because they solve my problems better than Windows machines. I have owned many Windows (DOS) computers over the years, and the single biggest issue I always had with them was lack of standards in terms of software/hardware compatibility. The interface on Windows machines made the problem worse, because they were—until recently—designed for engineers, not ordinary people. Those issues, and the lack of a good place to go to resolve those same problems, has made me a big fan of Apple and the Apple stores. 

Computer users in the know may look down their noses at the Apple stores, but I have had dozens of my computer (and iPhone) issues sorted out at Apple stores around the world. For those folks who can solve their computer problems via forums and reading manuals, more power to you. For the rest of us, the Apple store is worth every penny of the cost difference between comparable Windows and Mac machines. However, B&H does offer some help with Apple computers.
 
Two unintended benefits of the “Air” are that it boots up much faster, and it has a much longer battery life, than my MacBook Pro. (Yes, I formerly used a “Pro” as my road machine, though now it has become my “desk” machine, with the “Air” as my road machine.) The rapid boot-up and extended battery life of the “Air” mean that I am much more likely to pop it open to jot down a thought or an email than I was previously with the “Pro.”  The “Pro’s” boot-up time and shorter battery life made me think twice before popping it open. As a creative practitioner, anything that hinders the expression of my ideas is a bad thing.

The funny thing is that I have been asked more than a few times recently how—as a pro—I can swear by a MacBook Air. A former student wrote me:

"Given that 90% of what I shoot is done overseas (just got back in May from 5 weeks in Australia and New Zealand), I am trying to lighten my load for carry-on. I was in the Apple store on 67th and Broadway a couple of times, where they said I would have trouble if I loaded Photoshop and Lightroom on an Air and used it for image prep. I ran into Lynn today, and she said you had one in Italy. Does it serve the purpose? And if so, what is the configuration? Are there speed problems? What software do you have loaded?"

In fact, I get this query so often that I promised a few people that I would answer the question, "Why do you use a MacBook Air and not a MacBook Pro?" I hope that this blog entry has done just that.

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Great review! I have been travelling with a MacAir for sometime and have just gotten the new version (i7 processor). The new MacAirs have brought back the backlit keys, which I really missed (I'm on my third gen MacAir and the first one I had used backlighting for the keys).

Thanks for the input on the mac air. I'm not a pro photographer but have high expectations of my gear and of my results your insight is much appreciated.

Thanks! 

Hi there. Thanks for a great review. This alone is making me consider an air instead of a pro... ive been carrying a macbook (the white one) for several years and it just feels too slow and heavy... I'm also a pro photographer and i'm wondering if you think the cheapest 11" air would be adequate for me, or if that would be pushing it. The heavisest software i use is  lightroom and cs5. I've even heard some people say an ipad would do but can't see how lightroom or cs5 could be effectively used.

Cheers

I've been playing around with a DSLR for a while, learning and collecting a ton of photos.  I used to have a POS laptop that couldn't handle any fancy apps, so I just collected everything onto a portable USB HDD attached to my network.

I've since upgrade to a MacBook Air which is more than capable of handling everything and was evaluating Lightroom based on a friends recommendation.  Knowing that it will work, I think your article has set me over the edge on making the purchase.

Thanks for your review and insight!

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS!!!! I have been researching (very poorly) the past few months on this very subject. This gave me the most answers.

Delighted that my Google search re Lr speed on MacBook Air led here.  Appreciate the analysis of needs and solutions.  

I am just a novice in terms of photography but I am really much interested in it ! Couples of weeks ago, I had plan to buy a new laptop to store and edit my photos, and I was so confused between mb pro or mb air. The more I read reviews of them, the more I find it so difficult to decide which one to go with ! Until I searched and found yours and it made me clear ! And now, after couples of days using mb Air 13 inch 1012, I am definitely in full satisfaction with it ! Thank you so much for your awesome review !
By the way, the last photo in your review looks very Vietnamese ! :-). Where did you take that photo ?