Photosmith: Useful iPad companion for Lightroom

Photo apps are growing up on the iPad, and Photosmith is perhaps the most advanced of the bunch. It's a useful helper app for those who aren't lugging a laptop.

One of Photosmith's best features is being able to quickly zoom to 100 percent to check focus, even with large 21-megapixel raw files.
One of Photosmith's best features is being able to quickly zoom to 100 percent to check focus, even with large 21-megapixel raw files. Photographers can give titles star and color ratings, keywords, titles, and captions that transer to Adobe Lightroom. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Some of us with a bunch of photos on an iPad would rather add keywords and captions than slap on yet another sepia-tone art filter. Enter C Squared Enterprises' Photosmith.

This $17.99 app, released today, is a companion to Adobe Systems' Lightroom software for editing and cataloging photos. I've been trying beta versions, and I think the app could be a useful addition for some photographers--especially if the software and the iPad's abilities continue to grow beyond today's limitations.

Photosmith can't match what Lightroom proper can do, of course--the iPad's memory, keyboard, and processor power can't keep up with a personal computer's hardware. But it can be a useful supplement for those who don't have a computer handy.

Think of Photosmith's purpose as a variation on the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you, except with the computers you use to handle photos. Tablets are light enough that some number of people will carry them when they wouldn't carry a laptop. So, just like your camera phone will take better shots than your SLR that you left at home, Photosmith will do a better job managing your photos than your laptop that's too much of a pain to lug around.

The app lets you add keywords (aka tags), captions, titles, color coding, and star ratings to photos. It lets you zoom to a full 100 percent--much better than the iPad's built-in Photos app when it comes to checking focus--and to see exposure information such as shutter speed. It lets you organize photos into catalogs. And, using a plug-in for Lightroom, lets you sync the photos over a Wi-Fi network with your photo catalog.

If I had my regular computer around, I probably wouldn't put my photos through a time-consuming iPad/Photosmith detour. But if you're traveling, it could be a great way to store, evaluate, organize, and share shots as long as you don't need more storage than a 64GB iPad 2.

I found it pretty useful for plowing through several dozen photos while I was on a plane trip. When I got back I set up the sync system and--very slowly--transferred the photos to my PC. I could see it as very useful when traveling light for a week or two.

For organizing photos into catalogs, Lightsmith offers a grid view. Multiple photos can be selected with two-finger taps, and then the group can be dragged to an existing or new catalog.
For organizing photos into catalogs, Lightsmith offers a grid view. Multiple photos can be selected with two-finger taps, and then the group can be dragged to an existing or new catalog. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Photography is getting more serious on iPads, and I imagine Android tablets will follow at least to some extent later. So far I'm not convinced a tablet is essential, but it's definitely getting useful.

Some other examples of serious, if not essential, tablet apps:

• LightTrac helps photographers figure out where and when to be for those sunset or moonrise shots.

• Adobe's Nav app lets people use an iPad to pilot Photoshop over Wi-Fi, selecting tools and moving among images.

• LRpad lets people use an iPad as a Lightroom external control panel, connected over Wi-Fi..

Photosmith in action
First, you have to get some photos on the iPad. You can take your own, of course, with the iPad 2's lame but still usable camera, but the kind of people who use Lightroom tend to be those who like to shoot raw photos--the uncompressed, unprocessed, high-quality images from digital SLRs and other higher-end cameras. Happily, the iPad can handle many raw formats, useful plumbing for Photosmith.

To transfer shots onto the iPad, I used Apple's $29 Camera Connection Kit. Apple's software ingests the photos. When you run Photosmith, it does a little pre-processing work that didn't take long on my iPad 2, then you're ready to go.

There are three modes. A library and loupe view mimic similar modes in Lightroom, the first for organizing and the second for adding keywords and captions. A third full-screen mode comes with lightweight controls for color coding, star ratings, and the single most frustrating feature about Photosmith, the reject flag.

One of the most natural things I wanted to do with Photosmith was winnow out the dud shots, especially with the real 100-percent zoom ability. Photosmith lets you mark a photo as a reject, but because of "technical limitations," that's all you can do. No deleting the original, and no ability to see in the iPad Photos app which shots you've marked as duds. Happily, though, rejected shots aren't synced with Lightroom.

I had a couple of stability problems with Photosmith, but I was often using betas. A more persistent problem up through the currently shipping v.1.0.2 came when zooming to 100 percent: sometimes the app would constantly re-render all or a portion of the view. Zooming back out and in generally seemed to fix the problem.

Another gripe: Although you can save keywords for later use, automating their use somewhat, I wanted to apply keywords, titles, and captions to large groups of photos.

The sync process took a long time over Wi-Fi with my Canon 5D Mark II's 30MB, 21-megapixel raw files, and it's hobbled by the iPad's weak multitasking that halts the process unless it's the active app.

There's a faster way to it though--connect the iPad with USB, import the photos with Lightroom, then afterward run the sync plug-in to fetch the missing metadata. A bit kludgy, but a lot speedier in the end, as long as you don't have too many duds that you don't want to import at all.

Photosmith is an iPad app that lets photographers label and organize photos before synchronizing them with Adobe Lightroom.
Photosmith is an iPad app that lets photographers label and organize photos before synchronizing them with Adobe Lightroom. In this loupe view, a filmstrip across the bottom lets photographers rapidly change among photos. The view also shows detailed shot information such as exposure time and ISO. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The user interface is generally well thought out and should be pretty easy for Lightroom fans to grok. When I was selecting lots of photos (using a very convenient two-finger tap) I sometimes had performance issues while scrolling or while dragging groups of photos to collections.

The app also lets you share images via Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox, and e-mail..

Photosmith's future
Overall, the app is useful if limited. I see more potential, though, when it comes to editing.

The beauty of editing photos with Lightroom (and Apple's rival, Aperture) is that the original images are unchanged and edits are stored in accompanying metadata. That means an app like Photosmith could gradually add new editing features that would store changes as metadata that takes up almost no extra storage space. (The approach also is nondestructive, which means edits are more easily reversed.)

Obvious candidates for editing features are the global changes--cropping, rotating, shadow fill, highlight recovery, saturation, contrast, white balance adjustment. Many of these could be operated with a slider interface that's conveniently similar to what Lightroom already offers. The big challenge will be processing power, though.

This leads me into a comment about pricing. At 18 bucks, most people will let this pass them by. But Lightroom users (who pay $260 or so for the privilege) tend to be more dedicated. For them, $18 could be worthwhile--especially if Photosmith extends into the editing realm.

And it might well do so.

"An app like this is just begging for image editing, including full sync to Lightroom," tease developers Chris Horne and Chris Morse on their Photosmith tour page. "Future release maybe? Time will tell..."

 

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