MacBook Air: The ultimate photog’s laptop

Derrick Story, Macworld
8 November, 2011
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On paper, the MacBook Air appears to be the answer to many roving photographers’ dreams. It’s small and light enough to travel comfortably in a camera bag yet fast enough to run major photography software.

The MacBook Air’s maximum thickness is a mere 1.7cm. You can comfortably hold it in one hand and the wedge-shaped design makes the laptop easy to slip into the pocket of a backpack. Despite the MacBook Air’s portability, specs for it indicate that it’s no lightweight on performance. With the MacBook Air you can run iPhoto ’11, Photoshop CS5, Lightroom 3, or Aperture 3 anywhere.

But how does it hold up in the field? Over the course of six weeks we travelled by plane, taxi, bus and on foot with a 13in 1.8GHz MacBook Air in a camera backpack. We used it to edit photos, write articles, upload video and manage websites. The MacBook Air endured exactly the same rigours of the road as the DSLR we were packing and the backpack. And when the dust settled, we liked the Air more than ever.

Key features for photographers

Photography equipment is bulky enough to begin with. The allure of the MacBook Air is that it lets you pack a computer and still travel light – both sizes can easily fit in your lap if you’re flying economy class. It’s small enough that you can transport it in a camera bag, keeping your carry-on luggage to a minimum.

Inside that slim package is a robust battery that stays charged for a long time, letting you work on long flights; flash memory, which eliminates the worry of hard-drive failure; and enough power to run all major Mac photo apps, including Apple’s Aperture and Adobe Lightroom.

The field tests we did were on a build-to- order model: a 13in 1.8GHz MacBook Air with 4GB of RAM. The price for this configuration is currently $1899. The faster, build-to-order model does increase the price of the Air, but the system performs better in benchmark tests. We opted for the upgrades because of Aperture, which likes extra horsepower; however, they’re not necessary to run any of these photo programs.

If space is at a premium, the 11in Air also works well for photographers on the road, showing minimal speed differences. We have reports from shooters running Aperture on the $1349 11in model who were very satisfied.

There are a few key areas where the two models differ that photographers should take into consideration. The screen resolution for the 11in Air is smaller – only 1,366 x 768. With the 13in Air’s larger 1,440 x 900 screen, you have extra space for working on photos. And only the 13in model includes an SD Card slot, so if your camera uses SD Cards, you won’t need to pack a card reader or USB cable.

Testing for speed

Your laptop is your office on the road, so it needs to handle all the types of work you do, including email, web browsing and writing. The Air manages those tasks with ease while also meeting the special software demands of a photographer. In fact, the lightweight model compares very favourably with other Mac laptops.

We tested the MacBook Air against an older 17in 2.33GHz MacBook Pro (mid 2010) by importing and processing Raw files in Aperture 3. The MacBook Air averaged 82 seconds for 207 Raw files versus 124 seconds for importing the same files off the same memory card from the older MacBook Pro.

We also had good results while image editing in Aperture. Even after enabling five or six adjustments, edits went smoothly, with little or no delay. Despite its smaller size and lighter weight, the MacBook Air really can hold its own against larger, more powerful laptops.

Recommended workflows

Even with a MacBook Air, most photographers will continue to use their home computer as a primary workstation. The MacBook Air works best as a satellite laptop – one that occasionally offloads cargo, namely photographs and video, to the mothership.

You’ll need a workflow that allows you to integrate your photos from the road into a master library at home. Two applications in particular, Aperture and Lightroom, are well suited for this task.

Basic Aperture workflow  Create a new Aperture library on the MacBook Air (File > Switch To Library > Other/New). While you’re on the road, import all of your masters into the new library, edit the images, add metadata and do whatever else you need to do. When you’re back home, copy the travel library container to an external hard drive. Connect the hard drive to your home computer, open Aperture and merge the travel library with your master library (File > Import > Library/Project). All of your work, and your master files, will be neatly organised in the master library.

Basic Lightroom workflow  Create a new catalogue in Lightroom on the MacBook Air (File > New Catalog). Give it a unique name to help distinguish it from other catalogues on your drive. When you import photos into the new Lightroom catalogue, use the same file-structure system for the masters that you do on your home computer; you set this up in the Destination panel in the Import dialogue box. A typical approach might be to organise by date in your Pictures folder.

When you return from shooting, copy the Lightroom catalogue and the masters to an external hard drive. Open Lightroom on your home computer and choose File > Import From Catalog. Navigate to and then select the catalogue you want to bring into your master Lightroom library. Lightroom will ask you what you want to do with the master images. Select Copy New Photos To A New Location And Import from the File Handling pop-up menu. Put those images in the same location as your other Lightroom masters. Click the Import button. Lightroom will place the masters in the location you specified and merge your MacBook Air catalogue with the catalogue on your home computer.

Backing up  As part of the merging process with either Aperture or Lightroom, you will have copied all of your travel work onto an external hard drive. This is an excellent time to move that content onto your home backup drive. While on the road, you have a few simple backup options that don’t require toting a lot of extra equipment. You can carry a small USB drive, bring enough memory cards so that you don’t have to erase them after uploading photos, or use an online backup tool like MobileMe.

Travel tip

Any photographer who wants to travel light and who have the budget for a premium laptop should consider the MacBook Air.


2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Boyan says:

    Great post! But how did you find the cooling? I have the same Air, but under some CPU load, the temperature rises a lot and the small fan inside gets quite loud. Did you experience the same with photo editing? It’s not a big deal, but makes me wonder if it is wise to put too much load on the Air.

  2. Rod says:

    You mention MobileMe for backup solutions on the road. Other than stating the obvious that it’s now iCloud, the MobileMe iDisk service will turn off next June and at this stage iCloud will not back up anything other than appropriate iCloud compatible apps.

    Dropbox anyone? That’s the storage space I will probably pay for, not iCloud if I can’t back up ordinary generic files not attached to a specific compatible iCloud app.

    A bit dissapointing Apple…..

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