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Wireless photography with an iPad and ShutterSnitch
Friday, September 10, 2010 | by Rob Galbraith
Earlier this year, we wrote about a new app for Apple's mobile devices called ShutterSnitch. At the time, we'd only just installed the US$7.99 app that receives and displays pictures wirelessly on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, moments after they're shot. Fast forward a few months and ShutterSnitch - coupled with the iPad in particular - has become as essential to our photographic workflow as a 70-200mm lens or Photoshop. Here's why, plus tips on establishing a reliable connection between a camera transmitter (including an Eye-Fi card) and ShutterSnitch.

On Location: ShutterSnitch running on an Apple iPad (which is standing upright inside an Apple iPad Case). Click to see a full-resolution screenshot of the ShutterSnitch interface (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

ShutterSnitch's mission is a simple one: take in photos from one or more Wi-Fi transmitter-equipped cameras, then display the photos automatically on the iPad's 9.7-inch screen. Photos can be zoomed, rated and shared via email or FTP, sent to the iPad's Photos app (or a handful of other third party apps) or uploaded to Flickr. It has specific support for wireless SD memory cards from Eye-Fi, but can accept pictures from any camera transmitter that's capable of an FTP transfer, which includes all past and current Canon and Nikon digital SLR transmitter accessories.

We're forever on the hunt for simpler ways to keep tabs on remote cameras, ways that are quick to deploy and, at the remote position, don't require a lot of equipment in addition to the camera itself. That's what got us looking at ShutterSnitch in the first place. It soon became obvious that the potential uses extend beyond keeping an eye on what a shot clock camera is capturing, including lighting evaluation at portrait shoots and shooting direct to the iPad during on the go events, even when the iPad is tucked away in a backpack.

The video below shows v1.1.8 of the app in action, receiving photos from a Nikon D300S with an Eye-Fi Pro X2 8GB SDHC card inside. It accurately depicts the speed of wireless delivery you can expect when everything is correctly configured and the transmission distance isn't overly long.

Airborne: Connecting to a wireless network, creating a ShutterSnitch collection, receiving pictures and exporting to the Photos app. Note that the video is not narrated and that you won't hear any sound through most of it (Video by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

As you can see, ShutterSnitch provides an elegant and fairly quick way to see what you've just shot. The way that it's working in the video is the way that it has worked for us in several months of near-daily use. Note, however, the video diverges from reality in two ways:
  • Towards the beginning, the iPad is shown manually connecting to a wireless router (in this case, a D-Link DAP-1350). In reality, the process of joining a wireless network, one that has been joined before, is even easier than shown, since the iPad will generally just detect and join a known network without you having to do anything (unless the iPad happens to be connected to another network at the time).

  • The export of photos from ShutterSnitch to the Photos app is slow, so slow that there must be a bug in there somewhere. We've edited this portion of the video to keep the demo moving along.
Roll your cursor over the buttons beneath the photo to view ShutterSnitch screenshots.

ShutterSnitch 01
Create collection
Listening
Picture arrived
Overlay Options
Crop Masks
Ratings
Info
Open In
Export menu
Export to Photos
Export to FTP/Flickr
Send as attachment
Options
Eye-Fi
Settings
The strength of ShutterSnitch is not the breadth of what it does, but rather how well it implements the handful of features it offers. It makes light work of setting up an Eye-Fi card for use with the app, it almost completely eliminates the complexity of setting up an FTP server (which is what ShutterSnitch is under the hood), it can be fired up and ready to receive pictures in seconds and provides a clean, professional interface in which to showcase incoming photos.

Earlier ShutterSnitch versions had significant bugs, and even in its current form it isn't perfect (we'll talk about some of the app's remaining warts on the next page). But, ShutterSnitch v1.1.8 is doing most things right. As a result, it has evolved into a useful app that's also a pleasure to use.

ShutterSnitch can't take all the credit, however. The iPad, the transmitters as well as the routers we've tested, they all contribute to a nearly effortless wireless photo transmitting experience. If you perceive camera transmitters and Wi-Fi as something to fight with and swear at rather than deploy in a constructive way, prepare for your mind to be changed by the gear we recommend in this article. You still have to get everything configured first, and we've provided numerous screenshots and suggestions ahead that should help. Once configured, though, this is a wireless photo review system that actually works. Here's a bit more about why:
  • The iPad's 9.7 inch, 1024 x 768 pixel display offers a degree of colour accuracy that isn't far off the best laptop screens we've tested. And its usable viewing angle is better than, for example, any of the current MacBook Pros.

    The only thing keeping the iPad from having the best portable screen we've ever used is its calibration and/or characterization, neither of which is user adjustable. The display is set slightly blue (about 6700K on the one unit we've measured, vs our preferred target white point of 6000K) and is a bit too contrasty (deep shadows plug up more readily than they ought to).

    That said, these quibbles are relatively minor, since the reality is that even with these slight deficiencies the screen is still sweet. If you can keep reflections and fingerprints at bay, the iPad screen will show with impressive fidelity what your camera is capturing.

  • The iPad's battery just won't quit. ShutterSnitch can receive hundreds of pictures over several hours, with the display on the entire time, and the battery will still have plenty of juice left for other tasks.

    If you intend to keep the iPad in your bag but still receiving pictures, ShutterSnitch will also tick along with the display off. Used this way, the iPad doesn't get hot like a laptop can and battery drain is negligible. In one instance we transmitted to ShutterSnitch 346 JPEGs totaling 466MB over about a three hour period, with the iPad riding in a backpack for most of the shoot. Because its screen was on only for a few minutes during that time, battery life dropped a mere 6%.

  • For most configurations you'll need a wireless router to carry the Wi-Fi signals between the transmitter and the iPad. We've been testing several portable models, all of which can be easily powered in the field, and have been floored at how well such devices work now, compared to one we purchased several years ago.

    Two favourites have emerged, one of which is the Aluratek CDM530AM, a US$90 battery-powered 802.11n router that isn't much larger than a deck of cards and can be run for several hours on one charge, while additional batteries are cheap and can be quickly swapped.

    Once configured, getting this router up and going on location is a one-step process: switch it on.
Unwired: The Canon WFT-E2 II A, Eye-Fi Pro X2 8GB and Nikon WT-4A wireless transmitters. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
transferring_01.jpg
transferring_02.jpg
transferring_03.jpg
Canon: WFT-E2 II A
Eye-Fi: D5000 on-screen Eye-Fi icon
Nikon: WT-4A

  • Canon and Nikon digital SLR cameras can be paired with several different transmitters for the purpose of sending pictures to the iPad and ShutterSnitch. These include the camera maker's own offerings, devices such as those in the Wi-Pics line and the Wi-Fi/memory SD combo cards from Eye-Fi.
Of these, we've used the first and the third options extensively with ShutterSnitch. This means the WFT-E2 II A transmitter attached to a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, a WT-4A cabled to a Nikon D3S and an Eye-Fi Pro X2 8GB card inside various digital SLRs from both companies. All three connect and send easily to ShutterSnitch on the iPad; two of the three handle the temporary loss of the wireless network (such as when the transmitter is out of range for a time) or the disappearance of ShutterSnitch (when quitting the app to do something else on the non-multitasking iPad) without a problem.

Once the network and/or ShutterSnitch reappear, both the Eye-Fi card and the WT-4A are tenacious about getting all unsent files through to the iPad, without the photographer having to do anything more than shoot a new picture. And if the interruption in the link is brief, not even that is necessary.

The WFT-E2 II A in FTP mode, like all Canon Wi-Fi transmitters past and present, won't automatically reattempt to push through unsent pictures. That's the only flaw of significance we can report. Otherwise, this transmitter, the WT-4A and Eye-Fi Pro X2 8GB have performed reliably.

For something like a location portrait shoot, what this all means is it's dead easy to fire up and test your ShutterSnitch system before the session begins. Assuming the gear is configured in advance, the process is:
  1. Turn on the wireless router and give it a minute to complete its startup routine.
  2. Bring out the iPad and, if it isn't already connected to another known network, wait for it to automatically link to your wireless router.
  3. Launch ShutterSnitch and choose or create a collection.
  4. The procedure varies at this point depending on the transmitter, but in all cases is quick. If you're using an Eye-Fi card, for example, the most you'll need to do is turn the camera off and on, then shoot a test picture.
That's it. Things can go wrong, since configuration errors and wireless interference will always conspire to interrupt the sending of pictures through the air. But, with the exception of the WFT-E2 II A's failure to resend pictures automatically in the event of a temporary connection problem, and the occasional interference, we've experienced no errors that haven't been solvable through a change in the configuration for next time. This is well-behaved wireless. It provides an efficient way to get photos from your camera to an iPad for colour accurate viewing by yourself, your subject or anyone else with a stake in what your shooting. Without having to constantly babysit or troubleshoot the wireless connection.

Okay, that ends the wireless workflow sales pitch. If this is the excuse you've needed to buy an iPad, or you want to use ShutterSnitch on the iPhone or iPod touch you own already, read on as we delve deep into wireless gear selection and configuration.

The rest of the article will unfold in FAQ format and is chock full of information on both selecting and configuring a router and transmitter for use with ShutterSnitch.
Next Page: FAQ: ShutterSnitch tips
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