Are You a Photographer on the Road? Consider a Chromebook as a Laptop

Are You a Photographer on the Road? Consider a Chromebook as a Laptop

Are you on the go for your photography or video shoots? If so, think outside the box and consider a Chromebook as your travel accessory.

It’s easy to dismiss a Chromebook as a viable photographer’s accessory. The common wisdom is that a Chromebook can’t handle big media applications such as Photoshop. But the reality is that it does fulfill many of the most important needs of a traveling photographer. Having used Chromebooks myself for over five years, they have served me well by providing me backup capability for my photo and video files and support for email and other web activity. Even the early Chromebooks provided clear benefits, such as low cost, light weight, long battery life (typically 10 hours), and malware resistance. Chromebooks have also supported many useful standard USB devices right out of the gate: mice, keyboards, monitors, media card readers, thumb drives, and hard disk drives.

Offline Functionality (No, They Don’t Have To Connect To the Net)

For photographers and videographers, perhaps the most important function is to back up image files. On my recent trips, I have taken a couple of 2 TB hard disk drives and done backups of SD media to hard drives in the evening. Some Chromebooks even have built-in SD or micro SD card readers, so using an external media card reader isn’t even necessary for this task. Once files have been moved to my hard disks, I organize the files into folders and add some descriptive notes to fit my normal processing workflow as preliminary to importing the files into Lightroom later at my home base. All of this functionality is available without an internet connection.

Chromebooks include a file browser and can open JPG, PNG, and MP4 files for review.

Chromebooks also have some (though limited) native media support (e.g. JPG and PNG photos and MP4 videos). Some culling and previewing of the day’s results are possible if you plan your shoot to save JPG files along with raw shots. With thirrd-party apps, such as mobile Lightroom and an online connection, more advanced processing (raw file handling) is possible.

Google’s free office suite also offers offline editing for their key tools, which synchronize to the documents in Google’s Cloud the next time you go online.

  • Docs: word processing
  • Sheets: spreadsheets
  • Slides: presentations
  • Keep: note-taking

Online Functionality

On the communications end, Chromebooks easily connect to Wi-Fi networks, and some models have built-in ethernet connections. If a network connector isn’t built in, ethernet connections can be had via USB adapters

Since the heart of the Chromebook is the Chrome browser, web-based functions are easily handled, including email, media posting, cloud backup, media streaming, and all other web browsing. Built-in web cameras and microphones also make it great for Google Meet or Zoom video meetings. 

Are you also writing documents or making presentations while on the road? Many familiar tools are available via the web. Besides Google’s office tools, all of which were designed from the outset to be cloud-centric, Microsoft’s traditional Office suite is similarly available in a cloud version.

The Security Elephant in the Room

For all internet-connected applications, the security of the Chromebook environment is a less obvious advantage, especially when using questionable web connections such as hotel Wi-Fi. Viruses aren’t a problem for Chromebooks, and virus checking software is not necessary. Historically, the primary threat to Chromebooks has come from loading un-vetted apps (i.e. not from Google’s app store), so simply limiting your third-party apps to those available from Google’s app store should be adequate. For all travel use, of course, a VPN (virtual private network) connection is advisable for additional protection.

The security aspect also contrasts greatly with the Windows PC situation. Updates to the Chrome OS and apps are downloaded in the background. You are not nagged to download a massive update file. Nor do you need to fear an untimely automatic restart of your machine. If an update needs a system restart, an unobtrusive notification is visible in your accessory console at the bottom right of the screen. The clearest advantage over a Windows PC is that when you do decide to restart, it takes no more than 30 seconds to do so. In normal operation, starting up a Chromebook typically only takes 10 to 15 seconds.

The low cost of Chromebooks also makes it easy to switch to another Chromebook in an emergency (pick one up at the nearest Walmart while on the road). When connected to the internet, it typically takes only a minute or two to get going on a fresh Chromebook since the majority of settings and data (such as bookmarks) are saved in Google’s cloud. Alternatively, borrowing someone’s Chromebook is no problem. User accounts are isolated from each other and can easily be installed and removed.

Advanced Functionality

The Chromebook just recently turned 10 years old and is definitely not just your kid’s school computer. It is now available in a myriad of configurations from numerous manufacturers. Additionally, modern Chromebooks have added the ability to run some Android and Linux apps. Although not all apps are suitable for the Chromebook environment, this has opened a whole new world of app options, even providing for full editing of photos and videos without going to a Mac or PC.

Choosing a Chromebook

The wide variety of Chromebooks now available are both a blessing and curse, but here are some considerations, just as when choosing any laptop:

  • Don’t go for the lowest end of the price range. They will all be able to handle backup and basic web tasks, but these are generally meant to be for your kids’ school work.
  • Look carefully at screen size, resolution, and quality. Lower-end screen choices may not provide adequate brightness or have poor off-axis viewing.
  • Look for USBC charging capability. Instead of being tied to a special power supply brick, this will allow you to travel with an easily replaceable universal charger which is fine for rapidly charging other modern devices such as your cell phone or spare battery bank.
  • Check to see what ports are built into the Chromebook. You may need to get an additional USB port docking adapter for USB A devices, ethernet, external monitors, or media card readers.
  • Check the amount of RAM inside the Chromebook. 4 GB to 16 GB are commonly offered, with 8 GB typical for mid-to-high-end units, but more is better if you have a habit of having a lot of browser tabs open at the same time.
  • Internal SSD storage for local files ranges from 16 GB on up, with 32 GB common today. For field use, this local storage is not critical and can be expanded by the use of external USB storage if necessary. Keeping fewer documents in internal storage makes it easier to switch to another Chromebook if necessary. I generally use internal storage only for downloaded copies of documents or for quick access to a few key photos.

Caveats

If you’ve never used a Chromebook, there are a couple of things to be aware of. The first is that the keyboard layout differs a bit from a PC or Mac keyboard. In particular, the topmost line of keys does not provide the standard F1 to F10 keys but instead provides special functions for Chrome OS. It is still possible to access all of the keys needed to operate a PC-based program, but extra keystrokes or redefining the keyboard in the software will be necessary. This is a common complaint of users switching to Chromebooks, but if it really bothers you on some programs, you can always plug a standard USB PC keyboard into the Chromebook.

Second, to effectively use a Chromebook, it should be no surprise that you need to sign in to Google’s ecosystem. All this means is that you should have at least a Gmail account. If you don’t have one, upon starting up a new Chromebook, you’ll be prompted to create one.

Afraid of Change?

Yes, the learning curve may be putting you off trying this tool. But rest assured, it’s no harder to adapt to a Chromebook than picking up a different brand of camera, or for that matter, picking up a different model of camera from the same manufacturer!

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36 Comments

Edison Wrzosek's picture

A CHROMEBOOK???

Ah yeah, NO.

Never Mind's picture

For photographers doing mostly RAW, without proper apps that support editing them, what's the advantage of not going for the cheapest model?

You can't visualize, edit, nor sort them properly. If the sole purpose is just backing up the files to external drives, the cheapest may well do fine.

I doubt doing presentations on the go is a typical task of a photographer but sure would need:

• Opening raw files for culling.
• Check if exposure were correct and the possibility to recover highlights and lowlights on high dynamic range photos
• Exporting embedded jpegs for sending quick samples, and maybe tuning them before.
• Sorting the files by exif (lens, aperture, gps location...)
• Even desireable to be able to pre-align raws into panoramas or getting bracketed images ready for focus/exposure merging, before reaching to the desktop when one is back.

If one cannot do that even with the more expensive chromebooks, I can point out some cheapo and smaller laptops that can.

Oh, and If you worry about viruses, you don't need Google to assist you. Just get Ubuntu installed on your normal laptop, and only install apps from the official repositories. Yes, you'll get proper RAW photo processing apps, and no need to open a Google account nor to be tracked by them whenever the laptop is used.

David Kodama's picture

On a mid to high-end Chromebook, you do have the option of running the Android version of Lightroom, which does take advantage of the full screen. And on my high-end Google chromebook (admittedly expensive), Gimp runs fine. Open Office and other Linux apps run on that Chromebook too. Even if you can't leave your PC or Mac behind, another option when traveling with an assistant or companion is to bring along a Chromebook for their use. The Chromebook will still be useful to speed up file backups for the photo shoot.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

If the sole purpose is backup, assistants can just use one of these types of devices instead of laptop + cables + drives.

https://shop.westerndigital.com/products/portable-drives/wd-my-passport-...

Greg Edwards's picture

Apparently, you can run Lightroom CC on a Chromebook. It's the same version that runs on Android. So functionality would be similar to an android tablet or iPad with a keyboard attached.

However, depending on the amount of raw photos you injest and the amount of internal storage, you may need a fast internet connection to get them all into Adobe's cloud to keep the internal storage clear.

That said, I don't know if Chrome OS lets you use an external drive as a system drive. Lightroom CC on iOS at least is essentially "sandboxed", in that photos are stored within the app, so it's doubtful you'll be able to work directly with files on an external drive from Lightroom CC.

Brad Robb's picture

I would say the most important point that the article does not mention is you can powerwash a Chromebook and have nothing on it. This is the best way to go through customs. When you reach your destination you just log in and everything is synced and you can then use your Chromebook like you had it set up before your trip. Some say you should have a burner account loaded so the it looks like you use the Chromebook as a everyday computer.

If you want real security you can set up 2 factor authentication and use a yubikey to log into your Chromebook.

Never Mind's picture

You don't need Google to do that either, but I wonder what you do that you need to hide stuff from customs, because I never had issues with them checking my laptops ;-)

David Kodama's picture

Good point that powerwash (completely wiping the Chromebook internal drive) can be useful when crossing borders. The important point is that it doesn't take hours to get the Chromebook back into operation (I dread having to reload Windows!). A "burner" gmail account is a great idea too.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

If you're that paranoid about customs, you may want to wipe your external hard drives and sd cards also. lol :D

Tammie Lam's picture

Chromebooks are awesome. If you close the lid you can use a Chromebook as a pad for your “normal” laptop. Pro tip: if your Chromebook has an active cooling - turn it over and use as a cooled pad!

Gunnar Somby's picture

Can you colour correct a Chromebook display?

David Kodama's picture

I'm not aware of any way to do that, so I wouldn't do any serious color correction on it. And it's another reason to skip the very low end Chromebooks.

Ken Evans's picture

If you are looking for small, light, a detachable keyboard, beautiful touch screen, plenty of storage, I highly recommend the Microsoft Surface Pro 7 – 12.3" Touch-Screen - Intel Core i7 - 16GB RAM – 1TB SSD. Runs the suite of Adobe products without fail and no problem storing my RAW files from my R5 until I can upload to the cloud. Only 1.7 lbs. I get about 12 hours of battery life per charge. Only 10 if doing a lot of editing on the road - which doesn't happen very often.

Lawrence Jones's picture

I'd love to know how you get that battery life. I've got the i5 without active cooling- so should get as much or more battery as you are - and am lucky to get 6 at best out of mine even from new out of the box. I have tweaked the crap out of the thing. Most people I know with the Surface- or should say did know- have moved on (laptops, ipad) because of the battery. If you have a reliable way to get 12 hours from the i7 which is active cooled you should write an article for Fstoppers on how you do that. Lots of people could use it.

Chris Rogers's picture

Surface pros are pretty amazing but they are also A LOT more expensive than a chrome book.

Alex Herbert's picture

Interesting article, so what you're saying is there's basically zero advantages to having a Chromebook but a plethora of shortcomings and workarounds?

Do yourself a favour mate and buy a proper laptop. It'll change your life!

David Kodama's picture

:) :)

I realize that the laptop you use can be a religious issue, but for myself, I have not only multiple Chromebooks but also an I7 Windows laptop, Linux (Mint) laptop, and I9 desktop Windows machine. The Chromebooks are just different-sized screwdrivers in my toolbox, and a Chromebook is what I choose for a trip, domestic or international.

Alex Herbert's picture

Fair enough, if you're going to have an individual laptop for each specific pupose then fine. I'm not at all brand/OS loyal but I can't see any reason to cripple myself in many areas to also not gain anything. There are so many thin and light full fat laptops out there now with excellent battery life and beautiful screens.

David Kodama's picture

If you feel crippled by going with a Chromebook, that's definitely not the right tool for your job!

For my travel photography, I'm almost always with my wife, so taking 2 Chromebooks is cheaper than 2 (or one deluxe) Windows or Mac laptops, with the added advantage of being able to make multiple backups in parallel. Having killed a Windows laptop on a trip (fell off a bed), it also hurts less and makes it possible to get a quick replacement.

But as in all aspects of life, your-mileage-may-differ!

jim hughes's picture

I'm a former software engineer who spent a lot of years working on Windows applications. I knew Windows inside and out, top to bottom. And today I carry a Chromebook. I wrote a blog post about my epiphany which some of you might relate to:
https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2019/11/29/photographer-jumps-ship-gets-...

David Kodama's picture

I'm interested, but your link doesn't work for me.

Alex Herbert's picture

Interesting post, but I can't say any of those issues are a concern. You really think a WIFI card driver stopped you connecting to a coffee shop's WIFI? Are you sure you were a software engineer??

Never Mind's picture

Not sure what your link points to, but I get "Sorry, you are not allowed to preview drafts.". Paid content?

Fristen Lasten's picture

Just copy and paste the link, deleting everything starting with "?preview....." and to the right.

Never Mind's picture

Thanks

jim hughes's picture

Just fixed the link.

David Kodama's picture

I feel your pain. :) We are all in search of the holy grail of the one machine (and OS) to rule them all, but alas... I still do all my home-base image and video processing on a new I9 PC, but do all other things on Chromebooks or Linux systems.

I'm often using a Chromebook just for remote desktop access to the Windows or Linux systems.

jim hughes's picture

If you believe the hype, 5G might make it possible for a photographer to travel with a Chromebook.

Never Mind's picture

Thanks, works now

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Those bullet points in that link sounds like something that would come from someone's first experience with a PC and no knowledge of the Google. Hard to believe someone with 25 years of Windows experience would be stumped by those "issues". With that said, yeah, I wish PC makers would quit it with the bloatware already.

Chris Rogers's picture

Brrrrrrrrroooooo this from your article "Massive updates scheduled to occur any time I really, really need to use the system. " I identify with soo damn much. Not just with my work but also my play! last week I was in the middle of a really big space battle in this space sim I play and mid combat right when I was bout to frag a chump, windows shut down out of now where with zero warnings. All for a got dayum update. When I logged back in I was greeted with a rebuy screen of 18million credits to get my ship back. That's like two real world hours of mining or one hour of uninterrupted combat to get that cash back. Not mention the 30 million credit reward I lost out on for failing the mission all because micro$uck pushed out an update. I know it's just a game but when you spend hundreds of hours on a game where a huge part of the game put's a large emphasis time and time management in a very unforgiving galaxy of over 400 billion explorable star systems every little thing that happens matters a lot. I lost almost an entire nights progress because of an update :| There's been like 8 updates in the past TWO WEEKS too! I had one yesterday!

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

You could try adjusting your "Active Hours" so Windows doesn't auto restart during those hours.

Chris Rogers's picture

Hey good looking out! I'll mess with that tonight! Thanks for the pro tip!

chris bryant's picture

I went mobile a couple of years ago with an iPad Pro and Lightroom Mobile. The solution works for me, won't go back to traditional desk/laptop. Of course, you have to find the solution that works for you and commit to it.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

I’ve done something similar when I’m on the go, using an iPad Pro, but instead of Lightroom I use Affinity Photo.

I refuse to pay Adobe’s rental ransom for something I am perpetually required to pay for every month and never be able to own.

David Henry's picture

You get what you pay for. Whether it’s a computer or a camera.
Why bother buying a ChromeBook for a few hundred dollars when you’ve invested thousands in a digital SLR and its accessories?
The obvious choice is a MacBook Air and an external hard drive with lots of capacity…
Sad!