Back in September last year I got an email from one of the founders of Astropad, suggesting I try their app. I guess he had read my blog post about Duet Display and rolled his eyes when he saw the things I had to do in order to use the app the way I wanted to in Lightroom. Now I’m glad he felt sorry for me because Astropad is one of the best apps I’ve used combined with my Mac when retouching in Lightroom, Photoshop or Affinity Photo.
I’m sure you have been in this situation before: you are editing a photo and you want to apply a certain adjustment only to a specific part of it. So, what you do is use the trackpad to paint over that part, but as good as the trackpad is, sometimes the area is so complex that you wish you had a Wacom graphics tablet to get the job done well and accurately. But you don’t have one because they are expensive and you prefer to spend the money on lenses or holidays. Fair enough.
Astropad is an iPad app specifically designed to make your iOS device work as a graphics tablet. Not “like a graphics tablet”, it actually IS. In fact, Astropad does lots of the things a professional graphics tablet is able to do, and it’s much cheaper.
I’ve been using Astropad over the last 12 months either with Lightroom, Photoshop or Affinity Photo and I can’t tell you how good this app is. Some people even say they have put away their Wacom tablet after trying Atropad.
Once Astropad is connected to your Mac (more about this later) you will be able to see any part of the screen of your Mac on your iPad in real time. You can view 100% of the screen, or a tiny part of it, you decide what the visible screen area displayed will be. Astropad is designed so you can zoom in or out and move through the display of your Mac on your iPad in just a tic, which makes editing much easier. Basically, Astropad means your iPad works as a magnifying glass for your Mac display.
Draw/Move & Zoom Modes
In the DRAW mode you are controlling the mouse of your Mac with your iPad independently from the programme you are using…nothing new here, this is what Astropad is made for! Obviously it’s called ‘draw’ because Astropad is intended to be used as an artist’s graphics tablet, but Astropad will work when using any other program, like Safari for example.
Zooming in/out or moving the visible screen area is as simple as pinching or tapping respectively, while you tap and hold the white ring. Tapping the MOVE & ZOOM mode will give you the same options but because you are probably going to be moving and zooming often, holding the white ring is the fastest option. You can also put this ring anywhere on the iPad.
There is also the option to select the visible screen area directly on Astropad on your Mac as shown below.
Tapping the white ring brings the sidebar which has some useful options. You can put the sidebar on the left or right or hide it again.
Command/Option/Control/Shift Virtual buttons
Tapping on the ⌘ shows some virtual command, option, control and shift buttons which will work the same as their respective keys on your Mac keyboard. This is a clever idea so you don’t need to go back and forth between the iPad and the Mac keyboard.
I use this when I’m applying the brush in Lightroom and I need to get the erase brush, which is enabled by pressing the option key. While pressing the virtual ⌥ key I scroll up/down to decrease/increase the brush size. And the same with the shift and option virtual buttons to change the feather size. I need to say that it could take you some time to get used to this as increasing and decreasing the size works oppositely as in Lightroom with the magic trackpad (where to increase the brush size you scroll up instead of down).
These virtual keys can be positioned on any corner of Astropad.
This is my favourite option in Astropad. You can setup up to eight shortcut links on the Astropad sidebar. For this you need to open the Astropad preferences on your Mac and configure your shortcuts. I have setup the ones I use more often when I’m in Lightroom like ‘D’ or ‘G’ to change modules in Lightroom as well as ‘R’ to enable cropping, etc.
Astropad is compatible with lots of styluses. When I started using it a year ago I had a soft rubber tip stylus by Bamboo, and now I use both an Adonit Jot Touch pixelpoint and an Adonit Pixel. Both styluses work very well.
If you are willing to spend a lot of extra money on a stylus you should go for the Adonit Pixel, released in May 2016. If not, any simple stylus will be a great tool with Astropad. Obviously Adonit models offer options only available for stylus with bluetooth, like palm rejection, more accuracy, etc. but don’t trick yourself by thinking that Astropad is not worth it if you aren’t planning on acquiring an expensive stylus.
How to make it work
For Astropad to work you will need both Mac and iPad apps,the latter being the one you pay for. Once you have installed both, the iPad will link to your Mac via WiFi or with the USB cable, you choose. Whether you use any of these options, the image on your iPad has almost no lag. Astropad uses a technology called ‘Liquid’ which works at 60 fps and its creators claim it to be faster than AirPlay.
USB cable is the best choice because your iPad gets charged while you are on Astropad. Besides this, USB is always faster than any wireless connection and USB is definitely the way to go if you lack a WiFi network.
If you are worried about connecting it via WiFi because your ISP broadband is slow you shouldn’t be, as the data which Astropad transmits between your Apple devices goes only through your home router, which can handle a large amount of information internally on your local network.
Because I use Astropad with professional software like Lightroom, Photoshop and Affinity photo I really care about the way the app deals with any aspect of the image transmitted to my iPad. As they say: ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ and you don’t want to take decissions regarding your photos based on what you are seeing on Astropad if it degrades the quality of image characteristics. I think image quality on Astropad compared to the Mac is quite good, and it lacks any colour aberration or gradient/colour banding.
Regarding colour correction, I always trust my Mac but if you prefer to rely on the colour palette your iPad is showing, Astropad corrects the colours so they equal the ones shown on your Mac.
When you plug in an external monitor, Astropad will ask you which of the screens you want to ‘Astropad’. This is something I’ve never used, as I always have my photography software opened on the laptop screen, but it’s there if you want to use it.
There is also a version for the iPhone called ‘Astropad Mini’ which is free, so it’s a good way to start if you’re hesitant on the paid iPad version. Take into account that you will need at least iOS 8.2 to run it.
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Thanks for the very comprehensive article — I too have been struggling with Duet … one Q – you mention various stylus — IO assume it also works with Apple Pencil … thanks
Hi Terry, thank you for your comment! I don’t have an Apple pencil but Astropad works with it too.
Hi David Thanks
David, What version od Astropad are you using, Standard or Studio?
Hi Ed, I use the standard version.
Have you used Luna? And if so, no would judge the experience in LRC and PS between the two options?
I like the idea of Luna display but I don’t think it would be helpful for my workflow. Nowadays, Affinity Photo on an iPad with an Apple pencil it’s all I need. And Affinity is much cheaper.
Thank you! So it sounds as if you are not using Astropad anymore.
I was only looking into Astropad as an alternative to Duet. Now I don’t use either — I am able to contest my Mac to iPad using Sidecar on Mac.
I would use it too, but my MacBook is one year too old to be compatible with sidecar!
Thank you so much for responding!
One last question, did you like Astropad better than Sidecar? I have not used it yet and am trying to decide whether to learn sidecar, astro or even Luna. I was not sure about your last sentence about your MacBook not compatible as it sounded as if you would use it if possible. I have the same problem with my iPad and my Mac, but sidecar works on my MacBook, so I did try it out just this morning which made me wonder which direction to go. I will update my Mac when Apple has the M1 chip for the Mac, late spring I think.
Sorry, I have never used sidecar because my MacBook Pro is not compatible, so I can’t say. I lost track of Astropad new features (I have the standard version, cheaper and one-time purchase). And about Luna, I can’t find any extra advantage compared to Astropad when used in photography-editing, but maybe I’m missing something.