Monday, March 25, 2013

Digital Photography on Linux

In any industry the advent (and improvement) of technology will lead to the inevitable changing of the guard from the way it started to the new technology way.  The industry of photography is no different, having started with film and now nearly fully transitioned to digital (at least in the consumer space). With this transition to digital has come a huge boost in popularity and accessibility as very high quality equipment is available at reasonable costs. The digital transition also eliminates the ongoing costs of purchasing and developing film while at the same time making it easier to capture great photos. Granted, you will still need to pay for prints of digital photos and factor in a memory card (or cards) purchase, but these have a minimal cost comparatively - especially after amortizing the number of photos you get on one memory card.

With film there was the dark room, and in the early days of digital photography Adobe's Photoshop was king and Corel's Paint Shop Pro tried to compete in the photo editing/developing software arena. Paint Shop Pro would eventually fade away, and while it is true the program has not been scrapped and is still available (in updated versions no less), you hear very little of it in the photography industry and the program fetches a price more on par with Photoshop Elements. With Photoshop well established as an industry leader in the commercial photo editing software, Adobe again led the way and started a new type of photo editing program with their release of  Lightroom. At a much lower price point (though still not cheap) Lightroom was designed specifically for photography and is essentially a digital darkroom.

With this boom in popularity and accessibility for digital photography - coupled with the high end commercially available development software, where does that leave a Linux enthusiast? Are we stuck using proprietary operating systems to run expensive software or stuck running non native commercial software with Wine technology? A number of years ago the answer would probably be yes and go back a few more years and running a Linux based operating system for a home computer would be an even less favorable proposition for many. As it is now, desktop Linux has come a long way and offers a very usable system with many excellent tools to offer photography enthusiasts - all at no cost to the end user (save for the cost of a CD, DVD or USB drive that is used for installation).

With that preface, now lets look at some native Linux software for digital photography. I realize there are likely programs I may have not covered here, but what I have outlined below is a good start and these programs are fairly well known and I have some familiarity with them as well.

In the tradition of the jack of all trades imaging program that comes with nearly endless options useful for digital photo development we will be looking at Pinta and The GIMP. Pinta is a more basic editor and is not as feature rich as The GIMP program and is probably more suited for less advanced users and/or users with more basic photography needs. That is not to say it doesn't have potential or that it is not worth a look. On top of the basic sizing, cropping and rotating you will find options to adjust curves, levels, hue/saturation as well as brightness & contrast. There are also some preset options for sepia tone and black and white conversion. Though, being a more basic editor these are click and go with no adjustments and user control available.

The GIMP on the other hand is very feature rich and an open source project that I feel has tremendous potential - this on top of already being a robust and capable program. The development has been painfully slow in the past, and a user interface design that was cumbersome are realities that have likely been a deterrent for some users. The 2.8 release addressed the UI issue and included many other core updates to the program, and now I feel the potential is really starting to be fulfilled. A couple options that have been missing are also in the works: High bit depth editing is already in the development branch and is scheduled to show up in the stable 2.10 release, while script recording and playback is on the horizon sometime after version 3.0. On top of all the basic options you would find in Pinta, The GIMP offers a plethora of color adjustment options, a channel mixer (great for black and white conversion), a decent list of filters as well as options to extend functionality with plug-ins for a start. While The GIMP is available cross-platform (and I have used it on Windows and OSX), the program runs best under a Linux system from my experience.

Linux doesn't lack a good digital dark room photo program either. First released in 2009, DarkTable is a complete digital dark room style photo editor - currently on version 1.1.4. You will find all the usual suspects when looking over the available functions: Everything from color adjustments, exposure, sharpening, white balance, curves, tethering and RAW support - really to many options to list out individually. Another options is RawTherapee. I have not used RawTherapee, but it appears to have a feature set that would be expected from a modern Dark Room style application.

For photo organization my favorite is Shotwell, which is also the default photo management program in the Ubuntu distribution (which I use). Shotwell organizes photos in events based on dates (from EXIF data), which can be renamed and photos/videos can be moved between event albums. You can also view photos by individual tags if you have tagged images. Shotwell also has support for viewing RAW photos, some basic image adjustments, red-eye removal and the ability to upload to Flickr and Picasa as well as other publishing targets. I have my program set to monitor a pictures folder and Shotwell will automatically import new photos when the program is loaded. DigiKam is also very popular (mainly among KDE based distributions) and has a very dedicated fan base. DigiKam includes many editing and enhancing options as well as a panorama stitching feature. A third option is F-Spot - again, an option I don't have any real experience with to comment on.

For creating panoramic photos, you cannot go wrong with Hugin. A specialized program designed specifically for stitching panoramic shots, Hugin also supports creation of HDR photographs.

The last piece of software to mention in this article is OpenShot. While OpenShot is a non-linear video editor, I am mentioning it here as a tool for creating slide-show videos from your photographs. Of course as a video editor it can do much more, but that is one photography related use as that is our subject. There is also Kdenlive if you are looking for a second option.

So there you have it, a quick run down on some of the software available on Linux based systems for the digital photographer. Is Linux worth a look for a photo enthusiast? My answer would be absolutely. And for those interested, I have created a customized version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution with some of the photography related software detailed above installed by default. The operating system can even be run from a DVD for a trial run with no hard drive changes. My custom version can be download from Sourceforge here.



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