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Credit crunch photo software

Taking the plunge. It's good to know that some of the best things in life are still free. Free Linux software, digiKam was used to tweak the above image and prepare it for upload.

Free photo software that delivers image results as good as you get from Photoshop or any of the other paid for packages. Sounds too good to be true. Well I have been researching the possibilities here's what I found for the cash strapped photographer. Very topical, I'm sure you will agree.

The image above of the Sand Piper was processed using digiKam, UFRaw and Gimp.

My mission started two weeks ago when my shiny powerful PC had a hardware malfunction over the weekend. Our other PC was being put to full use so I hauled out my old laptop, 2003 vintage. It worked but was very slow despite a Gig of RAM. It had software driver conflicts and all sorts that needed sorting out. I got more and more frustrated with Windows.

Suddenly I had a light bulb moment. It had been a while since I looked at Linux as an operating system and the last time I investigated it, it just seemed like too much hard work to get it up and running properly from the hard drive. I didn't want to lose my Windows software either and dual booting appeared to be in the realm of geeks and hackers.

After a bit of investigation I found a Linux distro (version) which sounded accessible and easy enough for a noobie like me to install and use. I chose Ubuntu. After wisely backing up my laptop files I installed Ubuntu from a DVD that I had got with Linux Made Easy magazine. I meant to use the options to partition the hard drive but ended up making a wrong choice and installing Ubuntu over the whole hard drive - wiping out Windows completely. Yeah, I know I'm and idiot.

The installation was quick and much easier than Windows. To my surprise the laptop was cured of its ailments. I had never seen it boot up, access files etc as fast. Linux runs much more efficiently on your hardware than Windows and you can breathe new life into an old machine.

One of the first things I wanted to try was to download images from my CF card using my USB card reader. I plugged it in and the Sandisk card reader was instantly recognised. I've never seen a card of images download that quickly on my laptop. This was great!

To my delight I could immediately see the RAW images in F-Spot which is a very basic image management piece of software that comes with Ubuntu. I quickly discovered that I could not work on any of my images in RAW although the Gimp photo editor software (Linux's answer to Adobe Photoshop) enabled me to work on JPEGs. I found Gimp fairly intuitive and if you know your way around Photoshop you will quickly recognise the usual stuff we all use like, levels, saturation etc. The drawback everyone seems to harp on about is that it only supports 8 bit mode. But I found other Linux photo software that happily works in 16 bit (if you really need it). More on that later.

This seems a good time to point out for those who do not know, Linux is Open Source software and just about all of it is completely free. You can download Ubuntu and run it off a CD or DVD to try it out. You can then choose to install it and all the programs you need as a photographer are completely free!

I think it is amazing and wonderful that programmers and users all over the world are working together to come up with fantastic software that rivals Microsoft, Apple, Adobe and all the other big guys.

A few days later I had got my PC back and it was up and running beautifully again. I thoroughly enjoyed myself working on images in my favourite programme, Adobe Lightroom, with slick transfer to CS3 for the finishing touches. One thing I noticed though was how slow things were compared to working with Linux Ubuntu on my Laptop, and my PC is a much more powerful machine.

An email arrived advertising CS4, Adobe's latest release with loads of new features which I would probably never use. I know that I've barely scratched the surface of what CS3 can do. I looked at the price tag for CS4. Hmmm...

While thinking about this I had a Robinson Crusoe thought. Could I survive as a photographer without using paid for software? So I set myself the challenge to find out.

I had read it was possible to install Ubuntu alongside Windows on one hard disk without creating a partition and endangering the Windows installation. The install is done using a very clever little programme called Wubi. These Linux guys have some funny sounding software names. The instructions are all on the Wubi page and the Operating System (OS) is completely free.

In Windows XP I downloaded and installed Wubi, did the required reboot and then went through the update process, and was up and running with a dual boot system in less than 60 minutes. Absolutely amazing.

The first thing I noticed though when I opened my images was that they did not look the same as they in Windows. Quickly figured out it was because my screen was now no longer calibrated. You need to calibrate it with each OS.

This is where I hit my biggest nightmare. Before you panick. Yes, it is perfectly possible to calibrate your monitor, printer, scanner etc in Linux. The problem is that it's not as simple as plugging your calibration tool in and clicking through a few screens. I use Spyder and although you can use the profile and get it to work the whole thing gave me a serious headache and hours of research in forums and on websites to work it out. Not for the faint-hearted. Wikipedia provides a helpful starting point on Linux color management but before you dash off to tackle it take a look at the options integrated in the photo-editing software below.

The next step was to find a good photo management software. After a lot of research I chose digiKam which is amazing. It allows you to import images, organise them in a database, tag, comment, rate and all the rest of that stuff. It also comes with an image editor which suports 16 bits. You also get a slide show feature and a very handy Light table. Colour profiling and calibration are also supported and integrated in digiKam.

There are numerous other free Linux software programs to enable you to manipulate images, manage them and work on RAW files. One thing they all seem to have in common is speed and stability. I have only tried a few but have been thoroughly impressed so far. Don't expect the slick interfaces of Lightroom and Photoshop. The paid for programmes are still ahead in terms of range of functions and GUI (Graphical User Interface) and there is functionality I have not found in Linux. On the other hand I've found handy tools in Linux which I've not seen in Adobe software.

The real test though is: do I think I could survive as a photographer by just sticking to free Linux software?

The answer is a resounding, "Yes!" However I am not going to dump Windows and my beloved Lightroom and CS3 just yet. I've got my workflow set up, I am used to these programmes, and they provide everything I could wish for in terms of software to work on images. Working with Linux, especially from RAW is a lot trickier. Having said that I've heard of several pro photographers that use nothing but Linux and free software.

I'm keeping Ubuntu with digiKam, Gimp, showFoto and UFRaw on my old laptop, which is running like a dream. When out and about I know that I can download, see and produce a finished JPEG from RAW much quicker than I could with my previous Windows XP system.

Living a good life in the UK I feel priviledged to be able to afford and use Microsoft and Adobe products but for photographers who find themselves in less wealthy economies, or those who would rather spend their money lenses, travel or stuff to help them capture good images, Linux offers a real alternative and more. There are some brilliant free plug-ins which I will be experimenting with in the near future, which are not available in the paid for software.

I hope the above will give you food for thought and encourage you to experiment outside Windows software. If do decide to go the whole hog and switch completely to Linux and you really miss Photoshop, I believe you can run CS2 (and earlier versions) under a program called Wine, which allows you to run Windows applications under Linux. As far as I know Lightroom and CS3 are not yet supported under Wine but watch this space.

Windows, Apple and Linux have all got their their fans. If you read the various forums on the net you'll find endless debates about which system is best and slagging off the competion. It can all get a bit adverserial. I prefer an open approach, discovering new things, being prepared to take the time to listen and explore. Sitting here today, nothing beats Lightroom and Photoshop but that comes down in part to personal preference. I will continue to experiment and enjoy new software and ways of working on images.

Questions and comments welcomed. I am aware that I am very much a noobie and have just dipped my toes in the Linux waters. I do like the look of that penguin though.


Some resources (copied from Wikipedia)

"A list of Linux color-managed applications

  • GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program (CMS is available in the 2.3 development version and later versions)
  • CinePaint, a 16-bit-capable image editor
  • Krita and Karbon14, an image editor and vector graphics editor, respectively (parts of KOffice)
  • Scribus, page layout software (using Little CMS)
  • digiKam, a digital photo management program for KDE (using Little CMS)
  • Bibble Pro, a RAW digital image converter
  • Pixel, an image editor (supports 8bit/16bit RGB, CMYK, Lab, 32bit HDR, and RAW files)
  • LightZone, an image editor and RAW processor
  • UFRaw, a RAW converter and GIMP plugin
  • RawTherapee, a RAW converter (supports 8bit/16bit RGB)
  • PhotoPrint, a utility designed to assist in the process of printing digital photographs (prints with GutenPrint)
  • GQview, an image viewer and photo organizer
  • XSane, scanning frontend for Scanner Access Now Easy (CMS support since XSane-0.992/0.993)
  • LPROF, ICCv2 compliant Hardware Color Profiler for cameras, scanners and monitors
  • xcalib - xcalib is a tiny monitor calibration loader for XFree86 (or and MS-Windows
  • Inkscape, a user-friendly, standards-compliant vector graphics editor that uses SVG as its native file format (CMS is available as of version 0.46)
  • Phatch PHoto bATCH processor and exif renamer, which supports RGB(A), CMYK, YCbCr, I (32-bit integer pixels) and F (32-bit floating point pixels). It has a lot of features: scaling, cropping, rotating, shadows, rounded corners, reflection, perspective, ...


Elizabeth said…
I love your site! And I love GIMP too. :)

Unknown said…
Thanks, Paul, for this gold mine of info. It is great for people like me that don't have the money to get all the 'pro' equipment (mu PC is a dinausor) and software, but refuse to get illegal copies of the Windows based software. I'll take the plunge this week.

This is just another great suggestion that you have shared with us. I love this site.

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