This is a guest post by professional photographer Scott Rowed, describing his experience in switching from Windows to Linux.
Does Linux have the tools for a professional photographer?
A few months ago I would have answered “no”. After switching primarily to Linux I gradually migrated my computer activities away from Windows. While there are some good open source imaging tools in Linux, there always seemed to be some missing function, forcing me to boot into Windows for serious image editing.
I’d developed a complex workflow for Windows over the years. Irfanview for browsing the RAW files, Adobe Camera Raw and Nikon CaptureNX for converting the RAW images to JPEG or TIFF format. Noise Ninja for fixing images shot at high ISO. PTLens for correcting barrel distortion in architectural shots. PTGui for stitching panoramas and HDR (high dynamic range). And, of course, Photoshop for just about everything else.
When Bibble Labs recently came out with Bibble 5 Pro I decided to try it. Bibble runs on Linux, as well as Windows and Mac, and has a reputation of excellent quality. It’s commercial software, not open source, but $200 is a fair price considering its features. (http://bibblelabs.com/)
But would it be enough to allow me to stay booted in Linux while maintaining an efficient, high-quality workflow? It soon became apparent that this was fast software with a wealth of image-editing features. Browsing, batch processing, asset management and color adjustments all function very well. In addition, the standard version of Noise Ninja is built in and you can upgrade to a registered version at extra cost.
While Bibble can be a key element in a Linux imaging workflow, it doesn’t do everything I need. Two open source programs, however – Gimp and Hugin – fill in the gaps.(http://www.gimp.org/ and http://hugin.sourceforge.net/)
Gimp is a good image editor, although not quite on par with Photoshop. Most of the criticism I’ve read focuses on the lack of 16-bit editing and the fact that the interface requires Photoshop users to re-learn a number of functions. Editing with 16-bit files allows larger adjustments to color and dynamic range than possible with 8-bit files. In my own work I have seen posterization in Gimp when desaturating various colors and 16-bit files could possibly have prevented this, allowing for a smoother transition of tones. That said, however, it makes little sense to output a 16-bit TIFF file from the original RAW file, only to make large changes in color or tonal range in Photoshop. It’s much better to make these changes directly from the RAW file, which has even more room for adjustment.
One of the advantages of RAW files is that they have much wider dynamic range than processed JPEG’s or TIFF’s. You can salvage detail in blown highlights and bring up shadow detail that would otherwise be too dark or completely black. Bibble does this exceptionally well.
Okay, the Linux workflow works well for normal shooting. But what about more difficult tasks? Does it do everything I’d expect from a Windows or Mac workflow? Is it efficient, and more importantly, is the quality of output just as good?
Interior architectural photography, an important part of my work, is technically demanding as ambient light varies wildly in both brightness and color. I frequently change tungsten or fluorescent lights to daylight balanced bulbs, shoot different exposures to capture the full range of highlights and shadows, add supplemental lighting as needed, or even wait for dusk. Sometimes it’s useful to “paint with light” – taking several shots while lighting different regions of a large room in stages.
Linux handles this complex workflow well. Editing the RAW files in Bibble I can adjust the color temperature, highlight and shadow detail and other controls. For more difficult shots I may have to create two or three TIFF files from the same RAW file, or even use different RAW files shot with varying exposures. The output files can then be combined using layers and masks in Gimp, or HDR (high dynamic range) software. For HDR I’ve had good success with Enfuse in Hugin.
A pleasant surprise in Bibble is the inclusion of geometric correction for barrel distortion, eliminating the need for PTLens. This correction is not needed for most photography but is essential for architectural images to avoid vertical lines along the side from bowing out like the sides of a barrel.
Software is unable to automatically detect barrel distortion, so lenses have to be manually calibrated, with the numbers entered into a database. Bibble as well as PTLens, read the EXIF information from the image to see what lens was used and at what zoom setting, then refer to the database to make corrections. Bibble currently has 350 lenses in their database, and add more as customers send in images for calibration. My “workhorse” lenses for architectural shooting, the Nikkor 14-24 f2.8G ED and the Nikkor 24-70 f2.8G ED are both calibrated.
When these corrected images are opened in Gimp I apply the perspective correction tool to make the vertical lines vertical, correcting for the camera pitched slightly up or down. When shooting I’m careful to keep the camera level laterally, using the built-in level in my Nikon D3.
For sheer efficiency, my Linux workflow is signicantly faster than the hodgepodge of programs I’d evolved using Windows. In fairness, however, a Windows or Mac setup with Bibble or Adobe Lightroom would also work well.
What about output quality? To test this I went back to some RAW files I’d processed with Windows and compared the output. The conclusion? The differences were very minor and simply the result of using different parameters in the processing. The Bibble files were initially sharper with more detail, but after applying additional sharpening, the Windows-processed images were almost par. The main difference in the end was slightly smoother shadows areas in the Linux file which I attribute to a small application of Noise Ninja in Bibble.
There is one Windows program I’m happy to keep – Irfanview – which fortunately runs flawlessly under Wine. (http://www.irfanview.com/)
When browsing and culling a folder of RAW files (in my case Nikon NEF) Irfanview is exceptionally fast as it reads the embedded JPEG preview rather than interpreting the RAW data. The preview file is a full resolution file, but compressed with “basic” JPEG quality. When you shoot RAW files and review the images on the camera’s LCD, it’s the preview files you’re looking at.
Irfanview is also fast and intuitive for batch functions such as resizing images and IPTC captioning.
For the first time since switching mostly to Linux almost two years ago, I can do all my image editing in Linux without compromise, even for the most complex professional jobs.