8 of the best photo managers for Linux
29th May 2010 | 11:00
Get the best app for organising your pics
Fotoxx and Picasa
Since the arrival of consumer digital cameras, hard drives have been filling up with images of every social occasion, no matter how boring.
It soon became apparent to happy snappers that where you once merely had to look in a drawer or a photo album to find a particular snap, there may now be thousands of them on your hard drive. And so the need for photo management software was born.
The advent of digital has meant that people generally take as many pictures of the same thing as they can, resulting in a glut of similar images. Good software can help sift the keepers from the ones that belong in the trash, by displaying quality thumbnails and keeping track of sources.
Adding tags and metadata is almost a necessity too. High-end cameras can usually shoot what are known as RAW images. These files are the high-quality recorded data direct from the camera's sensor, but this comes in a dazzling array of formats, so isn't a format as such, but a term applied to a huge number of different and often proprietary file types.
Because cameras have limited resources, the JPEG images they produce can often be improved upon in software on a computer. A good photo app will accept the RAW data and convert it to a JPEG file. The long-used utility, dcraw, is often employed to decode these formats, and all the apps here use it or their own libraries to decode RAW files, to varying success.
Good organisational abilities include being able to tag images, search for specific camera metadata and finally being able to upload, display or print selected images. Some people simply keep their photos on their computer, but many now wish to share them.
Support for photo sharing websites is a bonus, even for professional software. All most people want is to be able to put their pictures somewhere, and find the ones they want, when they want them.
Fotox: This dark horse packs in some surprising features
Fotoxx, despite the celebrity of having appeared in HotPicks a number of times, is far from the mainstream of photo management software, in terms of features and probably users. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't consider it.
It supports RAW images, for example, and packs a selection of tools to manipulate them. It also has features missing from some of the more mainstream apps here. Most of these exotic features can be discovered in the Combine menu.
The Panorama mode, for example, combines several shots, using a bit of manual placement from the user. Shots are placed one by one, and the results are pretty good – it isn't a replacement for stitching software, which creates a whole montage, but it does the job for a 360° panorama.
What Fotoxx calls HDF mode is a similar combination effect, but here it takes multiple images with different areas in focus, and tries to combine them into a continuous whole, giving an infinite depth of field.
There are plenty of other tricks, such as manual tone-mapping and HDR support. Again, this has the possibility for manual adjustment, so there's no problem taking separate images by hand rather than having a camera that takes three at once.
With support for a variety of RAW formats through the UFRaw libraries and 16-bit colour depth, Fotoxx can churn out high-quality images, given the right source material. There's basic tagging support using Exif data, but this is decentralised.
Some may argue this is a better way to organise images – Fotoxx stores your tags and other info direct to the Exif. The downside is that it has to index all the images if you're searching for a particular pic, which means knowing roughly where it is to begin with.
Great for experimenting; probably not for organising lots of photos
Picasa: Google tries to grab some mindshare for your photos
Picasa is, if you aren't aware, Google's photo management client, with strong links to the web-based sharing service of the same name. It interfaces with the online service, but you can use it as a standalone app without ever signing up for a Picasa account.
We chose the 3.0 alpha release for Linux, which might seem unfair, in case of any bugs. Ironically, it works better than the stable 2.7 version on most modern distros.
The biggest problem with Picasa is its dependency on Wine. It isn't a native Linux app – the RPM and Deb versions are more or less the same as the Windows one, but with a special version of Wine included. A brief look at the support forums will tell you that it doesn't always play nicely.
That aside, Picasa's strengths are its management and indexing tools. On first running the software, it hunts out all the images in your home directory and presents them in date-ordered folders. It makes short work of importing files from other sources and will even use sane back-ends to support any scanners you may have.
Organisation is a strong point. Picasa keeps a database, but leaves your images in situ, preferring to index them and their tags. You can search for tags, and the software even includes features such as searching by colour.
Some of the options may have a gimmicky feel, and the low-fi stitching mode, Collage, isn't for serious stitchups, but it's quick and easy to use, as are the basic editing functions. You can export and sync your snaps with Picasa online, or blog images to Blogger services, but it doesn't enable you to use non-Google services.
Picasa 3.0 Alpha
Price: Free (proprietary licence)
Great indexing, easy to use, but lacks advanced photo features.
Bibble Pro and Raw Studio
Bibble Pro: This one's big on features, but has a price tag to match
This is the only software in this Roundup that asks you to part with cash, but when you see the features on offer, you may be tempted.
Cataloguing, tagging, colour profiles, colour correction, lens correction… It even has a database of lenses, which it can match using the camera Exif data to choose the best settings for you.
The ability to have multiple databases is a neat feature, and practically everything is capable of being saved as a profile in some way, so that it can be applied to similar shots. For that, the catalogue is excellent, because it can sift through images based on the Exif data.
For all of this, it's still a little light on the detail tools – you may need an external editor to do some retouching of images after they've been exported.
In mitigation, if you can spare the time, Bibble has a masterful layer mode, which, combined with the selection tools, can be used to produce a tweakable correction layer to any image.
If there's one major criticism of this software, it's the tiny, spindly interface font, which makes most dialogs and menus unpleasant to read. The only option in the prefs is to make it smaller!
Bibble is priced competitively for the professional market where, on other platforms, it's up against the likes of Adobe Lightroom. In that respect, the price isn't too extreme. It does offer far more precise tools than any single Linux app, and you get commercial support for the software.
It's probably more than a little over the top for the home user, unless you need features such as noise reduction for your photography. There is a Lite version planned, but details on its features and price weren't available at the time of writing.
Bibble 5.0 Pro
Price: $200 (£131)
Some of the most precise editing tools you'll see, but at a price.
Rawstudio: It's grey and looks cool, but lacks organisation and edit tools
Rawstudio emerged out of the need to process RAW files on Linux. It uses the excellent dcraw libraries, which currently support more than 300 cameras, and usually do a better job of decoding them than the software supplied by camera manufacturers.
This app is workflow centred, and is focused on RAW camera images (although you can also load JPEG files if you wish). Point it at a directory (it won't download images direct from your camera unless it's mounted as a device) and it automatically generates thumbnails in a top panel.
Click on one to select it, and the tools in the right hand panel become live, making for easy curve adjustment, exposure control and the usual stuff you might want to do while processing a RAW file. A simple tap of a number key, 1, 2 or 3, will group or prioritise the images, making it a little easier to go through and select the winners from a session.
Individual adjustments can be made to one of three setting profiles, and the results can be exported one at a time, or as part of a batch. This is the best feature of Rawstudio, particularly if you're processing a lot of images.
In terms of editing images beyond cropping and straightening, there's nothing here, neither are there any management tools, though it does honour rating tags. This could easily form part of a workflow though, where the generated images were subsequently loaded into another app, such as Gimp, for retouching.
Rawstudio does a neat and efficient job of generating JPEGs, or even batch processing JPEG images, but it isn't a one-stop-shop for all your photo needs.
Great for batch processing, but you probably need to edit elsewhere.
F-Spot and RawTherapee
F-Spot: The poster child of the Mono generation has some great features
This app came out of nowhere and became the default Gnome program for photo management, on merit.
The vision of the software is to provide a complete photo management solution, from when you download an image from your camera to when you email it, print it out or upload it to one of the half-dozen online services (such as Flickr, Facebook and Picasa) that F-Spot supports.
Tags can be applied at the time of importing, and images can be copied to a central location where they're sorted into folders depending on date. The entire catalogue can be navigated through a timeline at the top (reminiscent of iPhoto), but you can also search based on tags.
F-Spot has a lot of neat features, such as searching for duplicate images, or the way it keeps a history of files that have been edited, cropped or retouched. One problem is that the tools for correcting images aren't that great.
Although it does an impressive job of importing RAW images, there isn't the fine control of curve adjustments as with Bibble or Rawstudio. The controls give adequate adjustments for normal images though, but the lack of editing tools means that retouching has to be done elsewhere.
In such cases, F-Spot will launch the app for you and make a backup of the original if you ask it to. Hierarchical tags are nice and are easier to manage. F-Spot does the decent thing when exporting them, so you can keep the same tags on Flickr, for example. It also generates an HTML page directly from the images for you to upload to your own site.
Some of the cool features of F-Spot are organised as plugins, and a few are not enabled by default – so check the Edit > Manage Extensions menu.
A great all-rounder, but you'll need something else for fine detail editing.
RawTherapee: The newcomer with plenty to offer
RawTherapee hasn't had much attention from Linux users so far, perhaps because it has only recently been released under the GPL. The author has decided that it might be useful if some other coders helped out with maintaining this app, but it's amazing to consider that, as it is, it's pretty much the work of one man.
It falls very much into the camp of Rawstudio and Bibble, in that it's a tool suited to workflow management for high-quality DSLRs, so if you're unused to photo editing, you may find a lot of the controls and functions confusing. And there are a lot of controls!
This software features much of the functionality and fine control that you find in the commercial Bibble Pro. It may lack some of the finesse and depth to colour correcting and noise removal, but the features are there.
A disappointment is the lack of a curve editor for controlling the contrast and brightness of the image. This was present in earlier versions of the software, so it seems likely that it will be reintroduced to this testing version shortly.
As with some of the other software in this test, you can save different profiles to make processing whole sessions or shots from a particular camera that much easier. Like Rawstudio, this app supports a batch processing mode, so you can run conversion tasks in the background.
For output, it supports JPEG and 8-or 16-bit TIFFs and PNGs. You can export direct to an editing program to retouch. Due to the alpha nature of the software, some features are currently operating in a mode of non-functionality, notably the thumbnail previews, but it's likely these bugs will be ironed out soon.
RawTherapee 3.0 Alpha
A stunning program, but may be too complicated for basic home use.
Digikam and KPhotoAlbum
Digikam: The KDE contender outputs some impressive images
Like any application that has been around for more than a few years, Digikam has had its ups and downs, but the last 12 months have been an up. The number of features that have been added and the work done on this app is staggering.It's no great wonder that it got a landmark 1.0 release just before Christmas.
New features include the ability to load 12- and 16-bit images from RAW files and to work at that bit-depth, so that you're not throwing information away. This lifts it to rank with the likes of Bibble and RawTherapee in terms of output quality.
The work hasn't all been on the technical side of things. One of the enduring criticisms of Digikam has been that it's tricky to learn. To some extent, that criticism is still fair – it doesn't work like most other image apps, so some sort of learning curve is inevitable. However, it has made strides in being more user-friendly.
The old side-by-side before and after image display has been updated to include a mouseover change, enabling you to see the whole image more clearly. By incorporating Marble, there's an easy way to drag and drop images on to a globe to add geolocation information.
If you can't remember where an image is stored, but do know what it looks like, you can always try the fuzzy search – draw your best shot at the photo and Digikam will try to match it.
It might not be the most simple software to use – many of its best features take some searching for – but it has so many tools that it's difficult to make them all easy to get to. Newer releases have had some stability issues, but sadly this is more to do with the underlying KDE libraries being flaky. It does tend to run more reliably on some distros, such as SUSE.
A packed list of features and great output quality ranks this with the best
KPhotoAlbum: Organise your shots and export to practically anywhere
KPhotoAlbum doesn't really pretend to be anything much more than an organising and viewing tool, and sits in alliance with Digikam on the KDE side of the fence. In fact, a lot of work has been done on the KDE graphics libraries to make them share nicely, much to the benefit of KPhotoAlbum in terms of its Exif data support, for example.
One of the first downers about KPhotoAlbum is that it immediately asks you where you want to store all your images. The software will only index a single directory, so all your images will have to live in the same place.
Also, there's no real notion of importing files from a camera or card reader – if you want them in your album, you must copy them yourself.
In organisational terms, once the images have been added, there's a lot to be said for KPhotoAlbum. It has a timeline device similar to F-Spot, and can organise images based on tags or properties. It's quick and easy to make slideshows too.
KPhotoAlbum will read RAW files, via the omnipresent dcraw utility, but you can tell it would rather not – there's even an option to ignore RAW files if a similarly-named JPEG image is present. Editing options are limited to simple transforms, but right-clicking enables you to send the image to another app.
The main feature of KPhotoAlbum is its web-awareness. It has by far the broadest range of export options, mainly because it supports all the common photo-sharing sites, as well as the likes of Smugmug and Facebook. It does this through an impressive set of export plugins, so there's the chance that more may be added.
It works and the web features are great, but it's a bit restrictive overall.
The winner: Digikam: 9/10
All the software performed well in the tests, even the alpha versions, so at least they all work to some extent. The key question is how well the features of the various programs meet the needs of the average photographer, and indeed, who exactly is the average photographer?
Different people are going to want to do different things with their images. If you have some desperate need for the most professional features at any cost, Bibble 5 Pro is probably the best bet, simply because of the comprehensive feature set. It doesn't play as nicely with Linux as some of the other apps, and the lack of appearance settings might be a pain, but it produces good output.
For significantly less cash, you can get almost the same feature set from RawTherapee, which has an amazing amount of functionality for high-end digital photography. But these are really at the specialist end, and for the home user, lack some of the ease of use and labour-saving functions found elsewhere.
For more general use, Picasa, F-Spot and KPhotoAlbum all have their merits, particularly in terms of organisation. If you share photos online with Picasa already, the Picasa client is a bit of a no-brainer.
F-Spot is very good at organising images and helping you find pictures if you intend to keep them all accessible on your computer, and has more than a few options for uploading and generating web pages too. KPhotoAlbum is restrictive in some ways, because it forces you to store images in a central location, but it does support the widest variety of uploading options.
Perhaps it's because a sparkly new version just came out that Digikam takes the overall trophy here. It combines organisational and editing features, and is almost as at home with high-end files as it is with family snaps.
With useful editing tools as well as accessible auto-correction features, it does mostly live up to the claim to be an all-in-one photo app. It might not be the easiest software to understand and use though, so it's far from perfect, and it would be perfectly understandable to opt for something more friendly such as Picasa or F-Spot.
First Published in Linux Format Issue 131
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