Ubuntu ScreenshotAs I mentioned a week or so ago, my primary computer was down for most of March due to a failed cooling fan. While it was out for repairs, I was left with my Ubuntu laptop as my only means of true photo editing and, while the original plan had been to use this as a testbed for a future conversion to full Linux environment, it was a bit more sudden than I had anticipated.

The results, however, are interesting.

First off, some preliminary information. As I talk about this test project, I tend to use the terms Linux and Ubuntu interchangeably. And while there are many “flavors” of Linux, when I say Linux what I mean is the Ubuntu OS.
I have Ubuntu installed on an Acer MODEL laptop, running an Intel Celeron 2 GHz dual-core processor with an integrated Intel graphics card and 4GB of RAM. I’ve later added a 120GB solid-state hard drive (SSD) in place of the stock HD.

Why this laptop? Because it offered decent performance at a cheap price point, only $250. For a full-fledged laptop, that’s a heck of a good price. As a Windows machine it would probably struggle – it came with Windows 8.1, which I immediately replaced with Ubuntu. Ubuntu runs very nicely on this hardware and I’ve got no complaints, except that when I get deeper into RAW processing, the limiting factor is clearly the processor, and an Intel i5 would be ideal compared to the Centrino.

I’ll also mention that in terms of ergonomics, the laptop is weak.  It may have the worst touchpad and keyboard I’ve ever used.  It’s not that they are unusable, only that they are not a pleasure to use and feel cheap, and I can only assume that is a result of the very low price point.

Now, how about the workflow?

  • Calibration: to start with, I was able to calibrate the laptop’s screen using my Huey Pro meter and the built in color calibration utility in the Ubuntu settings menu.  My initial attempts at calibrating the laptop screen failed – the system gave me a vague error message that didn’t produce any results in Google.  But when I attached my second display (an external monitor), I was able to calibrate it without any issues, and after that I was able to calibrate the laptop screen as well.  So who knows why, but in the end both monitors are in calibration and look to be very well balanced with each other.  (I do have to note that with Ubuntu I lost the Huey’s ability to take periodic readings of the ambient light and adjust for them.  It’s a one-and-done calibration.)
  • Image ingest: I haven’t found a really good program for this, so I simply open the folder I want to import to on the laptop, and open the SD card, and drag-and-drop the photos.  It’s really just as quick and easy.
  • Initial image review: Ubuntu does not show RAW (or TIFF) thumbnails in the file explorer view, so a basic image viewer program is essential to run the first editing pass, where I weed out the duplicates, out of focus, and generally crappy shots.  Ubuntu comes with Shotwell Photo installed, but I find it to be atrocious – the program insists on importing photos to its own library database, and the process is painfully slow.  As an alternative, I tried several other programs from the Ubuntu Software Center; some had issues with creating separate embedded JPG files, which likewise made it difficult to cull & delete unwanted photos, while others depended on similar import processes.  I finally found a program called Geequie, which is just a very basic photo viewer, which can view the actual RAW files, and can show a 100% zoom.  Bingo.
  • RAW editing: there are two main RAW editors for Ubuntu that I know of.  I use Darktable; the other program is called RAWTherapee.  I tried both and ultimately found that I preferred the layout and controls in Darktable, which I believe most people would find very similar to Adobe Lightroom.  Now I’ve never been a Lightroom fan or user, but in Ubuntu I don’t have a choice.  Darktable is capable of acting as a file manager as well as RAW editor, but I find it’s file management system clunky, so prefer to take care of that ahead of time in Geequie, and utilize Darktable just for RAW editing.  Edits are non-destructive and include all the features I used in Adobe ACR, plus a few extra.  The program keeps tracks of your editing steps in a history file and it’s simple to go back and undo steps, or to save the entire history file so it can be applied to other photos.  When I’m finished with a photo, Darktable lets me export it in a variety of formats, including my preferred TIFF format.  It runs well on the laptop, although it would certainly benefit from a faster processor and even more RAM.
  • Metadata & keywords: Darktable can handle metadata and, apparently, keywords, although I haven’t progressed too far in this direction yet.
  • Final editing: I run into some minor workflow issues here, but only because of how I have traditionally operated within the Adobe environment.  Since I’ve eschewed Lightroom, I’ve always done RAW edits in ACR then imported to Photoshop for final editing, which may be as simple as a few clicks of the heal tool, a little dodge & burn, and (almost always) a curves layer.  I realize that most of this can be done in Lightroom, and in fact spot heals and curves can be done in Darktable as well.  But I’ve always done them in Photoshop, it’s just how I work – I like my Photoshop adjustment layers.  In Ubuntu, the only true Photoshop replacement is GIMP, which is really a very well developed piece of software, and is comparable to Photoshop in most ways, although it does lack some of the fancier functions.  Don’t dismiss it too quickly. however: even GIMP has content-aware healing, layer controls, and a full-range of adjustment features and filter options.  What it lacks are some of Photoshop’s adjustment layer capabilities, as well as all the automation of Actions.  I’ve used GIMP for years in other settings and have always found it to be well-rounded.  The main issue is that by default, it operates somewhat differently from Photoshop.  I ended up using this article to change GIMPs defaults and install some add-ons that make it run more like Photoshop, including one that remaps all the keyboard commands to Photoshop-standard.
  • Add-ons: one of the biggest hurdles to my making a permanent switch to Ubuntu for photo editing is that it means losing my Photoshop add-ons.  I don’t have many, but I have purchased two film emulation packs from VSCO Film, which work in ACR.  I utilize them a lot, and they won’t transfer to GIMP.  Fortunately there is an alternative, in the form of G’MIC, which is another program that exists as both a stand-alone and as a GIMP plugin, which includes tons of film emulations – far more than I’ve bought from VSCO, and perhaps more than VSCO has come out with altogether.  And they’re all free and can be downloaded and saved for offline use in GIMP.  And while they lack a few of VSCOs features, the results look good.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to apply them to the RAW image file; they only work in GIMP, after the photo has been converted to a TIFF (or other format).  For now my solution is to simply apply the emulation as a new layer, so that I can adjust its opacity and otherwise modify it.  But in the end, I’m pleased, as G’MIC gives me even more options overall than I’m losing from VSCO.  (G’MIC has dozens, if not hundreds, of other filters and editing options built in – I’ve only cared about the emulations so far, but it seems to be a very comprehensive program.

So what’s the overall evaluation?  Ubuntu can definitely be used as a full-fledged photo editing OS.  It’s just going to be a transition.  The first few files I ran through Darktable were difficult.  I’ve very used to doing things in ACR, so having to learn a new program presents a curve that must be overcome.  It takes time and practice, but after a while it starts to feel more natural.  Right now, if my primary computer went down again, I could perform edits on the Ubuntu laptop.  It would take a little longer (at first) and there’d be frustrations (at first), but it is, without a doubt, doable.

There are still some issues I need to resolve, or at least adapt to:

  • sharpening: in ACR, I have become very dependent on the ability to hold down the Alt key while making changes to the Sharpening sliders (and this works for many other sliders as well), in order to see a different rendering of the image that lets me fine-tune the adjustment I’m making.  Darktable doesn’t offer this, plus their scales are different, and I’m finding it difficult to achieve the same degree of fine accuracy in making adjustments.
  • Actions: I use PS Actions every single time I edit a photo.  I have an edit that saves my RAW file in Photoshop as a TIFF; an action that converts an image to the “framed” version I use in posts on this site (actually, one action for horizontal images and another for verticals); an action to convert to the sRGB color space for web posts; an action to save active image as a JPEG on the desktop; plus a whole series of actions, both my own and that I’ve purchased, that apply various edits to an image.  All of these are gone in GIMP, which doesn’t offer anything comparable to Actions.  (While GIMP does allow python scripting, this appears to be a) complicated and beyond my current skill level and b) still not a direct replacement.)

The biggest difference is that Ubuntu has no “one stop shop” like Adobe Bridge, where I can import, sort, cull, edit, rename, keyword/meta my images all in one place.  Instead, these actions are spread across several programs.  I don’t know that this really takes a significant amount of additional time to deal with, only that it requires some research and trial-and-error to find the best programs to use for each step in the process.  Whereas Bridge (or I assume Lightroom) offered a comprehensive package, Ubuntu requires that the tasks be spread across several programs.

Learning to work within a new OS is no different than learning to work within a new language; there are similarities and there are differences, and it is necessary to train – even to re-wire – our brains so that the new information makes sense to us, and becomes second nature.

For me, this will continue to be an ongoing experimental process – more to come…

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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