Software for the Digital Darkroom

I’m shooting in Raw format because of the advantages (white balance after the fact, 12bit working space instead of the 8bits of the JPG format). I need a software, which allows me to quickly select the “good” photos and provides some basic image editing features. The situation gets a little more complicated, since most of the time I’m working under Linux.

So, I guess the optimum would be Adobe Lightroom for Linux, but Linuxer’s let’s face it, this will never happen. For really professional digital darkroom work you’ll need to be running either Windows or MacOS X.

Anyway, I still would like to stay with Linux or use a mixed Linux/Windows approach. What functions do I need? The software should allow me to walk through the photos very quickly and make the selection about the keepers, the maybe’s and the files to delete. Apart from the basic raw development functionality, some basic image editing should be possible (cropping, rotating, possibly conversion to black and white). This are the functions, which would be needed to process 90-95% of my photos and which would mean, that for these photos I wouldn’t need a full blown graphics package like Photoshop.

He is a list of packages, which I’ve used.

  • dcraw and ufraw as plugin of Gimp. Well, they get the job done to convert the picture from camera raw to something else or load the picture into Gimp, but that’s it. There are no options to walk through the photos quickly and if you want to do some basic image editing, you’ll need to load the image into Gimp. There are still more options for Linux like digikam, but I haven’t used them enough so say something about them, but i.e. digikam has a very active community and new releases appear frequently.
  • RawShooter Essentials. The company was bought by Adobe. RawShooter Essentials is no longer available and I guess features from RawShooter Premium have found their way into Lightroom. Anyway, I found that the reviewing system of RawShooter Essentials worked very well for me. This basically worked by providing the rating of 1 to 3 stars, a general- and a delete flag all bound to key for quick selection Judging from the Lightroom screencasts, which I’ve seen, this system is one of the features, that made it from RawShooter into Lightroom. Apart from the basic developments adjustments RawShooter Essentials provided no further basic editing capabilities or any means to rename the raw files according to a pattern.
  • Digital Photo Professional. This is the software, which comes with the camera and is not too bad, somewhat similar to RawShooter. Renaming of raw files is possible, although the provided pattern could be somewhat richer. Editing is only possible in terms of cropping. The review system is also a bit more limited compared to RawShooter Essentials in that only 1 to 3 stars can be awarded to a picture. Deletion is only directly possible. DPP provides a side by side comparison of before/after result.
  • LightZone Linux Edition, which recently has been updated to version 2.4. The Linux edition is available for free, at least at this point in time. At home I can also only use the older version 2.1, since 2.4 requires a processor with SSE2 extensions, which my old AMD2800+ doesn’t provide. From this whole bunch of raw converters, I think Lightzone offers the best image editing capabilities. Uwe Steinmüller of Digital Outback Photo is pretty enthusiastic about Lightzone.
    What sets this program from the others apart, is the capability of non selective photo editing. It is similar to Photoshop in that multiple non-destructive editing layers are stacked, but the definition of the areas, which there changes are applied is not defined by masks, which operate on a bit by bit level, but by regions. These regions are defined by drawing polygons or through bezier or spline curves. Within the region you define a graduation area, where the particular effect is applied from 0 to 100%. After defining the regions, you can very easily move the control points of the region with the mouse.
    Another aspect, where Lightzone is pretty unique is the application of Ansel Adams zone system. While you would use a “Curves” adjustment layer in Photoshop, you use the Zonemapper or the Tonemapper to improve the tonality of the image. The Zonemapper creates a new layer, which is sectioned into 12 zones as defined by Ansel Adams. You can then move the zones with the mouse to improve contrast and tonality. With the Tonemapper sliders allow you operate on the highlights, shadows or details.
    With version 2.4 they also introduced a new black & white conversion tool. This is the best I’ve ever used. With other picture editors most of the time, you will probably use the channel mixer to create a black & white rendition of your picture. You move the red/green/blue slider until you reached a pleasing conversion with a combination of all three sliders. I found this pretty painfull. With Lightzone you have a color circle, where you can freely move the cursor. Depending on the postion of the cursor, the percentages of the base colors are used for the conversion. I found this a lot more intuitive and could produce a better result than with ordinary color mixers.
    With 2.4 a rating system was introduced as well, I haven’t used it yet. The Windows/Mac version already reached version 3.0.1. Hopefully this version will be also available for Linux some time in the future. So, to sum it all up, Lightzone is a very interesting tool, which makes a full blown picture editor redundant most of the time.
  • Bibble The cool thing about Bibble is, that a native Linux version is available. If you purchase the Pro license, you can use the program on all three platforms. Bibble has everything I need, except selective editing. A rating system is there, cropping and rotating tools, a black & white conversion tool, a nice highlights recovery tool, a powerful queueing system for you work flow, the ability to output the result into more than one format during final conversion. Bibble also supports a plugin system for third party tools. There are a number of add-ons available. The renaming of the camera files during operation of the “Download” queue is also supported. All in all, a very nice package. The only things, that could be a bit better is the panel and views management, which I haven’t yet completely understood or mastered. And the redisplay after some changes could be a bit quicker.
  • Adobe Lightroom And then there is Lightroom. If you surf the Web then you very quickly get the impression, that Lightroom is the tool of choice for the Pros. But then these Pros will also have Photoshop. And Pros will have a lot more pictures to process than me. And for them any second saved pays off. I’ve seen some video tutorials on the Web and Lightroom does indeed has the best review/rating system off them all, allowing quick side by side comparison, organizing similar pictures into stacks and so on.
    The introductory price of about 200 Euro is also affordable for an amateur. Unfortunately some time ago I already invested into IMatch, so the library module of Lightroom would be somewhat useless for me or I would have to transfer the data somehow, but I actually don’t want to do that work. For those times where I need IMatch it works good enough me through a VMWare virtual machine, but Lightroom would be used much more frequently and it bother me a lot to boot into Windows either in a VM or the complete PC.

So, what I did I want to achieve with this lengthy article? I think while writing this and trying some of the described tools, I finally found my personal solution. When I started I was nearly on the verge to order Lightroom, but all things considered the situation on Linux is not that bad as I wrote at the beginning. My solution therefore will be, that I’m going to purchase BibblePro. The Pro license allows the usage on all platforms and it is cheaper compared to Lightroom (129 Euro). What could make the picture processing on Linux even more feasible is the availability of a color control solution. I’ve learning in an interview (pushlished in a Happyshooting Podcast with Christoph Gamper, European General Manager of Colorvison, that the Spyder2 solution, either the Spyder2express or the Spyder2 Suite, are available for Linux on request. This fact is not advertised on their Web site.

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