Thursday, September 25, 2008

Linux Photography: Raw Conversion

I was quite surprised to find out that there are choices when it comes to raw conversion software. I found three open source and/or fee raw converters: UFRaw (version 0.13), Rawstudio (version 1.1), and RawTherapee (version 2.3), as well as two for-pay programs, LightZone and Bibble Pro. With so many options, it's too time-consuming to do an exhaustive evaluation of every program. I tried each one out, and got an early impression of which programs were competitive with my tool of choice on Windows, Capture One from Phase One.

Rawstudio is a good-looking open-source program that is continuing to evolve and improve.

The main screen from Rawstudio

The main working screen looks good and is well organized. The filmstrip at the top of the screen shows files from the open directory, making it easy to browse images from a single session. The window at the right shows the main tools for adjusting the image, both with sliders and a curves tool. A histogram is also available at the bottom of the right window if you scroll down.

The tools offer basic image manipulations (exposure, contrast, tint, etc.), but other image tools like straightening, croping are available (although hidden) by right-clicking on the image. Undos are also available, but they are not universally available from the Edit->Revert settings menu selection.
One option I really like is the A/B/C tabs in the right window. These tabs let you try out different combinations of settings to see which one you like the best. The images are easy to compare by clicking each tab in succession.
I have a few quibbles about the GUI -- amongst other issues, the tools could be better organized, undos easier to figure out, and a progress bar on the Export and Batch processing screen would be good. There are also still a few bugs that show up -- for example, the image display sometimes disappears when using the histogram curve to adjust the image.

This program is quite good, and has lots of promise. However, it shows signs of being an young product, and it could use more time to mature. This is a program worth watching.

UFRaw is a fairly basic raw converter, but it works well, and the controls are quite easy to figure out.

UFRaw main screen

The tool menu is on the lefthand side of the screen, with tabs that let you adjust the colour temperature, histogram curves, gamma, crop, orientation, etc. All of the tools are here, and although it's not an extensive set, you can accomplish what you need without much trouble. The histogram/curves tool is a good size, which makes it easy to make fine adjustments.

I don't particularly like the way UFRaw opens files. When you open UFRaw, you are presented with a file system browser, which lets you select the file to edit. This is basic and functional, but it doesn't show you any thumbnails of the images, so you have to know the filename beforehand. The advantage of this kind of browser is that there is more screen real-estate available for the image being processed and tools. It would be much better if the browser showed thumbnails.

Overall, UFRaw is a simple, functional but not fancy tool. It runs well, without any bugs that I ran across.
RawTherapee looks very promising. The display is very well laid-out, with the directory's files in a strip along the botom of the screen.

Raw Therapee's main window

The editing tools are nicely arranged along the right hand side, with the file system browser and edit history on the left hand side. The tool gives you the option of hiding the bottom and left-hand side windows, to give you more space for the image.

The set of tools offered are very good -- a clear improvement over the other two open source/free programs I tried. Among the useful tools were chromatic abberation correction, and vignetting correction.

When I started to edit the photograph, however, strange things began to happen. The image often brightens a huge amount, and I can't restore it to normal. This bug is a show-stopper for me -- I can't see what's happening, and I can't really figure out what is causing it. Sometimes it happens when I'm using the curves to adjust the photograph; other controls also had the same effect. The end result is that this program is unusable for me.

UPDATE: This problem has been resolved in version 2.4m1 -- the latest development snapshot. This is good news indeed.

One other noticable issue is that the adjustments take an appreciable amount of time to show on the preview image. The time is noticably longer than with othe programs, and I often thought that my mouse click had not taken effect.

This program has the best organization of the three freeware programs I've tried, and I've read good things about it elsewhere. It's has a lot of potential, and I really hope the developers work on the processing speed, and other bugs that are discussed on their online forum.

A following post will review the two for-pay products, LightZone and Bibble Pro.

. . . Rob Williams

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Recent Work: The Writing's on the Wall

Letters on a container

When I first saw these letters on a container on Whitehead Island, a remote fishing village in the Bay of Fundy, I thought I was seeing Chinese characters. I quickly realized that I was wrong, but I still get the impression of Chinese characters every time I take a new look at the photograph.

. . . Rob Williams

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Recent Work: Anatomy of a Dany Heatley slap shot

Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators
Every September, the Ottawa Senators hold an open practice and a few thousand fans, young and old attend to see their favourite players as well as the up-and-coming rookies. I always take my camera, and at the end of the day, I truly appreciate the skill (and equipment) of professional sports photographers.
This year, I watched Dany Heatley practice his famous slapshots -- a thing of beauty. I set my camera to take continuous shots, and let it go as fast as it could while Dany Heatley wound up and shot. This is the result after I combined all four images together.

UPDATE, October 5, 2008: Dany Heatly just demonstrated his amazing shot in the game against Pittsburgh Penguins in Stockholm, Sweden, giving Ottawa a 2-0 lead!

. . . Rob Williams

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Linux Photography: Monitor Calibration

I have been testing various software packages as I try to determine the state of the art for photography under Linux.  One of the first steps for serious photography is working on a calibrated monitor.  On Windows, I used a software solution for some time -- PaintShop Pro's monitor calibration tool.  Using this tool, you use sliders to match the intensity of a square on the screen with a standard square.  This is done with various intensities of red, green and blue.  Each colour can be adjusted independently.  The results of this operation, which takes only a couple of minutes, is saved in an ICC profile which is used by Windows, and by the various photographic applications.

This method is certainly the right price (zero), and is reasonably effective.  However, due to some problems getting good output from an outside print shop, I recently switched to a hardware-based calibration tool.  I bought Spyder3 Pro, which uses a colorimeter to measure the output of the screen.  It is largely an automatic process, only requiring you to manually adjust the monitor's hue to get it within a certain range.  So far, I'm quite pleased with the results.

On Linux, the monitor calibration options seem to be quite limited.  I have found a couple of tools so far, GAMMApage and Argyle CMS.  Both tools are free.

GAMMApage is similar to the tool I used from PaintShop Pro.  In this case, there are only three squares to match, one red, one green and one blue.  The output from the operation becomes an adjustment for the X11 windows system, rather than an ICC profile.  Installation of this tool involves unpacking a zipped tar file, and to run, you simply ensuring that the executable python file is on your path.  It's not a fancy tool, but it works fairly well.  

One drawback on Ubuntu is that I will have to recalibrate everytime I boot my system.  GAMMApage has an option to save the settings on the X windows startup.  However, this fails when I try to run it.

Argyle CMS is a tool that supports a range of monitor calibration hardware, from a range of Gretag-Macbeth/X-Rite hardware, as well as Spyder.  Unfortunately, they only support Spyder 2.  I tried to run it with my Spyder 3, but I didn't even get to first base.  The tool requires some information extracted from the installation disk, and this extraction operation failed on my Spyder 3 installation CD.

So, for the time being, I will use GAMMApage, and see how it goes.  From my experience with PaintShop Pro, I know that this solution is sufficient for much of my work, but in the end, the ability to reliably reproduce images on my printer, and deal with outside companies requires a professionally calibrated monitor, and a solution like GAMMApage is problematic.

. . . Rob Williams

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Grand Manan Images: 1200 Route 776

1200 Route 776, Grand Harbour

This house in Grand Harbour has been abandoned for some time. The front yard has transformed into a fantastic wildflower meadow, dominated by wild roses. It is a small property, and easy to miss as you drive past the main part of town, but I have been watching the wildflowers in the front yard for a couple of years now.

Wild Roses

I suppose that the property will be bought at some point in time, and the front yard will be returned to lawn. In the mean time, it's a reminder that nature recovers and will prevail, given time.

. . . Rob Williams

Friday, September 5, 2008

Is Linux Ready for Prime Time Photography?

I am a software developer by profession, and I have been writing code for Unix systems (and inside the Unix kernel) for most of my professional life.  I have always thought of Unix as a good system for software R&D, but a poor system for a consumer's desktop.  For years this was the case, despite a movement of Unix and Linux into the server market, and constant talk of Linux as a home desktop.

This has all changed recently with Ubuntu, a Linux system that is easy to install and run, and with the availability of free, top-notch applications like Open Office for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, Firefox for web browsing and, Thunderbird for email, all of which run on Linux systems (as well as Windows and Mac).

Despite my continuing use of Windows XP at home, I use as much open-source and free software as possible.  However, I have always used purchased, Windows-based applications for photography.  Whenever I have searched for Linux-based photography apps, I have been disappointed with the quality and functionality of what was available.

For the past year or so, I have been using Ubuntu at work, and we have also converted one of our home laptops to Ubuntu to prolong it's useful life.  Even though Windows XP is a reasonably stable platform, the thought of having Vista in my future is frightening.  I thought it was time again to see what photo software was available, either as freeware, or for purchase to run on Linux, and on Ubuntu in particular.

I use a number of different applications for photography on Windows:
  1. a raw converter, Capture One
  2. a photo editor, Paint Shop Pro
  3. a photograph display and management tool, ThumbsPlus
  4. a generic scanner driver, Vuescan
  5. a digital noise filter, Noise Ninja
  6. a panorama image sticher, Panaview Image Assembler
  7. a program to create and manage my website, FrontPage (no longer in production).
  8. monitor calibration software (and hardware).
All of this software was purchased, and most (except for Vuescan) have ongoing costs to acquire new versions.  I'm sure that I could reduce the number of applications that I use, since many apps support several of these functions.  However, with a limited budget, I have been able to find high quality applications at a low price, and buy them whenever I could afford to do so.

I will have to replace all of these functions in order to switch my desktop to Ubuntu.  In the next few posts, I will look at each application area in turn, and see how Linux apps stack up.  The end result is not yet known -- however, I have been very pleasantly surprised in my research so far.

. . . Rob Williams