Sunday, November 23, 2008

Linux Photography: Photograph Management and Thumbnailing

Photo management is one area in which I have struggled to find a suitable Linux-based tool.   First, I need to elaborate what features I need in a photo management tool -- there are a lot of tools out there that do the basic job of displaying thumbnails, but there is a wide range of features that they offer.

My basic requirements are the following:
  • display thumbnails of the images
  • display image information: filename, date, size, resolution, as well as metadata information: exif, IPTC and xmp data
  • choice of image information to display with the thumbnails
  • edit iptc data, particularly caption, copyright, and keywords.  I use this information for images I send to clients as well as stock agencies.
  • let me organize my images.  There are different options that are offered in each tool, such as tags or keywords, file system operations (move, copy, link) and so on.  I really like to be able to use the file system to organize my files from within the file management program -- this avoids having to remake the thumbnails after ever move or copy.  However, the bottom line is that I must have some mechanism to manage the image files.
  • link to my photo editor.  Most photo management tools allow the user to edit the image.  However, most of the operations are simple manipulations that I have already done using the raw converter.  To make further changes, I need my photo editor, and it's more convenient to invoke it from the photo management tool than to use it stand-alone.
And, I have one big anti-requirement:
  • Don't make me "import" photographs into the program and hide the file system from me.  The "import" is aimed at digiCam users, who want to copy files from their camera to the file system.  That's fine, but it shouldn't be the only way to view photographs.  I use the file system to manage my images, and I need to use it in my photo management tool.  I know that the tool needs to create thumbnails, and it may store information in a database.  The tool may hide this process in an "import".  However,  I don't want to "import" every new photograph in a directory.  If the contents of a directory change, the tool should take care of it automatically. 
I tried just about every program I found, but there are a couple of notable tools: F-Spot, gThumb, digiKam, and Picasa.

F-Spot is a tool that appears to be aimed casual users rather than advanced photogaphers.  It's user interface is simple, and geared to importing photographs (from a digital camera), viewing them by date, and performing some simple manipulations.  It allows you to assign tags to photos, as well as a rating (one to five stars).  Also, it allows you to create a hierarchy of tags, which is a useful concept.

Unfortunately, F-Spot hides the file system, and just doesn't have a good set of features for my use.

gThumb is a good program with a lot of my requirements covered.  In particular, gThumb lets me browse the file system, and view images wherever they are found.  It lets me copy and move images in the filesystem, and invoke my photo editer on a selected image.  It also allows me to add categories (like a tag).

gThumb has a good "image" view mode, that shows the user a good set of image information in one panel, allows you to add comments in another panel, and manipulate the image in a third panel.

The main shortcoming of gThumb is that it lacks metadata manipulation. Tbhe user can view exif data, but not IPTC or XMP data, and no metadata can be edited.

digiKam is another potentially useful tool.  The first impression (for me) was disappointing -- it hides the file system, and makes you create "Albums".  It then imports the images into the album, and lets you view the thumbnails.  Furthermore, if the file system changes (a new file is added), you have to explicitly add the new file to the album. 

However, thanks to a tip from Fred (see the comments below), you can configure the "Album Library Path" under Settings -> Configure digiKam...  If you set this to your photograph directory, the complete directory structure can be browsed, and digiKam watches the file system for updates.

digiKam has some really good features.  The right hand panel has a good image information -- from file information, to exif and IPTC viewing.  The same panel also has a histogram, and a tab that lets you set tags, a comment, and an image rating.  The tags seem to be written to the IPTC keyword field, but I don't think the comments are written to a IPTC field.

Picasa: I downloaded Picasa version 3 Beta, and tested it with a large directory of images.  Overall I like Picasa once it imports the images and is able to display them.   Picasa's import is better than digiKam in that there is a Folder Manager that lets you browse the file system and select folders (and their subfolders if you want) to monitor.  Picasa then imports the images and watches the folder for changes.   It still hides the file system from the main interface, but it's not completely hidden.

There is some organization capability as well.  You can create Albums and move images into an album.  You can also move an image to a different folder or split a folder into two.

I'm also pleased that Picasa can open an image in an external editor.  When you select an image and right click, you can choose "Open File" which will open the file using the default application.

Picasa has a good set of image editing.  Although this is not a main requirement, if a tool does this well, I will use it from time-to-time.  Picasa's tools are good, and even provide a useful dust and scratch removal tool.

Picasa is weak in terms of metadata viewing and editing, although it's not lacking completely.  Tags can be added to an image, which show up as IPTC keywords.  A caption can also be added, which is stored as the IPTC caption field.  These two fields can be viewed by right-clicking an image to show Image Properties (although it doesn't show the caption for some reason).

Picasa is a polished program as you might expect from Google.  However, it is aimed at the casual user, rather than an advanced photographic user.  It has many features that I don't really care about, and it is weak in one critical area -- metadata editing.

Picasa, digiKam and gThumb are close in terms of my requirements, but all fall short in the area of metadata management.  Of the three, Picasa is better with metadata management, and digiKam is attractive for it's file information viewing and other features.

Bibble Pro version 5 promises to add photo management to it's feature set.  I'm eager to see if it handles my requirements, particularly for metadata management.  I'm interested in incorporating XMP data (I have GPS information in XMP files), which I have yet to see in any tool.

. . . Rob Williams

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Linux Photography: Photo editing with The Gimp

There is really only one option when it comes to editing photographs using Linux: The GIMP (The GNU Image Manipulation Program). This program has a long history, and has evolved to become a highly functional tool with a decent user interface. I tried using The GIMP a few years ago, and gave up quickly -- it was hard to use, and really told me that Linux tools at the time were not up to professional standards.

Today, the story is quite different. Version 2.6 is now out (2.6.2 is the latest version at the time of writing), and it looks to be as capable as tools I've used on Windows such as PaintShop Pro (please note: I'm not a Photoshop user, so I can't compare The GIMP with Photoshop CS3 or CS4).

The GIMP's windows

The GIMP opens up with a tools window on the left-hand-side, and a layers/channels window on the right-hand-side. There is also an image window in the middle, that allows you to open and manipulate images. All three windows are independent -- they can all be positioned independently although all close if the main window is closed. This is a bit different than other image manipulation programs that I've used, and it takes a while to get used to it.

The tool set is available both from the left-hand-side window and from the window menus on the image window. Image adjustments are available from the Colors and Filters menus. The set of adjustments is quite large, and includes the normal set of colour manipulation, hue-saturation, contrast, levels, curves tools, and so on. There is also a good set of layering tools. Essentially, I was able to do any of the standard set of manipulations that I wanted.

I also found a useful plugin for Chromatic Abberation correction (Fix-CA). This tool is very similar to the CA correction in Bibble Pro. It's very easy and intuitive to use, and a welcome addition for my wide-angle shots!

The one downside for The GIMP is that it only handles 8-bits per channel. On rare occasions, such as handling infrared images, I prefer to produce 16-bit per channel images from raw. This allows me more latitude for making the extreme changes needed to make a good B&W image. Unfortunately, I cannot do this with the GIMP.

The new GIMP is a great tool, and in my opinion, with the exception of 16-bit/channel images, gives me all the power I need in an image manipulation tool.

. . . Rob Williams

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Recent Work: The Village of Pakenham


The village of Pakenham
is about a 45 minute drive north west of Ottawa, alongside the Ontario version of the Mississippi River. It's a picturesque spot, with a stone five-arch bridge across the river and a shallow falls in front of the bridge.

Storefront in Pakenham

. . . Rob Williams