Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Summer Holiday (Vacation)

This column is dedicated to Linux and photography. It started out as a platform to rant and rave, to show that I am both cantankerous and crotchety. Over the last twelve months photography and Linux has come on leaps and bounds, or at least it appears that way to me. I am however far from a creature of habit. I still drift my workflow according to the situation. Final edits are often done with the Gimp, but I do use other things. LightZone is my preferred tool for adjusting lighting. I use Geeqie to review a shoot. There I go again, repeating myself. What has this to do with holidays?

It is August and here in the Northern hemisphere it is the holiday season. I have just packed my bags and set off on the annual family trek to the coast of Devon in the south west of England. It is a beautiful part of the country. The coast is full of coves and inlets that were, thankfully in the distant past, home to smugglers. The point here is not to teach you how to smuggle contraband but talk about taking photographs of the coves and manipulating the resultant images. The big problem is exposure. Lots of water and sky, lots of deep shadows mixed with brilliant highlights and not much approaching a mid grey tone to take your exposure from.

When I set off on my holiday I want minimum luggage. I have a small car and it is packed with everything that makes my holiday, photography is just a means of recording the time. It is not the purpose of the week. I am going to relax. I take my DSLR but limit myself to a single lens and I take a compact point and shoot. The only other luxuries are spare batteries and my laptop. In truth the laptop is there for other things as well. I have no tripod, no fist of filters. I am just after holiday snaps, an Instamatic would probably suffice.

What is my problem? Today we have a multitude of photographic correction tools. I tell you I use LightZone, but this is a commercial product. I only have it licensed for my desktop. I can run it in trial mode on my laptop but this is a slightly crippled version. I also believe in following the terms of a license. I prefer open source licenses but if they are worth what I believe then I must comply with other licenses, if I use software issued under their regulation. In short, I do not use LightZone to correct my exposure on the laptop. The excessive choice I have for tools was now my problem. I could use the Gimp, of course. This was not my only option. In fact I decided to try Rawtherapee. I struggled with getting the exposure correction I wanted. Help!

What a disaster. Not Rawtherapee but my inability to understand what I was doing. I was getting holiday snaps. Losing sight of that almost spoilt the holiday. I did not need perfect exposure, composition was secondary to the content. The pictures were memory joggers, an aide memoir for later years. They were badly exposed, composition was none existent and yet everyone was happy with them! It just goes to show that there is something more important than getting it correct, knowing your audience. This is a valuable lesson for any shoot. All the Linux users crying for this software or that utility should take a step back and ask what they are taking their pictures for. Windows/Linux/OSX, it does not matter. What matters is the end result.

And for the record after the holiday I can report that I used the point and shoot more than the DSLR. I did not use Rawtherapee, I will now use that back at home to compare with the Gimp and LightZone. The laptop was used briefly to review using Geeqie, but only to check I had captured the moment. I enjoyed my rest and Linux ensured I concentrated on the pleasure rather than the work. I have posted a couple of snaps, you can see that the quality is poor but I did enjoy myself.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Zone Tome

Some times it is photography that takes over this column and others it is Linux. Today I am reviewing the latest version of LightZone (3.9), this covers both rather well. In an unprecedented move Lightcrafts have released the same version across all three supported platforms (Linux, Mac OS and Windows). This needs praise. In the past Linux has been released a little behind the others. This tells you that Lightcrafts view the Linux market highly. Perhaps one day they may even release Aurora for Linux.

What is new in LightZone 3.9? Well other than bug fixes 3.8 only offered Olympus E-P1 RAW file processing. In fact, according to the help files little has altered since 3.4 other than changes to help files and new camera support. I went into the program expecting little to have changes and so it was. I have tried the licensed version on my desktop and a trial version on the Laptop. Just one error! While looking at the 'About' splash I had a crash notice on the Laptop but the program carried on running without further problems. Probably due to my installation rather than the product.

What can I say about a product that has not changed? You can see the browser window in the first picture on this note. It is simple and uncluttered, yet everything is available very close to hand. I can use LightZone for everything I do, except perspective control (if anyone can put me right on that one I am happy to admit I have probably not explored everything). What I do use is the Zone Mapper tool.

The Zone Mapper tool allows me to adjust exposure in a way that makes sense to an old man. Probably because I was brought up using my Russian SLR (Zenith B) with an American technique (the Zone system) using British stock (Ilford FP4). It was a merging of ideals in the Cold War era that proved working together gave more hope than fighting. It also got me into serious photography. The Zone Mapper tool is so simple in its implementation. I know I can use curves in other software to achieve the same thing but the Zone Mapper tool makes more sense. I can also envisage the problems caused by compression of highlights, as the tool encourages me to see it happen. The second picture shows an edit using the zone mapper tool.

I still need to go into the Gimp at times. I use lots of photographic solutions. When it comes to exposure, anything beyond simple exposure adjustments I prefer LightZone. If you are looking for a good all round photographic application then LightZone could be for you. Do try all the open source software first but I found it more than worth its price, and you can take a free trial to see how you like it.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Family Ties

I do have interests outside of Linux and photography. It is amazing how often that I can work the use of these into my other interests. I have started the obsession of looking for my ancestors, pushing my way down the root system that is my family tree. There are many Free software programs available to manage the collected data. As a Gnome user I have chosen Gramps, although I believe that is is good for anyone using any desktop.

Gramps is just a purpose built database with a GUI. The GUI is naturally tailored for the job in hand, recording data about people, their relationships with others and their environment. Gramps is a very professional program. I have seen few programs that have such extensive facilities. It is a credit to the bizarre method of software development that is Free Software. It has a nice user interface, many features use its own pluggin system. Best of all it just works allowing me so many options to view my family history that I get lost at times! I have looked at commercial options and they can be good too. I have not yet seen one I like as much as Gramps, and all the ones that were worth any cash would have required me to switch to Windows, not an option in truth.

Photography does come into it. I need to record details of people. Photographs always help us remember and a family history should be just that, a history. Bearing this in mind how have I used it to date? I have a few old photographs of my great grandparents, these need retouching. I have taken a few trips to places my ancestors live. I can record at least the current aspects of these location. Some of my ancestors come from a small Nottinghamshire village of Tuxford. I have a picture of Tuxford Parish church, where some of my family marriages (see the photo attached). All this to tell you about my latest find, we are getting there.

Tuxford Parish Church is a nice old church, it dates from the 12th century. It has a large cemetery but it is difficult to get a good view of the church without a building or tree getting in the way. I was limited to my 24mm wide angle lens. My best shot of the whole church had major perspective distortion. Easy to fix in the Gimp, or so I thought. I had not used the perspective correction tool for over 12 months. I struggled and then decided to look up how to do it on the internet, rather than using the manual. I do this because some people get a good hack on how to use a tool and make my job easier. It did not work, the manual explains the tool very well. Fixing the distortion, as well as could be in my opinion, took just 5 minutes. What I did fall on was a site called Meet the Gimp. It is brilliant, an opinion I know but it is mine and you are reading my blog. What did I learn? Not to over correct, leave a little distortion in, otherwise it will not look natural. I knew this is the days when I used to prop up one side of the the enlarger table with a book. Digital does tend to make me forget the simple, Meet the Gimp gave me the nudge I needed.

Meet the Gimp is a nice series of photographic based video instructions. I learnt more in an hour watching a couple of episodes than I have watching days of material on other sites. The episodes appear to be released weekly, or even more frequently if you look at the archives. Even if you are an experienced Gimp user it is worth looking at how somebody else does things. It is not just about the Gimp, they had a review of Darktable recently. It appears to be a video blog on photography as much as anything. Try it, you will not be disappointed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Dark side of Light

Linux and photography are broad churches. They encompass philosophies that meet and diverge in a complicated structure meant to drive you wild. I can get a little wound up. Why do I use Linux? Because using one product for all my photographic needs would not satisfy me. Using any commercial operating system would cost me a fortune in software purchases. With Linux I can try things without any cost and I can alter and adapt, should I wish. I have stated before that I use Geeqie and the Gimp or LightZone, but I am always looking for better.

I like Geeqie for its speed and flexibility, the Gimp for its completeness of features and LightZone for the way it views exposure, using a zone based system. Each is chosen for a reason that I like. None is the perfect answer. I have tried Windows and Mac OS software, I get on better with the Linux options (although LightZone is available on all three). I do sometimes look at what is available. This month I got the urge to look for something that was better. I started to look at a few old products and one I have not tried before.

I tried Rawtherapee again, and found it was much better than I remember. The major fault as a first instance in my workflow is that it is not that quick. Otherwise I was impressed. It has got a place on all my machines as a just in case option, that I will use. I can see that Rawtherapee could be a good option, if it had a little more pace I would use it more. I also tried Rawstudio, but this was not for me and will not be put onto my default desktop build. I did not like the colours I saw on the screen but it was reasonably quick. I am very concious that colour matters and rawstudiuo does not meet my criteria. It is also a little unfair, it is a RAW developer not a photo manager/editor like the other packages I am looking at. Compared to Ufraw it does a good job, but I prefer and use Ufraw for the GIMP.

The biggest improvement that I saw was in digiKam. Being a Gnome Gnutter I find it difficult to admit that KDE has got it just about right with their offerings for photography. I will not switch to digiKam as I run on Gnome and just starting it up appears to take forever. This is not a fault of digiKam or even the KDE project, it is my insistence on running Gnome. It does appear to offer most of what I want from photographic software. I would probably need a few trips into the GIMP for those times when only a full editor is the answer but it looks like those trips would be very few now. I admit that the only problem I have with digiKam is that it looks like KDE. Me being belligerent? Yes, but I only use what I like. If you are a KDE fan or willing to put up with the cramped user interface then it is powerful and can do most things without the need for the GIMP.

I also looked at Darktable. This is a new piece of software to me and I was impressed. It was slow, even slower than rawtherapee. What it did give me was an interface that I could understand and use. One thing that was missing was a simple method of correcting red eye, or at least I did not find it. I noticed the red eye correction problem as I was looking at some party photographs that did exhibit a little red eye. This meant I had to throw things into LightZone/the Gimp for a tweak, and it did not justify the complexity of the Gimp. Another issue is that the user interface is for me a little confused. This is something I could learn to live with but it is not the best. I did work out that to go between lighttable and darkroom modes you had to click on the mode title! Not a normal interface decision and there was no indication that it was acting like a menu option. The big problem for me is the apparent lack of speed. If it were as quick as my favoured Geeqie it would be high up on the contenders list. The speed issues are not major, opening a picture in darkroom mode or importing from a file was the major one. It appears slower than rawtherapee

There are good points. The comparison feature is excellent, as good as I have seen. Getting it working is another example of poor design. It is easy to do but less than intuative. So much so that in the short time I was using the software I kept forgetting and now as I write this I foget what I needed to do. Documentation would go far to correcting this one. Another very small problem was compiling the software. There are packages for Ubuntu and Arch linux, instructions for gentoo (and funtoo) but Fedora and other rpm variants need to use the generic installation instructions. I am not technical, although am capable of typing ./configure, make, make install but this is a hassle.

The version I tested was 0.5 so missing documentation is forgiveable. Inconsistencies in the user interface can also be overlooked at this early stage while the developers push to understand the direction they are heading. Not having a package for fedora is understandable, I would only want to generate one package in the early stages. I can be convinced that the speed issues are minor at an early stage. Very much a work in progress this one. But I will keep my eye on it as I like it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Out with the Old in with the New - Fedora 13 Beta

Linux takes the spotlight, although photography will get a mention. Best of all there is not a lot to get crotchety about. I have been playing with the beta version of Fedora 13. It appears that the Fedora project is getting better at releases. This just like the last two appears very stable for a beta release. I remember when pre-release versions of Fedora were anything but stable. This beta version does look good, in fact the looks of the desktop is (IMHO) getting to compete with any system now. Icons are cleaner, more detailed. The colours look realistic, thanks to Gnome Color Manager. Everything feels like it is at home on this desktop. I am using the Gnome version of Fedora, I have had a look at the KDE version and that too is an improvement on the old version.

I cannot say that the installation went well, but it was all down to my impatience. The first boot after installation took forever. If you are having problems then just keep waiting! It took over 30 minutes on my machine. I was expecting problems installing it on my laptop, especially with the video driver. It was as though I wanted the new version of the nouveau driver to have problems with my video card, because it always did. Wrong! It worked perfectly, although it is not supporting 3D graphics yet. Some Nvidia cards will get 3D out of this driver but not mine. For me this is not a problem. Suspend works, this is the first release I have seen that work every time without a hiccup.

My laptop is actually a tablet PC and being able to use the tablet features is nice. I can use the pen or the touch screen. The touch screen is not great but I never use it anyway. When using the pen as my pointer everything is fine. I would just like to be able to calibrate the screen, the pointer drifts in the corners. The web camera on the laptop works fine with Cheese Webcam Booth. My finger print reader worked out of the box. This is a first for a Fedora installation on the laptop, everything working very quickly.

Photography? Well all my favourites work fine. Geeqie, UFRaw and the Gimp are all fine but are the same versions in this beta release as in Fedora 12. This is not a problem as they all do what I require. I did try LightZone and it also worked fine. This is pretty much what you would expect from any Linux distribution today. Integration with Gnome Color Manager? I found no issues. I found that the version of Gnome Color Manager integrated in Fedora 13 worked better than the version from the Gnome GIT, that I compiled myself to work on Fedora 12. In what way did it work better? It picked up devices more reliably, my compiled version always failed to see my cameras. This was not a major detraction for me but it may put a few off. Once the package was an integrated system all this worked well and it must have been down to me. Any serious photographer should try Fedora 13 just to get Gnome Color Manager!

The other new features? I have tried the new version of rpm, no problems to report. In fact package management is much better. I did test the automatic printer configuration. I plugged my printer in to see what would happen and I got an icon in my Task bar, then a window opened but it was blank. The window closed and I noticed that any part of the screen that had been refreshed lacked any text! On restarting the system I tried again and got told there was no driver for the Canon ip5200 I own, pressing search launched a second search (of Gutenprint) when it found a driver. A nice touch that we can configure printers automatically.

I have not gone out to try very much. I have used my system as normal and everything is working. That is all I need to know. My conclusion is that this Beta version is the most stable Beta that I have tried and works for me. If it did not have Gnome Color Manager I doubt if I would have rushed to install Fedora 13. There is nothing too exciting in the feature list. Gnome Color Manager changed my attitude. I am glad it did, everything is working much better. The whole system is starting to have a much more professional feel. My biggest problem is that I am reduced to a user rather than a system admin looking to fix small niggles. This means I have time to catch up on all those projects. Where do I start?

Best of all the Fedora 13 Beta lifts my photographic workflow up a notch and I can look at Windows and Mac OS and wonder why?

Friday, April 9, 2010

It is spring again

Linux, photography and spring. It should be a intoxicating mix. I went out and took a few shots on Easter weekend. I even resorted to flash the family in the house. Ask them, it is rare for me to resort to flash indoors. Easter in the UK was not fantastic weather, so I was not disappointed at having to stay inside for a few hours playing with my workflow. Are you like me? Workflow is just a useful phrase to describe the time I want to play with the computer.

So is it a shoot when I am outside? It is rare. I always intend to take the camera. But the DSLR is HUGE and gets in the way. The point and click is small and gives good shots but even this is a bulk in the pockets. I always have my iPhone but have never been convinced by the camera, in fact little on that particular phone convinces me. When I play golf a camera is inappropriate. When I play rugby is is a liability! At family gatherings the camera is a conversation killer. In the streets the movement towards ensuring our freedom means that cameras carried by humans are social outcasts, yet CCTV is something we overlook.

Yes, as a photographer you are a social outcast, whatever your computer operating system. If we are not careful we restrict our shoots to recording the mundane. Certainly my shots have altered in the last few years. In the past I took town and city architecture, I loved landscapes and I certainly recorded people at events who I did not know. I find that as I get older I make more and more excuses and my photography tends towards the family bore rather than artistic trend setter.

What has this to do with Linux? I sat down and reflected on my Easter efforts, lots of shots of family, eggs and other seasonal things. All recorded well, but without heart. What my photography needed was a well defined workflow, something people tell me is not easy on Linux. I have now mulled this over and decided. It is tosh! Of course workflow on Linux is difficult, it is on Windows and Mac OS. It is not a simple story anywhere and if it is any different than our art will suffer! Yes, there are two things wrong. First I use workflow as an excuse, a flat shoot is blamed on Linux workflow. Then I compound it by using the same workflow to produce technically good pictures but with no heart!

I am guilty of blaming Linux for my lack of artistic flair. It is of course a pathetic worker who blames his tools! There is nothing wrong with my workflow on Linux. My pictures on the other hand are poor. They are poor for two reasons. First, I do not practise enough. Second, I am obsessed with Linux being just as good as any other operating systems. There is, of course, only one cure, more practise.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I am tied to my art.

Photography on Linux is supposed to make you cantankerous, at least a little crotchety. It is at its best no different to Windows or Apple systems. At its worst it is a little frustrating, even these days. I can think of nothing I need, in terms of software, for my photography. Quite the opposite! In fact the number of available applications is getting to be a problem! Still, after my last posting I thought I better report on another find. I had found out that gphoto2 allowed me to play with tethering my camera to my Fedora laptop. I suggested that it was just a toy and one that I did not, in truth, need. I still cannot let go, my camera is attached to my laptop as I write this. Of course, the snaps are rubbish, but it keeps me off the street. I have started to write a python script to help me use my tethered camera, but this is so much effort.

I have come across another piece of software, Capa. It is, as the website tells us, "built on top of libgphoto". It is just like my python script and will suffer with the same problems I am finding with gphoto2. But it is written and ready to run, as long as you understand that there has not even been a first release version, so you can expect a few teething problems. I cannot alter any of the settings on My Nikon. This is not too much of a problem as I can do this from the command line. The application does show the current state of all the settings. I am sure this will be fixed before a real release.

It does let me review all my shots and the last one taken is my viewfinder. Not brillient but then I cannot get 'gphoto2 --capture-preview' working when using my Nikon. I know it is a gphoto2 problem.

Capa will be almost what I want. Now what do I do? Nag the development team to add the features that I want? Or do I continue with development of my Python script. This is a hard one to answer at the moment. I will let you know what I choose and I will always keep an eye on Capa, once it is at a release level I will let you know what it can do.

Have I got a problem with the current state of photography on Linux? I do not think so. For me we are now where we need to be. You can do anything that Apple and Windows users can do. There may be a few bells and whistles missing, it could be 6 months before a newbie would have the same view.