Moving Toward an Open Source Image Editing Workflow

This article is reflective of a work in progress, and it's a journey I am really just beginning to undertake. If you have concerns about where Microsoft is heading, or just want to expand your knowledge of alternatives for editing your photos, please read on! (Get yourself a snack - this is kind of a long post.)

Some Background Information

Aside from my photographic pursuits, I've been a longtime computer geek. This includes dabbling in the various open source Linux operating systems over the past couple of decades. For those unfamiliar with Linux, you almost certainly have interacted with it at some level if you use the Internet (much of which runs on Linux servers), or if you have used any Android devices (which is derived from Linux).

The whole topic of Linux and open source software is huge - much bigger than I have time to detail here. For more background on the many flavors of Linux, as well as the philosophy behind it, you can start by searching Google. In a nutshell, open source software (or OSS, of which Linux is a part) is freely available to anyone to use or modify for any purpose. While there are legitimate commercial uses of OSS, the license under which it is released prevents any business from seizing control of it as their exclusive property.

The practical outworking of this philosophy is that a huge amount of software of varying quality and usefulness is freely available to anyone inclined to download it: from operating systems to games to office suites to web browsers, just about any program you might buy commercially has an OSS counterpart that is often as useful, or occasionally even better than commercial software.

While some of this free software isn't worth talking about, there are a number of mature and respected programs out there. For example, I use the free LibreOffice suite, which reads and writes a variety of file formats. For my purposes, I have no need of Microsoft Office. I can easily open and edit Word and Excel files, as well as files from other popular suites.

Why I'm Preparing to Leave Microsoft Behind

I've used almost every version of Windows since 3.1 (and at least two releases of MS-DOS before that). Microsoft has had their share of duds (Windows Me and Vista being two radiant examples of failure), but for the most part each new version has improved performance and added useful features. While I've taken exception to certain design changes, there are number of third party programs and published tweaks that have allowed users to restore the look or functionality they prefer. Most of these changes were cosmetic in nature. I strongly disliked the "Fisher-Price" interface that was the default in Windows XP, for example, but with a few clicks I could roll XP back to the more austere, "classic" look I prefer.

Windows 10 is something altogether different. It's a game changer. Yes, there are cosmetic details that I dislike, but those annoyances are easily addressed by third-party add-ons, such as the popular Classic Shell. The biggest changes in Windows 10, however, aren't cosmetic. For the first time, Microsoft has migrated to a new business model of Windows as a service. Windows has arguably become an ad-delivery platform and data-gathering tool masquerading as an operating system.

That might sound like an alarmist claim, but those "free" upgrades Microsoft pushed on their user base were not so much for your benefit as theirs. As with "free" social media accounts, the computer user is now the product. Beginning with Windows 10, rolling updates are now mandatory (at least for standalone and home users). You have no control over which updates are applied, whether security or feature updates. While Microsoft has tried to assuage their critics by letting you delay updates for a period of time, there is no option to refuse an update indefinitely. This new policy is a bigger deal than might be evident.

Practically speaking, forced updates mean that if you come to rely on a particular feature in the current iteration of Windows 10 for doing your work, there's no guarantee that Microsoft may not remove and replace it with a different feature in an update. Even more critically for many users, if an update breaks some important piece of software on your PC (as has happened innumerable times in the past), you have no way to roll back that update once it's applied. In short, you have lost control of your computer as a user.

The other major issue I have with Windows 10 is the fact that Microsoft reserves the right to gather telemetry data on what software your computer is running, what kinds of data you have on your drives, and a host of other details about how or when you use your PC. Under pressure, they have given back a small measure of control, so that you can select a minimal amount of phoning home (Basic), but there is no built-in option to completely disable the telemetry feature. There are third-party options which attempt to block this traffic, so if you're absolutely stuck with Windows 10 you may have some remedy against data slurping. However, it's possible that such tools may create new problems for you, so in the end you're only applying a band-aid. It's possible future, mandatory Windows 10 updates will target those band-aids for removal (without your approval or notification).

To be clear, I'm not saying that Windows 10 per se is a bad operating system. To the contrary, it's polished and powerful. I have installed and played around with it; I keep a copy installed as a virtual machine in VirtualBox. It is certainly fast, it has some potentially useful features, and Microsoft claims (as always) that it is their most secure version of Windows to date. My issue is how Microsoft is administering the other stuff mentioned above.

I own several computers, and for now they will remain on Windows 7 and Linux Mint. When I bought my new Acer Aspire laptop last year, it didn't take long for me to dump Windows 10, and "upgrade" to a Windows 7 / Linux Mint dual-boot installation. Microsoft's extended support for Windows 7 ends on January 14, 2020, which means users have nearly 3 years from now to decide about which way to go. This timetable is where this blog post comes into play. 

There are basically three choices for photographers who need a conventional computer to edit photos: Windows, Mac, or other. By far, the most popular other option is Linux, although there's also FreeBSD and other lesser known alternatives. For those who don't need a full-fledged computer, there are perfectly capable mobile apps like Snapseed. For seriously detailed editing, though, most people still use a desktop or laptop computer.

Once Windows 7 is finally taken off life support, it will only be a matter of time before Adobe ceases developing software for a dead OS. Furthermore, since Photoshop is now only available via an online subscription model, your computer must go online at least periodically to verify your Adobe subscription is active. On top of all that, now Adobe is in bed with Microsoft to "share" customer data, so there are compelling reasons to leave both companies behind.

Without ongoing security updates, you'd be taking a huge security risk merely by connecting your PC to the Internet. As for Apple, I won't go into that here, but suffice it to say I'm not a big fan. So that leaves me with one viable operating system choice as 2020 approaches: Linux.

Taking the Penguin Plunge

I am an avid fan of Linux. In particular, I am especially fond of Linux Mint. It's a polished, snappy and secure operating system that is a joy to use. There are a number of key advantages to Linux that distinguish it from the big, commercial software companies: It's highly customizable, tends to be more secure than Windows, you are in control of which updates get installed and when (if ever), you aren't subject to shady license agreements that are designed to limit your use of the software, and there are vast repositories of available software available at the click of a button.

So why doesn't everyone move to Linux? For starters, most people have never even heard of it. Unlike commercial companies that heavily promote their products, Linux is driven by the IT community, and doesn't enjoy a lot of advertising. Among those who have heard of Linux, it has a somewhat deserved reputation for being difficult to use. I say "somewhat" because Linux has evolved from very geeky beginnings to being just as easy to use as Windows or Mac. Is it tricky to install? No more so than Windows or Mac OS X, but the average user doesn't know how to install those operating systems, either. You can buy computers with Linux pre-installed, from multiple vendors, so difficulty of installation is really a moot point.

In 2017, we are well past the technical hurdles that made Linux too complicated for the average user 20 years ago. The main obstacle preventing widespread adoption today is the availability of specialized software to run on it. Popular Linux distributions like Ubuntu and Mint come with a boatload of useful programs for performing typical computer tasks. All the popular web browsers are available on Linux, as are games, and LibreOffice. There's even a version of Dropbox available for the Linux desktop, so you can easily share files just as you would in Windows. You can give Grandma a PC with Linux installed, and she can fire up Chrome to watch cat videos and see photos of her grandchildren on Friendface as easily as she would on any other computer.

There's even a useful program called WINE which allows you to run limited Windows programs under Linux, and a commercial version called Crossover is specifically designed to let you run Microsoft Office, Quicken and a number of commercial games under Linux.  For more specialized applications such as Adobe's photo editing software, you may be able to get older versions running somewhat, but you're still likely to run into glitches. Programs in the Adobe CC stable are just too complex and resource-hungry to get working reliably under WINE.

And that's the biggest issue for photographers who want to move to Linux. Of course, you can always install Windows in a virtual machine and try to run Photoshop and Lightroom from inside that sandboxed environment. But that's a clumsy workaround, and you're likely to find that your software doesn't run optimally inside a virtual environment with limited system resources (nor will Adobe support it if you do).

Photo Editing in Linux

So what are your options? As it turns out, there are many options available - many of them quite powerful and capable. That's the good news. The bad news is that none of them are an exact replacement for Adobe's flagship products. If Adobe would port their software to Linux, I would gladly pay a premium for it. I'm not looking for ways to be a cheapskate. My objective is to maintain control over my data and my privacy, which are worth more to me than "free" Windows 10.

Open source software is largely developed by individuals or small teams, with limited resources. For many developers, these programs are a labor of love done in their spare time while they hold down "real" jobs elsewhere. There's also the fact that OSS has traditionally been developed with a view towards performing a particular function rather than trying to be a Swiss army knife that does it all.

Perhaps the best known open source image editing program out there is Gimp. It's been around for many years, and has even been ported to Windows and Mac. A lot of photographers will sneer at the idea of using Gimp for serious work. but it's still a solid program that can do most things one would do in Photoshop. It lacks certain features that I really like in Photoshop, such as content-aware fill. On the positive side, it has some features that may work better than their equivalent in Photoshop. One area that I've consistently seen Gimp outshine the competition is where is comes to Auto Levels and Auto White Balance. In my experience, 9 times out of 10, the auto settings come closer to the right values than Photoshop or Lightroom deliver.

I'd be lying if I claimed that Gimp is a drop-in, feature-for-feature Photoshop replacement. It doesn't claim to be. But even though certain processes may require a bit more work on your part, you can nearly always achieve the same or similar results seen using Adobe products. Menus and keyboard shortcuts will initially be unfamiliar, but you can usually figure out the steps required to replicate a Photoshop tutorial without much difficulty. There are also plenty of books, online tutorials and videos to guide you in achieving pretty much any desired result.

A major shortcoming (not, I'm sure, in the view of its developers) of Gimp is that it doesn't natively handle RAW files. If you shoot only JPG, then you'll have nothing to worry about. Otherwise, you'll need a RAW editor as well as a photo editor such as Gimp. Fortunately, there are some powerful tools available. One popular program that's available for Windows, Mac and Linux is RawTherapee. I've only poked around the program a little bit, so I can't tell you much about it at this point. But it is worth looking into as an option.

Another program that will feel somewhat familiar to Lightroom users is Darktable. I've been working my way through features of the program, and have been impressed at its depth and functionality. Like Lightroom, Darktable is a non-destructive editor. Nothing you do inside the program will alter your original files, so you can experiment to your heart's content without fear of ruining an image via post-processing. Once you're happy with your edits, you can export the image as a new file (several formats, including JPG, are provided), and then bring that exported file into the image editor of your choice.

I'm still learning the ins and outs of Darktable, but I'm pretty sure this is the RAW editor I'll be using in the future. There are, of course, many other worthy programs you can use for processing your images under Linux. I was recently directed to this helpful website, which lists quite a few of them, including some I've never tried. There are a few commercial Linux image editing programs (not open source) that you may want to look into, as well. One of the best known of these is Aftershot Pro, sold by Corel. I've looked at the trial version, and it seems to have some nice features. The last time I checked, the list of supported camera models seemed rather short, but it will handle RAW files from quite a few different makes.

So this is where I'm headed, and plan to commit my photographic future within the next 2-3 years. For the time being, I'll continue to use PS & LR in parallel with Darktable and Gimp. If you're considering a move to Darktable, now would be a good time to configure Lightroom to use sidecar files. That way at least some of your past edits will be retained when you import those images into Darktable.

Feel free to add any comments or questions about open source image editing!