Open source tools enable professional photography

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"open" over an ocean

Patrick Nouhailler. Modified by CC BY-SA 2.0.

"Having an expensive camera and Photoshop doesn't make you a professional photographer—not needing them does."

I'm not sure who the original source of that quote is, but I heard it from one of my professors in college. While most focused on the "expensive camera" part of that quote, I prefer to focus on the "Photoshop" part. Historically, the topic of photography workflow on a computer always brought thoughts of older Macintosh or Apple systems. Over time, however, Windows became just as capable in most people's minds.

With the domination of Photoshop and Lightroom these days, most people scoff at the idea of a professional workflow on anything other than Windows or a Mac. The wonderful irony is that there are actually more open source options out there for us to run on our Linux systems. The software landscape on Windows and Mac is so dominated by Photoshop and Lightroom that there aren't many other alternatives on those operating systems. We know of a better way—the open source way—and this is yet another example of how open source leads to more options and innovations.

I find it sad that most people don't realize how many options there are for photography software on Linux. While most Linux users are aware of GIMP, their knowledge beyond that is sorely limited. Surprising to many is the fact that professional photography on Linux is such a serious business that there are even closed source proprietary programs that are developed and sold to run on Linux.

The ability to work with RAW files from a camera is a must for professional and amateur photographers alike. While this initially may seem like a very specific niche where the options would be limited, the open source philosophy has helped create many options. Darktable, Lightzone, Shotwell, RawTherapee, digiKam, Photivo, UFRaw, and Fotoxx are all open source options that a Linux user can choose from.

The same story plays out when we look at the other tools of the trade: image editors, image viewers, image management, etc. The open source mindset has blessed us with a multitude of options to fit every person's workflow and desires. Instead of being locked into the choices that Adobe has made for us, we not only can find a program that best fits our desires, but we can actively take part in developing a better software solution.

The options don't end with RAW editors. Open source tools are available for every other step along the process of a photography workflow. From ingestion of the photos from your camera using tools like Rapid Photo Downloader or incron, through RAW editing and onto editing with GIMP and album management with DigiKam or F-Spot, there are multiple open source applications available to choose from. Don't just pick one and stick with it; embrace the advantage that open source gives us and try all of them. Find out what features you like and think would be helpful and encourage the developers to continue the work their doing.

I will be giving a talk at SouthEast LinuxFest on Saturday, June 11, where I will be covering a lot of these tools and taking questions from attendees about photography on Linux. For those embracing the mobile workflow, I'll also be touching on what's available on Android as well. If you're in the area, stop by! It's free to attend.

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I was first introduced to Open Source Software by a friend, who gave me a machine in 94 with Slackware installed on it. From that point on i was hooked. Bounced around between the Slackware and OpenSuSe communities before finally finding Puppy Linux. I became involved in the Puppy Linux Project in 2008, and have been a member and developer in that community ever since.


Riley is an awesome guy and he's written a lot about the topic. I have spoken with him before, and I'm going to be recommending the course he made on some of these open source tools in my talk. If you haven't checked it out before I highly recommend you do so.

In reply to by Alan Rochester (not verified)

Open Source in photography doesn't just start on the desktop. CHDK is a software, which loads into Canon cameras and gives them professional features (scripting, bracketing, motion sensor, remote control, histogram, ...) and it's Open Source.

You might want to add to your list another relatively recent project, called PhotoFlow:

It can load and process RAW files pretty much like Darktable and Rawtherapee, and has a rather complete set of editing tools. The main difference with other open source editors is that it works with non-destructive adjustment layers, and has quite powerful local editing capabilities via layer opacity masks.

The editor exists as a standalone application or a GIMP plug-in, and is fully open source.

I don't suppose you've been over to to participate in the community that we're slowly building over there of Free Software photography tools and users?

I have been there, and I've for you listed in my slides as for a great source for people who want to dig deeper into the topic. My talk is going to be a general overview trying to get the word out there that there ARE excellent options available to people. As most of us in Open Source are aware, outreach is something that we struggle with. is a great resource and I hope it continues to grow.

In reply to by Pat David (not verified)

Awesome! I'm always super excited to hear about folks spreading the word! Not sure if you found this, but we've got a small repo on github of resources we've been using when presenting on free software photography (in case you want to grab anything, or even share your material after you're done)!

In reply to by JTPennington

Don't forget the excellent Hugin for spherical, panoramic and focal manipulations!

Well, I'm a linux user for 10 years now and I'm a photo amateur.
I have been using gimp for all this years, and from time to time, depending on my desktop environment, digikam or f-spot, recently digikam, rawtherapee, imagemagick ...
But from 2 years (almost) now, I'm in a photo association and "forced" to use Adobe Lighroom. And open source softwares really can't compete, just because it's so SIMPLE !
From my point of view, abudance is the real drawback. Open source developers just put everything in their tools, and at the end, they are unuseable. Just run darktable (which I consider as a really great) and compare to LR, you'll understand my statement.
And my biggest worry about Gimp is the 8 bit management. I've made a photobook with a nice sunset on the sea, in a beautiful orange gradient light which turned into awful circle lines (levels). A big deception.
Nevertheless, Gimp remains my day-to-day tool for image manipulation.

Things don't have to be "in competition". Open source photography tools can exist, and so can closed ones. If someone uses an open source application and it works well for them, then that's fine. If you have to use closed source apps that only work on closed source OS's for work, then that's OK too. The fact that there are serious users of each is proof that both are viable options.

In reply to by barbrabush (not verified)

My purpose is not competition in a commercial sense, but comparison.
I mean, it is always good to have a benchmark.

And I should mention that I really like the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

Use LR once : it's so simple to use, a great piece of design and engineering.
Start darktable, and the GUI is a mess (for development module). There's so many tools and options, at the end, you are loosing your path and you're out of focus.
The great darktable development team should be inspired by the simplicity of LR (development module).

At the opposite, I can't stand Photoshop, despite its great tools. For me, it's way to complex, too many shortcut to learn to master it. I'd rather keep my precious Gimp.

To conclude : I feel lucky to choose and use those great GPL tools, that I promote everyday ( @Pierre : not to mention hugin which I've been using since its early versions). So yes, I could wear a beard (in regard of the gnu philosophy that I've embraced years ago), but sometimes I use LR at home on wine to prepare expos that I need to share with my teammates (since only linux machines run at home)

In reply to by sethkenlon

GIMP can actually handle 10 bit colour depth. It does need the right graphics card and drivers to actually get it set up properly, which I have never done myself. I have read about it though and know that it is being done.
Also, when you get colour rings from gradients then the extra 2 bit in colour depth don't actually help that much. All it does is to take your 5 rings and turns them into 20 rings, which will still leave you with a visible artefact. What you need to do is to enable software dithering and adaptive super-sampling with gradients when you need to create high-quality gradients, because these will break up the rings into patterns and make it impossible for the human eye to identify outlines. These techniques combine pixel density with colour depth. It is in fact possible to create the finest and most indistinguishable gradients with only two colours (i.e. black and white) by only increasing the pixel density and it is being done for a long time in printing. So it is not even anything new. It is merely the combination of colour depth with pixel resolution and patterns.

That said, your comment supports the statement at the start of the article once more, ""Having an expensive camera and Photoshop doesn't make you a professional photographer—not needing them does." It really is not about having these tools. It is about knowing how these work and how to make them work for you. Because if you don't understand the techniques used in these tools then you will struggle with any tool no matter how much a tool is being praised. All tools ultimately come from people who had to work with less, but who didn't want to accept their limitations. And the reason why they created these tools is because deep down they all know that it is all just pixels and colours.

In reply to by barbrabush (not verified)

Thak you for your comment, it's really interesting. I'll try to work on the technique you've described.
Still, I'm not trying to create, just to render a picture from RAW. I think I also have to consider the compression issue during file transfer with py book printing compagny (which uses imagemagick in its software), which surely deteriorate the image quality.

In reply to by Sven (not verified)

Well written! As a user of Fotoxx (, I enjoy its ease of use, its power, and the speed with which it plus Linux deliver those on smaller, slower, less-expensive computers. Its Voodoo1 and Voodoo2 tools often provide one-tap enhancement. Other features such as its slide show and search capabilities make Fotoxx all that I need, it has good documentation, and new features arrive monthly. Importantly (like all good FOSS tools), you can share it freely with your friends and co-workers.

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