December 14, 2006

Top Linux photo managers side-by-side

Author: Nathan Willis

While a full-fledged image editor may be the best way to repair digital photos, most of the time users need only to make minor touch-ups; it is organizing, sorting, and finding a specific photo that eat up all the time. For that task, as is often the case with Linux, you have several options to choose from. Let's take a look at the major photo management applications, and compare them side by side.

The two big desktop environment projects each have an affiliated photo management app -- KDE has DigiKam, and GNOME has F-Spot. Both can be described as "iPhoto clones" -- mimicking the user interface of Apple's consumer-level photo app. They let you browse through your photos with a grid of thumbnail images, and can import pictures from USB digital cameras, group them into albums, add keywords and tags, and export pictures to popular photo-sharing Web sites.

We'll take a look at DigiKam and F-Spot, then examine some lesser-known alternatives, including Google's proprietary Picasa.

DigiKam

DigiKam: click to enlarge

DigiKam uses the KDE Image Plugin Interface (KIPI) for a lot of its features. KIPI is a plugin format shared by a number of KDE image applications of differing emphasis. Consequently, DigiKam has more editing features than most other photo managers, adding operations like blurring, sharpening, and inversion to the standard color- and red eye-correction. It also uses SQLite to keep track of user-added information, allowing you to search for data associated with photos.

In the negative column, DigiKam forces you to copy all of your digital photos into a separate directory in order to work with them. If you have a lot (and if you didn't, you wouldn't need a photo management app), this is a major annoyance and a waste of hard disk space. It ought to be optional. In addition, the app forces you to import your pictures into an album -- pictures cannot exist as standalone entities in your library, which restricts your organizational choices. DigiKam is supposed to support reading (not editing) of Exif tags, although it routinely fails for me, regardless of which camera I import from.

Also, a lot of people (including me) find DigiKam's interface confusing. Sideways-oriented tabs change the mode of the app, window panes appear and disappear in response to other operations, and the menu structure is disheveled, with operations spread out over nine top-level menus in the image browser and nine other top-level menus in the single-image window -- including some repeats. And it commits the cardinal sin of mislabeling some operations in an attempt to make them sound more user-friendly (like using "refocus" for a sharpness filter).

F-Spot

F-Spot: click to enlarge

GNOME's F-Spot is a Mono-based app. It has a more straightforward interface than DigiKam -- which is a plus -- but a lot of its advertised features don't actually work. The F-Spot Web site claims that it supports RAW file formats from digital SLRs, and at first glance it appears to, but in fact it only reads the thumbnail information and Exif tags, and it interprets some of the tags incorrectly.

Along those same lines, though F-Spot's picture import dialog gives you a choice between copying the imported pictures into F-Spot's directory or leaving them in place, when I turned off the "copy" option, it copied them anyway.

F-Spot has far fewer options for searching through your photos than most equivalent apps. You can filter by tag or time stamp, but not search on Exif tag content. And since it has no facility for adding text comments or ratings, there is no searching on those grounds either. I found F-Spot to be noticeably slower than DigiKam at importing, displaying, and scrolling through image collections.

Better alternatives

GQview: click to enlarge

If the photo-management landscape looks bleak so far, don't give up yet -- there are alternatives. I am a big fan of GQview, a GTK-based image viewer that offers fewer features than either DigiKam or F-Spot, but in practice works better. It supports keyword tagging, collection management, Exif metadata, and sophisticated searches, and does not force you into its own way of organizing your image library. And it is incredibly fast -- by far the fastest of the applications mentioned in this article.

About the only thing that it doesn't do is edit. On the plus side, you can open any image in an external editor of your choosing. In its preferences, GQview lets you pick as many as eight external programs you can bind to a control-key shortcut. That is more flexibility than the all-in-one apps can provide.

imgSeek: click to enlarge

If you are a power user with a large image collection, though, GQview's no-frills feature set may not be your cup of tea. You should also check out ImgSeek, which is geared toward robust metadata management. ImgSeek not only handles Exif data, but the IPTC metadata leveraged by expensive "asset management" applications as well. Both kinds of metadata are searchable and editable.

But neither of these suggestions is best for the feature-friendly, easy-to-use audience. GQview lacks editing, and ImgSeek is built around searching. If you are looking for a Linux photo management app that hits the "iPhoto sweet spot," consider Google's Picasa.

Picasa: click to enlarge

If you are dead-set on using only free software, you can skip this alternative. But in my experience, Picasa offers the best no-cost photo management experience on Linux today. It will import RAW files correctly, read Exif data correctly, and give you a variety of export options -- including ordering prints, which none of the free software apps currently does.

I've never had Picasa crash on me, and I find the user interface both pleasant and easy to work with. On the downside, well, it is a closed, proprietary application. But even if that doesn't bother you, you need to know that Picasa for Linux is not a native Linux app like Google Earth; it is a WINE-powered adaptation of the Windows program. It comes with a built-in WINE component, so you don't have to worry about setting up and configuring emulation, but you may notice sporadic Windowsisms, like the Windows-like file selector. But you can live with that.

I anticipate improvements in future DigiKam and F-Spot releases that address the shortcomings I've outlined above. That's what makes open source so great. But in the meantime, there are better free software alternatives, and Google's Picasa (though proprietary) is the best all-in-one solution for digital photo management. Try them before the holidays kick into high gear.

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