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Linux for Photographers, Part 1

by Roger N. Clark

Introduction to Linux Mint and why Linux can be a great operating system on desktops and laptops for photographers as well as for general use.

Linux for Photographers:

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Let me first start with some background for those who may read but are unfamiliar with the linux/unix world. Unix started long before PCs (MSDOS and windows) and was sold by AT&T to Novel in the 1990s. Now unix is owned by the Unix Group. Linux was written independently in part to avoid growing high licensing costs at the time (1990s?), but to the same specifications as unix, so code can be transported between all unix and linux flavors with little to no changes. Linux+Unix dominate the world in all computers except the desktop. For example, Apple macs, tablets and iphones are unix. The US phone system is unix (maybe now also linux). Almost all supercomputers are linux with a few unix. Most web and other business servers are linux and unix. Android phones are linux. Tivo is linux. Many devices with embedded computers are run by linux. Many spacecraft are controlled by linux/unix.

But on top of linux is the user interface (e.g. android is different than apple's mac, which is different than tivo). Google is all linux, as are many other businesses. Microsoft's original business plan was to migrate to unix, but they changed with the idea of locking users in with a proprietary system, and they have done quite a job at that.

Perhaps 7 or so years ago I would have said linux was not ready for the masses. Then circa 2010 linux was similar in capability to windows on the desktop. Now it has surpassed windows in terms of functionality and is moving ahead at impressive speed. And many application programs that are free open source were pretty immature a few years ago, but are now very capable and in some they surpass commercial versions. And there are hundreds of photo applications available for free--just your time to test them out.

The very fact that windows PC sales are down shows that many people are finding enough applications on tablets that they do not need windows PCs. Many things people need are on the web, so special applications are no longer needed. Linux on the desktop has most of the same resources.

The User Interface

I use Linux Mint with the Mate interface. Linux Mint is Ubuntu linux with a more traditional (MS windows like) interface, but one that makes more sense and is more functional in my opinion (remember I came to the linux desktop from windows XP, which I thought was basically OK even though it lacked some functionality I wanted.) I do not like the mac interface, especially the global menu. Why for example, when I am working on a window in the lower right corner, should I have to move the mouse 2 meters (about 6 feet) to the upper left corner of my dual 30-inch monitors just to get to a menu function? With linux all that is programmable so if you really like that, you can have it, or a more MS-windows-like interface.

Ubuntu, which really made linux on the desktop popular with the Gnome interface, looked a lot like windows. But with Ubuntu version 11 (in 2011) changed to what they called the Unity interface. Ironic as it split the user community. Many hated Unity, as it seemed a strange version of Macs with hooks and look and feel for touch tablets--kind of like windows 8 a couple of years before microsoft got there. A colleague who switched to Unity and is a Mac user, said they took the worst of the Mac user interface (UI) for Unity. Many jumped ship to the up and coming linux Mint and Mint maintained the more traditional look and feel with the Mate interface. My colleague now uses Linux Mint with Mate.

I also made the jump to Mint. Mint also offers other UIs besides MATE, including Cinnamon, Xfce and KDE. One advantage of linux is the ability to choose the user interface unlike macs and windows. The Mate interface in my opinion is the closest to windows, so would have the least learning curve for windows users moving to linux.

In my experience of teaching employees linux, is that it takes a couple of hours and they are off and productive. The learning curve to the mac interface is much greater. For those coming from an XP environment, moving to windows 7 or 8 can also be a greater learning curve than moving to linux mint with the mate interface. If one has experience with tablets, the interface there is more different than is windows to linux mate.

Linux Flexibility

The reason Linux/Unix work well on so many devices, from phones, tablets, desktops, business servers, web servers, to supercomputers is the inherent design of the operating system. That leads to impressive flexibility, as well as very good security and system stability. I am typing this on a laptop that was booted 32 days ago. I have traveled all over the US from the east to the west coast without rebooting, just put in hibernate mode (e.g. on an airplane). And as a power user, I have 6 desktops open with heavy computing and complex tasks running, ranging from scientific analyses to photo editing, and each with perhaps a dozen windows open. I could not do that with a windows machine (but could with a mac---except for the multiple desktops). Also, I can do this on linux with only 8 GBytes of RAM because the programs are very efficient and so is the virtual memory system. On my desktop, I run 8 desktops. For example, one desktop may be email and web surfing, another photo editing, a 3rd family pictures, 4th writing an article with all its graphics, a 5th a windows virtual machine, etc. Info can be cut and pasted to any desktop and any window can be moved to any desktop. I'm really surprised microsoft and apple have not copied this functionality.

I have been a unix user since 1976, and linux since sometime in the 1990s, but until the mid-2000s, only command line and not the desktop, and not for general desktop work including photo editing. Then I went dual boot with linux/windows and started seeing how good the linux UI and desktop was. For the last several years (around 2010 if I remember correctly) I pretty much use only linux for everything except photoshop, ImagesPlus, PtGui, and at work a couple of internal web sites that only work with windows explorer.

I do all my presentations, and write all my papers, with the Libreoffice suite. I do occasionally need excel as the Libreoffice spreadsheet still lacks one feature on plots that I need.

For the last three years, when I go on a photo trip, including long safari trips to the Serengeti, I only take linux laptops. I review all my images and back up all my images using linux. I have also found that linux downloads my images off of memory cards and writes results to USB disks 2 or more times faster than the same hardware on windows (using USB 3 devices). This has proved very important on intense photo trips, like an African safari when electricity is only available for short times. In fact it was a new windows 7 laptop that I had taken to the Serengeti that drove me to vow to never return to the Serengeti with a windows machine again. I likened windows 7 as a boy scout who wants to take the little old lady across the street--but never asks the little old lady if she wants to cross the street. Windows wanted to do things its way and I wanted to do something else--read my photo memory cards and back them up to usb drives with my own directory structure. Windows kept putting stuff in other locations, like downloads (I forget exactly--I erased that bad memory from my mind).

I do all file management and backup with linux for all my photos and data. When I travel, my USB disks are encrypted with the linux LUKS system. There is only about a 10% loss in I/O speed in my experience. If a disk is lost or stolen, a windows user can't even see the partition on the disk. Even funnier--I put a small (e.g. 50 GByte NTFS) partition on a 1TB USB disk, then an encrypted ext4 linux partition for the rest of the drive. The windows users sees the NTFS partition and doesn't even see the linux partition. Yet linux reads all windows and mac formatted partitions just fine.

So, in summary, I do pretty much everything I want/need to do, from email, surfing the web, file management, writing papers, presentations from those at professional scientific meetings to photo presentations as well as night sky image planning, etc with linux.

Color management

My desktop is also color managed and color management works better with the windows virtual machine and photoshop than it ever did with windows in my experience (that was another factor in my moving to linux--windows had too many device driver conflicts for consistent color).

Color management under linux is described here: Calibrating Your Monitor and Color Management.

Application Programs

I continue to be impressed with the linux desktop and the programs that are available for it. For example, someone just prepared a dvd iso image for me and put it on dropbox for me to download. I thought I would have to cut a dvd to extract the data (which is trivial under linux). But all I did was right click on the iso file and there was a pop up menu that included: "open with archive manager" and it showed all the files just like in a directory. I simply dragged and dropped them into my chosen directory. For me, things like this are simple, just works, and are intuitive enough for me to find without having to do a web search. That is my general experience with linux as a desktop computer: it just works. And it is very stable. The need to reboot is rare, even for backups or system updates, and never for a program install.

So here is what I recommend for those who want to move to linux:

Linux Mint with the Mate interface: On the download page, Select MATE interface (with multimedia support).

Most programs people need come with the install. The rest are easily installed with the Synaptic Package Manager (described below and in Part 2).

For example, use firefox, or chromium (which Google's chrome is based on) for web and thunderbird for email on windows machines. Use the same programs on linux!

Office productivity: purchase MS office for somewhere around $400 or get libreoffice for free on windows, macs and linux.

Night sky programs: Stellarium on both linux and windows (free).

Games: many are now on linux (Steam is a big proponent of linux) (I don't play any games on computers--no time.)

See a theme here? There is growing support for multiple operating systems and that support grows every year. Adobe is a hold-out.

For all those free applications, if you find them useful, consider making a donation to the developers.

Windows Programs on Linux

If you want to run photoshop, e.g. CS5, CS6, CC, then you need to run windows in a virtual machine. Get virtualbox: and install windows as a virtual machine. (But see below and install from linux.)

Once windows is installed, boot windows in the virtual machine and install the extension pack (see the virtualbox download page). This allows you access to all the linux disks. This way, you can do most things on linux, e.g. directories with images, and photoshop can see those images on the linux disks. There is plenty of online help for this.

In linux, program installation is the simplest of all operating systems. For example, to install virtualbox, simply go the system administration tab, and open the synaptic package manager. Type in virtualbox in the search box, then click on the virtualbox line that shows in the search and click apply. Done. Select thousands of other programs and install similarly easily. (For example type "photo" in the search box and see hundreds of photography applications--all free.)

Some windows programs may not need to be run in a windows virtual machine. Some can be run in wine (free open source program) or another commercial package (crossover). See: I do not believe photoshop CS5 or 6 works in wine or crossover, so you do need a windows virtual machine for that.

And here is an interesting thing. If you have legacy windows programs and the windows install disk and license number (e.g. from an old XP machine), you can install that old XP in a virtual machine, then install the legacy programs and run them forever. If XP, do this soon so the updates to the latest XP happens before that is shut off in the spring of 2014. Then the XP virtual machine is a file one can copy to your next computer you buy 5 years from now and keep running those old programs. Just don't use programs that access the internet or they might get infected. If they do, just copy the virtual machine from a backup. No need to ever reinstall again.

Photoshop Alternatives

Gimp will soon be a photoshop alternative and it is now if one does not need 16-bit support (I do). There are development versions of gimp available now with 16-bit support, but may be buggy. I intend to drop most if not all photoshop use once gimp gets 16-bit support.

Then one needs raw image conversion software. For now, I use ACR in photoshop. I'll be looking at both linux open source as well as commercial solutions for raw converters. For example, Capture One might be an alternative (I need to check if it runs under wine), or if they have a linux port.

Darktable seems to get very good reviews, does raw conversion and 16-bit/channel editing. I'll be testing this out soon. See links to reviews below.

Turn Old Computers into Linux File Servers

Finally, I turn my old desktops into linux file servers. They work as great backup machines. A simple one line command using rsync can back up a disk drive to a remote machine and only back up new and changed files. Very simple but effective management. This works for backup to USB disks too.

Linux Configuration

Here is what I do on my linux machines. I buy a good fast 2 or 3 terabyte hard drive for the system disk, and a 3 or 4 terabyte hard drive for a data disk (or more than one data disks). I do a custom partition at install time:

/boot   600 megabytes  /dev/sda1  ext4 file system
swap    128 gigabytes  /dev/sda2
/       500 gigabytes  /dev/sda3  ext4 file system
/home   1.4 terabytes  /dev/sda4  ext4 file system

Now most people will not need a 128 gigabyte swap partition, but I run some very large scientific programs, some that won't even fit in 128 GB (I run them on larger machines). The swap should be at least as large as the maximum RAM you intend to install. For example, if your computer can hold 24 GBytes of RAM, I would make the swap 48 GBytes, so you have plenty of room for the future. With most photo work, having 8 to 12 gigabytes of RAM is wonderful. and even 4 to 6 can work well (linux programs seem less bloated than windows so one can get away with less RAM). But RAM is very cheap these days.

With a smaller laptop drive, for example, 1 terabyte, I configure the partitions like this:

/boot   479 megabytes  /dev/sda1  ext4 file system
/       100 gigabytes  /dev/sda2  ext4 file system
swap     72 gigabytes  /dev/sda3
/home   828 gigabytes  /dev/sda5  ext4 file system

I do not believe the order difference in the above two systems is significant. Most people likely will not need a 72 gigabyte swap area on a laptop. This laptop, with 8 gigabytes of ram, would work well with 12 to 20 gigabytes of swap for most users.

During Linux Mint installation, select the type of installation as "other" then you will be given the option of partitioning the disk as you like.

Note for full disk encryption of a laptop drive, one can't partition like the above. Just select full disk encryption and let the install do its thing.

For data disks, I format the entire drive as one partition. Linux has no problems with partitions greater than 2 terabytes. I use the "disk utility" program to format a partition. The disk utility let's you encrypt the partition.

After system install, start synaptic package manager and check for and install the programs you need/want. Here are some that I have installed:

firefox            # web browser
thunderbird        # email
disk utility       # disk management, formatting
gparted            # partition manager
libreoffice        # word, spreadsheet, presentation office suite
stellarium         # night sky (great for nightscape photo planning)
color management   # color manager and profiling for displays
gimp               # image editor
wine               # runs windows programs in linux
virtualbox         # run other operating systems under linux

Some of the above may already be installed. If not, install with the synaptic package manager. Sometimes the latest version of an application may not be listed in the synaptic package manager. But the version that is has a high probability of installing and running on the operating system version you are running.

Some other programs I like:

gperiodic         # periodic table
units             # unit conversion
remind            # reminder service
tcsh              # command shell
Google Earth      # Google Earth
lives             # video editing

For image browsing, including exif data, I simply use the linux file browser (it is called Caja on linux Mint). I review all my files with the file browser. It launches an image browser when one double clicks on an image (launching Eye of mate) and one can quickly zoom in/out with the mouse wheel, or all the way in with "control" 1. Right click and get a properties (exif data) window and when you use the left/right arrows to move to another image, the exif data window follows. In Caja, select edit preferences and on one tab you can add things like double click goes to full screen. If you are downloading images into a directory from a card, the file browser and image viewer automatically update and have access to the new images. Thus I start reviewing my images as they get read off of a card. The file viewer even reads all the raw files I have tried to open (e.g. Canon, Nikon). So I do not find a need for custom image management software. A simple directory structure does it for me. See my digital workflow at for examples.

Lens Profile Calibration and Corrections

See darktable with lensfun for lens profile calibration with raw conversion. In fact, add your own lens with lensfun and it is free and you contribute to the community.

Other Programs

Some photo programs that look interesting but I have not tried or have minimal experience:

Darktable seems to get very good reviews, does raw conversion and 16-bit/channel editing.

Inkscape: an Adobe Illustrator alternative
Xara: an Adobe Illustrator alternative. Skencil: an Adobe Illustrator alternative, though the home page has a last date of 2010.

Note, in the reviews I am reading online, Darktable looks very promising as a photo editor, and it now works with 16-bits/channel images. I have done some initial testing and it looks very impressive as a raw converter.

Darktable review comments on linux mint forums:

Photo managers review of shotwell and gthumb:

A 2013 review of darktable: does 16-bit editing too:

Linux Tools For Serious Photographers (August 2012) reviews:

Photo editor reviews: AfterShot Pro, Gimp, Shotwell, digiKam, Darktable, Fotoxx. NOTE: this is 2010 review. Many things have improved.

If you find the information on this site useful, please support Clarkvision and make a donation (link below).

Linux for Photographers:

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First Published December 15, 2013
Last updated October 25, 2014.