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2 Photo Managers That Tie Features Into Neat Little Bundles

By Jack M. Germain
Jul 21, 2010 5:00 AM PT

The more I delve into open source photo apps for Linux, the harder the choice becomes to use just one photo management solution. I keep finding photo managers that outdo my previous picks.

2 Photo Managers That Tie Features Into Neat Little Bundles

(click image to enlarge)

Take, for example, digiKam and Shotwell. These two apps are much like some of the best-of-class photo apps I have reviewed as Linux Picks choices in recent months. These picks include: GIMP, Album Shaper and F-Spot.

digiKam and Shotwell do many of the same organization and tweaking functions. But it is how their developers tie the features together that makes these two photo tools really good choices.

Working with these two photo apps pushes first impressions to the limit. When I first eyeballed them, I saw digiKam as being far more professionally based. But first looks can be deceiving. Shotwell's features and advantages are initially less obvious. But once I got more familiar with both of these apps, choosing one over the other got tougher.

Both digiKam and Shotwell provide a lot of useful features for professional-level shutter bugs. But the features that do this in both apps are so well-integrated that even more casual photo hobbyists will not feel intimidated in using these apps to view, manage, edit, enhance, organize, tag and share their large photograph collections.

First Impressions

digiKam uses the KDE desktop system. This is not a problem, however, if your Linux set up favors the GNOME desktop. digiKam has a detailed setup procedure. Selecting numerous options before you actually get to your photo collections gives you a hint or two about how flexible and powerful this program is.

Shotwell, a GNOME-based app, has few setup requirements before you can start using it. But like so many other photo management apps, it requires importing photos into its own database before you can manage or edit the images.

digiKam does not have this limitation. Instead, it lets you work with images where they exist on your computer system -- internal hard drive, external drive or USB drive -- without having to import them first.

digiKam has a tools menu which shows about 18 options. Plus its menu row is ample, and it has a much more useful navigation system that puts most options only one click away. By comparison Shotwell's interface seems much more basic. Still, this apparent simplicity does not mean reduced functionality.

digiKam Specifics

The main approach to organizing your photo collections with digiKam is tagging. The tags or labels you assign to an image stretch across multiple folders. Browsing these tags to find photos is fast and intuitive. You can also add comments to your images to further refine your cataloging plan.

An SQLite database stores all albums and images as meta-information. You can organize and display photos chronologically by folder, category or creation date. Also, you can use automatic sorting by name, path, date or file size.

The image editor is loaded with keyboard shortcuts and basic photo editing/management features. The editing tools offer a solid list of must-have tools for serous image work. These include support for 16-bit image color depth, RAW camera image, histogram viewer and ICC color management.

More Editing Power

digiKam has imaging tools to correct red-eye, brightness / contrast / gamma, hue / saturation / luminosity and color balance. Color auto-correction tools let you adjust settings for normalize / equalize / auto levels / stretch contrast.

Photo finessing is enhanced with tools to blur / sharpen, rotate and flip pictures. Also, you can perform ratio-cropping with proportion aids and composing tools based on Fibonacci rules.

Table Effects

digiKam has a tool that replicates what artists and photographers use in non-digital work rooms. The Light Table lets you see where touch-up is needed.

With this tool you can drag a photo onto the light table and touch up only the areas that need it. This is somewhat redundant with the image editing tool.

However, the light table lets you compare two versions of the same image in side-by-side fashion. You can make different enhancements and compare the results in real time.

Speed Demon

A new code base could be responsible for Shotwell's speed and small footprint. It is written in Vala, a new programming language.

The developers note that the app's start-up is extremely fast, even with a library of 10,000 photos. They claim that a 10,000 photo library consumes 57 MB of RAM at start-up.

Rather than navigating through menus, most of what you need is available as options under a photo in full view and via a right click. While it seems to offer fewer editing choices, Shotwell provides a lot of automatic features that limit the need for manual intervention.

Shotwell Safety

The built-in fail-safe feature sets a nice comfort zone for new users. Shotwell uses a non-destructive photo editor. Your original images remain untouched.

Instead of applying your edit changes and saving them, Shotwell stores all changes in a database and applies them on the fly as necessary.

You still have access to an undo function. But using it is less necessary this way. Plus, you can easily compare the before and after versions by pressing and holding the Shift key. The original photo displays as long as you hold the key down.

Eventful Plan

Shotwell's designers built in two ways to organize photos. The typical tagging method is fully functional. Events offer a more innovative organizational approach.

Shotwell automatically sorts images into events or chronological categories. In other words, the program groups based on the exposure date stamp stored in the photo's metadata.

You can tag photos as well to refine how you display photos when you search. But this keyword method requires your manual intervention. The events method does not.

No-Hands Editing

Shotwell does what other photo imaging programs do not offer. It makes your original photo look better without your manual intervention. Of course, you can do it yourself as well.

The Auto-Enhance feature uses an algorithm to analyze the photo's luminescence. The algorithm drops the outer points of the distribution and boosts the middle ranges to expand the contrast of the image. For example, if most of the photo is dark, the shadows are lightened to bring up detail.

To go beyond this Auto-Enhance feature, click the Enhance button. This tool analyzes the photo's colors and contrast and adjusts it. This is an easy way to bring up colors and details lost due to lighting issues.

Needs Dependent

Both digiKam and Shotwell can be your one-stop image solution. The decision will be based on how much hands-on control you want to apply.

For photo hobbyists and pros who know what they are doing, Shotwell can be a do-it-all-for-you app to manage photo collections. For photo enthusiasts of all ability levels, digiKam can be a good replacement for other photo apps that seem too run-of-the mill.

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