I’m not a Mac fan. But…

No, really, I’m not. There are a lot of things I don’t like about Macs including, in no particular order:

  • The expensive hardware (I’m not much of a sucker for shiny things)
  • The lack of enterprise-quality management applications (I know how much hard work running a 100 seat Mac network is)
  • The Terminal.app
  • Those missing keys on the keyboard
  • The smug religious fervour that the latest Mac products and iDevices generate in fanboys and girls
  • The retirement of the XServe and XRaid in favour of the rack-mounted Mac Mini(!?)
  • I find using the Mac OS X UI much harder than Ubuntu and Windows, between which I regularly switch

Despite all that, I’ve been considering buying one. Why? Photos.

For the past few years I’ve used F-spot to help me collate and process my photographs. F-spot is now only supported by the Ubuntu community, having been replaced as the default photo management application last year. After upgrading to the latest release of Ubuntu, F-spot started exhibiting a sudden and severe memory leak which all but crashed the PC each time I tried to browse my collection. I soon found posts on Launchpad and the Ubuntu forums from people with the same or similar issues and spent a few evenings trying to narrow down the cause, dumping and repairing the sqlite database on the way. (It turned out that it was something to do with metadata in RAW files.) I eventually found that there was an updated version of F-spot in a PPA which fixed the issue.  However the extensions I use, like RAW+JPEG, no longer worked with the newer version of F-spot. There were no updates available and no useful links on the F-spot website. Also, F-spot had been getting increasingly slow to browse my collection as I added to it: I don’t think it likes having to process the larger files from my 5DMkII.

I had been without access to my photo catalog for over a week and had had enough. I looked at the alternatives.

Shotwell just isn’t sophisticated enough for my needs at the moment. It doesn’t support multiple versions of the same image and doesn’t have the bulk-processing options of the more sophisticated applications. RawTherapee has the advantage of being available in the main Ubuntu repositories, but the UI is sadly underdeveloped and clunky. It was also very slow to load the test images I imported. Darktable looks promising, although I found it totally unintuitive to use. I tried to watch the tutorial screencasts but the site was unresponsive and none of the download links worked. New users need this sort of hand-holding through the early stages, especially with complex applications like this.

I was recommended a proprietary program called Bibble and I spent a lunch hour watching the tutorial videos. Don’t rat me out to RMS but at this point I’d happily pay for a proprietary application that Just Worked. The Pro version of Bibble runs on Mac, Windows and Linux. There’s even a choice between 32 and 64-bit packages. It looked fast, flexible and designed to deal with large numbers of large photos. It’s fair to say I was a bit excited.

Having downloaded and installed the handy .deb file, I spent the evening searching for reasons why it wouldn’t run. I poured over forum posts and mailing list entries. I checked the graphics driver version and reconfigured X. I installed and removed other libraries. I reconfigured Qt. I ran a failsafe X session. Whilst searching I found lots of messages relating to crashes and bugs; whilst exporting, whilst printing, whilst saving, with plugins. It was all horribly, horribly reminiscent of my experiences with F-spot. It turned out the problem was a conflict the real-time processing used by JACK, the audio toolkit. To give the Bibble developers the credit they deserve, they replied to my tweets about the issue and even pointed me to a newer development version of Bibble which seems to have addressed the issue. I also appreciate that they support their application on Linux, unlike some other companies making photo software, and packaging it even just for Fedora and Ubuntu must be a challenge.

Underscoring all of this is the lack of a decent colour management application. I have an i1 calibration device and the software supplied with it is very simple to use. (I’ve tried it on Windows and it is the same UI on a Mac too.) A few clicks and a short pause later, one has a calibrated display. On Linux we have LProf, which supports the same calibration device but lacks any of the simplicity, usability and stability of the closed-source equivalent. Instead it has a myriad of confusing screens filled with confusing buttons and it doesn’t even support TFT panels.

Throughout all of these trials there have been a number of people on Twitter and elsewhere suggesting Macs. “Use Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop,” they tease. “Get a Mac, join the dark side.” I’m tired of it being much harder work to process my photos on Ubuntu than it is for my Mac-using friends. Spending extra time keeping my photo management application working is not time well spent. If it was my day job, it simply wouldn’t be the sensible choice to keep using Ubuntu.

Y’see, here’s the thing: I love using Ubuntu. It’s stable and fast and I most of what I want to do Just Works. Networking, wireless, 3D graphics, e-mail, web browsing, audio applications, printing and office applications are all there. I really don’t want to have to change my OS, the platform I have seen grow and develop over the last few years, for one use case. It’s really only colour management, photo management and workflow that are the issue.

I’ve used the GIMP for editing single photos for years and it continues to improve. I have sworn and sweated over audio and video applications on Linux in the past, but we finally have some open source contenders which meet my needs. I’ve mixed the Ubuntu Podcast using Ardour for the last three years, including the fancy-pants effects we used in our Christmas pantomime. I made a whole documentary using kdenlive in 2009 and video editing has only got stronger since then.

I don’t have the space for two PCs, so having a Mac for photos and an Ubuntu system for everything else isn’t an option. Dual-booting between Mac OS X for photos and Ubuntu for everything else would suck. (Any bets on whether I’d end up spending more time in Mac OS X because it does everything Ubuntu does, plus the bits it doesn’t currently do for me?)

I think both Bibble and Darktable deserve some more experimentation, but the black roll-neck shirt-wearing devil on my shoulder is hard to ignore.

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    14 Responses to I’m not a Mac fan. But…

    1. Alan Bell says:

      Colour management for me on Ubuntu *just works* as there are no insane colour profile mappings that take the colour you asked for and map it to some arcane colourspace for the gamut of your printer so you can’t mix CMYK and RGB specified colours without random missmatches happening. On Ubuntu if you start with a colour, say #dd4814, and save it as CMYK, convert to PDF, take a screenshot, import into something else, print to PDF again, take a screenshot, paste into gimp, you will still have #dd4814 as the RGB colour at the end of it. Apparently if you have an end to end Adobe workflow on a mac everything just works too, but Ubuntu just seems logical to me at the moment, calibration profiles if you want them should be in X and in CUPS and nowhere else, applications should not know they exist and then all applications will be calibrated. There was a session at UDS on colour management and there might be some progress on it, but not in Natty. Possibly Wayland will be the time to do it properly and better than the Mac.

    2. Mackenzie says:

      Did you try Digikam?

    3. Dave says:

      You haven’t tried the best Linux tool yet, install digikam.

    4. Tony says:

      Thanks Alan, but I’m not sure what the point of having X, GIMP etc. use colour profiles if you can’t generate them! Have you used LProf recently? Or do you just use the manufacturer supplied monitor profile?

    5. Roger says:

      Doesn’t support TFT? Wow.

    6. Hugo Mills says:

      Bibble: Ummm… Maybe I’m just slow, but what on ${deity}’s green Earth does a photo management application need with high-grade real-time audio? Seems like a bad case of feature creep to me. (Or, more likely, an over-zealous library stack that thinks it can and should do everything).

    7. Tony says:

      @Hugo I’m not sure either, but it wasn’t actively trying to use it – quite the opposite. If I had real-time configuration enabled, even if not actively running JACK, then Bibble refused to start. Maybe it’s some sort of conflict with the scheduler. Bibble is, of course, a statically linked binary which always introduces a special kind of fun.

    8. Graham White says:

      No mention of digicam here?

      Another (not very satisfactory) option is to run your favorite app inside vmware or virtualbox in their relative single window app modes.

    9. Tony says:

      @Graham a couple of other people have suggested Digikam and I’ll certainly look into it. I’m not keen if it needs gigabytes of KDE libraries though! The virtualbox/VMWare option is a thought, but my most recent Windows licence is Windows 98 or something stupidly old like that!

    10. Ian says:

      I spend 99% of my laptop-using time in Ubuntu, and reboot into Mac OS just for Lightroom – you’re right, the urge to just start doing everything else in Mac OS is pretty strong.

      digiKam is pretty powerful, but the workflow is so different to Lightroom’s that it annoyed me right from the start. I’d not heard of Darktable before, so I think I’ll give that a shot – thanks for mentioning it!

    11. Tony says:

      Thanks Ian. I agree with your comments about Digikam, but I am still more attracted to Bibble than Darktable!

    12. Just FYI.

      You can buy the Snow Leopard DVD for about £25-£30 on Amazon and install that into a VirtualBox VM on Ubuntu. I know it isn’t strictly legal but it seems to work satisfactorily for others…

      Whether that would actually help or not I don’t know but it’s a lot cheaper than buying a MAC.

    13. Tony says:

      Thanks for the suggestion Alan! I guess I’d still have to pay out for Adobe Lightroom and so on, but at least it would be a saving on all that expensive Mac hardware!