One of the things to do on my hopelessly long list for the holidays was to become comfortable processing RAW files from my new SONY Alpha 850 on Ubuntu Linux. Actually Kubuntu – another todo item was to migrate from Gnome to KDE. A broken power supply made my notebook useless. Despite the setback I pulled some parts from my in-laws’ basement, got myself a temporarily working desktop in a corner, and set out to tweak my workflow.
Since I bought the SONY Alpha 850 I was shooting RAW+JPEG and using the out of camera JPEGs because only SONY’s Image Data Converter with Wine worked for me on Kubuntu. I was unable to extract anything useful from the Free RAW converters I’ve tried. Initially I thought it was an sRGB vs. AdobeRGB color space thing – I shoot AdobeRGB. A quick test with the camera in sRGB-mode revealed I was wrong, although I am not 100% sure: I only tested a recent trunk from RAWstudio’s SVN; and Krita from Ubuntu 9.10 packages that uses libraw-0.7.2. Both could handle very well Canon RAWs, but not SONY RAWs.
First I tried RAWTherapee 2.4.1. It exhibited the same problem I experienced with RAWstudio, LuminanceHDR, Krita, etc. I did not spend much time trying to make it work: I just can’t befriend the GUI, even if according to many comparisons it is, as of today (technology is evolving fast), one of the best RAW converter out there. Update: while this article was still cooking, RAWTherapee 3.0 alpha 1 has just been released. Good news, it is now Free, licensed under the GPL. Quoting Gabor Horvath: “ I love playing with image processing algorithms but I’m not keen on GUI development. Recently a huge amount of work had to be invested to develop a usable GUI and I had no time left to play with new algorithms. I hope to involve some new developers who help me to maintain and enhance the GUI.”
Adobe Lightroom 3
Next, I tried to install and run Lightroom 3 with Wine. Installation was too good to be true and indeed, I ended up with a ghost. The input dialog was clunky, Ÿs@ stands for a drive and in Wine there are usually two of them, the simulated C:\ and the whole Linux file system in Z:\. It was also not playing nice with the application switcher in KDE – maybe I should have turned compositing off to give it a chance? Anyway, after blindly going through to load an image, the Develop module was a ghost of its own self: The RGB value in the histogram diagram relate to “something”, but I don’t see anything under the mouse. No Lightroom 3 in Wine, for now, and I would not want to go back to a Windows system for my RAW conversions anyway.
The recent announcement of Bibble 5 Pro was what I needed. I went to Bibble Lab’s site, got the deb file, entered my root password and installation was done. The installation experience was smooth and promising.
On the first start, Bibble asks a couple of questions about files locations. Good. I find the ~/.thumbnail folder specified in the Thumbnail Managing “Standard” completely inadequate for the needs of the professional or discerning photographers and the first thing I do with it is to prevent it from bloating user profiles with a chown root:root and a chmod 000.
The default application view looks familiar but also a little bit overwhelming. Bibble 5 Pro uses the familiar gray neutral background, like Lightroom and RAWstudio. Excellent choice. There are too many panes for my taste – I very much prefer the simplicity of RAWstudio’s layout. Bibble 5 Pro allows a lot of customization but I did not dwelve into it. In the long run I find it more efficient to learn to use the default settings than to try to customize an application. Bibble 5 has more eye candy than I personally need, like the thumbnails jumping into place when zoomed, but it is still decent enough not to become a nuisance / standing in my way when getting things done.
Getting Things Done
Shooting RAW is more resource intensive than shooting JPEG. When a photographer embarks on this road, he knows he will spend more time and money on his images. For a commercial photographers it affects the bottom line. Can we charge enough for the extra quality? Even for an amateur photographers, it is time that could be spent on other leisure. In favor of RAW processing: it gives better control over color temperature with less destructive corrections and it enables the extraction of more details such as dynamic range and image features. Squeezing that extra something from the images can be very time consuming.
Modern RAW converters understand this. The engineers who designs them pay a lot of attention to the interactive part of the process. Bibble 5 Pro is fast, responsive, real time, with a preview that gives me immediate feedback for what is going to happen later on when I launch the actual conversion process.
All conversion tools expected in a modern RAW converter are present and very fast. I can change most parameters by dragging sliders or (what is faster for me) by keying in numeric values (a wish for RAWstudio).
Bibble Labs has designed the interaction hard, making sure that all what can be automatically inferred is done so without bothering the user. And it works. Almost. Bibble 5 Pro makes good use of as much of the static data embedded in the RAW file. For example it sets up lens correction parameters (geometry, vignetting, chromatic aberration) automatically, looking them up against an internal database specific to the lens (and maybe also to the focal distance, sensor size, aperture?) – all static data that is stored in the RAW file.
It tries to use the metadata available in the RAW, but it failed to recognize properly the lens used. Bibble 5 Pro thinks my lens is an Olympus Zuiko. I know it is a Sigma. The output of exiftools says:
Lens Type : Minolta/Sony AF 16mm F2.8 Fisheye or Sigma Lens
To be fair with Bibble Labs, it is difficult to get this kind of feature right. There are so many manufacturers, cameras, and lenses out there, and not all record precise meta data consistently (based on Exiftool’s output this does not seem to be the case with my specific camera/lens combination). I did not have time to dwelve into the detail, but I would be surprised if Bibble 5 Pro would not make provisions to allow me to override the default database and save settings for my specific lenses. Geometry, vignetting and chromatic aberration are pretty much constant for the same lens, so once set up this part of the process can be safely run automatically without disturbing the user.
One cool feature is that the lens correction parameters match those in the Libpano model, as they are also used with the Lensfun plugin in RAWstudio. So I can calibrate my lenses once with Hugin and get nearly perfect undistorted results automatically.
I usually run my batch processes overnight, when I don’t need the computer for other things. However, I was curious how it works. And it works as expected. The only thing that makes me notice that the batch has started is the OSD-style warning. I can keep working with Bibble 5 Pro or doing other things and the computer is fully responsive.
The user can define many batch output presets.
Proprietary vs. Open Source
While I have a preference for Open Source RAW converters like RAWstudio, I have an even stronger preference for tools that work for me. At this time I am not able to get the right colors out of my pictures with the Open Source converters that I have tried. Although Bibble 5 Pro is proprietary, it is the “cooperative” type of proprietary software: the license key is easily transferable across platforms, so it does not lock me in on a platform. Work can be saved as XMP sidecar, like Adobe Lightroom. These readable, plain text XML files make sure that in the future I can still get back the settings I’ve used for the conversion and feed them into another RAW converter (assuming it has similar functionality). Last but not least, BibbleLab has a predictable and sensible upgrade policy, protecting a user’s investment.
I have not had time to thoroughly test the quality of the conversion – the trial license expired before. In the coming months I have other priorities and photography will be on a back burner for a while. I can continue to shoot RAW+JPEG and use the out of camera JPEGs which yield amazing results. In the meantime, with the open sourcing of RawTherapee, there is a chance that Bibble 5 Pro will get some serious competition. My dream would be RAWstudio’s user interface (improved – the chromatic aberration sliders I tried from the repository over the holidays were too slow to be useful; and I miss numeric input) with RawTherapee’s functionality.
Interesting times ahead!