At the moment I'm involved on a film project where my jobs gets to include still photography, design of publicity material, rotoscoping and digital effects, all cool visual stuff which I am lucky to know how to do. My producer however, has levelled us an interesting challenge: no pirated software allowed. As I'm not in a position to be buying any expensive commercial software right now, I saw this challenge as a hidden opportunity to explore an area I've been interested in for some time: the world of open-source design software.
I'm looking forward to comparing the usability of this software in a professional capacity to standard commercial software that I know well like--for example--Photoshop CS4, Adobe Premiere and Lightroom.
This week my challenge was editing the first batch of stills from the first shoot date. I used f-spot as a replacement for Lightroom to batch sort and tag the best photos, and the GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) to edit individual photos. I'm working in Arch Linux in the KDE4 desktop environment which I *love* compared to Windows, so I'm happy I don't have to boot into Microsoftland just to use high-quality design programs. Just the ability to be in a good desktop environment helps the usability of these programs. Unlike Adobe, which tries to take over the whole desktop and edge Microsoft out with different looks, different icon types and layouts that only really work when full-screened, I've noticed that the programs I've used so far in Linux tend to streamline well with KDE. It's nice to be able to switch to a text editor, a file manager, even a browser without feeling like you're going to far away from your workspace.
I get better speed when booting to Linux so already there's a plus for any open-source programs (although many of these can be run on Windows as well).
F-spot seemed to have good loading times and it was easy to use. Visually it was great. Not quite as pretty as Lightroom but minimal and clean which was much appreciated. I liked the rating system but I found the tags a little useless since I couldn't figure out how to search or filter using them. It seems like there could be room for more shortcut keys, but I am hardly one to complain about this since I almost never learn shortcuts anyway and will firmly rant about the efficiency of using a mouse and knowing where things are in the menus if anybody calls me on this. I didn't delve too deeply into exposure corrections or other editing using f-spot yet, nor do I know how it handles RAWs since I was working with JPGs. I did, however, find out how to view histograms, which is handy.
F-spot created an only slightly confusing file tree for its edits. I disapprove of any photo cataloguing system that doesn't let the user have total control over the way it creates file trees for its output, but with that said, it could have been much worse. All the photos were there and in three sizes (small, medium and large) which was a nice surprise!
A side note is that I found it easier to keep track of file locations on the disk with f-spot than I did with Google's Picasa, which is my surrogate Lightroom option for Windows right now. Generally I'm liking f-spot better than Picasa all around so far.
I had some bad experiences with the GIMP in the past and warned a few people against it. But I would need a good Photoshop alternative if I was to produce and good publicity stills on this project, so I decided to give it another shot. This time, with a much newer version--GIMP 2.6, I was pleasantly surprised with the load time, and a great deal of interface tweaks that make the whole thing more usable and flowing. The two big problems I had: tricky interface and speed problems, seem to have been addressed in newer version and I'm happy to say that I have no complaints with new GIMP as of yet.
To fix its interface issues it seems like GIMP has made itself more like Photoshop, which I think is a good intermediate step. Catching up to Photoshop is something the GIMP needs to do before it can beat it. Now that it has a smoother interface, GIMP can work on distancing itself from Adobe and innovating in new ways. I think the earlier versions tried to jump the gun and be different from Adobe before they realized that some of that stuff Adobe was doing was just, well, good design.
I thought, though this could be my imagination, that GIMP handled digital noise and grain BETTER than Photoshop, which would be epic if it were true.
So far, open-source design software = win.