[Article Idea]: Beginners/Intro to Free Software Photography

#This post is a wiki post.
This means that anyone with trust level 1 or higher will be able to edit this post. If you have an idea or can take a minute to contribute to the contents, please do! (See the first response to this post.)

Getting Started with Free Software Photography

While many people may mistakenly assume that quality photo processing can only be achieved with commercial software, it is entirely possible to have a compelling photographic workflow using Free Software. From downloading images from your camera or media, to raw processing, to retouching, there are many avenues to getting an image ready to print or post.

Note that many of the Free Software photographic applications are very flexible and thus you can connect them together in many different ways to yield different results. This tutorial is about giving you a starting point to allow you to develop a workflow that suits your style and produces pleasing images.

In broad strokes, the steps covered in this article are:

  • Getting image from the camera to the computer
  • Viewing, sorting, grouping, and adding metadata
  • Editing RAW files (.cr2, .nef, etc.)
  • Editing images using a pixel editing program

Getting images off camera/memory

The first step for each digital work flow is to load your digital images to the computer. There are several possibilities to do that. You can connect the camera directly to an USB port or you can take the memory card out of the camera and connect this using a card reader.

Connecting the camera to USB does work in most cases, but there are combinations of camera and operating system which just fail to get the camera recognized. So connecting the memory card using a card reader, assuming the card reader is compatible to the used operating system,
is the way to go then. Also, many cameras provide only a slow USB connection; a USB3 card reader could save a lot of time here.

Side tip:
Most if not all modern cameras or mobile phones do store the date and time the image was taken inside the exif data of the image. So it’s a good idea to check the date and time settings of the image taking device before any shooting session. As this data inside the exif section of the image file could later be used for having i.e. a photo management software (see further down).

For copying the images from the card or camera there are several options.

Viewing,sorting, grouping, and adding meta data

After having copied all files from the camera, the next step before starting the development process is to view the images. Here you also can sort the images into sub folders in example for panoramas, focus stacking or HDR processing. While viewing it’s also time to tack the images. Tacking here means to flag the images with some color or a flag meaning “process”, “not sure”, “don’t process” also some rating with stars could be of use for the complete process at this point. Last but not least while viewing the images now at the monitor it’s also a good point to decide which images to keep and which just to be deleted. While it’s not strictly necessary to flag and rate your images, you will find that doing so saves you a lot of time later when trying to find the best images to choose for processing.

At this point of the process it can divide into different paths. A path using different tools for just viewing, sorting and grouping and others for adding meta data. Or a path using just one tool for this kind of things.

Tools for viewing, sorting and grouping:

  • operating system file explorers like dolphin, Windows Explorer, what else?
  • Viewers

“All-in-One” Tools :

  • darktable (Linux, Mac OSX) ?parthas Win version?
  • digiKam (Linux, Mac OSX and Windows)
  • Shotwell (Linux)
  • others?

Raw Processing

Raw is a file format containing all the information collected by your camera sensor when you press the shutter. Not all cameras are capable of saving images in Raw format. If you aren’t sure, check your camera owner’s manual. If your camera can’t save Raw image files, then skip to the Pixel Editing section of this tutorial.

Raw vs. jpeg (Why use one over the other? Keep it high level!)

When you choose to shoot in the jpeg format, you let your camera make many choices about the way your image looks, such as bit depth, contrast, sharpness, and color temperature. The camera then discards information about your image and saves the jpeg file to disk.

When you choose to shoot Raw, you camera makes no such decision. it records information, such as color temperature, date, time, and camera make & model, then saves the raw file to disk. When you get back to a computer, you can use a raw development application to to adjust the raw image without degrading the image.

Non-Destructive Editing

The Raw editing packages that are mentioned here are non-destructive editors [make sure that no packages are added here that are not non-destructive] , meaning that the original Raw file is not altered. by the editing process. The editing steps are saved in a separate file, often referred to as a “sidecar” file, which allows the editor to re-apply the edits when the Raw file is opened again. This is an important feature, since you may want to return to the same image and edit it differently at some future time. You are almost certain to want to do this as your editing proficiency grows.

Raw Processing Outputs

Once you have finished working on your image in your chosen Raw editor (see below for some popular Raw editing packages), you need to save your work in a pixel format so that it can be viewed by others or printed. Output formats typically include JPEG, PNG and TIFF.

Your workflow may not be done yet! There are edits that can be made more effectively on a pixel-oriented image such as a JPEG than on a Raw image file.



  • Works on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows
  • Batch processor/queue files to process
  • Film Emulation



  • Works on Linux, OS X, and Windows (beta?)
  • Supports masking


This probably deserves a mention but should probably point to a more substantial tutorial/explanation than we have time for here. (pixls article).

Pixel Editing

  • Clone out large things (Heal selection, resynthsizer, Heal tool, Clone tool)
  • Finer masking than can be accomplished in your RAW processor
  • Post-raw pixel editing possibly required
  • JPEG workflow



During my recent visit to the jpeg2RAW podcast I realized that we really could probably use an article that is written for newcomers as a guide/getting-started to editing their photos with Free Software. Something high-level enough that it can give completely new users a nice overview of how to proceed (and with what).

As such, I’m starting this post to get some feedback/help from everyone!

This is a first attempt at getting direct feedback and solicitation from everyone for an upcoming article on the main site. :heart:

Please feel free to contribute directly to the main post by editing the wiki directly:

If you don’t see the “edit this post” button at the bottom of the post, try looking at the top of the post instead for this:

If you want to discuss something instead, please just post a reply to the thread instead.’

My idea here is to produce a nice, succinct overview article for new users to at least understand what a process might be, including which software they should consider to do some basic image processing.

What I mean by that is possibly simple development of a raw image to something that might be visually nice overall, and then possibly going into pixel-editing for touch-ups, or going directly into pixel-editing if they don’t shoot raw.

I also think some nice doodles/graphics could help to liven up the subject and add some nice images at the same time.


My blog is a bit about these kind of things.
Feel free to have a look around.
Lots of more to come.

Yes, I know. The intention here is to consolidate the information in a nice central location if possible and specifically about writing an article for pixls.us proper. :slight_smile:

If you wanted to help flesh out some of the article above that would be awesome. :smiley: Just hit the edit this post button at the bottom and start filling things in!

Hi, good to see your enthousiasm, but sit back and try to realize what you are asking for here: some guides for beginners to use free software to do their photo stuff. Okay. But…

Are you asking for a Beginners’ Guide to GIMP? RawTherapee? dcraw? Digikam? Darktable? Photoflow? G’MIC? Etc. Etc. I wrote a little starters’ guide for RawTherapee, that’s already 6 articles for only 1 intro to 1 piece of software. So I don’t exactly see or understand what you are after…

That is what I’m looking for. From the viewpoint of a complete Free Software new user - even someone who may not be into proprietary solutions yet. They want to get into the hobby and start at least taking some snapshots. So what is there available in the Free Software world, and how does it relate to what they want to do?

It doesn’t have to be a complete Beginners Guide to ___________, but it can be a high-level look at some of the more common tools that they might use later as well. So a little bit about:

  1. Getting files onto your computer (copy/paste? RPD?)
  2. Organization?
  3. Raw or jpeg?
    • What’s the difference and why should they care?
    • If they’re using raw, RT and dt have ratings that they can use for DAM.
  4. If they use raw, talk about the bigger projects they might want to look at (darktalbe, RT).
    • Overview of some basic adjustments. Exposure, Lightness, Saturation, Contrast, Noise Reduction?
    • Point them to further resources for more in-depth tutorials as needed.
  5. Pixel Editing
    • Into GIMP for further retouching? (Why? What type of retouching might be needed and why GIMP?)
    • Spot edits, cropping, healing, etc…

@paulmatth did you watch the jpeg2RAW show at all? Some of these thoughts come out of the types of questions they were asking, which were very general about Free Software for photography.

Hello, no I didn’t watch the show, but I saw a comment from someone in the direction you are talking about, plain beginners stuff. I guess it would be a good thing when someone writes that basic stuff about how to get photos to your computer, plus all the rest. A lot of work though…

A Glossary would be helpful, (possibly with links)
a beginner reading PNG-TIFF-Raster-Vecter-DAM-Pixel pipeline etc, has to go searching for what they mean. Or might be overwhelmed and just not bother.
Just a thought.

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Luckily the work doesn’t scare me. :slight_smile: (If it did I wouldn’t have started this site in the first place).

This is a great point and one that I was thinking about also. Maybe something like a small aside in the article to cover the most common terms — unless you think a new, separate page dedicated to a glossary might be more helpful? I’d be 100% behind the creation of a page like this…

Or a link in the text to the particular wikipedia page.
Why not use the recourses that are already there?
They are also mostly in different languages, which will help to understand better the technical aspects.

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Linking to Wikipedia is always a good idea, however, sometimes those articles are a little too technical and long for beginners to understand. So having a short summary for every topic with a Wikipedia link for further reading would be a good middle ground.

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Some possible workflows will be a great thing, and also a brief description of the main features and limitations of each software. Those are things very difficult to get for someone new to open source (or free software).

Showing what can be done with free software is equally hard to get, the only place were I see photos edited with free software are free software pages. Or maybe there is a lot, but no one says what they use to process, and I’m sure most people assume LR & PS. So maybe an Art Work section with some nice pictures will be good, at least I always enjoy to see good photos.

It’s a shame that so few people know about what is available on free software, so your work is really appreciated.


This is really intended as a very broad, high-level look for newcomers (both to free software and possibly photo processing in general).

I think you might be surprised at where great photography shows up that was processed with free software… :slight_smile:

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I’m looking at the Software a bit right now along with this article. I’m wondering about the “Getting images off camera” portion. Is this a good representation of projects focused on importing images:

  • Filesystem native copy to folders
  • Rapid Photo Downloader
  • digiKam
  • Shotwell

Can anyone who may use these chime in a bit and/or expand the list?

Darktable’s import module offers a nice was of getting pictures off the card and cataloged.


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On windows I still use an old freeware (not open source) version of ImageIngester. Newer versions are commercial, but there are still old ones which are free (though you have to search a bit :slight_smile:
Edit: This should be a reply to the “Getting iamges off camera” portion from @patdavid

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Great point. I will remember to include it as part of the process of getting things imported. @David_LaCivita - doesn’t this only include the images as part of film rolls (ie: doesn’t actually move the images onto the filesystem somewhere)?

Ah, but do I want to talk about non-free(dom) software here?

Filmulator does importing and backup.

More features to come, like tagging and moving to and from backups from multiple different computers (think network share, laptop, and desktop workstation, eventually).

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Your’re right :wink: 12345-20 characters

@patdavid you can import images from your card or camera directly to the file system and darktable will automatically create a corresponding film roll.

In the preferences under the “session options” you can set the directory you want to import to and name it (ie: /home/darktable/RAW/2016-03). I update it monthly and darktable automatically inserts the rest of the date. On import, you can add something specific which gets attached to name (ie: walk-around-the-park). In my file directory I will have /home/darktable/RAW/2016-03/2016-03-10-walk-around-the-park.

I think that answers your question?

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