Your editor routinely does a fair amount of photo editing, typically
preparing conference pictures for articles or pictures of children for
grandparents. In recent years, xv has become less of a tool of choice; it
did a number of things right that others still haven't figured out, but
it's old, dead, not really free, and unmaintained. Much of this work is
now done with gthumb instead. Unfortunately, gthumb has been broken (as in
"crashes at start") in Rawhide for quite some time; leaving your editor to
look for alternatives. In this context, the relatively new
application came to your
editor's attention. Shotwell is said to be replacing F-Spot as the default
photo manager in the Ubuntu 10.10 release, so it seems worth a look.
First, though, a grumpy note on the gthumb problem. The bugzilla
entry indicates that this crash is the result of being unable to
display 3D effects. Now, as far as your editor knows, gthumb has not yet
acquired the ability to work with those 3D cameras which are all the rage.
The 3D requirement, instead, comes from a desire to show fancy effects in
the "slide show" mode. Bling is nice, but if it kills the ability to use
the tool for its very two-dimensional intended task, one needs to question
the priorities involved.
Unlike gthumb, Shotwell 0.5.2 is entirely happy to run without access to 3D
effects. Also unlike gthumb, Shotwell will not just operate on a directory
full of images; one must, instead, "import" images into the application.
Importing can be done directly from a camera or from a directory.
Obnoxiously, the file browser always starts in the user's home directory
regardless of where the application was started - and regardless of where
the user imported a directory from moments earlier. The importer is not
currently able to deal with images in raw formats.
After being imported, photos are organized into "events," which are just
the day in which they were taken. The default view is organized around
these events, so the basic mode of interaction is one of a reverse-sorted
timeline of photos. Each event has one "key photo" associated with it
which is shown in the event-level views.
Of course, real events often span more than one day; Shotwell provides the
ability to merge the day-based events into larger groups. There does not
appear to be any way to split an event apart, though. If one photographs a
wedding in the morning, a business meeting after lunch, and a
vuvuzela-inspired bar brawl in the evening, it's all forever a single
event as far as Shotwell is concerned.
Naturally enough, there's support for attaching tags to photos. It's easy
enough to quickly add tags to groups of photographs; they can only be
removed from a single photo at a time, though. There is no hierarchy to
tags, so the list will get long if a lot of tags are used. Tags, like
events, are displayed in the left column and are easily selectable.
Shotwell has some simple image editing options, including rotation and
cropping. There is a red-eye removal feature as well. The use of it is
somewhat awkward; it puts a small circle on the image which the user must
position over the eye and size accordingly. It does work, though, and is
arguably preferable to the gthumb equivalent, which is sometimes better
described as a "red face removal" feature. Shotwell has a small dialog for
adjusting parameters like exposure and saturation; there is also an
"enhance" button which performs some behind-the-scenes magic, not always to
The red-eye removal feature exposes one strange gap in Shotwell's feature
set: there is no way to zoom in on an image. It's always "fit to window,"
regardless of what the user might want. This makes the placement of the
red-eye tool's circle problematic on anything but a close-up photo.
Users of other image editing tools will likely be looking for a "save as"
option after making some changes, but Shotwell has no such thing. Instead,
all edits are squirreled away in some hidden database. Shotwell does not
change the image itself; it maintains an edit list which is applied on the
fly when the image is displayed. So, once some edits are made, the
original photo is no longer visible in Shotwell unless the user has thought
to create a duplicate prior to making changes. One can always undo changes
to get back to the original once one remembers that changes have
been made. There is no indication in the interface, though, that any
edits have been made. One wonders if the Shotwell developers are
aware of the fact that they are committing themselves to the exact behavior
of all their editing primitives forever; it would be most disturbing to see
pictures change in unpredictable ways after a software upgrade.
One can save out an edited version of an image using the "export"
feature. Exporting is also the only time when it is possible to change the
resolution of a photograph. It is not possible to change the format an
image is stored in. There are also features to "publish" a photo to
various proprietary web services; your editor did not test any of those.
For users who simply want a way to collect and organize their photographs,
Shotwell may well be developing into a reasonable alternative. For grumpy
editors, though, this application seems like the wrong approach. A
directory full of photographs is exactly that; there should be no need to
"import" it into some application's black box to work with the contents.
Any non-trivial photographic workflow involves a number of tools, including
raw editors, the Gimp, hugin, etc. Once an image disappears into
Shotwell's alternative universe, it becomes unavailable for use with
anything else. In other words: in your editor's view, this practice of
turning a directory
of image files into another, hidden directory of image files breaks the
concept of having a box full of useful tools and makes Shotwell unsuitable
for real use.
One also must wonder what happens, years from now, when
users may want to switch to a newer, shinier application which can cope
with the 3D photos they will be taking at that time. How does one transfer
thousands of pictures - many with edits hidden in places known only to
Shotwell - into that new application? Running "export" on them, one at a
time, seems like an unappealing option. Shotwell is free software (it is
LGPLv2.1-licensed), so somebody can certainly write a "set my photos free"
tool for it. But, to your editor, the need for such a tool just seems
There is much to be said for innovation in this space; Linux has some nice
photo management and editing software, but it can certainly get better.
But one would hope that this innovation would happen in a way that does not
break the toolbox concept in a domain where toolboxes are highly
appropriate. Shotwell is a young utility; perhaps it will evolve and learn
to play better with others and to avoid locking its users in. Until that
time, it will doubtless be well received by certain classes of users, but
it's certainly not for everybody.
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