How to turn a netbook into a photographer's best friend.

linux Apr 12, 2013

As we plan for our big vacation this year, I look back on previous trips and tried to calmly, methodically and (hopefully) dispassionately figure out what I did to safeguard my images and what I did wrong. I have used a variety of devices over the years to safeguard my images, but none of them were a good fit for me.

I have used laptops, but they can be big and heavy (I would like to get a MacBook Pro Retina 13.3″ TBH, but I don’t have the funds right now), especially if you are going to be doing a lot of walking (like nature hikes or pounding the tradeshow beat). Ultrabooks are much lighter, but they cost as much as a Mac Book Pro, so why get a wannabe when you can get the real thing? Like the MBP, Ultrabooks are out of my budget.

iPads and other tablet computers are certainly light enough and have features that I need (I am sitting in a bookstore writing this article on my iPad Mini using a Bluetooth keyboard), but their non-standard way of accessing hardware makes it a bit cumbersome.

I’ve also used “image tanks” – portable hard drives with card readers attached that come with some software to ingest and, on some of the more expensive models, display your images for review. These devices can be pretty pricey and are limited to what RAW files they will display. If you don’t own a CaNikon, chances are slim you’ll see more than the embedded JPEG from the RAW file. (Assuming you don’t shoot RAW+JPEG, but that will cut down on the number shots you can take, or JPEG which will limit your ability to post-process the image).

Ultimately, what I needed was a small computer with an iPad sized screen, built-in card reader, USB ports, WiFi, and a reasonably sized hard drive. I found my answer sitting on my shelf:

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A Netbook.

Netbooks are small laptops that were all the rage before iPad rose from the sea and crushed them. The few you can find today are being sold at fire sale prices. Netbooks were notoriously underpowered, but only if you were running Windows. There was the trick. Instead of running some species of Windows (mine came with Windows 7 Home), I replaced my Redmondian OS with a flavor of Linux. Specifically, Linux Mint 14.

Linux Mint is a fork of Ubuntu Linux (which is derived from Debian) which comes with a GUI called “Cinnamon” pre-loaded. Cinnamon is very lightweight and modern looking and fits well on the netbook’s smallish screen. Windows 8, in contrast, cannot run Metro UI on a netbook because the resolution is too low. Ubuntu Linux uses the Unity UI which is more touch oriented and needs a bit more screen real-estate to make it not feel cramped.


Giving your netbook minty fresh breath (Installing Linux Mint)

Netbooks do not come with optical discs. You can connect a USB powered external disc and install that way, but it’s something else to buy. Instead, I used a 4GB USB drive (I have scads of these laying about from trade shows) and created a bootable disc image on the drive. Linux Mint 14 comes on a DVD sized ISO file so a 4GB USB drive is the smallest size you can use. I purchased this one online. It is by Verbatim and has the virtue of being physically small and thus hard to break.

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In order to install from a USB drive, you have to properly install the boot image onto the drive. The Ubuntu linux website has some excellent documentation covering this for every platform imaginable. You can read about it here. Insert the USB stick into an open port and boot the netbook (you may have to enter the BIOS by pressing F2 during POST to enable booting from the USB stick). Follow the instructions on screen and install the OS (be sure to use the entire drive dedicated to Linux). Once Linux Mint is installed, connect to the Internet and make sure you run the software updater. This is very important as it will upgrade the OS and all apps to the latest versions.
Once you have the OS installed and configured, you will need to add three applications:
  1. Rapid Photo Downloader
  2. Digikam
  3. Filezilla

You could use Software Manager to install the apps but it is faster to use the command line. To install the applications, open a Terminal window and type the following commands:

sudo apt-get install rapid-photo-downloader
sudo apt-get install digikam
sudo apt-get install filezilla

After the first command, you will be asked for the superuser password. Simply enter your password and you will be granted temporary superuser access. There will be a lot of gibberish flying up the screen between each command. The apt-get tool downloads all of the components needed to install and run the requested app. You will not be asked the password for the second and third commands.

Once you have the software installed, you will need to setup the USB hard drive. This means reformatting the drive. Linux can read, but not write to NTFS. There are some tools you can set up to allow you to do this, but we want to use the drive as a backup to the laptop drive. The easiest way to do this is to format the drive to EXT3 or EXT4 filesystem. You can read a complete set of instructions here. One thing I did find is that in order to make this work, you have to grant yourself security privileges on the external drive. From the command line type:

sudo chown yourid:yourid /dev/diskn (where n is the the disk number of the external drive)
sudo chmod 755 /dev/diskn
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Once you complete these commands, you should be able to create files and folders on the new drive. At this point, launch Rapid Photo Downloader and configure it to import photos when a card is inserted into the built-in card reader and make sure that you enable the “backup at ingestion” function and configure it to point to the external drive.

You will need to configure Filezilla to access your FTP server. Test to make sure that you can upload files there. Once you import the files, logon to your FTP server using Filezilla and upload your image folders to it.