The Grand Experiment

darktable Sep 18, 2017

I have been a photographer for about 42 years now. I have been an I.T. professional for 32 years as well. I started photography in high school and learned to shoot and develop black and white film (Kodak Tri-X Pan was our go-to film stock) and make our own prints.

When the digital revolution came to photography, I was already well versed in the ways of computers and embraced it happily. Once I went digital, I never looked back. One of the advantages of digital cameras is that you can look at your work in the field. All it takes is a laptop. Depending on how big your files are and whether or not you shoot RAW (as I do) the amount of horsepower you need to have packed in the laptop varies.

To that end, I bought myself one of the most badass laptops on the market today: the Razer Blade.
Razer Blade
This laptop has an impressive set of specifications and readily competes with most iMacs. It also cost about $1800 USD, or about 2/3 the cost of a top end MacBook Pro. This sleek aluminum beast can handle pretty much anything I can throw at it, but there was a problem. I can’t afford two of them.

Two? Why two of them?

I am the father of two very wonderful children. My eldest is attending University and needed a laptop for her Journalism major. She chose a MacBook Pro which I happily provided. My son is starting his Junior year in high school and will soon need a laptop of his own and I see him taking the Blade with him.

So I hatched a plan to try and come up with a laptop configuration that will meet my needs as a photographer and not break the bank. Thus, the Grand Experiment was born.

Realistic Expectations

First, I thought about the kind of photography I was doing and what I needed the laptop for. I am not doing any tethered shooting and I really need it more for when I am traveling. While traveling, I need to backup my photos, view them, maybe some light editing and a bit of blogging.

Second, I decided what kind of budget I could afford for this project. From there, I could come up with hardware and software that would meet my needs. Based on the part above, a monster system like the Razer was out of the question. Among other things, I wanted the display to be between 14-15.6″ and at least 1080p. A 7th-generation (Kaby Lake) i5 processor at a minimum with 8 GB of RAM and a 1 TB HDD. I wasn’t planning to run Windows on it so this amount of hardware should be more than enough.

Wait! What?

Yep, Windows 10 (despite the fact that it will probably be preloaded on whatever laptop I buy) will not be the operating system of choice on this device. I was bound and determined to setup a Linux-based photographic workflow.

My search uncovered the following laptop on sale at the local warehouse club for a mere $499 USD:
Lenovo IdeaPad4
This little gem may not be milled from a solid block of Unobtanium, but it checked off all of my boxes and even includes a Gigabit Ethernet port. If I had to complain about something, the hard drive included with the laptop was dog slow, but I may have been spoiled by the Razer’s NVMe SSD drive. No matter, I ordered a 2.5″ 1TB 3D NAND SSD drive from Amazon and, after watching several YouTube videos regarding the replacement of the drive, I was ready with screwdriver and spudger to replace the slow drive with something a bit more modern.

[EDIT]: After I installed a color calibrator, I discovered that the lower-end specs of this laptop extend also to the display which does not show the same color gamut of my desktop system. In these cases, a color-calibrated workflow is essential if you want to see consistent results across all your systems.

Not Your Grandfather’s Linux

The Linux Desktop has made great strides in the last few years with distributions (or distros if you want to talk nerdy to me) offering multiple desktop environments. The Budgie Desktop is my personal favorite, but for the sake of stability, I settled on Gnome 3.

If you are new to Linux, I recommend you start with Linux Mint, an Ubuntu based distro thatis very stable and easy to use for folks who have only known Windows their entire lives. In order to maintain my alpha-geek status, I elected to install Antergos Linux, an Arch-based distro that is more bleeding-edge than Linux Mint (and a lot easier to screw up).

Getting the applications

Long before Apple or Google ever launched their App Stores, the Open Software community had their Package Distribution Systems. Some distros, like Gentoo, distribute application as source code and compile them on the target machine. This has the advantage of installing an application that has been custom tuned to the machine you are installing it on. The drawback is that large applications with lots of dependencies take forever to install. The more popular distros use binary package distribution where pre-compiled versions of the software are installed instead of compiling from scratch every time. This has the benefit of speed. Arch based distributions use a hybrid approach with officially distributed software coming in binary form and user-supported applications coming as mixed binary and locally compiled code.

This is a case where diversity has led to chaos. The are so many distributions and so many package managers that software authors cannot target all of Linux. This is changing. Canonical, creators of Ubuntu Linux, came up with a rather elegant solution: a universal package management system called snapd. Snapd allows an application to be installed on any linux distribution. All that needs to be done is implement a snapd client on the distro and you are ready to go. To install a package via snapd, all you have to do is type:

sudo snap install

That’s not all! There is a competing format called AppImage, which bundles all of the dependencies with the app. Sure, this bloats it up a little, but this is the 21st Century and we have more bandwidth and local disk storage to accommodate things like this. Deploying an AppImage is very easy:

  1. Download the AppImage
  2. Open the File Manager and navigate to the folder containing the AppImage.
  3. Right-click the downloaded AppImage and set the execute bit under the Permissions tab.
  4. Open a Terminal.
  5. Type sudo mkdir /opt/AppImageName
  6. Type cd Downloads (or wherever you downloaded the AppImage)
  7. Type sudo cp AppImageName /opt/AppImageName/*.*
  8. Close the Terminal.
  9. Navigate to the folder containing the AppImage and double-click the AppImage.

Voila! The application runs without having to deal with tedious dependencies. If the application is well-behaved, it will add itself to the main menu. Otherwise, add it using the menu editor appropriate to your distro. For the record, Macs have been doing this since the first version of OS X.

Where’s the beef?

Ok, once you have familiarized yourself with the software installer on your system, you will need to install the following applications to create a full-fledged photography workstation:

  • Rapid Photo Downloader – this little app takes care of the chores associated with the copying of photos from your media to the laptop. Plug an external hard drive in and you can even have it make automatic backup copies at ingestion. LINUX ONLY, COST: FREE
  • Darktable – there are several Linux RAW converters out there and they are all very good, but Darktable is my favorite. The layout is familiar if you have used Adobe Lightroom, but it is not a drop-in replacement for it. A version has just been released for Windows. LINUX, MAC & WINDOWS, COST: FREE
  • GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) – Even though Darktable will get you through most of your photo processing needs, one occasionally needs to massage their images a bit further. Normally one would use Adobe Photoshop. Sadly, this industry standard is not available on Linux. However, the GNU Image Manipulation Program (aka GIMP) will meet most, if not all of your needs. Again, very similar to it’s Adobe counterpart in operation, it is not a drop-in replacement. LINUX, MAC, & WINDOWS, COST: FREE

In Conlusion

A very workable photography workstation can be set up for little or no money if you are willing to give open source a try. All of the apps listed here are very complete and mature solutions. All of them are free. Not shareware, freemium, or some species of time-limited demo. Free. Forever. However, they have to put food on the table too. If you find these apps useful and cannot contribute code to the cause, pitch a few bucks their way to help things keep running.