Published On : 2 June 2022 |Last Updated : 2 June 2022 |2259 words|9.5 min read|5 Comments|

There is one thing you will find on the home page of pretty much any open source (call it libre or free if you will, those lines are blurred) image editing software : the promise that it is, somehow, suitable for professionals. Marketing has abused that word for decades, it is only natural that it should affect non-commercial and non-profit projects as well, just to try to buy some cheap credibility.

The meaning of “professional” is a complicated matter because it plays – on purpose — on two different levels that it tries to blur :

  • the lucrative aspect, meaning working for clients to produce turnover, which has to pay for wages, expenses and taxes,
  • the skillful aspect, meaning mastership of a craft and quality of the result.

Since we all know that one amateur that is far more skilled than this particular professional, let the mastership aspect rest and focus on the lucrative aspect. This is taboo in some countries, since it is such an artistic endeavour, and it’s not well regarded everywhere to mix money with art or passion (hello, France). Apparently, true artists should be starving and suffering.

The essential characteristic of a professional is therefore to own a business that needs to generate profits to stay sustainable. And since the amount of money needed each month to pay wages is pretty much set up by housing fees and cost of life, and since the amount of workable hours is pretty much capped at 40 h/week [1], there is this thing called “efficiency” that comes into play : being able to do enough work in a limited amount of time as to reach hourly market prices while still making enough at the end of the month. But the photography business has been seriously hit over the past decade and this is started to become very difficult, because market prices have dropped a lot :

  • Newspapers have flushed their photo-reporter staff to publish “readers contributions” or hiring freelance photographers (and therefore cutting on social insurances, taxes and camera gear),
  • Magazines have made an habit to publish unpaid pictures (playing on the vanity of amateurs photographers “buying” this way the title of “published photographer” and not needing the income — hello Vogue Italia),
  • Stock archives platforms are promoting competition between photographers from Western countries (who have to pay Western taxes and insurances) and from emerging countries where a couple of dollars/euros is already a significant amount,
  • Customers who now own smartphones doing pictures (optically) as good as professional images and don’t really see the difference between a well-framed and well-lit picture, and what their iPhone produces…

Lots of photographers I know are now working 2 jobs or more, and/or working for shady businesses like “massages” parlours and escorts services. In the wedding industry (which a lot of photographers avoid for the amount of stress it creates), the requirements have simply grown unreasonable (hundreds of edited pictures in short amounts of times) and the general knowledge of new “AI” tools among clients creates more and more unrealistic demands, since those pretty tools have only marginally improved efficiency (but they sure are spectacular). Some photographers have simply sold all their equipment and moved on to another life.

But that was even before COVID lockdowns. Since then, lots of commercial photographers have had to give up their studio because of rents and taxes to pay while not being allowed to work. Studios are not the only recurring expense commercial photographers incur, since Adobe Cloud and most software have gone subscription-based.

So, it pretty much sucks to be a photographer right now, and it’s not going to be any better with time. But we still need photographers, at least on the news reporting side, but also for books, calendars, magazines, events, posters, advertising and then… well, art. It’s just that we don’t think they are worth the money they need to keep working.

You might think that the libre/free/open source world would care, since it is all about joining tech with political matters like freedom, privacy or fair/affordable access to knowledge and education. Think again.

See, the problem of open source photography is it is moved by and for IT-engineering-tech bros who buy expensive gear out of their salary and only for fun. Those people enjoy amateur photography : they don’t have to deliver results, so can just afford to trash the pictures if nothing good comes out, work small batches and take breaks whenever they want, because they have little to no time constraints. They also have an above-average tolerance to GUI glitches and usability quirks, as long as it’s open source, because they can typically work their way through a command-line terminal. It is also a surprisingly homogeneous social group of 50-something upper-middle-class white men.

But the IT-engineering-tech bro is not just disconnected from the utter shite in which commercial photographers are right now, he is actually all smug and condescending about all of those who need to make money from what he considers a hobby. The idea that, if your hobby is someone else’s job, then you will never be really good at it doesn’t even seem to brush them either. “I’m just happy to not have to rely on photography to make a living” is what you will hear them say.

In this context, Lightroom and the likes are considered with scorn as under-software for the muggle, while Linux and free/libre/open source (FLOSS) is for the real wizards. While there is some truth in that, and I’m the first one to acknowledge that Adobe’s approach on colour is outdated and yields bad results (or that Windows/Mac users are too easily deterred when things get technical), let’s not get carried away and examine what FLOSS image processing apps can achieve before we call every Lightroom’s user a stupid button pusher.

FLOSS image processing sucks on the matter of productivity. It goes on the workflow and usability side, as much as on the computational efficiency and runtimes, with app using CPU pipelines and GUI toolkits out of the 1990-2000’s. The main reason is there are close to no professional photographers on Github, where the FLOSS development happens, or in IRC chats, where the decisions are taken. And if you have no idea what an IRC chat is or how to join one, well, that’s my point. So, who is able to say what commercial photographers need to be productive ? Nobody. But who wants to know ? Same nobody. Why ? Because commercial photographers are stupid push-button users of Lightroom and that’s all they want to use.

See the problem ? This loops into a self-fulfilling prophecy where, however you put it, commercial photographers are not welcome.

But why should FLOSS, which is produced for free out of the free time of the 2 % of the world population’s who can code, care about commercial photographers anyway ?

Well, you know how car brakes are tested at high speed and tires on wet roads ? Or how bridges are designed for the worst traffic conditions ? Design always has to account for the most demanding use case. Otherwise, you just design systems that may or may not kill people. If you can’t do it all, then you put a legible sign in that elevator saying how many people it can carry at once (don’t repeat it, but the regulatory safety factor on elevators is 6, so it’s actually designed to withstand 6 times the load written on the sign, just to account for those idiots who find clever to jump in it). In any case, designing for the least challenging case may actually be a challenge since it will let too many options open, which is generally not good when it comes to choosing one.

But do you think that FLOSS image processing apps have a “designed for lightweight recreational use by command-line-able people only” mention on their home page ? Nope. It’s all pro-grade, or so we are told. How ridiculous ? You tell me.

Building apps that are efficient in a time-constrained and result-bound workflow makes them simply efficient for everybody. It’s really just a way to prevent mediocrity from becoming the common denominator. I know commercial photographers who would like to be able to do more than what Lightroom offers while still being able to be fast and efficient. But nothing serious is available to them, so they simply fall back to the typical.

It’s all the more nonsensical that the IT-engineering-tech bro loves to buy “professional” cameras and lenses. So when it comes to gadgets, no compromise is done, nothing is spared, we strive for the utmost quality. But when it comes to software, then, no… Amateurish and option-bloated soft is the rule. Why ?

How to make FLOSS image apps better for commercial photographers ?

The zeroth step would be to stop jumping on solutions before the problem is fully defined. That’s the number one issue of all open source projects I know of : people think they will spare time by getting things done ASAP. Actual design starts with defining what problem you want to solve, for whom (who is the user ? what kind of education/time spent learning do we expect from them ?) and in which context (covering the olympic games or the war in Ukraine is not exactly like editing a picture of your dog on Saturday evenings). Yet devs seem to want to jump head-first on their IDE to reinvent everything in the exact same way as it was done before : half-assed, with no perspective, and by the mighty power of the code snippet. Putting “how” before “why” is the surest way to hit a wall. The thing is, the longer you think about problems, the more chances you have to find the actual problem beneath the apparent problem and maybe factorize problems in a way that will make the solution much easier and much cleaner.

The first step is to acknowledge that commercial photographers exist. From where we are starting, it’s already an improvement. That includes having communication channels that are not so geek-oriented or where discussion is not entirely technical and low-level. Basically, stop with all those Linux-centric forums that happen to be about image processing, and where every next discussion is about your preferred Linux distribution.

The second step is to make the editing process as uniform as possible. In a scene-referred workflow, a lot of the early picture normalization (color profiling, exposure and white balance) is just linear scaling. These settings are fairly easy to transfer between pictures shot in the same lighting conditions and building tools to individually normalize pictures to the same base is easy too (it’s actually a new feature introduced in darktable 4.0). The flaw of the scene-referred workflow, though, is that the white level is variable, so there should be an unified way to define it pipeline-wise instead of having to set it for each filter in the pipeline.

The third step is to make editing apps use GUI paradigms that are consistent with the rest of the OS or desktop environment. I don’t know what it is with Linux apps, but it seems the dev teams make it a priority to re-invent every GUI interaction on their own, and make it forcefully different from the rest of the OS. Double-click opens things. Click or arrow keys select things. Escape… escapes from the current view. Stop being clever for the sake of being clever, you are not helping anybody.

The fourth step would be full support of Wacom pens and tablets. Meaning stopping with binding essential commands to keyboard “shortcuts”. Actually, the very name “shortcut” implies that it is an alternative way of doing the same thing faster, if there is no GUI way of triggering the same command with a pointer device, it’s not a shortcut anymore, it’s an annoyance for anybody using pens and tablets. A couple of brush strokes straight on the picture are much faster to dodge and burn than any slider-based brightening & masking, and that’s the beginning of a fast and efficient individual editing while still working in batch.

The fifth step is called inter-operability. Say what you will about evil Adobe, but you can open an Adobe image file in pretty much all Adobe imaging apps. Then finish working it elsewhere. From a right-click → contextual menu → open in “…”. While you can technically open most file formats in most FLOSS apps, you still have to juggle between apps, file browser, conversions and such. Again, hard to explain how just a couple of clicks more or less make all the difference when you process hundreds of pictures in your typical week, to people who mostly edit a couple of them on week-ends.

The sixth and last step would be for all the white collars and similarly-well-paid but entirely-replaceable staff who use art to make their boring life bearable to stop despising the ones who got the balls to go all in and made it a career. Not sure if it’s jealousy or if they are simply high on the capital’s fumes, but if the very thing they all advise their children against is their only joy and principal hobby, at some point, there is a chat to be had with a therapist.

This post is the long-form version of a forum post that got censored by the very tech bros called out on their bullshit.

  1. yes, America, working more than 40 h reduces productivity and increases health issues/bills, so the amount of cash earned is not proportional to the amount of hours worked 

  1. Marco Giai-Coletti 11/06/2022 at 3:58 PM - Reply

    Nice article. I think darktable is incredible - it could be a very good contender for the professional world - and my only difficulty is what you mentioned - way too much technical jargon to get my head around and way too many methods to do the same thing. R&DarktAble looks promising.

    • Aurélien 12/06/2022 at 3:06 AM - Reply

      Unfortunately, the jargon is not really avoidable. For example, “color” is too vague, we need to decompose it into hue, chroma, lightness, but there are also chromaticity, chrominance, colorfulness, brightness. Brightness doesn’t refer to the same thing as lightness even though they are synonyms in common language, chroma is not short for chrominance and not the same thing as saturation, but chroma and saturation are both colorfulness expressed relatively to lightness and brightness respectively, etc.

      You need at least some jargon to be able to communicate with other people or with the GUI in a specific and precise way.

  2. olliwa 29/07/2022 at 2:04 PM - Reply

    Hello, only one thought , who pays ?
    Are professional photographers organized in federations, associations, or other organizations allowing them to weigh economically on standards, norms and R&D ? A professional community which cannot finance its own R&D cannot complain of not being able to influence manufacturers or developers.
    Who influences the professional camera industry ? Astronomical imagery, aerial imagery, medical imagery, the world of fashion and publishing, the film industry, the world of information ? Artists ? Commercial photographers ?
    Professional organizations must exist and be interested in funding free software if they have a real need to develop tools that meet the expectations of their members.
    Between the general public and professionals the border is not well guarded. Fortunately, thanks to general public you can lower the costs to produce hardware and develop and maintain software. Fortunately, the professional world has financed expensive tools which then benefit the greatest number and therefore also the professionals.
    Everything is scrambled and confused today thanks to the so called democratization of our consumerist world : persuade anyone takes themselves for Leibovitz, Rimbaud in Abyssinia, Escoffier or Visconti. Me first, but I wonder what for ?
    “But why should FLOSS, which is produced for free out of the free time of the 2 % of the world population’s who can code, care about commercial photographers anyway  ?”
    because commercials photographers fund nothing !
    Anyway, I follow your work with keen interest and particularly appreciate the educational effort you make against all odds.

    • Aurélien 30/07/2022 at 6:34 AM - Reply

      The user pays, it’s not a revolutionary idea.

      A professional community which cannot finance its own R&D cannot complain of not being able to influence manufacturers or developers.

      That’s beyond the point. It’s not about deserving anything.

      First of all, pretty much all imaging soft out there claims to be professional, so it’s just about living up to their promise. Don’t promise more than you can deliver.

      And then, who cares about amateurs ? Amateurs will never challenge a software, they wouldn’t see a gamut escape if it was sitting right in front of them. There are studies showing that professionals can have a Just Noticeable Difference (minimum delta E leading to perceptual color differentiation) as low as 1.6, while the general audience has an average around 3. Who do you think will spot the subtly broken color algorithms ? Amateurs will complain if the soft crashes, that’s all.

      If a software is good enough for professionals, it’s good enough for amateurs (and I mean “professional” as a level of skill and craftmanship, not merely the ability to market their services). It might be too complicated for amateurs, but at least they get a chance to improve and level up. If it’s good enough for amateurs, you are more likely levelling down and using mediocrity as your common denominator. It’s simply unacceptable. It’s like trapping users back at pre-school level and forbidding them to ever grow up.

      Whatever we do in imaging soft used to be done with paper, ink and brushes (and some amount of chemistry). In that process, the limit was the skills and creativity of the retoucher, but nothing was forbidden. Now, retouchers depend upon algorithms they don’t see and wouldn’t understand, controlled by GUI that define the limits of what they are allowed to achieve in the picture, to act on a picture they can’t even touch. Just think of all the philosophical implications of this last observation on what it means to be an artist in the 21th century…

      Professional is a quality standard. An artist is a person who uses a medium to convey something beyond the materiality of the medium. It’s not about communities (and really, I hate everything about communities), or who pays, or who deserves what. It’s about compensating for the fact that the artist of the 21th can’t directly access, touch and hack the medium and has to play with pure data that only lives in the matrix. And then it’s about minding the fact that pro artists have been uber-ized like crazy lately, except for some big names at the top of the food chain.

  3. Michael Allman 13/03/2023 at 8:44 PM - Reply

    I’ve looked for viable alternatives to Lightroom for what it does. I’ve given Darktable (“darktable” ?) a try. Darktable is just aggressively unusable as an app. It is very complicated, the GUI quirks are numerous and confusing, and simple things like scrolling are not reliable. I couldn’t find the menubar. It must be around somewhere. I use a Mac, and Darktable’s UI is alien.

    I am looking at their website. There is this nugget there : “darktable is created for photographers, by photographers.” This is just not believable, so we’re dealing with people who are confused/deluded or lying.

    But I am more-or-less parroting what you wrote in your essay.

    Given the current state of affairs, it doesn’t look like FOSS will be offering anything compelling in this space any time in the (near) future. Despite the attraction of open source software, capitalism has its advantages. The need to turn a profit can certainly motivate a team to produce something attractive for their marketplace (or die trying). (This motivation doesn’t account for Adobe’s consistent mediocrity. They just don’t have competition.)

    I’ve read several of your posts, BTW. You have some great reading material here—very opinionated.


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