Indispensable free software tools for amateur photographers

Photo of no one of consequence + chateau = very nerdy composite

There are some really great applications around for editing and managing photographs, and some of the best ones are (unsurprisingly) either pet projects of an individual or the output of a research lab of a company which are offered for free or as shareware. These labors of love cover everything i've ever needed to do with photographs, and do so with as little fuss and mess as possible.

Irfanview

> Batch processing, cropping, resizing, denoising, curves and gamma ("brightness") tweaks, straightening the horizon, viewing, slideshows

The Bosnian developer describes this venerable fixture in donationware as simply "...one of the most popular viewers worldwide!" It has been one of the best lightweight image viewers for over 15 years! This is the Swiss army knife of image applications.

Strengths:

  • Very lightweight and fast
  • Treats your data with respect (this is, disturbingly, not a common attribute in image software):
    • It won't mangle your metadata (captions, camera and date information, geotags, etc.)
    • It will preserve file date and time if desired
    • It will warn you before overwriting the original
    • It uses high quality algorithms for resizing, etc.
  • Easily accessible and well thought-out features with simple hot key combinations and batch options for doing repetitive tasks
  • Handles most every media file format known to man with the optional plugin pack
  • Can use photoshop plugins (shortcut Ctrl+k). I find these three very useful:
    • Xidenoiser is for removing noise (go figure) or graininess in e.g. low light or crappycam photos. I experimented with the overload of denoise algorithms it offers and found the Wavelets (CWT) in VisuShrink Soft mode to be the most effective for touching up my phone camera shots. No, i'm not a big enough nerd to really know what those settings mean or to care, but the noise sigma is a measure of how "strong" you want to apply the denoising. 50 is good for slightly blotchy skin tones, and you can go up to around 200 for really low light photos that are otherwise unsalvageable (after you have tweaked the color curves to brighten them).
    • SmartCurve is what you would use to do said tweaking of the color curves. This is brilliant because it lets you see the histogram of the image so you can spread the distribution of colors to fill the full dynamic range. In simpler terms, it lets you take a really dark (or really bright) photo and make it more contrasty without losing any information.
      Using SmartCurve to compensate for window reflection and haze in a Grand Canyon photo: all the pixels are in the bright end of the histogram.
    • The Perspective Transformations plugin is very useful if you find yourself using your camera as a scanner. This plugin lets you mark the corners of e.g. a piece of paper and it then rotates and deskews the image to present it as it would appear from a perfectly centered perspective.
      Perspective correcting a photograph of a dramatic Noah painting hung in a narrow chapel hallway in Little Havana.
  • Works in Wine so you don't have to give it up under linux

Irfanview with those three plugins is sufficient for everything i need to do with most photographs. A few specialty features that are particularly useful are the "Create custom crop selection" <Shift+c> and the "Custom/Fine rotation" <Ctrl+U>, and the "Resize/Resample" <Ctrl+R> is of course very handy. For more specialized tasks, read on.

Paint.net

> Photochops

This program is a shining example of the power of Microsoft's .NET platform. Rather than digress into a morass of political commentary at this juncture, let me just point out that that does mean it doesn't really work in linux. The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) would be your go-to for that, but i've never gotten into it, so Paint.net has been my occasional image tweaker. It has all the basic photochop tools the budding meme-chaser needs:

  • Clone stamp tool to fill in gaps and rub out inconvenient bits of scenery using some nearby pixels as a source
  • Layers to handle the alignment and tweaking of separate components of the image in a manageable fashion
  • Various drawing and painting tools, and a text tool (text handling is weak: this is for image manipulation, not graphic design)
  • "Magic wand" selection (adjustable color-sensitive select) that can work contiguously or globally (select all the similar-colored pixels near where you click, or in the entire image). The most common use for this in amateur photochopping is probably to cut out a person and place him on a different backdrop, like so:

Microsoft Image Composite Editor

> Panorama stitching

I've been lugging out an ancient copy of Photostitch that was bundled with an old camera every time i needed to stitch together a series of photos into a panorama. A lot of cameras now can do this themselves, but for the cases where you want to do it manually there are several options. When Photostitch failed to handle a job recently, i went looking for an alternative. There is a great open source project out there that i have used once or twice, but the interface was too complicated to recommend for a simple panorama app, so here's me recommending a free Microsoft labs project. It's simple to use and does a really good job.

Geosetter

> Tagging, geotagging and viewing

This is another application developed by a single person to fill an empty niche. It excels at manipulating the metadata of images, particularly the location. It can also be used to caption photos and seems to be somewhat more user friendly but less flexible than Irfanview in this usage. Where Geotagger is really useful is when you are adding, viewing, or modifying the geotags, or the location information for a photograph. You can select a location on the map and tag one or more photos with that location. You can view see your photos' locations on a map marked with thumbtacks. You can export an album to a Google Earth archive. It's all very sci-fi.

Google Earth and Picasa

> Album organization and presentation, tagging

I'm not going into detail here, but the synergy of maps, photos and text possible with Google Earth provides some really fantastic opportunities for presenting travelogues. Check out the biking section for some downloadable examples.

Picasa probably doesn't need an introduction. It's a combination of web service and application that lets you share and organize your albums. I don't use it much, and will be investigating digiKam as a cross-platform album tool extraordinaire, but i am including it for four reasons:

  1. I'm not familiar with an alternative that will do the amazing facial recognition trick.
  2. It does use standard metadata tags to some extent, so when you caption photos in Picasa, your efforts aren't in vain when the photos end up in other places.
  3. The free online web service it integrates is useful for those without a place to host their own photos.
  4. It can also do geotagging and may be sufficient for your needs if you don't need the extra features of Geosetter.

So there you have it: a toolbox for the amateur photographer in everyone. These are all free to use and because they are popular pet projects, many are updated frequently and keep close to the task at hand. That's valuable when you are going to invest the mental effort and time of adopting a new tool.

Update 2011.05.10: added Perspective Transformation plugin and example illustrations.