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Trying out Picasa for Linux

Date/Time Permalink: 05/30/06 07:45:21 am
Category: HOWTOs and Guides

In case you missed the trumpeted news, Picasa has been released for Linux. You can download it from the link in the title of this article.

The little itty bitty story is about the software and how it works. I can finish that here: Picasa installs smoothly with it's own self-installer and upon starting, spiders your whole hard drive for every single image it can find. This includes system files and icons and your wallpaper directory and the dialog-box screenshots in KDE's help center, and the files from every user on the system - everything. It's been doing that for an hour, now, and is still running in the bottom right corner of my screen, with a pop-up-pop-down dialog box.

On loading pictures, you can do things with them. There are buttons to push to correct red-eye, tint with a sepia tone, auto-crop images, and do other simple one-step operations with them. It also has capabilities to create a web-collage from a folder of pictures, send pictures to screensavers, and make a web-page photo-gallery. It's also great to collect photos, send photos, receive photos, email photos, blog photos (if you use Blogger...retch), and so on.

The great big story is what it is not, what many other programs on Linux are, and the attitudes of Windows users and Linux users, and most especially the attitudes of the camps of Picasa/Photoshop/ users and Gimp/Inkscape/Blender/POVray/etc. users. Because I've seen comment on this release which shows a deep, fundamental confusion of ideas at the very least.

So I will step boldly into the land of Posts Guaranteed to draw Flames for all Eternity and say it: Picasa is not for generating your own original images. It is partly a replacement for the Gnome desktop program gthumb or the Xnview program. It also introduces Linux to the capability of one-click photo correction. There's nothing here, however, not even the photo-editing, that cannot be done IN GIMP. It's just that the filters are arranged so that they are in one place, and more is done automatically for you. In other words, it's a Windows program that will make Windows users feel right at home. It's a Photoshop-level-tool that plays to the expectations of Photoshop users. And to too many Photoshop users, loading up photos and running one-click filters on them is art.

But it's not art! If you copy the Mona Lisa and flip her horizontally so she's facing right, that's not art. If you run a sepia filter on her and set her grainy-ness to 50%, that's not art. If you run an edge-detect on her and bump-map the edge-detect...that's just barely getting into art's territory. If you do 12 different special-effects on her and arrange them in a block-collage (rather like I did with this Tux collage), that's still not proper art, but it is at least getting into artistic territory. You have graduated to a gifted picture-arranger.

When you start with a blank piece of paper or physical canvas, or a blank pixel canvas, or a blank strip of film, and create your own original image that has never existed in any form in the world before, that's art. If you *then* run a few filters on *that*, it's still art. It's yours, and your vision may demand that the final product is in sepia with a grainy border and focal blur.

Now, take this full-size shot of the splash-image on my home page. While it may be good or bad, it is still art. There are only three things on this image which are not solely my own pixel-by-pixel invention:

  • The font. I use only public-domain fonts. I *could* draw my own fonts, but haven't figured it worth the bother.
  • The "Unix" license plate on the right wall. The point would be that this office has the collector's "Unix" license plate, which in fact I inserted the photo instead of drawing it. It had to be recognizable as *the* license plate, or it's point would have been lost.
  • The picture of Tux on the coffee mug. Here again, by the time it was shrunk down and wrapped onto the surface of the ceramic mug I was modeling, only the original image would have been recognizable.

Surprisingly, the image of GNU's trademark in the pennant on the wall *is* my own drawing of the GNU logo. I actually like mine better in *this* particular case, and it's sufficiently recognizable. I wanted a cheerful-looking GNU, one who looked more like a college-based sports mascot. Absolutely everything else in this image is mine alone.

Consider another example, my re-creation of a screenshot from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining". Here, every pixel really *is* drawn by me, but it was my deliberate intention to copy as closely as possible a scene from the movie. This was a test of how well I could render in POVray. I was surprised to find this image, where somebody else picked almost the exact same shot (but at a different angle) and rendered it in the Unreal Tournament 2003 engine. I didn't even know you could do that with Unreal, but I guess so. I used to do something similar with Doom wads. (And that's what can happen on a proprietary OS, you end up using video games in place of tools!) Anyway, the point of my exercise was to push my technical skills to the max (at the time). There's still quite a bit off here in my image. I gave up in frustration getting the walls of the hallway to be bathed in luminosity. The shadows don't cling to the corners. The scene loses a lot of creepy feeling. At that point, I didn't finish it, but simply stopped, and so there are no signs and plaques and fire extinguishers on the walls.

Folks, it may look decent, but even this isn't a full work of art. It is a technical reconstruction. Most of the rest of my wallpapers are, however, my own images from my own ideas.

So, to correct these distressingly confused ideas that flow through the Internet, there ARE TOO image-creation tools on the Linux desktop, have been for years. They are not "as good as" or "worse than" or "better than" Picasa because they are completely different tools from Picasa. Similarly Picasa is a new photo-twiddling/handling/publishing software on the Linux desktop. It's like has *TOO* been seen before, many, many times on the Linux desktop. Just in different forms, such as Lphoto, F-Spot, DigiKam. It does have a very slick interface; I'll concede it's the slickest interface I've seen on a Linux box in a long time.

Because image-rippers vs. original-image-creators (i.e. Photoshop vs. Gimp) has been the number-one flame topic I've ever seen, and because I have no interest in hearing 1000 (especially Worth-1000) script kiddies starting pointless flames about this very common-sense topic (show it to any art teacher or professor), I am disappointed that the rest of us will be deprived from a civilized debate. I'm turning off comments on this post.

By the way, thank you, Google, for releasing Picasa for Linux! It is a fine piece of software. Photography artists will find it very useful; they, particularly, will see the most use. Image thieves have another tool to commit theft. Graphics artists won't see much point to it. To explain it to my fellow graphics artists out there, stuff like this that we've had for five years is hailed as a stunning achievement in proprietary-software-land. It is similar to how they will continue to dismiss the Linux platform as being no good for programming until it hosts Microsoft Visual Basic.

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