The limits of open-source photography

Usually, an article like the one you're about to read would go something like this. First, I'll establish my credentials by telling you how many articles and books about open-source photography I've written. Then I'll tell you how much I rely on open-source software in my photography workflow and how much I appreciate the tools I use. And then there will be the inevitable but segue.

But you know what? Let's just cut to the chase: I know my open-source photography tools, and I can do a lot with them. But I think I'm hitting the ceiling. Why? Because I've been testing tools like DxO PureRAW and Topaz Photo AI, and they are nothing short of mind-blowing. Take DxO PureRAW, for example. Drop a RAW file in it, specify a few simple options, hit Process Now, and the application produces a corrected noise-free DNG file. You can do a lot with Darktable and RawTherapee, but not this. I appreciate the fact that for some photographers, tinkering with settings and understanding the underlying technology is part of the appeal. Heck, I also think it's fun to get to the nitty-gritty of a certain feature in RawTherapee once in a while.

DxO PureRAW is a proprietary application that doesn't run on Linux. It's also really, really good.

DxO Pure RAW screenshot

"Once in a while" is the operating word here. Most of the time, I just want the noise to be gone with a minimum of effort, and that's something none of the open-source tools can offer. The situation is not better when it comes to lens corrections. Hats off for everyone contributing to the lensfun project, but honestly it's a far cry from what DxO PureRAW has to offer. Yes, yes, I understand: DxO has the resources and expertise to pull it off. But that's not the point. I guess the point is that maybe there are certain tools that are impossible to build without the financial and intellectual property clout of companies like DxO and Topaz.

I'd really truly like to use open-source tools on Linux for all my photography-related tasks, but I'm increasingly feeling like I'm riding a bicycle, while others are whizzing by in flying cars. Maybe there is a compromise to be found somewhere: having a hybrid workflow, where all pre-processing is done with whatever closed-source commercial tools work best, and using open-source tools for the rest of the tasks. I don't know. But I do know that it's getting increasingly harder to ignore the gap between open-source and proprietary photography tools.