Free and Open Versus Subscription Part 2: Can Darktable Create Better Edits Than Lightroom?

Free and Open Versus Subscription Part 2: Can Darktable Create Better Edits Than Lightroom?

Editing software gets more efficient every day. While competitors like Luminar continue challenging the supremacy of Adobe, there are also free options available. I was surprised that Darktable was ahead of LIghtroom in some features.

Can We Compare Two Such Different Programs?

Comparing Darktable and Lightroom in its capabilities as a photography library wasn’t all that hard. Although some of the comments of the article emphasized the unexpected depth behind Darktable’s Lighttable, both programs worked quite similar.

In the case of the editing process, it’s a little more like comparing apples with oranges. Lightroom and Darktable operate very differently which is actually why this topic is so interesting to me. Darktable is much more complex and works like a mixture of adjustment layers from Photoshop on a Lightroom-like surface.

Apples and oranges can both be eaten. They are healthy and taste sour. Comparison is hence possible. Both programs are made to make photographs look good, both programs work non-destructive and both of them offer different modules. A thin but stable foundation for comparison.

Disclaimer: I tested Darktable a lot during the last few weeks, listened to the last article’s recommendations, and took a bit of information from everywhere. Yet, I’m not an expert. In Darktable, there are a lot of different methods (I’d say infinite) to reach your editing goals with only slight differences. Lightroom on the other side is quite linear when it comes to its workflow.

Whenever I did not achieve to reach my goals with Darktable, I bet there is a solution. Yet, usability is one of the most important features for any modern software. So here is my opinion.

Round One: Make the Crop

The first step in editing my photographs has always been resizing a photograph and – god forgive me, but after all those years I still suffer from slightly skew horizons – level the photograph. I am used to a quick and easy two-click solution in Lightroom.

The Crop module in Darktable offers me some more options and gives me a little more information about the changes. Besides the angle and aspect, I can also adjust the grid in more detail. Moreover, when you right-click on a dial, a smart map appears and offers you more control about small or bigger changes. In Lightroom, I can’t use the slider for the smallest adjustments, but need to type a number instead.

The Crop module seemed quite impressive – until I used it. Again, I guess there will be a solution, somehow. But the crop drove me nuts. Instead of taking ten seconds to adjust the size and angle, it took me minutes. The operation was slow and buggy, often resulting in strange angles that I didn’t plan.

A unique way to shift values with your mouse isn't enough: It needs to run smoothly.

Round one clearly goes to Lightroom, although the ideas of Darktable seemed great.

Round Two: Shadows, Highlights, and Overall Exposure

While cropping an image is done in one module alone, setting the exposure is not that easy in Darktable. Here, you will come across the huge difference between the two programs. Adjustments in Darktable work as layers. There is a default option for the order of the modules and you should really not change them if you’re not an expert.

Also, there is some issue with the color space. While some of the modules still work in the LAB space, others work in RGB. The topic is quite complex and there is a lot of development at the moment.

However, different modules bring you to the same result. In the end, you will have to open more than one module to achieve what the Basic Adjustment panel in Lightroom does. I found myself using Exposure, Filmic RGB, Base Curve, and Shadows and Highlights to get a proper exposure in every area of my photograph.

Four modules for what can be achieved in the Local Adjustments alone? Not too handy, especially as scrolling between the modules requires pointing at the scroll bar. Probably there is a way around it, too, but I couldn’t find it quick enough.

At least the Tone Curve of Darktable is quite straight forward, but as you might know, a tone curve can never replace the Basic Adjustments. There is also a Basic Adjustments module for Darktable, but I won’t recommend it.

Darktable is definitely more complex (i.e. complicated) than Lightroom, but once you have an idea what you’re doing, it’s also amazingly flexible. Every editing workflow results in a different outcome. I find it quite exciting and deliberating, at least.

After playing around with the modules, I only faced one major and unsolvable problem. When I tried to edit a severely overexposed sky, whatever I tried in Darktable turned the blown highlights purple. Color Adjustments couldn’t help to fix it and so I needed to leave that photograph unedited. It didn’t happen to any other image, but unfortunately, it was the first picture I tried.

Round Two still goes to Lightroom. In my opinion, a quick and easy way to adjust the exposure is more important than the flexibility which Darktable offers. Still, I’d never say that Darktable doesn’t work well. You just need to read the manual, watch videos, and ask the really helpful community for help. When you’ve got a deadline to meet, you’ll probably work a sweat as a Darktable beginner.

Round Three: Make It Pop

Whenever I edit a really promising photograph, I like to make it pop with local adjustments. Lightroom does a pretty nice job here. Brushes, gradients, radial filters are all yours. I thought that’s all you need. Before I met the masking options in Darktable.

Darktable gives you the full range of masking options: Paths, gradient, radial, brush, and also parametric masks which go far beyond the range masks of Lightroom. Once you created a mask, you can easily put it on every module.

After my issues with cropping an image, I would have never expected that masking could be so intuitive. You smoothly change the feather of your mask by hitting Shift and scrolling. Scrolling alone will change the mask's size (or even the shape of the gradient), and let alone the paths…

Let’s admit it, we all had to learn how to create proper paths in Photoshop and we only accepted it, because there was no alternative. Creating a path in Darktable is as easy as it can be – and should be. A few clicks and you’ve got a pretty shaped area to edit, that’s all.

As you might have guessed from my enthusiasm: Darktable clearly wins the third round, even though Lightroom already performs well in local adjustments. Darktable offers the same or even easier usability and yet more flexibility. This was a turning point for me.

Round Four: Spot Removal and Cloning

I spend a lot of my time outside and my camera does, too. I took photographs in the desert, needed to change lenses at the beach, and generally prefer to clean my camera instead of not making it dirty in the first place. Sometimes, it results in a temporarily bad state of my sensor and I need to remove a lot of spots in post-processing.

Content awareness is one of the strengths of Adobe’s editing software and I don’t expect free and open software to compete. Yet again, Darktable performed better than expected. Spots are easy to remove and you won’t detect my lack of cleanliness in the final image. Just every now and then, the spot removal copied another spot into my sky. In these cases, I had to shift the source by hand, which was no problem at all. It also happened to me in Lightroom a few times in the past.

When software chooses the wrong source and copies another spot into the sky.

But what happens if I want to get rid of bigger parts of the photograph? Again, Darktable impresses me. The result of my 15-seconds cleaning up the beach look quite compelling.

Only one thing bothers me: I’m used to navigating through a photograph in Lightroom using the “hand” tool by pressing Space. In Darktable it didn’t work, but probably you will find it in some preferences and shortcut options. I won’t go as far as giving a penalty to Darktable for that.

Hence, round four is undecided.

Round Five: Colors

Only recently, I started to work a lot more with colors in my photographs. Lightroom offers a few handy tools: The HSL panel and the Color Grading, formerly known as Split Toning.

Darktable’s Split Toning module works with colorizing darker or brighter parts of the image, just like the former Split Toning module in Lightroom did. Since the update to Color Grading, Lightroom is a little ahead here, but it lacks the capability of adding masks.

Yet, I use split toning only to add a final style to an image, the real magic happens in the HSL part, where you can shift the hue, saturation, and luminosity of a certain color area. Quite easy to use, you might think? Then you haven’t tried Darktable’s Color Zones, I guess.

I went from “Uhh, that looks interesting” to “Oh my god, this is brilliant” within a few seconds. Color Zones doesn’t work with conservative sliders, but with a handy colored curve for each of the three options. It makes working on colors so much more intuitive and even more flexible than the HSL panel. Both might result in quite equal effects, but if I ever go back to Lightroom, I’ll really miss this option.

Round Five clearly goes to Darktable because of its surprising usability and quick calculations.

Closer Than I Thought

It’s really difficult to make a final decision here. On one hand, Darktable opens almost infinite options to edit your photographs. On the other hand, it lacks usability, where I need it the most. Basic adjustments and crops are needed for almost every photograph. Still, it surprised me with fresh ideas and editing concepts. I didn’t expect many features to work so smoothly and even outperform Lightroom in terms of usability. Local adjustments and masking or color grading is quick and fun.

Here’s a quick recap.

What I liked in Darktable’s Darkroom

  • Endless opportunities by copying and redefining modules
  • Masks can be easily edited and added to modules
  • Paths are created quickly
  • Different options to shift sliders
  • Many modules operate quickly
  • Some modules are very user friendly
  • Most modules offer a lot of options
  • Spot removal and cloning work accurately
  • Color Zones are a game-changer

What Could Be Improved

  • The Crop module makes me angry every now and then
  • Basic adjustments generally work but are far more complex
  • Many modules require a lot of research to understand
  • Too many modules can be intimidating in the beginning
  • First steps are harder than in other programs

What about your experiences with Darktable? Did you suffer? Or did your first steps even encourage you to switch or stay? And what’s your favorite module and workflow? Before I feel comfortable writing my final roundup, I’ll give Darktable another week or more and look forward to any suggestion.

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Never Mind's picture

Recently I switched to the new darktable workflow that does basic filmic+exposure control, discourages base curve use, and used LUTs for my Fuji film settings.

And I also had issues recovering contrast in highlights as you did. In my case I found out the exposure module (automatically added always by the app) was clipping highlights, and no additional highlight recovery or tone curve module would be able to recover them. To fix it, I just disabled the exposure module first, tweaked the highlights, and then moved the exposure module up to the end. Maybe you could try that? But yes, I found that very very annoying too.

However, the thing that confuses me a lot is the need to ctrl+click an image just to select it in editing mode, the not-sure-why this selection is achieved differently on different views, and being unable to compare two images or before/after side by side while editing an image.

Nils Heininger's picture

Thanks a lot for the advice. I'll gave it a try, but it seems this photograph is hopelessly lost in Darktable. Of course, it's also not the best exposure :D

Dave Millier's picture

i don't use it but isn't the darktable snapshot tool, the nearest equivalent to LR's A-B comparator tool?

Never Mind's picture

Wow, I thought snapshots only permitted comparing to stages in the history of the same image, but you are right, it seems to allow comparing two separate images. What I couldn't figure out, though, is how to lock and zoom both images. Somehow zooming with the mouse wheel only zooms the right-hand image. I am possibly doing something wrong, but it must be unintuitive, if at all possible.

Dave Millier's picture

I have been a Lightroom user for many, many years. It replaced about 14 pieces of software. I was/am enamoured with the product.

However, I'm not prepared to have my photos under the control of a software as a service subscription, so I'm stuck at ver 6 perpetual licence. Adobe's financial success by going down this route will undoubtedly inspire other companies; it's simply a matter of time.

That leaves open source if you wish to have long term control over your images. I've been dual booting Ubuntu for many years. I will maintain LR v6 for my older images but since 2019, all my new photographs are being handled by darktable.

It's a beast of a program. Immensely capable but overly complex. I think Adobe made a wise decision with LR to keep a basic, easy to understand editing workflow. darktable offers so many options for doing the same thing that it becomes an uncontrollable temptation to throw all 80 modules at every image.

I have finally settled on a very basic workflow to deal with this issue. I do all my tonal editing in just one module: RGB Tone curve. I have abandoned all the other modules that can control brightness, contrast, darks and lights. I can do this because I create multiple instances of Tone curve and use each instance with its own mask. Basically, I edit my images by making a series of local edits, rather than trying to globally edit the whole image. The masking system is similar in approach to Photoshop layers and my inspiration for this approach is Bruce Percy's tutorials on using Photoshop curves and layers. I have translated his approach into darktable and it it works great.

Obviously, I still need other modules for sharpening, noise reduction, local contrast, colour control and the rest of it but I have also stripped this down to a minimal set of modules managed using the favourites system which allows me to hide all the unused modules away out of sight. Once you figure out a custom workflow that suits you, it's reasonably easy to create a user friendly experience. Just figuring out that workflow is the challenge!

Interesting to hear your struggles with the crop module. I have no such issues, it is pretty much as fluid as the LR tool. I suspect what you are experiencing is not typical but the result of some kind of system configuration or conflict on your system. Worth asking the community whether others have similar issues.

M M's picture

Thanks for posting this. I have tried Darktable on and off a few times but never put enough time in. I will give it another try with my next pictures.

Bastian Bechtold's picture

Thank you for an even-handed and thoughtful article. Most reviews of Darktable merely scratch the surface and dismiss Darktable as a bad Lightroom clone. You did not do that, and even discovered a few of its gems, like Color Zones. Kudos for that!

Your pink highlights are caused by partially blown color channels, as you correctly mentioned. I find the best way to deal with these in Darktable is within the filmic module, on tab two "reconstruction". There, you lower the threshold until it attacks the blown portion of your image, and can then find-tune how highlights should be reconstructed. Here's a detailed description how filmic works and what you can do with it:

It's quite the marvel once you understand how it works. That said, recovery of blown highlights is just not a strong point of Darktable in my opinion. While you can get it to do the right thing with filmic, it is nowhere near as straight forward as the highlights slider in Lightroom.

Anyway, thank you for your article. Should you happen to stick with Darktable for a while, a follow-up article about its scene-referred workflow, the tone and contrast equalizer, and the upcoming channel mixer would be really cool, as these are the things Darktable truly does differently from other tools, and arguably better.

Jan Holler's picture

I suppose the filmic module will completely turn over my work flow.
Yesterday we had a great sunrise with the typical "Föhnfenster" (The Föhn is a warm dry and falling wind that dissipates the clouds over the mountains.). The 'base curve' module converts the RAW data to the look of the in-camera JPG. The resulting photo looks quite o.k. but somehow it is not always what one experienced.
If you take a look at the image below, you'll see that the camera is pointed directly to the bright spot where the sun would appear in a few minutes. What happens to your eyes/brain if you do so? The irides of your eyes contract, the "f-value" gets small. You'll see the horizon, but all things in the shade get very dark. The filmic module used without much fiddling on the sliders delivered what I regard is close to what was my impression of the scene.

Chris Rogers's picture

Nice photo!

Jan Holler's picture

Thank you! I pass over this bridge every day, the view is sometimes just incredible. In the back are the Alpes with Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

J P's picture

I've really enjoyed your articles on darktable. I've tried to use it myself with mixed results but I really think it's the result of me and not the software. I just need to overcome the learning curve. Lightroom just feels more natural to me because that is what I learned first. More articles like this would definitely scratch an itch for me.

Nils Heininger's picture

Hey, thanks for the comment. It's the same for me. I am planning to get more into the details of Darktable, but it'll take some time until I feel comfortable, writing the first tutorials. Too much questions are still open.

Jan Holler's picture

Hi Nils, I really wonder what your issues with the crop module are. Did you use the right mouse button to straighten it out?

Overall I feel you should get to know darktable a little better before doing any comparison to other software that you know much better. E.g. I don't think that talking about layers in darktable is correct to do so. The photography in the chapter "Shadows, Highlights, and Overall Exposure" has, as far as I can tell from the small image, values which will never work: highlight minus 68.5%. No wonder it looks weird. Long before you reach -50% you begin to notice artefacts. And moreover "shadows and hilights" work in LAB colour space. It is more limited than RGB colour space.

The filmic and base curve module are not meant to be used together. One works in RGB the other in LAB colour space.

You can achieve similar results with different modules: Yes, that may be a little confusing but as there are different methods to manipulate image data we have different modules. The newer normally do a better job than the older.

I think your series is interesting, but it would benefit if you get to know darktable better.

Nils Heininger's picture

Hey Jan,
nice to see, you are following this series. I don't think that working more with Darktable would change my opinion about it. My review focusses on usability and possiblities alike. As you might have read: Whenever something didn't work out, I admitted that I guess that there is a way around it. I also know which modules work in RGB and which work in LAB as many commenters were posting some links below my last article. I read them all. I tried to fix the issue with the Highlights for more than an hour, using the whole repertoire of web-research. While nothing worked for me (not in RGB not in LAB not in Both), I think it's fair enough to give some credits to Lightroom. I never looked something up and to me, it's clear what to do within seconds.
Still working on a roundup for next week ;)

Jan Holler's picture

Hi Nils, sure I follow. this series. I like to read your articles. And of course there is always something to learn. I bet you would change your mind if you worked more with darktable. But of course if you already got Lightroom and are used to it you have your tool. Nevertheless I think it would be a fairer comparison if you knew both programs equally well. But I see you got an open mind and I am interested to see where this all leads to. Thank you! Cheers!

Malcolm Wright's picture

I always find it interesting that Darktable (or insert software name) and Lightroom/Photoshop comparisons are written from the perspective of an existing Lightroom/Photoshop user/expert.
No one seems to even think of the new inexperienced photographer's perspective, so Lightroom/photoshop are still held up as the be all and end all. It is however very clear that the Adobe pricing/licencing model is not well liked. Which is why we keep getting these 'comparison' articles from people who are clearly dissatisfied with the Adobe set up and are actively trying to escape from it.
Having read a few of these it is apparent that most photo editing software is quite capable, but requires several hours of work putting in to achieve any degree of proficiency with.
Surely it would be better to look at the support available free from online tutorials and communities in order to make a better judgemental call?
I like this article, but would love to see reviewers be a little bolder in their conclusions. In my opinion no one should be steering newbies toward Adobe if they themselves are taking the time to see if they can replace it.
Surely the best advice a reviewer can give for a newbie is take your time before committing yourself to any third party photo editing software applications and take some time to look at what your camera manufacturer gave you for free first.
The cost of third party software varies from free to use (but also feel free to give something back towards the project, time, participation, promotion, or even money) to potentially many thousands in outlay in whatever currency you use, during your period of use.
The advice to any existing disgruntled third party photo editing software user has to be different, and could vary from:-
- Look at more tutorials
- Realise that what you get out of any photo editing software depends on how much effort you put in.
- Every software works slightly differently so change comes with a learning curve.
- Software can't always make a silk purse out of a sows ear so improve your in camera front end.

With the number of very capable photo editing software applications available having grown since Adobe launched its subscription model the future may not be as bright as Adobe once hoped.
Interestingly, I haven't seen any article linking the decline in Camera sales to the change in pricing/licencing strategy from Adobe. My guess is the licencing model is designed to take the most money Adobe can from its existing users base, with either a flat or declining user base.
So just maybe Lightroom/Photoshop has already entered its death throes.

stuartcarver's picture

I was one of those a couple of years ago so decided to avoid Adobe as I’d never been there in the first place and I’m using C1 pro and Affinity for my edits. It does everything I need.

Nils Heininger's picture

Hey Malcom,
thanks for your comment. I think that I have been quite fair with Darktable and at every possible moment, I have mentioned that the possibilities of Darktable are limited by my skills and knowledge. I also didn't draw any conclusion if you should buy Lightroom or be happy with what the great community of developers gave you as a free and open option. (But I'll surely write about that, soon)
And I completely disagree on the linkage between subscription price and camera sales, but that's another topic and probably we both lack data to proof ourselves right.

Malcolm Wright's picture

Hi Nils,
As I said I like your article.
I was just struck by the fact that every such article I've ever read has been written by an Adobe PS user/expert and the first premise of all such articles seems to be to compare the software being reviewed against what was (past tense) an industry standard.
I believe Adobe PS to have been a past industry standard as no one in my local 30+ strong Camera club (ranging from professionals to newbies) actually admits to using it. They've all moved on many years ago and newbies are steered away from Adobe PS by fellow members recommendations and club tutorial meetings on other software applications. There hasn't been an Adobe PS tutorial at the club for many years but there have been visiting Photography College Lecturers/Professional guest speakers who are ambassadors for other software editing progams.
Whilst I've never used Adobe PS, I have used and can still use, Canon Photo Professional, Olympus Workspace, GIMP, Fotoxx, Darktable, Picasa, Snapseed and have recently purchased Affinity after trialling it against Luminar. Unfortunately Luminar would have entailed a computer upgrade. The software I choose to use depends on the amount of work required to achieve my desired end result, which in turn is driven by the initial quality of the photograph taken, the device it was captured on and the media it may be displayed on.

Whilst there is no proof that the Adobe PS licencing model is linked to taking as much cash as possible from its existing declining user base, from my perspective Adobe is no longer recommended and is therefore not growing its user base. Add in the recent debacle where it lost the users of its Mobile application's data and the picture for the future of Adobe PS doesn't look as good as it used too.
Adobe PS is also no longer at the bleeding edge, but is arriving late to the party(ies) already started by its competitors.

Ami M's picture

Usability tips:
- you can use 'a' key to temporarily switch from tool to generic behavior eg. from changing mask size to zoom with mouse scroll
- in 'crop and rotate' module i use right click on image and drag straight line, also it's possible to adjust crop directly on image, i haven't had any issue with it

For purple highlights
- it's possible that the camera white point is set to high in profile, you can adjust it in raw white/black point module
- another way is set different option for the highlight reconstruction in that module
- also filmic has own reconstruction

Nils Heininger's picture

Hey Ami,
thanks for the tips!
I played a lot with the highlight reconstruction and also the filmic reconstruction, but couldn't figure out why everything went purple when I tried to reconstruct the few available data in the blown out sky. The photograph is badly overexposed, we don't have to discuss on that. But still, Lightroom is able to recover it with one or two sliders.

Never Mind's picture


Khuất Nguyên Vũ's picture

Using LR and Darktable, too. I just use Darkable for JPG. For RAW, LR is still the best to me.

Volkanov X.'s picture

User interface of Darktable can be difficult or strange for some new users. I remember that I didn't like to use Darktable pretty much at the beginning. But it doesn't take so long to get used to it, and I am no longer using Lightroom at all now. Darktable's advanced and detalied features of some modules are very interesting even though I don't use them so much, but if someone needs any of them, there they are. Especially for the RAW files, cooperation of GIMP and Darktable on a non-destructive basis is a big hit and very useful workflow for me.

David Goldberg's picture

Hi Nils,

I think you did you did a nice job in comparing the two programs. As you said, there are a lot of nuances with DT that make the job easier once you get through the learning curve.

For example, you can easily correct a skewed frame within DT by right click and holding the mouse while dragging across the horizon. Release the button and the photo will level. If it doesn't work out, then try again. It’s very painless.

With regard to exposure, the two critical modules are exposure and Filmic. The basic process is to adjust the overall picture with the exposure module and then use Filmic to adjust the photo's dynamic range by moving the black and white relative exposures to avoid clipping highlights and shadows. There are other controls within the module to adjust the overall look and saturation. To be honest, users can get confused by Filmic, but I've found it pretty easy to work with once you get some practice under your belt.

As some others have pointed out, Filmic and the base curve are not intended to work together – you use one or the other – and Filmic is the recommended option.

There are actually several easy approaches for dealing with the blown sky highlights. First, I suspect part of the problem may be that you enabled both Filmic and base curve. But after that, you can adjust Filmic so the entire image fits within your dynamic range. If your photo was properly exposed then you’re probably ok at that point. Otherwise there is a highlights reconstruction option within Filmic and also other options within a separate highlights reconstruction modules that will correct that color fringing.

In addition to color zones there is a color balance module that is “one stop shopping” for saturation, contrast and color adjustments for the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. This can be very useful for basic color and tone adjustments as well as color grading.

I think you really put in an effort to evaluate the programs, and not just conclude that DT stinks because its not LR. Your central point that it takes a lot to master DT is spot on. The complexity of the software could be enough to frustrate new users or lead them to believe the program isn’t up to snuff. I’ve been using it for over a year and am still learning its capabilities. Looking forward to seeing your wrap-up.

Chris Rogers's picture

Hmmm I'll have to give this program a go again. I have tried this program on 4 different windows PC's and on two Linux distros. Every single time i have had some pretty bad performance issues with it slowing down pretty hard and/or crashing. I'll try it again because if I can eventually fit this into my work flow I could finally ditch windows forever. I REALLY wish I could get Capture One and affinity products on linux. That would be the dream.

Bill Ferguson's picture

Hi Nils,

You can recover the highlights in your blown photo by going to the highlight reconstruction module, selecting "reconstruct in LCh", then adjusting the slider to get rid of the magenta. The magenta results from one or more of the color channels having no information. You can check which channels are blown by clicking the toggle button at the bottom right of the center panel.. You may also have to adjust the exposure down to get the highlights back.

Nils Heininger's picture

Finally, I got it, and I bow to the master! It isn't even too complex. Thanks a lot! Also for your info. I already thought it was something like that even though I didn't know how to deal with it. I even tried to get rid of the magenta by adjusting the channels accordingly.

Jan Holler's picture

Basically, besides the mandatory modules, you just need the filmic module, the exposure module, the white balance. Cheers!

Sam Sims's picture

Having started out on Lightroom and now giving both Capture One Express (yet to decide if I want to purchase Pro) and Darktable a go. Unfortunately, I'm finding Darktable extremely complex and not at all logical. It definitely needs a lot of time and patience to be able to understand it. Right now its just confusing as hell. Whether or not I have the stamina to persevere with it is debatable. I like open source software but don't understand why some of it hasto be so overly complex. At least Lightroom was dead simple for a newbie to get started with.

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