During the last weeks I took a look at the free and open Software “Darktable”. In this round-up I’ll explain why Darktable is a true and legit alternative – but not suitable for everyone.
Can Free Software Even Compete Against a Media Empire?
From the very beginning of my comparison, I was sure that “Darktable versus Lightroom” will be like a fight between David against Goliath. Adobe is a company with a volume of sales of more than 10 billion dollars and more than 20,000 employees. Darktable, on the other hand, is an open project run by a small group of genius people who cooperate with voluntary coders, translators, and testers.
Working with Darktable for a month, although not full-time, was an interesting experience. During my first attempts of editing, I thought: “Well, of course, it doesn’t run as smoothly as Lightroom does,” or “of course, they don’t offer the same quality and the results can’t compete against my Lightroom edits.” All because I believed in the power of money.
But I forgot the power of collaboration. It starts with small things like a comprehensive manual, which has been translated into several languages by a network of volunteers. And it ends with supportive comments and emails from readers on Fstoppers, who explained some details about certain modules and even offered me to try to edit my raw files.
Pretty soon, I found that Darktable isn’t necessarily worse than Lightroom, it might even be superior in one way or the other. But it’s also different to handle, difficult to understand, and more complex than one would expect.
The Main Difference Between Darktable And Lightroom
Many people who want to develop their digital photographs on a Linux based computer will choose Darktable, because of a lack of alternatives. I think you can feel the influence of a certain group of users and developers when you use Darktable. My impression is that Windows and MacOs are made for users who are ignorant about the processes of their computer and only want to use their devices in a comfortable way. They are made for users like me.
Linux on the other hand has quite a nerdy reputation. Every Linux user I know is also a coder. It’s people who want to know what is going on behind the screen, love to understand how their system operates, and develop and share solutions for their I.T. problems. Sorry, if that doesn’t apply to all Linux users, but it’s a general impression I have.
Working with Darktable goes in the same direction. You don’t simply pull sliders until your photograph looks good. You need to understand what every slider does, how it affects which pixels, and how to counterbalance unwanted artifacts or looks.
Of course, Lightroom users also know that the “Shadows” slider brightens up some areas of the photograph, but do you really know which pixels will be affected in which way? In Darktable, it feels like you always need to know what you do. Instead of moving one slider, you often have to make a bunch of adjustments to reach the same results.
To me, Lightroom is a service center, while Darktable is a toolbox.
Reasons for Giving Darktable a Try
Ironically, one would assume that software that comes for free is the beginner’s best choice. Let’s face the truth: Only really ambitious hobbyists and professionals will be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for the services of Adobe. Yet, the topic is more complex, because Darktable is far from being a downgraded version of Lightroom.
I have been working with photographs for a while now and I’ve developed thousands of images in Lightroom. I understand how contrast and even "micro-contrast" works, and what’s the difference between curves and basic adjustments. I even have a good idea about advanced editing in Photoshop using frequency separation, high pass filters, and (rarely) luminosity masks. Still, I struggle with understanding Darktable.
Does that mean Darktable is not recommendable for beginners? It depends. I guess, once you mastered Darktable, you will have a good laugh about the simplicity of Lightroom. Yet, mastering Darktable will take some time and if you are not willing to go through a full manual, several tutorials, and ask questions to the community, you might get disappointed.
Developing your basic workflow in Darktable, leaves you with almost endless possibilities, even though there are some recommended basics. More than 50 different modules go far beyond the few sliders which Lightroom has to offer. When you start learning the functions of Darktable from scratch on, you will really get to know how a digital photograph works. And that’s a good thing, I suppose.
Once you went through the whole Darktable rabbit hole, you might even start learning coding and engage with the wonderful community which brings the world a solid editing software for free.
Reasons Why I Can’t Make the Switch… Yet
What counts to me, though, is the result. Call me lazy or even call me a “millennial” (which happened to me in the comment section of one of my first articles here on Fstoppers), but I feel I don’t need to understand the complexity of Darktable to develop my photographs. I want to reach a certain look by shifting a few sliders and I want it to happen quickly.
Playing around and being able to develop new looks without thinking too much keeps me curious and creative. I’d rather like the artist in me playing around than I’d like my inner coder to engage in pixel peeping. Time is valuable and I rather spend it outside shooting than reading manuals.
Yet, I feel challenged. I also like the idea of free and open software and would love to see how long it takes until I feel as comfortable using the “filmic RGB” module in Darktable as I do feel with the “basic” panel in Lightroom.
Besides all the curiosity, the most important advantage of Adobe is its product line. Even if I started with Darktable and properly learned how to use it, I’d probably have switched to Adobe by now. I use my subscription not only for Lightroom, but I am currently working with Photoshop, Premiere, After Effects, and InDesign on a regular basis. Being able to work with a combination of different programs where I can easily shift data from one to the other is the biggest advantage of an Adobe subscription.
The price is high, though. If you only edit a few pictures per month, it might not be worth it.
A Recommendation for Everyone
No matter if you are a Lightroom user or an absolute beginner, I can still recommend you one thing: Try it yourself. Just as Lightroom, Darktable works non-destructive. You won’t lose your files, you won’t lose money, you will only lose some time.
But maybe you’ll also find a new challenge like me. While I will continue working with Lightroom for reasons of time, I guess I will let a few images run through Darktable every now and then. As you could see in the images of this article, a new workflow also has the power to change the concept of a photograph every now and then.