Free and Open Versus Subscription Part 3: Should You Dare Switching Over?

Free and Open Versus Subscription Part 3: Should You Dare Switching Over?

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.

If you haven't followed the discussion, you might want to go back and read the review of Darktable's "Lighttable" or the review about editing in Darktable's "Darkroom".

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.

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El Dooderino's picture

I've really enjoyed this series! As an "amateur enthusiast", I don't think I'll be doing enough post-processing to justify the cost of LR/PS. As I am basically starting from scratch learning how to post-process, I think it will be worth the time and effort to learn more about how darktable works.

N.B. darktable 3.4 is now out. It would be great if you were able to review it and the changes they made!

Mark Suggs's picture

I have to catch up on the first two parts of this series, but I will say as a shoe string budget hobbyist, I find the subscription model very off-putting. I would like to pay only once for a good piece of software or sweet. I don't like the idea of "never truly owning" the thing that I am paying for. Currently I'm using Affinity Photo, as well as their publisher and designer, all of which I've gotten on sale at one point or another, paying less than $100 for the whole group. I'd be more willing to try a shockingly complex free software like Darktable than be hooked into paying a subscription fee for software that I'll never actually own.

Sam Sims's picture

The Adobe way of doing things now means, not only you don't own a copy of the software but it's on a constant upgrade cycle with only a couple of previous versions still supported. Unless you are able to upgrade your computer every four years or so (educated guess), you may find there's no longer a version that'll run on it. A one off purchase is yours forever.

Chris Rogers's picture

Forgetting one other thing. If you don't pay you lose access to your work. Sure you'll have the Jpegs but the progress files for your raws will be locked.

Nils Heininger's picture

Isn't there also a way to save the XLM from Lightroom? And your RAWs will always stay with you, anyway.

Nils Heininger's picture

sorry, it's called XMP. Below, there is a comment from a reader, who tried importing them to Darktable. It's a long read, but worth it!

Chris Rogers's picture

Woooooaaaaahh thanks! I didn't know this! Yeah I'll give it a good study. This is good info!

John Willemsen's picture

Thank you for so much well-presented and useful information. You sparked my interest in darktable (they don't like caps) and so far I am enjoying it - and very favorably surprised.

Alejandro Ravera's picture

Why is everybody using Darktable? Rawterapee is easier and the filmic simulations are awesome.
Try the antifog slider for example, you can see what is affected by the filter(ticking the option), and just at level one is wonderful.

Malcolm Wright's picture

I think you've missed the h out of Rawtherapee. I also agree with you Rawtherapee is excellent.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I agree that RawTherapee is much more usable and easier to understand than darktable. I also really dislike the UI controls of darktable: they change with my mouse wheel, but I want to use that for scrolling and not for editing, thank you very much!

Darktable however has masks to do local edits and RawTherapee doesn't do there's quite a few things one cannot yet do with RawTherapee.

I didn't yet figure out how to use masks in Darktable, it looked rather confusing to me and other UI issues put me off trying to figure it out already, but if that's what you need then it's either darktable, or going into Gimp.

Sam Sims's picture

Try looking up Rico Richardson on YouTube. He has many superb and easy to follow videos detailing the features and editing tools of Darktable, including masks I believe.

Nils Heininger's picture

Yes... scrolling is really one of the more horrible things in Darktable. But masks in Darktable are quite easy. They just work different then Lightroom. In Lightroom you take a mask and make many adjustments. In Darktable you make adjustments and put masks on them.

Jan Holler's picture

You can change the scrolling behavior in the settings and gone is the horror of it.

mike s's picture

I don't get it. I use the mouse wheel to scrolling in DT all the time... it is the default behavior. Is there a screen in DT where it doesn't do this?

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Sure the mouse wheel also scrolls, but when it happens to hover over a control then instead it changes that control value.

This was happening to me all the time in the side panels with the adjustments, when trying to scroll that sidebar to see different adjustment panels that instead the slider that happened to be underneath the mouse cursor would change value. (Usually the last slider that I changed).

Karim Hosein's picture

I used to use RawTherapee, and agree that is it simpler, and very good at what it does. It may be the “right tool” for the beginner, instead of Dt, but Dt can do far more than RawTherapee, (in most cases), and may be better for the pro/enthusiast.

RawTherapee deserves its props, though. E.g., it handles PixelShift better than anyone, including Pentax.

mike s's picture

Meh. RT is... different and has (mostly) a subset of features (though, a few extra features too). Depends on your needs.

TBH when I first tried both 3-4yrs ago, I found darktable GUI (and workflow) "simpler" to understand and still find RT interface a bit confusing. darktable version 3.4, that came out just AFTER these series of articles is _even simpler_ and better organized.

Malcolm Wright's picture

Hi Nils,

I have to let you know that you have been bitten by the Free and Opensource software bug..
Your occasional dabble into darktable will grow over time.
You may also discover that there are many more free and opensouce options to Adobe some of which may be helpful in a photographer's work flow. As an example I find fotoxx, a very simple to use application, to be all I need to crop and resize photographs for a UK National hobbyist (Florist) website. Then there is GIMP which is probably more inscrutable than darktable. The list goes on and on..
For everyone of the Adobe products you currently rely on there are one or several open source projects offering free to use (but also feel free to contribute) alternatives. All will take time to learn.
You have started on your pathway to freedom from Adobe.
Please don't dismiss your many, many years in learning how to use Lightroom/Photoshop too lightly, after all there is a whole industry selling LR/PS tutorials (including fstoppers who often value such bundles at many thousands). As you have discovered there are tutorials and support for darktable available as well (this applies to other opensource alternatives).
For a beginner LR/PS is as difficult to get your head around as any of the Free and Opensource alternatives, if that wasn't true no one would be selling tutorials in how to use LR/PS.
Being opensource also means that exchange of files produced between programs is actually easier as the file formats used are also free and open, unlike the proprietary formats used by the likes of Adobe which seek to exclude the competition. You also end up locked in to Adobe..
So for a beginner Adobe isn't recommended, that means Adobe is relying on a locked in earlier generation of photographers who have heavily invested their time and money into a system that they can't easily get out of. The Adobe type of business model's time is passing.. opensource is just one route out.
To give an example of the possible future the Mobile phone world is now almost exclusively Unix (Apple) or Linux (Android) based, with earlier proprietary systems having almost completely gone, and recent attempts to enter that field with a more proprietary system have failed..
Linux is originally an opensource Unix based project.
Perhaps we all need a dedicated photo editing device rather than that jack of all trades computer with what is becoming a myriad choice of good software applications.

Volkanov X.'s picture

Very good series and I liked to read its all parts.
I think this sentence nails many things down: "But it’s [Darktable] also different to handle, difficult to understand, and more complex than one would expect." This is always what I say to people who ask me that what DT is.
I just would like to say that Darktable has more than enough modules and parameters for editing. This may be confusing for a newcomer. This is also the power of DT. There are more than one way to achieve the same result in DT, and there are also many other ways to give them some try to have some different results.

Anton Rosenfeld's picture

A well though out review, and refreshing to see somebody who doesn't instantly dismiss some software because it is different from Adobe.
If people are looking for free raw developing software that is easy to get good results quickly, I would recommend ART. It is very logically laid out, and has the advantage that the starting point looks very similar to your camera's jpg which is what a beginner would expect. It is also very powerful once you get to learn it with a good system of local edits and masks.
Further details are here:
(Unfortunately the website does not behave well on a mobile browser but don't let that put you off)

Károly Zieber's picture

Loved the articles, they came out at the same time, as I started playing around with RawTherapee and Darktable to process Fujifilm raws. I am a long time Lightroom user, but wanted to know if the change is worth it for me. I was totally amazed by the denoise (profiled) function (though it didn't yield any advantage for me in real life pictures), but the lack of easy X-Rite calibration was a disappointment. It turned out, Lightroom with the "Enhance Details" deconvolution function beat C1E, RawTherapee and Darktable in quality, I didn't mind the file size. So in the end, Lightroom's convenience, speed and Adobe's new features worth it for me, but I would use RT or DT if open source was a must for me.

Paul Haenze's picture

Thanks for your three-part, one-month review of Darktable. It is the first that I've read based on more than a cursory use. I have been using Darktable for the last couple of years I'd like to interact with a couples of things.
First, you mentioned that DT is not beginner friendly. But, you did not make reference to trying the "Basic Adjustments" module to see how far you could go. Nor did you make reference to using module presets. These are made by the developers and provide settings for different use cases. Because of their "point and click" nature, presets are a great way to experiment and even learn to create your own presets. DT has just released version 3.4 ("Merry Christmas") which includes a Beginner workflow using the most basic modules. I'd love to see an addendum article using the new workflow with the included presets as a trial for a "Lightroom switcher".
Second, your series does not address the elephant in the room - the question of vendor lock-in with proprietary software. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) advocacy is much more than just Linux and includes an array of software for Linux/WinOS/MacOS/Android. FOSS advocates talk more about the freedom to use the software as you see fit (which is why DT has so many different methodologies) as well the ability take your data elsewhere (which is why DT uses sidecar XML files). The focus on cost of most articles handling FOSS is more on the transactional cost of a subscription or program, and not on the added cost associated with being locked into a platform that may become buggy, become abandoned, or become unwieldy. My daughter's senior project in video arts was voted best in show, best in program (amongst her fellow students), best in school (amongst all media program projects) and chosen by the Royal Television Society as the best student project for her region. After her student discount lapsed, she was not longer able to edit her award winning video unless she paid the monthly subscription fee. As a FOSS advocate, that doesn't seem like freedom.

Nils Heininger's picture

Sure, that might hurt and I also agree with you that it's really bad not being able to work on your existing projects after the ending of your subscription. It's clearly a disadvantage - in theory. But practically speaking: Once I'm done with a video project, I will rarely go back to it. Too many times I even think about deleting the original footage. Because Why on earth would I reuse it (eventually, I decide against it, "just in case")?When editing potographs a second or third time, I will completely start from scratch on, anyway.

Jan Holler's picture

Nils, thank you for the article. To me it seems there should be a 4th part after you got even more experience with darktable. I am sure you'll find it intuitive after a while. For years I used the 'base curve' module along with a calibrated input color profile of the camera(s). Now I redo some of my photos with 'filmic rgb' and the redone 'noise reduction profiled' while using prophoto rgb as input color profile. As far as I can say at the moment: It is impressive!

PS: Title says: "Should You Dare Switching Over?" Is that proper English? Shouldn't it read: Should You Dare to Switch? But never mind, I just got insecure.

(edit: spelling of title)

Ken James's picture

Oh gosh no, proper English! Ok then, check your spelling of Title (Titel?)


Nils Heininger's picture

No problem, I've got thick skin and I think it was meant as constructive criticism.

Ken James's picture

No problems, I just thought it was funny. 😂

kgoulet's picture

After years of the basic sliders on the editor provided by the camera manufacturer, I started looking at advanced software. I am trying dark table and I think you nailed the issues. I'll stick with darktable mainly because it's a hobby and time isn't so much an issue. Good article.

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