I wanted to explore if freeware can perform better than the most common software subscription for photographers. Find out where Darktable, the free alternative for Lightroom, is ahead — and where it falls behind.
Can Freeware Be Better Than a Subscription?
Recently, I had to pay for my yearly Adobe subscription, and what can I say? It still hurts. Even though the subscription is part of my job and a necessary investment, every December, I get an early, unwanted Christmas gift. At the same time, some of the readers of my and fellow writers’ articles asked for educational content about Darktable. I love input and suggestions, but there's a problem: I have never worked with Darktable. My recent bill made the start easier, and I gave it a try.
Can freeware actually be an alternative to my subscription? In this article, I share my experience with the first steps in organizing photographs in Darktable and how the freeware compares to Adobe Lightroom Classic.
Round One: The User Interface
When I opened Darktable, I was quite surprised. It looks more like Lightroom than I expected. Just as Lightroom and Darktable both offer different services, they also include a section for organizing images. In Lightroom, it’s called the “library;" in Darktable, it’s the “lighttable”.
Both applications look quite similar at first. On the left side, you can find organizing tools which focus on collections of images, the right mostly focuses on tags and metadata. Lightroom also offers a histogram here, which I really miss in Darktable. For quick development, both also offer a tool to apply a preset on your images within one click.
Round one goes to Lightroom because of a peculiarity: the histogram, which I want to see while I am selecting and tagging images.
Round Two: Importing Your Photographs to Darktable and Lightroom
The first big difference between the applications starts right in the beginning of your workflow. Importing photographs in Lightroom happens only in the interface. You can import photographs from any source and create a copy on your local drive. I always use this feature to copy the files from my SD to my drive, where it is safely stored.
Darktable works differently, but I cannot say it’s worse. Actually, I appreciate it. Before you import your files, you need to manually copy them to a local drive. Darktable doesn’t create a copy for you. Although at first glance, this sounds like more work, it can also be the opposite. How often have I been in a rush and needed to start Lightroom and wait until it finished loading, copied files to the right directory, or created Smart Previews?
With Darktable, I simply put my content in a folder with a suitable name and import it whenever I want. Furthermore, Darktable will add a folder as a “film roll” to my collections. I prefer this way of organizing files, because I have more control of my originals’ locations. That’s also manageable with Lightroom, but more complicated in my opinion.
Just as Lightroom, Darktable also works non-destructively. It adds an .xmp file into the folder of your original picture, but it also saves the changes to a picture in the program itself. This way, you don’t lose your developing settings, even if you make a mistake somehow. On the other hand, the .xmp files are saved in your photo folder, where you might not want them to be. It’s not a problem for me, though.
What I don’t like is that I am used to working in catalogs in Lightroom, but Darktable doesn’t offer an equivalent system. I can only store all my photographs in the program. I wonder how that affects performance after a few years?
Round two goes to Darktable, but only by a hair, because I appreciate the organization in filmrolls and the control over my folders. It’s a private preference, after all.
Round Three: Usability of Preview Settings
Each of the two competitors offers different ways to review your photographs. They operate quite similarly in the two programs, but are located at different spots. You can zoom in and out of your collections, compare one photograph with another, or look at each image one by one.
When you look at a grid of photographs, you can also magnify any photograph for a quick detailed review. In Lightroom, you need to hit the letter F on your keyboard to magnify your photograph, in Darktable, it’s W. A very cool and handy feature of Darktable shows when you hit CTRL + F: a large preview appears with a quick analysis of the sharpest area of the photograph. Why don’t you offer that, Lightroom?
Instead of the sharpness detector, Lightroom offers a scarily precise tool for identifying people, which Darktable misses. If you work a lot with people or wedding photography, or want to find family members in private photographs, this might be a useful tool for you. I never used it, and I would totally love to exchange it for a quick sharpness glance.
Round three goes to Darktable. I fell in love with the sharpness preview.
Round Four: Rating, Flagging, Color Labels, and Tagging
I love my catalog to be organized. After every import, I will first select or reject each photograph, then edit and rate them, and change the color according to the purpose of an image: sold to a client, private project, used on my website, you name it.
Both applications offer me the same level comfort here. Darktable only offers the choice between rejecting and accepting, while Lightroom can flag, unflag, or reject photographs. I like photographs to have no flag before I sort them. This way, I can easily interrupt my review and — even after days or weeks — easily find the photographs which I still need to review.
The flexibility, which Darktable lacks in flagging, is counterbalanced by the flexibility in setting color labels. In Lightroom, you can only choose one color label; in Darktable, I can use five of them at the same time. That’s good for multi-purpose images in my workflow. On the other hand, the labels are quite small and hard to detect next to the star ratings. Rating works fine in both programs. In fact, there is no difference at all. Even the hotkeys are the same.
Each of the programs offer their own way of tagging your images. Unluckily, I think both of them are improvable. It's helpful that you can edit categories for tags and also add synonyms to each of the tags. Still, the process in both applications could be more intuitive. On the other hand, I guess that it'll become irrelevant in the near future. Software will probably analyze and tag the photographs for you.
Round four is hence undecided. Both competitors perform well, and the advantages of one are compensated by the advantages of the other.
Round Five: Search Function
I guess you’re not working on the metadata for fun, are you? The most important thing is finding your photographs when you need them. A lot of it is dependent on your own persistence in tagging, flagging, and labeling. But an efficient and easy-to-use search function is needed, too.
Here, I faced my first problems with Darktable. Adding rules for collecting images in the left window doesn’t work as quickly as the “Metadata Filter” of Lightroom. Darktable is very precise here, but not as quick and intuitive as Lightroom. In my first attempt of a search within my small catalog, it also showed pictures that did not fit into the rules I set. A big fault, even though it didn’t happen again.
Even if it was a mistake on my side, good software shouldn't let me make mistakes like this. The last round goes to Lightroom.
Summary of the First Comparison
I have looked at both Lightroom and Darktable as competitors of the same league and didn't consider the price yet. Surprisingly, I even found that Darktable even offers some features that are unavailable in Lightroom.
Although the total score is 2 to 2, it still tends to value Lightroom a little higher. Darktable worked fine so far, but Lightroom worked without any bugs and seemed to run more smoothly. For example, magnifying a photograph didn’t work with Darktable every now and then. In years of using Lightroom, I have hardly ever met a function that didn’t work. The design of Lightroom is also a little ahead of Darktable, in my opinion.
What I Liked About Darktable
- Great manual if you need help
- Quick sharpness analysis of any photograph
- Easy to use
- Concept of filmrolls
What Could Be Better
- I need a histogram in the lighttable
- It could be less complicated and more intuitive
- I'd like to use different catalogs
- Color labels should be more visible
Do you want to share your experience or add something that I’ve missed? I’m quite new to Darktable and would love to hear your experiences.
Next week, I will share my experience in editing photographs with each of the programs.