Darktable vs Lightroom – Does it measure up?

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Recently I was introduced to a free open source RAW file editor called Darktable. I know most everyone loves free stuff and quality RAW file editors are not easy to come by with a price tag of $0.00, so I thought it would be worth taking a quick look at Darktable vs Lightroom here on DPS.

I’d like to preface this article with a simple disclaimer…

I’ve only spent a handful of hours with Darktable and therefore by no means have I mastered the workflow and features packed into it. My intention here is to introduce it to you and share with you some of my experiences within the first few hours of opening it up. Is it for you? I can’t say that for sure, but if you’re like me, and you’re saying – “Did he just say free?” – than why not head on over to Darktable’s website and get your own copy today.

General Overview

Darktable is no slouch when it comes to RAW file processing. In fact, it is probably one of the better free options that I’ve come across in my travels. If there is one flaw with the software I’d have to say that it boils down to its learning curve. It simply has A LOT of tools, and as a result the interface ends up feeling a bit cluttered and confusing to a first time user.

Darktables-tool-set

Basic Processing

Overall the basic processing will feel very similar to Lightroom. The tools are broken into different groups, you still move sliders around to manipulate the photograph, and you have various ways of doing the same action. It feels very much like it was inspired by Lightroom and while there are some similarities, it is also very different in what it can, and can’t do.

I’m not going to go through everything in this article, but rather, just show you a couple of generic examples that I ran through both Darktable and Lightroom 5.

In this first example I’ve spent a bit of time processing a very simple photograph of a flower. I thought this would be a nice simple start to get my feet wet with the program.

Darktable-Free-Lightroom-alternate-07

Darktable Screenshot – Before

Notice how Darktable’s imported image appears slightly underexposed compared to that of Lightroom. While this isn’t a big deal, it is interesting that the same RAW file displays differently by default within the two programs.

Darktable-Free-Lightroom-Alternate-08

Lightroom Screenshot – Before

Overall the workflow for processing images is much simplier and more streamlined in Lightroom, but both pieces of software do perform quality edits on the flower. While I did try my best to get the two edits to come out to be the same, they did end up a bit different. This isn’t necessarily a flaw of Darktable, just that its layout of sliders, nomenclature, and the way the algorithms and coding behind the scenes work to process your edits are different.

Darktable-Free-Lightroom-Alternate-06

Darktable final edit

Darktable-Free-Lightroom-AlternateLR

Lightroom final edit

Another Example

Another example, which I thought might be more difficult for Darktable to handle, was a photograph taken just after sunset. It was part of a bracketed set of images and was slightly underexposed. My goal here was to see how Darktable performed at recovering shadows from underexposed areas while retaining the highlight details in the sky and reflections.

Darktable-Free-Lightroom-Alternate-03

Darktable Screen Shot – Before

You can see here, once again, the original RAW file imported into Dartable is slightly darker compared to that of Lightroom. Potentially this is something that could be fixed within the settings of the program, but either way, it is a consistent trend in my experience.

Darktable-Free-Lightroom-Alternate

Lightroom Screenshot – Before

As I mentioned, the goal for this edit was to recover the foreground shadows along the tree line and retain the highlight detail just above the horizon and within the reflections.

Darktable-Free-Lightroom-Alternate-04

Darktable Final Edit

You’ll notice that while Darktable was able to dramatically improve the photograph, Lightroom was able to retain more detail in the brightest and darkest regions of the original photo. This wasn’t surprising to me as Lightroom has only recently had this much control over these areas of the photograph and I can only imagine how much math goes into creating the code behind the operations that we perform with a simple move of a slider.

Darktable vs Lightroom

Lightroom Final Edit

Bottom Line

Darktable is a powerful RAW image processor – there’s no question about that – and for the price of $0.00 it is an attractive alternative to Lightroom. It’s not going to replace Lightroom for me and probably won’t for anyone who currently uses Lightroom, but if you’re absolutely set on paying nothing for a RAW file processor, Darktable might be the perfect choice for you.

Over to you – have you used Darktable? What are your own experiences with it? Do you have any tips to share with those who are trying it for the first time?

Read more from our Post Production category

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  • I find it hard to believe there will be a Windows port ever. See: http://www.darktable.org/2011/07/that-other-os/

    I’ve used Linux about as long as it has existed, from something like 1992 (a CS student in Helsinki, Finland, couldn’t have missed it) so when I needed an photography workflow software I first found Aftershot Pro by Corel. I liked it, but then I found Darktable and switched to it – not because Aftershot Pro was bad but because I doubt the commitment of Corel to the Linux port.

    I have now access to an OS X laptop so I will be able to check Lightroom. However, Darktable has served me very well on both OS X and Linux

  • Nathan Hubbard

    Dunstan,

    Would you care to share a little bit about your file naming conventions, directory structure and approach? I’m working this out now and would love to hear your thoughts.

  • John Judge

    The 2 best cross-platform photography programs I have found are LightZone and Luminance HDR. For this poor photo-taker they have worked great over the last year. Tho I now have LightRoom and Photomatix I really can not justify the cost for what I am doing…..

    To my eye they ALL look different, and they all do a good job. As for DarkTable, I place that in the same league as Gimp, too much of a curve for someone who just wants his pictures to look fine without all the hassle…

  • ipaco
  • VolluzPhoto.com

    Thank you for the comparison. I am, unfortunately, just beginning the search for an Aperture alternative. I agree with the above comments, that I will not pay a monthly fee for the use of software and I will not store photos in the “cloud”. Every time I visit the Adobe web site, looking for a computer stand alone Lightroom 6 product, I am channeled to their Creative Cloud model.

    However, I believe I saw Lightroom 6 available as a download at B&H for about $143.

    I am also more interested in open source programs because I am tired of incessant upgrade fees that seem to come more frequently the more we come to relay on software. Then I can donate a fair amount to an organization that really supports the user on a reasonable schedule.

  • Frog

    Yes, me too…

    Darktable looks great and really high level, but I usually use windows, so…

    On windows, I use PT Photo Editor(free edition) a lot as a free alternative of lightroom. If you’re not a fan of linux, and not developing RAW, you should take a look at it.

    http://www.photo-toolbox.com/free/pt-photo-editor.html

  • stormwatchNL

    The base curve is by default set to a certain setting, that’s why the picture is underexposed at import and export 😉

  • Bumsfallera

    The different look the imported RAW images have are due to the different profiles loaded for certain cameras. The Image curves with the loaded profiles are turned on by default. You can switch them off….
    Also the selected color model does make a difference, especially for picture export.

  • Ya, how dare companies want to provide employment, and make a profit. o_O

  • ZoubIWah

    For me its not about not paying for software but about darktable being open source.
    i added support for my canon camera as soon as it was out while lightroom didnt have support for it.

    also it ensure the software will always do what i want, not go in the cloud-adobe bullcrap.

    now then again darktable sliders arent as precise as lightroom for some reason and its also a little bit more work with darktable to achieve the same result as lightroom. Some controls are a little awkward too.

    that said, theyre both still pretty close and darktable doesnt have much to improve to get to a level that would replace lightroom fully for me. its mostly UX stuff that needs improvements – the algorithms work well and the result is high quality.

  • Moose05

    Just recently dumped Windows 10 for Xubuntu 15.10 and Darktable has been my go to Lr replacement software. Yes, it looks very difficult and cluttered but you’ll soon recognize everything, then it’ll become natural. Like someone else mentioned, it’s not about it being free but being open sourced, no BS account login, no tracking whatsoever. It’s nice. For Raw processing you can also give RAWTherapee, Digikam, and UFraw a try.

  • Moose05

    FYI: Darktable 2 was just released a couple of weeks ago.

  • bmike1

    There is a very simple way to work around this: go to a local university/college and buy their used equipment. Then download Linux (my favorite is Mint) and install it on the computer. After the install open a terminal and type in ‘sudo apt-get dist-upgrade’ and do what it tells you to do. When that is done type in ‘sudo apt-get install dark table gimp’ and do what you are asked to do. At the end of this process you will have an incredible photo editing center for (what cost me) $60 (if you need a monitor will cost you more).

  • Frank

    Yes, I think so, too. Used it in the Linux Mint Distro. And the stunning point is, that I receive upgrades for new cameras and lenses for free as well. I.E. my Samsung NX3000 which I purchased used via ebay was detected with Darktable without any flaws and it was not with Lightroom 4. So one has to upgrade Lightroom every few years with new camera models. Not so with Darktable. Great stuff!

  • Larry Coles

    Being a traditional analog 2nd Gen Photographer, I was taught do it right at the camera, but I am active in GuruShots competitions, and though my shots were competing fairly well, I wasn’t pulling the big numbers. I decided to sit and analyze the top 100 or so in each contest to see what they were doing. It was quite obvious they were doing a lot of post processing, and I wasn’t.
    I have long since quit using Windoz products, and am an avid Linux (Mint) user, and was pleased to discover DarkTable. The software was developed as a co-operation between programmers and photographers all over the world. They designed it from a photographers prospective.
    Learning DarkTable is a project especially for someone who wasn’t doing image modification. I had had it installed for a couple years, but looked at it and decided it was just too much. But when forced to review my thinking on it. I decided to wade in. I downloaded and printed the online manual for DT series one, and it was about 60 pages, so between the book, help videos from DT’s online link, and others on YouTube, I began to see how its work flow worked. I began to dig back through Raw images I had blown, or wasn’t happy with. Soon I became power hungry, and was over manipulating my images, but the phase passed and I learned to quickly resolve most any issue I encountered. Have I mastered it yet, no! but that will come. Since then DT is into the 2.x.x series, and it has taken quite a leap forward from series 1.x.x. Personally I don’t like Adobe anything, nor do I want much of anything to do with Windoz. but Darktable is a blast!
    DT is non distructive of your original Raw image with a side file that records all file changes instead of changing your original file.

    You can modify the EXIF file on the image to amend your data info. and name, describe, your shot and even search for that image by the exif info.
    DT provides Tethering ability between your camera and the program to give infinite control of your camera at the computer.

    There is so much the program can do, but also consider that you can cross over from DT to Gimp, an open source program like Photoshop to do even more, and with the Raw addition for Gimp, cross back and forth for total control of your images.
    Though, DarkTable is not available for Windoz, it is available to all “Unix” based operating systems including MAC.

    Most Linux operating systems can be downloaded from the web, for free in an ISO format that can be burnt to a DVD or a USB device and ran directly off the device without installing to the harddrive so you can test it even on the web. ZDNet publishers have repeatedly advised their readers to leave Windoz and the problems with the OS and go Linux and they recommended LinuxMint.

  • Michael Mantion

    I’m a capitalist so that comment sounds like an anti-capitaliat excuse for a bad product. By you logic if I bottle tap water people. Would buy it, and make me Rich. No one is dumb enough to waste money on bottle tap water. Well maybe there are a few idiots, I guess those are the same people who use paid software when free software is better.

  • sar·casm
    [?sär?kaz?m]
    NOUN
    the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.

  • Owen Iverson

    i hate when articles don’t provide publish dates 🙁

  • Rhonald Moses

    Never a fan of post-processing until I forced myself to use Darktable (Since I am GNU/Linux users, lightroom is out of question and didn’t want to bother myself with Wine, etc.). It’s a miracle software. Sure, it has it’s own flaws, but it’s excellent and works well for me.

    They could do something about sliders (something like the slide buttons go big during mouseover – probably it will be a bit too much of animation). I usually use the mouse wheel above the sliders to overcome this issue.

    I didn’t find any Donate option on their website. Would definitely like to donate few bucks.

  • Rhonald Moses

    true, had to check the comments to know the date

  • Fred

    Would have been nice to know which Releases were comared. Sofware development moves on, so general information without reference to the compared Version numbers is not very valuable.

  • Spongman

    *ahem* half of all bottled water sold is just tap water.

  • Michael Mantion

    Yah that’s my point. People buy tap water and worthless software.

  • Maybe you must learn what is a RAW file and it will make obvious why the 2 apps have different processing and why none of them own the truth. 😉

  • Rhonald Moses

    I have been using Darktable for the past 8 months and found it Awesome… I have used Lightroom for a brief period of time and not happy with it (after having exposed to the vast control over images that Darktable provides).

    Additionally, I use GNU/Linux extensively for my personal use (I have used DT and LR on my Mac few months back and have got rid of Mac since then).

    It does take some time to get used to DT way of doing things and once you are use to it, man it’s an awesome post-processing software.

    Bought a System76 Galago Pro for portability and once I receive it, the last of Windows (Surface Pro 4) from my home is gone.

    Plus, Adobe’s cloud lock-in is horrible and the sooner we dump Adobe products, the world will get better

  • cjacja

    The OTHER option if you are forced to use Windows is to run Windows inside the virtual environs on a Linux host. Either way you have two desktops running at the same time but, using the Linux host makes Windows (finally) very secure.

    What you do is use VMware’s “snapshot” feature and after you do the clean install of Windows, then install the apps you need THEN take a SNAPSHOT. Now later at any point you can instantly recover to the point in time when you did the snapshot and have 100% confidence you have removed the virus or whatever malware you got. Yes a backup of the Windows system could do the same, but the restore process is not “instant” and using backup you’d never be 100% certain unless you did a disk re-format and complete reinstall. The snapshot restore is painless.

    VMs are good for making Windows safe to use on the Internet.

  • Craig Crowder

    That’s a really good idea. It’s not a simple setup, and it’s not really an answer to running darktable on Windows, but you make some really good points here.

  • Top Rock Photography

    Slide for rough control, mouse wheel for fine conrtol, [CNTRL]+MouseWheel for extra-fine control.

    Hopes that helps. 😉

  • I used Darktable, out of a matter of curiosity. What I found was that it does a pretty good job of recovering information from shadows, but absolutely fails in recovering from highlights. But, when I did finally come across an option that made an attempt at recovering highlights, it did so by creating sharply banded gradients… absolutely ugly. Lightroom vs Darktable? Lightroom by about a parsec.

  • Bernhard

    in the meantime it does … work on Windows

  • Bernhard

    You are looking for something like that:
    https://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/3899489
    and after 2 years
    https://www.dpreview.com/forums/post/59324818

  • Bernhard

    now this has changed … it all depends on people engaging:
    https://www.darktable.org/2017/08/darktable-for-windows/

  • wolf

    wow, thanks for clarifying that extremely important and critical detail re windows that should be mentioned at least twice in the article, upfront and with a banner. so as not to waste time reading about mac stuff.

    the reason OP had to add a disclaimer was because he otherwise would have posted nothing. and i just started searching for an installable LR alt option because google photos is pretty lame for anything but sharing.

  • Georg

    For fine-grained control of sliders: right-click and you will have *very* fine control with the mouse + can enter any value with the keyboard (or use ctrl / shift keys together with the mouse wheel).
    See also: https://www.darktable.org/usermanual/en/interacting.html#interacting_sliders

    I will only use Free/Libre Software for my photographs because I got burned when Bibble Pro was sold and discontinued… another lesson for me to never entrust digital data you truly care about to a proprietary program, as good or convenient as it might be.

  • cycleguy55

    darktable (not Darktable) has now been ported to Windows and it seems pretty stable. Except for printing it seems to have everything it does on Linux, etc. darktable uses CUPS for printing, and CUPS is not available on Windoze, so you need to export images and print them with something else (e.g. GIMP, Paint.net).

  • cycleguy55

    RawTherapee – not RawTherapy. http://www.rawtherapee.com/

  • Farrukh

    Why don’t you try to setup lightening?

  • Valdemar Klauber

    Nice review, but I would appreciate to know the date of the review.

  • Charu Malik

    your before and after images are amazing to watch. Thank you

  • Charu Malik

    you should submit this on hackr too. They would love it. https://hackr.io/tutorials/learn-darktable

  • invention13

    I recently bought a Fuji x100f. As a linux user, I decided to give darktable a try and shot raw while overseas on my vacation. It took a little bit of fooling around to get a handle on the workflow, but I have gotten to really like it. I really like the non-destructive editing aspect. As I get better, I can re-visit pictures and try different things more easily. What seems missing is a decent, in-depth guide on how to use it. A large collection of worked examples of pictures would really be helpful. I know there are a few on youtube, but someone should write a decent book.

  • Erki

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aU8z81INOBU

    Making image brighter in Darktable. Absolute pro.

  • Thomas Karlmann

    Do you honestly think that your “few hours” in Darkroom qualifies you to draw any conclusions? (I think, doubtful)

  • Ruby

    I purchased a Lightroom 6 upgrade through Amazon. Tried to put it onto my Mac desktop and was told that I would have to buy a program hat would enable me to upload it to my Mac desktop. Wasted about $200 I guess.

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