In this review, we’re going to take an in-depth look at Darktable – a free photo editing solution that many consider an alternative to Lightroom and other paid apps.
There are countless options for photo editing and file management software but all too often we fall into what I call the Lightroom Trap. I’ll explain what I mean in more detail shortly.
Adobe products dominate our consciousness due to their popularity, the company’s marketing strength, and the community bias towards them.
But, if you’re sick of paying for photo editing software and are looking for an alternative to Adobe, then Darktable may be for you.
(We already wrote a comparison of Darktable vs Lightroom.)
This probably raises quite a few questions for you – it did for me too! Questions such as, ‘How does it compare to what I currently have?’, ‘How good can free software be?’ and ‘Is it suitable for pro photographers?’.
Keep reading to find out the answers and much more in this Darktable review.
Table of Contents
What is Darktable?
- Excellent performance
- Wide range of functionality
- User-friendly design
- Confusing editing module groupings
- Could be stronger in managing shadow details
In a nutshell, Darktable is a free, open-source software solution for photo editing and file management.
Open source is a term used to describe software like Darktable that has been developed by a community of photography software nerds (said with the highest respect!)
Community members contribute to the development of the software as well as its ongoing functionality.
What’s more, this isn’t a closed community but an open one that encourages everyone to get involved if they have the skills. I find it quite a nice concept when compared to the alternative being a corporate monopoly.
While you may initially think that an open-source piece of software is going to be hack-built, think again! Darktable’s a great looking, robust, powerful and comprehensive post-processing tool.
Upon first glance, you’d almost mistake it for Lightroom thanks to its structured layout and appearance.
As for functionality, Darktable works as a non-destructive RAW image editing solution – meaning it makes completely reversible changes to your images. It features a full selection of functions and tools designed to support any level of a photographer.
Plus, it supports Mac OS, Windows and a bunch of other operating systems.
While Darktable is not an identical clone of Lightroom, there are a lot of similarities – most of which perform just as well and others that excel.
Plus, there are not many features that cannot compete with the performance of Adobe and other products.
All in all, Darktable is a one-stop-shop when it comes to comprehensive image editing.
One of the most important elements of an efficient workflow is being able to manage your RAW files in preparation for editing.
Without this, finding your images and keeping them organised is tough and will likely result in spending far too much time searching for a lost image.
With Darktable, file management is straightforward and effective. The software has a very handy and user-friendly layout with core functions broken down into separate pages or tabs.
The first of these is the Lighttable tab that’s designated for previewing images with core information and file management.
Lighttable is broken down into three key fields on the screen. The first is the left-hand panel where you can choose where images are being imported from, how you want them to be collected in groups and core information about the image.
The central panel is where all of your selected images (your catalogue) will be displayed as thumbnails. You can select how many images you want to see in a grid based on the size you set the thumbnails at.
It’s in this section that you can assign a star ranking and also a colour tab to each image.
These kinds of simple flags allow you to quickly locate images or groups of images for editing or export.
To the very right of the screen is the panel with the export functions where you can control your outgoing images and information. In this panel, you have functions such as Image Selection, Metadata Editor, Tagging and Export.
The export function is incredibly important as that’s the last step in your Darktable workflow. Fortunately, the app handles export functions like a pro and allows you to select destinations, file formats and quality with ease.
Within the Lightable tab, all functions are stored within collapsable mini-menus making it easy to clean up the appearance of your desktop and only see what you need.
A small criticism here is that when hovering over a menu or function, there is no pop-up explanation. This would make it much easier for beginners learning the software.
Cataloguing and creating images is fairly minimal in Darktable compared to a lot of other RAW file editors. It could do with some increased functionality so you can create collections and drag and drop images into new collections.
I did like the ability to sort your imported files by a range of different filters.
Where the Lighttable tab is all about file management, the Darkroom tab is all about RAW image editing.
This tab’s where all the action happens and is where you’re going to be spending most of your time. As a result, it’s important to get to know all the functionality of this tab.
I would highly recommend downloading the user guide – available in several languages – and take some time to get familiar with the editing processes you’re wanting to use.
While you’re on the Darktable site, take a look at the extensive list of included cameras to ensure that your camera’s colour profile is available.
In addition, the best learning tool with any sort of software is to test it out for yourself. Load up an image and start testing out what each of the editing modules does and what each area of the desktop is for.
To help out, let’s take a closer look at the Darkroom tab section-by-section as it’s broken up into key areas.
First up, the left-hand side of the screen is home to a panel that includes the image preview. Below this is a number of collapsable menus relating to image information, complete image history and the ability to add tags, to name a few.
One of the best tools on this panel is the Snapshot function. With this, you can click Snapshot and the screen will present your image split in half. One side shows the image before the current change and the other side shows the editing change.
Taking several snapshots as you progress through a thorough editing process allows you to quickly step back to see your progress.
Along the bottom of the Darkroom tab is a row of thumbnail images from the collection you’re working on. You can scroll these from left to right or hide them completely by collapsing this panel.
In fact, you can individually collapse all four sides of the tab so you only have the image in full screen.
To the right of the Darkroom tab is the core editing panel. The workflow for the editing tools is a little confusing at first as you have to work from left to right across groups and then down to access each editing module.
The editing tools are referred to as modules, and even with trial and error, I didn’t find the layout to be as user-friendly as it could be.
The first group allows you to show active modules. This will present a list of every editing module you’ve used so far.
Further to this, you can choose to turn the module off so that the editing change literally disappears from the image. Fortunately, you can turn this back on again.
It’s another handy little tool to let you quickly see the impacts of past editing changes and determine if you want to proceed with them active.
Moving across to the next group you’ll find your favourite modules that you have selected. I especially like this option as you can build your own list of modules to really streamline your workflow when processing images.
Next, we have the meat of the operation with groups that are packed with a full complement of editing modules. The Basic group allows you to control functions like base curve, tone, exposure, crop, rotate and white balance – each of these is expandable to show controls.
The Tone Group includes contrast control and RGB level control while the Colour Group features controls for colour profiles and colour balance. Some of the modules and groupings feel a little muddled up to me.
The Correction Group is where you go to control noise, haze, sharpness and lens correction. The final option is the Effects Group of modules where you can manage vignetting and masking.
The masking tools set up in Darktable are quite comprehensive with linear masking and a masking path tool for odd shapes. The latter means you can lasso a random shape and apply a mask to either the details on the inside or outside of the line.
A brilliant option in the user interface is the ability to use a parametric tool to mask an area based on its hue, luminance or brightness.
Finally, the software lets you combine masks to select sections of the image that are going to be impacted by editing changes.
Aside from the ability to build upon your own favourite group of editing tools from the existing groups, you can also add to the favourites from an extensive library of additional modules.
Overall, the collection of editing tools available in Darktable is comprehensive and delivers powerful and pro-level performance, although does have a bit of a learning curve, especially for first-time users of editing software.
What’s more, by using features such as the Favourite group, you can create as simple or complex a workflow as you like.
Map, Print, Slideshow and Tethering Tab
There is one last tab in Darktable that’s well worth a mention and that’s the one that groups Map, Print, Slideshow and Tethering. The titles are fairly self-explanatory but they’re also a great indication of just how well thought out this open-sourced software is.
The Map option will provide you with a map of the world and will show where your geotagged images were taken. This is great especially if you’re a travel photographer or want to more accurately document your travel pics.
As the name suggests, the Print option gives you full control of the Printer, Page and Print settings for those that like to print out their own work.
If you have a high-performance photo printer, then you can fine-tune the settings here to get optimal output and print quality.
The Slideshow option will deliver a typical slideshow based on the selection or collection of images you’re working with. I was a little surprised that the software crashed twice when I was testing this function when I was only using a handful of images.
Finally, there’s the Tethering function which requires you to first connect your camera to your computer using a USB cable.
Being able to shoot live and have the images import directly into Darktable is a pro-level tool and it works much the same as importing images from a drive or SD card.
Additionally, you can use the software presets to capture time-lapse or even bracketing for HDR stacking.
For a lot of professional photographers considering the jump to Darktable, one of their biggest questions is going to be about its performance. And that’s a fair question – especially when you’re editing photos for a living and need optimal performance to streamline your workflow.
Fortunately, I have good news to share about the overall performance of Darktable that will make pros think seriously about their choices.
For this Darktable review, I put it through its paces with importing, editing and exporting fairly large files out of my Fujifilm X-T3. I also tested its performance in managing batches of files in all the same situations.
Darktable handled everything I asked it to do without any noticeable issues that would have you tapping your fingers in frustration.
For reference, I am running an iMac with a 3.4 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 processor, 16GB of RAM and a Radeon Pro 560 4 GB graphics card. My OS is the latest macOS Catalina.
As I discovered when I compared Darktable to Lightroom, there’s only a marginal difference in overall performance.
Outside of the comparison and for those that have never used Adobe or any other app, Darktable was fast and powerful with minimal lag time in loading images or updating them with changes.
For free open-source software, that’s incredibly impressive – I take my hat off to the Darktable photography software nerds for achieving such a feat.
I promised to explain what I meant by the term Lightroom Trap. This is the state we find ourselves in when we have used a product like Lightroom for a long time and fear having to swap to something else.
However, with software like Darktable, the ability to break free from this state is made more attractive thanks to its comprehensive features and powerful performance.
Value for Money
The value for money analysis is pretty obvious and simple – Darktable is free! Pretty hard to compete with that even if it was a stinker…
But free doesn’t always equate to good and, in a lot of cases in life, we find that free often comes with caveats. Fortunately for you, Darktable’s list of excuses-because-it’s-free is pretty much non-existent.
As we’ve discovered, Darktable is a complete photo editing and file management solution with some powerful color correction tools to keep everyone from a beginner to an advanced photo editor happy.
Despite being free, Darktable goes toe-to-toe with most of Lightroom’s capabilities and in some cases punches above its weight.
What’s more, for those that are just starting out in photography, or those operating on a budget, Darktable is the perfect solution. Students and newbies alike can experience a fully-fledged post-processing tool that most pros would back.
Another consideration is that as Darktable is completely free, what have you got to lose?!
And this is the second reason to break from the Lightroom Trap. Like me, you probably feel that you’re paying for Adobe so you might as well make the most of it. And that may be true, especially if you also rely on Photoshop for its comprehensive features. But then again, there are alternatives for that too.
With Darktable, you can break free from monthly subscription services and have confidence that you’re getting just as good a RAW image editor for free.
Before you lay down your cash on a subscription service that includes products and benefits that you don’t want, you might as well give Darktable a shot.
Darktable Review | Conclusion
Darktable is a top-notch piece of RAW image editing software that makes a compelling argument for breaking free of the Lightroom Trap.
This comprehensive and powerful software is user-friendly, flexible and will suit those new to photography as well as seasoned professionals.
What’s more, and probably the best bit, is that it can confidently match some of the best editing platforms in the industry – all for free.
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re new to photography or looking for a change in editing tools, you’ve absolutely nothing to lose in downloading this free app.
Before long you’ll grasp and embrace all that Darktable has to offer and turn your photo editing game up a notch or two.
Plus, with all the money you save you can invest in more lenses – winner, winner, chicken dinner!
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand.