Playing with Darktable


I’ve been Adobe free for a couple weeks and the experience is different. I’d grown accustomed to my iPad workflow, so working primarily on my MacBook feels a bit weird. I am, however, learning some new software. Opportunities to learn are things I cherish, and actually make me happy for any hiccups I encounter 1. My current hiccups have me exploring a piece of software I wasn’t expecting to explore.

When I first jumped from Adobe my intention was to use On1 Photo Raw as my primary organizational and editing tool. This remains my intention, but the recent update to version 2019.5 has some serious bugs which need addressed before I can commit to the application. At present preview generation results in corrupt images, and loading times are painfully slow when trying to cull a photo shoot as On1 works to display the correct image. As these are rather important things for a DAM 2 to get right, I am a bit irked by these issues.

But, because On1 Photo raw just keeps files in the local filesystem, rather than importing them into a monolithic database, exploring another program is rather simple. And as a result the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time in darktable. To help me in this exploration, I’ve been watching an excellent tutorial series by Bruce Williams Photography. This ongoing weekly series has 41 episodes at the time of this writing, and goes over features that would have taken me months to figure out on my own. If you’ve ever considered darktable, but didn’t want to spend time figuring out the interface, I can’t recommend his tutorial enough.

So what do I think of darktable? I have a couple of thoughts.

Darktable’s lighttable view
From the start, darktable LOOKS like Lightroom. It behaves much differently.

Darktable is powerful. I cannot communicate that strong enough. Darktable is open source software, and it’s not always the most elegant-looking application, but it’s sheer power is just crazy.

This application is geeky. As an open source project, it’s really designed for folks who tend to hate hand-holding. The power of the project never wavers, but to unleash the power of the tool being a geek really helps. Things like filtering photos by date require a user to manually type in their operators 3, for example, which appeals to a more coder mind-set but leaves non-geeks wondering where the nice drop-down box is with all the options 4.

The interface is weird. Now, the more I use darktable the more I wonder if the weirdness of the interface is because it looks so much like Lightroom I expect it to function the same way. When it doesn’t, my mind rebels. I want it to act like Lr, right down the the keystrokes, but it refuses to fit into the mental category I’m trying to force it into. Some of the choices darktable makes for the interface, like using the scroll wheel to change the feathering in a mask, are really neat choices. They’re just so different from how I normally work. Oh, and don’t think you’ll find a helpful context menu with a right click. There isn’t one.

Darktable darkroom view
The editing tools in darktable are POWERFUL, but it can feel overwhelming.

It easy to see that it’s not a Mac-native app. Darktable doesn’t use the Finder to choose files, for example, and it’s scrolling behavior can be frustrating 5. Certain commands require the control-key to be pressed, instead of the Apple command-key. The combination of these quirks makes the application feel very alien on my Macbook. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get the application to recognize the command key in the shortcuts editor, which would actually help to make it feel more native.

It slows down fast as my folders grows in size. I took out two cameras to photograph a local bike race on Sunday, leaving me with about 300 photos to cull. Darktable got rather bogged down. I’m going to be migrating to an external SSD for my photo storage in the near future, however, which should speed up my experience.

There are so many options. In fact, there are almost too many options 6, but the open source community is all about choice, and the plethora of ways a photo can be developed give a ton of choice. Thankfully, modules can be favorited, so I don’t have to re-locate my desired modules in each session.

It has the best HSL 7 interface I’ve ever seen. It is a blast to use, and worth exploring the application for that reason alone. But it’s not called “HSL,” it’s called “Color Zones.” This is an accurate description of the module, but because it’s named so different it took me a while to find. Still, it’s pretty awesome.

Darktable’s color zones module
Darktable’s Color Zones module is the best HSL interface I’ve ever used.

I really like darktable, though I’m not sure I like it enough to use it full-time. It still can’t do batch-renaming, for example, which seems odd to me. As I explore it further, however, I may change my mind. Darktable is one powerful app. It’s quirky, but that also makes it fun.

  1. And with the recent announcements from Apple, I’m wondering if we’ll see an ability to have a DAM which reads an entire photo library off an external drive. That would be cool. 
  2. Digital Asset Manager. 
  3. Like “greater than” and “less than.” 
  4. The answer usually is, “But having to type in the text is faster, more flexible, and is a more elegant solution all around!” It’s not wrong, it’s just not always the most user friendly. 
  5. It won’t scroll through an editing module unless my mouse cursor is on the scroll bar, for example. 
  6. And some of the language used to name the modules feels arcane. Sometimes I have no idea what a module is supposed to do – and there’s no simple “black” and “white” sliders anywhere. 
  7. Hue, Saturation, Lightness.