Why DarkTable?

At the start of this year I posted my article about Switching to Linux from MocOS (OS X). This was sparked by my New Years Resolution to escape from all the proprietary, controlled environments, services, tools and software that I have depended to used for over a decade of computing using a Mac and OS X.

Once the decision was made to switch I committed to using Ubuntu and free, open-source software. I already had time during my stays at UCSF in October ([see Personal Update](Personal Update)) to evaluate Linux (Ubuntu) and its photo application. Since Christmas I evaluated applications that I was using on my Mac Mini, in the end resulting in my New Year’s resolution.

This posting is about DarkTable answering the question I have been asked for some time now; Why are you using it?

As you know from my Workflow articles, my photo needs are straightforward. I don’t need a photo manager as I prefer my year/month/day folder structure. What I need is an application for RAW conversion and general post processing.

I was already familiar with DarkTable as I tried it out on my Mac before, put stuck to Aperture since that is all I needed. Therefore my first step after deciding to switch was to try other FOSS Photo apps to find the right one.

The first program I tried was Shotwell which is a lightweight application and is the default photo manager in Ubuntu. You can sort photos into events, add tags, edit them with a basic editor (crop, red eye, enhance, color correction), and upload photos to the places like Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa.

The negative for me was that Shotwell can’t work very well with a library across a network, specially from multiple systems. As per Shotwell‘s FAQ:

This is not recommended. Shotwell was not designed to support this use case, and the database can get into an inconsistent state. See this SQLite page on network access of a database file, in particular the problem of file sharing protocols not properly locking the database which can cause corruption.

Since I was not interested in a photo managing program that uses its own set of databases for cataloging, image meta data, thumbnails and/or editing changes, I ruled out Shotwell.

Next I tried digiKam simply because it was mention as being the one that rules Linux. As with Shotwell, digiKam too is using its own set of databases, however it does not suffer from the network restrictions. Regardless, I am not interested in any photo management application depending on its own database.

I also tried RawTherapee, but only briefly. For my taste it is just a bit buggy at times. Further, Photos looked pixelated until a slider is moved.

In the end, I decided to stick with DarkTable since it keeps all editing information in a separate XML sidecar file associated with each image. This means you can import a file into DarkTable, edit it, and then remove it from your Darktable collection without losing your edits, which remain in the XML sidecar. Later, if you re-import the image to your collection, your edits are still there.

I amid DarkTable wasn’t easy to love at first. Due to an abundance of controls, and the monotone labelling in darktable, there is a feel of clutter.

What’s great about DarkTable is that you can pick your own suite of post-processing commands and set them up in the right-screen sidebar, ready for use. It is the ease with which you can create custom masks for any image manipulation. That transforms post processing.

DarkTable isn’t an application found as a default on any Linux distribution, so you’ll need to search for a “DarkTable” package in your respective package manager in order to install it. Most major distributions should already have it in their repositories.

In DarkTable’s lighttable mode, you can import all of the photos you want to work with, and then double click on one to switch over to darkroom mode. Once you’re in darkroom mode, you can do whatever you want with the photo, including:

  • Snapshots (think action history / undoing)
  • Output color profile
  • Shadows and highlights
  • Input color profile
  • Base curve
  • De-mosaic
  • Crop and rotate
  • Base curve
  • Orientation
  • Exposure
  • White balance
  • Levels
  • Tone curve
  • Local contrast
  • Color correction
  • Monochrome
  • Sharpen
  • Lens correction
  • Vignetting
  • Grain
  • Graduated density

In conclusion, DarkTable is a very advanced application, and gives you fine-grained control over your photos. Since there is no magic enhance feature, you’ll have to play around with all of the settings yourself in order to get your photos to look the way you want them to. This is not an issue for me since I use DarkTable mainly for RAW conversion and if needed lens corrections.

Bottom-line, I don’t miss Aperture and OS X (MacOS)!