Free and Open Versus Subscription Part 2: Can Darktable Create Better Edits Than Lightroom?

Editing software gets more efficient every day. While competitors like Luminar continue challenging the supremacy of Adobe, there are also free options available. I was surprised that Darktable was ahead of LIghtroom in some features.

Can We Compare Two Such Different Programs?

Comparing Darktable and Lightroom in its capabilities as a photography library wasn’t all that hard. Although some of the comments of the article emphasized the unexpected depth behind Darktable’s Lighttable, both programs worked quite similar.

In the case of the editing process, it’s a little more like comparing apples with oranges. Lightroom and Darktable operate very differently which is actually why this topic is so interesting to me. Darktable is much more complex and works like a mixture of adjustment layers from Photoshop on a Lightroom-like surface.

Apples and oranges can both be eaten. They are healthy and taste sour. Comparison is hence possible. Both programs are made to make photographs look good, both programs work non-destructive and both of them offer different modules. A thin but stable foundation for comparison.

Disclaimer: I tested Darktable a lot during the last few weeks, listened to the last article’s recommendations, and took a bit of information from everywhere. Yet, I’m not an expert. In Darktable, there are a lot of different methods (I’d say infinite) to reach your editing goals with only slight differences. Lightroom on the other side is quite linear when it comes to its workflow.

Whenever I did not achieve to reach my goals with Darktable, I bet there is a solution. Yet, usability is one of the most important features for any modern software. So here is my opinion.

Round One: Make the Crop

The first step in editing my photographs has always been resizing a photograph and – god forgive me, but after all those years I still suffer from slightly skew horizons – level the photograph. I am used to a quick and easy two-click solution in Lightroom.

The Crop module in Darktable offers me some more options and gives me a little more information about the changes. Besides the angle and aspect, I can also adjust the grid in more detail. Moreover, when you right-click on a dial, a smart map appears and offers you more control about small or bigger changes. In Lightroom, I can’t use the slider for the smallest adjustments, but need to type a number instead.

The Crop module seemed quite impressive – until I used it. Again, I guess there will be a solution, somehow. But the crop drove me nuts. Instead of taking ten seconds to adjust the size and angle, it took me minutes. The operation was slow and buggy, often resulting in strange angles that I didn’t plan.

Round one clearly goes to Lightroom, although the ideas of Darktable seemed great.

Round Two: Shadows, Highlights, and Overall Exposure

While cropping an image is done in one module alone, setting the exposure is not that easy in Darktable. Here, you will come across the huge difference between the two programs. Adjustments in Darktable work as layers. There is a default option for the order of the modules and you should really not change them if you’re not an expert.

Also, there is some issue with the color space. While some of the modules still work in the LAB space, others work in RGB. The topic is quite complex and there is a lot of development at the moment.

However, different modules bring you to the same result. In the end, you will have to open more than one module to achieve what the Basic Adjustment panel in Lightroom does. I found myself using Exposure, Filmic RGB, Base Curve, and Shadows and Highlights to get a proper exposure in every area of my photograph.

Four modules for what can be achieved in the Local Adjustments alone? Not too handy, especially as scrolling between the modules requires pointing at the scroll bar. Probably there is a way around it, too, but I couldn’t find it quick enough.

At least the Tone Curve of Darktable is quite straight forward, but as you might know, a tone curve can never replace the Basic Adjustments. There is also a Basic Adjustments module for Darktable, but I won’t recommend it.

Darktable is definitely more complex (i.e. complicated) than Lightroom, but once you have an idea what you’re doing, it’s also amazingly flexible. Every editing workflow results in a different outcome. I find it quite exciting and deliberating, at least.

After playing around with the modules, I only faced one major and unsolvable problem. When I tried to edit a severely overexposed sky, whatever I tried in Darktable turned the blown highlights purple. Color Adjustments couldn’t help to fix it and so I needed to leave that photograph unedited. It didn’t happen to any other image, but unfortunately, it was the first picture I tried.

Round Two still goes to Lightroom. In my opinion, a quick and easy way to adjust the exposure is more important than the flexibility which Darktable offers. Still, I’d never say that Darktable doesn’t work well. You just need to read the manual, watch videos, and ask the really helpful community for help. When you’ve got a deadline to meet, you’ll probably work a sweat as a Darktable beginner.

Round Three: Make It Pop

Whenever I edit a really promising photograph, I like to make it pop with local adjustments. Lightroom does a pretty nice job here. Brushes, gradients, radial filters are all yours. I thought that’s all you need. Before I met the masking options in Darktable.

Darktable gives you the full range of masking options: Paths, gradient, radial, brush, and also parametric masks which go far beyond the range masks of Lightroom. Once you created a mask, you can easily put it on every module.

After my issues with cropping an image, I would have never expected that masking could be so intuitive. You smoothly change the feather of your mask by hitting Shift and scrolling. Scrolling alone will change the mask’s size (or even the shape of the gradient), and let alone the paths…

Let’s admit it, we all had to learn how to create proper paths in Photoshop and we only accepted it, because there was no alternative. Creating a path in Darktable is as easy as it can be – and should be. A few clicks and you’ve got a pretty shaped area to edit, that’s all.

As you might have guessed from my enthusiasm: Darktable clearly wins the third round, even though Lightroom already performs well in local adjustments. Darktable offers the same or even easier usability and yet more flexibility. This was a turning point for me.

Round Four: Spot Removal and Cloning

I spend a lot of my time outside and my camera does, too. I took photographs in the desert, needed to change lenses at the beach, and generally prefer to clean my camera instead of not making it dirty in the first place. Sometimes, it results in a temporarily bad state of my sensor and I need to remove a lot of spots in post-processing.

Content awareness is one of the strengths of Adobe’s editing software and I don’t expect free and open software to compete. Yet again, Darktable performed better than expected. Spots are easy to remove and you won’t detect my lack of cleanliness in the final image. Just every now and then, the spot removal copied another spot into my sky. In these cases, I had to shift the source by hand, which was no problem at all. It also happened to me in Lightroom a few times in the past.

But what happens if I want to get rid of bigger parts of the photograph? Again, Darktable impresses me. The result of my 15-seconds cleaning up the beach look quite compelling.

Only one thing bothers me: I’m used to navigating through a photograph in Lightroom using the “hand” tool by pressing Space. In Darktable it didn’t work, but probably you will find it in some preferences and shortcut options. I won’t go as far as giving a penalty to Darktable for that.

Hence, round four is undecided.

Round Five: Colors

Only recently, I started to work a lot more with colors in my photographs. Lightroom offers a few handy tools: The HSL panel and the Color Grading, formerly known as Split Toning.

Darktable’s Split Toning module works with colorizing darker or brighter parts of the image, just like the former Split Toning module in Lightroom did. Since the update to Color Grading, Lightroom is a little ahead here, but it lacks the capability of adding masks.

Yet, I use split toning only to add a final style to an image, the real magic happens in the HSL part, where you can shift the hue, saturation, and luminosity of a certain color area. Quite easy to use, you might think? Then you haven’t tried Darktable’s Color Zones, I guess.

I went from “Uhh, that looks interesting” to “Oh my god, this is brilliant” within a few seconds. Color Zones doesn’t work with conservative sliders, but with a handy colored curve for each of the three options. It makes working on colors so much more intuitive and even more flexible than the HSL panel. Both might result in quite equal effects, but if I ever go back to Lightroom, I’ll really miss this option.

Round Five clearly goes to Darktable because of its surprising usability and quick calculations.

Closer Than I Thought

It’s really difficult to make a final decision here. On one hand, Darktable opens almost infinite options to edit your photographs. On the other hand, it lacks usability, where I need it the most. Basic adjustments and crops are needed for almost every photograph. Still, it surprised me with fresh ideas and editing concepts. I didn’t expect many features to work so smoothly and even outperform Lightroom in terms of usability. Local adjustments and masking or color grading is quick and fun.

Here’s a quick recap.

What I liked in Darktable’s Darkroom

  • Endless opportunities by copying and redefining modules
  • Masks can be easily edited and added to modules
  • Paths are created quickly
  • Different options to shift sliders
  • Many modules operate quickly
  • Some modules are very user friendly
  • Most modules offer a lot of options
  • Spot removal and cloning work accurately
  • Color Zones are a game-changer

What Could Be Improved

  • The Crop module makes me angry every now and then
  • Basic adjustments generally work but are far more complex
  • Many modules require a lot of research to understand
  • Too many modules can be intimidating in the beginning
  • First steps are harder than in other programs

What about your experiences with Darktable? Did you suffer? Or did your first steps even encourage you to switch or stay? And what’s your favorite module and workflow? Before I feel comfortable writing my final roundup, I’ll give Darktable another week or more and look forward to any suggestion.


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