darktable 3.6 Gives Lightroom a Run for Its Money

The open-source digital darkroom is kind of the same, only different—and better

Key Takeaways

  • darktable is a free, open-source photo editing application that’s been around since 2009.
  • In July, darktable released one of two product updates scheduled for this year, offering users an improved editing experience.
  • Overall, the application performs just as well as its more costly commercial competitors—and offers some unique features you won’t find anywhere else.
darktable’s darkroom mode with an image opened

darktable

On July 3, darktable announced the release of version 3.6. Promising loads of improvements and new features, the free digital darkroom seemed primed to take on its commercial counterparts—so I decided to give it a test drive.

Since launching in 2009, darktable has offered photographers a high-quality photo editing experience without the financial burden of expensive software or endless monthly subscriptions. The application is also open-source, which is always an added bonus. Boasting features like customizable panels and cinematographic color adjustments, the new update seemed like a game changer and I was excited to see how it stacked up against similar commercial software.

"The darktable team is proud to announce our second summer feature release, darktable 3.6. Merry (summer) Christmas!" the team behind darktable said in a blog post. "This is the first of two releases this year and, from here on, we intend to issue two new feature releases each year, around the summer and winter solstices."

Customize All The Things!

Okay, maybe not all the things—but all the important things.

As most digital photographers know, there are about as many different ways to edit a photo as there are photographers in the world, and none of them is any more "right" than the others.

That said, having options to customize your workspace is important. I’m a big fan of customization options when it comes to software and apps in general, but it’s especially critical when it comes to photo editing. Nothing beats having the ability to find the tools you need when the inspiration hits, and it’s just as important to be able to hide the tools you don’t use to streamline your process.

darktable’s darkroom mode, sharpening an image

darktable

The first thing I fell in love with about darkroom 3.6 was having the ability to customize the quick access panel. Though the process felt a little old-school at first, requiring users to duplicate workflow presets before customizing, it was still straightforward and I appreciated being able to customize settings based on my personal preferences.

Colorists Rejoice

One of the cooler things (for me, at least) about darktable’s new release is the emphasis on cinematographic color adjustments. If you’re a fan of creating digital film emulations and incorporating cinematic color grading into your edits, you’ll appreciate the options available to you in darktable 3.6.

With its color balance RGB module and granular adjustment options, the color science features in darktable 3.6 combine many of the complex color controls found in powerful apps like Photoshop with a simpler, more intuitive interface akin to Lightroom—something I absolutely loved while using the app.

Something for Everyone

Other highlights of darktable’s new update include masking options, chromatic aberration refinements, a vectorscope, and a more straightforward import module in the app’s Lighttable (where users import photos to edit), among lots of other improvements. 

Whether you’re a color grading geek, a newbie, or someone looking for a more streamlined editing experience, there seems to be a little something for everyone.

darktable’s darkroom mode, split toning an image

darktable

According to the darktable website, the app supports every major camera brand and even some of the rarer ones like Pentax and Minolta. It runs on 11 different operating systemsm including Mac, Windows, Fedora, Linux, and more, and is available in 27 languages (including English) with the help of a huge team of translators.

Apart from those things being a generally impressive feat for an independent software project operating outside of Big Tech’s sphere, I think it also says a lot about the values of the team behind the app—especially given that it’s all free. 

Is It Worth It?

With all of the same features offered by pricier corporate giants (and then some!), darktable definitely stacks up against the competition. 

I’m already planning to make it part of my regular digital photo editing workflow, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next from the small team. With the app’s next update scheduled for December and promising even more improvements for color handling and high-ISO editing, I’m even reconsidering my Lightroom subscription.

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