Darktable Review: Free Digital Darkroom Software for Mac and Linux

Darktable is a free and open-source RAW converter for Apple Mac OS X, Linux, and now Windows users. Its name is formed from it serving the dual features of being a virtual light table for viewing images in bulk and a virtual darkroom for processing your RAW files, like NEF, CR2, or ARW.

Darktable Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

OS X users have a few options for processing their RAW files, including commercial applications in the form of Adobe Lightroom and Apple's own Aperture, and some other free applications, such as Lightzone and Photivo. Linux users also have the option of Lightzone and Photivo. Windows users can use Lightroom and Corel Aftershot, as well as a slew of others.

Interestingly, Darktable also supports tethered shooting so you can connect a compatible camera and see a live view on screen as well as review your images immediately after shooting them on a large screen. This, though, is a relatively specialist application that will probably only be of interest to a minority of users, so it's not a feature that we will concentrate on.

However, we'll take a closer look at Darktable and hopefully give you an idea as to whether it's an application that may be worth you trying out for your own digital photo processing.

The User Interface

Lighttable view in Darktable screenshot


For many years OS X and the apps running on it have dished up a level of style to their users that was sorely lacking on Windows. While there isn't quite the same gulf nowadays between the two platforms, we still generally find working on OS X a more aesthetically pleasing experience.

At first look, Darktable seems to offer a slick and good-looking user experience, but we have some concerns that form and function aren't as well balanced as they could be. Dark themes are especially popular with most contemporary image editing applications and on our iMac, the overall effect of Darktable is subtle and sophisticated. However, on the third-party monitor attached to our Mac Pro, the low contrast between some of the gray tones meant that viewing angles didn't have to move too far off optimal for aspects of the interface to blend together imperceptibly.

Boosting the brightness to full and not slouching did help to address the issue and this is probably not something that will affect most users, but it could be relevant to some users with imperfect vision. In a similar vein, the font size in some aspects of the interface, such as when browsing for files, is somewhat on the small size and may make for uncomfortable reading for some users.

The Lighttable

Darktable screen shot


The Lighttable window has a range of features that will help you to manage your photo library within Darktable. The center part of the window allows you to preview the photos within a selected folder, with a handy zoom control to adjust the thumbnail size.

On either side of the main panel are collapsible columns, each of which contains a number of features. To the left, you can import individual image files, complete folders or navigate attached devices. Below that is the collect images panel and this is a rather neat way to search for images based on a variety of parameters, such as the camera used, the lens attached and other settings such as ISO. Combined with the keywords tagging feature, this can make navigating your way through your photo library very easy with lots of flexibility in how you search files.

In the right-hand column, there are a few interesting features available. The Styles panel allows you to manage your saved styles – these are basically presets for processing images in a single click that you create by saving the History Stack of an image you've worked on. You also have the option to export and import styles so that you can share them with other users.

You've also got a couple of panels on the right for editing image metadata and applying tags to photos. You can specify new tags on the fly that you can reuse on other images. The last panel on the right is for geotagging and in some ways, this is a really clever feature for users whose cameras don't record GPS data. If you have another device that will track this information and output a GPX file, you can import it into Darktable and the application will try to match photos to positions in the GPX file based on each image's timestamp.

The Darkroom

Darkroom view in Darktable screenshot


For most photo enthusiasts, the Darkroom window is going to be the most important aspect of Darktable and we think few users will be disappointed here.

As you'd expect with any powerful application, there is a bit of a learning curve, but most users with a little experience of similar apps should be able to get to grips with most features relatively quickly and without resorting to help files.

With the History panel to the left of the working image and the adjustment tools located to the right, the layout will feel familiar to Lightroom users. As you work on an image you can save snapshots allowing you to compare different stages of your processing to help ensure you end with the best result possible. You can also see the entire history of your work below that and revert back to an earlier point at any time.

As mentioned, the right-hand column is home to all of the different adjustments and there's a wide range of modules available here. Some of these you will turn to for every image that you process, while others you may venture to rather more rarely.

There's something quite interesting about these modules that we don't think jumps out immediately, but we feel is very useful. You can create more than one instance of each module and this is effectively a system of adjustment layers, with each module having a blending mode control that is turned off by default. It makes it very easy to try different settings for a single module type and switch between instances to compare or even combine multiple versions of the same module, using different blending modes. This does throw up a wide range of options for the development process. The one small thing missing from this for us is an equivalent of a layer opacity setting which would be a very easy way to moderate the strength of a module's effect.

The modules present the usual types of adjustments that you'd expect to find, such as exposure, sharpening, and white balance, but there are also some more creative tools like split toning, watermarks, and Velvia film simulation. The wide range of modules makes it easy for users to concentrate on more straightforward image processing or to get much more creative and experimental with their work.

Something that we found ourselves missing in our short time was any form of an undo system beyond the History Stack. It's instinctive for us to press Cmd+Z after adjusting a slider in a module to revert the slider back to the previous setting if we feel the edit didn't improve the image. However, it has no effect in Darktable and the only way to undo such a change is to do so manually, meaning that you need to remember the first setting yourself. The History Stack seems just to keep track of each module that is added or edited. This is for us a bit of an Achilles Heel of Darktable and as the bug tracking system rates the priority of introducing such a system as 'Low', some two years after a user commented upon this, it probably isn't something that is going to change in the near future.

While there is no dedicated clone tool, the spot removal does allow you to perform basic healing-type adjustments. It's not the most powerful system but should suffice for more basic needs, though you'll probably need to export to an editor like GIMP or Photoshop for more demanding cases. In fairness, though, the same comment can also be applied to Lightroom.

The Map

Map view in Darktable screenshot


As we said at the beginning, we're not looking at the tethering capability of Darktable and so have skipped to the final window which is the Map.

If an image has geotagging data applied to it, then it will be displayed on the map which can be a handy way to navigate through your library. However, unless your camera applies GPS data to the images or you undertake the trouble of recording and then synchronizing a GPX file with imported images, you will have to add location data manually.

Thankfully that's as simple as dragging a photo from the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen onto the map and dropping it at the correct location.

By default, Open Street Map was the map provider displayed, but you have a number of options to choose from, though you do need an internet connection to make use of this feature. With Google's satellite view included as an option, it is possible to get very accurate locations where there are suitable landmarks to judge the positioning against.


Darkroom view in Darktable screenshot


We'd used Darktable briefly once before and hadn't really got to grips with it and so hadn't expected to fall for it on closer inspection. However, we've found it to be a much more impressive package than we'd anticipated. We think that perhaps part of this is down to the interface not making things as obvious as they could be meaning that you really do need to read the documentation in order to understand the full capabilities of Darktable. For instance, the button for saving styles is a small abstract icon that's almost lost at the bottom of the History panel.

However, the documentation is good and, unlike some open source projects, all of the features are clearly documented, meaning you can use all the features without having to discover them for yourself.

Unlike some RAW converters, there is no option to make local edits at this time, although the development version of the software has introduced a masking system that looks like it will bring a very powerful new feature to the application when added to the production version. We'd also like to see a more powerful clone tool feature added at some point.

While an undo system would also be on our wish list, it appears this isn't going to happen in a hurry, if at all. We feel that does detract from the user experience, but we're sure most users would get used to it quite quickly and would learn to make a mental note of the last slider setting before making adjustments.

All in all, we found Darktable to be a very impressive piece of software for photographers looking to develop their RAW files and also to apply more creative effects. It will also handle the management of an extensive library of images in a range of ways, including by location.

At this time, there are a few negatives that detract from the overall user experience; however, despite that, we've rated Darktable at 4.5 out of 5 stars and we believe it offers an excellent solution for Mac OS X users.

You can download your free copy of Darktable.

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