Last updated on February 16, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, travelling and making photos for 20 years. Read more Darktable - Photo Editing

From Lightroom to Darktable

How to import the catalogue avoiding my mistakes

So you are really thinking to move from Lightroom to Darktable, but you still have a big question mark, at least I had it.

How can I import the Lightroom catalogue in Darktable, keeping all the changes, presets, tagging and any work I did in Lightroom?

Moreover, can I recreate a similar working space to Lightroom?

You will find both answers in this post as well as a few mistakes I did, and you shouldn’t do

More reading on Darktable

In the below video, I cover most of the steps, however, I had to keep it as short as I could and I had to omit a few points that I instead added in this post

Remember to subscribe to the channel and tick that little bell to get notified every time I post a new video.

Don’t just move photos from Lightroom to Darktable

As you may already know, both Software are non-disruptive, which means they leave the original file untouched, either RAW or JPG (or any other format).

Darktable stores the editing for each photo in a sidecar file (XMP), meanwhile, in the standard configuration, Lightroom has one single catalogue file with the editing of all the photos.

Sidecar and catalogue files
Sidecar and catalogue files

There are advantages and drawbacks in both ways.

In Lightroom, you can also save the editing for each photo in a sidecar file, similar to Darktable. 

And this is what you need to do for the migration of your Lightroom Catalogue into Darktable.

If you just import the photos into Darktable you will lose all the working you did in Lightroom as keywording, rating, etc.

You will be also able to migrate the editing you did in Lightroom, however, based on my experience, in Darktable you will not get the same result.

This is not a limitation of Darktable or Lightroom that does not export correctly the editing.

It’s just the way Lightroom and Darkroom apply the changes and we have to live with that.

Sidecar file creations in Lightroom

To create a sidecar file in Lightroom you need to go on the photo, or set of photos, select them and digit Ctrl+S (Cmd+S). 

Lightroom will create sidecar files only if you are working with RAW files, otherwise, it will add the metadata and the editing into the JPG itself (or DNG, TIFF, etc)

Do not create sidecar files for your full catalogue in one go because Lightroom needs time.

Start with 100 photos and check how is it going.

If it’s quick enough do the same for 1,000 photos and increase to cover the whole catalogue.

You may have to leave your computer to work during the night if you have a huge number of photos.

Importing photos in Darktable

From this point on, I assume you are working with RAW files and in this case, Lightroom created sidecar files called

<photo_name_xyz>.xmp

Basically, Lightroom uses the same <photo_name> but it swaps the photo file extension (ARW, JPG etc) with XMP

Darktable will create another XMP file called <photo_name>.<photo_extension>.xmp when you import the photo

In my case, as I use Sony cameras, I have <photo_name>.ARW.xmp.

From now on Darktable will work uniquely on this file.

The sidecar file created by Lightroom (<photo_name_xyz>.xmp) will be not used anymore.

Mistakes and how to avoid them

In my workflow, I usually reject a photo if it doesn’t work for me, but I do not actually delete it.

I do that only after 6-12 months (just as a precaution).

Unfortunately, the rejected flag is not passed on to Darktable when you create the sidecar file.

In my case, I had to make sure to delete all these rejected photos before staring the export process.

Another problem I encountered is that the flag colour is not passed on in case of RAW files (it works for JPG, DNG etc).

I used the following workaround:

  • [in Lightroom] I filtered for each colour and added to these photos a new tag as “GreenFlag”, “RedFlag” etc
  • [in Lightroom] I created the sidecar files with Ctrl-S (Cmd-S)
  • [in Darktable] I imported the photos/folder
  • [in Darktable] I filtered based on the tag “GreenFlag”, as an example, and labelled all the photos with the green colour. I repeated this process for each colour.
  • [in Darktable] I deleted all the “colourFlag” tags that I did not need any more

And finally, Darktable does not implement the Pick flag

I used a similar process to the colour for the import/export and I used the Purple label as my new Pick flag.

Lightroom does not create sidecar files for virtual copies.

To solve this issue I used two workarounds:

  • I synced the virtual copy with the original and kept only the original 
  • I exported the virtual photo as DNG. In this way, Lightroom stored the metadata info into the DNG file that is imported back into Darktable

Sidecar files maintenance

Once migrated, I have personally deleted all the XMP files generated by Lightroom as there is no use, but it’s totally up to you.

Another thing to notice in Darktable is that if you “remove” the photo then you will not see it any more in the collection, however, both the photo and the sidecar files are left in the folder.

You could possibly re-import them keeping the tagging, rating etc.

If you “trash”, Darktable will remove both the photos and the sidecar files.

Is the Lightroom editing imported in Darktable?

I had very mixed results on this side. 

In true honesty, do not expect to have the photo edited in the same way once imported in Darktable.

In most of the cases, the appearance is actually different.

One thing I did, with the photos I loved the most, I exported them as JPG so I kept the editing and metadata info, besides the look.

I also kept the same photo as RAW, just in case.

I also tried to replicate the Lightroom Presets in the Darktable Styles

This is a good workaround for those photos where I used just a Lightroom Preset for editing.

Yes, this side is a bit messy and it takes time. 

It obviously depends also on the number of photos that you have and the editing you did.

But it was also for me a great way to go back to my work and understand what I did right and not that right.

Moreover, it let me think about my future work and how I can progress in my photography life.

How to build a Working Space similar to Lightroom

In a previous video, I explained all the differences between Lightroom and Darktable and I tried to answer one of the most common questions about these apps.

Is Darktable a good alternative to Lightroom?

My answer was Yes and I explained why.

I also said that Darktable has about 60 modules and it may be a bit overwhelming when you start.

However, you can organise your Favourite Group with the same or similar modules as in Lightroom. 

If you are not familiar with the Darktable modules and group concept then you should really watch the video above.

Here is how I organised the Favourite Group to have very similar capabilities as in Lightroom.

  • To cover the Basic Panel in Lightroom I used a few Darktable modules
    • White Balance
    • Basic Adjustment (Exposure, Contrast, Brightness, Saturation, Vibrance). 
    • Shadows and highlights
    • Local contrast (it works in a similar way to clarity in LR adding more contrast to the mid-tones)
    • Levels to adjust blacks, whites and mid-tones
    • Haze Removal (instead of the De-Haze)
  • For the other Lightroom adjustments
    • Tone Curve (same on both Lightroom and Darktable)
    • Color Zones for LR HSL/Color. There are however many more features for more fine-tuning
    • Split-Toning (same on both Lightroom and Darktable)
    • if you are running Lightroom 10 or later you may notice that Color Grading has taken the place of Split-Toning. In Darktable use Color Balance instead.
    • Sharpen & Denoise (profiled) for Ligtroom Detail. There are 4 ways to denoise your photos and you may want to try with the other denoise modules and the Equalizer too. I had better results with the Equalizer module but it may be a personal thing.
    • Lens Correction (same on both Lightroom and Darktable)
    • Perspective Correction for LR Transform
    • Vignetting and Grain for LR Effects

Once you have finished building the favourites group I suggest you save this working space as a preset (you do that in the more modules list down in the left corner, check the hamburger button and save your workspace)

In my case, I called it Lightroom Workspace (you can see the whole process in my video).

You may notice that there are other Workspaces already organised by Darktable and dedicated for example to Landscape or Architecture to mention two.

These pre-defined workspaces include the most useful modules for that type of photography

My final thoughts

I want to stress once again that Darktable and Lightroom work in a different way and although it may be easier to start with a Lightroom-like workspace, you should then create and organise your own workspace based on the modules you use the most.

Don’t do my mistake to make visible all the 60 modules and try using as many as you can.

Less is more, in my opinion.

Just a quick suggestion, use the Filmic module and start tuning your photos from there. 

This is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful tools of Darktable.

I will write more about it in a later post and I will make a video too (Subscribe to the channel so you will not miss it)

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

8 thoughts on “How to import the Lightroom catalog in Darktable [with same workspace]”

  1. Hello. Thanks for this information. I’ve been using Lightroom Classic for several years now and have been converting my original ARW files (I use Sony cameras) to DNG. Is it still possible to migrate to Darktable and if so how do I handle collections, based on manual creation after import which have user-friendly names like “vacation 2019”, versus the underlying folder structure which is simply based on the default date structure for the Lightroom import process?

    Reply
  2. Hi Stefano, I enjoy your videos on Darktable.
    I want to move to DT but I am unsure of the repercussions as I use a dual-boot pc with photos on C drive and backed up externally.
    As C drive is where LR catalogue is I wonder if any edits in DT will affect this catalogue? I don’t think it will but I am having an issue getting my head around this…
    Could you please clarify this for me.
    Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Hi Saalik, so sorry for the late reply. I hope you were able to solve the issue in the meantime. Unfortunately I have a different configuration on my PC and I wouldn’t be able to create the same kind of environment that you have.
      Sorry about that
      Cheers

      Reply
  3. I am currently pondering a switch fram Lightroom, so this is a really useful article. However, I have a question about XMP files.
    I’m familiar with sidecar files from using Nikon software some years ago, but I’ve since converted/imported all my RAW files to DNG in Lightroom. So my library is around 80% DNG and the rest are JPEGs. You wrote:
    “Lightroom will create sidecar files only if you are working with RAW files, otherwise, it will add the metadata and the editing into the JPG itself (or DNG, TIFF, etc)”
    This being the case, should I assume that lightroom won’t export any XMP files? Also, how will JPEGs be exported? I don’t care too much about the minimal adjustments I make to JPEGs, but I do want to keep the original files.
    Thanks again for your absorbing article.
    Nina

    Reply
    • I am not familiar with DNG, I never use them (this is not to say they are not good, my workflow is just different).
      The only way to check how it works with DNG is to try to export them as with the RAW, go on the folder and check out if the XML files are there.
      JPG files keep some of the XML files embedded (star rating for example), with DNG you may have the same (if there is no XML).
      I hope I was able to help out
      Cheers

      Reply
  4. Great article first and foremost. I am planning on leaving Adobe Lightroom Classic. My biggest concern is to loose the keywords I have added to all my 90000 pictures. That keyword tree structure that has taken days / night and weeks to accomplish. I tweak the RAW pictures when it is needed so if I loose that it is not a big deal. So the question revolves around the migration of the keywords.

    Reply
  5. Thanks for sharing this useful suggestions by experience 🙂
    I love Open Source universe and the only reason I couldn’t switch to Linux 100% was the dependance from Lightroom edits never finalized…
    I have a digital archive of 190K images and my dream was to really switch to DarkTable… BUT seems to be impossible to convert edits from Lightroom to DarkTable, even using sidecar files XMP.
    Does exist a possible XMP converter to have a conversion at least of crop, exposure, tones, sharpness, lens correction, distortions, full tags, pick/refuse?
    Maybe is just question to work on it on developer side?

    Reply
    • Thanks for your email. I looked myself for a long time into an XMP Converter but after so much searching and talks with different people into the DT world I came to the conclusion that this was not possible, for many reasons. I was more into converting colours, shadow/HL, sharpness and most of the improvement I usually do to my photos. Tags are imported from the XML files, as well as the pick/refuse (you need to use colour labels instead as I explained in the video). For the other settings, I had mix success….or mix failure as I like to think it LOL
      I have many photos too and I am just gradually doing the migration. It will take time and I am not under pressure. Eventually, it will be finished. I decided in my case to export the improved photos in DNG. I end up with twice as many photos but DT at least group them. I usually improve only a small percentage of photos, so it worked fine for me. Doubling all my photos was not, of course, an option LOL
      Sorry I could not help too much.
      Cheers

      Reply

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