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
Table of Contents
- 1 Don’t just move photos from Lightroom to Darktable
- 2 Sidecar file creations in Lightroom
- 3 Importing photos in Darktable
- 4 How to build a Working Space similar to Lightroom
- 5 My final thoughts
More reading on Darktable
- Darktable Tutorials Hub [from beginner to advanced]
- Quick Darktable Tutorial to get started for travel photographers
- Darktable vs Lightroom: is Darktable a good free Lightroom alternative
- My darktable workflow – How to organise and edit your photos in 8 simple steps
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.
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
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)