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

Darktable vs Lightroom – Are they two good alternatives

It has been 10 months since I started working on both software, comparing Darktable vs Lightroom.

I really wanted to understand if Darktable is the Lightroom alternative.

But let me say first that we all have different photography workflows and my travel photography experience may be different from yours. 

I also need to mention that I have been working with Lightroom since Version 2 and with DarkTable only for the last 10 months.

So I still need to go deeper with Darktable.

More reading on Darktable

Darkatble Lighttable View vs Lightroom Library Window

Let’s get started with the way you organise and retrieve your photos with both Darktable vs Lightroom.

Photo Grid – Thumbnails

The photo grid is pretty similar in both software.

The few differences would not make me decide to go for Darkroom or Lightroom.

Darktable has the Focus-Points tool (Alt-W) that can be quite handy during the screening of the photos to understand if I correctly set my focusing points.

Assigning Colours to photos works better in Darktable as you can associate multiple colours to a single photo, something you can’t do in Lightroom.

Lightroom has AI People tagging which works well but it’s not perfect and I find myself going through all the photos again to check if all the people were tagged correctly which defeats the purpose.

Darktable works better for my workflow thanks to the focus points preview

Importing files

Lightroom performs some file management tasks that Darkroom can not. 

You can import from an SD card, easily move photos around with drag&drop operations and much more.

Honestly, I have all I need to work on files

Darktable imports the files where they are, it does not really create or move files around and you can’t rename files.

You would need a third-party tool. 

In my workflow, I do not rename the files.

I did it for a few years in the past but I noticed that it did not improve or speed up my process.

I like to reduce my steps to the bare minimum so I stopped renaming them a while back when I did not even think about any other tool than Lightroom.

I like to keep the workflow to a bare minimum.

Nowadays I usually move the files from my SD Card to a folder that I previously created.

I have folders for each year and within the year subfolders for each place that I travel to.

Where needed, I also create subfolders based on the day. Here below a typical example.

  • 2019
    • 2019_05_19 Sydney
    • 2019_06_19 Vietnam
      • 2019_06_19 Hanoi
      • 2019_06_22 Ha Giang
      • 2019_06_28 Ninh Binh
      • etc

I then Synchronise that folder (in Lightroom) or I import it (in Darktable).

In my workflow, both programs do what I need in a very similar way.

No winner in this section for my workflow, although I quite appreciate the drag&drop of files in Lightroom

Collection and filtering

The job gets done with the same result, but the workflow is different.

I personally prefer the way that DarkTable works as I have all in one module called Collect Images.

This is where I can filter only the photos I want (for example done with one camera on a specific week) and take these filters to create a collection.

It all makes sense as I already have the filters in front of me, with the result that I expect so it is natural to save that setup for later usage.

With Lightroom, I can filter on the top of the Photo Grid but then I have to go into the Collections module on the left to re-create again the filters for future usage.

It does not make much sense to me.

HDR and PhotoMerge

Lightroom is better by a big margin.

In Lightroom Panorama works actually great in stitching photos.

My experience has always been positive.

Only in a few cases, I had to retouch here and there.

I used to do HDR in the past but not anymore since I moved to the Sony A7 cameras.

These cameras have a huge dynamic range to work with (obviously you need to shoot RAW files).

In saying that, I always found the Lightroom HDR tool to be good enough, although not the best.

In fact, I used to have an external tool for HDR, but most probably because I was a bit picky.

Overall both tools are good and well tested.

Darktable does not have photo stitching.

There is no way to build a panorama photo and you would need an external tool.

You can create HDR photos but the tool does not work great.

The lack of ghosting management and alignment are the main issues here.

In my workflow, I do not do HDR anymore so it’s not a big problem.

I am however evaluating tools for panorama photography.

Quick Develop

I do not use it. 

I usually work straight away in the Develop (Lightroom) or Darkroom (Darktable) window.

I am still cataloguing my photos and I prefer to leave the photos improvement to a second stage.

I don’t find it natural in my workflow.

Tagging & Keywording

Both Darktable and Lightroom handle it in a very similar way, besides a different naming convention. 

Tagging sounds more “Social” meanwhile Keyword “geeky”.

In both cases, you can build sub-tag/sub-keywords with the pipe key.

No winner here

Exporting

Both Darktable and Lightroom have their own limitations.

They both do what they are supposed to do but they both lack one thing that I personally need.

Lightroom does not allow to export watermarking with EXIF data (Aperture, Shutter Speed etc).

I had to use an external tool (Mogrify) but now I am not able to “Export with Previous” anymore.

It has stopped working because of a conflict

In Darktable I can’t export limiting the file size (I usually do that for photos I post on my website) but I can easily add personalized watermarks including EXIF information.

However, you can add a watermark only in the Darkroom (during the processing), instead of during the export process. 

As a workaround, I decided to build a style that adds my EXIF watermark to the photo during the export process.

You can export photos in Lightroom also in the Development Window besides the Library window.

In Darktable you can do that only in the Lighttable window.

Darkroom vs Develop Window

In the last 10 months, I wanted to understand if Darkatable is a good alternative to Lightroom 

You may have noticed that in this comparison I talk about the differences in the functionalities and not in the performance.

The main reason is that I can give you only my feeling (Darktable is quicker) but it’s more of an opinion and it is related to my computer and Operating System (Windows).

Different hardware and software configurations may behave better, or worse.

Of course, you may already know that Lightroom does not work on Linux

Before I keep going, just a quick suggestion. Learn a few important darktable keyboard shortcuts, they will make your workflow so much quicker.

Where is stored the editing

Both Darktable and Lightroom are non-disruptive editing tools, which means they leave the original file untouched, either RAW or JPG.

Darktable stores the editing for each file in a sidecar file (XMP).

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

You understand straight away how that catalogue file is a huge single point of failure because if it gets corrupted you will lose the editing you have done to all the photos.

For this reason, Lightroom frequently asks you to back it up (and you should)

It has to be said that Lightroom allows you to store the changes as Darktable does, that is with single sidecar files for each photo, however, it seems that you may experience an impact on the overall performance (you can read more on the comments section of this article).

True or not, the default setting in Lightroom is to not use sidecar files.

The drawback to using sidecar files is that the software has to open/close many times the XMP files whenever you add a rating, tags, etc (more writing in the harddisk)

Let’s now get into the operational part of it

History and Snapshots

Both on the left side of Darktable and Lightroom. 

They work in a similar fashion, although they are different in the way they collapse the history stack.

In Darktable, you can compress the stack so if you retouch three times the brightness, for example, it keeps only the final change and not all the changes.

To me, it makes more sense, but other photographers may want to keep the history of all the performed editing and in this case, you should not compress in Darktable.

In Darktable you remove part of the editing by compressing above the point you want to keep, or simply de-activate the modules you don’t want.

In Lightroom, you can reach a similar result by right-clicking on the mouse and selecting the “Clear History Above” option

You cannot compress however and the history keeps building up for every small change

Comparing before/after

Lightroom and Darktable work in a different way but with a similar result.

Darktable uses the Snapshots functionality and a sliding window (I love it)

Lightroom implements a button on the left bottom corner for a before/after view

Again, two different ways to do it but with a very similar result

Styles & Presets

In this case, I find Lightroom performing so much better.

The naming convention between the two applications is different though.

Lightroom uses the Presets to identify a style that can be given to your photo.

You can mouse-over the preset and you will see how the photo is going to look if you select that preset.

It’s a real-time preview which is awesome.

Darktable does not have this real-time preview functionality, which is a real pity because it speeds up the post-production workflow massively (if you use Lightroom presets of course).

Darktable actually calls them Styles, which is, in my opinion, a better naming convention as it identifies the style of a photo.

Darktable has also Presets which are sort of sub-style and work only on a single module, for example, for vignetting or tone curve or any other module where you saved your own preset.

I really hope that the live preview will be included in the next release of Darktable as that would be a huge improvement.

Once you have applied the style, you can always go back, in case you are not happy with it.

In saying that in Darktable you need to pay attention to a couple of things.

I have organised here a Style Hub Page with all you need to know besides a library of styles you can download for free.

There is also a website called DtStyle where you can find a ton of free styles, although without a proper organization.

In my travel photography workflow, I love using the Lightroom presets.

I want my photos to look consistent, with a similar style

Darktable slows me a bit down if compared to Lightroom, much quicker

Histogram

In Darktable you can separate the red, green and blue channels. 

You can also set it to waveform and this may be useful if you come from a video editing background

In both applications, you can work directly on the histogram.

Working Space – Editing

This is where things are really different.

I cannot say one tool works better than the other, it all depends on your workflow and the amount of control you want to have on your editing.

I read and I heard many times that Darktable has a much steeper learning curve.

I tend to disagree.

Things are very straightforward once you spend some time on it.

It was the same when I started using Lightroom.

It is however true that one change may be performed in different ways in Darktable. 

For example, there are at least 4 ways to denoise your photos. 

Would it be better to have a single module?

Maybe

But is having multiple choices a good or a bad thing?

You can always favour one of the modules and leave the others behind.

In the Lightroom working space, we have 9 modules (from Basic to Calibration) to work on the whole photo. 

We have also the 6 local adjustments modules:

  • the Spot Removal has never worked great for me and I find myself always going to Photoshop.
  • the Cropping and Straighten works great as well as the Red Eye.
  • Brush, Radial Filter, Graduated Filter have the same ~20 adjustments (Temp, Tint, Exposure, Contrast, etc)

Masking is very limited.

For example, I cannot work only in the highlights of the photo where I can even decide which range identifies the highlight.

Overall I find the process very intuitive but limited (masking). 

You can start with the Basic adjustments and move to Tone Curve, the colours and the other modules below.

In saying that performing just the Basic Adjustments can already take the photo to another level.

Very simple and straightforward.

In the Darktable working space, we have over 60 modules (from Basic to anything you can think of).

These modules cover not only Lightroom adjustments but also Photoshop tasks.

They are organised in 5 groups (Basic, Tone, Color, Correction and Effects).

You can keep all the modules visible or hide the ones you do not use.

The first time I used Darktable I made them all visible. 

That was my first mistake because it’s way too overwhelming.

I then decided to start with a basic workspace (14 modules, similar to the Lightroom number by the way) and make visible more modules as I progressed in my workflow.

Besides the 5 just mentioned groups, there is also a Favourite Group where I have included the modules I work the most with, like White Balancing, Lens Correction etc.

This Group is my starting point.

When I need another module or a new adjustment I never used before, I usually do a “search module”, it works faster for me than going in the list of the modules.

The Active Group is the last group I have not mentioned. 

This is where you will find all the modules you have used for the editing of the photos, the ones that you see in the History Stack.

My feeling is that with Darktable you can go down to more fine-tuning that otherwise, I would have to perform with Photoshop.

In saying that, you do not need to go down to the fine-tuning if you are not interested in that.

The Basic Group has just all you need and from there you can build more confidence and become addicted to it, as I did.

I have a feeling, but just a feeling, that a few Darktable modules are left behind and could be consolidated. 

What about the local adjustments in Darktable?

You can apply a local adjustment or a mask almost on every module, which is really one of the best features of Darktable. 

Local adjustments in Lightroom are limited to around 20 settings.

In Darktable you have so many more possibilities.

But this is material for a new video by itself.

Maps in Lightroom vs Darktable

I personally do not geotag my photos and my experience is very limited in this view.

For what I have seen, they both perform in a similar fashion.

In Darktable you can select other sources of maps, besides Google, but, unless you have a particular requirement, I do not see that as a big advantage.

Book

There is no Book functionality integrated into Darktable.

Lightroom works with Blurb.

I tried it in the past and it worked well.

Slideshow

Lightroom has so much more control. 

I never use Slideshow in my workflow but if this is not your case then Lightroom is a much better choice.

Darktable is so basic.

Tethering

It’s possible with both Lightroom and Darktable in a similar fashion

Print

Possible with both Lightroom and Darktable.

However, you will not be able to print directly from Darktable if you use the Windows version (Release 3.2.1 or below) 

Web/Cloud

Darktable has no cloud functionality. It’s all local

Is Darktable an alternative to Lightroom? My view

The short answer, in my opinion, is:

Yes, more than an alternative.

It’s a great product that does what Lightroom does and much more.

I have personally integrated Darktable in my workflow.

I heard and read a few times that Darktable is open source, therefore not as trustable as software made by companies like Adobe.

Nowadays most of the internet is running over Linux which is, guess it, open-source. 

And all of the android gear is running over Linux. 

You can read this interesting article on how Linux is taking over the world.

I personally do not think that open source is synonymous with untrustable.

And you may already know that Darktable is free of charge and it works on different platforms like Windows, Mac and a few flavours of Linux.

You can possibly load Darktable on your main PC at home over Windows and you can use a less powerful laptop with Linux when you travel. 

This is actually my setup when I am around the world for a travel photography project

But this is material again for another post and video.

If you are looking for a Lightroom alternative, possibly free, then look no further than Darktable

The only thing I would love to be improved in Darktable is the live preview of the Styles and hopefully, it will come in the next versions.

 

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.

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