darktable: The Free Lightroom and Aperture Alternate

At any time you care to look, the App Store’s Photography chart is filled with image editors. Editing, however, is only part of the digital processing workflow – nearly all of us organize, and make minor adjustments to, our images with an all-in-one library app such as Lightroom, Aperture, or Capture One, some time before any image editor gets a look-in. Yet for some reason, the range of apps available to perform this archiving role is very small, and the theme shared by all of them is a premium price-tag.

In spite of this lack of choice and the expense associated with purchasing a library app, the open source community hasn’t felt the need to develop its own alternative. Or at least that was the case until darktable arrived. Put together by a team of photographer-coders, darktable shares many features with its more expensive competitors – multiple image sorting options, tethered shooting and a suite of editing options – but is it in the same league?

Look and Feel

The best way to describe darktable’s interface is… dark. The whole UI is black or very dark grey, and with the exception of a curly decoration below each list of controls, there are no standout features to grab your attention. That’s probably not a bad thing, though, given that you’re meant to be looking at your photos.

The darktable UI

The darktable UI

Due to an abundance of controls, and the monotone labelling in darktable, there is a feel of clutter, although this is not uncommon amongst open source products. Having said that, I would put the look and navigability of darktable above many other open source efforts, like GIMP.

The ‘lighttable’

When you load photos into darktable, you do so within the ‘lighttable’ area, which is the organizational hub of the app.

Between the various selection, editing and tagging tools down either side of the interface is the file manager, where the images you’re working on are accessible. A neat function here is the ability to switch to “Light Table View”; doing so allows you to zoom in and out of the rows of photos, as if physically moving towards and away from a table of photographs. It’s a nice feature, and it seems to work well without drawing too much processing power.

The zoomable light table view

The zoomable light table view

In terms of functionality, there are plenty of options for image sorting. You can give your photos star ratings and colour labels, group images together which share a similar exposure or colour, and give them keywords (the main method of organization in darktable). In comparison to Aperture or iPhoto, however, darktable’s controls are not instantly intuitive, or even understandable. There is no list of albums in the sidebar, and learning how to file images properly takes some time. I suspect that, with the help of the documentation, you could get used to darktable’s method of operation, but it is not a filing system which feels very Mac-like.

Organizing files in darktable

Organizing files in darktable

The ‘darkroom’

Once you’ve organized your images, you can move into darktable’s very competent editing suite, which is RAW-compatible.

Initially, you are given a group of tabs, each containing a menu of somewhat cryptically named controls. You could be forgiven for feeling daunted when you first see the sheer number of editing options. Crucially, however, the “favourites” function in darktable allows you to get rid of tabs you don’t need regularly, and thus, in doing so, you make your workspace much cleaner.

darktable's editing suite

darktable’s editing suite

If you look carefully at which editing tools are available, though, you’ll be stunned and pleased in equal measure. Along with the usual exposure, saturation and highlights/shadows adjustments, you’ll find high pass filtering, demosaicing, tone curves, hot pixel healing, and many, many more controls.

Happily, this massive range of options isn’t just for show – darktable’s adjustment tools excel in action. The editing controls work smoothly, seemingly without putting any great strain on the Mac’s processor, and edits show up at speed on the image when you make adjustments. Whilst the slider controls are quite small to get hold of with the mouse pointer, these controls are, in all other respects, brilliant to work with, and they produce great results.

Tethered Shooting

Like its premium counterparts, darktable also offers tethered shooting. I found this feature a little difficult to get working, but once set up, it offers a nice direct link between camera and Mac. If your camera has a live view capability, you can also see this view in darktable.

Tethered shooting with live view

Tethered shooting with live view

Geotagging

Another nice feature included in darktable is mapping, which takes note of any geotags present in your metadata. You can choose your mapping source from a good selection of options, including OpenStreetMap, Google and Maps-For-Free, among others.

You can also place images onto the map manually, which is great for those of us with non-GPS-enabled DSLRs.

Geotagged images are displayed nicely in darktable

Geotagged images are displayed nicely in darktable

Conclusion

It is undoubtedly the case that darktable, in its current form, is rough around the edges. The image filing system is somewhat clunky and initially baffling, and this app isn’t going to be winning any beauty contests in its current form.

Given its no-cost pricing, however, darktable is very much a solid product, and I have no doubt that most photographers, with continued use, would find that darktable fulfilled all of their needs. With some UI polish, and continued development, I think darktable could be come a genuine rival to even the most expensive of library apps on the market.


Summary

Not a looker, but solid, and shows much promise.

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