Darktable–A Game Changer

justpenguin-300x270Just over a year ago I wrote a post for Matt Hartley’s FreedomPenguin.com where I expressed my opinion that Ubuntu would be in a better position for having a graphics suite. I stated that while Ubuntu does have some great graphics applications, it does not have a graphics suite. Gimp is supposedly a great editor, but it can’t open RAW photos–granted, neither can Adobe’s Photoshop, but if you try to explain that to Photoshop users they’ll say otherwise, because in Adobe’s suite the integration is nearly seemless. Photoshop users don’t know they’re not editing in RAW (an application called CameraRAW exports the photos to Photoshop).

For me, the post got a lot of feedback, some of which was a little more aggressive than what my palate could handle at the time. At the time, I feel I was right. My workflow for photos was very heavily based on Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, but I did most of my work in Lightroom. I really didn’t feel Dartktable was a good competitor and to be honest it wasn’t.

Technically it was a great product a year ago, but it wasn’t my version of user-friendly.

Sometimes a product being user-friendly isn’t determined by its technical or design merits, is determined by the dialogue around the product. Ubuntu is popular in part because when people google something about Ubuntu, they can find an answer. Chris Fisher–the man who I jokingly call The Voice of Linux–has routinely commented on the importance of a community around a project. Recently he commented that his experience with the latest Fedora left him impressed at how easy it was for him to discover the documentation he needed.

book-lover-without-text-icon-962x1024Photography is a pretty intimidating subject. My favorite presenters on the topic include husband and wife couple Tony & Chelsea Northrup who’s best-selling book has been the introduction for thousands of people into photography. It’s also the book I recommend when I have people who ask me where to start. The thing that distinguishes the book from so many others is the integration of YouTube videos into the curriculum. It’s a lot easier to understand how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO if you can SEE how the three elements interact.

Catering to the widest possible audience, Tony & Chelsea also produce documentation on the tools for editing photos–Adobe’s tools. To date I have seen the couple engage guest photographers who use FOSS, but they have not created anything close to the wealth of material on it as they have for Adobe’s suite. Really, who can blame them? It’s where the market is right now.

But I think that market may be shifting. Darktable not only offers a compelling set of features, but their documentation is clear and easy to read. In addition the community of folks using Darktable are publishing videos on how to use it. Riley Brandt has created some excellent video tutorials for beginners on Darktable. This playlist is now my go-to suggestion for anyone wanting to try out the application.

Screenshot_20180516_150530
Favorites on the right.  Darktable easily lets you see the comparison between the original and with edits applied.

One of the best features I’ve really enjoyed in Darktable is how it lets me customize my workflow through establishing my favorite editing modules. I always crop & rotate, white balance, de-haze, spot removal, and add local contrast on every shot. Instead of scrolling up and down in Adobe Lightroom, I have a favorites panel with all the features right where I need them.

 

Screenshot_20180516_150809
The other thing I like about the suite is how it stores its changes. In Lightroom and Darktable you’re not really changing the file, you’re creating a list of instructions for the application to use later to change your file. This means you have your RAW images from camera on your hard drive and somewhere on the disk you have reference instructions about what’s changed on those files–removing spots, white balance, etc. Lightroom keeps this information about all of the photos in a centralized location. Darktable puts this information in .xmp (xml) files next to each of the photos in its library.

For people who don’t care about their photos this feature doesn’t matter, but for folks who do it matters a lot. You see if that centralized file in Lightroom gets corrupted (hard drive starts going bad), the changes you’ve made to your photos can be gone almost instantly. Also moving from one computer to the next now becomes more of a challenge. In contrast I can drop my files onto a networked drive using my file manager (Lightroom requires you use it’s files features). When I go to retrieve them again on another system Darktable knows exactly the changes associated with those files. No more files missing from database.

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Lake Bled, Slovenia

The official Darktable website lists the following features:

 

  • Non-destructive editing throughout the complete workflow, your original images are never modified.
  • Take advantage of the real power of raw: All darktable core functions operate on 4×32-bit floating point pixel buffers, enabling SSE instructions for speedups.
  • GPU accelerated image processing: many image opertions are lightning fast thanks to OpenCL support (runtime detection and enabling).
  • Professional color management: darktable is fully color managed, supporting automatic display profile detection on most systems, including built-in ICC profile support for sRGB, Adobe RGB, XYZ and linear RGB color spaces.
  • Cross platform: darktable runs on Linux, Mac OS X / macports, BSD, Windows and Solaris 11 / GNOME.
  • Filtering and sorting: search your image collections by tags, image rating (stars), color labels and many more, use flexible database queries on all metadata of your images.
  • Image formats: darktable can import a variety of standard, raw and high dynamic range image formats (e.g. JPEG, CR2, NEF, HDR, PFM, RAF … ).
  • Zero-latency, zoomable user interface: through multi-level software caches darktable provides a fluid experience.
  • Tethered shooting: support for instrumentation of your camera with live view for some camera brands.
  • Speaks your language: darktable currently comes with 21 translations: Albanian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portugese (Brazilian and Portugese), Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Ukrainian.
  • Powerful export system supports G+ and Facebook webalbums, flickr upload, disk storage, 1:1 copy, email attachments and can generate a simple html-based web gallery. darktable allows you to export to low dynamic range (JPEG, PNG, TIFF), 16-bit (PPM, TIFF), or linear high dynamic range (PFM, EXR) images.
  • Never lose your image development settings darktable uses both XMP sidecar files as well as its fast database for saving metadata and processing settings. All Exif data is read and written using libexiv2.
  • Automate repetitive tasks: Many aspects of darktable can be scripted in Lua.

Again, the issue with graphics on Linux isn’t having sub-standard applications. In my opinion it’s from having a lack of a suite (Gimp 2.10 supposedly works with Darktable to open RAW image files, but I haven’t gotten this working on KDE Neon yet). For those whose workflow primarily focuses around Lightroom, Darktable is a significant game changer. It’s ability to apply drawn and parametric masks is significantly impressive!

For anyone getting into photography now I’d still recommend the Northrup’s book, but I’d also recommend the use Darktable to manage their photos.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. swift110 says:

    Very nice article. I agree that when it comes to open source programs community is key. Sure a program can be powerful but if it is something you feel you need a doctorate degree to use then that will kill it’s appeal for most people.

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  2. Darktable is extensible using the lua programming language. There is a repository of scripts, https://github.com/darktable-org/lua-scripts, that add a lot more functionality to darktable. Need to edit a file in GIMP, then bring the result back and group it with the original raw? There’s a script for that. Need to stitch several photos together into a panorama and bring the result back? There’s a script for that. I’m in the process of updating the documentation for the sight, so you might want to wait a few days before you visit, or visit and read the code to see what’s there. You can install the scripts into darktable with the following commands

    cd ~/.config/darktable
    git clone https://github.com/darktable-org/lua-scripts.git lua
    echo ‘require “contrib/gimp”‘ > luarc
    echo ‘require “contrib/hugin”‘ >> luarc

    start up darktable, go to the export module, drop down the list and you should see “Edit with GIMP” and “hugin panorama”.

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    1. Jacob says:

      I installed darktable on KDE Neon using a snap and the instructions above didn’t add anything to the export module that I can see.

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  3. Snaps and flatpaks are a problem, since they run in a sandbox. Calling snaps and flatpaks from darktable doesn’t work either because of the sandbox. Snaps and flatpaks are a good idea in theory, but they don’t appear to integrate very well, if at all. I need to learn more about both of them to see if there is a way to make them communicate in a useful manner.
    When darktable and GIMP are installed natively, they can call each other and pass information back and forth. Add hugin, and now you have panoramas. Add enfuse and now you have HDR and focus stacking. In other words, the beginnings of a software suite. The integration isn’t seamless, but from darktable you can accomplish an awful lot.
    One of the powers of *nix systems is the ability to chain applications together to accomplish tasks. Putting applications in sandboxes may be a great idea from a security and distribution standpoint, but maybe not such a great idea from a usability standpoint.

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  4. I filed an issue with the darktable snap maintainer. He enabled lua in the snap and it is currently the edge version 2.4.3snap2. It should be released shortly. If you have that installed, then you can:
    cd ~/snap/darktable/current
    git clone https://github.com/darktable-org/lua-scripts.git lua
    echo ‘require “examples/hello_world”‘ > luarc
    echo ‘require “contrib/gimp”‘ >> luarc
    echo ‘require “contrib/hugin”‘ >> luarc
    When you next start darktable then you should see the “hello world” message in the lower center of the screen, and if you check the export menu you should find the entries for GIMP and hugin.

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