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Darktable vs Lightroom (Is Darktable Really Just as Good?)

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 12 min read
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Today we look at Darktable vs Lightroom. In this review, I set out to see what Darktable 4.2 offers and whether it is a good Lightroom alternative.
I’m a Lightroom user, but not everyone wants to commit to an Adobe subscription package. And I can’t always get the results I want in Lightroom. So I’m always looking for a good, free photo editing program.

Darktable vs Lightroom

Darktable is an open-source photo post-processing program. Open source means the source code is freely available for anyone to use, modify, and redistribute.
I’m a Mac user, so I’m looking at the iOS version. There are several platforms listed on the Darktable website available for download. This includes Windows, iOS, and Linux.
Darktable is a free Lightroom alternative. It supports RAW files from over 400 cameras and opens a wide range of file types.
And like Lightroom, it’s non-destructive photo editing software. This means your original file doesn’t change.
The software manages your photos through a module called Lighttable. And the Darkroom module lets you edit photos.

The Darktable Interface

In many ways, Darktable looks and feels like Lightroom. But there are some notable differences, which we’ll discuss later in the article.
The basic layout is familiar to Lightroom users. The image is shown on a central screen. And the left and right columns flank the central screen. These add functionality depending on the module.
History and other functions are in the left-hand column. Processing tools and a histogram are in the right-hand column.
There is also an optional filmstrip below the central screen. The filmstrip might be thumbnails of similar images or a timeline of when you took the images.

Screenshot of Darktable's Darkroom module.
Darktable’s Darkroom module.

I’ll focus on the Lighttable and the Darkroom modules in this review. These are alternatives to Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules.
Like Lightroom, the software is divided into modules. Lighttable functions like Lightroom’s Library module. This is where you can import, cull, and organize your files.
The Darkroom module is for image editing. Like Lightroom, you use sliders to make changes to your images.
And there are more modules called Slideshow, Map, and Printing. These modules are also in Lightroom.
Darktable includes a Tethering module. This lets you connect your camera directly to Darktable. The image shows up immediately in the program when you press the shutter button.
Lightroom also allows you to tether your camera directly to the program. But the function is embedded under the File menu rather than a standalone module.

Lighttable vs Lightroom Library

In Lightroom’s library, catalogs, collections, and locations are in the left-hand column. Keywords and other metadata are in the right-hand column.

Screenshot of Lightroom's Library module interface.
Screenshot of Lightroom’s Library module interface.

In Darktable’s Library, metadata and collections are in the left-hand column. The right-hand column includes functions like tagging, metadata editor, and export options.
Screenshot of Darktable's Lighttable module interface.
Screenshot of Darktable’s Lighttable module interface.

Importing images into Darktable works the same way as Lightroom.
There is an Import function at the top left of the Lighttable module. If you’re importing from an SD card, you need to know exactly where your files are.

Cataloging and Importing

Like Lightroom, Darktable only catalogs your images in the program. The files aren’t moved from where they are located on your hard drive.
Lightroom lets me define an import location. I can move the files to different hard drives or folders within the software. But I haven’t yet figured out if this is possible in Lighttable.
When importing from my camera’s SD card, the files remain on the SD card. I had to copy my SD card files onto my hard drive and import them using Lighttable.

Rating and Tagging

Once I imported my files, I could rate the files and add keywords (tags) and metadata, just like in Lightroom. There are keyboard shortcuts for ratings and color codings to speed up the process.
I wasn’t as fast with my culling and keywording in Lighttable as in Lightroom. But this may be my unfamiliarity with the software. But the tools I commonly use in Lightroom are available in Darktable.
The tagging function seemed a bit basic. I couldn’t find a way of tagging many images at once or copying tags across images. But that’s not to say this function doesn’t exist, just that I couldn’t find it.

Showing Focus Points

One cool feature I stumbled across in Lighttable was the ability to find focus points in your image. Pressing the “W” key lets you see the image fullscreen.
Pressing Ctrl+W adds focus points. This could be really useful in deciding which images to keep.
The Lighttable module seems like a usable alternative to Lightroom’s Library module. Below is a screenshot of Darktable’s Lighttable screen.
The parts of the image in focus are shown with a dashed red shape. Because I shot with an f/8 aperture, most of this scene is in focus.
Screenshot of Darktable's Lighttable screen.

Darkroom vs Develop Module

The editing tools in Darktable are called “image operation modules.” I find this term confusing. So I will use the term “tools” to refer to features that adjust your image.
In the version I used, there were 61 tools. Commonly used tools are divided into groups designated by icons under the histogram.
The groups are Base, Tone, Color, Corrective, and (Special) Effects. The tools included in each group seem a little arbitrary.
Previous versions of Darktable up to 3.4 had a Favorites group (star icon) that let you place commonly used tools together. This is kept for those upgrading to 4.2 in a “previous config” setting.
Otherwise, there are now presets for groups of modules. And you can change these to suit your workflow.
Many of the tools are familiar to Lightroom users. Exposure control, white balance, tone curve, sharpening, and vignetting tools are included with Darktable.
Other tools will be familiar to Adobe Photoshop users. These include levels, color balance, high pass, liquify, and perspective correction.
Finally, there are a few new tools that I didn’t recognize from either Adobe program. And I had fun playing with them.

  • Bloom: Adds a soft light sphere over the entire image. It’s a bit like the Orton Effect.
  • Framing: This lets us create a frame around our image. Although this is possible in Lightroom’s Print module, Darktable makes it available in the Darkroom workflow.
  • Zone System: This tool lets us edit as Ansel Adams might. We can selectively adjust nine zones of light. This tool works on color as well as black-and-white images.

A beautiful flowing waterfall photo with green border
A processed photo using tools like Bloom, Framing, and the Zone System.

One cool tool is Denoise (profiled). This tool detects which camera you use and adjusts noise based on ISO. And there are Blend modes for nearly every processing tool.

Image-Edit Comparison

I did a few basic edits to compare each program’s photo editing results directly. I kept the edits basic to allow as much image-to-image comparison as possible. Here are the edits in order:

  1. Lens correction
  2. Crop to 5:4 ratio
  3. Temperature: 5,500
  4. Contrast: +30 (+0.30)
  5. Highlights: -45
  6. Vibrance: +25 (25%)
  7. Exposure: +.25

This is a very rough photo edit. But it let me compare each program’s output side by side. There were times Darktable suggested adding other corrections. But I tried to keep the edits as fundamental as possible.
Most of the differences I saw came from the white balance edit and in the highlights.
Darktable has a highlight reconstruction tool. This seemed to fix the blown-out highlights better than lowering highlights.
So Darkroom is a viable alternative to Lightroom’s Develop module.

Eiffel tower diptych side by side editing comparison between Darktable (left) with Lightroom (right).
Image edit comparison between Darktable (left) and Lightroom (right).

Darktable Usability Issues

There were a lot of things I liked about Darktable. A review of an earlier version of Darktable noted frequent crashes.
With version 4.2, I haven’t experienced this once. And that’s even though it is pushing an aging Macbook Air pretty hard.
I found Darktable easy to use, but I had to refer to the user manual for help a few times. There are a lot of functions you can access with keyboard shortcuts. (Press H to see the list of shortcut keys.)
The manual is very easy to read. But the search function went to a 404 screen, which limits usability. I still need help figuring out how to reject an image during the culling process.

Darktable’s Sensitive Sliders

Darktable and Lightroom have a lot in common. You drag sliders left and right to increase or decrease the intensity of an effect.
But sometimes, the values on the Darktable sliders didn’t seem to make sense. Or they covered too much ground.
It wasn’t easy if I only wanted to tweak an effect by a point or two. That’s because the Darkroom slider is very sensitive. It is easy to over-adjust or under-adjust a setting.
I missed the ability to enter a value directly rather than use the slider, like in Lightroom. This was frustrating when I wanted, for instance, an exact white balance.

History Panel, Undo Command, and Rendering

The History panel confused me. Like Lightroom, Darktable is a non-destructive editor. At any point, you should be able to return to a point in the History panel and start again.
But sometimes, I couldn’t bypass the steps I wanted to erase. Nor could I directly delete them. I eventually figured out how to toggle effects on and off in the active module group.

Tool Organization

Darkroom’s tools are organized in unexpected ways. For instance, saturation is not located in the same place as vibrance. Also, different tools can control a similar edit.
Similarly, it gives me four tools to control contrast. It seems to take this common post-processing edit to a new level.
Contrast options are embedded under other sliders. But let’s focus on these four:

  1. Contrast as part of the Contrast, Brightness, and Saturation tool. This seems to be the general overall Contrast slider that you’d find in Lightroom’s Basic panel.
  2. The local contrast tool lets you adjust contrast for highlights, shadows, midtones, and details.
  3. Color contrast works like color balance in Photoshop.
  4. The Contrast Equalizer tool is very cool. But I don’t fully understand what it does. In a way, it works similarly to the tone curve. It lets you change relationships between luma, chroma, and edges.

Screenshot of Darktables contrast equalizer tool
The Contrast Equalizer tool lets you change relationships between luma, chroma, and edges.

It’s a different way of thinking about contrast. I use many sliders in Lightroom to control contrast. But most are in the Basic panel.
In Darktable, an underlying theory I had was determining which tools should be together. But I wasn’t always able to predict where I would find the tool.
So this negatively impacts usability. But I’d probably get used to the tool organization with enough use.

Too Much Choice in Controls

Darkroom gives you a lot of control. I mean a lot of control.
This is not a negative for an advanced photographer. But for a beginner photographer, the amount of control may be overwhelming.
I mentioned the cool Denoise (profiled) tool earlier. Three other tools adjust noise:

  • Denoise (non-local means)
  • Denoise (bilateral filter)
  • Raw Denoise

For each, there are many options. In Denoise (profiled), seven sliders are beside the sensor-ISO profile list. But I wouldn’t know where to start with all these choices if I wanted to clean my photo.
This is a good example of having too many choices. I chose to make no change because I couldn’t decide among all the options.

Screenshot of Darktables denoise panel
Denoise (profiled) detects the camera and ISO and adjusts the noise level.

Is Darktable as Good as Lightroom?

Let’s get to the key question I first set out to answer in this article. Is Darktable as good as Lightroom? The short answer is yes.
In fact, Darktable may be better than Lightroom. It has more tools and offers more precise adjustments from these tools.
Longtime Lightroom users may wonder why Adobe hasn’t included some of these features. I’d vote for Adobe to add the Denoise (profiled) and framing options!
The processing tools are not always intuitive. But if you work with this software for a while, you’ll figure out where things are.

Is Darktable as Easy to Use as Lightroom?

This is a different question. Darktable has a learning curve. And there aren’t as many video tutorials to help teach you how to use the program.
The user manual is easy to understand. But you may need some post-processing experience to fully grasp it.
Many of the tools are broken down into parts. And you can control these independently. This is great if you’re an advanced photographer.
But it was easy for me to go overboard and make a poorly edited photo. So Darktable may not be the best tool for a beginner photographer.
With that said, there are module presets for beginners. These reduce the number of modules to make it simpler for a newbie.

Conclusion: Darktable vs Lightroom

Darktable is a good Lightroom alternative for more advanced users. If you don’t want to buy Adobe’s subscription model or use Linux, this program may be right for you.
The bottom line is that this powerful program offers a lot of bang for your buck… especially since the program is free!
In comparing Darktable vs Lightroom, the interfaces are similar. Both have a file management system, and both include image processing tools.
Darktable comes out ahead in the number of tools available. But with more functionality comes more complexity.
If you’re the type who reads manuals to learn how to use a program, Darktable is for you. But for intuitive users like myself, Darktable may initially be a bit more frustrating.
The tools are there. It’s just a matter of learning how to use them!