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DIY: Enhance your graphic design work with darktable

If Photoshop Lightroom is too pricey for your budget, you should try the open source alternative darktable. Find out what darktable is and isn't, and get the basics on using the app.

Many graphic design tools are useful to photographers and graphic designers; one such example is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which is platform-limited and cost prohibitive for some small shops. The open source alternative to Lightroom is darktable.

Although darktable was created to serve as a virtual light table and darkroom for photographers, it has incredible filters and effects that can be applied to images of nearly any sort. These filters put some of those in standard raster image editors to shame and make for an incredible addition to your graphics design arsenal.

Features

  • Runs on Linux, Mac, Solaris 11
  • Full non-destructive editing
  • Built-in ICC profile support
  • Collect plugin allows for the execution of database queries
  • Tag searching
  • Filtering and sorting
  • Import raw and high dynamic range input formats
  • Zero latency fullscreen, zoomable UI
  • Powerful export system
  • Tons of image filters and plugins (including basic, tone, color, correction, effects, artistic)

There is a catch

darktable isn't just your average image editing tool; in fact, it's not an image editing tool at all. You won't create new images with it, and you won't cut and paste or add layers or layer masks with it. Once you get the feel for how darktable works and its UI, you will be able to enhance the images you've already created.

Installation

The installation is fairly simple, but you might want to install the stable release with the extra features. I'll explain how to install darktable on Ubuntu.

Follow these steps:

  1. Open a terminal window.
  2. Add the repository with the command sudo apt-add-repository ppa:pmjdebruijn/darktable-release-plus.
  3. Update apt with the command sudo apt-get update.
  4. Install darktable by issuing the command sudo apt-get install darktable.
Once it's installed, darktable will be located in your Graphics menu on your desktop. When you first run darktable, you will be greeted by the main interface with zero images added to the collection (Figure A). Figure A

Unlike The Gimp, darktable has but one window for the UI. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Follow these steps to import a folder full of images into darktable:

  1. If the Import section in the left navigation isn't expanded, do so by clicking the right-pointing arrow.
  2. Click the Folder button.
  3. Navigate to the folder you want to import.
  4. Click Open to import.

Work on images

As you work on an image within darktable, it does non-destructive editing. In other words, anything you apply to the image isn't actually applied to it -- it's recorded in an xml file associated with the image. This method ensures your original image remains untouched. Here's how the process works.

From the image collection you imported, double-click the image you want to edit. The image will open in the editing screen (Figure B), where you can begin to apply filters and plugins.

Figure B

Yes, this is a photo of me as a baby. (Click the image to enlarge.)

In the right navigation, you can sort through the various plugins that can be applied. Below the histogram, there are seven buttons (tabs); each button represents a different type of filter. From left to right, the buttons are:

  • Modules used in active pipe
  • Modules explicitly specified by user
  • Basic group
  • Tone group
  • Color group
  • Correction group
  • Effect group
Within each group, you will see the available plugins. At the bottom of each group is an expandable section called More Plugins. Expand that section to see all of the other plugins available for each section (Figure C). Find the plugin you want, and click on it to make it active. Figure C

Hover your cursor over each plugin to see what each one does. (Click the image to enlarge.)

After you apply the plugins to the image, follow these steps to save the changes to the image:

  1. Double-click the working image to go back into the collection mode (Figure D).
  2. Single-click the image you want to save (the filters you have applied will still be live).
  3. Click to expand the Export Selected section.
  4. Enter the information for the export (location, file format, global options).
  5. Click Export.
Figure D

The exported image should be in the location you defined for the export process. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Explore the app's additional features

There are tons of other amazing features in darktable than what I have space to cover in this post. This tutorial should help you to start working with your images in this open source alternative to Lightroom.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

9 comments
LinuxPhotog
LinuxPhotog

Great article Jack, Thank you! I added the repository to my Ubuntu system and began the process toward installation with apt-get update, etc. When I got to installing darktable I was told that darktable depends on libflickcurl0 and hung my install because the package was not found. Is there another repository I can add to download libflickcurl0? Thanks in advance, LinuxPhotog

dude
dude

Unless Gimp released something new, they are still fumbling with 32bit floating point/channel with a few ugly to use plug-ins. After applying several effects recursively on subtle photos, I see no digital fringing coming out of the editing with Darkroom because of the native 32bit floating point for each channel. Compare to Gimps use of 32bit integers, this package really works and won't cause image self destruction in editing! Also it appears (only after a few hours use) to be an easier work flow to set up and process a bunch of photos through rather than the stiffer GImp. Would love to see HDR plug-ins, maybe they have some, and the 4c32bit-fp will make a big difference in extended processing of 10 images down to one super range output worth spending $25 to have printed! Thanks for tipping us off on this one Jack, but you didn't mention the most important 4x32bit-fp issue! Gimp has its place, Darktable will have it's place..... In my album, this is what I've been waiting for!

CodeCurmudgeon
CodeCurmudgeon

But what does it do that Gimp doesnt? 'Though I suppose the relatively limited range of operations make it simpler to use, but only 'cause Gimp (like full-blown Photoshop) is just plain complicated 'cause it can do so darn much stuff. . .

jdayman
jdayman

Jack - you did a heck of a nice job in this review. I have to say I almost always read the stuff you post on TechRepublic, but fairly often it is for the purpose of being entertained rather than for information. :-) Some of your reviews have struck me as being particularly misleading and poorly thought out, often quite biased - those are the ones I find entertaining. On balance, I much prefer to be informed rather than entertained, and this review of DarkTable was very informative. I can't wait to take DarkTable for a test drive on my Linux box at home, and I will recommend it to some of my friends who I know have lusted after LightRoom but can't afford the steep price tag.

LinuxPhotog
LinuxPhotog

The package "libflickcurl0" can be downloaded from the mirror "archive.ubuntu.com". I did a yahoo search on "libflickcurl0" and followed the link to pkgs.org/download/libflickcurl0, selected my linux distribution and I was given the link to the mirror "archive.ubuntu.com". After downloading the "libflickcurl0" package, I ran "dpkg -i /path/to/file/libflickcurl0_pkg_version.deb". "http://pkgs.org/ubuntu-11.10/ubuntu-universe-amd64/libflickcurl0_1.21-3_amd64.deb.html" also gives instructions for downloading the package through the command line. Hope this helps anyone else with missing packages. LinuxPhotog

dinamic
dinamic

Hi, HDR is already available in darktable, first you need to bracket capture some raws and merge them by selecting them in lighttable and use the 'merge hdr' function found in right panel. This will merge the brackets for you into a high dynamic ranged DNG image, then in darkroom you have a tone mapper, equalizer (clarity), lowpass (constrast preset)+overlay blend mode, highpass + softlight blendmode and other tools to tinker with the image. Cheers, Henrik Andersson

dsimpson
dsimpson

But I, too, am motivated to check out DarkTable due to this review. My thanks to you as well!

dude
dude

Thanks Henrik, after spending time with the program and reading the whole manual I see as you mentioned that there is an HDR creation function. It took a bit to realise I had to re-import the converted DNG image to go to dark room. I love it, works well and is the all important 32bit FP so pixels maintain details when extrapolated my the algorithms. I wish that when you create an HDR it would simply go right to dark room with the new image immediately. Question, the red fringing in the DNG image, is this image misalignment errors being made visible or something else? Again, thanks for a superb program! When all said and done I can always take the output image to GIMP and tinker away with it.... that's what GIMP is great at.

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