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.


  • 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.


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.