Darktable – An Impressive & Free Lightroom Alternative

Darktable is a free and open-source RAW image editor and manager that’s a viable Lightroom alternative. Here’s a quick overview.

Screenshot of Darktable's Light Table interface
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Darktable is among a few free, open-source, and cross-platform free Lightroom alternatives. There are versions for Linux, Mac, and Windows. And it’s entirely free.

Its interface looks strikingly similar to Lightroom Classic’s, so you should feel quite at home if you’re moving across.

There are, however, differences in the workflow logic and how tools and features are named and used. So there is a bit of a learning curve to become accustomed to Darktable’s workflow, but many users are likely to become comfortable with it quite quickly.

My objective here isn’t to provide an exhaustive review of every feature and function of Darktable–that would take more than a single page, and there’s the manual for that.

Instead, my aim is to provide a brief overview to give you a sense of whether it might be worth a closer look by trying it. After all, there’s nothing lost if you decide to try it–Darktable is entirely free software.

For the purposes of putting it through its paces, I wanted to use a mix of RAW files from different cameras to see how well Darktable handled them. So I’m using a collection of RAW files from a Nikon D850, Sony a1, Sony a6400, Nikon D3500, Canon R5, Fujifilm X-Pro2, and Ricoh GR III. You can find the full list of cameras supported by Darktable here.

Basic Operations

Like Lightroom, Darktable combines both organizing images and processing them. With strikingly simple logic, the main interface is divided into a Light table and a Darkroom, which is where it gets its name.

It’s organized into different sections based on the types of operations you want to perform with your images: Light Table, Darkroom, Map, Slideshow, Print, and Tethered Shooting. In Lightroom, those would be called modules, but the term “modules” in Darkroom applies to a more granular level of processing and editing panels.

And, like Lightroom, it uses a non-destructive workflow with a combination of an integrated database and XMP sidecar files, which means your original RAW files will stay safely untouched.

Light Table

The Light Table is Darktable’s image management section. It’s here that you can cull, organize, sort, tag, and add metadata to your images.

While it doesn’t have intuitive smart filtering available immediately out of the box, that functionality can be added and fully customized through LUA scripts.

There’s also full support for metadata and geotagging (including importing and applying GPX tracks).

Screenshot of Darktable's Light Table screen
Darktable’s Light Table screen.

Darkroom

The Darkroom section is the main processing engine of Darktable. It’s here that you can do the heavy lifting for editing and processing the images.

On the right-hand side is a list of editing controls. You can enable or disable controls as needed. There’s anything from basic brightness and contrast to color calibration, shadows and highlights to split-toning and RGB levels.

You can also enable groups of more advanced controls such as haze removal, hot pixel fixes, and astrophoto denoise. While many of these tools overlap with things you can do in Lightroom, some of them give more fine-grained (and sometimes more complicated) control. There’s also support for masking and blending as well as retouching.

Darktable RAW Processing - Darkroom module
Darktable’s Darkroom editing interface.

Other Sections

Map

The map lets you assign images to a geographic location. It uses OpenStreetMap as the engine. You can also geotag by importing a GPX track.

Screenshot of Darktable's Map interface.
Darktable’s Map interface.

Print

The Print section gives you fine-tuned control over paper sizes, color output, and so on.

Screenshot of Darktable's print interface.
Darktable’s Print interface.

Tethered Shooting

This is for real-time capture directly from the camera via USB.

Slideshow

This is for creating a simple on-screen slideshow based on a collection of images. Its functionality is pretty basic.

Miscellaneous Features

Make HDR. Darktable can take several RAW files at different exposures–so long as properly aligned, as shot on a tripod, and combine them into an HDR image. Lightroom also does this (through Photo Merge).

Darktable vs Lightroom

This is by no means an exhaustive comparison, but I thought it worth mentioning a few areas of difference in terms of features and functionality.

Overall, it’s somewhat remarkable how much functionality Darkroom and Lightroom share. The functions are often called something different, and the way they’re applied can vary, but you can often get a very similar end result with the right combinations of settings.

In Darktable’s Favor

  • LUA scripting. Using LUA scripts, you can customize certain behaviors within Darktable. This can be especially useful for the digital asset management side of things, with being able to script live collections (known as Smart Collections in Lightroom), etc.
  • Duplicate Manager. Lightroom can’t natively find duplicates–it requires a plugin. Darkroom has that functionality built-in.

In Lightroom’s Favor

I’m mentioning these here not to suggest these are shortcomings but rather in the way of a heads up to anyone thinking of moving from Lightroom to Darktable.

  • Plugins. There’s a whole universe of Lightroom presets and plugins, some paid and some free. Darktable does support importing styles and emulations, and there’s extended functionality through LUA scripts, but it doesn’t have the powerful plugin architecture of Lightroom.
  • Publish Services. Darktable gives you control over the export behavior and lets you save them as presets (or styles), but there aren’t any direct connections like Lightroom’s Publish Services.
  • Companion mobile app. The desktop app (Lightroom Classic) integrates nicely with the cloud-based mobile version (Lightroom CC). There’s no equivalent for Darktable.
  • Panorama Stitching. There’s no function to stitch panoramas directly within Darktable. You can, of course, export the images and use a separate panorama stitching software to do it.
  • Color Grading. Color grading is a new feature added to Lightroom that’s inspired by a type of processing traditionally used in video editing.
  • Batch Processing. Darktable can batch process by applying edits across multiple images, but I find it slower and less intuitive than Lightroom’s methods.
  • Video support. Lightroom’s support for video files is pretty basic, but it is there and is useful for managing photo and video files side-by-side. Darktable doesn’t support video files.
  • Larger User Community. There are many more guides and tutorials for Lightroom.
  • Wider Third-party Compatibility. With its much larger user base, Lightroom has attracted much wider
  • Tight Integration with Photoshop. Naturally, Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop play nicely together, with simple round-trip editing.
  • Book Module. Prepare photobooks for publishing through Blurb or as PDF.
  • Web Module. I don’t think much of Lightroom’s Web module and never use it. It was a decent-enough idea a decade or more ago, but its usefulness has long passed as better ways to share images have developed. Having said that, it’s probably useful to someone, and Darktable doesn’t have an equivalent.

Impressions

Pros

  • Built-in catalog database for image management
  • Fine-grained control over RAW processing
  • Extendable with LUA scripts
  • Duplicate finder built in
  • Good quality RAW processing output
  • Built-in map, tethering, print, and slideshow modules
  • Cross-platform (Windows, Mac, Linux)
  • Free!

Cons

  • Interface is not as user-friendly as it could be, leading to a steep learning curve
  • Sluggish performance on some computers

Overall, I’m impressed. Darktable is more polished and has more features than I realized until I started diving more deeply into it. Not everything is entirely intuitive, but once you start getting used to the way it does things, it starts making more sense.

On the negative side, I have found it to be a bit sluggish on my iMac (2019 model). I find its processes for batch processing more cumbersome and slower. And it lacks some of the key features of Lightroom.

On the positive side, it packs in a lot of power and functionality, especially for image editing and RAW processing. Sometimes you have to go digging, but in many cases, it gives you much more direct fine-grained control. That’s not going to be a positive for everyone–some users will prefer the more guided approach of Lightroom–but for those who aren’t afraid to dive into technical controls, it can be a big positive.

On the fundamental question of whether it’s worth giving Darktable a try if you’re looking for a good Lightroom alternative, it’s an easy answer for me: absolutely.

Darktable doesn’t have the same polish as paid options like Lightroom or Capture One. Nor does it have the fancy AI-powered processing tricks of apps like Luminar or ON1.

It’s more technical to use, less intuitive, and–at least on my computer–slower, but there’s also much to like. It’s feature-packed and powerful. So you can get excellent results out of its raw processing engine. And it’s also under active development, with new versions released roughly every few months.

Overall, then, Darktable strikes me as a viable alternative to Lightroom that’s well worth a look if you’re after another option. The fact that’s it’s free just adds to the appeal.

Further Resources

You can download Darktable here. There are pre-compiled binaries for Windows and macOS as well as source code that you can compile for Linux.

I found this to be a good getting-started guide:

YouTube video

You can find Darktable’s camera compatibility here.

You can find Darktable’s instruction manuals here.

There’s a separate website for Darktable users to share styles. You can find that here.

Another interesting option is RawTherapee. It’s also free, open-source, and cross-platform. It’s more technical to use and doesn’t some of the key workflow and image management features of Darktable, but it gives a lot of granular control over numerous aspects of RAW image processing. I have a similar overview of RawTherapee here.

David Coleman / Photographer
by David Coleman

I'm a professional freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my travel photography here. More »

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