Switching from Lightroom to Darktable on macOS

I started my digital photography life with a Nikon D80 and Lightroom 1.0 quite a while ago (2007). When Adobe stopped selling copies and only provided subscription options was one of the moments it became very clear that an alternative is needed. Let’s not talk about Lightroom CC, its unstable desktop app, and a recent user nightmare.

To be independent from the business needs of a company, the only option is to go for an alternative that is licensed under an Open Source license. With that preference in mind and if it is about RAW processing, you have the choice between digiKam, RawTherapee, and darktable.

I was following darktable since a few years. The 2.x versions have not really been working for me. In contrast the releases of 3.0 and 3.2 have been milestones in growing darktable into a serious and easy to use – not to say even more mature – alternative to Lightroom and it is time to do the final switch. Now or never.

To share it upfront: I did not get disappointed nor frustrated by this decision. I am just wondering, why the hell did I not switch earlier?

When you choose an application, it is always good to understand if there is a community cultivating it, in case you need help or are expecting it to evolve overtime. As darktable was originally created for Linux, I wanted to understand if there are also some users on macOS. Homebrew share their statistics that show 4,739 installs within the last year. Direct downloads of the latest release (darktable-3.2.1.dmg) seem to be at 23,279. Downloads do not mean that people are actually working with it, but still serve well as a first indication. In addition darktable even has a dedicated maintainer for macOS. Community should be there, good to go.

What helped me most while switching is to acknowledge that darktable is no clone of Lightroom. It probably was inspired by it, but darktable is much more than a re-implementation. In other words it comes with its own way of doing things. Although it is intuitive to use, it is highly recommended to read the manual!

For getting started, the most important part was the management and structuring of my rather large image repository. For that darktable has the lighttable and its specific concepts.

In Lightroom I was originally using collections to logically sort my pictures into albums and browse them, as my folder hierarchy on the filesystem was purely based on date. In contrast darktable does not offer something similar to a collection in Lightroom. If you want to logically structure your images, you can only do this ad hoc. That means every time you want to focus on a specific subset of images, you need to narrow it down based on flexible criteria. Their concept of a “film roll” is the key as it represents an import of pictures and gets named by its containing folder. You can even combine it with other criteria for filtering like tags.

To replace the concept of a Lightroom collection as container for a subset of images, the only thing that was required was to change my folder structure on the filesystem. As the exit strategy from Lightroom had been growing since quite a while, my pictures are meanwhile organized by events in form of folders. A folder is typically named by YYYY_Name-of-Event. So I could simply import those folders and then use my former collection name – as it is now the filename – as filter criteria.

Before starting up darktable, it is required to install the font “Roboto” for a proper layout and spacing of the default themes. In addition with 3.2.1 I was missing the scrollbar within the lighttable. Seems the default configuration changed, but it can be easy reactivated via the preferences: “show scrollbars for central views”.

Great, let’s review, organize and clean-up the shots of my last vacation. Uh well … now to a current downside of darktable. Using the latest version of darktable 3.2.1 on Linux was even on a 10 years old machine fast. In contrast on a recent MacBook Pro with quite some power, I had to note the following:

  • Scrolling is not smooth and in an uncontrolled manner (a swipe brings you somewhere much further within the collection; 2-3 swipes can bring you at the end of the collection; two down and two up will not bring you to the same images/row).
  • Overall performance is very slow.

I reported this within issue #6068 and got quite some helpful advice. The previous version of darktable – 3.0.2 – did not show these issues. So I assume that something broke while they were rewriting the lighttable for 3.2.1. (Update 2021/02/14: darktable 3.4.1 seems to mostly fix this issue.)

While hoping the upcoming release will fix this, the following tweaks helped to improve my experience:

  • Scrolling: Use the keyboard to walk or page through the images.
  • Performance: Disable “automatic graphics switching” in your system preferences. Within darktable’s preferences, enable OpenCL, choose as OpenCL scheduling scheme “default”, and enable disk backend for thumbnail as well as full preview cache.

Back to my original task to review, organize, and clean-up my recent images and what shortcuts on a Macintosh are essential to my workflow:

  • Scrolling: [fn] + [Left]/[Right] to jump to beginning or end of collection; [Fn] + [Up]/[Down] to page up or down within the collection
  • Selecting: [control] + [click] to select multiple images at once e.g. for tagging
  • Full preview: [option] + [w] to show a permanent full screen preview of the currently selected image
    • Zoom: [control] + [scroll] to zoom in or out of the full preview
    • Change image: [Left]/[Right] to got to next or previous image within full preview
    • Exit preview: [w] to close preview and return to lighttable
  • Assessing images: [1]-[5] 1-5 stars, [r] reject image
  • Grouping images: [control] + [G] to group or [control] + [shift] + [G] to ungroup images

I need yet to figure out the use case for the zoomable lighttable.

Working in the darkroom is an art for itself and might be another blog post. If you want to start with enabling similar modules like Lightroom CC offers, there is a video tutorial of Davies Media Design that tries to help.

Otherwise the overall management and structuring of my image repository works very well within darktable. Congratulations and a big thanks to the maintainers and the whole community of this amazing tool!