This brief guide is an introduction to the basic features of darktable. It is designed for those new to darktable. If you are looking for a more in depth darktable guide, check out this ultimate list of darktable resources.

Installation

darktable only works well on Linux. It is possible to run it on Windows and Macs, but not easily.

The easiest way to install darktable on Ubuntu is via a repository. Simply run:

sudo apt-get install darktable

Installation instructions for other Linux operating systems (and OS X) can be found on the darktable site.

If you want to try running darktable on Windows, your best bet is to try the build provided by Partha Bagchi. Good luck…

Managing Photos: the lightable

At the top right of the darktable window is a navigation menu. When the program opens up, you should be in the menu option called ‘lighttable’.

Lightable
The main lightable view in darktable.

The lighttable is where all photo management happens. Let’s run through some key features.

Importing photos

On the left-hand side of the lightable are a series of options. Like all modules in darktable, they can be expanded or collapsed by clicking on the arrowhead next to the name.

If you expand the option called “Import”, a series of options appear that allow us to import photos in different ways (see image above). The two most useful are importing a single image, and importing an entire folder. Clicking on either will bring up a new window where you can navigate to the image or folder respectively.

Opening a folder will import all images in that folder. As part of the import process, darktable will create a new file in that folder for each photo, called a “sidecar” file. This is where darktable stores information about the edits to each photo.

If you also manage your photos in another program, such as digiKam, this may cause issues. Deleting a photo in digiKam will not delete the sidecar file. However, darktable will still recognize the sidecar file, but will be unhappy that the photo it belongs to is missing. My copy of darktable seems to crash a lot if I accidentally try to open a deleted photo.

There are various ways around, but the easiest is to import just the photo that you want to edit, using the other option that I mentioned above.

Previously opened folders of images can be seen by expanding the option called “Recently used collections” (which you canĀ  find below import).

Handling images

Imported images will appear in the central part of the lightable screen.

To view metadata about images (ISO, aperture, shutter speed, etc.), expand the box called image information. (If nothing shows up, make sure an image is selected).

On the right-hand side of the window are various additional options for managing your photos. For now, lets just look at the option called “Selected image[s]”. If you expand it you will various buttons, similar to:

"Selected images" option in darktable lightroom
“Selected images” option in darktable lightroom

“remove” will remove the image from the images that darktable opens in that folder (i.e. get rid of the sidecar file). However, it will still be on the hard disk. “delete” will take it off the hard disk as well, so use with caution.

The other useful button in this menu is “duplicate”. This creates another sidecar file for the same image (but does not copy the image file itself). This is useful if you want to make multiple edits of the same photo (each sidecar file stores a separate version).

There are various other metadata options below, including editing the authorship (photographer, title, rights, etc.) metadata, and adding/removing tags. I won’t go into details here as they are fairly self-explanatory. Instead, let’s move on to the editing process.

Editing: the darkroom

Select a photo in the lighttable, and then either double click on it or choose darkroom from the navigation menu on the top right. The selected photo should load in a new window:

The darktable darkroom
The darktable darkroom

There are menus on both sides of the photo, and a carousel of all the photos from that collection (i.e. folder), at the bottom. These can be collapsed, or expanded, using the large arrow heads in the center of each edge of the window.

The carousel at the bottom allows you select other photos from the collection. We won’t need it for the rest of this guide, so feel free to collapse it. You can also collapse the menu on the left and top if you want more space for the image on your screen.

You should be left with the image and the right-hand menu. All the editing modules are in this menu. At the top is a histogram of the image.

darktable edits image files non-destructively, even non-Raw files. All edits are stored in the sidecar files mentioned previously.

Editing is done via the modules in the right-hand menu. Each module edits theĀ  image in a different way. For example, there are separate modules for white balance, exposure, and sharpening. Unlike Adobe Lightroom, which is designed to be powerful but simple, darktable aims to give you maximum power over the photo editing process. This means that there are a lot of modules, and many of them overlap in their effects.

The modules are grouped by similar function. Below the histogram, you will see a line of icons:

darktable's editing menu
darktable’s editing menu

If no icon is selected, darktable will show a list of all modules that are available. The left-most icon (the power symbol), will display all the modules that are currently active on the picture. Next to that is a star icon, which will display modules you have tagged as favourites (see below for how to add a module to your favourites list). The remaining five icons will select different clusters of similar modules.

For example, in the image above, I have selected the open circle icon which displays all the “basic” modules, such as white balance, exposure, and crop.

To expand a particular module, click on the little arrowhead next to the name. To turn it on, select the power symbol at the top left of the module’s box (some modules, such as white balance and demosaicing, have to be on as they are essential steps in processing a Raw image).

Within each module, you will see various sliders that control the effects of that module. For example, in the white balance module which is shown in the above image, we can drag the temperature slider to adjust the temperature. However, it is hard to get fine control with the sliders. If you right click on the slider knob, a fine tuning window will pop up that let’s you change the value much more precisely using isobars, or by entering the numerical value on your keyboard.

I won’t go through each module here, except to point out some of the more useful ones for a beginner that are available under the different clusters. Tutorials on these modules on this website are linked where available:

Don’t see all of these modules? darktable has a lot of modules, and not all of them are available by default. To see all of them, click on “more modules” at the bottom of the right-hand menu, and select any other modules that you want available. Click again on a selected module to add it to your favourites (and again to make it unavailable).

I would recommend not activating every darktable module just yet, as there are a lot and it can be a little overwhelming (I estimate that I use less than 50% of them on a regular basis). However, once you are comfortable with darktable, working through every module is a great exercise.

Exporting finished photos

Once you have edited your photo to your liking, go back to the lighttable. Expand the “export selected” option on the right:

darktable's export menu
darktable’s export menu

There are various export options available. You can choose whether to save a copy to your hard-drive, or export straight to a website (such as Flickr, Facebook, or Google+). You can also choose the type of file to export (e.g. JPG, TIFF, etc) and the bit depth (warning: full size TIFF files are huge). A good way to make the file smaller is to set the number of pixels of the longest edge in the first “max size” box (if left as zero if will be exported at the resolution of the original Raw image).

Further directions

Hopefully this has given you a good orientation to darktable. However, we have only touched the surface of what darktable is capable of. For more information:


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