Darktable: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here ?

Right, the decision has been made: “**** you, Adobe, and all who sail in you; I’m off to the new world of Darktable freedom”. Buttons get pressed, mice get clicked and then:

Boom! You awake in almost pitch black, without your faithful brass lantern, immediately alert for the approach of grues. But your years in the Lightroom have given you confidence on how to move, so you step off boldly into the dark. Almost immediately you crash, at full ‘confident’ pace, into a wall called ‘Import’, at a section which appears to be labelled ‘scan for devices’ with a sub-text of ‘no supported devices found’. It feels like a show stopper; invoking the time-honoured, most basic, magic incantation ‘XYZZY’ does nothing for you.

You drop to your knees to crawl around in the almost total dark, with the sense that nobody else has been this way before you, but miraculously your handy Wacom tablet with touch sensitive surface causes you to stumble upon a very strange device, labelled ‘Pixls.US’. It has many features and buttons. As you peer at it in the darkness you have the distinct feeling that this thing is like the Tardis: there’s much more – so much more – on the inside than on the outside. You tentatively press a button and …

WOW! A small part of the Darkroom has lit up, so that you can clearly make out some modules on the floor. Press a few more buttons and ‘WOW! WOW! WOW! This Darkroom goes on for ever, with more modules than you ever could have imagined when in that Lightroom.

You pick up a module that looks like it might be useful. It sounds like something you were very familiar with when in the Lightroom, but has different knobs and features. However, you can get a similar effect and have the feeling that after a certain amount of experimentation with it you might be able to get a better effect, especially when you consider all the other modules that are around.

You pick up another module, this one labelled ‘denoise (non-local means)’ and your early feeling of confidence evaporates, quickly. You notice, inescapably, that the module is covered with a substance that seems to stick to you. It is all over this module and on many of the others around. It has a sort of opacity-increasing property that dulls the light shining from within the module. Then, from the light given off by Pixls.US you notice texts and videos lying around, many of which are also ‘dulled’ by this sticky substance. In fact you realise that it has an ancillary use: to cover up defects – some minor, some major – in the underlying layer, which is labelled ‘knowledge’. Finally you are able to put a word to this sticky substance: ‘Jargon’. It seems to be everywhere.

Through experimentation, and with the ever increasing usefulness of the Pixls.US thingy, you realise that the sticky stuff can be cleaned off and repelled by keeping a clear mind, with frequent, recursive use of the Google device, which seems ever present. You also find a considerable set of videos, going back a long way, labelled ‘Bruce Williams’. Together with your Pixls.US device they offer you a manageable, if not straight forward, guide into the further reaches of the Darkroom. You notice that there have been lots of changes in its history, with walls added and walls taken away, but there is always a way forward.

You continue your journey, picking up other, isolated nuggets of video gold from the stream labelled ‘YouTube’ which flows constantly through the Darkroom. Each of these has the property of lighting up more of the Darkroom, but never completely. New parts of it seem to be created all the time, often coated with that sticky jargon stuff, so the journey is never fast, but it is satisfying and at times truly breath-taking in the things you see and learn in the Darkroom.

Throughout, the Pixls.US device always seems to have something relevant and of value to offer. It seems also to be growing all the time as if there were many forces at work within it. It is has whole areas which are gratifyingly free of the sticky stuff (while having some parts which are impenetrable because of the stickiness).

In fact Pixls.US provides all the essential hope you need when entering here.


Upon deeper examination and consideration, even in the dim light (now known as ‘ignorance’), it is possible to see that the sticky, opaque jargon stuff is in fact a composite. It includes large amounts and varieties of material generally known as ‘Acronyms’, of which one sub-type is common. This is the appropriately called ‘TLA’, which occurs in almost infinite variety. It is not clear what they do, beyond leaving the lonely adventurer in a state of confusion, akin to that felt by the illiterati.
All these component materials are, in turn, bound together in a loose, flexible substrate known as quasi-techno-speak, which is a bit like quasi-management-speak, but more so. This substrate is frequently stretched beyond its design limits, at which point it fails – sometimes abruptly – decaying into a pool of what is known as ‘Second-Hand-Information-Technology’, which also has an Acronym.
Noted examples of this quasi-techno-speak are such concepts as ‘parameterised’, ‘demosaicing’, ‘LUTS’ and the like, which sound expensive. Like the sort of concept only available in Harrods, not in your local supermarket. They are valuable of course - because their explanation and usage guidelines have the same sort of rarity quotient as rocking horse faeces or hen’s teeth – not normally seen, even in the infinite light of the experience adventurer’s worn brass lantern. They are typically compiled by very clever, foreign, deeply technically proficient nerds who write for an audience of very clever, deeply technically proficient foreign nerds. Which is a bit confusing: one has to ask why that intended audience would be interesting in reading such documents, since they know and understand the contents fully already.
Clearly what is missing is a down to earth guide, written by a surviving experienced adventurer, for an intended audience of inexperienced adventurers who are quite probably not going to survive – saving the use of the Pixls.US device thingy object service.
It should not be forgotten that one of the outstanding features of the Darkroom is its complement of ‘twisty little passages all the same’ ™, which are absolutely not the same as its ‘twisty little passages all different’ ™. One of these instances is otherwise known as ‘the pixel pipeline’.
But fear not; others really have passed this way before you, of whom one of the most prolific informers is the aforementioned Bruce Williams and his alluring assistant Vegan (or is it T-Gun?). Anyway, he’s one of those foreign nerdy types with a unique ability to communicate to the average adventurer and so merits a hearty ‘good on yer, mate’.


You have just shown that you are the perfect person to write that guide… :wink:


We have actually planned a “newbies ahoy!” article.for the dtdocs project.


In my experience, the most important difference between Darktable/RawTherapee and most other tools, is their unflinching insistence on being open. They almost never hide technicalities behind “magic” or “convenience”, sometimes to a fault.

I love them for it.


You write in a great style. :slight_smile:
However, some of the point you raise are not valid, I think. One example would be LUTs, which have been used for a long time by videographers, and also by photographers, even with Lightroom and Photoshop (e.g. see Free LUTs – ON1 and Lutify.me | Color Grading LUTs for Adobe Lightroom).

Some of the criticism is valid, of course. While for a developer it makes sense that profiled denoise has tabs Y0 and U0V0, from the users’ perspective ‘luma/luminance’ (or even ‘lightness’, though that’s most probably not technically correct) and ‘colour/chroma/chrominance’ would be more readable. But there are tooltips, there is documentation (and an ever-increasing number of people who don’t read (it, or anything at all – obviously, I’m not referring to you), but prefer video tutorials or just asking people on forums (the latter of which has lead me to leave darktable’s Facebook forum).

Then, again, some of the complexity comes from choice: if you write a raw developer and only support one kind of demosaicing per camera, you don’t need a demosaicing module, since there’s nothing to choose or adjust. In darktable, developers have been working on providing choice, and nowadays also on making things simpler: you can remove the ‘demosaic’ module from sight, it’ll just work with the default algorithm and settings.

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Please don’t take it too seriously - a lot of what I write is utter tosh but has value in that it allows me to ‘let off steam’. This was, is and will be necessary because of my inability to grasp many of the powerful concepts in Darktable. This in turn is a direct result of having far less intellectual capacity then I like to think I have, coupled with, at my age, an accelerating rush towards ‘lights out’ time, added to strong, possibly wrong, habits I have perfected from using Lightroom from Beta 1.

I have noticed, over the past few weeks an increasingly noticeable light, announcing a much delayed dawn of understanding of parts of this impressive and powerful product. I would advise anybody who has a similar (lack of) ability to learn to be prepared for a slow ascent of the curve in Darktable. However, they can be assured that there is a huge amount of assistive material, varying between well-intentioned rubbish and Dirac-intensity gobbledegook, with a strong centre of gravity around the truly useful.


I’m not taking it too seriously: I can feel the (self-)irony (and gratitude towards the community) behind the wit. I thoroughly enjoy your writing; ‘Dirac-intensity gobbledegook’ – what an unlikely expression! :smiley:
I have been lucky, never having been exposed to Lightroom, in that I don’t have to unlearn so much. I feel darktable’s name [note: the developers prefer an all-lowercase spelling] is a nice joke, but it has backfired, people expecting it to be a Lightroom clone.


Seeing darktable described in terms of Zork made my morning. At least I don’t consider looking up walkthroughs online as cheating this time around, and I’m not filled with the sense of perilous dread that Zork sometimes caused me. :wink:

Walkthroughs ? How dare you! By design it can be seen that the whole darkroom experience is designed for teaching by failing.

No sense of perilous dread ? Wot , no fear of that one, tiny, false move with the right mouse button in the middle of that super complicated drawn mask, on which you have been studiously working for the last 40 minutes, so that Bang!, the lantern dies, and the slathering fangs are immediately present? You haven’t been down to the foot of FCD #3 (aka ‘negadoctor’) yet, have you ? How about getting out of that damned echo chamber, still sane, where history seems impossible to stop ?

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In the old film darkroom, the cost of failing was a sheet of paper. In the digital darkroom it’s the cost of one’s time and a calorie or two, ‘move the slider…’

As opposed to explosives; it took a long time to build that structure, if the explosion is ill-formed, the structure has to be re-built for another test. I’m thinking of the US university that offers a degree in explosives engineering; rather expensive practica…

To that end, rawproc, my hack software, is built specifically for learning; one has to stack the tools themselves, and learn from any re-ordering. Not a particularly productive workflow, but quite instructive… Note: I actually use it productively, but what I do with scripts and such is probably not for widespread consumption.

They almost never hide technicalities behind “magic” or “convenience”

… or a monthly subscription;)

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I thought it time to provide an update to my original observations about my journey into darktable. Perhaps the most significant observation I can make is that I have made almost no use of Lightroom (none for editing purposes) in 2021. I have now learned enough on how to manipulate darktable - to a great extent thanks to the support from this forum - that I have no need to use other applications, aside from minor usability reasons. Of these, image renaming on import is the most prevalent, for which I use PhotoMechanic (when running under Windows), and Rapid Photo Downloader under Linux (but who knows how long for ?).

My arrival at an entry level of capability with darktable has been much later than I expected, but I have no regrets. There has been no ‘light-bulb’ moment, but given the (non obvious) power and functionality of darktable, this slow ascent of this man is understandable.

In summary, my profound thanks to all those here who have put up with my ramblings and invalid assertions and have delivered valuable guidance in return.


I always say to new users that darktable rewards patience, but I think a lot of newbies (including myself once upon a time) still underestimate how much patience is needed to become proficient. I’m generally a fast learner and fully expected to be capable with the software after a week or so. A couple of years later and I’m still at a level best described as capable. What I realized is that it’s not so much learning the software that takes time as learning all the concepts behind the software, such as colour science, scene-referred, demosaicing, guided filters, preserve chrominance via luminance Y… so many concepts I was blissfully ignorant about before I discovered darktable/rawtherapee/ART.

What I also realized is that some concepts will always remain somewhat of a mystery to me. I might remember what a certain blend mode does, but trying to predict what it will do to an image from understanding the math behind it? Or knowing when RGB power norm will be give me better results than RGB euclidian norm? Nope, doubt I’ll ever be at that level. But that’s ok. Trial and error is still a very valid way of editing an image.


Points for the Zork reference :slight_smile:

Thanks for this observation: I can fairly confidently see now that this is going to be my experience too. There will be no damascene revelation, but solidly plodding along, with incremental enhancements and marginal gains to my knowledge, skill and understanding are probably all I can handle at my age. For me attempting to associate the concepts of ‘fast’ and ‘learning’ makes about as much sense as ‘military intelligence’; the phrase ‘mutually incompatible’ springs to mind.

You know what’s the issue with that? You grow to accept all of that, do your best to learn everything and then you realize then one day you go back to test out Lightroom and realize that you don’t need any of it to achieve a great result in fraction of time than in any other software if you can pay or pirate. The most depressing thing ever…

What’s keeping hooked at DT is that I see that software improving rapidly and only lacking a proper paint brush masking tool for my personal workflow. There are of course many other things that need improving but that’s the biggest one for me personally. My only hope is for vkdt to help me there but idk when that will happen and if and when the development will be moved from DT to vkdt.

DT/vkdt is the new Blender I’m telling you. One day we’ll be saying how we were there using it before it was mainstream and before they stopped reviewing and caring about community pull requests :stuck_out_tongue:

You’re right that you don’t need all that knowledge to use software like Lightroom, but I never regret having more knowledge. As well as helping me use darktable, having a better understanding of colour science and the digital camera workflow has helped me take better photos. I look at scenes differently now and generally have a better appreciation of the process from viewfinder to display and everything in between.

What’s depressing is that I’m still a mediocre photographer :smiley:


It is the craft of making beautiful images that people can’t or won’t grasp. The rest is just tools from the shed. One way to improve is to learn to appreciate other people’s art. The PlayRaw, Showcase and Critique categories are this community’s way of doing that.