Darktable speedrun: Stylish edits in 40 seconds

Two common complaints from beginners are that it takes time to edit pictures with Darktable, and it isn’t easy to get good results. I don’t see it this way, and here I show how I make a stylish edit in less than 40 seconds using a scene-referred workflow.

Here is the RAW image without any modules for dynamic range compression applied (i.e. no filmic RGB or base curve).

I also set the “reduce the resolution of preview image” option to 1/2, which gives me faster renders.

I rely heavily on custom shortcuts. If I mention a shortcut and it does nothing on your machine, it is a shortcut I assigned myself.

My first step in darkroom mode is to turn on the “ISO 12646 colour assessment condition” with ctrl-b. It gives me three benefits:

  1. The smaller size speeds up rendering.
  2. The white frame lets me faster guess the white point of the image.
  3. My eyes do not have to wander far to see all parts of the picture.

My second step is to crop and rotate the image. My C key activates the crop & rotate module. My A and F keys cycle through the different aspect ratios. I have also added custom aspect ratios to Darktable for the print sizes my favourite lab uses. With a dynamic shortcut assigned to the angle, I rotate the image with R+scroll wheel.

My third step is to adjust the white balance. I use the dynamic shortcut Z+scroll wheel to adjust colour temperature and X+scroll wheel for tint. (I haven’t had time to learn the new colour calibration module yet—something to look forward to). So far, I have used up a maximum of 10-15 seconds.

My fourth step is to press ctr-R. This shortcut applies a custom style with the following modules:

  • Exposure at +2.5 EV with the “compensate camera exposure”-option set.
  • Local contrast at default values
  • Sharpen at default values
  • The lut 3d module. I always place it AFTER Filmic RGB but BEFORE output colour profile. In this example, I use the “Fuji 400H ++.png” colour lookup table from RawTherapees collection of free LUTs.
  • Filmic RGB with all the default values except:
    • White relative exposure: 2.63.
    • Black relative exposure: -6.16
    • Slightly higher contrast: 1.555
    • Lower latitude: 13%
    • Higher middle tone saturation: 12 %
    • Lower target white luminance: 98%. (Adds a slightly faded look to the highlights)

My custom style gives me a reasonable starting point, but seldom an immediate perfect result. The fifth step is then to adjust the settings of my custom style. To speed up this operation, I have assigned dynamic shortcuts to the sliders I push most often:

  • Exposure with E+scroll wheel.
  • White relative exposure with W+scroll wheel. Less white relative exposure makes the highlights “pop” more, but too much and you lose all details in the highlights. More white relative exposure gives a more hazy, dreamy look to the image. Too much and the image turn grey and muddy with unpleasant colours.
  • I adjust contrast in the filmic RGB module with Q+scroll wheel.
  • Changes in contrast and exposure affect saturation. Therefore I often adjust middle tones saturation with d + scroll wheel after the previous steps.

If necessary, I fine-tune the white balance again.

My final step is to denoise and add other effects. If I want the kind of “super-crispy” skin texture popular in fashion photography today, I press V to activate a preset of the contrast equalizer module. Here, the luma channel’s fine details are pushed towards the roof in a gradual ski slope shape.

If the image is shot in a higher ISO, I press alt-1 to zoom in to 100% to see if I have any “chroma noise”. If so I press the T key to apply a custom preset of the denoise (profiled) module that uses the module with the default parameters for the “wavelet auto” mode. Afterwards, I zoom out again with alt-3.

I often finish by applying a vignette. I’m not too fond of the built-in vignette module. Instead, I use a copy of the exposure module, placed AFTER filmic RGB, with an ellipse-shaped drawn mask and the “multiply” blend mode. Naturally, I created a vignette style and assigned a keyboard shortcut to it.

These steps are enough for 60-80 per cent of the pictures I take. If I know what kind of look I’m aiming for, I can finish the edit in 30-40 seconds. If I need to do local edits with masks, or global dodging and burning with the tone equalizer module, I usually need 1-2 minutes more. My philosophy is to set a workflow that speeds up the most common and repetitive tasks, so I have more time for creative planning and sweating the details.

Here is the final look of my example, and some more pictures edited with the same workflow.

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great walk-through. I also like that you didn’t make a video but used the old-fashioned text!

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This is just brilliant. The rationale behind some of the steps really helps me understand why you are making the change.

I’m going to have a go with this work flow later.

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You don’t mention using the black relative exposure in filmic.

From this I have to assume you don’t use it or rarely use it. Is there a reason for this please ?

You have some nice example images here. It’s interesting you use both a film emulation lut and add contrast to the curve in filmic, is that not way too contrasty most of the time? Most of the rawtherapee luts I’ve tried have a curve baked in, so when I use them in darktable, I set filmic contrast to 1, everything else in the ‘look’ tab to 0, and contrast in highlights/shadows to ‘soft’ - that way you only have to adjust white and black relative sliders, with the lut, placed above it in the pipe, supplying the curve. But I don’t use Fuji 400 H ++ so perhaps its curve isn’t as strong.

This thread is relevant to me as I too have been crafting styles with fast presets. It is certainly possible to get a nice result in less than a minute, but I still fiddle and compare too many styles, so it takes me at least a couple of minutes :wink:

It is true that I did not mention the black relative exposure. I have assigned that slider to the s-key, but I did not mention it because I seldom adjust it, when I edit images of the type you see in original post.

But I took some pictures of firework on new years eve. In that case I needed to adjust relative black exposure. To save time for the future, I created a new style based on the old one.

Thank you everyone for your feedback and your great questions!

@Soupy, what is too contrasty? That is a matter of taste. In these examples, I wanted lots of contrast.

As a side note: how much contrast I apply depend on my intended display medium. My final display medium is prints, and I prefer matte to glossy paper. With matte paper I need to dial up the contrast a bit, compared to glossy paper or a monitor. I recently ordered a photo album from my favorite lab. Unfortunately, they had changed the paper to something slightly more glossy, so some of my pictures turned up a bit too contrasty for my taste. Next time, I should as them for an updated soft proof profile before ordering…

But it is true that a lut not only can affect the hue but also any other aspect of a photo, including contrast. That is why I adjust contrast, saturation, exposure, white balance, dynamic range etc etc AFTER I applied the LUT. It works for me.

But my “take home message” was not that these settings are good for everyone. Instead, I wanted people to a) think about which controls you change the most and apply keyboard shortcuts to them, b) build up a set of “base styles” that work for the type of conditions that you face repetedly. These “base styles” should produce a consistent look after minimal tweaking of a limited set of parameters.

If you take a lot of portrait pictures at the same time of day, latitude and time of the year and you aim for a particular artistic look, you should make a style for that. For example: “Basic style | Summer | Mediterranean | Golden hour | Soft and creamy portrait”.

Furthermore, the RawTherapeee analog film LUTs try to reproduce old film stock faithfully. To use them, you need to know a bit about the original film. Since it was difficult to fix white balance in development, many of the film stocks where made with a particular light source in mind. So if you use a LUT that emulates a film that was designed to compensate for the green cast of fluorecent lighting, you might want to up the green tint in the white balance.

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Ok. I have set mine up in scene referred workflow, so if I use film emulation lut it comes near last in the pipe.

Yes this is my goal as well. Have not got around to the keyboard shortcuts yet, but I like the idea.

This is a great point. Do you have specific sources that detail this information?

Ok. I have set mine up in scene referred workflow, so if I use film emulation lut it comes near last in the pipe.

Sorry, I expressed myself poorly. What I mean was that I apply all the modules in the correct scene-refered order, just as you do, using my own default values. And after I’ve done that I adjust my default values.

This is a great point. Do you have specific sources that detail this information?

Sorry, no. I sort of guess it from their effect. Eg. if the LUT give a bluish colour, it was probably designed for compensating for tungsten lighting.

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@emem did you try the Velvia module? I wonder how it compares to using the Fuji400 LUT as you do.
I switched to a scene referred workflow recently but still using Velvia, I just like the results specially on skin tones and blue skies but wonder if LUT gives you comparable results and if it’s technically better for any reason

Your speedrun is very impressive indeed, showing the power of the customizability available in darktable.

I’m just not sure it addresses the issue that new users have: they don’t know the means to achieve the result they want yet.

Obviously you know which exact settings you want to use ahead of time to the point that you’ve created shortcuts. But the real question is, how can a newbie speedrun from zero darktable knowledge to your level of adeptness?

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I have tried the Velvia module, but not recently. Perhaps I should test it again?

I wrote:

Two common complaints from beginners are that it takes time to edit pictures with Darktable, and it isn’t easy to get good results. I don’t see it this way, and here I show how I make a stylish edit in less than 40 seconds using a scene-referred workflow.

In other words, I intended this post to be inspiriational, not a beginner tutorial. I would recommend anyone who is completely new to Darktable to go through the videos by Bruce Williams or Aurelien Pierre. With that said, I tried to explain why I chose this particular workflow with the beginner in mind. In the end photography is a craft, and the only way to learn is to try out things for yourself. And I believe the best way to learn is to analyze and copy what others have done.

Once you know how you reproduce what others done, you can take your knowledge and make something that is of your own.

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The velvia module doesn’t apply a velvia slide film like look, it just resaturates dark, light and low-saturated pixels.

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thanks @MStraeten - is it better to use a “velvia LUT” instead of the module?
If so are you aware of a good source for the LUT file? I found this: https://blog.sowerby.me/fuji-film-simulation-profiles/, but these LUTs seem to be specific to the Fuji XTrans sensor

If you want to have a look like shot on velvia slide film then you‘d better use a velvia LUT. Or have a look at https://blog.joaoalmeidaphotography.com/en/t3mujinpack-film-darktable/

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Good suggestion! I find that the t3mujinpack LUTs give a less pronounced effect (ie smaller boost in contrast and saturation). Well worth looking into.

An example:

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in my calibrated setup (colormunki), t3mujin LUT looks much better than rawtherapy’s (the latter seems to shift blacks towards green). I will defintitely try the LUT module very soon and it will hopefully replace the velvia module - one of the last remnants of my old workflow.

@emem in your workflow description you mention,

The lut 3d module. I always place it AFTER Filmic RGB but BEFORE output colour profile. In this example, I use the “Fuji 400H ++.png” colour lookup table from RawTherapees collection of free LUTs.

did you have to change the default module order for this? if so, why?

The original t3mujin filmemulations are presets that makes use of tonecurve (and channelmixer) which are placed in the nonlinear part of the pixelpipe, after filmicrgb.
So if you are using a scene referred workflow, the LUT also must be applied in the nonlinear part of the pipe.

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Do I change the module order for the LUT module? Yes, I place it after Filmic but before the output colour profile. Why? Because the LUTs I use affect saturation and contrast. If I place the module before Filmic the contrast-and-saturation-alterating effect of Filmic and the LUT interact in a way that I find produce unpleasant results. Results that are difficult to counteract with other modules. Try it for yourself, and you’ll see.

The reason that the default order of the LUT module is before Filmic is that LUTs have two purposes: A) colour grading or produce a certain look (my use), and B) for colour correction. If you want to use the LUT to correct colours you want to place the module as early as possible in the pipeline.

If you aske me, the developers should set the default placement of the LUT module to somewhere after Filmic. Because I believe LUTs are mostly used for colour grading.

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