Is darktable (or any photo soft) ever too complicated ?

Excellent post. Should be pinned!


I am a bit baffled. Are you angry about something?

This could be something that gets lost in translation (from a non native speaker) either on the sender side, the receiver side (meaning myself, I also am not native english speaker), or both.

I am asking, hopefully in a polite way, because a lot of the phrasing seems rather harsh or dare I even say, too harsh?!

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Not sure if being angry or not changes anything to the validity of the point, but what is it you find harsh ? I’m not used to sugarcoat stuff, but I don’t think I have been offensive. Sometimes, the best way to advise people to pull their fingers out of their arses is by saying just that…


Although I too am not a native English speaker, I don’t see any harshness in the article. None at all. Quite the opposite! It’s full of kind words and encouragement (at least for me) and is great at setting expectations.

I’ve never used “pull finger out of arse” but rather “head out of arse” :wink: Idiom aside I fully agree with you. I do believe it’s necessary to do so. Some might not take it lightly or even rebel to it, but I still believe it’s necessary.


I think it’s perfectly fine to say things not sugarcoated.

But your headline is a rethorical question that you answer yourself ultimately with a no after a rather long elaboration that, in my mind, misses the point of your ‘frustration’. It’s not a question for an open discussion or at least it doesn’t seem like it for me. (It’s not really a no, it’s a ‘click the EULA or don’t use it’-black or white choice)

Let me demonstrate by giving that last paragraph of yours a different spin. I think then it becomes obvious why to me it seems like you’re ranting (for me at least it sounds a bit like ranting).

‘‘So, if you are not up to the task of teaching people, don’t. No choice is wrong, you just have to live up to your ambitions. I just don’t want to read developers complaining about how users don’t get their UI, before being able to think about designing a good UI, because that 2h of fiddling around with parameters is ultimately wasting millions of manhours on the userside. I can’t imagine the amout of time being saved by a good UI implementation when I started.’’

I think darktable is great. I think your contributions to darktable are great. But that doesn’t mean that darktable is perfect. This is not about simplicity/complexity, darktable IS complex and always will be. To me the question is: how to deal with users who are MUCH MUCH MUCH lazier than you and me. My best answer is: take this real life measurement of yours that people keep coming back not understanding how stuff works, and try to make darktable (or just your modules) better. Not just the algorithms, but maybe also the userinterface or even the whole userexperience. dt3.0 is such a leap forward!!!..just improve on whatever feedback you get. done. and you do, that’s why you made videos. not everyone will watch those, not everyone will know they exist, not everyone will understand them. Is it okay for those people to still want to use darktable? yes! The more selfexplanatory the software gets, the less you have to deal with those people.

now, before someone misunderstands: I don’t want parameters to be hidden. I like them. I also think not everything can be done with UI/UX, so good resources need to exist. Even 12h long youtube videos! I personally love getting into the details how I play my software so I can get the best result out of it. But I also see that some instruments (often FLOSS instruments) are needlessly hard to handle while they sound great. What you see is that people want to play the instrument but don’t understand why it’s not 12 keys per octave but 48, and sometimes they are arranged like this and sometimes like that.

Did I sugercoat this too much? :wink:


I completely agree with this statement! I don’t like to advertise here, but I have in some ways touched on this topic in my last episode about darktable, at the end of the video:


I think you miss the point here. I have said nothing about how the current dt’s UI is right now. In fact the whole point of me learning C to hack darktable was because of the poor workflow it got me at that time, with all the unpredictable colour shifts. Plus the GUI is full of rough edges for lack of developer time to finish the product in its details.

This post is about choosing some photo editing software for its control power while, at the same time, expecting magic right out of the box without opening a manual. Plus the annoying default assumption that photography is/should be easy.

To every photographer out there, I just would like to ask this : did you choose photography because you were too lazy to learn how to draw ?

Very often, I feel like photography is the entry-level art picked as a fall-back because everything else felt too difficult. Which has consequences in terms of user expectations at the software level, because then, software should be easy as well. But there is really no ground for that, except maybe Kodak business, which is one very particular market (even if probably the most massive and lucrative one). And if anyone has clever ideas to make UI easier without hiding thinks or degrading quality, I would be very curious to hear them, but unfortunately, as of now, it’s all just removing things with no replacements (also, I’m very curious how we will control algo once every clutter will have been removed… AI is not on the table).

And there, there are political decisions to be made : we can’t make everyone happy at once. So here is only my harsh political position on the matter.

darktable will be self-explanatory the same day quantum physics will be. Until then, we have universities.


“Undisputed opinion is scary”.

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That’s good actually! This means I misunderstood you.

But from what do you deduct this? Don’t people choose dt not because finally they have 500 parameters exposed but because as a tool it’s algorithms can do stuff that other software can’t? And who expects magic? That is a rethorical question from me, pointing at what is to me a strawman argument.

But people wanting ‘easier’ is not the same as ‘easy’, one is relative, the other is absolute.

Well, someone with such an attitude, even if he could master dt, still would not be what I would call an artist. But that’s not a problem, is it? That’s just how it is.

Again, ‘easy’ vs. ‘easier’.

Yes, this discussion is to be had, it will be a long discussion, it will be difficult, but this is not complicated to solve! I remember a thread which could be resurrected for this.

I agree! But the danger with this sentence is that it can be used against all criticism, it’s a razorblade.

I didn’t say self-explanatory, I said more self explanatory. You want to learn quantum physics with a good book, or with a bad book? The differences in pain and suffering are VAST and there is no bonus for learning it with a bad book.

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Once you start talking to people about their tooling, you come to find the answer is “a lot of people.” A lot of people want a tool with one slider, a la lightroom’s clarity slider.


I did analogue photography for 30 years, took a break until digital hardware caught up, then did digital photography for 10 years.

In the bad old days, making a mask for unsharp masking took me 30 minutes (expose, develop, stop, fix, dry). Then a few more minutes to make a print. Bother, it’s not quite right. Make another mask … And that was just black-and-white. I never attempted USM in colour.

Digital is a different ballgame. When I tweak the USM slider, I complain if it takes more than a couple of seconds. If it takes me 30 minutes to figure out and explain how to do a composite animation, I’m going slowly. Oh, and that includes publishing to the entire world.

The bad old days was mostly craft. Making a decent B&W print took a certain skill, knowledge and experience. The kids today … instant gratification … never had it so good … blah blah.

At their hearts, analogue and digital photography are the same. We make pictures with light. But the technology has changed, and keeps changing, more quickly than we can keep up or write the documentation. And sometimes it isn’t perfect, perhaps because someone hasn’t yet found the perfect solution to a problem, and we want that problem solved today. If not yesterday. C’est la vie.


By definition, RAW development does not has to be one-click easy. Cameras have JPG output for that.


There’s a famous talk, “Simple Made Easy” that talks about the distinction between simple interfaces (which expose their parameters without fuss) and easy interfaces (which require little learning).

It uses the archaic term “complected” (as in “braided”, “convoluted”) to describe easy processes, as they hide their complexity and are therefore harder to actually understand. Contrast that to “complex”–the Airbus cockpit is complex, but not complected–it is very clear what each button and dial does.

I like Darktable for that. It’s complex, but simple. Whereas Lightroom always does more than one thing per slider, with color shifts and halos where there shouldn’t be any. Sure, it’s “easier” (it has fewer sliders), but it confuses the heck out of me. So there.


A good read and some good points are made:

Rather, he wants them to realize that by understanding the components that actually create different looks, artists can become “authors” of their looks, instead of “shoppers” picking from limited off-the-shelf options.

He admits that this is a difficult process for anyone who either doesn’t have extensive technical knowledge, or access to a post-production house with people that do. But he believes that even just changing our mental model is a start. Instead of seeing cameras as paintbrushes, he wants them to be seen as measuring tools that can be shaped into anything with proper display prep


It’s nice to have some philosophy, rather than disputing which version of a certain parameter is appropriate :slight_smile:

Several years ago, I wrote ground-up code for the fuel-injection system on my motorcycle. There was existing code for the hardware, but it originated from American V8 cars. It was compromised. So I started again. Along the way, I learnt that a lot of what was said to be necessary was not… it was simply that people didn’t understand the system, they were trying to adapt things that had been written by other people who didn’t understand the system, and they looked at OEM Japanese manufacturer code, which is enormous. I also learnt that when a chip manufacturer gives away the compiler for the modified C that is ported to their µ-processor, it’s not because it works perfectly. Even the bits of assembler that are certified as “verified” clearly were not. After pushing the bike home a few times, I finally got it all working.

So by the way of that story, I’m trying to say that there is an aesthetic side to programming, which can manifest in very efficient code. On the other hand, that aesthetic may depend on the user’s deep understanding of how the code works, how fuel injection works, how a motorcycle engine works. Some of that is objective, some is user specific, some is an interaction of the two: I may give more weight to smooth throttle response, another may want a sharper reaction or simply more power.

darktable suffers from trying to please everyone. I don’t expect to ever touch velvia, I consider detailed masking to be an emergency fix for a bad photograph, and I don’t like the tone equalizer, because it seems to be telling me what is a “correct” way to improve a photo. I avoid sharpening except at the minimal level of tuning the underlying frequency response around the Nyquist frequencies (of the different rgb channels). I work 99% in B&W. I add weird kinks in the tone cure to create globally unrealistic lighting despite my dislike of (local) masking.

But this is all very subjective. I may change my opinion. I have a deep knowledge of FFT sampling and less understanding of wavelets. My knowledge of colour theory is patchy as hell. It’s entirely possible that changes in my technical competence will modify my subjective response to a certain type of image… it all comes back to emotional engagement, and that isn’t independent of emotional engagement in the technology.

We’d all like a software tool that reflects our own habits of thought… even if they are wrong!

A quote from André Lichnérowitz borrowed from a physics text:
“On a besoin que le mathématique devienne un instrument de pensée”
But we don’t have the luxury of setting the bar that high for users of software.
A quote from Nellie Melba, a soprano of great repute from the end of the 19th century:
“Give 'em muck!”
Presumably, we find our individual truth in between the two.

Maybe the answer comes back to music, or photos: do we get more pleasure from playing alone, from playing with a few friends, or the possibility of performing in front of a concert hall? From making photos, from the appreciation of a few friends, or being a “famous photographer”?

In the end, we all do what we want to do…


Recent film and photography suffer imho from the designed look as much as from the off the shelf look. It’s natural I guess but there’s a self conciousness and lack of immediacy that has come with the over engineering of looks. I guess scripts suffer the same. The film can be beautiful but theres often this layer of “look” to obviously sitting over the film. I can barely watch another orange teal movie.

I find it interesting that this is less of an issue with older films despite the amount of effort spent on “look” even in the 70’s. Perhaps I’m objecting to craftsmanship reaching levels so high that it becomes a barrier. It becomes overly self aware. Contemporary movies captured on analogue suffer this as much as digital due to the processes involved in making the movie.

I know though that someone should be able to engineer a look that feels immediate and not designed. I know that the error probably lies with the people designing the looks rather than the looks themselves but at the same time I feel the level of design ability and skill is a huge hurdle in itself.

The above is not philosophical. About purity. Or some such. It’s that the results are not great i my subjective judgement.

I think the big difference with analogue art/craft is the breadth of resources you can call upon in the learning journey and the type of learning required. There are books, courses, tutors that can take you from being a relative novice to playing Beethoven, painting landscapes etc. Most people understand that learning the analogue arts is hard but they can see the path in front of them and it’s often one that’s as suitable for four-year-olds (at least to start off with) as it is for adults.

The digital learning curve is harder because it always, to some extent, is software-dependent, and the learning material varies significantly in quality. To understand it in the depth that you do and want others to (no criticism here - I agree) requires a lot of fundamentals to be in place, some of which can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve progressed a fair way through school (and further). And some of which (the sciency-mathsy bits) haven’t previously been part of the traditional analogue art/craft world making it difficult for people to move from that world to this.

Things like Photoshop/Lightroom, with their single sliders hiding lots of complexity are much closer, I suspect (having never delved into the analogue or Adobe photography worlds) to the sort of things that were done in analogue photography (waving bits of paper about over enlargers and the like). For example, you can dodge/burn but doing so without halos is hard because it’s imprecise and you don’t always have complete control. darktable is a whole different (in my opinion, better) approach that forces you to learn. Learning the tool helps you understand the theory; learning the theory helps you understand the tool.

Personally, I’m somewhat of a magpie - flitting to the next shiny subject to learn before I’ve fully mastered the last - and photography is the first ‘hobby’ that has held my attention for a significant period of time. The sheer breadth of the subject has kept me fascinated for years - the mix of maths, physics, art, psychology, computing, and just getting out and experiencing the world in a different way. And I’m still nowhere near close to understanding it to the extent I want to. I very much consider myself an amateur.

I like that this is hard and I like that it is technical. It forces me to understand what’s going on under the hood. And the way darktable is put together is a big part of why I use it and haven’t moved on to another application - because I can use it to learn some of the physics and that learning makes my craft better in a way I can understand.


There are good resources (covering the theory and practice) for digital cinema professionals (especially for colourists), but their content never made it to photography it seems. That’s one of the things that baffle me, to be honest: I don’t get how two sister disciplines (cinema/photography) are so far away in terms of culture and education.

You could easily learn colour theory in painting books, then look at Youtube painting sessions to see how painters build a picture from scratch (what colours they use, how they build their palette). Then learn about colour timing in cinema books. Then, looking back at old darkroom technics helps giving context to modern light and colour processing, at least it becomes more real.

Just caring about photography and nothing else, because what you do is photography, is doomed I think.

The maths bits are my personal added value, but you can honestly make without them and there is no reason to get impressed. It’s useful for those who want to run the extra mile and go in-depth, but it’s not mandatory. Just like you don’t need to solve Schrödinger’s equations to get a sense of what an atom is. I think people make it sound worse than it is. Understanding how things interact with each other doesn’t necessarily imply you should know if they follow a log or an exponential rule.


Thank you @aurelienpierre for bringing up this fascinating topic. On a personal note I’m not bothered by the technical nature and movie-length of your videos. Please continue!

I think your point is that learning digital photography is not simple, but worth the effort. I agree completely. But hiding in your essay, there is another more important question for the Darktable community: For whom should we make Darktable?

A real strength of free software is as a tool for learning. Darktable is an excellent example of that. But I think that we (as the community) could be better teachers. Or more precisely, provide better tools for self learning.

@aurelienpierre , you bring up your 12 years as piano student. One thing we could learn from the hundreds of years of experience in the art of teaching music instruments is how to progress the student from beginner to expert. As I understand it, musical students progress from one level to another. Each level comes with specific skills the student must master to progress. This system makes it easier for the student to know what to learn, and for the teacher to know what to teach.

But learning digital photography by acquiring a camera and downloading Darktable is like learning to swim by being thrown into an ice-cold river. You need skills in colour management, colour theory, the mechanics of cameras, knowledge of how a digital sensor works, learning about how to manage an effective processing workflow, etc. And since OS X and Windows are second class citizens (as they should be), you are encouraged to learn Linux as well.

In other words, you have to begin your journey by learning what you need to learn, which is not pedagogical. Furthermore, the sink-or-swim approach makes it harder to contribute to the community by teaching other people about Darktable, since everyone has to invent their own lecture plan.

How could we do better? One solution is to collect the video and text resources out there and organize them into lessons with progressing difficulty. Each level should have clear goals. These resources should be reachable by a big button on the Darktable home page.

For example:
Level 1:
Getting your pictures off your camera and organizing them for easy retrieval in the future.
Installing Darktable

Level 2:
Importing pictures into Darktable. Basic editing of a jpeg: Cropping according to the rule of thirds, adjusting white level using a grey card, straightening the horizon.

Level 3:
Sharing your picture (exporting for prints vs exporting for the web).

Level 4:
Calibrating your monitor using open source tools. Understanding how colours work in your camera, your monitor and printer

Level 5: etc etc.