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

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.


“Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening considerably our field of action. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique. Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see… (bold/italics are mine; ggb) The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952). The Decisive Moment . New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 1–14., from Wikipedia,


In my opinion, learning art is the combination of 3 things, not 2: mastering the medium, learning how to open your creativity channel, and having enough talent make the first two mean something. You can be a great technician with the oils, for example; you can be supremely creative and imaginative, for example; yet there is a part of being an artist that is not learned - it is given to you by grace. Many refuse to admit this. Let them remain happy in their contentment.

With photography you can get closer to art with a lessor degree of pure talent. Like it or not, photography is a technical art, at least to a greater degree than painting, for example. Pervasive AI developments are narrowing the gap incrementally. I shoot with a Leica M in the somewhat self serving idea that it enhances my creativity, or vice versa. Of course I could still process the raw files with, say, Luminar and put an end to that delusion once and for all.

One of the appeals of darktable is the promise of using highly sophisticated software to make more “natural” edits. Perhaps that is a delusion as well. To me, however, the problem with darktable is the lack of really good learning tools, coupled with the rapidly evolving nature of open source development. Sure this guy or that guy has some Youtube videos. Some are better than others. But there really is nothing comprehensive, and there is too much contradiction within what is already out there…


That reminds me very much at a talk from Peter Sikking at one of the last LGMs. Here is the blog post from him:


Very interesting text.

Given the statistics about photography occupation in the US, I wonder how many among those really care about theory and math bits.

What comprises Other Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services:


I wonder how many of them would fit the artistic approach and be sensitive to deep-learning the medium they work with.

Disclaimer: I’m not a photographer, just a junior hobbyist, and I’m very glad about the current state of darktable development.

Yes, in spades.

For instance, there are a lot of really good professional guitarists out there. And then, there was Prince…

They get the first one. He got all three…

Maybe the real point of departure for an art is the passion to master it.

The second is probably the level of deception: it looks easy (or easier than it is), so you throw yourself in. Then you discover that it’s not so simple, and you’re willing to ask yourself why that is…

Even the piano: I’ve heard the comment that the piano is immediately seductive, because you just touch it and nice noises come out. Compared to a violin…

You could also wonder if the same issues apply to sports: some people just run faster than their school mates, and then 10 years later they are doing selective muscle strengthening, studying stride patterns and trying to optimise nutrition.

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This is a must read! Thank you!

Is that in fact Darktable’s core audience? It seems to me that Darktable uniquely attracts people of a more technical bent, and plenty of hobbyists. Not exclusively, of course, but moreso than, say, Lightroom. Or maybe that’s just my own filter bubble.

Does anyone have any insight into Darktable’s users?


These thoughts really can be generalized from art to any activity. Once I know something will take significant effort to master (whether that’s up front or not), do I have the passion to make that effort in order to get the results I desire.

Returning to photography in general and dt in particular, there is obviously a variation in skill and knowledge levels from the top developers to the newest users. It’s pretty obvious that those that are happy with the JPGs they get shooting in auto mode are not part of the user base. But just how far above that should the “floor” for target users be?

“Hey, I just heard that I can do more with my photos if I shoot in raw mode, and I heard darktable is a good raw processor.”

“I use Lightroom but I’m pissed off with Adobe’s business model. I found darktable and want to use it to get the identical results to what I get in Lightroom.”

“I feel restricted in what I can do in such-and-such raw processor, but I’m having trouble figuring out what tools I should use in darktable to get the best results.”

Deciding which types of users should be targets of darktable roughly translates to “which on-ramps need to exist?”

I suspect the nature of the user base has changed since darktable was made available for Windows, but I sure can’t prove that.

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@aurelienpierre I’m glad you’ve declared your preferences for sugarless coatings. It makes this easier to write. None of the below is about your Darktable contributions just responses to the text.

Both paragraphs are mistaken. Art is defined through a process involving many people. A process loosely comparable to peer review and publishing in the science world. Only it’s (even) more corrupt. This makes the comment on absolute definitions misguided it’s not really a relevant comment as we are dealing with a process.


I suppose you actually mean learning to be an artist? Learning art would be art history or some such? Regardless. Your statement is wrong! Or rather mastering the medium is to narrow a definition because many (recognized) artists are not masters of any medium. Opening your creative channel sounds like a self help phrase from those books at airports. It’s about learning refining and rethinking.

Very many artists don’t work that way. I’d say it’s counter to vast amounts of art if not the majority. It’s often not a process of conveying a message or even less making the message clear. For many, making art is more akin to a search, working your way until you find something that resonates. Many aren’t quite sure what it is they’ve found. The process you suggest would prevent a lot of very good art. There was a good documentary on Gerhart Richter on youtube but I can’t find it atm.

I think you are venturing into areas where you aren’t so well read or experienced when your are discussing art in these general terms. In fact you are falling into thought traps I’ve seen before from people who leans heavy on non art/humanities education. Particularly engineers or scientists. There’s a fairly well known photographer/internet guy with a finance background who structures his texts and thoughts like you do above. He has been lamenting not getting a foot into the art world but reading his texts and seeing his work its so incredible obvious why it’s not going to happen. He has all the arguments structured and all the technique down but he doesn’t understand that he’s aiming the wrong way. Playing a different pitch than the game he wants to be in.


Extremely interesting!
How do people then design tools for artists? Or rather: which demographic cares for which tools? Which distinctions are useful when talking about the userbase? Artists, professionals, semi-pro, amateurs?
A lot of food for thought! Thanks.

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Not my cup of tea, sorry, but grace means nothing to me. Neither does talent. Nothing is ever given to you, you have to fight for everything.

Same with “pure” talent. What is that beast ?

Nature is forever out of the equation. That’s why I say “plausible results”, as in something you know is fake, but somehow feels like something you can accept as real.

Violin is more awful than piano in the first years, but then it’s easier to play it expressively because you have a direct contact/interaction with the string. You can’t do vibrato and tremolo with a piano, so you have to cheat to still make it expressive. But most people won’t make it that far, so they will never realize the expressivity problem, they just “hit” keys and think it’s enough.

We don’t collect data on users®.

Not sure about generazing. Art has an essential emotional component that makes it quite different from sport or science, for example.

It’s also a matter of looking at what the market already offers in terms of photo solutions (being opensource or proprietary tools) and see if some people are not forgotten by the offer for not being a profitable market. Since opensource (usually) doesn’t care about profits, it’s the only one that can fill some voids that don’t interest big companies.

This is art market you are referring to. I’m referring to art as a practice. The peer review in science is completely different, since it’s a cognitive process involving proofs management and logical validation. These arts moguls who do peer reviewing are able to find mystical sense in paintings done with a brush tied to a donkey’s tail. If the scientific reviewers were so high on LSD, rockets would crash a lot more.

Which artists recognized by whom ? Or are we talking about con artists here ?

Art is not always, and certainly not only, about thinking. In a world of efficiency, rationality (well, trying to be rational, because we are still not there), data crunching, profits and such, it’s probably the last ground on which you can do things just because. Because it feels good, because it feels right, because that’s what you want.

Maybe it sounds like personal development bullshit, but you can’t deny the irrational part of this process, even with a technical part, that kind of makes the whole fun of it.

How is that incompatible with what I said ? A message is vague way to describe something you try to convey, whatever its shape and grammar, and even when it has no grammar. But anyhow, a vast part of art is communicating (if only because art needs to be acquired through senses). If art was not meant to communicate, it should be as effective if it was unseen and unheard. As long as people have to be in the room to experience and witness it… there is communication.

Ad hominem bullshit, here we go. When you don’t know how to disagree with people on non-technical grounds, you call them uneducated.


We can disagree with each other, but we have to remain civil.

Civility is not optional on this forum, it is required. We don’t need to resort to calling each other uneducated.


I think he refers to art as something that is nothing without an audience AND the reception of the audience. Which is, like he said, loosly comparable to peer review. You’re using a strawman to discredit his point.

Good question which touches on the very philosophical problem of ‘what is art?’. Which leads to: no, this is not about con-artists.

There wasn’t even an ‘always’ in his sentence, not an ‘only’ and it was ‘rethinking’ and not ‘thinking’. I hope it’s me and I am too tired, but to me there is a lot of ‘arguing against things nobody said’ going on. I hope I am wrong.

But this can be non-deliberate, as in ‘I document my search’ and not ‘here is what I found, see it!’.

I don’t see the ad-hominem here. Because when someone points out: ‘On this topic there is that paper that you might need to read (and he even argues why he thinks so).’ That’s not an ad-hominem. Especially when you tell personal anecdotes of what you think art is. Because every critique of your assessment could of course touch personal topics…but he did not do that, he argued against your postulates and not your anecdotes.

I’ll come back to my first post and rephrase a little: What is it that got you get so upset, that you need to argue against something by seemingly misrepresenting it?

Completely agree.

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Agreed, but in reverse. Determining what niches are not covered by alternatives is one of the considerations that goes into deciding what users a package wants to cater to. And then, having decided who the target audience is, it’s necessary to ensure that pathways to successful use of the package is available to that audience.

It is more or less this passage. I won’t debate whether it is classic ad-hominem or whatever, but it is inflammatory. If they were to trim off the last paragraph, they’d be fine and dandy.

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If you want to learn photography, shoot jpegs for 10 years and learn how to work a camera, compose, see light and react in real time to events that interest you. Chances are you won’t need to worry about processing until you have some camera time under your belt. If you want to learn how to process images, spend 10 years working for an experienced photographer and learn to please him or her. Pick any software you wish and learn how to make it do what you want it to do. Once you know how to process for someone else, you can work with any competent software. It’s just buttons, keys and sliders.


I think the crux of @aurelienpierre’s exposition is what kind of instrument do you want to use to manipulate your medium and what is the balance between control and knowledge (or lack thereof) that you want to operate with.

I’ve been making photographs for 20 years, and just about 3 or so years ago did I begin to feel that I was consistently making good photographs that I was proud of. I was a writer before I was a photographer, so feeling good about my own work was, and still is a completely alien feeling.

SooC jpegs are fine. Most photographs are a recording of what happened, not art. There are a billion lightroom and capture one users who apparently value speed and easy repeatability as much as they value control. And then there are those of us who want to dig in, learn as much as possible, and achieve the greatest degree of control possible over our images. That is why darktable is my tool of choice, because it affords me a great amount of creative opportunity for control.


Nailed it!