Darktable, Linux, Lightroom and Pentax

Started Sep 8, 2015 | Discussions thread
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bkpix Contributing Member • Posts: 959
Darktable, Linux, Lightroom and Pentax

Darktable v Lightroom: One month into a Pentax photographer's computer/software/photography experiment

The short version

After a series of mysterious but devastating system crashes this spring and summer on my HP/Win7 computer with Lightroom 6, I installed Linux, a free operating system I have used and liked in the past but which does not run Lightroom. Switching would mean abandoning Lightroom in favor of a Linux equivalent for my 50k digital photos. Rather than buy a new machine, I decided to give free Linux photography software a try – and to try it for nearly five months, until Jan. 1, 2016 – before making up my mind.

As of today, a month into the experiment, I believe I won't be going back to Adobe and Microsoft.

A recent portrait. All conversions done in Darktable.

The detailed version

My HP Pavilion computer began to crash unexpectedly and often last spring after I installed Lightroom 6. We're talking blue screen of death crashes. No help from Adobe or MS. I eliminated most common explanations, from dust bunnies to bad RAM and hard drive sectors, reinstalled Windows and Lightroom, and soon after lost close to 200 photos (no, not irreplaceable, or they would have been backed up) when the system suddenly crashed while I was moving photos, in LR, from one drive to another.

Was on the verge of buying a new computer when I thought of trying Linux. I have used Linux before on an old laptop and enjoyed it. It's free and open source and not nearly as subject to security issues as Windows and Apple systems. I would have switched some time ago, in fact, had I not been so accustomed to Lightroom. Cursory research a couple years ago convinced me that Linux had no adequate LR replacement.

This time I figured I had nothing to lose. So in early August I installed Ubuntu 14 – a freeware flavor of Linux maintained by Canonical – on the HP and began to figure out how to make the system work for me and my photography.

I am not a full time professional, but I regularly sell fine art black and white prints that I make on an old Epson 7600. Whatever software I used would have to (1) allow me to index my photos in a coherent way; (2) let me do raw conversions from Pentax and Canon files; (3) make necessary adjustments to those files; and (4) manage printing on the 7600. And be cheap and reliable and fun.

A huge bonus would be if I could find a way to pick up the image information from my LR catalog and import it into the new system, so that I would not have to re-keyword everything.

I spent about a week trying out different Linux photo programs and rethinking my photography workflow. One thing I quickly realized is there still is no one-stop software solution in Linux for my needs. In fact, the Linux philosophy, inherited from Unix, is using smaller programs that do one thing and do it well.

I finally settled, at least tentatively, on a workflow that involves downloading photos off my camera cards onto my photo hard drive with a small but quick program called Rapid Photo Downloader; importing them into Darktable, for keywording, raw conversion and image adjustments; and, finally, printing them to the 7600 with GIMP, the freeware Photoshop workalike.

On purpose, I began quite slowly. I installed the Ubuntu software on both the HP desktop in my home office (wiping out Windows on the HP) and on the Lenovo laptop that I use for travel and working at an office in town. On the laptop, I installed Linux on a partition, leaving Windows and Lightroom in place; that would give me access to my LR catalog, which lives on an external hard drive, if need be.

So what I had was a “collection” – roughly the Darktable equivalent of a LR “catalog” – with only a handful of images. I added a few at a time, never from paid or critical work, so I could learn the new process and get comfortable with what was happening in the software. I erased everything a few times just to start over, clean.

And I stumbled a lot. Learning any new piece of software takes time. LR was just as perplexing when I first jumped in several years ago. You can find yourself caught for hours on the most elementary problems (Why won't this image import? How do I crop this damned photo? Where did that file go?).

A couple of my regular gigs involve some undemanding web/photo editing, so I occasionally had a few photos dropped in my lap that needed to be edited and uploaded, today. Processing them through my new workflow proved a great way to practice, with just a whiff of pressure. (There was always LR if I panicked. I never opened it up.)

The heart of my new system is Darktable. I am still learning how to live with its keywording system, which I believe (but am not certain) is not as good as that in LR. I think, for example, it only matches full words, where LR can find, for example, “Washington” with “wash.” But I am still learning.

The raw conversion/image adjustment mode (called the Darkroom) in Darktable is growing on me, rapidly. Like LR, it is non-destructive. It has many more adjustment commands (called “modules”) than LR does, offering a number of different ways to go about the same thing, from color balance and exposure adjustments to sharpening and denoising. It has access to a database of Pentax and Canon lenses for corrections. It seems, I will say, somewhat less intuitive than LR. But after a month of living with Darktable, I am beginning to grasp its overall philosophy and am getting relatively fluent in its use. I don't stumble too much anymore. And I like the photos I am producing.

Some specific things I like better about Darktable

* Every module has the ability to create a separate image mask to control local adjustments. The masking feature is quite elegant and easy to use.

* A monochrome module (remember, I sell black and white photos) is the easiest and most flexible BW conversion I've seen, allowing you to pick a color filter equivalent with great precision.

* I need to play more with the denoise module, but my impression of it is quite good.

* You get a wide range of ways to manipulate the image curve.

* Darktable has a built-in invert module, which allows you easily convert negative scans into positive images. Lightroom has no such beast.

There are challenges, as well

One problem with Darktable is that while it has an excellent online manual, there is little written on the subject of workflow. The best instruction available (and I confess I don't much like instructional video) is videos available on YouTube. Probably half an hour of watching other people at work on their images solved many problems for me. One problem for the beginner, frankly, is that Darktable offers so many ways to go about the same thing that you don't know where to start.

Darktable doesn't have a printing module. As a result, I print from GIMP, a program I used to occasionally use in Windows for anything I couldn't do in Lightroom to an image (which, honestly, was practically nothing). GIMP, like Photoshop, is complicated and completely anti-intuitive. I don't know either program at all well.

Printing on the 7600 from GIMP allows you to use the Gutenprint drivers for Linux, which give much finer control of the printer than the outdated Epson Windows driver (the company stopped publishing drivers for the 7600 after Windows Vista – or was it XP?) I was using for LR. My prints already look better as a result.

The final frontier will be importing that huge LR catalog into Darktable without losing all my keywords. I believe, though I am not certain, that I can do that by opening the catalog in LR and then changing the settings to write the full EXIF from each image into a sidecar XML file. (This may require exporting the full catalog to a new hard drive.) When you then import the images into Darktable the program will pick up the data from the sidecars. That's the theory, anyway. It may even be possible to save image adjustments that way, though that is not important to me, as I can recreate them as needed.

The bottom line

I am so far thrilled with the conversion. Linux, in general, is a no-nonsense, elegant solution for my computing needs. It hasn't crashed. It backs up nightly. Software updates don't take over your life; they happen tidily, by permission. Other open-source freeware that I have been using (I also used these programs on my Windows installation) includes LibreOffice (think Office suite) and Scribus (think InDesign).

In an odd way, Linux is very appropriate for Pentax photographers: It's a niche product, ignored by most of the world, that does what it does very well – and saves money (though I guess “saving money” has been less true of Pentax in recent years). So it's a good cultural fit.

Darktable has proved robust and reliable. While at first it seems inferior to and harder to use than Lightroom – and has in the past gotten mediocre online reviews – in its current version (I have v. 1.4) it offers a deep level of control over raw conversions and and photo adjustments and is in some ways superior to Lightroom. Combined with other free Linux software it really does offer a workable photography system today.

I'll check back in January with a final report. I anticipate I will still be using and enjoying Linux. If not, I still have that Lightroom catalog....

 bkpix's gear list:bkpix's gear list
Canon EOS 7D Mark II Pentax KP Canon 6D Mark II Canon EF 135mm F2L USM Canon EF 28-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM +11 more
Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246)
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