Intro To Darktable 1 – My Lightable Workflow


It’s been a few years since I’ve written a tutorial on photo editing, and many of those tutorials are outdated. One of the biggest changes I’ve made is in my choice of software. For the past six years I have been using Darktable almost exclusively for all of my photo editing. In my opinion, it has truly risen above all other Free and Open Source Software for RAW photo editing. In fact, I am more impressed with it then I am with Adobe Lightroom, although I admit that I haven’t used Lightroom enough to really get used to it.

This is not a comprehensive listing of everything you can do in darktable, but a description of the important elements that I use in my workflow for organizing and sorting photos before editing.

Prologue – File Management

Import from Camera

Darktable has a built in “Import From Camera” option that you may find useful. You can either import with this function by connecting your camera, or just the memory card to your computer. By default, this will import your photos to your “Pictures” folder and create subdirectories for Year, Month, and Day. Depending on your version of Darktable, it will also create a prefix on your photo files if you enter a “Job Code” during import.

Using darktable to import photos
To change your import settings including what directory to import to as well as adding creator, publisher, and rights to the metadata on import, go to the “import” tab in the “preferences” menu (the gear wheel in the top menu).

One of the benefits to letting darktable import for you is that you will have a consistent file structure for storing your photos. It’s good to store photos in separate files by the day because then you usually won’t have too many folders to sort through at a time. If you were to just dump all of your photos in a single file folder, you would end up with very slow load times in most programs, and may run into problems with duplicates since most cameras just loop through filenames after 9999 photos. The second reason this feature is nice, is that you can pre-apply creator, publisher, and rights information to the metadata on import (although many cameras let you apply this directly to the images as well).

Manual Import

While this method may be convenient for many, I choose to create my file structure manually. This is mainly because I don’t find creating folders and copying photos particularly time consuming, and my file-structure predates my use of darktable. The other reason I do this is there are sometimes days that I take thousands of photos, many more than are efficient to load in darktable or other processing software. For this reason, I often divide days up into many subfolders. However, I find it important to keep a the same structure, organized by date.

Manually creating files to organize photos
My file structure always follows the same pattern – Year, Month, Date in the format “YYYY > MM > DD” and will sometimes be broken up within the date like in this case where I separated photos by my Sigma lens and my telephoto lens (usually shot on different cameras to make separation easy). Alternately, I may just number the sub-folders.

Good file management is incredibly important. Especially if you shoot a lot, or are keeping many years of data. Looking at my 10+ years of photos now, I have over 125,000 photos on my hard drive, that would be a disaster to sort through if I was unorganized with my file management. The important thing is to pick a system, and be consistent.

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A note on backing up

At least once a week I back up my photos on a separate portable hard drive. I have four 2 TB hard drives that are organized by what year’s photos are stored on them. I keep these back-ups off-site, so that if anything were to happen to the house like theft or fire, I’m not losing all my original files. I would definitely suggest something similar if you are shooting a lot of photos. It would be devastating for me to lose not only all those files for monetary purposes, but for the visual memories as well!

If you aren’t taking hundreds of photos a day, a cloud storage option may be useful. I do have many of my photos stored as JPEGS on my Smugmug site (which is also the platform I use for selling photos).

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Intro to Darktable

Darktable (download available at the link) is an open source RAW developer that is available for all Linux operating systems as well as MacOS, and Windows. The programmers that continually develop darktable are phenomenal and responsive. Even though it’s free, you can still donate to there cause, and I highly suggest you do if you find their software helpful. I find them to be more responsive and helpful than any of the big software companies, and frankly, they make a better product.

If you are only shooting in JPEG mode, there is really no need to use a RAW developer (although you still can). Any photo editing software will do. The power in darktable comes from the ability to edit RAW image data.

There are two main windows you will use in Darktable. The first is the lightable – where you view the thumbnail images of all the working files. The second is the Darkroom where you edit the individual images.

Below I go over a basic workflow that I follow after importing photos into a folder.

Workflow in the Lightable

Adding Metadata and Tags

After importing photos into the lightroom, either from “import from camera” or manually selecting from “folder”, by default all photos are rated with 1 star. Before doing any photo edits, I first make sure that I have the correct metadata that I want to be applied to all the photos. Mainly, I want to make sure that the “rights” are labeled with my name. Any metadata changes that you will apply to photos in the library, or “lightable” are located on the right window tabs, including the metadata editor (title, description, creator, publisher, and rights), tags, and geotags.

Using lightroom in darktable to apply metadata and tags to photos
If I’m publishing on my blog, I’ll use my own name as creator and publisher and explicitly write “All Rights Reserved – Copyright Lee Petersen” for rights. Additionally, you can add tags keywords to photos individually, or all in a folder if relevant with the “select all” or ctrl+a.

Adding the metadata to all photos during or immediately after importing ensures that I don’t miss anything I post to my website later. Be aware that many social media platforms, including Facebook, strip all photos of metadata. This is one of the main reasons that I don’t share full-size images and often watermark images I share to social media. This is another reason it’s wise to shoot in RAW, if copyright issue ever comes up, it is much easier to prove you are the photographer if you are the only one with the RAW image file.

You can also add titles and descriptions to the metadata editor. Of course, you would usually only apply this to photos individually. Usually I don’t bother unless I’ve already culled my photos and selected the ones to publish online. This brings me to the next topic.

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Star Ratings and Color Labels

There are two labeling systems available in darkroom that can be used for sorting through your photos in a folder, star ratings and color labels. Here it really pays think about how you want to label your photos initially so you can be consistent with your system over time.

By default, all photos imported or photos opened in a folder will be labeled with 1 star (you can change that in your preferences if you want, although I recommend keeping it). The next step in my workflow is to rate all my photos. This is as easy as hovering the mouse over the photo in lightable mode and entering a number (0-5). You can increase (or decrease) the size of the thumbnails by holding ctrl and using the scroll wheel on the mouse.

I’ll keep photos that I don’t necessarily need to throw out, but are maybe too similar to others, or not immediately worth rating as a ‘1’, and rate others subjectively as I see fit. Then filter all photos above a certain star rating in the top menu so that I’m only looking at the active photos that I want to edit in lightroom.

Using the star ratings in darktable to filter active photos in lightroom.
After rating all photos in a folder, you can use the menu to filter all photos equal to or above a star rating.

I then use the color label system (F1-F5 keys) to mark where I am on editing or publishing. I initially mark all photos as red (F1). In my system, red means I am actively editing that photo. Once a photo is at its final edit, I mark it yellow (F2). After I have exported and uploaded to my website, the photo is marked green (F3).

In summary, I use the star rating to quickly filter only the photos that I want to edit and the color labels to easily see what photos still need editing, or have already been edited and posted. Think about what system would work for you and your needs and just be consistent over time. If you want to see what else the lightroom is capable of, check the user manual here. Another common tool I use is the history stack, but that will be left for another tutorial.

The next element is where we actually develop the images in darkroom mode. I’ll be posting my Intro to Darkroom in early December. Be sure to subscribe below for fairly infrequent updates (seriously, like one or two e-mails a month)!

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