Recommended Darktable settings for Lightroom user

This article is an introduction to Darktable settings for Lightroom user. I will recommend preferences, keybindings and modules, in order to make the switch to Darktable easier and give former Lightroom user a starting point.

This article is written for Darktable version 3.0.2.

Preamble

In a previous article, I described why I left the save Lightroom seas and jumped ship to an open-source solution for my photography workflow.

The first test runs were quite frustrating as I mastered my workflow in Lightroom over several years. Everything I did felt clumsy and cumbersome.

But, as other projects and new children pile up, I decided to just do the switch and use the new tools for new projects only. Then, come back later with more experience and clean up the old mess. This actually works pretty good.

One thing I have realized pretty fast is that the switch won’t work if you don’t adapt to the new tool.

Albeit all similarities, Darktable is not Lightroom. Both are excellent RAW development tools, but naturally differ in functionality, settings and workflow quiet a bit.

That said, I am convinced that one’s migration to Darktable is doomed to fail, in case you try to replicate Lightroom 1:1 in Darktable. You have to adapt your workflow, and you have to invest some time.

I think before we go any further it is best if we fixate our vocabulary.

Terminology comparison

Software function/unitLightroomDarktable
Where image selection takes place (DAM)Library moduleLighttable
Where image development takes place Develop moduleDarkroom
Tools used during the development processToolModule
Stored configuration values for a development toolModule preset
Development steps and values
(can be copied and pasted on images)
Image settingsHistory stack
Where the development steps and values are stored (can be applied on images) PresetStyle
A set of images which is defined by a specific combination of selection criteriaCollectionCollection
Thumbnail-driven navigation barFilmstripFilmstrip
This stores information about the images known to the programCatalogLibrary
Manually addable search and structure related image attributes.KeywordTag
Basic element for organizing imagesFoldersFilm rolls
Create an additional development version to an existing image Virtual copy Duplicate
The 1st column was a bit like creating a crosswords puzzle

Setting structure comparison

Darktable’s settings structure

  • The regular settings, accessible via Darktable’s preferences menu.
    • Writes to darktablerc and keyboardrc files on disk
  • Advanced settings
    • Only available by directly editing the darktablerc file.
  • Presets and styles, which are stored in the SQLite database
    • Data.db file on disk.  
  • Image information
    • Image Library: “.db” file on disk
    • Image attributes (tags, labels etc.): Sidecar (“.XMP”) file (one per image (and virtual copy/duplicate)
    • Development steps: Sidecar (“.XMP”) file (one per image (and virtual copy/duplicate)

Lightroom’s settings structure

  • Settings, accessible via Lightroom’s preferences menu
    • somewhere on disk — irrelevant for this article
  • Catalog settings: “.lrcat” (catalog) file on disk
  • Image information
    • Image Library: “.lrcat” (catalog) file on disk
    • Image attributes (tags, labels etc.): “.lrcat” (catalog) file on disk
    • Development steps: “.lrcat” (catalog) file on disk

Optional: Image attributes and development steps can be also written to sidecar XMP files (must be enabled in the settings). This is a requirement for the migration to Darktable.

Darktable settings recommendations

If you start fresh with Darktable, I would recommend changing only a bare minimum of settings. This includes mostly settings accessible from the software menu.

Darktable settings gear in lighttable view

You open the preferences via the little gear icon top-right over the Image.

The following settings should be changed from their default values:

  • GUI options
    • general
      • theme: darktable-icons
    • import
      • initial import rating: 0
    • lighttable
      • enable extended thumb overlay: ☑️
      • rating an image one start (…): ☑️
    • darkroom
      • position of the image info line: top left
      • expand the module when it is activated, (…): ☑️
      • scroll to darkroom modules when expanded/collapsed: ⛔
    • miscellaneous
      • overlay “txt” sidecar over zoomed images: ☑️
      • mouse wheel scrolls modules side panel by default: ☑️
  • core options
    • XMP
      • store “.XMP” tags in compressed format: never
      • look for updated “.XMP” files on startup: ☑️

Optional: Choose settings in the “cpu / gpu / memory” section depending on your hardware and operating system (further information).

Remark: I had to properly close Darktable in order to have my settings stored.  When I just turned off my computer, sometimes changed settings were not stored properly.

Keybinding comparison

One of the first issues I had, when I tried to use my masterful Lightroom shortcut skills in Darktable was that somehow the keyboard was simply not obeying my commands.

The problem is, there is not an easy one-by-one translation of the keyboard mapping. There are shortcuts which work exactly the same — unfortunately this does not apply to every functionality. Either because a different keybinding is used, or because the functionality differs.

Darktable keybinding recommendations

So I tried to match Lightroom and Darktable functionalities as good as possible, and merge them together into a consistent keyboard shortcut layout. I have favored the Lightroom keybindings over the Darktable ones.

You can see the result in the table here:

Lightroom and Darktable keybindings matching

Editing keybindings in Darktable

The keybindings can be edited via the Darktable preferences. Alternatively you can download my keyboardrc file. Import it via the preferences / shortcuts tab / import button (bottom left).

Quick tip: If you import the new keybindings you can look them up by holding F12.

Feel free to do pull-requests on the repository, in case you have better or further matches.

Development tools comparison

The next thing that really bugged me was the overwhelming number of development modules, combined with an unfamiliar order, in Darktable’s darkroom. Additionally, several modules have functional overlaps. For example, one can change the exposure from the “exposure” and the “basic adjustments” module.

Other as in Lightroom development menu (right side of the Development view), the Darktable modules are ordered in five module groups (Basic, Tone, Color, Correction & Effects).

A solution to get a bit more order in the darkroom is to use the “favorites” module group.

Darktable module recommendations based on Lightroom development tools order

As stated above, presets are stored in Darktable’s “data.db” file. It is unfortunately not that easy to export and import my favorites. Thus, I came up with the following list.

Lightroom and Darktable development module matching

Quick intermission: How to use Darktable modules

The user interface of a module has four buttons which work the same on all modules:

  • On/Off — toggle the module on and off (can be used to judge the effect a module has).
  • Multiple instances actions — create a new instance off the module with different settings.
  • Reset parameters — resets a module to its default values.
  • Presets — manage predefined settings, or create new ones (use this to add a module to your favorites).

Adding Modules to the favorite tab in Darktable

In order to reproduce my favorite settings do as follows:

  • Enable all available modules, by clicking on the preset button on the “more modules” module. Select “subset: all modules
  • find the module you want to add to your favorites and press the related preset button on the module’s header.
  • Select “[] favorite“.

Darktable modules which I recommend as a starting point for Lightroom user

Darktable modules in Lightroom development tools order:

  • Levels
  • Crop and rotate
  • Spot removal
  • Graduate density
  • White balance
  • Basic Adjustments
  • Shadows and Highlights
  • Local Contrast
  • Tone Curve
  • Color Zones
  • Monochrome
  • Split-Toning
  • Color Balance
  • Sharpen
  • Denoise (non-local means)
  • Lens correction
  • Chromatic Abberations
  • Defringe
  • Perspective Correction
  • Vignetting
  • Grain
  • Haze Removal
  • Base Curve
  • Denoise (profiled)

Development modules order

Unfortunately, Darktable does not allow you to define the module order in the UI. The development modules are automatically ordered in the same order Darktable applies them during the development process (read more about the pixel pipeline). I don’t like this UI limitation and I think I am not the only one.

Update: Since version 3.0 it is possible to change the order of modules via Shift+Ctrl+Drag-and-drop. It is very important to note that this feature is not a question of visual preference — it really changes the order in which the modules are applied to the image. It is strongly recommended not to change the original module order, unless you exactly know what you are doing. Some modules are still fixed and cannot be moved.

From Darktable 3.0 documentation

Up to new horizons

Darktable offers an immense variety of development modules. Some modules are very sophisticated and promise exceptional development results, even compared to Lightroom. But as some famous uncle once said “with great power comes great complexity” ;), one has to invest some time in order to properly use these modules.

I can highly recommend taking a detailed look on (at least) the following modules:

To be continued…

This article is the second part of my leaving Lightroom series:

Sources

All the video links are from the great and very detailed Darktable tutorial series from Bruce Williams.

Documentation links are all to the official Darktable 3.0 resources.

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