Darktable vs RawTherapee: what is better? Which free photo editing software to choose if you’re just beginning image editing? Read my honest review of these two programs, their pros & cons, photo editing samples, and additional functions.
These two free Lightroom alternatives have much in common and are widely used for image editing, each of them pursues its own goals. Moreover, they are completely different concerning some essential issues. Understanding what makes them similar and what distinguishes them from one another will help you make the informed choice of Lightroom equivalent satisfying your needs.
Darktable is a freely distributed raster graphics editor with an open source code, focused on image editing and RAW-format images cataloging. It should be mentioned that this Lightroom replacement is produced for the main distributors, such as Linux, MacOS, Microsoft Windows, operation systems from BSD-family, and Oracle Solaris licensed with GNU General Public License 3 or later version. The source code is available at GitHub. An open source code offers an opportunity to use the program for free with any gadget you like as long as you follow the Copyleft GPLv3 license.
1. YOU NEED QUICK COLOR CORRECTION
Currently, Darktable contains 61 modules for image editing. The photo editor offers a full set of tools for color correction including adjustment of exposure, white balance, sharpness, noise, color temperature, etc.
2. YOU WORK WITH A LARGE NUMBER OF IMAGES
Darktable is an image editor that has a lot of tools designed to automatically adjust basic picture settings and are ideal for photographers who usually edit photos in batches.
3. YOU NEED BASIC PHOTO RETOUCHING TOOLS
It also has a cloning function and the built-in frequency-splitting module that allows you to delete spots without damaging the photo texture.
4. YOU FREQUENTLY REVISIT PREVIOUSLY EDITED PHOTOS
Thanks to the nondestructive nature of the picture editing process, your original images always remain unchanged. You can edit a picture as many times as you need without quality loss.
5. YOU WORK WITH DIFFERENT PICTURE FORMATS
Darktable allows you to import photographs in different formats in the standard, unedited, high dynamic range, including CR2, NEF, HDR, PFM, etc. Moreover, you can edit JPG, TIFF, and RAW files.
Contrast, brightness, and saturation
This tool allows you to adjust brightness, contrast, and saturation of your images. I especially like its simplicity since the module has only 3 sliders, each responsible for one setting. The current trend suggests you making your photographs brighter and more saturated, imitating advertisement banners. This trend is applicable to everything, from landscape to macro photography. You can also use this tool to improve low-contrast pictures.
Shadows and highlights
This Darktable tool serves to recover details from dark image areas by increasing the local contrast of those parts. The module allows you to adjust the tonal range of the image’s shadows and highlights. It features several sliders that allow you to either darken or brighten the shadows. Other than that, you can pick one of the two “soften with” options – Gaussian blur or “bilateral filter.” By default, the program uses Gaussian blur, but you can change the softening method to avoid artifacts, which the bilateral filter is better at.
You can use the shadows color adjustment slider to set the color saturation of dark areas. This module works especially well when editing photos taken in backlight such as sunsets, sunrises, and in harsh lighting.
If you didn’t set ISO correctly when taking a shot, “Expouse” will improve your photo by making it brighter or darker, depending on your needs. If the image is suffering from a lack of light (short exposure) it will turn out too dark, if there’s an overabundance of light (long exposure) the photo will be too bright. By changing the exposure, you can create the needed effect and adjust the balance of the photo in general. I should also note that the exposure of each shot should be set individually.
Nowadays, most cameras excel at setting correct white balance automatically, but there are three situations, when you need to adjust it – portrait, night, and sunrise/sunset shoots. It’s especially useful if the camera’s lens catches additional lighting sources like in the latter two cases. If you think that your photo has a yellow tint, White Balance tool will fix that issue. White balance is changed easily, especially if you shoot in RAW. By using this tool, you can also adjust the tone and temperature of the image. You can make it warmer by moving the slider to the right or colder by moving it to the left.
This tool allows you to edit the tone and color of a picture. By default, you can see the color palette and a single saturation slider. By moving the white and black dots to different color areas, you add corresponding tones to the light and dark areas of the image. This effect somehow resembles RGB curves, but you can achieve it by moving only two dots.
Black & white photographs are incredibly popular nowadays, which is evident from how frequently they are featured in magazines and on social media websites. With the help of this tool, you can make any photo B&W. Moreover, you can adjust the saturation of both colors separately. For instance, if the grass in your image is too bright, you can pick the green color and make it darker.
Crop and rotate
The “Crop and rotate” module is one of the most frequently used tools in Darktable. You can use it to crop the photo exactly the way you need it. Sometimes, flipping the image vertically improves its composition, while using the keystone feature allows you to change the photo’s perspective vertically, horizontally or in both directions. The “angle” function is designed to level the image horizontally. You can adjust this setting by moving a slider or opening a separate menu. The “autocrop” function is enabled by default and automatically darkens cropped edges. The “composition” tool adds a grid to the image. You can choose from different options including the rule of thirds, regular grid, perspective, golden ratio, etc.
By using this tool, you can change the orientation of your photograph from portrait to landscape and vice versa. The module only has two buttons – “left” and “right,” which allows you to set the needed orientation quickly and without any hassle.
This popular image editing effect is also available in Darktable. You can use it to add depth to the photograph by darkening or brightening its edges. When you open this module, you can notice that a preview circle is added to the edited picture. There’s a large number of vignette settings to experiment with, including size, intensity, brightness, saturation, horizontal and vertical source, shape, and noise blending. All them together allow you to create the perfect vignette for your image.
If you’re a fan of retro photos that have a lot of grain, then you’ll enjoy this feature that allows you to achieve the same effect. This tool creates an old film effect thanks to 3 sliders: Grain – responsible for the size of the particles, Intensity –determines the amount of grain, and Mid-tone offset – the bigger the offset, the more grain will fade in shadowed and highlighted areas.
By using the gradient filter in Darktable, you can change the tones of an image and add color to overexposed sky. The most important characteristic of the graduated filter is the dark-to-light transition. By using this tool, you can change the density and smoothness of that transition to apply the filter to different images. Besides, you can add colors to it, if you want to introduce different tones to your photo and make it unique.
Even though Darktable doesn’t have any standard presets, you can create them. In other words, a preset is a set of prior configurations which helps boost the process of image retouching and get the desired outcome. It is not difficult to install presets for Darktable. You are to take 4 simple steps:
STEP 1. Download a preset.
STEP 2. Unpack it to the convenient folder.
STEP 3. Open the tab “Styles” on the main screen and click “Import”.
STEP 4. Choose the necessary preset, download it and apply it to the image.
It should be mentioned that you may not only download ready presets but also create your own ones. After you have adjusted all the settings, move from the “Darkroom” tab to the tab “Lightable”, open “Styles” and click “Create”.
This Lightroom equivalent deals with image editing and conversion of photos in RAW format. RawTherapee supports almost all DSLRs and is able to process the majority of RAW files, including 16-, 24-, and 32-bit RAW files and HDR DNG images, as well as standard JPEG, PNG and TIFF images.
The program offers a rich toolset for image editing which makes it one of the best photo editing softwares for beginners. It has a color correction, noise-canceling, rotation, exposure control, shadow and color corrections, tone settings, vignette, EXIF-data image post-processing, framing, white balance, and much more. If there is a necessity to edit a great number of images, a batch processing mode is provided.
1. YOU WANT TO EDIT IMAGES IN A SINGLE PROGRAM.
In most situations, RawTherapee is superior to the built-in Adobe Camera Raw program. In my experience, the former allows you to edit photos quicker and in higher quality compared to the integrated converters of most cameras. You can use this editor to sort, edit, retouch, and export photographs without ever having to exit the program.
2. YOU WORK WITH A HUGE NUMBER OF PICTURES
The program has an integrated file manager that allows you to view, sort, filter, and mark images with comfort as well as to bookmark folders on your OS. Moreover, this software supports batch editing.
3. YOU NEED FULL CONTROL OVER YOUR IMAGES
RawTherapee allows you to sort pictures, change the exposure and geometry of the shot, adjust the color and white balance, remove noise, set sharpness, microcontast and details and retouch photographs. Once you’re done image editing, you can also add frames to your photos or create a collage. RawTherapee gives you unlimited control over the development and editing of a digital image.
4. YOU WORK WITH RAW OR DNG FILES
Even though you see RawTherapee’s main benefits when working with RAW or DNG files, you won’t encounter any problems when editing standard formats like JPEG or TIFF.
5. YOU HAVE A WEAK PC
Since Rawtherapee uses multi-threaded algorithms, you can enjoy solid performance even on lower-end hardware. It can use modern processor functions such as SSE, which allow the program to run noticeably faster.
If you didn’t get the right exposure while taking the photo, this tool will help you make the needed adjustments. The module allows you to change all the exposure-related settings including Highlights, Black, Lightness, Contrast, and Saturation. Besides, the tool includes a Tone Curve function that allows adjusting the highlights and shadows of your photograph with more precision.
Use this tool whenever you need to brighten the shadows and overly dark areas and darken the glares and overexposed spots in the image. Remember to use this tool in moderation to preserve the natural look of the photograph. If the captured scene has a high dynamic range, you should first adjust the Exposure and only then apply Shadows/Highlights.
Tone Mapping can be used to brighten the dark areas of your photo without creating “haloes.” You can also use this tool to make a picture sharper or smoother. The Strength slider allows you to control the intensity of the effect. If you’ll increase this value, the shadows level rises while the glare level is decreased to preserve average image brightness and prevent excessive blur. Edge stopping affects edge sensitivity. If its value is set to zero, the effect will look similar to an unsharp mask.
Thanks to this tool, you can increase the sharpness and contrast of an image if it turned out to be slightly blurry. This module allows you to set the Contrast radius and Amount as well as lower the Darkness and Lightness levels. Since the tool’s settings are highly customizable, it’s perfect both for portrait and landscape photographs.
If you’ve set white balance poorly when taking a photo and it came out colder or warmer than it should have been, the White Balance tool will fix that problem. As you can expect, white balance is set in a single click. You can also further adjust the color temperature and tone manually after you’ve chosen an appropriate preset. You can pick between several balance types: camera, auto, user, or one of many presets for different light sources. The temperature slider changes the colors on a blue-yellow axis, while the tone slider moves along a purple-green axis.
If you need to improve the dim colors or skin tone in a photo, the Vibrance module is the perfect tool for the job. Unlike Saturation, Vibrance treats different tones more carefully, mainly changing blue and green colors, while leaving reds almost untouched. Vibrance is particularly useful for portrait photography. It allows increasing the vibrancy of colors without changing the skin tone. The tool has a Pastel Tones slider for changing the saturation. Additionally, it has such functions as Protect skin-tones, Avoid color shift, Link pastel, and Saturated tones. You can also bring up the Skin-tones curve to adjust the colors with more precision.
Black and White
With the help of this tool, you can control the process of transforming a regular color photo into a black and white one. The tool comes with three sliders: red, green, and blue. You can also open the Curve section for more precise adjustments. Besides, you can choose among several premade Black and White presets including B&W Standard, B&W Weighted Standard, B&W Film-like, B&W Saturation and Value Blending.
L a b Adjustment
Thanks to the L a b Adjustment tool, you can set Lightness, Contrast, and Chromacity of your pictures. If you need to increase the Chromacity and keep the skin natural, you can use the Red and Skin-tones protection sliders that only affect the skin and remove oversaturated areas. Additionally, L a b Adjustment has a Curves section that allows you to set the Chromacity of the colors and tones more accurately. Overall, this is a very handy tool that requires some knowledge on your part.
Dynamic Range Compression
This tool is used when you have to compress the dynamic range of your photos. Such a need arises in situations when the difference between light and dark tones is so big that those areas lose most of their details. The tool has 3 sliders: Amount, Detail, and Anchor. Amount determines the compression’s strength, the higher the value, the more the dynamic range is compressed. The amount of details you want to save is set with Detail. Negative values smoothen the image, reducing the local contrast, while positive values increase it. Anchor influences the compression at shadows and highlights, acting as an Exposure alternative.
This filter is designed to add an artistic vignette to your image. If you want to fix the vignetting caused by insufficient lens lighting, you need to use the Vignetting Correction filter in the Lens/Geometry tab. The same tool is also used to add an artistic effect and it has three sliders. Strength determines the degree to which the filter will be darkened. Feather regulates the width of the vignette, and Roundness affects its shape.
This tool imitates a graduated lens filter. For example, it can be used for landscape photography to limit the sky brightness. By adding a gradient, you can adjust the exposure and darken the skies. The Strength slider allows you to determine the filter’s color. The Angle slider allows you to alter the direction in which the filter is applied. Feather changes the gradient’s width, while Centre X and Y move the filter’s center vertically and horizontally.
This tool allows you to crop images according to your needs. It provides you with several different options. You can either frame the photo yourself or type in the needed size. An important distinction of the Crop tool in RawTherapee is that it doesn’t delete the cropped part but simply hides it as you can still see the removed area on the preview screen.
The last tool I want to mention in my RawTherapee review allows you to perform various manipulations regarding the photograph’s placement. You can freely rotate the photo using the Rotate function. If you need to adjust the perspective, this setting has a separate tab that allows you to change it both vertically and horizontally. Additionally, you can get rid of or create distortions or achieve a fisheye effect. This tool also allows you to adjust the Chromatic Aberration and Vignetting of your images.
RawTherapee is developed involving this type of function, it is just called differently. Instead of “Preset”, it is called “Retouch profile”. RawTherapee has three standard presets: Non-raw, Pixel shift and Pop. To do that, click the arrow button on the right panel and image retouching profile will be saved as a text file in PP3 format.
As for me, Darktable vs RawTherapee battle does not have a total winner. The one and the other app are raster graphics editors featuring a great number of operations for image editing and photo color correction. Personally, I believe that, in terms of tools, RawTherapee surpasses the competitor. It is more functional. Speaking about Darktable, it is more suitable for beginners. However, RawTherapee is more convenient, stable and functional. RawTherapee provides almost absolute control over photo editing, so studying and using this program undoubtedly requires much effort.