Rawtherapee and Darktable are two advanced editing programs for photographers. The best part is they are free. But which one suits you? Here, you’ll find out.
Free and Open Software Is Surprisingly Useful
During the last months, I spent a lot of time working with free and open programs for photography development. I got my hands on the popular software Darktable and RawTherapee. While both of them were surprisingly working well, they somehow couldn’t completely replace Adobe Lightroom. But, what are we talking about? A yearly subscription plan for professional creatives competing against the power of open software and community-driven development. Of course there will be some downsides.
But I was also surprised how small these were. You can read how close RawTherapee’s usability and editing interface comes to the mighty Adobe Lightroom in my last week's article. And here, you will find out about some surprising advantages of the more advanced but also complicated Darktable.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Darktable
Darktable was the first software I used after a decade of experience with Adobe. In the beginning, it was really hard to deal with new concepts of editing and to not have all those shortcuts which are written deeply into my muscle memory. With little or no expectations, my first impression still was disappointing. But as I wanted to write a fair review of the program, I had to be patient. Of course, a few sessions of editing with Darktable couldn’t replace my years of experience with Adobe. Still, I found the program really hard to understand. There is simply too much going on in the software — too much to discover, too much to consider.
Once you find a suitable workflow, however, this program will help you gain full control of your image. Still, there are far too many panels and sliders. I have the feeling that wherever I shifted one slider in Lightroom, I need to shift three sliders in Darktable: make an adjustment, counterbalance it, and soften the effect.
Yet, I also learned to love the program for its local adjustments. It’s so easy to add just any shape or path to your photograph. Where Lightroom just offers you limited adjustments to the local masks, Darktable gives you full control. This way, you can edit any area of the picture completely the way you want. That’s not always needed, but there were times when I missed the "Vibrance" slider or a proper tone curve in my local adjustments in Lightroom.
Although Darktable offers you all those options and possibilities within a modern user interface, it’s quite untidy. Selecting the right modules takes some time, and often, you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Strengths and Weaknesses of RawTherapee
RawTherapee works exactly the opposite way. Its design looks a little bit like software from the late 2000s (did I already mention the weird flower stamps in the lower right corner?), but its menu is as neat and structured as possible. Everything is just where you expect it to be.
Instead of taking days to understand the program, most of its basic functions were clear at first sight. User experience and intuitive interfaces are the key features for any software, at least to me. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about open source or commercial products. The user should be the focus. Well done, RawTherapee.
As much as I like shifting sliders or adjusting my overall exposure and contrast settings, I do miss the ability to apply local adjustments. In my last article, I stated that there are some hints that local adjustments are probably coming soon, but they are not ready to be published yet. I also miss the ability to organize and tag my photographs within the software. Yes, it’s only a raw developer, but I also need to find my raw files.
Finally, the biggest downside of Rawtherapee is its speed. After several adjustments, the program will take its time to render your latest shift of a slider. That's not the best foundation for developing a full-day wedding shoot.
Which Raw Editor Should You Choose?
If money wasn’t an issue, I’d recommend you use Lightroom. As we’re still not living in a perfect world, I’d recommend you start with RawTherapee.
Especially when you are new to digital editing, this program won’t overwhelm you with modules, sliders, and theory. RawTherapee allows you to pull and push some sliders, watch the effect, and learn. Stick to the exposure, detail, color, and transform panels, and you will soon achieve great results. The program is easy to understand, and as long as you only use it for some of your personal pieces of art, you will be fine with the overall performance. In fact, you will only feel a little difference from Lightroom in the beginning.
Do you already know the difference between L*a*b and RGB? Are you familiar with parametric masks such as luminosity or color channels? Well, you can at least give Darktable a try then. Bring some time and persistence. You’ll probably need to read the manual, watch some tutorials (of which I didn’t find many really good ones), and count on the supportive community around the program. You will be rewarded with a powerful program, and you will also be able to tag your images and find them anytime you need them.
The Perfect Free and Open Raw Editor
A perfect free and open raw editor would look like this: The power of Darktable combined with the menu structure of RawTherapee. When you edit, the local adjustments would work just as fine as they do in Darktable, but you wouldn't suffer from not being unable to easily scroll through your side menu (which is quite complicated in Darktable).
You could import your photographs into a library and find them quickly among your giant hodgepodge of photographs. Whenever you’re done editing, you could also apply different default-export options (Darktable) and even queue the exports to export them when you take a break and don’t need the computer's memory for editing (RawTherapee). And well, the performance… would probably be as fast as Lightroom.
After all, the coders of both programs have done a great job offering us different tools to edit raw files for free. Whichever software you choose, it’s worth trying. Give it some time and be patient; it’ll pay off — by a few hundred dollars a year.