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(Last updated on February 25th, 2021)

Lightroom or Darktable? Which software should you pick in 2021?

Read this in-depth Lightroom vs. Darktable comparison if you want to make a wise decision.

Table Of Contents

Adobe Lightroom first sprang to life as an add-on to Adobe Photoshop around 2007 and has grown to be more of its own program.

What differentiates the application from Photoshop is how the software is built specifically for editing on top of raw photos rather than adding all sorts of raster graphics. Some of its key features are made to sharpen images and tweak their brightness, as the name may imply.

Darktable is perhaps the most direct competitor to that of Lightroom. Unlike other competitive photo editing software, Darktable aims for non-destructive edits on raw photos, forgetting the usual raster-graphic workflow akin to Photoshop.

The software came about in 2009 and works on such systems as Linux, macOS, Solaris, and Windows.

Comparison At a Glance

1. Interface
Winner: Tie. Both Lightroom and Darktable have interfaces so similar it’s eerie how close they appear in the design.

2. Tools
Winner: Lightroom. Despite a bit of a learning curve, the tools available in Lightroom are a bit more robust.

3. Features
Winner: Darktable. The range of control within Darktable is relatively high that it can be daunting at times.

4. Workflow
Winner: Darktable. The organization is a bit easier to utilize within Darktable.

5. Ease of Use
Winner: Lightroom. The learning curve is much less steep for Lightroom for having been around much longer with more help offered.

6. Output
Winner: Lightroom. Vast improvements with panoramic and HDR rendering have been made in Lightroom to make it better suited for high-quality output.

7. Extensions
Winner: Lightroom. The plugins for Lightroom are very convenient in terms of what they can pull to edit your photos better.

8. Pricing
Winner: Darktable. As a free and open-source piece of software, Darktable is the clear winner when it comes to costs.

9. Support
Winner: Lightroom. Adobe’s devotion to supporting and community remains much higher than the comparatively smaller range of resources for Darktable.

Short Verdict

While Lightroom is a powerful tool in Adobe’s photo-editing arsenal, Darktable is more versatile and feature-rich for editing photos. Lightroom is a subscription-based product, while Darktable is completely free. Overall, Darktable is the better program among the two.

Lightroom has the benefit of its mobile app and cloud sync but Darktable’s abundance of tools is just too powerful and too vast to ignore considering how much you get for free.

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1. Interface

Photographers may be surprised at just how alike Lightroom and Darktable appear on their interfaces’ surface level. Both of them keep the primary image dead-center at all times, making sure the final product is always in front of you while the tools remain on opposite ends.

Most tools for altering your photos will also be on simple sliders, making it a breeze to test out just how much or how little of any aspect you may need tweaking.

The two programs also share many of the same modules, such as Slideshow, Map, and Printing. Even the tethering module seems to function the same way with only minute differences in how you access your photos from a camera.

Lightroom and Darktable just share so much in common with their interfaces that you could honestly confuse someone with a bit of tweaking as to which program is which.

And since the differences between the two applications are more under the surface, the exteriors of these two rivals in photo manipulation feel like echoes. This race has got to be a tie considering how minor the differences.

Adobe Lightroom Interface

Winner: Tie

2. Tools

Though Lightroom and Darktable look the same in the interface, they do have some unique distinctions in the tools they offer.

Lightroom’s tools are not only abundant but intuitive enough for the novice and the professional. The lighting and color options are vast, considering the glut of tools to select from with varying editable elements.

Many of these tools are exceptional for use in high-quality projects of panoramas and HDR imaging. Whether you’re trying to perfect just one image or an entire gallery, there are plenty of tools to make both happen smoothly.

The best tool of Lightroom, by far, is that of the cloud sync. Given that the latest Lightroom version can work on both desktop and mobile, you can easily save your Lightroom projects while you’re on the move, sync the files, and get back to work on them when on your desktop.

This versatility makes Lightroom ideal for the frantic photographer who needs to edit their photos right away when on location.

Darktable, by comparison, doesn’t have something as compelling as mobile compatibility. It does have some special tools worth talking about that includes its mask manager and multi-mode histogram.

Of the more exclusive tools, there’s Bloom for adding soft light sphere, Framing, which can easily craft a frame around the photo, and a zone system for editing the lighting.

But Lightroom can do most everything else that Darktable does and more, making it the clear winner in this category.

Winner: Lightroom

3. Features

Here’s where Darktable has a bit of an advantage over Lightroom. While Lightroom’s tools are a bit more numerous and powerful, Darktable’s range of features has an extra kick to them.

As mentioned in the previous category, yes, Lightroom does have a distinct advantage in its cloud sync for editing projects while on the go. And most of the tools present in Darktable are indeed present in Lightroom as well.

But Darktable has more of an advantage in a few options that better echo that of Photoshop. Specifically, Darktable’s color balance tools will look familiar for the Photoshop crowd.

But it goes far beyond that in how Darktable also combines tools to be more one-stop-shop for all-around edits. This aspect is best seen in the contrast equalizer, which operates similarly to the curves tools but shows the relationship between luma, chroma, and edges.

Other contrast options are neatly embedded under sliders so that there’s a lot of functionality without requiring the opening and closing of a lot of layers. There’s also a massive amount of options when it comes to controlling the noise in an image.

Lightroom does have some slight advantages over Darktable in that their mask manager is a little easier to use, and there’s not precisely a suitable replacement for the HSL sliders.

But in terms of how much control you’ll have over your photo manipulation tools, Darktable has far more extensive and flexible features.

Adobe Lightroom features

Winner: Darktable

4. Workflow

Much like the interface, Lightroom and Darktable have a similar workflow considering their matching windows and tools.

However, as you may have seen from the features reviewed, Darktable has a better combination of functions that makes the clicks fewer when making edits to photos.

Admittedly, Darktable does take some getting used to if you’re coming in from already using something like Lightroom. You may have to search around for a few tools and maybe even adopt some new terminology here and there. But once you get used to it, Darktable moves pretty speedily through the editing process.

Many functions have been combined into more straightforward tools that you won’t find yourself scrambling between too many sliders and layers trying to find the right mixes of contrast, color, and lighting.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that Lightroom does have a notable advantage for its cloud capabilities, and this alone could’ve won the program the workflow honors.

But there’s a critical weakness that holds it back in that Lightroom comes in two versions: Lightroom (desktop/mobile) and Lightroom Classic (desktop).

And, no, they don’t have the same functions as Classic has a few features that haven’t altogether found their way into the modern version of Lightroom yet.

Darktable is just a lot easier to use in this regard, considering you can install the program on as many machines as you wish with all of the same functions.

Winner: Darktable

5. Ease of Use

As you may have guessed by this article, it’s hard to decide between Darktable and Lightroom as they continually fluctuate.

Remember, in the features sections where the level of options available in Darktable was overwhelming? Well, that’s a bit of a weakness with there being too much of a good thing.

Darktable, even with it all its combination of tools and features, will be a bit of a daunting experience in making necessary edits. Armed only with the website’s documentation, Darktable can be a bit of a chore to search around for what will work best on your project.

This problem of exploring for tools gives the application a bit of a steep learning curve if you’re seeking a program better built for quick and clean edits without many unneeded options.

While Lightroom may lack in its interface, perhaps not being as intuitive, it more than makes up for it with a sense of being both organized and open. This advantage is incredibly true with the latest Lightroom version for browsers with sliders and tools easy to use on both desktop and mobile devices.

The layout has been refined to such a degree where it never feels as though you’re battling against the tools to try to perfect your picture.

Lightroom is just far sleeker and inviting in its photo editing that it’s a lot easier to learn than Darktable, which may require extra time to utilize for all its potential fully.

Winner: Lightroom

6. Output

Images edited in Darktable can be exported out in the formats of JPEG, PNG, TIFF, WebP, PPM, PFM, and EXR. Their destinations can span your computer, Picasa Web Albums, Flickr, email, and HTML-based galleries. There is additionally an external plugin that can automatically export your images to Wikimedia Commons.

Lightroom can export in the same formats but additionally deliver more high-quality images of panorama and HDR rendering. A book module is built, transforming a collection of you edited photos into a photo book, perfect for printing.

It should also be noted that Lightroom boasts some exportation plugins that can push out your final product directly onto your WordPress website or to the printers of such services as Costco and Snapfish.

Given the scope of what each application covers, Lightroom succeeds more here in terms of the file outputs offered and the exportation destinations possible.

Winner: Lightroom

7. Extensions

Lightroom’s plugins are pretty powerful in terms of how wide the span. To quell the CPU crash fears, consider the TPG LR Backup plugin to keep aspects of your project correctly backed-up. Use the ProShow plugin if you desire to craft slideshows from your manipulated photos.

Lightroom plugins can additionally specialize in exporting images with automation ranging from WordPress uploads to shooting off prints via Snapfish or Costco Photo Center.

Darktable does have its unique blend of plugins for the application. They’re roughly 67 plugins in total, and they have been split into various groups by what they cover.

The primary groups of plugins are used for simple photo editing improvements, ranging from saturation modules to auto contrast.

Tone group plugins focus on lighting, giving better control of curves and maps. The color group plugins should be evident in that they provide improvements in color correction and mixing.

Correction group plugins are for edits to imperfections, whether you need some sharpening here or some lens correction there. Then, there’s the broader set of effects plugins that cover just about everything else, from watermarks to grain.

While both applications have quite a wealth of plugins, what ultimately sways the vote is how they’re implemented and how much they can produce. Darktable’s plugins are strong and diverse, but they require quite of bit of learning to install and utilize.

Not only is Lightroom easier to use in this aspect, but Lightroom’s plugins are better built for speeding along the photo manipulation process for the photographer constantly on the move.

Winner: Lightroom

8. Pricing

ProductRegular PriceDiscounted Price
Adobe Creative Cloud$52.99/monthCheck here
Adobe Lightroom$9.99/monthCheck here
DarktableFreeNo Discount

As with all Adobe products, Lightroom costs a monthly subscription fee for use. The base price of Lightroom is $9.99/monthly for the modern version and $19.99/monthly for Lightroom Classic, which ironically boasts a few more features than the more mobile-friendly version.

For the professional photographer seeking more of a complete package, Adobe has a Photography Plan for $20/monthly that comes with Lightroom (desktop and mobile), Lightroom Classic (desktop), and Photoshop (desktop/iPad).

Darktable, however, is entirely free for personal and commercial use. Not only is it open-source as well, but it is also built for a plethora of different platforms.

The operating systems it supports include the likes of Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux, Gentoo Linux, Centos, Debian, Solaris, FreeBSD, and, of course, Window and macOS environments.

What this means is that you can install the program on pretty much any machine for all your photo needs, whether it’s that new Mac you just purchased or your tinkered PC running Fedora.

Darktable is the cheaper option and far more versatile with the operating systems it can be installed upon for edits.

Winner: Darktable

9. Support

Lightroom is an Adobe product and thus carries much of the same support one would find for Photoshop and Illustrator. Help with using Lightroom can be found via phone calls and tickets.

For further issues more specific than general, a massive forum can fill in the blanks, in addition to a host of various articles/tutorials. Even their page devoted to plugins will be most helpful as well.

Darktable doesn’t have as robust support, but their website is certainly more versatile in the various levels of support offered.

Their resource page includes a lengthy FAQ, a user’s manual in several different languages, documentation on the API functions, a style repository, a free downloadable book on photography, and a wealth of tutorials in various languages.

Over on Darktable’s contact page, you can pop onto the application’s mailing list and even get in contact with some of the developers and designers.

However, Adobe’s support is much higher and can better support any project with the devotion to improving the software to be more versatile and serviceable.

Darktable Interface

Winner: Lightroom

Final Verdict

With so many similarities between the two applications, it’s a bit of a tough choice in trying to determine the winner. However, when the programs share so much in common, a few specific details stick out all the more.

In this regard, Darktable ultimately comes out on top of which plan is better at raw photo manipulation. There are many factors, but what it eventually boils down to is that Darktable can perform much of the same functions as Lightroom, but at the cost of nothing and with compatibility that spans numerous operating systems.

You just can’t beat a free program that can be just as versatile and perform only as well as a more costly application as Lightroom.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are Lightroom and Darktable substitutes for Photoshop?

Both applications are developed to be non-destructive applications that work on raw photographs, so they’re not based in raster graphic development the same way Photoshop allows you to design over images.

What operating systems does Lightroom work with?

Lightroom works with Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and tvOS.

What operating systems does Darktable work with?

Darktable works with Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux, Gentoo Linux, Centos, Debian, Solaris, FreeBSD, Window, and macOS.

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