Comparison of Lightroom & Photoshop versus Darktable & GIMP
Last updated: 26 November 2018
Table of contents:
- Lightroom & Photoshop
- Darktable & GIMP
- Darktable versus Lightroom
- GIMP versus Photoshop
- Example images
- Bonus 1: Migrating from Lightroom to Darktable?
- Bonus 2: Photoshop keyboard shortcuts in GIMP
I had a fair idea that free-libre photography software compared well to the mainstream proprietary options. Recently I took the opportunity to have a closer look when I participated in a 4-day long workshop Photoshop and the landscape with our local professional photographer Allan Cox.
Allan kindly let me use his spare notebook with Lightroom and Photoshop installed since I have none of these. We did some morning and evening shoots in different locations of Maniototo region, but the bulk of the time we spent processing them.
Having done the workshop I ended up with a number of processed images, techniques Allan uses to process his landscape photos, and a better understanding about the proprietary software we used. I would like to take this opportunity for a brief reflection and comparison with my usual tools.
Lightroom & Photoshop
Having used Darktable and GIMP extensively I haven't encountered any significant issues with their proprietary counterparts. And since Allan was always nearby, I could quickly ask where to find specific functions and options I was looking for.
The suggested workflow was to start in Lightroom and do some basic adjustments there – overall exposure and contrast, crop, noise reduction, etc. We touched on local adjustments but didn't spend much time on them. Once the image looked like at a decent starting point, we would import it into Photoshop (16 bit per colour channel).
Photoshop editing would normally start with the initial layer copy as a backup. Allan naturally teaches use of adjustments layers where possible and uses masks extensively, so majority of adjustments become local to parts of the image. Adjustments layers in Photoshop seem to be working well but have serious limitations – their list currently includes only fill layers, tonal adjustments, colour adjustments, and a few effects. If you need to venture beyond this list, you end up creating an old-fashioned real layer negating most of the adjustment layers benefits.
The adjustment layers I was missing the most were local contrast (I believe Lightroom calls this clarity) and denoising. One could probably get around these by using Photoshop smart objects – including Lightroom result as a smart object would allow for altering both local contrast (clarity) and denoising even later on and having them propagated back into Photoshop file. The price to pay is supposedly memory and computing power used and we didn't even attempt it on our underpowered laptops.
Another adjustment we did extensively in Photoshop in a destructive fashion was cloning/healing. Again this could be done in Lightroom to an extent. The practicality of this approach depends on the specific circumstances.
Darktable & GIMP
After coming home from the workshop I tried to reproduce the same results with my usual tools. It turned out that majority of our Lightroom / Photoshop combo use can be covered by Darktable alone. So I haven't used GIMP (acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program) at all for the images shown here. I suspect that Lightroom gurus would be able to achieve similar results with Lightroom alone and no Photoshop.
There seem to be only very specific image manipulations that cannot be handled by raw processing programs these days. The other reason to use something like Photoshop / GIMP would be when a very accurate masking is required. Here is my list of adjustments I can think of which warrant pixel painting editor:
- Elaborate cloning and healing.
- Large area fixes using Resynthesizer which was later on implemented also in Photoshop as content aware fill/move functions.
- Using plugins like G’mic or Nik Collection. Though it might be worth considering available Darktable styles or Lightroom presets first.
- Combining multiple shots into one – for example HDR (beyond simple cases obviously).
- Using artistic filters, adding text, applying distortion, rendering fractals, and lots of other fun stuff.
- Extending canvas.
Darktable versus Lightroom
From what I've seen so far, these two programs are fairly comparable. Having said that, Darktable tends to offer multiple options to achieve similar result. Look for example at noise reduction. You can simply use the method described in documentation and it will provide satisfying results in most situations. However if you are dealing with a special case you have full arsenal of tools at your disposal. The downside is naturally higher complexity and need to know what you are doing.
One aspect in which these programs differ is the workflow: Lightroom starts with selecting adjustment brush stroke or gradient, and then changing its properties (clarity, contrast, saturation, noise reduction, etc.) Darktable on the other hand lets you select an adjustment module first and then specify its parameters including masking options.
Masking in Lightroom seems to be limited to selecting areas. Darktable goes further, allowing for both area selections and parametric masks – selecting pixels by their values (lightness, values in colour channels, chroma, hue, etc.) Naturally these methods can be combined to achieve best results.
GIMP versus Photoshop
With the arrival of GIMP 2.10 earlier in 2018, in my opinion the list of significant differences has shrunk down to a single item: Filter/adjustment layers. When you check GIMP roadmap you will notice that this is currently scheduled for release 3.2.
The rest is just slightly different layout or names of functions, availability of specialised plugins, and marketing. With Photoshop being de-facto standard it's hard to compete with, despite price and control over the source code. It seems that not so many in photography community value their freedom high enough. Similar comment could be made about Lightroom and its free-libre competitors.
I would like to demonstrate achieving very similar results using either Lightroom + Photoshop or Darktable. I have done the former in unfamiliar environment and on a small laptop so imperfections of my images shouldn't be interpreted as any weaknesses of the software itself. And while I was trying to replicate similar results in Darktable I wasn't always aiming for exact copy.
It was a great exercise and I would really recommend it to others. By trying to replicate these images in Darktable I learned some new tricks, especially more precise control of colour. For that reason I decided to release both raw and Darktable xmp files to let everyone have a look at the details and have a play themselves. Since I don't have access to Lightroom and Photoshop any more, I will share just the exported results (jpeg).
You can download the raw and xmp files here. To load full-sized jpeg files, click on links in the table below – or right-click them and save to your computer. I have also provided files produced with default Darktable settings to see the baseline:
|Darktable w/default settings||Darktable processed||Lightroom + Photoshop|
All the tools discussed are amazing pieces of art and technical ingenuity, there is no doubt about that. They allow us to manipulate our images in ways we couldn't even imagine a few decades ago. Which ones we pick is sometimes a personal choice and other times it's given by outside circumstances. Based on my very limited experience and judging from the narrow perspective of my use cases, there is no significant difference between the proprietary (Lightroom / Photoshop) and free-libre (Darktable / GIMP) options in this area.
My personal choice is using free-libre software as a tool for social change. From a technical perspective I prefer processing in raw converter only for two reasons: To keep all edits non-destructive, and to keep the resulting file sizes under control. With today's camera sensor resolutions and colour depths it's not unusual to end up with Photoshop or GIMP files in gigabyte sizes. Those can add up quickly to make their backup and maintenance burdensome.
Bonus 1: Migrating from Lightroom to Darktable?
If you decide to migrate from Lightroom to Darktable, make sure you watch this series of video tutorials on Youtube created by Bruce Williams. He shows that you can take most of your work from Lightroom over to Darktable.
Bonus 2: Photoshop keyboard shortcuts in GIMP
To make GIMP feel a bit more like Photoshop, you can setup it up to use Photoshop keyboard shortcuts. This is only a small download away as explained in this article.
Please let me know if you notice any issues in this article.
Comparison of Lightroom & Photoshop versus Darktable & GIMP by Tomas Sobek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.