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Open-source RAW image editor Darktable releases major update to version 3.6 – and it's very accessible

RTFM: Read the [fine] manual

Review Traditionally the Darktable project only releases one update a year, with a new version arriving on Christmas day. But the developers behind Darktable have been adding new features and improving existing ones so quickly that one a year is no longer enough.

Going forward, Darktable users can expect two updates a year, one in summer and the other the traditional Christmas day release.

Darktable lighttable view

Darktable light-table view

I have been using Darktable daily since version 1.0.3, which was released nearly 10 years ago now. I can say with some confidence that the latest version, Darktable 3.6, is one of the biggest releases the project has ever put out.

There are a staggering number of new features, many of them related to improving the workflow and user experience, areas where Darktable has sometimes lagged behind its closed source competitors. Indeed, while Darktable has long had far more powerful features than a certain other popular RAW image developer, finding and using them has never been as easy.

To a very large degree this release addresses that problem, making it easier to customize Darktable to your own work habits, as well as adding some new features that go a long way toward speeding up your image processing.

Perhaps the most welcome of these new features and polish is the overhaul to the image import dialog. Darktable is a non-destructive RAW editor, which means it never touches your original RAW files. All adjustments are stored in a sidecar file (with the extension .xmp) and in the Darktable database.

One seeming side effect of this hands-off approach is that previous versions of Darktable didn't do much when importing images. You pointed Darktable to your photos and it added them to the database. It worked, and there was always the excellent Rapid Photo Downloader if you wanted to rename files or move things around before importing them.

Darktable 3.6 features a completely re-written import dialog that will now not only add your photos to Darktable, but move and rename them in the process if you wish. Perhaps the best part of the new import dialog though isn't for camera card imports, but images that are already on your disk.

I organize things by event, so I am often adding photos to existing folders. Previously I would remove the folder from Darktable, then re-import the whole thing. This can take a while if you have a lot of large images. In Darktable 3.6 there's a new option in the import dialog to select only those images that are not already present in Darktable. This makes importing any added images much faster.

Darktable import dialog

Darktable import dialog

Wear a mask

Darktable has always excelled at masking, meaning selecting, hiding and showing various areas of an image so you can alter and edit them in a non-destructive way. The ability to mix hand-drawn masks with parametric masks (which used to be called "conditional blending") allows for almost unlimited retouching power.

Darktable 3.6 adds yet another option to the masking mix: the ability to create an opacity mask based on the sharpness of the image. This is particularly useful in scenes with shallow depth of field, allowing you to easily mask the sharp parts of the image to either apply effects to them, or hold back effects so they don't apply to them.

Masks get another tweak in this release, which makes them completely WYSIWYG. The order in which things are applied to the image (the pixelpipe in Darktable parlance) has been tweaked so that masks are applied to the RAW data.

Consider the distortion applied by a perspective correction, if you draw a circular mask on that, it will now appear as an ellipse, giving you a visual representation of the way the mask is applied. This makes the editing of masks in images with significant distortion much easier.

As mentioned above, Darktable is incredibly powerful, but also incredibly complex. There have been various attempts to combat this in the past by creating "all-in-one" type modules for basic adjustments. One of them, the aptly named Basic Adjustments module, has been removed. Don't worry though, all the functionality of the module is still there, it just lives in a new place known as the quick access panel (and it has a couple more tools).

Darktable quick access mode

Quick access panel

You'll find the quick access panel, with all these basic adjustment modules, under the slider icon on the right side of the darkroom view. Click that icon and you'll see 7 modules that handle all the basic adjustments you're likely to need: Exposure, Crop and Rotate, Lens Correction, Denoise, Color Calibration, Local Contrast, and Color Balance RGB.

If you're familiar with Darktable you'll notice that these are all modules available elsewhere, which is true, but the quick access panel offers stripped down versions of the modules with just the most common adjustment. If you do need to fine-tune something, there's a button at the top of each section that will open the full module for you.

While advanced Darktable users probably don't need the quick access panel, this makes the app much more accessible for new users. Instead of being overwhelmed with more than 70 modules to tweak your image, the basic tools are all right there, easy to find, simple to use. The quick access panel is the best gateway for new users to get the quickest results that Darktable has ever offered.

Topping the list of my favourite new features is the ability to export an image from the Darkroom view, without needing to go back to the Lighttable. I tend to develop an image and then, when I'm satisfied, export it. Previously that meant stepping back to the Lighttable, exporting, then opening the next image. Rinse and repeat. It's a little thing, but it's nice to export without going back to the Lighttable view.

The biggest new feature for developing RAW images is the new Color Balance RGB module, which the release notes call "a one stop module for all color grading work". This is a scene-referred workflow replacement for the old RGB Module.

What's a "scene-referred" workflow you ask? Well, if you're new to Darktable you're better off ignoring that term because it's now the default and the difference isn't important going forward. Those who've been using Darktable for a while now know that the old workflow was mostly based around the LAB colour space. For a variety of reasons LAB is not necessarily the best way to work with modern digital images, and so Darktable has been slowly converting everything over to working in RGB colour spaces. In the process all the underlying algorithms have been changed.

I have a minor in photography and have been shooting and studying photography for 30 years now, and to be honest, I am still not sure I completely understand why the new scene-referred workflow is better, but I can tell you I like the results I get from it better and that's enough for me.

What has been a pain is to have half of Darktable's modules in the old display-referred system and half in new scene-referred, but with Darktable 3.6 that's mostly solved. There are still some old modules hanging around, but all the major modules now use scene-referred workflow.

One of the last major modules to change was the colour balance module. As the name of its replacement suggests, the Color Balance RGB module is a scene-referred replacement for the old Color Balance module. Not only has it changed colour workspaces, the Color Balance module has been completely re-written. At first glance it bears very little resemblance to its processor, and, as someone who uses Color Balance all the time, there was definitely a learning curve to the new module.

The new version offers much more fine-grained control over color in the image, the problem is figuring out exactly what it's capable of and when you might want it. I found this video from Darktable user Boris Hajdukovic helpful in trying to understand how you can use the new Color Balance RGB.

Read the [fine] manual

This release is also chock full of small, but very helpful new features and user interface tweaks. Some highlights include a new button to toggle masks without opening the module in question, better organisation of features and more self-evident icons throughout, and much-improved keyboard shortcut support. I also love the ability to curve graduated filters.

Part of the trick to really getting the most out of Darktable is taking the time to read the excellent documentation. There are even offline .epub and PDF versions available. Along the same lines I highly recommend Bruce Williams' YouTube channel. He has two videos covering everything that's new in Darktable 3.6, which are well worth watching.

Darktable 3.6 has far more changes than I have space to cover here. If you're interested in everything that's new be sure to read through the release notes. If you've never tried Darktable there's never been a better time, the newcomer-friendly new features make this the most approachable release to date. ®

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