darktable–A Game Changer

justpenguin-300x270Just over a year ago I wrote a post for Matt Hartley’s FreedomPenguin.com where I expressed my opinion that Ubuntu would be in a better position for having a graphics suite. I stated that while Ubuntu does have some great graphics applications, it does not have a graphics suite. Gimp is supposedly a great editor, but it can’t open RAW photos–granted, neither can Adobe’s Photoshop, but if you try to explain that to Photoshop users they’ll say otherwise, because in Adobe’s suite the integration is nearly seemless. Photoshop users don’t know they’re not editing in RAW (an application called CameraRAW exports the photos to Photoshop).

For me, the post got a lot of feedback, some of which was a little more aggressive than what my palate could handle at the time. At the time, I feel I was right. My workflow for photos was very heavily based on Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, but I did most of my work in Lightroom. I really didn’t feel dartktable was a good competitor and to be honest it wasn’t.

Technically it was a great product a year ago, but it wasn’t my version of user-friendly.

Sometimes a product being user-friendly isn’t determined by its technical or design merits, is determined by the dialogue around the product. Ubuntu is popular in part because when people google something about Ubuntu, they can find an answer. Chris Fisher–the man who I jokingly call The Voice of Linux–has routinely commented on the importance of a community around a project. Recently he commented that his experience with the latest Fedora left him impressed at how easy it was for him to discover the documentation he needed.

book-lover-without-text-icon-962x1024Photography is a pretty intimidating subject. My favorite presenters on the topic include husband and wife couple Tony & Chelsea Northrup who’s best-selling book has been the introduction for thousands of people into photography. It’s also the book I recommend when I have people who ask me where to start. The thing that distinguishes the book from so many others is the integration of YouTube videos into the curriculum. It’s a lot easier to understand how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO if you can SEE how the three elements interact.

Catering to the widest possible audience, Tony & Chelsea also produce documentation on the tools for editing photos–Adobe’s tools. To date I have seen the couple engage guest photographers who use FOSS, but they have not created anything close to the wealth of material on it as they have for Adobe’s suite. Really, who can blame them? It’s where the market is right now.

But I think that market may be shifting. darktable not only offers a compelling set of features, but their documentation is clear and easy to read. In addition the community of folks using Darktable are publishing videos on how to use it. Riley Brandt has created some excellent video tutorials for beginners on Darktable. This playlist is now my go-to suggestion for anyone wanting to try out the application.

Favorites on the right.  Darktable easily lets you see the comparison between the original and with edits applied.

One of the best features I’ve really enjoyed in darktable is how it lets me customize my workflow through establishing my favorite editing modules. I always crop & rotate, white balance, de-haze, spot removal, and add local contrast on every shot. Instead of scrolling up and down in Adobe Lightroom, I have a favorites panel with all the features right where I need them.

The other thing I like about the suite is how it stores its changes. In Lightroom and darktable you’re not really changing the file, you’re creating a list of instructions for the application to use later to change your file. This means you have your RAW images from camera on your hard drive and somewhere on the disk you have reference instructions about what’s changed on those files–removing spots, white balance, etc. Lightroom keeps this information about all of the photos in a centralized location. darktable puts this information in .xmp (xml) files next to each of the photos in its library.

For people who don’t care about their photos this feature doesn’t matter, but for folks who do it matters a lot. You see if that centralized file in Lightroom gets corrupted (hard drive starts going bad), the changes you’ve made to your photos can be gone almost instantly. Also moving from one computer to the next now becomes more of a challenge. In contrast I can drop my files onto a networked drive using my file manager (Lightroom requires you use it’s files features). When I go to retrieve them again on another system Darktable knows exactly the changes associated with those files. No more files missing from database warnings.

20140729_Lake_Bled_045_6000 x 4000
Lake Bled, Slovenia

The official darktable website lists the following features:


  • Non-destructive editing throughout the complete workflow, your original images are never modified.
  • Take advantage of the real power of raw: All darktable core functions operate on 4×32-bit floating point pixel buffers, enabling SSE instructions for speedups.
  • GPU accelerated image processing: many image opertions are lightning fast thanks to OpenCL support (runtime detection and enabling).
  • Professional color management: darktable is fully color managed, supporting automatic display profile detection on most systems, including built-in ICC profile support for sRGB, Adobe RGB, XYZ and linear RGB color spaces.
  • Cross platform: darktable runs on Linux, Mac OS X / macports, BSD, Windows and Solaris 11 / GNOME.
  • Filtering and sorting: search your image collections by tags, image rating (stars), color labels and many more, use flexible database queries on all metadata of your images.
  • Image formats: darktable can import a variety of standard, raw and high dynamic range image formats (e.g. JPEG, CR2, NEF, HDR, PFM, RAF … ).
  • Zero-latency, zoomable user interface: through multi-level software caches darktable provides a fluid experience.
  • Tethered shooting: support for instrumentation of your camera with live view for some camera brands.
  • Speaks your language: darktable currently comes with 21 translations: Albanian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portugese (Brazilian and Portugese), Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Ukrainian.
  • Powerful export system supports G+ and Facebook webalbums, flickr upload, disk storage, 1:1 copy, email attachments and can generate a simple html-based web gallery. darktable allows you to export to low dynamic range (JPEG, PNG, TIFF), 16-bit (PPM, TIFF), or linear high dynamic range (PFM, EXR) images.
  • Never lose your image development settings darktable uses both XMP sidecar files as well as its fast database for saving metadata and processing settings. All Exif data is read and written using libexiv2.
  • Automate repetitive tasks: Many aspects of darktable can be scripted in Lua.

Again, the issue with graphics on Linux isn’t having sub-standard applications. In my opinion it’s from having a lack of a suite (Gimp 2.10 supposedly works with darktable to open RAW image files, but I haven’t gotten this working on KDE Neon yet). For those whose workflow primarily focuses around Lightroom, darktable is a significant game changer. It’s ability to apply drawn and parametric masks is significantly impressive!

For anyone getting into photography now I’d still recommend the Northrup’s book, but I’d also recommend the use darktable to manage their photos.

The Value of A Library

 A number of years ago I was traveling through Heidelberg Germany and decided to visit the castle and gardens. A tour was offered and I was escorted by a very nice young lady around many of the castle features and legends that had emerged over time. She talked about the construction process and different phases as well as those who lived and ruled from within its walls.

The tour was open for questions and one gentleman asked about the value of the castle. She had just concluded discussing the labor and materials involved in its creation and replied to this inquiry by explaining how under feudalism the king owned everything, so there was no way for a value to be placed on things he already owned. He owned the labor and the resources. They were at his command.

I don’t remember the follow up question, but I do remember the answer. The guide politely gave a brief lesson on one of the great currencies of the medieval age, knowledge. In particular, the knowledge from books. Heidelberg played a key role in the Thirty Years’ War and as a result of a battle in 1622 one of the most prominent libraries had their text gifted to the Pope in exchange for political assistance. Heidelberg was intellectually robbed, and the tour guide, a native of the city, remembered. The real value wasn’t the fact that one stone was placed on another, it was that its library had information.

Since that experience I have always viewed information as its own currency. Recently I’ve enjoyed learning about the history of the zero (concept) and the character (0) migrating from Cambodia to the west. I’ve also be learning about Fibonacci’s marvelous textbook on numbers and how it popularized our current numerical characters and mathematical techniques. Our number system is extremely powerful as a communication tool and studying its evolution provides a great deal of lessons on historical economics and human understanding. It was the underdog whose principled efficiency as a system resulted in it trumping all others.

Using the idea that information is currency, one could easily argue that the United States is the wealthiest nation on earth due to its vast and ever growing collection of books in the Library of Congress. That argument would hold true if physically printed information were all that existed. In the digital domain we have several different libraries. Wikipedia hosts rather easily digestible information on a vast number of subjects. Archive.org has a similarly impressive catalog of knowledge. Specific industries and trades have also built up massive libraries of information.

Many of these, if not all, are dependent upon the library of open source. While fragmented across several domains, this library has become one of the most significant accomplishments of the human era. It’s the continual evolution of practical economic theory. Within its shelves are discoveries more complex, but just as significant, as the discovery of zero. Within its texts are descriptions of forms and formulas as powerful as Fibonacci’s textbook. The library has its high profile contributors, but it wouldn’t have its volume with them alone.

Throughout history we’ve seen lessons of centrally planned economies fail because they can’t accurately account for the needs within a particular market sector. In the market sector of code and the need for understanding, the lessons from the political economy also apply. Centralized planning can’t account for the demand. With this in mind the rise of open source is easy to understand. It’s not a superiority complex, its an accessibility one.

If you were to visit the Heidelberg castle today you’d quickly notice the half-standing fat tower exposing the insides it was supposed to protect. In the Nine Years’ War an explosion split the structure scarring it to this day. Today the pyrotechnics you need to get at the valuable library of open source includes nothing more than a few mouse clicks and the right search terms.

What makes it impressive beyond measure is not simply the vast college of knowledge inside of open source, but that the knowledge is about functions.  Unlike some types of knowledge the library of open source contains information more easily executed than other disciplines.

A Colmar Conversation

The clouds which hovered all day finally started letting go of a bit of rain on the town of Colmar, France.  My wife and I ditched the kids in front of the television at the hotel and went downtown for a date.  As we wound our way through the streets of wooden framed buildings we passed a few fountains.  Rumor is that one of them served as the inspiration for the Bonjour scene of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  One of my colleagues at work had served his Mormon mission in this area and recommended we try the local flam (a thinly crusted pizza).  When we found an open cafe with the dish we sat down outside the building under the awning and began to do some people watching while waiting for our order.

My wife who speaks fluent German and I both feel equally out of place in France.  Neither one of us knows the language and after a couple of days of just us and the kids, this date was likely going to involve the same routine conversation.  Then a family sat at the table next to us who obviously spoke English and that gave me an opening for breaking up our conversation with one that involved our new neighbors.

We didn’t exchange names.  I’m rather terrible with names and I don’t ask for them when I don’t have to.  Asking gives the false impression that I might actually try to memorize what you’re called instead of all the other interesting facts like how you feel about a certain subject.  After a small round of exchanging travel notes we began to talk about our employment.  When it was his turn the gentleman explained that he works selling finance and accounting software.  I mentioned working on my masters in IT/Project Management and that I’m a fan of open source.

“Oh, you’re just like some of the people that work for me!  If they had it their way they would have open sourced the whole suite.”  I smiled back.  “But,” he continued “I like selling licences.”  He said this glancing over at his wife and son.  Then looked back at me as if he was waiting for me to be offended.

I wasn’t.

The gentleman’s appearance told me he had probably ten years on me by age so I assume that he’d been around enough to have had this conversation before.  I think he was surprised that I offered no argument.  My only response was “I like open source software because it’s helped me solve problems when nothing else was accessible.  In addition I really appreciate being able to leverage the volumes of information on troubleshooting that I can’t find anywhere else.”

There wasn’t much he could say to that, and to my enjoyment he wasn’t upset by my response.  The dialogue continued.  The flam came, was delicious, and all in all we each passed a pleasant evening as the rain subsided and gave way to a sunny conclusion to the day.

I have a theory about people with bad ideas.  Sometimes it’s worth correcting on the spot.  Other times it’s more helpful to let them keep talking because eventually they’ll realize they’ve painted themselves into a corner.  I’ve also learned that sometimes the latter strategy takes years.  

That’s why I don’t mind licensing for various proprietary closed source software.  It’s a model that paints the manufacturer into a corner.  I don’t mind Lightroom and Photoshop requiring a subscription.  I consider them tremendously useful applications.  Will they always be proprietary?  Probably not, but each month when I pay the subscription fee I’m getting a useful set of tools and investing in letting Adobe make those tools better.

Subscription fees are wonderful tools for paying for software.  Unlike a one time sale, they provide a steady income that facilitates paying the bills while investing in more features.  World of Warcraft taught the industry how successful the model could be, and it’s taken the industry quite a few years to mature to making this model become the norm.  Microsoft and Adobe both offer subscriptions for their software and can easily analyze their metrics when the subscription model starts to fail.  This makes the system much more responsive to customers than previous payment schemes.  

The real leap of faith for us is trusting the customer.  Matt Hartley, editor for FreedomPenguin.com has repeatedly stated that people just want their machines to work.  They don’t necessarily buy them to tinker.  They buy them to get a job done.  Currently they’re willing to exchange a portion of their wealth for the productivity of the tool.  No over priced model can function forever as long as those with the wealth have a choice about how they spend it.  The subscription model improves the communication between the manufacturer and the customer.  When those customers start to see that they have the option to be productive without exchanging their wealth–or find a system that provides them with more in exchange for that same amount of wealth–then they’ll move to open source.

The missionary efforts of the Mormon Church include good media production, but as my colleague at work will tell you referrals from friends are the most successful.  This year is the year of the Linux Desktop for all the thousands of people who get an invitation to switch and act upon it.  The year you switched was your year of the Linux Desktop (2008) and I’m happy to report that the food in Colmar still tastes good even if an invitation gets rejected.  Ironically I’ve come to realize that Beauty and the Beast is a simple story about overcoming an act of impetuous rejection.

Significant Projects (Post 3)

Have you seen my Mac? Do you remember the days when computers used to be glorified typwriters? That was a few years ago. With each succeeding year it seems the home computer becomes more and more of a multimedia platform. The kids and I often watch internet tv online using one of the computers in the house.
Now, in order for music to play on a computer you’ve got to have some software to tell it to play. There’s lots of options out there. If you have a legitimate version of
Windows then WMP (Windows Media Player) works. If you’ve got a Mac then you’ve got iTunes and Quicktime built into your computer.
Nowadays you can have iTunes on a PC as well as a Mac. Good news! Cross platform applications are being developed for just about everything. There’s one in particular worth watching. It’s a media player called “Songbird.” This thing’s got a few gizmos that will make it better than it’s competition–once it’s finished.
Songbird is a web browser as well as a media player. If you’re using it for the internet and it finds a site that has media–nearly any media–it will tell you and ask if you want to download or play it.
iTunes lets you shop for music on it’s site. Did you ever wonder how much the artist gets when you download a song? It’s like $.02. That’s not a whole lot of the $.99 you just spent on the tune. Where does the rest go? Well iTunes says there’s overhead, and then there’s the production company that gets their share. Songbird is going to change all that. They’ve made it easy for musicians to set up a music store on their own site and under their own terms. You might still spend $.99 on a song, but the artist decides how much of that $.99 goes to what. Sure some o

f it will be spent on hosting the website, but the rest has to go somewhere–like their pocket.

Songbird has glitches at the moment, but it’s an open source community project. Even now you can manage your iPod using the application. It’ll find your iTunes library and move it over to Songbird. You’ll still be able to play songs in iTunes & WMP as well. Eventually I’ll recommend that you all try this. In the meantime I’ll recommend that you keep your eyes open. Ask yourself how you want to view media online. Maybe post a suggestion on their forums. It’s up to you. You get to have it your way–as long as you ask.
This software is currently available in all three of my favorite operating systems Linux, Windows, and Mac. If you’re feeling brave give it a go! I’ve never had it hurt anything–just be a bit glitchy. But hey it’s a “project” for a reason.