If you take your photos in RAW format (which I think you should) then you need a piece of software to develop your RAW files into beautiful images. And what is better than using free software? No investment, no monthly fees, and a large, helpful community for support. Even get directly in touch with the developers.
My favourite RAW developer is called Darktable. It started out some years ago only running on Linux. Eventually it was ported to OS X, and this winter the Windows version came out.
Darktable is a very capable free alternative to Adobe Lightroom and others. Like Lightroom it can be used not only to edit your photos, but also to import them from your camera, organize them and print them. As Lightroom is the only commercial RAW developer I have any knowledge about, I’ll use it as a reference.
The two are quite different in the way you work with them. This may make the learning curve of Lightroom a bit easier in the beginning, but I think in the end Darktable is more powerful and more flexible. Many tasks can be done in multiple ways, giving better results under different circumstances.
The best way to download your photos from your camera to your hard drive is to use Darktable’s import features. When this is set up properly, your folder structure is applied automatically, so all you have to do is give the import a “job name”, and all the photos are copied to the right folder and renamed following a set of rules you set up.
Darktable uses a database to keep track of where you have your photos stored on your hard drive along with all the edits. If you for some reason need to move or copy files around, then it is best to do so from within Darktable. You can tag your photos to make them searchable, and also add titles, descriptions and copyright notes.
When searching for images, you have several options: You can browse through your folders or your “film rolls”. Each time you import photos from your camera, Darktable creates a virtual film roll that you give a name, the “job name”. When searching, you have a lot of search criteria to choose from, like tags, date, camera, iso, focal length and others. These can also be combined, so for example you can search for flowers taken at ISO 200 at 50 mm focal length if you so wish.
When editing photos, you have a wealth of possibilities, and there are in most cases several ways to achieve the same result. This may seem scary inn the beginning, since it makes the learning curve a bit steeper. But in the long run I think this is only a good thing. First of all, people are different, so we may like to do things in different ways. Secondly, small differences in the way things are done may suit different situations better. So when Lightroom has one noise reduction slider with a couple of “advanced” adjustments, there are four or five different ways to reduce noise in Darktable. And this is only one example.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Darktable I think is the possibilities for local adjustments. You can use circles, ellipses and gradients, draw your own shapes and use a brush to make drawn masks around areas, and also combine masks to make even more complicated shapes to fit any situation. In addition to that you can use what is called parametric masks, where you make a mask based on a luminosity and/or colour range. And these can also be combined with the drawn masks. This is extremely powerful.
If your images contain GPS data from the camera, they will show up in Darktable’s map view, where you can choose between different map sources. You can also place your photos in the map manually, or apply GPS data from external GPS devices.
After you have made your masterpiece, you may want to print it. Darktable has its own print module, which is fairly easy to use.
Darktable provides tethered shooting for many supported cameras. Connect your camera to your computer, get the live view image on the computer screen and control the camera remotely. Images are automatically imported and stored in the right place on the PC.
Darktable’s functionality can be extended with plugins written in the Lua scripting language. There is a growing selection of plugins available.
If you are curious and would like to learn about Darktable, I have a YouTube channel where I upload tutorials about Darktable every one to three weeks. See the first episode here:
If you’re a photographer, why not upload your images to our World leading, free to us, paid per view photo hosting platform ClickASnap?