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Edit for clarification: I'm asking how to develop my own preferences in the cases where there's more than one way to do things, without developing bad habits from being self-taught.

I've just started using Darktable, and I love it already. But I'm an amateur, and I don't have a solid workflow yet. Given that all sorts of color/brightness operations are equivalent to each other (most equivalent to curves), how do you pick what's most useful for you? Are there 5-10 tools/filters I should learn and see what's most useful for me?

I would guess these are the best ones to learn before I choose which ones to use regularly:

  • curves, both combined and channels
  • shadow/highlight tool
  • color/tone/white balance adjustment
  • brightness/contrast/saturation (is thin one too simple?)

What others should I learn to understand, or am I going about this the wrong way?

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    Don't overlook the "color zones" module in darktable, it's quite powerful for selectively adjusting saturation or lightness by hue, etc. – junkyardsparkle Oct 13 '15 at 3:28
  • @junkyardsparkle Thanks for the tip, I'll check that one out. – piojo Oct 13 '15 at 6:10
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One consideration is that, in darktable at least, each image operation has a fixed place in the processing pipeline, so that two seemingly similar modules may play slightly different roles.

A good example is "base curve" vs. "tone curve"; the former functions very early in the pipeline, meaning its output will affect what's seen by the color matrix (affecting saturation, etc) as well as most other modules that vary their behavior depending on the tonal range they're looking at (shadows and highlights, for instance). On the other hand, "tone curve" functions near the end of the processing flow, operating on the output of all the other processing up to that point, so it might make sense to use this nearer the end of your workflow for fine-tuning of black/white points and overall tone curve.

You can observe the processing order of the modules in the right pane, the flow being from bottom to top. To see the relative order of modules from different groups, enable them and select the "active" (left-most) tab at the top of the right pane.

Of course, this only addresses one aspect of your question; What order you should make your adjustments in is a more complex, subjective topic, but understanding what's going on "under the hood" is a good basis for developing your personal workflow.

  • That's very helpful! I had no idea. In that case, I might need to learn more theory about the desirable input characteristics for different types of image operations. I'm too accustomed to going based on looks alone. – piojo Oct 13 '15 at 6:39
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I have no "workflow for color" per say. Workflow typically pertains more to the wider topic of how you capture, process, and store images. The specifics of how you develop individual images is just that, an individual choice that depends on many variables.

For you, adjusting white balance may be the first thing you adjust, because that day you forgot your camera was in incandescent WB but the room was actually fluorescent. Or maybe your entire shoot was underexposed because you misjudged your LCD screen, so you would want to first fix that in post.

If any broad order of operations could be identified, I would suggest simply making changes that you will believe will be the most impactful first. If the saturation is already great at capture, you may want to wait until last to modify it if at all. If the exposure was way off, modify that first so you at least have a workable version of the image to complete your processing with.

One important note is that depending on the software you may want to apply any sharpening as the last step in the process. This ensures you are not further modifying an image that has already been sharpened, risking deterioration of the image quality. As noted by another user in the comments, in Darktable it doesn't matter what order you sharpen, but in Photoshop for example it does. More information on sharpening best practices can be found elsewhere in this site if you are interested in that.

  • Note that in darktable, the order in which the modules are applied is fixed in a "pipeline", and not affected by the order in which you enable, disable, or adjust them. – junkyardsparkle Oct 13 '15 at 3:33
  • Yeah that is a good point. Same with LR. I'll update my answer. Thx – dpollitt Oct 13 '15 at 3:34
  • While I appreciate the pointer, I'm not so concerned with order of operations. It seems fairly simple to do the "meta" changes sooner and the more destructive changes last. I'm really interested in how to choose which color operations your use in your normal processing. Surely you don't use all of them. How did you get to know and pick the ones you like? – piojo Oct 13 '15 at 6:08
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The editing sequence normally starts with basic 3 steps, in the following order: - White balance - Black and white points - Overall contrast using a composite curve

Next, it goes in a loop, starting with local contrast, per channel curves, saturation, and involving minor adjustments through other tools available. If channel mixer is available, it may be applied multiple times.

The image editing is about pre-visialization of what you want on the final image, and each editing step needs to bring you closer to the desired look.

Dan Margulis has a lot to say about it in his books.

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