Darkroom Core is highly recommended.

In an earlier post I mentioned Darkroom Core was in my toolbox. I was using it for making prints on my dye sub printers, a DNP DS820A and a HiTi P525L. Darkroom is primarily targeted at event and portrait photography shoot-to-sell workflows. This would be things like parties, weddings, corporate shindigs, mall Santa, portrait studios, cruise ships, theme parks, and other situations where you have a photographer who needs to make prints immediately after shooting photos. It is an outgrowth of the events-oriented version of PhotoReflect that allowed for local printing. It eventually became its own standalone product, though the tie-in to PhotoReflect and the Labtricity network are still a significant component. It’s a really quick and easy way to make prints. It supports camera tethering, hot folders, and a few other things that make it the perfect choice for a lot of scenarios. Printing is as simple as typing ‘1 1’ on the keyboard and then clicking another button with the mouse. If you are a professional photographer, Darkroom can tie into the most common business bookkeeping software, and a photographer-specific bookkeeping/sales management/CRM software that slips my mind at the moment but is actually reasonably priced for specialty software. Did I mention that Darkroom has a perpetual license? There’s a lot to love about the software, so of course I made use of their 30-day money back guarantee1 on day 27.

The core issue I had with Darkroom is that I am not their target customer. If I were even 50% of their target customer I would have stuck with Darkroom. Every single problem I experienced with Darkroom is that I was not using it as their normal target customer would use the product. I would also like to note that I was strongly considering sticking with Darkroom Core and even upgrading to Darkroom Pro as that adds a couple of extra features that would make it great for some automation tricks. However, at the end of the day, I am not a professional photographer that needs the best shoot-to-sell (and print) workflow.

Printing workflow with Darkroom from digital

I shoot RAW. I try to get exposure spot on to minimize editing time, which puts me closer to what Darkroom expects, but Darkroom doesn’t do raw. Sometimes it’s more complicated. No matter, I am doing the work in PhotoLab, Capture One, or Photoshop and exporting JPEGs. No big deal there, but if I make use of Darkroom’s own catalog system, there is now some duplicate workflow. Darkroom’s catalogs are actually good. You can put actual useful data in its catalogs… like names and addresses and short notes.

When it comes time to print, select the catalog or directory with files, flip over to the editing tab, and generally it’s just a simple matter of selecting a print size, selecting quantity, possibly adjusting the cropping, and then clicking ‘place order’ to have it print.

Still, at the end of the day, I’m either not using their software to its fullest, or I’m creating a duplicate workflow with a duplicate catalog and duplicate storage.

Printing workflow with Darkroom from film scans

Darkroom supports TIFF files, so clearly this will work, right? Well, they need to be 8/24-bit images, not 16/48-bit, and heaven forbid you accidentally toss one of SilverFast’s HDRi files at it that includes the infrared channel. I usually scan film at the highest practical resolution. On a medium format shot, this means I end up with uncompressed 200MP+ files that are north of a gigabyte. These large files really bog down Darkroom. No matter, I need to convert to JPEG for the web, anyways. Darkroom still chokes on high-pixel-count JPEGs, so I have to scale down the JPEG so that Darkroom can later scale down the JPEG. This creates more duplicate workflow with duplicate storage.

When it comes time to print, select the catalog or directory with files, flip over to the editing tab, and generally it’s just a simple matter of selecting a print size, selecting quantity, possibly adjusting the cropping, and then clicking ‘place order’ to have it print.

I do not fault Darkroom for failing to handle 225MP 48-bit TIFF files direct from the scanner. This is not why Darkroom exists. It is not the fault of the pocket knife that it is a terrible screwdriver.

Well, what do I want?

First things first, no subscripton software. While I use Photoshop and have Adobe Lightroom at my disposal, I cannot count on any Adobe product to work next year. I also looked into ZBE’s Workstream, but that’s both subscription-only and beyond end of life. They will sell a license, but there’s now a $300/mo “please use something else” fee on top of the base price that is about $100/mo. Also, it suffers from some of the same problems as Darkroom with regards to raw and high-bit-depth tiff files.

Next, the software needs to support all of my printers at the same time. This means I can’t use any of the RIP software that is primarily targeted at wide format printers. While some do support one print controller talking to multiple printers at once, using two printers would actually require two separate jobs. Even worse, most don’t allow the use of a second simultaneous printer without paying an additional license fee. That being said, this is not an issue if you are actively making money with the printer. I am not doing this as a business. I should note that DDI Software’s Qimage Ultimate is a decent budget RIP, at least for my needs. I would prefer ColorByte’s ImagePrint R.E.D., as it has a better separation between layout and printing management and it has better tools for creating templates, but the template feature is an addon, and each additional printer requires yet another license. A site license for Qimage with lifetime updates is less expensive than the base Red.

Next, the software must be usable by someone that has had no training and without supervision. It should be difficult for that untrained user to break the system or waste a lot of prints. This means everything I’ve mentioned above this point is not suitable, especially the RIP software. Workstream could work with a little guidance, and I could always use a DS instance as a kiosk to separate them from the workstation running IA. Yes, that’s the ticket. I want something that has a kiosk-like experience. It should also be possible to have something like a frame graphic that surrounds the print so the untrained person can have their own print with the fancy “Bumbleshanker Family Reunion 2023 at the Dilly Farm” or something like that.

However, it can’t have just a kiosk-like experience. It needs to be suitable for making a large batch of prints. This should also give us the basic sort of color, density, and contrst adjustments one would expect when making color photo prints, and it should be possible to reprint jobs if we need to do another run.

There are two final requirements. It must support printers for various manufacturers, and it must cost less than Darkroom Pro. Surprisingly, there are five products that meet all these criteria, though the vendors for two of those really wouldn’t want to do business with me, so we’re now down to just three choices.

Now that the requirements are out of the way, there are a few wibni2 features that will whittle it down to just one product. First, it needs to support some sort of hot folder job input. Ideally, it will use something like Noritsu-style or Fujifilm Frontier-style hot folder jobs rather than tossing it into a print-size-specific folder. This is important for the next requirement… the ability to reprint a job. Fortunately, this is a basic feature for any sort of batch photo printing software because sometimes printers screw up and it isn’t noticed until a few days later. Finally, the software should be able to export to a hotfolder-type setup, both individual images and minilab job hotfolder formats, so that external software can do stuff with photos. Even better if it can SFTP files to a remote server. The export capability would be used for not only uploading to image galleries, but also to prepare jobs for printing offline and then printing them on the photo printing system at some later time. Finally, it needs to have a company I’ve actually heard of behind it and they need to have an established userbase in the US.

The winner here was FIT Engineering’s DiLab Studio. Turns out, I’ve actually used their kiosk software before, which is 99.8% the same as Studio. It’s also the software running DNP’s kiosks, which are sold in the US. I’ll have a longer writeup in part 2.

[1] I sent them an email, they handled it. It was as quick and painless as possible.

[2] Wouldn’t it be nice if…