(article updated 30-April-2018)
After the announcement from Adobe last October that there will be no more a perpetual licence for Lightroom but just a monthly subscription including also cloud storage and/or Photoshop, many hobbyist photographers have started to look for alternative software that do not required to pay more than 100 $/€ per year to be used. Competing companies are pushing more than ever their products to make the best of this period and attract photographers away from Adobe.
We have tested for you the most popular alternative software to Adobe Lightroom for photo development -especially RAW- and image cataloguing as a guide to evaluate their latest versions and eventually choose one of them. We will look both at free and paid software. Let's start!
In the following of the article, when referring to "usual development tools" we refer to standard tools like the following: exposure compensation, highlight recovery, shadow enlightment, contrast/saturation correction, RGB curve correction, noise removal, custom white balance, free angle rotation, saving correction presets (full or partial ones for changing just some corrections), crop. We consider these as mandatory tools so we will not cite those features in the review unless something unusual is offered or limited in a specific software.
Want to jump to the conclusions? Click here.
Capture One 11
Capture One (often called just C1) is one of the most long standing competitor of Lightroom, made by PhaseOne that builds also medium-format cameras so they know the photographic world. It also provides an import from Lightroom functionality that does a good job though not every Lightroom information is imported from Lightroom catalog (smart search folders and people taggings are not imported).
Browsing the folders to show a preview is quite fast and in general performances are good, with a better overall navigation speed than in Lightroom. Compare mode among multiple photos is available and also with more than 2 images with zoom, that is not supported by Lightroom (for performance reasons I think) and it's a very useful feature to pick up the best shot among multiple ones.
Tethered shooting is supported as well as export with watermarking. Keyboard shortcuts are configurable while in Lightroom they are not.
At the end of November, version 11 has been pushed out which greatly enhances layer tools plus other minor updates.
All the usual corrections for RAW development are present and the quality of the RAW engine is very good, including lens corrections but the coverage of lenses is somehow limited with respect to Lightroom: for example in the current version you will not find any Samyang/Rokinon or Canon lens with TC adapter - in these case you have to go with generic/manual corrections. Also with respect to Lightroom, chromatic aberration correction is not customizable; on the other side, it offers also corrections for movements lens (like Tilt&Shift) and for resolution decrease in the corners/borders and due to diffraction.
The development section is divided into tabs and each tab is fully configurable about the very many tools available to appear there - a degree of flexibility that is not provided by Adobe Lightroom.
It is possible to save snapshots of the current corrections (like the virtual copiers in Lightroom) but the history list of corrections applied is not provided (though there an undo/redo command of course), strange.
Local corrections are available - they are the same tools that can be used for the entire image just applied to a mask that acts as a simplified layer.
Just the dehaze feature from Lightroom is missing: you can simulate the effect changing some parameters combined (structure, levels) but there is no one slider direct effect.
- Better than Lightroom: much more flexible color correction, up to 16 correction layers (against just 1 in Lightroom), better highlight recovery without generating halos around edges, drawing and texting on the image on a separate layer for comments to customers/collaborators are possible (very useful), luma curve (different from RGB curve to preserve colors - some photographer uses C1 just for that).
- Worse than Lightroom: more complicated object removal since each removal requires an additional correction layer (that's quite annoying), less lens/camera models supported for automatic lens corrections.
Capture One is also a photo asset manager so that you can define a catalog of your images and videos, in which you can star rate and color label items, filter the view based on characteristics (camera model, place, keyword and so on). There is also an advanced search feature, exactly like in Lightroom that calls it "smart search folders", to define filter-based collections, also on multiple levels as needed when the filter expression has parentheses like "country = XXX AND (city = YYY OR city = ZZZ)".
Lightroom is nevertheless superior as asset manager. In summary:
- Better than Lightroom: focus mask while browsing the RAW to immediately tell the most focused photos (very handy), comparison at 100% zoom level of more than 2 photos (this too is very useful).
- Worse than Lightroom: no (google) maps view with images location and no GPS track import (no KML file tracking from a GPS smartphone), no face tagging (it's a pity), no photo book.
- Better than Lightroom: faster operation - in particular browsing, fully configurable hotkeys.
- Worse than Lightroom: no plugin offer (just script automation in the Mac version), no export to lossy DNG format (a format better than JPG supported by Adobe products), no export to JPG with filesize/megapixel limit, no panorama stitching and no HDR composing - that's a pity, no JPG export with file size or megapixel limits, no presets for importing (you cannot group different settings like file naming, import destination, keywords additions... to a preset).
There is a one-time licence option for $299 / 279 € (plus VAT) and a subscription option at $20 / 20 € per month with annual subscription. There is a discounted version for Sony camera users. A trial is available. Link here.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018
ON1 Photo RAW 2018 (it's version 12 of the product) is emerging as another alternative to more famous RAW management software, in general it has many powerful tools, in particular has a very good support for layers, panorama and HDR photo merge, though the image quality is not top like in Adobe or Phase One products (e.g. in highlight recovery). Overall speed is about Lightroom's that is not fantastic (Capture is better). Let's see in details.
- Better than Lightroom: full layers support - blending mode / more than 25 layers supported / mask copy between layers, healing brush / object removal with content-aware filling (similar to Photoshop one).
- Worse than Lightroom: copy&paste of settings/corrections are always total - it's not possible to copy just some corrections and that's quite a limitation, not top quality highlight recovery (some halos and smearing like in Adobe Lightroom but also less ability to recover extreme exposure situations), no automatic chromatic aberration and vignetting corrections based on EXIF data of the lens (you can anyway do it manually).
- Better than Lightroom: comparison at 100% zoom level of more than 2 images
- Worse than Lightroom: no JPG export with file size limit, no multi level keyword tagging, limited condition-based collections (smart collection in Lightroom) since just some fields can be used as condition and with no condition annidation (all conditions are at the same level), no map view, no face tagging, no photo book, no offline mode (ability to view and edit an image on a smaller copy later synced back to the original one).
- Worse than Lightroom: no dual monitor support, no DNG export, no export with file size or megapixel limit, no application of preset during import from camera, no video support (a penalty nowadays), no tethered shooting, no plugins.
A one-time licence is available at $119.99 (often discounted to $99.99) for new customers and a trial for testing - see this link.
DxO Photo Lab 1.1
This is the new product name from previous DxO Optics Pro launched at the end of October in the rush of every vendor to offer something appealing to Adobe-tired photographers. It essentially adds local adjustments using Nik Software U-point technology (basically you pick a point and apply adjustments around that point).
DXO is the company behing the famous testing of photographic sensors and lenses (DxO Marks) so we expect good level of usual corrections of lens defects (aberration, vignetting and distorsion) and noise removal and infact DOX Photo Lab performs well in these aspects, while all the cataloguing features are missing with no more than a browser and the possibility to define static collections.
30-Apr-18 update: On March 7, 2018 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (i.e. problem of financial sustainability) though assuring its customers that there will be no impact on DxO Photo Lab product that even is planned to be updated to 1.2 next June (official news published here).
- Better than Lightroom: very effective noise reduction in the Elite version and auto setting of shadows, but in general no distinct features better than Lightroom. The additional tool ViewPoint corrects perspective/lens distorsions very effectively.
- Worse than Lightroom: no clone tool (there is a healing brush with no settings except for the size), highlight recovery less effective than Lightroom in extreme conditions.
- Worse than Lightroom: there is not a catalog, just a browser with possibility of collecting images into a "project", so no geomap, no photo book, no keyword tagging, no face tagging, no editing of EXIF/XMP metadata - that's quite a serious issue, no comparison among multiple images, no video support.
- Worse than Lightroom: no panorama and HDR merge, no support for PSD (neither import nor export), no import of DNG while export is supported (just not the lossy format - actually only Adobe products support lossy DNG currently), no export to JPG with filesize/megapixel limit.
One time fee of € 129 / 199 + VAT for the essential / elite edition - often discounts are available, where the essential edition lacks features like latest denoise and light corrections, camera ICC profiles, anti-moirè, preset editor also to define partial presets.
Offical page at this link, a trial is available.
Luminar 2018 1.2
This product from Macphun, that will be rebranded as Skylum in 2018, is gaining momentum in the latest months with an intense ads campaign; started as a Mac only product and in 2017 a Windows version has been published, with lacks some of the Mac features like batch export (clone & stamp has been just added this month).
It's quite rich in offering effects for intense colors & atmosphere scene and offers support to layers, but lacks completely a catalogue feature (even a browser feature ) - Macphun promised that it will offert this functionality in 2018 free of charge for existing customers.
30-Apr-18 update - at April 16th version 1.2 has been pushed out with a huge number of updates/fixes, mainly a big performance boost, automatic lens correction tools (distorsion and chromatic aberrations that were manually corrected only so far), updates to the Raw engine (essentially for better exposure calculation, cleaner gradients, minimized chromatic aberrations). Batch processing and free transform-rotate-flip have been extended to the Windows version.
- Better than Lightroom: full layers support with possibility of adding another image as a layer to combine multiple shots without having to use another software (like Photoshop or GIMP) and with masks. A strong point of Luminar is the set of effects/filters that are presented in their ads (from dehaze to detail enhancement, autumn or foggy look and so on): they look impressive, though sometime a bit too strong, many people currently like over-saturated and over-contrasty photos... There is also a slider to tune the amount of preset to be applied to the image.
- Worse than Lightroom: no color management in view - this is bad for accurate colors (it means that color profiles are not used by Luminar to display images!), partial presets are not supported so you cannot copy&paste just some corrections from one image to another, no red eye corrections (why..?). The Windows version has some important limitations like no merge and blend mode for layers - see the full list of differences at this link from the company itself.
- Worse than Lightroom: no catalog at all and no browser, no EXIF/XMP metadata editing. You definitely need another software for managing photos and then editing in Luminar. Of course no geo mapping and no photo book.
Photoshop and Lightroom plugins are supported and that's a great thing (of course specific compatibility should be checked).
Export with watermark is not supported.
The company even publishes a comparison between its product and Lightroom - see here.
One-time fee of 69 € with frequent discont to 59 € with some bonus pack. Site here.
Affinity Photo 1.6
It's a fairly new product like Luminar and as this one maybe targeting more Photoshop than Lightroom since it offers very good support for layers and effects but not a catalogue for managed media. The GUI is different than in other products since there are different "modes" to work on an image that are called "personas", each of them providing a set of tools - the personas are Photo (the main editing interface with adjustments and layers), Develop (pre-processing of RAW files), Tone Mapping and Export (batch is supported).
RAW conversion (Develop persona) is a different, and in my opinion less flexible, with respect to other tools: the conversion is a one-way process, so when you have decided how setting contrast/details/etc, you get a layer on which you can apply adjustments (Photo persona) but then it is not possible to go back to Develop and change parameters while preserving the adjustments - you need to restart from the start.
- Better than Lightroom: full support of layers with possibility of drawing/annotations and adding another image on a layer for photo composition, tools like the left toolbar of Photoshop, many filters/effect, object removal with auto-fill areas (similar to content aware fill in Photoshop).
- Worse than Lightroom: weaker RAW engine for example in purple fringing / chromatic aberration control and less effective highlight recovery, no partial presets (grouping several, but not all type of, adjustments under a single preset), no support of camera color profiles.
Saving snapshots of corrections is supported as well as panorama and HDR merge of multiple shots.
- Worse than Lightroom: no catalogue at all, thus also no geo mapping, photo book, quite limited modifications of XMP/EXIF metadata, no comparison between multiple images.
- Better than Lightroom: filter/effects, like liquify and others known by Photoshop users. One of the most advertized and interesting is the light leak to add light rays in the photo. Hotkeys are configurable. You can record operations in a macro (a feature very rarely offered except for the expensive Photoshop). Export as PDF is provided. Photo stacking merge (combination of multiple images with different focal settings into a single image with a deep depth of field)
- Worse than Lightroom: limitations on export - no batch with individual adjustments - since there is no catalogue, no export to JPG with filesize or number of pixel limit, no export with watermark, no export as DNG.
Official list of features available at this link.
€ 54.99 as a one-time fee with a bonus pack of filter/effects. There is a trial available through here but it lasts just 10 days, too short.
It's an open source solution with the richest list of features for RAW development, so that normal photographer may even remain confused at first usage with tons of sliders for tuning every aspect of the development, from the demosaic algorithm (first conversion from the monchromatic raw data from the camera sensor to a usable color image) to mathematical transformations of details, colors and so no. On the other side, no catalog is offered and some useful features are missing (like local corrections and layer support) so for a complete retouch solution you would need a companion software.
Extremely rich features for global corrections, no layers support (like Lightroom), the product includes a database of lens and cameras for automatic lens corrections (chromatic aberration and so on as in Lightroom).
- Better than Lightroom: many more options to control developments than any other RAW editor (almost overwhelming), at least on par with Lightroom -if not slight better in some situations- in highlight recovery, dark frame subtraction (e.g. for astrophotography), luma curve adjustments to preserve colors, dynamic presets (presets that are applied to a photo if camera/lens/iso is matched so you can define different presets depending on shot conditions).
- Worse than Lightroom: in an overall good process of RAW handling, rarely some artifacts are produced, no local corrections (including no red eye fix and no local purple fringing correction -just global-) and that's an important minus - RawTherapee easily interfaces with external programs like the free and powerful GIMP for that, no dehaze though you can do it playing with contrast and curves, just one gradient (you cannot have multiple gradients).
- Worse than Lightroom: no cataloguing, there is just an image browser. No geo mapping or photo book. No video support.
Full color profile support (monitor, export, really full camera profiles with both ICC and DCP profiles). Batch export is supported.
- Worse than Lightroom: no DNG export, no tethered shooting, no JPG export with filesize/megapixel limit, no export with watermark, no comparison among more than 2 images.
It's the most feature-rich cataloguing tool and it's free! It provides also many editing feature and some effects, fully support color spaces (sRGB, Adobe Prophoto and so on).
Many tools for RAW development, adjustments, some artistic filter/effects (e.g. rain drops). No layers as in Lightroom. Automatic lens corrections for quite a number of lens/camera models.
- Better than Lightroom: possibility of drawing and texting on the image.
- Worse than Lightroom: worse highlight recovery in extreme situations.
Unbeatable features and flexibility, including geotagging on a map and face tagging as in Lightroom. As in Lightroom no more than 2 images can be compared with zoom.
- Better than Lightroom: all possibile meta-information (EXIF, IPTC, proprietary make notes...) are displayed and managed. Tags can be associated to icons.
- Better than Lightroom: you can create a calendar or an HTML gallery with images; hotkeys configurable as well as many options. Export to UPNP/DLNA devices.
- Worse than Lightroom: no export to DNG format.
Completely free. Link here.
Another very interesting open source project, that just released also a Windows version in addition to Mac and Linux ones, it provides many functions (implemented as internal modules) for image treatment and also it provides a catalog.
Very complete in tools for RAW development and adjustments. Automatic lens corrections for quite a number of lens/camera models both for chromatic aberrations and distorsions with possibility of manually tune the effect. Good watermark creation is available.
- Better than Lightroom: more tools for RAW development with a lot of parameters for maximum flexibility - that means also that, as in RawTherapee, there is a longer learning curve to be able to understand all controls, of which a lot regards color/tone adjustments; many adjustment modules can be cloned multiple times and each instance can be set to operate on just a portion of the image for local corrections, defining a mask with several options like opacity (how much of an adjustment to put on the image) or defining a mask in a "parametric way": you can define a criteria, like brightness range of the pixels, to decide how the mask is created - very cool though it's not a full layer support like in Photoshop/Luminar/Affinity/GIMP. Default dynamic presets based on camera/lens/ISO are also available so that the program applies a different default preset based on conditions of the shot. Hot pixel removal.
- Worse than Lightroom: a bit less effective in highlight recovery in extreme situations where you can get some small artifacts and a bit of pink tone (removable later but it's an additional step), red eye corrections is sort of manual (you have to select precisely the pupil and the reduction effect), spot healing is to be improved in deletion (you cannot delete any spot correction that you have done, you can just delete the last one or... all of them)
DarkTable is one of the very few competing software with full geotagging - you can see and place image on earth map with several configuration options and even import a GPX track (as in Lightroom) for example recorded by your GPS smartphone to automatically place your pics taken during a hike using the time of the shot and location from the smartphone.
- Worse than Lightroom: the catalog is there but currently lagging behind the very good features in Lightroom, for example no advanced condition based collections (just one level of conditions without nesting) and strangely... no file rename functions (you need to rename your photos outside the program, for choice of the project of not developing a file management tool that already exists in your operating system, probably not a good move), no face tagging, no comparison among multiple images.
- Better than Lightroom: hotkeys are configurable.
- Worse than Lightroom: no export to JPG with filesize/megapixel limit, no import/export PSD, no export to DNG, no video support, no panorama merge (while HDR merge is supported), no dual monitor support.
Like in Lightroom, you can make automation script in Lua (a programming language).
Official page and download at this link.
Others and conclusions
We have compared the most famous competitors to Adobe Lightroom, and there is not a product that is better in every aspect than Lightroom, some one has some more advanced features but lack other ones, so everyone can weight pros and cons and pickup the best alternative and I hope this guide will be useful for that.
Capture One is one of the top competitors as an integrated high quality editor with an advanced catalog and offers some plus with respect to Adobe but it currently lacks some useful features like panorama and HDR merge, geomapping visualization and people face tags, and it's the most expensive.
Most of Lightroom alternatives offer good support for layers (ON1 RAW Photo, Luminar, Affinity Photo, Capture one). Luminar shines with effects but in my opinion is still uncomplete for being THE tool (e.g. it's not color managed in visualization, highlight recovery and lens defect corrections are not optimal), Affinity is an appealing alternative but more to Photoshop: both Luminar and Affinity does not (currently) provide a catalogue so you need another piece of software for organizing your images (and very few support video while Lightroom does).
The open source alternatives are also very interesting, RawTherapee RAW development features is unrivaled and is updated regularly but it needs an external software for local corrections and (maybe another) for cataloguing media, like digiKam for a fully open source kit - digiKam is the most flexible cataloguing solution with a bit of development tools (for pro development use a dedicated software). DarkTable is maybe a more complete solution than RawTherapee offering the catalog and a lot of tools. The downside of these open source products is that once in a while you can encounter some small artifacts in the RAW development that are more rare in famous commercial products like Lightroom and Capture One, but they are completely free and we have to praise the work of such good guys behind them.
Besides the products that we have analyzed in this review, the market offers other products for image and RAW handling, just to name a few for who is interested:
- Darkroom that is more professional/expensive than the other ones;
- Photo Supreme by IdImager that is a super-featured cataloguing tool plus a good editor;
- iMatch as a very powerful catalog;
- Pixelmator Pro for Mac;
- the world famous open source GIMP that rivals with Photoshop;
- Exposure X3 that started as effects plugin and now is a catalog and image editor;
- open source RawStudio that is not updated since March 2016 so probably it's better to wait if the project is again live;
- Corel AfterShot Pro 3 with support to layers and a catalog.
- the open source LightZone;
- ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2018 (for Windows, there is a version 4 for Mac) that provides image editing also with layers and a catalog;
- XnView that is mainly a media organizer and converter for Windows.
In conclusion some advice to choose:
- if you have Lightroom perpetual licence, since latest and last version has been released just a few weeks ago, the Adobe software is not yet old, so you can wait some months in 2018 and see the progress of all these competitors and pick the best for you.
- as general directions for a choice:
- decide if you need an integrated tool that is an image/RAW editor and a catalog or you can be happy with two software with going back and fort between them - take into account that for long shoting sequences to be adjusted, the integrated tool is a time saver since you can easily copy&paste corrections among images.
- decide if you want layer support in the tool or you are happy in using an external software (like the free GIMP or an old version of Photoshop) for specific corrections that require use of layers - this is something that you are already forced to do if using Lightroom so the suggestion is not to have layer support asd a mandatory feature for picking up a Lightroom alternative.
- using this guide, download a trial of the alternatives that you seem to like more and test yourself if this or that is the one for you.
[30.12.2017 update] DarkTable has been updated to version 2.4 just 6 days ago and now we have the first stable version for Windows, very good news. This review has been updated accordingly.
[30.4.2018 update] News on DxO Labs, new versions (Luminar 1.2, RawTherapee 5.4, DigiKam 5.9).
What do you think and what is your experience? You can comment below