Adobe recently announced that it would both discontinue downloads of older versions of Creative Cloud apps (which includes Lightroom and Photoshop), and revoke the license for older software. Further, Adobe tweeted that consumers “may face potential claims of infringement by third parties.”
For some photographers, the thought of continuing to use Adobe’s subscription-based products is unpalatable, and fortunately, there are a number of full-featured alternatives that come without the price nor baggage.
Adobe Lightroom (now renamed Lightroom Classic) emerged as Adobe’s desktop-based response to the now defunct Apple Aperture, which was the first mainstream non-destructive, parametric image editor. Unlike Photoshop, Lightroom allowed for quick batch editing and provided a built-in catalog – which makes it highly valuable for high volume shooters or photographers with minimal editing needs.
What you should know about switching
Using new software always entails a learning curve, but all of the alternatives below offer a familiar editing interface to get you up and running quickly. Some of the tools even have Lightroom migration tools to ease a transition.
There are some important differences to be aware of:
- Each manufacturer has their own special sauce for rendering RAW files (even if they’re using open source software as their backbone), which can potentially give you very different results in the appearance of the image – at least in the initial, default render.
- Camera and lens support varies. Not everyone, including Adobe, will support the newest camera on the day its released
- If you typically only make global adjustments to your images, any of these tools will suffice.
- Metadata catalog support is weak compared to Lightroom. None of the tools we evaluated has as much IPTC/Metadata Working Group support as Lightroom.
We did a quick evaluation of some of the popular alternatives using a Mac Pro (Late 2013) with 64GB of RAM. Many of the options are moving towards building more “one click” smart editing options, which is both reflective of the Instagram filter generation, as well as providing good results to time-pressed pros. All of the options provide free trial periods, which is worth taking advantage of to learn the pros and cons.
Skylum Luminar 3
Price $60; Can install on 5 computers
The last time we looked at Luminar in 2017, it was a relatively new entrant into the parametric editing software realm created Macphun – a company that originally created iPhone apps . In 2018, the company rebranded to Skylum and added key features like a library function that gave it some parity with Lightroom’s catalog. You can traverse your images by folder, and the Library also adopts some Apple Photo-like conventions by providing a photo “stream” organized by date.
Luminar has an “Edit” mode that is akin to Lightroom’s Develop module. But unlike Lightroom, Luminar offers “workspaces,” which hide or reveal certain controls depending on how into the weeds you want to get with editing. The software has pro level controls, but the workspaces allow amateurs (or the time constrained) less choice for less confusion.
Luminar’s “Looks” are equivalent to Lightroom’s Presets, but Luminar provides thumbnail previews rather than relying on a “mouse over” to preview the change.
The software has a number of “AI” enhancements although it’s unclear whether there’s actually any AI happening locally, or whether their algorithm was trained by AI. Like most “auto” enhancement features, Luminar’s AI Image Enhancer seems to boost contrast and vibrance without affecting noise. It’s a solid one-click adjustment.
Many photographers rely on Lightroom’s catalog functionality to organize and find specific images. Although Luminar allows for star ratings and is folder aware, it’s lacking keyword support. You can’t view nor edit (individually or in batch) IPTC keyword or other metadata information. For some photographers, this will be a deal breaker. Fortunately, IPTC support is “In Development” on their feature roadmap.
ON1 Photo RAW 2019.5
Price: $79.99; Can install on 5 computers
ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is an impressive piece of software – especially considering the price. And its Achilles heel might be that it’s too fully-featured, making the application sluggish at times for basic image adjustments.
Unlike Lightroom, ON1 doesn’t have to import photos – the application can traverse your filesystem and automatically detect changes. I haven’t used the program enough to determine the benefits of this approach, but it certainly seems more intuitive.
Along with a slate of typical parametric editing controls, ON1 has spent a lot of time developing layer/mask functionality that gives it a lot of power of Photoshop. Additionally, they’ve created some shortcut tools to deal with common photographers (e.g. landscape). The Portrait Tool, for example, simplifies eye and teeth whitening without worry about masking.
The rapid pace of improvements and inclusion of features like panoramic stitching, focus stacking, etc have come at a price with some users complaining that the build is slow or unstable. ON1 can easily replace Lightroom in your application arsenal (there’s even a migration tool), but I wish they prioritized performance above niche features.
Capture One 12
Price: $299 (perpetual) or $20/month; Can install on 3 computers
Because many RAW file formats (e.g. NEF, CR2, etc) are proprietary, Adobe reverse engineers the RAW processing using their Camera RAW engine. If you want to get the best looking image, you need to use the manufacturer software. But applications like Nikon Capture NX-D are laughable at best. They might produce a good looking image, but their user interface and speed make them unusable.
The exception might be Phase One – the well-known manufacturer of medium format cameras and digital backs – and their Capture One Pro software. The common refrain amongst regular users is that its RAW processing engine produce much better looking images than Lightroom. The acuity of your vision may or may not corroborate this statement.
One of Capture One’s main differentiations is fantastic tethering support. Like Lightroom, you can set up metadata templates, adjust camera controls, apply styles – but it also has an overlay function which can be pretty handy depending on what you’re shooting. This would allow you to drop in type or another image that you’re trying to duplicate. It’s definitely a niche, but handy tool.
Like ON1, Capture One 12 has powerful layer and masking tools that provide a Photoshop-like experience. The software even has a luminosity range tool that gives the user another powerful selection method.
At $299, Capture One isn’t exactly a cheap alternative to Lightroom – but it’s actually the same price as the formerly shrink-wrapped Version 1 of Lightroom. And it is the most viable alternative of the bunch.
DxO Photolab 2
Price: $129 (Essential edition); $199 (Elite edition)
DxO purchased Nik from Google in 2017 and integrated U-Point technology into Photolab. For the uninitiated, U-Point is an auto-masking feature that works at a local level. A user can click a region (or many) in the image and set a rough radius in which any image adjustments will be smartly applied. As masking tools get smarter and smarter, it’s arguable that U-Point (with its circular radius) is reaching the end of its usefulness, but DxO has also expanded its masking options to provide a robust selection of tools.
DxO arguably has the most “branded” tools that might require a little more investigation to understand what they do and how they work. For example, DxO Smart Lighting helps recover image detail in high dynamic range images and is similar to Nikon’s D-Lighting. DxO ClearView Plus is similar to Adobe’s dehaze function, and works by adding local contrast to a scene, but it’s only available in the Elite version.
Like Luminar, Photolab 2 has no IPTC support.
Adobe is ubiquitous and there is a certain amount of convenience in playing in their ecosystem. But other software manufacturers have made significant strides in the past few years, and now offer very viable alternatives to Lightroom. Given the generous trial periods of most software and the number of video-based tutorials on YouTube, now is a great time to explore different options for image processing and cataloging.
Update: We erroneously stated that ON1 Photo RAW 2019.5 could be installed on 2 computers. The license allows for 5 installations.