Lightroom alternatives

Lightroom alternatives: which is best?

So what’s wrong with Lightroom?

Lightroom is probably the automatic go-to program for enthusiasts and experts looking for an all-in-one photo organising and editing program, but it’s not necessarily the best and it’s not popular with everyone, so many will be looking for Lightroom alternatives.

One problem is Adobe’s subscription system for its software. The Adobe Photography Plan, which includes both Lightroom and Photoshop, is actually a very good deal, but some photographers are still dead against the whole idea of paying for a software subscription.

Another issue is Adobe’s decision to split Lightroom into two products. Lightroom CC is the new ‘web first’ version which uses Adobe’s own cloud servers to store your images, the other is the regular ‘desktop first’ Lightroom Classic CC. They are not the same, and choosing the one to use is not easy. Read Lightroom CC vs Lightroom Classic CC for more.

Lastly, while Lightroom is versatile and effective, its RAW processing is not the best and it still needs a regular photo-editor like Photoshop for many more advanced image effects and for creating multi-layer montages.

So here are four Lightroom alternatives you can get without a subscription and which tackle some or all of Lightroom’s other niggles.

1. Phase One Capture One Pro 12

Capture One Pro is the closest direct match for Lightroom’s features and its target audience. Like Lightroom, it offers catalog-based image organisation and seamless editing of RAW files, TIFFs and JPEG images side by side. It is more expensive than Lightroom, but it’s designed for a high-end professional audience, and also offers sophisticated tethering tools and ‘session’-based shooting for studio photographers. Its RAW processing is sharper and less noisy than Lightroom’s, its colour and tone controls are intuitive and effective and it has an excellent system of layers and masks for local adjustments. It doesn’t offer Lightroom’s cloud-based synchronisation with other devices, but as Lightroom alternatives go, this is probably the closest match – and it is available both as a single purchase or, for those who find the price too high, as a subscription. Read the Capture One Pro 12 review.

2. ON1 Photo RAW 2019

ON1 Photo RAW 2019 feels like it has more of an amateur/enthusiast slant than Capture One Pro, but steady development has meant that it now feels like quite a mature, polished product – and for sheer scope and value for money it’s remarkable. It combines regular ‘live’ folder browsing with quite powerful keywording, albums and search options and, like Lightroom, can edit RAW files seamlessly alongside other types. It goes a lot further than Lightroom in other respects, though, with a large library of image effect presets offering film simulation, grain, borders, LUT support and masking, offering a wide range of effects that Lightroom can’t achieve without the help of plug-ins or external editors. Even better, ON1 Photo RAW 2019 supports image layers as part of its non-destructive workflow, so you can create multi-layer composites too. It’s a great example of how Lightroom alternatives can go way beyond what Lightroom can actually do. Read the ON1 Photo RAW 2019 review or get ON1 Photo RAW here.

3. Alien Skin Exposure X4.5

Like ON1 Photo RAW 2019, Alien Skin Exposure X4.5 is an all-in-one image organising, editing and effects tool, but while it covers much of the same territory, it’s quite different to use. Where ON1 Photo RAW 2019 packs an amazing array of tools into its interface, Exposure X4.5 is a little simpler and cleaner to use, and its preset effects are geared heavily towards photographers who want to recreate analog film effects, from the subtle and romantic to deep and dramatic. You don’t get ON1 Photo RAW’s support for multi-layer composites, so Exposure X4.5 is really for enhancing single images, but it uses a similar hybrid browsing/cataloging approach to organising your images ‘live’, so it avoids the whole Lightroom style ‘import’ process. It’s one of the best Lightroom alternatives for photographers. Read the Alien Skin Exposure X4.5 review or get Alien Skin Exposure X4.5 here.

4. Skylum Luminar 3

Luminar is a relatively new program that’s come a long way in a short time. The latest version, Luminar 3, takes a bold step into Lightroom territory by adding in fast and effective image browsing and organising tools and a new non-destructive workflow to match the others in this list, so that all the changes you make to your images can be altered, reversed or removed at any time. This qualifies it for inclusion in any list of Lightroom alternatives. It’s early days for Luminar 3’s cataloguing tools, so keywording, IPTC metadata and virtual copies are still on the roadmap, but the photo editing side of the program is already well established, with a strong and growing selection of filters which can be used individually or in combination to create a wide array of ‘Looks’ you can apply with a single mouseclick. This is another non-destructive photo editor that can go way beyond the effects you can achieve in Lightroom, and even supports multi-layer composites. And if you prefer the ‘old’ Luminar without the photo organisation, there’s the newly-launched Luminar Flex version. Read the Luminar 3 review or get Luminar 3 here.

Best Lightroom alternatives: the verdict

Lightroom is out on its own for its cloud-based web editing and mobile device support, and may still be the best option for photographers committed to the Adobe software ecosystem, but there are a whole series of Lightroom alternatives that beat it convincingly in a number of other respects. Capture One Pro is better for professionals for the quality of its results, its powerful editing tools and its tethered shooting support. ON1 Photo RAW 2019 and Alien Skin Exposure X4.5 are both brilliant and more affordable all-in-one programs that offer creative effects far beyond Lightroom’s scope – you should check the trial versions of both to see which you prefer. Finally, Luminar 3 might not yet be the ‘Lightroom beater’ that some have suggested, but it’s exciting, effective, powerful and exceptional value, and getting better with every update.

5 thoughts on “Lightroom alternatives: which is best?

  1. I was surprised that Affinity isn’t mentioned. I’ve been using it increasingly, lately. It can go places none of Adobe’s software will take you!
    Some aspects of it take a bit of getting used to. But wasn’t that always true with Adobe’s products? Actually it still is – it’s a nightmare at times, getting things to start.
    But there’s plenty of guidance around, and you can slip into it – ease into it – quite quickly.
    The more I used it, in face, the more I find I want to.
    Which is kind of interesting. Because a group of us has been trying out different post processing software programs for the past 12 months or more. This one has been a late addition to my selection. But already it is kicking some of the others out of contention.

    1. I agree that Affinity Photo is a great program, but it’s not in the same category as Lightroom. Affinity Photo is a traditional image-editor in the same vein as Photoshop, not an all-in-one non-destructive cataloguing/editing tool. If I was looking at Photoshop alternatives I would certainly have included it.

  2. Two other great pieces of software you can pick up without a subscription (and without a single purchase either, for that matter): darktable (https://www.darktable.org/) and RawTherapee (https://rawtherapee.com/). Like the options you’ve suggested, these programs have improved greatly over the past few years, and they’re worth a look if you haven’t tried them lately.

  3. Rod,

    This is a very helpful update on where these programs stand. I’m currently using DxO Photolab as my main processing tool primarily for its raw development, noise reduction, and lens correction tools. I’m a pretty minimal post production person so it serves pretty well, but it’s not a great culling/organizational tool (an aspect of the late, great Apple Aperture which I really Liked) and that’s really what I need at this point. I’ve used Fast Raw Viewer for the last year or so as a culling tool, but find it a little clunky and it’s batch run program to export files to DxO is a little quirky and unreliable. Any suggestions for a culling tool or which of these programs (other than Capture One) do you think has the potential to reach DXO’s level for raw development, wise reduction and lens corrections?

  4. Echoing what others have said, most of the issue is that there are at least a handful of programs that are ‘best’ at one aspect, but fall down in at least one other.

    I have bought DxO Photolab, ON1, Aurora, Affinity Photo, and AfterShot Pro 3, plus a few ‘one click’ programs like Photo Lemur. I have also looked at Luminar 3. With the possible exception of AfterShot Pro 3, each of them is better at the rest at something.

    So I find DxO Photolab is easily the best at lens correction and noise reduction, for example. But another program is better at quickly adjusting colours to what I like. Repeat for organisation, fine pixel editing, and much else.

    Annoyingly, although most of these are based on .NET, none of them run under WINE with Mono, so photo editing is literally the only reason why I still have an installation of Windows on any PC.

    Oh, and RawTherapee and darktable are best on price 🙂 although Affinity Photo wasn’t far behind.

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