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Bring on the Adobe alternatives!

Adobe has a near-monopoly on the image post-processing software market with Lightroom and Photoshop, but there’s more competition than ever before. And the ‘Adobe alternatives‘ are getting faster, more powerful and advanced with each upgrade.There’s Phase One Capture One Pro, On1 Photo Raw, Skylum Luminar, Serif Affinity Photo, and now DxO PhotoLab with Nik Collection.

The Adobe Creative Cloud software rental scheme has done wonders for shareholders, with Adobe no longer pressured to come up with major software updates and improvements. There’s no urgency to create a better product to persuade customers to invest in an upgrade. And revenue comes in nice and regular on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, photographers haven’t fallen in love with their hostage-taker, a la the Stokholm Syndrome. There’s a strong seam of resentment towards Adobe’s relentless rent-seeking.

Plenty of photographers could get by with the Photoshop and Lightroom tools from five or more years ago, provided the company continued to support new cameras. From a business perspective, the Creative Cloud keeps a steady income flow – it makes perfect sense.

Adobe customers are locked into paying $14.29 per month for Photoshop and Lightroom, and more for extra storage. That adds up to a minimum of $171 per year, forever. Until the next price rise…

Adobe recently tested doubling its prices for the Photography Plan. Despite cack-handedly backing away from the price hike, it showed the power Adobe has over its customers by having them locked into the Creative Cloud. Few businesses would dare toy with doubling prices overnight. But the backlash also showed that more Adobe customers are ready to look at the alternatives.

Here’s an overview of some of those alternatives, coupled with verdicts and conclusions from independent reviewers. Inside Imaging recommends reading the full in-depth reviews.

For those interested in dipping their toes or tackling the learning curve, most apps are also available as a 30-day free trial.

Phase One’s Capture One Pro 12
Capture One Pro 12, the latest RAW non-destructive processing software by high-end camera manufacturer Phase One, is available for a one-off payment of $490. There’s also a $30 per month subscription model for CC lovers.

Capture One’s Asset Management system.

The rather expensive one-off payment buys three licenses, and future releases come at a marginal discount for existing customers.

Phase One’s answer to Lightroom supports over 500 cameras, with it recently integrating Fujifilm cameras into the mix. It’s not an all-in-one photo editor – complex editing, to make things like composites, will require another app.

Capture One Pro 12 has introduced an easier-to-use interface with new icons, menu system, and sliders. It has also opened the door to third-party developers, which should lead to innovative new plug-ins over time.

What reviewers say about Capture One Pro 12:
A Phoblographer review of Capture One Pro 12 strongly endorses the software, giving it five stars and the Editor’s Choice rating.

‘I can say with certainty that it does most of what Lightroom does even better. There is a big emphasis on most, but the truth is Capture One 12 will do everything better than Lightroom does for most photographers. In that previous sentence there is a HUGE emphasis on everything.’

The review reports the software is faster than Lightroom in every possible way.

However, PCMag‘s Michael Muchmore says the software trails behind Lightroom Classic due to inferior ‘interface fluidity, organisational tools, panorama and HDR merging, and profile support for cameras and lenses’.

Capture One still receives four stars – an excellent rating – with initial raw file conversion beating Lightroom. But there also appears to be a challenging learning curve for newcomers swapping over from Lightroom.

Capture One Pro 12 is available for a 30-day free trial.


On1 Photo Raw 2019.5
Launched in May 2019, On1 Photo Raw 9.5 is a non-destructive image processor and editor available for US$63.99.

On1 claims Photo Raw has the best of both worlds – it’s a ‘more powerful’ alternative to Lightroom, with Photoshop tools and features. There is an image browser for cataloging, adjustable and stackable filters, while also offering complex controls such as layered editing and photo stacking.

The company is forthright in declaring its intention to attract dismayed Adobe customers by proclaiming ‘never rent your software again’.

Like many of the others, it has published guides on how to move from Lightroom to Photo Raw. But a point of difference is it includes the ability to non-destructively transfer photos from Lightroom’s Develop module. This keeps raw processing and edit settings intact, including crop, retouching, and local adjustments.

The May 2019 update claims to be 50 times faster when exporting processed images, with a speed boost also added for other areas like navigating and previewing presets.

On1 says it rolls out new features based on customer feedback, with the latest version introducing Edit History, dual browser view, an improved keyword system, and more.

What reviewers say about Photo Raw
Since 2019.5 is so new, there’s not yet many credible reviews floating about other than some YouTube vloggers.

But a consensus from earlier reviews suggest that anyone wanting a smooth experience with Photo Raw better have a powerful PC.

PhotoShelter’s CEO, Allen Murayabashi, says he’s found Photo Raw 2019 ‘sluggish… for basic image adjustments’, possibly due to software being ‘too fully-featured’. (Using a late-2013 Mac Pro with 64GB of RAM.)

‘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 prioritised performance above niche features.’

Maybe that ’50 times faster’ speed boost will address the sluggish-ness?

Expert Photography‘s Craig Hull says it’s ideal for photographers looking for a Lightroom alternative with Photoshop features.

‘It actually gave Adobe a run for its money. For the first time. This is saying something, as I don’t change things in my life without a fight. Especially things that work for me.

‘Both Lightroom and On1 use non-destructive editing, they both use keywords and a brilliant organisation system. On1 is much faster as you don’t need to wait for the images to import.’

Rod Lawton from Life After Photoshop, a website dedicated to image software alternatives, gives Photo Raw 2019 five stars.

‘For those still deciding on what software to invest in, On1 Photo Raw 2019 is a serious contender as the best value, and arguably most powerful, all-in-one photo editing solution on the market. Other programs have their strengths – Alien Skin Exposure X4 for its analog effects, DxO PhotoLab for its sublime RAW conversions, Capture One Pro for its quality and editing workflow – but no other program gives you this kind of power for this kind of money.’

On1 Photo Raw is available for a 30-day trial.


Skylum Luminar 3
Luminar is an all-in-one RAW photo editor that has a reputation for being user-friendly. It’s available for $109.

One click edits down the bottom, with more detailed adjustment controls on the right.

Luminar has an ‘Edit’ mode that’s similar to Lightroom’s Develop module. Luminar comes loaded with customisable presets and ‘Professional Workspaces’, which provides the ability to select a style and make adjustments with sliders. While user-friendly, with one-click Quick adjustments similar to Instagram filters, more complex editing can be performed.

Many reviewers note the workflow has a playful ‘novice’ feel, and some photographers may find the interface lacking what you might call ‘gravitas’.

The library feature falls short of being a fully-fledged Digital Asset Management (DAM) system. While the library provides the ability to label, rate, flag, and sort images into groups and folders, there’s no keyword or metadata support.

The company just released the 3.1.1 update, which brings a launch-time speed boost.

What reviewers say about Luminar
TechRadar‘s Matt Golowczynski says there is a ‘very good level of control’ when processing and editing images manually.

‘…Although we’d like to see specific lens profiles and control over chromatic aberration beyond a simple checkbox. Adjustments are made quickly, however, and while there’s a little lagging here and there in general operation, speed isn’t as much of an issue as we’ve found in previous Luminar iterations. The included filters – or ‘LOOKs’ as they’re called here – for portraits, landscapes and street screens among others are a lot of fun. ‘

MacWorld’s Jackie Dove describes Luminar 3  as a ‘viable alternative’ to Lightroom.

‘Luminar 3 is an outstanding prosumer editing alternative for people seeking abundant automation and creative options for a wide range of photos. Despite its many professional features, Luminar is easy to learn and use and lets you create stunning photos.

Luminar’s new asset management system is rudimentary, so if you need more than the basics, you may want to continue using your current utility to track keywords, geotags, and IPTC data.’

Skylum Luminar doesn’t offer a free trial, but includes a ’60-day money guarantee‘.


Serif Affinity Photo
Serif has just rolled out a major update to Affinity Photo, a Photoshop alternative, adding support for HDR monitors and giving it a significant speed boost. The RAW non-destructive image editor is relatively inexpensive at $63.

A very Photoshop-esque interface, no?

‘Using Affinity Photo with an HDR monitor offers a simply stunning experience,’ says Serif managing director, Ashley Hewson. ‘It’s amazing the detail and dynamic range the latest SLR cameras capture when shooting in RAW, and Affinity Photo now offers the opportunity to actually see all that depth while editing on an HDR monitor.’

The latest version, 1.7, is apparently 10 times faster, with an improved Raw processing engine loading files faster, improved batch processing, and a rewritten brush engine.

Similar to Photoshop’s interface, Affinity has tools on the left and setting/layers/filters on the right. It looks and behaves quite like Photoshop.

Tools and features include HDR merge, panorama stitching, focus stacking, lens corrections, batch processing, layers, and a bunch of presets.

What reviewers say about Affinity Photo
DPReview’s Jeff Carlson says the 1.5.2 version behaves almost too much like Photoshop.

‘Every corner offers new discoveries – the Scope panel alone will make some editors’ eyes light up – and they’re all affixed to a strong image-editing core.

‘That said, I yearn for a future version when the application breaks away from the Photoshop way of doing things, such as the destructive-edited filters mentioned earlier. I can see what Serif is striving toward, and want it to get there as soon as possible.

Photography Blog‘s Tim Coleman, reviewing Affinity Photo 1.6, could barely pick a fault but reminds readers it has no cataloguing tools like Lightroom. He gave it 4.5 stars out of five.

‘Don’t let that low cost fool you – it does not reflect the ability and versatility of Affinity Photo 1.6. It features compatibility with virtually all image file types (including Photoshop PSD files), offers a broad range of editing tools and is quick to boot.

‘Speed is a true test of editing software – no one likes hanging around waiting for an edit to appear on screen or a set of tools to load. With our operating system used for this test, the software performed very well. 
Our only negative experiences have been a fractional lag moving around a 100 percent zoomed image and one or two lengthier lags when switching Personas.’

Affinity Photo is available for a free trial.


DxO PhotoLab 2.3
DxO PhotoLab evolved from DxO’s OpticsPro processing software, after the company acquired the Nik Collection and integrated new tools such as U Point local adjustment editing.

PhotoLab boasts the strong points of OpticsPro – RAW conversions and powerful automatic lens correction technology. Adding the popular set of Nik U Point local adjustment tools has turned the software into a serious photo editor.

PhotoLab has two modes: PhotoLibrary for browsing folders, searching for images and organising them into ‘Projects’; and Customize for editing.

PhotoLibrary is a new feature similar to Lightroom’s Library. Users can find images based on the date or file name, as well as camera settings like focal length, f-stop, and ISO sensitivity. It’s no DAM system though.

Photolab 2 is available in the Essential (basic) Edition for US$100 and US$149 for the Elite edition, with Nik Collection 2 offered in the bundle.

What reviewers say about PhotoLab
Many reviewers praise almost everything about the software, with PhotoLibrary the exception. It apparently needs serious work, lacking support for keyword searches and doesn’t feel quite finished.

Tech Radar‘s Rod Lawton gives it four stars.

‘PhotoLab 2.1 is a powerful, high-end program that delivers truly superb images from raw files, even from very average cameras and lenses. Its local adjustment tools are extremely effective and its PRME Denoise tool is incredible. However… the new PhotoLibrary image organising tools feel weak and unfinished, and they drag down the rating for an otherwise excellent raw photo editing application.

Jeremy Gray from Imaging Resource is a big fan of the U Point tech from Nik.

‘The U Point technology is better than ever, offering excellent and intuitive control over many image parameters. Specifically, there are three distinct groups which each offer their own settings, which are laid out in an equaliser format. In “Light,” you can adjust: Exposure, Contrast, Micro contrast, ClearView Plus, Highlights, Midtones, Shadows and Blacks. In “Color,” the options are: Vibrancy, Saturation, Temperature, Tint and Hue. Finally, there’s a “Detail” group, which includes Sharpness and Blur.

PCMag‘s Michael Muchmore gave it the Editor’s Choice award for high-end photo editing.
Its unique Prime noise-reduction feature, U Point local adjustments, Lens Sharpness, and ClearView Plus tools bring us close to photography nirvana. The spot-metering and auto-microcontrast tools benefit both portrait and landscape photographers. PhotoLab is a PCMag Editors’ Choice award for high-end photo editing.

PhotoLab is available as a 30-day free trial. It’s also been bundled with Nikon Collection 2, for what could be a very capable software combination. Special introductory deals until June 30 increase tthe appeal.


Feel free to leave a comment about what image processing and editing software you use.

5 Comments

  1. Paul Szilard Paul Szilard June 13, 2019

    DXO stubbornly continues to refuse any support for Fujifilm APS-C X-Trans sensors, while the competition happily supports these. What a blinkered approach!

    You should also add Alien Skin Explorer X4, which is another worthy contender. My personal favourites are Explorer X4 and ON1. I have yet to buy an Affinity license, but no doubt will soon. Note: I now shoot almost exclusively on Fujifilm X-T3 and X-PRO2 bodies.

    • David Jones Pro Photographer David Jones Pro Photographer June 27, 2019

      ON1’s colors are dull and lifeless. If you like mediocre results, or like to spend hours for results you can get in minutes using Capture One or DXO, then ON1 is for you!

  2. Richard Bird Richard Bird June 15, 2019

    At first glance Pixelmator Pro seems a bit like a toy, underweight and simplistic. I have tried most of the programmes you have covered in your research but invariably slunk back to Adobe CC.
    Connect your camera to the computer, Mac in my case, and the files are automatically imported to the Apple Photo app, files are selected on merit and sent to Pixelmator Pro for processing. At first attempt the work flow is a bit strange but definitely worth a try. Every time I use this app I discover more depth and sophistication and am almost at the point of cancelling my Abobe sub. Can definitely recommend a trial session.
    Very attractive price also. Mid $60.00s to own outright!

    Richard Bird

  3. Will Shipton Will Shipton Post author | June 19, 2019

    Hey Richard and Paul,
    Thanks for those suggestions, I’ll look into them!

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