7 Lightroom Alternatives for RAW Photographers to Consider in 2018
As much as photographers love Adobe Lightroom for its smooth RAW workflow, many of us were caught completely unawares by a surprise announcement from Adobe at the end of October.
Instead of simply updating Lightroom CC to a new 2018 release alongside all the other Creative Cloud apps, Adobe has launched a completely revamped version of Lightroom CC focused on the cloud and mobile devices.
The old desktop-based Lightroom CC we have come to know and love has been renamed Lightroom Classic but retains all of its existing features while gaining a few new ones.
"Launched over a decade ago, Lightroom became the industry’s leading desktop application for editing and organizing photography. Now in an increasingly mobile-centric world, and with major improvements in smartphone cameras, Lightroom is transforming digital photography again," explains Adobe in the accompanying press release.
Adobe has confused a lot of people by switching around the names like this, and there doesn't even seem to be a good reason why they didn't release the new Lightroom CC under a different brand name - but it's too late to change it now.
To keep things clear for the rest of this article, we'll be using the updated naming system to refer to the different versions of the program.
What's New in the New Lightroom CC?
The new Lightroom CC is a completely different approach to photographic workflow management, based around the idea that everything should be stored in the cloud.
This has the potential to be incredibly liberating for those of you who work on multiple editing devices regularly, but it may also be frustrating for those of you who don't have reliable, unlimited high-speed internet everywhere you go.
For any of you who have ever lost photographs due to a hard drive failure, worries about backups will never trouble you again - at least, not until you run out of storage space on your cloud account. All of the images you add to Lightroom CC get uploaded in full resolution to the cloud, giving you a handy backup copy managed by a professional data center. Of course, it would be foolish to use this as the only backup copy of your photographs, but it's always nice to have a bit of extra peace of mind.
In addition to storing your photos in the cloud, all of your non-destructive edits will also be stored and shared, allowing you to quickly resume editing on a mobile device or different desktop no matter where you started the process.
Probably the most exciting feature of Lightroom CC is that it can search the contents of your photos without using tags. Yes, you read that right - no more time-consuming tagging when you'd really rather be shooting and editing! Powered by recent developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, Adobe has developed a new service dubbed 'Sensei' that provides a range of services across all of their Creative Cloud apps. You can learn more about Sensei and what it can do here.
No matter how many buzzwords Adobe crams into their marketing materials, however, the truth of the matter is that the new Lightroom CC isn't really ready for professional use just yet. The lack of features like applying presets on import, multiple catalogs and watermarking on export will keep a lot of professionals from embracing the new version. AI-based searching is incredibly cool, assuming it works properly and doesn't miss important photos, but it's not really enough to drive adoption.
Of course, we can expect to see Lightroom CC receiving fairly frequent updates as the development process continues, so this may change in the future. For those of you who are interested in how the migration from Lightroom Classic to Lightroom CC will work, Adobe has prepared a quick guide with tips here.
Has Lightroom Classic Changed Much?
Lightroom Classic still offers the same functionality that we've come to expect. Adobe has added a couple of new features in the latest release such as improved color/luminance masking tools and updated support for the latest RAW formats, but the real changes being touted by Adobe are under the hood.
Lightroom users have long complained about slow performance when importing, creating previews and other edits, although I haven't ever had any issues with it personally. I also haven't noticed much improvement in terms of day-to-day usage since Lightroom Classic was released, but I also haven't done any kind of scientific testing to verify that one way or the other.
When you look back at the history of new Lightroom features, that's a pretty small set of changes, especially considering that the last update was almost a year before. Even that update wasn't very major, and the one before that was also underwhelming. Admittedly, Lightroom was already a pretty solid program and there wasn't too much to improve upon in terms of major features - but when companies start focusing on optimizing instead of expanding, it usually indicates that they're done making large changes.
This lack of major updates makes me wonder whether or not Adobe has been focusing all of its Lightroom-related development efforts on the new Lightroom CC, and whether or not that should be considered a sign of things to come. I'm not the only photographer who is wondering what will come next, which leads us to the next big question.
Should I Switch My Workflow?
This is a very difficult question to answer, and it will depend a lot on your current setup. Completely changing your photo processing workflow can be a huge time investment, especially for those of you who have an extensive flagging system for your photo catalog. Not all programs interpret ratings, flags, and tags in the same way (if they recognize them at all) so it's always a bit nerve-wracking to think about losing all of that data.
Many of you who have invested heavily in Lightroom in terms of your workflow and catalog will be resistant to changing everything up, and very understandably. But is it possible that Adobe will eventually drop support for Lightroom Classic the way they have for Lightroom 6, eventually leaving it by the wayside as new features and camera profiles are released for Lightroom CC? Adobe hasn't made any statements about the future of Lightroom Classic, but that isn't necessarily reassuring.
Unfortunately, Adobe has something of a history of saying one thing and doing another when it comes to the future development of their applications. In this blog post from 2013 when the Creative Cloud brand and system were being launched, Adobe attempted to calm down Lightroom 5 users who were confused by the changes:
- Q. Will there be a different version of Lightroom called Lightroom CC?
- A. No.
- Q. Will Lightroom become a subscription only offering after Lightroom 5?
- A. Future versions of Lightroom will be made available via traditional perpetual licenses indefinitely.
Adobe then later announced that Lightroom 6 would be the last standalone version of Lightroom available outside of the Creative Cloud subscription model and that it would stop receiving updates after the end of 2017. This means that as time goes on, a perfectly acceptable editor will grow less and less useful as the range of unsupported camera RAW profiles increases.
My personal workflow doesn't provide many advantages from the new cloud-based features, but I'm definitely going to be experimenting further with Lightroom CC to see whether or not it's a better option. As next summer rolls around and I do more on-location shooting that involves being away from my desktop and relying on my laptop for extended periods of time, the advantages of a cloud-based editing workflow could really start to show themselves.
One of Lightroom Classic's most appealing aspects is that it combines excellent library management and editing tools in a single streamlined package, and there aren't many alternatives that provide this complete workflow. If you're not convinced that Lightroom CC is for you and you're worried that Adobe may eventually abandon Lightroom Classic, here are a few of the other RAW workflow editors that we've reviewed here at SoftwareHow that are worth exploring.
One of the newest entries to the world of RAW editing is Luminar by Skylum (formerly known as Macphun). It may be new, but it's already making waves by combining some powerful tools and clever automated adjustments in a user-friendly package. Of course, professional editors don't usually want to let the computer decide what to adjust, but there are some times when it can be handy for more basic tweaks.
You don't need to rely on their AI, thanks to the excellent adjustment tools found in Luminar - but you may have to dig a little to uncover them. The default interface places a heavy emphasis on filters and presets, but you can change to a more capable set of tools by switching your workspace to the 'Professional' or 'Essentials' option.
Available for PC and Mac for a one-time purchase price of $69, although there is a 14-day free trial available to see if Luminar is right for you. Nicole reviewed a previous version of Luminar for macOS, and you can read her full review here.
Capture One Pro
If you want the absolute best in terms of RAW rendering quality and editing capabilities, Capture One Pro is widely regarded as the best available on the market. Originally developed for Phase One's high-end cameras and eventually adapted to handle all RAW formats, CaptureOne is aimed specifically at the professional market. It's not intended for amateur or casual users, and it does not go out of its way to cater to these markets, so don't expect social media sharing options or step-by-step wizards.
There are excellent tutorials available, and if you take the time learn it properly you'll be rewarded with the very best in RAW image editing. Capture One Pro is available from Amazon as a perpetual license purchase, or for a recurring subscription at $20 per month from Phase One. You can read our full review of Capture One Pro here.
If you want excellent RAW editing power with a more user-friendly approach, DxO OpticsPro has a great series of quick automatic adjustments that can dramatically speed up your editing process. DxO is a renowned lens tester, and they use all the data they have acquired to identify your camera and lens combination and instantly correct for the full range of optical aberrations that can occur.
Combine this with solid RAW exposure editing tools and an industry-leading noise reduction algorithm, and you've got a great Lightroom replacement. The only drawback is that it doesn't really offer much in the way of library management, so you may have to look elsewhere if you rely heavily on that aspect of Lightroom.
Serif Affinity Photo
Affinity Photo is the first photo editing program from Serif, and it's been eagerly anticipated by photographers as a Photoshop replacement. It's still fairly new, but it already has some excellent RAW editing features that rival what you can do in Lightroom and Photoshop in a single program. It claims to be extremely optimized for working with large RAW files, but I found that even 10-megapixel RAW files had some performance issues.
The real selling point for Affinity Photo is how affordable it is. It's available for Windows and Mac in a perpetual license edition at a one-time purchase price of $49.99 USD, and Serif has promised free feature updates for all users until version 2.0 is released. Read our full review of Serif Affinity Photo here.
Corel Aftershot Pro
If you've ever chafed at a slow performance in Lightroom, you will be happy to know that Corel's RAW editor has made a specific point of highlighting how much faster it is. It remains to be seen how Aftershot Pro will compete with the new performance updates found in Lightroom Classic, but it's definitely worth a look. It also has some of the best library management tools of any of the alternatives on this list, and it doesn't force you to work with imported catalogs if you don't want to.
Corel Aftershot Pro 3 is available for Windows and Mac at a one-time purchase of $79.99, although it is currently on sale (and has been for some time) at a 40% discount, bringing the cost down to a reasonable $47.99. You can read our full review of Aftershot Pro here.
On1 Photo RAW
Despite its lackluster name, On1 Photo RAW is also an excellent Lightroom alternative. It offers solid library management and excellent editing tools, although it could definitely use some optimization on the performance side of things. The interface is a bit difficult to use, but it's still worth a look if you're in the market for an all-in-one RAW workflow package. On1 is going to be releasing a new version shortly, so hopefully, they have addressed some of the issues that I had when I reviewed the previous version of the software.
On1 Photo RAW 2018 is currently in pre-order, although developers are speculating that the final release will be available sometime in November 2017. The new version will be available for Windows and Mac at a cost of $119.99 USD, although it is only compatible with 64-bit versions of both operating systems. Read the full review of On1 Photo RAW here.
Adobe Photoshop + Bridge
This workflow requires two different programs, but since they're both parts of the Adobe Creative Cloud they play quite nicely together. Adobe Bridge is a digital asset management program, essentially a catalog of all of your media. It doesn't have quite the same degree of flagging flexibility as Lightroom Classic or CC, but it does have the benefit of stability and universality. If you're a subscriber to the full Creative Cloud and use a number of the apps regularly, Bridge allows you to maintain a single catalog of your media no matter where you want to use it.
Once you're done flagging and tagging and you're ready for editing, you can simply edit images in Photoshop using Camera Raw. One great aspect of using Camera RAW is that it uses the same RAW conversion engine as Lightroom, so you won't have to redo any edits that you've made previously. It's not quite as elegant as the all-in-one system offered by Lightroom, but you'll be able to develop a new workflow with a catalog and editor that Adobe isn't likely to scrap anytime soon - if ever.
So What Should I Do?
If you're happy with your current workflow, you can continue using Lightroom Classic without any disruptions other than the slightly confusing new name. You may want to prepare yourself for the possibility that it will eventually be left behind in favor of the cloud-based Lightroom CC, although it's quite easy to make the shift to the new workflow if you want to.
If you don't like the idea of storing all your photos in the cloud, many of the other alternatives that we discussed above are just as capable as Lightroom. This may be a good time to see if any other software can fill your RAW photo editing needs - you might even find a program you like better than Lightroom!