If you’re looking to start shooting RAW images and find yourself outgrowing iPhoto or Picasa, you’re going to need a way to process RAW files. And if you’re shooting a lot of images, you’ll need a way to manage them so that you can find what you want when you want it.
Lightroom is now the most popular app for doing these functions, but it’s not the only one. Here’s a rundown of the Lightroom alternatives.
At one time or another I’ve used many of these, as well as now-defunct options like Rawshooter (which was integrated into Lightroom) and Bibble (which became Corel AfterShot Pro). I now use Lightroom. I like it and find it meets my needs very well, but each of the alternatives offers its own benefits.
And there might be reasons that Lightroom doesn’t meet your needs. Maybe it’s too expensive. Maybe you just don’t like the idea of subscription-based software. Maybe you’re after a specific feature or compatibility that Lightroom doesn’t offer. Or maybe the Lightroom workflow just doesn’t suit the way you want to work. If you find that Lightroom really doesn’t work for you for whatever reason, here are some alternatives worth a look.
Image Management + Processing Apps
Apple Aperture and Lightroom pioneered combining image management with image processing. Before that, there were management apps like iMatch or iView MediaPro and processing apps like Rawshooter and Bibble. So you would run them side-by-side, organizing in one and processing in the other. Aperture and Lightroom brought the two sides together and integrated them into a single app and single workflow. They’re designed to be archive and darkroom in one. And doing that added more than convenience and speed–it also opened up all sorts of new workflow options that weren’t easily possible before.
The image management functions used by these apps is based on catalogs, which offers a lot more power than simple file browsing in folders. Things like virtual collections and dynamically updated smart collections also become possible once you start using a catalog rather than a simple file system.
All of these apps combine both sophisticated image management features as well as sophisticated image processing.
Apple Aperture. For the past several years, Aperture was the biggest competitor to Lightroom, even though it only works on Mac. But Apple decided to discontinue development and took the guts of Aperture and iPhoto to create a new app for managing photos that is simply called Photos. Aperture is no longer available. If you’re still using Aperture and looking to jump ship from Aperture to Lightroom, Adobe has put out a migration tool and John Beardsley has an excellent guide.
Capture One Pro. Another option, which puts heavy emphasis on high-end medium format cameras, is Capture One Pro by PhaseOne. The image quality of its processing engine is excellent, and it now has management features thanks for the incorporation of what was once iView MediaPro then Microsoft Expression Media. Capture One used to be very expensive. While it’s not what you’d call cheap now, the price has come down to be more reasonable and makes it a serious competitor to Lightroom and is a very polished package.
Corel AfterShot Pro. Bibble used to be an excellent alternative that offered a number of useful features that the others didn’t. I used to love it. It was lightning fast and offered some excellent batch processing options. But a drawn-out overhaul several years to turn it into an integrated management and processing app proved disastrous and eventually led to being bought out by Corel and renamed Corel AfterShot Pro. A key feature is that it retained Bibble’s emphasis on speed. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Media Pro by Phase One is a standalone image organization app but doesn’t include the image processing features of Capture One (see above). Windows and Mac.
RAW Processing Apps
These apps focus on processing RAW files, giving you control over how the image looks.
ACDSee Pro 9 focuses on image processing and doesn’t include the image management options of ACDSee Ultimate 9 (see above). Windows only for this version, but there’s a different version, ACDSee Mac Pro 3, for Mac.
ON1 Photo RAW. ON1 are probably best known for their effects plugins, but they’ve now launched their own RAW processing software. It works as a standalone app or as a plugin for Lightroom or Photoshop. It doesn’t use a catalog, instead focusing only on RAW processing and image editing. They’ve also thrown in a bunch of their effects as an integrated part of the app. Windows and Mac.
Affinity Photo. This relative newcomer has been making a lot of waves in a short period of time and offers some power workflow and editing tools in a slick package. It was originally Mac only, but they’ve now added a Windows version.
LightZone is open source and works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Darktable is open source and works on Mac and Linux (but not Windows).
Iridient Developer takes a more nuts-and-bolts approach and doesn’t have the resources behind it of many of its competitors. But it’s another option that’s out there.
Nikon CaptureNX2. If you’re using a Nikon, you can get excellent quality results out of Nikon CaptureNX2, but its workflow and batch processing has always been a bit more of a struggle than its competitors. A highlight is its proprietary masking controls known as U Point. Windows and Mac.
Photo Ninja is created by the folks behind Noise Ninja, long one of the best options for reducing image noise but the importance of which has been greatly reduced by the much improved sensors in more recent cameras. The RAW processing engine features a number of nice workflow options. Noise Ninja is integrated into it, and if you have a Noise Ninja license you can upgrade it to Photo Ninja. Windows and Mac.
Raw Therapee is free and open source and works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s a particularly good option if you’re looking for something free and lightweight.
Adobe Camera RAW. If you’re already using Photoshop, the Adobe Camera RAW plugin adds RAW processing capabilities. It’s fundamentally the same engine used in Lightroom’s RAW processing–so it can produce excellent quality–but it’s designed to be used with Photoshop, not as a standalone product. Windows and Mac.
SilkyPix Developer Studio. There are versions for Windows and Mac and they have a 30-day trial version.
Image Management Apps
These are usually classed as Digital Asset Management apps. Many of them will handle other file formats as well as images.
ACDSee 19 focuses on image management and doesn’t include the processing features of ACDSee Ultimate (see above). Windows.
iMatch 5 by Photools. Back when I was using Windows (a while ago now), iMatch was one of my all-time favorite apps. It offers some very powerful and very flexible options for organizing and finding your images and plays well with raw processing apps, although it’s now showing its age a bit. Windows only.
Daminion does have individual, standalone licenses, but the niche they’re aiming at is really small teams. Windows only.
Digital Asset Management for Teams
Most of the options on this page are designed for individual users. But there’s also another class of digital asset management options designed for team access.
Most of these are enterprise-level apps and come with enterprise-level prices, so they aren’t well suited to individual photographers.
Some of the main options are:
If you find that catalog-based image management is too heavy for your needs, there are also lighter-weight image browsers available that use file-based organization rather than catalog-based organization. Some of them offer basic RAW processing capabilities.
Photo Mechanic is a very powerful and very fast image media browser that includes some basic processing tools and many workflow tools like advanced metadata management. It’s a favorite of press and sports photographers. And did I mention it’s fast? I use this for initial ingesting, culling, and metadata editing and then move the results into Lightroom. It’s available for Windows and Mac.
BreezeBrowser Pro covers some of the same ground and is aiming at the same kinds of shooters as Photo Mechanic but is considerably less expensive while lacking some of the polish and power. Windows only.
Adobe Bridge is part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud and is designed to be used with Photoshop but can be used by itself. It’s quick and powerful.
Lyn is a lightweight image browser for Mac.
IrfanView is a long-time favorite and is surprisingly powerful, although accessing that power isn’t always as user-friendly as it could be. Windows.
XNView is another long-time free favorite that is very powerful. Windows.
These are useful if you’re looking to batch process multiple photos at once by doing things like resizing, converting the format, adding watermarks, or applying filters. There are a lot of apps that can do these types of things–here are some that I’ve found particularly useful.
XnConvert is a companion to the popular XnViewMP. It’s free and cross-platform, with versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It has seemingly endless options and is compatible with over 500 image file formats. Cross-platform / Free.
IrfanView. As well as being a top-notch image viewer–and free as well–Irfanview includes powerful batch processing capabilities, although its workflow isn’t as polished or self-evident as some other options. Windows only / Free.
BatchPhoto can work with RAW files as well as a bunch of others. It’s a basic three-step process: choose photos, choose whatever edits to apply to them, and then output them. It’s a paid app for Mac and Windows with a free trial version.
PhotoMill doesn’t support as many file formats as some other options, but it supports all the main ones and includes a slick, if busy, interface. It also has good search functionality, GPS geotagging support, and ability to assign ICC color profiles. Mac only / paid.
PhotoBulk has the least features and actions of the apps in this batch processing section, but that simplicity also makes it very quick and easy to use and therefore something I often find myself reaching for if I just need to very quickly convert images from PNG to JPG or resize them. It’s basically a drop panel with sections for watermarking, resizing, optimizing, and renaming. Mac only / Paid.