Last Updated on
If you are still looking for an alternative to Adobe Lightroom, you are in the right place. Today, I will answer one of the most common questions in the photography community: “What is the best alternative to Lightroom?”
If you expect a quick answer, I am sorry to disappoint you. This is a loaded question that requires a loaded answer.
Please note, at the end of the article you can find the Lightroom Alternative Quiz. By answering a few simple questions, you can help me recommend the best Lightroom alternative for your specific needs.
At the end of 2017, Adobe rocked the photography world by discontinuing the standalone version of the most popular photo organization and editing program—Lightroom—by transitioning to a subscription-based model.
This evoked outrage in the photography community that sparked the quest for a Lightroom replacement.
At the same time, Adobe’s new business model did not affect professional photographers because, by the end of 2017, most professionals had already transitioned to the Creative Cloud subscription.
For us, Adobe’s transition simply made the most economic sense. It gave us cost certainty.
When I was working as a graphic designer, every time we needed to upgrade our Adobe software (Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Premier) it cost the company around $20.000 and we only had a small group of designers. To save money, the company skipped over some upgrades, which made a lot of us unhappy at not getting the chance to use the latest tools and features.
With the Creative Cloud subscription model, I know it will cost me around $10 per month and I will have the latest version of all my photo editing tools.
At the same time, I understand the objection from casual photographers who only use Lightroom a few times a year, mostly to manage their family vacation photos. Typically, they never open Photoshop, which means a monthly subscription does not make sense for them at all.
Understanding the Adobe Photography Plan
Before we can identify the best alternatives for Lightroom, it is important to understand what we are trying to replace. The Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan is much more than Lightroom alone.
With the plan, you have access to these applications:
- Lightroom Classic
- Lightroom CC Desktop
- Photoshop CC
- Bridge CC
The latest additions to the subscription are:
- Premiere Rush
- Adobe CC Web
Premiere Rush is the stripped-down version of the Adobe video editor, Premiere Pro, which is integrated with YouTube. I like the concept of the new program because you have all the essential video tools and the ability to export the final video directly to your YouTube channel.
The release of Adobe CC Mobile flew under the radar, but I consider it to be one of the most important Adobe applications in recent years. Adobe built it around the same Camera RAW engine that Lightroom and Photoshop use and, as a result, it has the same editing tools as Lightroom and Photoshop Camera RAW.
What this means, in reality, is that I can start editing a RAW photo on my phone while I am traveling, continue editing it on my tablet from the airplane, and then complete the editing workflow on my desktop computer at home. I can also synchronize my photos and my presets across different devices.
Plus, Lightroom Mobile is not only one of the best mobile photo editing apps, it is also the best camera app with advanced RAW controls.
For me, Lightroom Mobile replaced all my other mobile editing and camera apps.
As you can see, when we talk about finding a Lightroom alternative, we are actually talking about finding replacements for all the tools that come with the Adobe subscription. This is impossible to do with one single program.
If you only need Lightroom and nothing else for your photography needs, there are plenty of alternatives available.
Quick Summary: Top Lightroom Alternatives
- Capture One
- On1 Photo RAW
- Luminar 3 With Libraries
- DXO Lab 2
- Exposure X4 by Alien Skin
- ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate
- Raw Therapy
Capture One is the oldest RAW editor on the market. From the beginning, it was positioned as the high-end tool for professional photographers. Arguably, it has the most advanced and most stable tethering functionality among all photo applications. If you are running a studio photography business, you absolutely need Capture One.
What attracts me to Capture One the most is its innovative and sophisticated color correction module. It has more options and controls than any other program. Plus, the user interface is to die for—it is fast, intuitive, and highly customizable.
The downside of Capture One is its price and complexity. If you think the Lightroom learning curve is too steep, Capture One will make your head spin from the moment you open the program and start learning its unique concepts.
I never recommend Capture One to aspiring photographers because I consider it to be a very complex, niche product for professional photographers.
If you are a Sony or a Fujifilm shooter, you have the option of getting a fully functioning version of Capture One for free. The Fujifilm Express and Sony Express versions of the program are somewhat limited, but you will have access to all the essentials.
Negatives: The cost, steep learning curve, and limited DAM (digital asset management).
Can Capture One replace Lightroom?
Capture One has a more limited DAM options and it lacks some important developmental functionalities such as Panorama Merge and HDR Merge. It cannot replace the Adobe Creative Cloud and only partially replaces Lightroom.
You can download 30-day free trial here.
The original idea behind the concept of On1 Photo RAW was to sway Lightroom users away from Adobe by addressing its two main pain points: a steep learning curve and slow, lagging performance. When Adobe announced the transition to the subscription model, the On1 folks saw an opportunity and seized it by heavily marketing their Photo RAW as a replacement for Lightroom without a subscription model.
But the original version of Photo RAW was not yet ready for primetime. It was buggy and missed some essential functionalities. Early adopters of Photo RAW had to wait another year to upgrade to Photo RAW 2018. This update addressed most of the omissions of the original version, but it was not yet polished enough for widespread adoption.
Finally, at the end of 2018, On1 released Photo RAW 2019, which not only reached the level of Lightroom but, in some areas, surpassed it. Plus, it blurred the differences between Lightroom and Photoshop.
For example, you can use multiple layers with different images in each layer and still enjoy native nondestructive RAW editing. This is very useful for replacing the sky in landscape photos. It is a very impressive feature.
The DAM (digital asset management) is very solid and is almost as good as Lightroom. The Editing Module is more sophisticated than Lightroom in some areas. My favorite features of the Editing Module are the advanced Masking Tools and the Luminosity Masks functionality.
Another plus of Photo RAW is that it takes full advantage of GPU (graphics cards). This means that you can boost the program’s performance by upgrading the graphics card.
But guess what? With the introduction of advanced features, Photo RAW is no longer simplified in comparison to Lightroom. It is just as complex and
Negatives: The Editing Module is somewhat cluttered and not intuitive.
Can On1 Photo RAW replace Lightroom?
Absolutely. On1 Photo RAW can be a viable alternative even for the most demanding Lightroom users. It can even replace some aspects of Photoshop, but only partially. If you pair Photo RAW with Affinity Photo, it can be a smart alternative to the Adobe Creative Cloud.
But you will still miss the mobile cross-device integration with the desktop version.
You can download 30-day free trial here.
For a long time, Skylum (formally MacPhun) developed innovative and affordable photo editing tools only for Mac. It was never considered to be a major player in the photography niche. But as soon as they announced their first editing program (first Aurora HDR and then Luminar) for both PC and Mac, they became a driving force in the photography field.
Originally, Luminar was not positioned to be a Lightroom alternative because it did not have any DAM tools. You had to use another application for image management. Although Luminar had a beautiful interface with simple and comprehensive editing tools, it was more of an addition to Lightroom and Photoshop rather than an alternative.
Everything changed at the end of 2018 when Skylum released Luminar 3 with Libraries. Finally, a DAM was built into the program.
The advantages of Luminar 3 are that it is an inexpensive, easy-to-learn RAW editor that takes full advantage of Artificial Intelligence that is very effective.
Negatives: It is still in the early development phase. The Windows version lags behind the Mac version in terms of features and stability.
Can Luminar 3 replace Lightroom?
Only partially. If you are a beginner and are only starting to learn photo editing, it is a great and inexpensive tool that can grow with you on your photography journey.
You can download Luminar here. (Use the code PHOTOTRACES to get additional $10 off).
I had high hopes for DXO Lab 2, but I believe it is still one to two generations away from being a real contender.
The application is fast, but the interface is not as intuitive. DXO developed unique editing tools such as DXO Clear View Plus and DXO Smart Lighting, but when you open the corresponding panel there is a single slider inside. In general, I find that the Customize Module (equivalent to the Develop Module in Lightroom) is not streamlined and lacks more advanced options.
The DAM is very simplistic. You can navigate the file structure of your computer from within the application, but you cannot add specific folders to the application.
But the biggest drawback is that DXO Lab 2 does not support RAW images taken with X-Trans sensors. This means that Fujifilm users are out of luck and cannot edit RAW images at all. Since I am now a Fujifilm user, I had to dig out my older Sony and Canon RAW images to test the application.
Can DXO Lab 2 replace Lightroom?
I believe it only replaces 50% of Lightroom’s functionality and not the Creative Cloud.
You can download 30-day free trial here.
The Exposure X4 by Alien Skin was the biggest surprise in my search for a decent Lightroom replacement. I remember a long time ago in the pre-Lightroom era that I used Alien Skin plugins for Photoshop called Eye Candy. The effect the plugins produced were funky and mostly useless, which is why I did not expect much from Exposure X4. But I was pleasantly surprised when Exposure X4 blew my mind.
First of all, Exposure X4 has the best user experience. It is the fastest among all the programs I tested; it is even faster than Capture One. It is both responsive and logical.
When working in Lightroom, the biggest frustration for me is to constantly keep switching between the Library and Develop Modules. I probably make the switch 100 times a day. Since Lightroom is not very fast, the lag during the module switches drives me completely crazy. I always questioned the logic behind the two-module structure. I thought it would make more sense to combine them into one big unit and allow users to customize the interface using the two panels.
Exposure X4 employs my ideal approach. There is only one module where you have all the editing tools on the right side and, on the left side, you can access DAM tools, the Presets Panel, and the History Panel. There is no more module switching. Plus, you can customize the UI to your liking.
The DAM is very logical—you simply add the folder to the Folders Panel, and you are ready to edit the photos almost immediately. There is no Catalog nor is the import process hours long.
As for the development tools, Exposure X4 takes a completely different approach compared to all the other applications I reviewed. Instead of trying to position themselves apart from Lightroom and come up with a bunch of unique tools and functionalities, they simply copied the main editing tools of Lightroom.
The very top editing panel is the Basic Panel. The names and order of the editing sliders are identical to Lightroom. The same goes for the Details Panel and the Tone Curve Panels, both of which have the same names and functions. What this means is that the Exposure X4 learning curve is almost nonexistent. You open the program, add the folder with the images, and immediately start editing photos without having to re-learn what each slider does.
My favorite tools in Exposure X4
Overall Intensity. This works like the opacity functionality in Photoshop. After you finish editing the image in Exposure X4, you can dial down the overall effect.
Layers. You can duplicate the original image by placing it in a new layer. Then you can edit and mask it by using the Brush Tools. This is very close to the Photoshop experience, but it occurs in a nondestructive RAW environment.
Negatives: It does not have the Panorama Merge or HDR Merge functionalities. The masking tools are underdeveloped.
Can Exposure X4 replace Lightroom?
I believe Exposure X4 can replace Lightroom for most users. For someone who does not need advanced editing functionalities, it can be great for organizing and editing images.
You can download 30-day free trial here.
This is another application that pleasantly surprised me. ACDSee developed photo and video editing tools for a few decades that targeted mostly amateurs and beginners. I’ve been using ACDSee Image Viewer for years and consider it to be the fastest and lightest image viewer on the Windows platform.
I did not expect ACDSee to develop such a deeply sophisticated product like the ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate.
I knew that ACDSee had decades of experience building DAM applications, so it was not surprising to find the Manage, Photos, and View modules as the most impressive part of the application. You can customize and organize your photos any way you want.
The Develop Module is somewhat standard where you can find all the tools similar to other RAW editors like Lightroom and Photo RAW. The unique part of the Develop Module is the Effect Panel where you find the Color Overlay, Photo Filter, and Gradient Map tools with the ability to use Blending Modes and on Opacity filter nondestructively. This is huge.
What truly sets ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate apart is its Edit Module. It has an amazing variety of tools that you normally find in applications like Photoshop and Illustrator.
It is not a nondestructive module. In order to preserve the layers and edits performed in the Edit Module, you have to save the version of your photo in ACDSee’s proprietary format (similar to Photoshop PSD).
Negatives: It is not the fastest application available. You have to jump from module to module (there are five modules) during the editing process, which interrupts the editing workflow. It is only available on the Windows platform.
Can ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate replace Lightroom?
For many photographers, ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate can replace Lightroom and Photoshop. If you need more advanced features such as tethering, panorama, and HDR, you must complement the program with another tool like Affinity Photo.
You can download 30-day free trial here.
Free (Open Source) Alternatives
The biggest advantage of each program is that they are available in three versions—Windows, Mac, and Linux. This gives Linux users the only option for RAW editing. Another advantage is that all the programs are free.
If you decide to go with an open source option, you have to be prepared to deal with its shortcomings. You never know when new updates will be released or what cameras will be supported. Plus, the user interface for the majority of open source applications is not well thought out or logical because the programs are typically built by a committee.
All three programs have DAM built-in, but it is somewhat limited. The Development tools are not well thought out or polished compared to commercial programs, but you can still achieve the final effect you need.
I do not usually recommend open source editing tools because I find that the learning curve is somewhat steeper because of the limited number of tutorials available and because the interface is not always logical or refined. Plus, my train of thought is that if you spend $2,000 on your photography equipment, you can definitely spare $100 on the best editing tool.
As you can see, there is no obvious winner here. Finding the best alternative to Lightroom is somewhat challenging. Because Lightroom was in development for almost 15 years by one of the biggest software development companies in the world, it has an impressive set of tools and functionalities that make it difficult to find a single competitor that can replace it. Each application in my review replaces only certain parts of Lightroom and not the program in its entirety.
The goal is to identify the areas of Lightroom that are most important for your editing workflow and to find an alternative that can replace them.
To help you identify the best Lightroom alternative for your specific situation and needs, I put together a short quiz below. By answering a few simple questions, you can help me recommend the best Lightroom alternative for your specific needs.