Adobe ruled the waves for image processing. However, evermore people are jumping that ship in favor of alternative methods. Most have similar functions, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. If you are thinking about changing, here are some alternative combined digital asset management, photo development, and editing options.
This article is a brief introduction to the various programs out there. When choosing what you need, there is a balance to be achieved between cost and functionality. All these packages include DAM (digital asset management) and raw development. Not all include advanced image editing, although most raw developers have some degree of local adjustments and simple tools like spot removal and graduated filters. Some features are common to many programs, but not all: HDR processing, panorama stitching, focus stacking, sky replacement, watermarking, and time-lapse creation. Some come with integrated AI-based noise control and sharpening. Others rely on external plugins to do those functions.
I am also writing this for desktop (or laptop) editors. Consequently, I only concentrate on computer-based programs and not comparing the cloud services that some offer, nor the phone and tablet apps.
I’ll mention the unique selling points of each, but this isn’t an in-depth review. If you want a DAM program, they all work. If you want raw development, then they all do that too. Some allow advanced image editing, while others require you to open a different program. The workflow of each is unique too. Therefore, making direct comparisons is difficult.
Similarly, because they use different raw engines, each gives distinct looks to the photos it processes. Also, these programs handle individual brands’ camera raw files differently; a program that works well and offers excellent results for me and my camera might not cut the mustard for you and yours. Only you can decide whether the workflow and the resulting look are right for you.
Performance is also a difficult thing to judge. That’s because you will hear anecdotal evidence about any program that runs slowly on someone’s computer. For example, if I open Lightroom Classic at the same time as Firefox, my computer grinds to a halt. Both programs otherwise run happily, and not everyone experiences this glitch. One of my colleagues has speed issues with Capture One, and someone commented on my recent review of ON1 that they had problems with that, whereas I don’t have issues with either. With the complexity of these programs, combined with the vast number of variations in our computers and the programs loaded on them, someone will inevitably experience glitches and shout about it in the comments. You may or may not share the same issues.
The important message here is to check the program has the features you need, and download the free trial to ensure it works for you before spending your money.
Comparing costs is very difficult. Firstly, several manufacturers offer two or three levels of functionality at different prices. Some require an external program to edit the images, which adds to the cost. Some have bundled extras when you buy from them. Then it’s usually cheaper to upgrade from a previous version than buy a program for the first time. This seems odd to me because you would think the manufacturers would be dropping the initial price to entice new customers. Furthermore, there are perpetual licenses, where you effectively buy the program, and subscriptions, where you rent it.
The order in which these are presented does not correspond with any recommendation scale.
Adobe Photography Plan
Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography Plan is still considered the industry standard. Between the programs included in the plan — Photoshop, Lightroom, and Lightroom classic— it does most things a photographer might want to do. A wide range of plugins are available for Photoshop to give it the functions it lacks, and Lightroom catalog is the standard by which others are measured.
Although it is not the most expensive option, at just under $120 per year, there are far more cost-effective options.
Photoshop’s entire gamut of facilities is far greater than any photographer needs. After all, it is aimed at graphic artists, architects, and graphic design professionals, not just photographers. Consequently, it is a complex and sometimes complicated program that takes time to learn. There are things that other programs do better, such as sharpening and noise reduction, and there are external programs and plugins that can be used to cover those —buying those adds to the cost, of course.
There is a cut-down version of Photoshop: Photoshop Elements. It comes with its Organizer, a very simplified catalog tool. It started as a good introduction to manually controlled image development and editing and has evolved into an automated tool for those who want to short-cut that process. Its emphasis is now on single-click filters and adjustments that add and remove elements from a photo. However, manual adjustments are possible, and these can be guided for those learning editing skills.
It’s still popular with those who create scrapbook layouts, but for accomplished photographers, its limitations, including its reduced raw development feature, might be a step too far. However, it has some interesting features, such as animating part of a still image.
Unlike the Photographers’ Plan, which is subscription-only, Photoshop Elements can be bought outright. But at $99.99 for a program upgraded yearly, you are losing a lot for less than $20.
PhaseOne Capture One Pro
Capture One’s USP is its outstanding raw results, and many think its color rendering is superior to anything else. Its tethering capabilities for studio use are strong too, supporting a more comprehensive range of cameras than Adobe’s offerings. However, it is comparatively expensive; it has recently introduced a subscription package that costs more than the Adobe Photographer Plan. Furthermore, it doesn’t include a fully featured editor. Nevertheless, many top photographers use it because of the image quality. A perpetual license is $299, and its recently introduced annual subscription is $179, or $24 per month.
Capture One includes DAM. Professionals who use it rely on an external editor to carry out tasks that are impossible with the raw file.
DxO PhotoLab 6
DxO PhotoLab 6 is another highly praised DAM and photo-processing package. Its users like the results. It claims its USPs include image quality and especially its optical corrections. It also uses DeepPRIME denoising technology, which has a well-earned, excellent reputation. PhotoLabs claims innovative creative tools, intuitive local adjustments, and powerful digital asset management.
The Elite Edition is only available as a perpetual license with no subscription at $219. There’s a cheaper, cut-back Essential Edition. More details of this software are available here.
ON1 Photo Raw 2023
ON1 Photo Raw is probably the best-featured package I am mentioning here. It has its extensive editing suite—called Effects—integrated into the same program as its DAM and raw development tools, so there is no time-wasting jumping back and forth from one program to another. It comes with AI noise reduction, sharpening, and image resizing. Furthermore, if you are migrating away from Adobe, it is possible to import the catalog and an approximation of the LR C adjustments into it. The basic raw development sliders will seem familiar to LR users.
On1 Photo Raw is far more accessible than other programs I have mentioned. Adjustments can be achieved either with a single click preset or by manually using more complex adjustment layers, which are easier to understand than adjustment layers in Photoshop, so it suits image developers of all levels. Plus, the raw development results are superb.
Its specialties include portrait retouching, noise reduction, sharpening, and image resizing, but there is much more to it than that.
On1 Photo Raw 2023 is available with a perpetual license and a subscription. Some of the functions are also available as plugins for other programs.
At the time of writing, ON1 Photo Raw 2023 was discounted from $99.99 to $74.99 for the perpetual license. There are two subscription packages with extra facilities from $89.99 to $179.99 per year. My recent review of it is here.
ACDSee Ultimate 2023
ACDSee Ultimate 2023 is a versatile, no-nonsense tool. Like ON1, it allows you to import your Lightroom Database. It’s also fast, and the workflow is smooth. It lacks some of the advanced features of ON1. There isn’t AI noise reduction, for example, but it is possible to add external editors like ON1 No Noise or Topaz Denoise. However, its AI-based facial adjustments are a good choice for portrait photographers. There are cut-down, cheaper versions of the software, but the Photo Studio Ultimate starts from $89 per year, or a one-off payment of $149.99, discounted to $109.99 until December the 21st, 2022.
Coral AfterShot Pro 3 and Paintshop Pro 2023
Like jumping from Lightroom to Photoshop, one has to switch between two programs as it is a combination that gives you DAM in Aftershot Pro and powerful one-click editing tools in Paintshop Pro. It comes with a very basic raw converter, but for more precise raw adjustments, you will need to buy Coral Aftershot.
Its big claim is that it is four times faster than Lightroom. It is another file management system with a library. It works with Linux too, which not many others do.
At the time of writing, Paintshop Pro Ultimate was discounted from $99.99 to $79.99. AfterShot Pro is also discounted from $79.99 to $47.99
On a Tight Budget? There Are Free Options
Lightzone is worth considering as a Lightroom alternative if you are on a tight budget. Sadly, the website has been taken down, but the latest version is available on GitHub.
When coupled with an external editor, such as the free GIMP or Paint.net, then it’s worth considering.
Many photographers cut their editing teeth on GIMP, which is free. For Windows users, the excellent and free Paint won the Microsoft Store App Awards in 2022.
Similarly, DarkTable is another free, open-source photography workflow and raw development application.
A Quick Word About Affinity Photo 2
Although not a DAM program, it would be remiss of me not to mention Affinity Photo 2. It has recently been launched. Many photographers I know have ditched Photoshop in favor of this feature-packed editor. I reviewed it here recently. It is discounted until January 25th, 2023, from $69.99 to $40.99.
My Conclusions About the Different Programs
Although I said this is not a review of the programs, having downloaded and tried them all to write this article, I have formed an initial opinion, although I haven’t tested them all to destruction.
If, like me, you rarely do more than process raw images, for image quality, both Capture One and DxO PhotoLab 6 share first place. I’d heard many good things about both but hadn’t tested them, and it surprised me how good they were. I could quickly get better results from them than using Photoshop.
The downside is the price tag. They don’t have fully-featured editors; if that is what you need, then buying Affinity is an excellent complement to them
The most bang for your buck comes from ON1 Photo Raw. The array of tools available and the results are superb, plus the price is reasonable. It does everything I need as a photographer and swiftly switches between modules. It also can be used by everyone from the novice to the expert.
As I said at the start, these are subjective viewpoints, and you might find that a different program works better for you. Any of these programs might suit you, depending on your priorities. Some will want to stick with Adobe because of the vast number of tutorials, while others will find the workflow of ACDSee suits their needs.