Adobe Lightroom is a fast, powerful batch editor for photographers. It has become indispensable to event and wedding photographers and a powerful asset for novice and professional image makers alike. But subscription pricing isn’t for everyone. Let’s take a look at four Adobe Lightroom alternatives for macOS or Windows. Some are free, some are paid, but we’ve intentionally avoided anything requiring an ongoing subscription payment for basic features.
Luminar is an app with a bright future, but its current iteration hasn’t reached the level of reliability and speed most users will expect from an application. Basic tools respond quickly, but without live feedback, and it can be difficult to see what you’re adjusting clearly. Some tools, in particular, are slow enough to be unusable.
For example, the color lookup table (LUT) tool is excellent. You can download LUTs from anywhere, for photos or video, and apply them to your images. Unfortunately, the tool’s menus are glacial. Selecting a LUT from your list can take more than thirty seconds, despite applying the looks relatively rapidly. Other tools, like AI retouching, work more rapidly.
We get the impression the designers are most interested in the interface, which is admittedly impressive. But the core functionality of the app is lackluster, and overall interaction speed was sluggish and gluey.
darktable is a highly technical open source replacement for Adobe Lightroom. It also overlaps a small portion of Photoshop’s capabilities. The app is built for users willing to investigate the full capability of all its switches and levers. If you want an app to pick up and run with, look elsewhere.
Like with GIMP, if you’re willing to put in the time to learn darktable’s somewhat idiosyncratic method of organization and coax the full capability out of somewhat confusing tools, you can have a powerful open-source application ready to work for you.
For an example of a quirk, darktable uses a Linux-style file browser which doesn’t integrate smoothly into macOS’s default file browser. External drives must be accessed through the /Volumes/ directory instead of the sidebar of external drives shown on both macOS and Windows. If you’re willing to deal with this quirk and others like it, darktable is worth getting to know.
The application shows its open-source heritage with a GNOME-style file browser and a text-heavy interface. The interface is functional and comprehensive, but those seeking a high level of polish in the fit and finish might look elsewhere.
3. ON1 Photo RAW
ON1 Photo RAW is easily the most professional-grade application on our list. At $80 it might be straining the definition of cheap. But when you see the kind of application you get for that price, it suddenly looks like an amazing deal.
All tools are powerful, functional, authentic-looking, and well-designed for regular use. The organization of panels and tools can be somewhat puzzling on the first trip through the app, but that initial unfamiliarity passes quickly.
The AI-assisted portrait retouching tools are especially deluxe. These automatically identify faces in your image. You indicate the eyes and mouth, and the application will apply a selection of classic skin retouching filters. It smooths wrinkles, masks blemishes, lowers contrast, enhances eye clarity, and fixes discontinuities in skin coloring. Better still, the filters look believable. Even cranked up to 11, the skin retains its natural properties, not going rubbery or plastic.
The app’s layers are powerful and functional. You can attain complex effects through layer blend and precisely control what elements of the image are affected by what adjustment. That level of control makes ON1 Photo Raw a reasonable Photoshop replacement. If you only use Photoshop for typically photographic edits (color, tone, sharpening, resizing, filtering), then you’ll likely find that ON1 Photo Raw could be your one-and-only photo editor. Those that rely on Photoshop’s more obscure or powerful features likely won’t.
4. DxO PhotoLab 2
While it’s a functional image editor and browser, it’s clear that DxO PhotoLab wants to be a precision photo editor more than a batch editor. It includes detailed and powerful tools, but they’re hampered by an unusual organizational philosophy that affects the entire user interface.
The application includes use of some DxO plugins, like Smart Lighting and ClearView Plus. Additional DxO plugins can be purchased and integrated with PhotoLab. If you like the look of these tools, they can reduce processing time for repeated styles. For local adjustments, there is access to a proprietary masking algorithm called “U Point.” With this, you can set precise and naturalistic adjustments on individual areas, building up a series of masks with specific effects on specific parts of the image.
Masking and local adjustment controls are excellent, but overall the application feels more like a platform for DxO’s software plugins than a Lightroom replacement. It doesn’t have enough of Photoshop’s power or enough of Lightroom’s speed to make it an appealing platform without those plugins, but it could make a great companion to either of those applications.
Conclusion: The Best Lightroom Alternative
If you need a powerful tool and have some time to get up to speed, darktable is the best free Lightroom replacement. Luminar is a good alternative for those who don’t want to fight with a photo editor for a week or two, but you might pay for it in speed and instability. If you can stand to spend a couple of dollars, ON1 Photo RAW is easily the best paid Lightroom alternative. The adjustments are powerful and selection tools are robust, with a gorgeous fit and finish. If you’re looking to get away from Adobe for your professional editing, ON1 Photo RAW is the best place to start.
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