Best Alternative to Lightroom
Are you looking for an alternative to Lightroom which offers great image editing/organization features but without the monthly subscription costs?
Whenever I bring up the topic of photo editing software, the number one question I get asked by both amateur and professional photographers is regarding Lightroom alternatives.
I’ve held off writing this post for a few years now, simply because I couldn’t confidently recommend any other software which was on par with Lightroom, or better even.
Fortunately however, things are different in 2019…
Luminar 3 ✓ Great features ✓ Easy to use ✓ Affordable View Price
Who is this review for?
Back in 2017, Adobe did something that rocked the creative world – it introduced a subscription model.
Some photographers (mostly pros), begrudgingly accepted the change and carried on about their work.
The vast majority of others who don’t want to pay each month for a piece of software, started to look elsewhere.
It pains me to say this but the main reason why most people want an alternative to Lightroom is simply down to cost.
You could possibly buy standalone Lightroom 6 from here, but any camera released in 2018 onward isn’t supported, you won’t have any of the latest feature updates, and you don’t get all the advantages of Lightroom CC Mobile – in short, I don’t recommend it.
So if you’re looking for a different option to Lightroom to edit, organise and share your precious photos, read on to discover my recommendations.
Best Alternative to Lightroom in 2019
PRICE: (Varies – check latest price here)
Before I tell you why I recommend this amazing software to anyone who doesn’t want to pay for the Adobe Lightroom subscription, let me explain who I think Luminar is for, and who it is definitely not for.
It’s important you’re certain when you buy Luminar 3 that it’s the right software for you.
Luminar IS for you if….
- You want something reliable and affordable for your photos
- You want a super simple way to make your photos look great
- As well as one-click editing simplicity, you also want space to grow with more advanced features
- You want to organize your photos via your hard drive (without importing)
- You want to manage your photos either in the software or outside it (unlike Lightroom)
- You need filters you can apply easily to enhance your photos
- You want to be able to remove objects from photos easily
- You want to sync edits across multiple photos
- You want a version for Windows as well as Mac
- You want software that doesn’t charge for major updates
- You need to be able to edit photos from all the latest cameras
Luminar IS NOT for you if
- You need to edit multiple large RAW files quickly
- You need the fastest possible workflow to edit and export thousands of photos at once
- You have little available hard drive space
- You need to import embedded .xmp data with your photos
Luminar came onto the scene a few years ago as an affordable and simple image editing software for people looking for a way to get their images looking great with minimal fuss.
Fast forward to today and we’re treated to Luminar 3, a fully-fledged image editing solution with some truly impressive features.
Up until recently, I couldn’t recommend it 100% as an alternative to Lightroom, as there wasn’t a good way to manage multiple photos from within the software.
Then, the big announcement on December 2018 – Luminar 3 with Libraries – a DAM (Digital Asset Manager) allowing us to organise our photos efficiently into folders and collections.
The update is free to existing users, and very reasonably priced to those who haven’t yet experienced Luminar (see latest pricing here).
One huge advantage of Luminar’s library feature is that it mirrors your hard drive – i.e. if you move or rename your images or folders outside of Luminar, Luminar will adjust its catalog accordingly.
This is a huge advantage, and the total opposite to Lightroom which imports your folder structure, meaning any changes made outside of Lightroom won’t be mirrored inside it – cue the dreaded “Lightroom cannot find your photo” message that plagues ALL beginners!
(Even as a pro, I often forget about this and accidentally move or rename a folder on my laptop, then have to deal with tracking it down in Lightroom to re-associate the file – a real pain in the a**!)
This makes the new Luminar Libraries feature extremely easy to use – if you know how to use OSX Finder or Windows Explorer to organise your folders, you already know how to use Luminar’s library.
The ease of use doesn’t end there – adding punch to your photos is literally only a click away, with plenty of great looking presets (‘Looks’) available to use. Even the name ‘Looks’ makes it obvious to us what they do.
Then there are the 60 filters that don’t exist anywhere else – these are what Luminar users rave about, since they have the unique ability to do things to your photos that presets and filters in other software simply can’t replicate.
For example, the more advanced AI (artificial intelligence) features that’ll blow your mind when you first use them include.
Sky enhancer – make the sky in your photo look incredible, automatically.
Accent AI – a kind of ‘secret weapon’ that analyses your photo and applies enhancements to make it look amazing with absolutely no effort.
Sun Rays – add realistic sun rays to your photos with one click.
(I recommend you check out the Luminar home page where you can have a play around with the AI sliders to see what they can do for your images)
Luminar makes it simple for a non-professional photographer to turn a bland photo into something a pro would be proud of. It’s a real eye-opener, whatever your standard.
Aside from all the great features, the main benefit of Luminar over Lightroom and all the other image editors available in 2019 is its simplicity.
For those who don’t have time to watch tutorials or take courses on how to use a software, Luminar is perfect – adjustments that make your photos go from dull to amazing are all just one-click or one-slider away.
(With Accent AI, it’s just a one slider that you adjust – up=more pop, down=less.)
As someone who’s spent years learning Lightroom, it’s kind of annoying that Luminar users are now able to achieve the same, or better results with hardly any effort!
For those familiar with Lightroom, the editing panels in Luminar look almost identical – all the main adjustments for RAW development are there, including more advanced features like Curves and LUT Mapping.
One thing Luminar isn’t so great for is when you need to edit multiple large RAW files quickly – e.g. the 40MB+ files from the Sony a7RIII take a few seconds to load and cache.
The cache’d version of files can be bigger than the original, meaning that if you have very limited hard drive space on your computer, you may need to use external storage.
Also you can’t import your Lightroom .xmp and sidecar files into Luminar – only basic camera metadata. This is a bit of a power-user case and won’t be relevant to most people, but it still should be mentioned.
Skylum (the guys behind Luminar 3) publish a ‘roadmap’ or forthcoming updates on their blog, so we can see exactly what to expect and when. Adobe on the other hand doesn’t do this for Lightroom.
So all in all, I recommend you buy Luminar 3 if you’re looking for a viable alternative to Lightroom and its pesky subscription plan, especially if you consider ease of use and unique features important to your image editing.
Specialty Lightroom Alternatives
There are various alternatives for Lightroom critics, but most of them are rather niche.
Yes, you can use them to edit and manage your images like you can in Adobe Lightroom, (and some of them even do a better job of it), but the usage-cases are still rather specific.
Here are a few image management/image editing apps if you’re looking for something particular that Lightroom can’t do.
Price: (Varies – check latest price here)
ON1 Photo RAW is a bit like a mixture of Lightroom and Photoshop. It includes all the main image organization and editing features of Lightroom, and adds on tools like content aware fill, layer masks, cloning and various others.
Editing is based on layers (like Photoshop), and it’s certainly nice to be able to get all your edits done in the same piece of software.
A 2019 update includes the ability to transfer photos with RAW editing settings from Lightroom’s Develop module to ON1, to be re-edited.
I particularly like the browser-based system, which lets you navigate to any folder on your computer to view and edit photos – no need to import photos like with Lightroom.
Price: (Varies – check latest price here)
DxO Photo Lab 2 is an image editing software that some photographers choose over Lightroom due to its powerful RAW processing engine.
Available at two different price points as ‘Essentials’ or ‘Elite’, you’ll definitely want the Elite version if you’re a pro photographer – stand out features including the new denoising RAW tool, ClearView, anti-moire tool and a presets editor.
Updates and support for new cameras and lenses is excellent, with the software detecting the imported RAW file and downloading any modules (profiles) for the files.
The non-destructive editing is smooth and fast but the interface is a little cluttered and confusing.Also exports of multiple images is rather slow.
You can do many of the same things as you can in Lightroom with regards to editing individual images, but for any ‘layer-based’ edits, you’ll need to resort to other software.
Price: (Varies – check latest price here)
[Disclaimer: I haven’t used Capture One Pro personally, but watched while colleagues use it for the purposes of writing this article.]
This alternative to Lightroom is reserved more for professional photographers for two reasons: 1) it caters more to high-end medium format cameras; and 2) It’s pretty damn expensive!
Having said that, if you’re a pro who’s looking for something with better imaging capabilities than Lightroom, Capture One Pro is the tool to use.
Viewing your photos in Capture One Pro is an eye-opener, thanks to colour profiles which are tailored for every camera. With Lightroom, imported files have a more neutral starting point.
Capture One Pro has more ways to manipulate colour than Lightroom, allowing you to make colour balance changes to shadow, mid-tone and highlights, and a channel dedicated to skin tones.
If you’re a photographer who shoots tethered to a computer, Capture One Pro is more reliable and fast than Lightroom.
In summary, if you’re a pro who needs the most accurate image editing capabilities, or are lucky enough to own a digital MF camera, Capture One Pro will help you get the most out of your files. For everyone else, it may be slightly overkill.
Free Lightroom Alternatives
Darktable is an open source photography workflow application and raw developer that’s runs on various operating systems, most recently Windows too. Being open source, developers can contribute to making it better, but it also means that some things can be a little buggy too.
Importing photos in Darktable is easy and will be familiar to anyone coming from Lightroom. Once imported, you can use a range of sliders to perform non-destructive edits to your files, again, very similar to Lr.
I have to say that there’s a significant learning curve with Darktable, and the panels are rather too abundant and cluttered for my liking. You’ll definitely need to spend some time reading up on the various tutorials to learn how to use each function properly.
A few key tools from Lightroom are missing, such as adjustment brushes (unless I missed them!) and other tools to edit specific parts of the photo. These may not be needed for some users, but there’ll come a point where you’ll want a little more.
Making adjustments to images is similar to Lightroom, and all the main sliders are there for you to control the various aspects of the edit. Speed wise it’s actually quite impressive – I was expecting much worse from free open source software.
I do miss the ability to lazily adjust just one slider to give a photo ‘pop’ – obviously killer A.I. features offered in software like Luminar can never be implemented in free software with no budget for R&D!
I don’t feel all that comfortable recommending open source/free software to organise and edit all your most precious photos. Darktable was quite stable when I tested it on my Mac, but I prefer the security of software that’s been rigorously tested and has a support team – even if it does mean paying.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is Darktable is 100% free, and for some, this is all that matters! If you don’t mind spending some time learning and experimenting to achieve what you want, Darktable could be an alternative to paying for Lightroom.
Free Image Editing Tools
If you’re still adamant about not paying a cent to edit and organise your photos, I have your back!
Here are some few free tools I’ve tested briefly that offer some of the most basic Lightroom features.
- ExifTool – to edit image metadata
- Adobe DNG Converter – to convert RAW to DNG
- XNView – Windows only image browser
- IrfanView – Windows only image browser with batch processing
- Fast Stone – Windows only image browser with various tools
- XnConvert – batch processing
- Photos for mac OS – image browser and editor
Lightroom Alternatives | Final Words
For full disclosure, I’m a paying customer of Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop under the Photography Plan.
Each month I cough up 14 of my hard-earned Australian dollars for the privilege of using Adobe’s software!
As I earn money via photography, making this monthly payment is a cost of business that I need to pay, but I understand now everyone will be in the same boat – hence me writing this article.
The funny thing is, I tested the latest version Luminar 3 for the purposes of writing this review… and now I’m going to be using is regularly to edit images. I’ll still use Lightroom for the majority of my pro work, but I was so impressed with Luminar 3’s AI features that I’ll continue to use it in unison.
All the other paid Lightroom alternatives I wrote about are good for more advanced users with specific needs, but for most people they’re unnecessary.
As for the free stuff… well, you get what you pay for. I don’t like recommending anything I’m not comfortable using myself, and entrusting all our precious images to free or open source software is risky.
Have a play around with all the tools and software by all means, but I do encourage you to invest a little money on a great image editing software – after all, we’re dealing with memories here ;-)
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post contain affiliate links which help support Shotkit.