Best Free Lightroom Alternative
If you’re looking for a completely free Adobe Lightroom alternative here in 2020, you’re not alone. Whether you’re a committed open source user or just trying to save a buck, there are a number of free photo organizing/editing alternatives out there.
When Adobe decided to charge a subscription model for Lightroom and its Creative Cloud products a few years ago, the photography industry was changed forever.
What was once a one-off purchase (as Lightroom 6), the ‘product’ suddenly became a ‘service’, with a monthly subscription charge to use it. Obviously this angered a lot of photographers.
While pros and enthusiastic amateurs are happy to pay a subscription for the ability to use what many still regard as the best photo editing option available in 2020, many others search for an alternative to Lightroom.
This guide examines the best free alternative options available to photographers of all levels.
Best Free Lightroom Alternatives in 2020
Darktable is our choice of the best free Lightroom alternative. Like Lightroom, this app has a full-featured image adjustment suite and extensive library management options.
It also includes Raw processing for over 400 cameras as well as look-up tables and tethered-shooting support – pretty impressive for a 100% free app!
As far as the UI is concerned, Darktable looks a lot like Lightroom. This can be a bit confusing if you’re used to Lightroom, as you’ll probably expect things to be in the same places. They’re not, which can make it a bit maddening.
If you’re not coming from Lightroom, though, the learning curve will be a bit easier. Still, the UI can be confusing enough that it’s best to start with any one of the excellent “getting started with Darktable” tutorials out there.
Once you get used to the interface you can fully customize it, setting it up for just the tools you want to use. You can also set up automatic scripts to seriously streamline your workflow, and make repetitive tasks fast and more efficient. (That’s something Lightroom doesn’t have!)
Speaking of tutorials, Darktable comes with excellent free documentation. There’s are whole host of user support forums, video tutorials, and instructional posts out there. It’s also continually being updated, with many talented open source programmers working on it.
Professional photographers might have an issue with Darktable’s less-than-Lightroom ability to recover shadows and highlights, but most users won’t really notice the difference.
Another issue is that Darktable’s DAM can’t handle libraries with tens of thousands of photos – at least on its own.
Pro Tip: If you have a library with over 10,000 photos, it’s best to run another image manager program alongside this app. (Most open source folks choose Digikam.)
Overall, though, this is the most developed of all the open source free Lightroom alternatives and is well worth trying out.
Available for: Mac, Windows, and Linux
2. Raw Therapee
Next in line, and a close second is the free image editing app RawTherapee.
RawTherapee has all the standard editing features needed in a Raw editor, and includes advanced color controls and lens corrections.
Among RawTherapee’s numerous strong points are exceptional demosaicing, multiple denoising methods, and batch processing,
The Raw processing in RawTherapee is spectacular for a free app, and the program has a strong, devoted Fujifilm camera user following. (Fujifilm Raw files are notoriously challenging to render well.) In fact, many users prefer RawTherapee’s outputs to the other free alternatives, and everything runs just as fast as Lightroom.
There’s also what seems like an infinite ability to fine tune adjustments. This can get in the way if you’re needing to edit quickly (i.e. use a single slider), but if you’re wanting full control it has more options that Lightroom.
Also, if English is not your strong suit, RawTherapee is available in over 25 languages and will soon have more – very impressive, especially considering this is a completely free app – something not offered by Lightroom.
One place where RawTherapee really lags, though, is easy-to-find documentation. You have to really dig to find decent tutorials on it, and like some of the other free apps, the UI isn’t the most intuitive when you’re first getting started.
Still, with the recent releases providing “hundreds of bug fixes, speed optimizations and raw format support improvements,” RawTherapee is many photographers’ free Lightroom-like photo editor of choice.
Should you choose it over the aforementioned app, and is it really a decent alternative to Lightroom? Have a play around with them and see which one suits your workflow the best.
Available for: Mac, Windows, and Linux
If you’re up for trying something a bit different, LightZone is another fair option as a free Lightroom alternative.
Originally developed as commercial software, LightZone was later taken up by the LightZone Project as free software in 2013.
There are definitely some strong conceptual differences between LightZone and other Lightroom-style apps.
One is its concept of Zone Mapping, which allows for selective adjustments via a unique layer-based system. Another is its Relight tool. These two tool alone have won LightZone a number of die-hard fans.
One place that LightZone is know to excel, is in black-and-white photo processing. Its unusual tonal adjustment tools can really make B/W images pop.
As far as other features are concerned, Lightzone has a just a basic DAM, but a strong Raw file converter and a pleasing UI. The photo adjustment tools work as layers and are both movable and stackable, with different blending modes available (much like adjustment layers in Photoshop).
If you’re a fan of using layers to edit, LightZone will be a breath of fresh air when compared to programs like Luminar 4. Originally, LightZone was a pioneer in using vector-based selective editing and making precise selections is quite easy.
(Personally I find painting in my selections both inaccurate and time-consuming and find it a huge annoyance in Luminar.)
Overall though, LightZone has fewer features than either Darktable or RawTherapee. This can be a plus or a minus, depending on what you’re looking for. It definitely makes it easier to learn.
The main reasons to consider LightZone are 1) you’re into B/W photography, 2) you love their unique Zone Mapping and Relight tools, and 3) i’s UI works well with your workflow.
Available for: Mac, Windows, and Linux
If you’re looking for an image editor with a strong catalog feature, IrfanView is worth taking a look at. It’s not quite as sleek as some of the other free Lightroom alternative options here, but it has an amazing amount of features.
Named after its creator, Irfan Škiljan, IrfanView does everything from Raw conversion and image editing to image creation and painting. It can handle just about any graphic file format, even music and video files.
Editing-wise, IrfanView comes with all the standard photo adjustment tools one would expect, including decent Raw image rendering. It’s also easy to apply filters and effects.
One unusual element of IrfanView, when compared to other image editors at least, is its small size. It takes up very few system resources and that makes it operate phenomenally fast, even when working with large image sizes.
For batch editing, IrfanView is especially speedy. It can literally process several hundred photos in less than an hour.
As mentioned before, the cataloging feature is stronger than the other programs mentioned here (with the exception of Digikam, which is only a photo organizer).
With IrfanView’s strong batch editing capabilities, you can also batch metadata, which some will find quite useful.
Other noteworthy elements include skinnable toolbars, support for plugins, exceptionally easy slideshow creation abilities, a lively forum community, and frequent updates. There’s also a simple set of paint tools that let you write and draw onto images.
The main place IrfanView is lacking is in its UI, which will seem outdated to most of us. Of course, this could be a plus for some, as it’s pretty easy to learn. But if you’re used to a sleek, modern look to your programs you’ll find yourself disappointed here.
IrfanView is free for non-commercial use. Commercial use requires paid registration.
Available for: Windows
5. Chasys Draw IES
Chasys Draw IES is a suite of free image editing applications that covers just about everything you could need in working with images:
- Chasys Draw IES Artist: a layer-based image editor, complete with adjustment layers, icon editing, and image stacking.
- Chasys Draw IES Converter: a lightning-fast, multi-threaded image converter
- Chasys Draw IES Viewer: offering Raw conversion
The whole suite is UAC aware, which means it works well with touch-screens, multi-core processors, and pen-input devices. As one would expect, each of the programs also works seamlessly with each other.
Chasys Draw IES Artist, as the image editor of the suite, is the one most photographers will be interested in.
While most view it primarily as an image creation tool, it also has extensive photo adjustment capabilities, and if you dig deep enough, there should be enough tools to satisfy most (ex) Lightroom users.
Noise reduction, HDR, healing/clone stamp options, and multi-frame super-resolution is all available, both for single images and for image stacking.
The extensive support for RAW files in Chasys Draw IES Artist come from a fully integrated Camera RAW plug-in, with a number of different options for high-speed processing.
Other notable assets in Chasys Draw IES Artist include free-style layering, tablet/pen/stylus support with pressure control, image stacking for noise reduction and super-resolution, advanced printing options, and extensive plugin support – features that aren’t even present in the latest version of Lightroom.
These are just the photo-specific features. If you’re into image creation, there are way too many features to list here.
What’s more, this app is designed for professional use, with frequent updates and a strong community – many of whom used to own Lightroom, but have since opted for this free alternative.
All in all, Chasys Draw IES Artist prides itself on having a “radically different approach to image editing, resulting in distinctive character, speed and output quality.”
The main disadvantage of Chasys Draw IES Artist? Like Photoshop (and Lightroom to some extent) it has a steep learning curve. This is to be expected with an application with this many features, but if you’re just looking for image cataloguing/adjustments and/or you want something that’s easy to learn, maybe skip this one.
Available for: Windows
6. Capture One Express for Sony and Fuji Users
Capture One is one of the foremost professional Lightroom alternatives and most versions of it cost a pretty penny, but there are two that can be had for free: Capture One Express for Sony and Fuji users.
You can check out our Capture One Pro Review, but in summary Capture One Express is a pared down version of the main software, offering basic editing tools and a similar workflow to the Pro version, as well as offering pretty much all the basic tools as Lightroom.
Like the Pro version, Capture One Express still has exceptional Raw image rending (the best in the business if you ask me).
If you need Capture One Pro’s advanced features (luminosity masks, Advanced Color Editor, Local adjustments, Color Balance Tool etc.), you’ll probably find yourself a bit frustrated, however.
Simple things like HDR support and a vignette tool are missing from the Express version too – if you relied on those tools heavily in Lightroom, you may have to adopt one of the other free programs on this list to run in unison.
However, Capture One Express shares the same accurate color rendition as the Pro version, which has arguably always been better than that of Adobe Lightroom.
You’ll have to decide whether you need those particular features yourself, but if you’re a Sony or Fujifilm shooter, it has to be said – Express could well be the best free Lightroom alternative for you.
Available for: Mac and Windows
7. Apple Photos
Apple Photos, aka ‘Photos for macOS’ is an often overlooked free alternative to Lightroom that comes bundled with every Apple computer.
Over the years, the Photos pogram has evolved into a fully fledged editing program and photo management tool with both basic and advanced tools for all level of photographers.
With the latest macOS Catalina release, Photos includes intuitive search options for image management and cataloging, powerful editing tools for local adjustments, and even cloud storage to ensure all your photos and videos are kept in sync with your Mac, Apple TV, iPhone, iPad and even your PC.
If you’re already an Apple device owner, using Photos to manage your images is a no-brainer. As with everything in the Apple ecosystem, everything ‘just works’. Photos even has the ability to hide duplicate images, and ignore random screenshots and receipts that most people photograph using their iPhones.
Lightroom Classic and the Lightroom CC Mobile app have made it easier and easier to integrate with the photos you already take on your Apple device, but they’ll never be a totally ‘native’ solution like Photos.
Photos uses A.I. to highlight what it considers to be your ‘best shots’ with a larger preview, and any ‘Live Photos’ come to life as if you were viewing them on your mobile device – something that Lightroom, nor any of the other Lightroom alternatives can do.
Another nice touch are ‘Memories’, where the Photos app finds your best photos and videos and weaves them together into a short movie.
On the editing front, there’s all the main exposure adjustment tools, as well as a comprehensive set of powerful but easy-to-use tools to transform your photos. Again, as Photos is integrated so tightly with the iOS app, you’re even able to change lighting effects within the Mac program itself, or even the Live Photos into video loops – something no other alternative to Lightroom can accomplish, free or paid.
Professional photographers who want advanced tool or image management options may feel Photos falls a bit short, but as one of the truly free Lightroom alternatives, it’s hard to complain.
Available for: Mac
Best Free Lightroom Alternatives | Final Words
Like any software, each of these programs have their strengths and weaknesses. Picking the one that works best for you means investing a bit of time to try them out.
Just like commercial programs, each of these freeware programs have unique Raw processors. Some will produce better results with certain cameras than others. If you shoot in Raw it’ll be important to see which program works best with your gear.
The 2 things that any Adobe Lightroom alternatives need to have are non-destructive editing and excellent Raw processing abilities.
Beyond this, here are a few other things to look for when researching a free Lightroom alternative:
- Excellent Raw image rendering (at least for the cameras you use)
- Ease of use/quality of the user interface (UI)
- Functional digital asset management (DAM), including photo organization, keywords, search, etc.
- How well it works with your workflow (i.e. do you need batch processing, etc.)
- Documentation and support
- Currently being developed – how often is it updated?
Adobe Lightroom has drawn a lot of criticism for its monthly subscription model, but it has to be said – by opting for a free image editor, it’s often a bit of a compromise, and you may have to resort to running 2 or more free apps to accommodate all the features you require.
Lightroom is the industry standard image editing and cataloging program for good reason, but that doesn’t mean everyone should have to pay each month to use it. If you can find a free Lightroom alternative to skip the subscription, then good for you!
What do you think? Have you tried any of these free Lightroom alternatives? If so, what did you think?
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.