Lately, my customer support inbox, social media, and just about every public-facing place I have is filled with the same question over and over again.
“Can (insert program name here) be a replacement for Lightroom/Photoshop?”
After copy/pasting the same response at least 100 times, I figured it was time to write something on it. And I think one of the most important things to first get a handle on it is from an article I wrote last year. It was all about where we are with photo editing these days. My main goal in the article was just to get people to simplify. But there was one really important statement I made that sets up this article:
I believe that photo editing has become (mostly) commoditized. What I mean by that is that the sliders we use pretty much all work the same. Sure, there may be small nuances that the more refined eye can pick up between one editor and another. But for me, the Exposure slider in one program is the same as the Exposure slider in the other program. Even if, -2.5 Exposure doesn’t look exactly the same, most of us don’t edit off of the numbers. We look as we drag, and we can figure it out by looking at the photo.
So I don’t think it’s as important to pick a photo editor based on how good their sliders are. They’re ALL good.
Who Should Read This?
Not everyone needs to read this. If you’re a happy Lightroom/Photoshop user, then simply be happy with what you’re using. You get a very fair price for two very powerful pieces of software. The grass is not necessarily greener, and you’ve got some good and really amazing editing tools at your disposal. Tools that you’ve probably spent a lot of time, energy, and money learning – and they’re not going away anytime soon.
This article was written for someone who is looking for a Lightroom replacement. I won’t get into reasons why. I don’t sell software, and it’s not my place to try to convince you to use one program over another. Especially in this day when they’ve all gotten really good. My job is to educate you on how to edit your photos – and I can/will teach you no matter what program you use.
But, as an educator, I can’t pretend this isn’t one of the biggest questions I’ve been asked lately, so I have to have an answer to it.
I’m basing my thoughts below on three main areas: 1) Raw editing 2) Organizing 3) Price.
First, I think it needs to have a stable, fast, and reliable raw editor. Next, I think you’ll need some way to organize your photos (DAM – Digital Asset Management). And finally, it needs to be a pricing model that you’re comfortable with.
When it comes to money, I believe they’re all going to extract $100-ish from you every year. How you choose to pay for that is up to you – one lump sum, or monthly. Just know that at the end of the year, you’ll end up paying $100-ish (give or take a little), if you’re going to stay updated. And I believe in this day and age (especially with competitors playing catch-up), you need to plan to upgrade every year. After all, besides the in-camera capture process, editing is the most important tool for your photography. So plan to invest in it accordingly.
For me, these are my preferred tools. Probably because I know them like the back of my hand and I’ve been using them for years (10+ years for Lightroom, and 20 years for Photoshop). And also, because I think Adobe has some amazing technology and has done great things over the years to improve them.
I wrote last year that my workflow was, and still is:
1) Start, Organize, and Develop in Lightroom (100% of my photos)
2) Jump to Photoshop for something specific that LR can’t do (60-70% of my photos)
3) Head over to ON1 Effects for stylization and effects that I can’t do in LR or PS (30% of my photos)
Probably the biggest negative on the Adobe side is the pricing – and the subscription model may not be for everyone. There’s definitely some confusion out there as to what happens if you stop paying. People think that Adobe owns your photos, and they’re stuck in there forever. But they’re not. With Lightroom Classic, Adobe never had your photos in the first place – they’re on your drive, not “in” Lightroom.
As for the pricing, it makes sense for me. I like to budget, and I can budget $10/month as my software expense. And for every person that doesn’t care for the subscription, there’s a person who would have never been able to afford Adobe products anyway else – so it’s definitely a love/hate kind of thing.
I know some people have written me wondering if the new name of Lightroom CC Classic means Adobe is getting rid of LR. And while I really dislike the name “classic”, I don’t see Adobe taking Lightroom away from us in any foreseeable future. It’s still a HUGE player in the photography space, and it’s not going anywhere.
If you’re wondering if you should stay with Lightroom, I’ll say what I’ve said to many others. If you are going with the $10/month plan and you’re happy, then stick with it. If you’re not, and you’re going to dig your heels in and stick with an older version… well… it’s time to move on and find another photo editor. You’re not going to get updates, and most likely will just get frustrated. And since this photography thing is supposed to be fun for many of you reading this, I think you should be happy with your editor and the company you choose to go with.
ON1 Photo Raw 2018
Next up… ON1. This is one of the closest Lightroom competitors for most of the people reading this. While I used to work there, and don’t anymore, I do several projects with them because I think they’re creating a great photo editor. And it’s so close to Lightroom that I could practically do my tutorials in LR and an ON1 user would be able to apply it easily.
For me, the ON1 Browse experience is actually how I feel organizing should work. And not from a personal standpoint – I understand catalogs and libraries and I’m okay with it. But from an educational standpoint, importing, cataloging and that whole experience occupies about 90% of the questions I get asked. For that reason, I wish it were different and easier to teach.
And ON1 Develop has just about everything that LR has. Especially in the latest version where they added HDR and Pano merge, they pretty much took care of the big features that people were asking for.
ON1 has the Adjustment brush, Grad filters, masking tools, and all of the effects and presets you could want. Plus, they have layers for some basic Photoshop-like tasks. Overall, if you’re a LR user, the switch to ON1 is fairly simple and you’ll feel at home quickly.
Macphun / Skylum
Next up is Macphun (soon to be Skylum with the name change). They have two main programs out now: 1) Luminar 2) Aurora HDR
Luminar is their Lightroom competitor. They edit raw photos non-destructively and they do a great job at it. They’ve taken a little different approach than ON1 in that they’ve kind of merged the Raw + Effects experience (which is separated in ON1). So you pretty much do your raw adjustments and stylization all in the same place. And that’s not a bad thing… it’s just different. For me, as a LR user, it takes a little getting used to, but I can still get my same look/style with it.
The main place that Macphun falls short, I think, is in the Organization (DAM) area. They don’t have one right now, but they say it’s coming in 2018. So while I think they have a solid raw editor/effects right now, the lack of an organizing tool is a show stopper.
They also don’t have HDR included, but instead sell Aurora HDR as a separate program. Which is fine. But… it freakin’ costs $99, which is insane to me. Yeah, I know… their main competitor is Photomatix Pro which also costs $99. But I’ve always thought that was too much too. I dunno… I guess I’m at the point that I think HDR should be a feature “in” a software – not another piece of software itself.
But… the market will speak. So who knows right? Maybe we’ll see HDR get integrated with Luminar. Honestly, I’d almost expect it because that’s where all of their competition has gone. I think the market for stand alone HDR software is on its way out.
So, the final thought on Luminar is that I think they’re a good raw editor with lots of effects/presets for stylization too. The one BIG thing they’re missing, from being a true competitor to Lightroom right now, is an organizer/photo browser of some sort. For me it’s a show stopper. But it may not be for you. And in a few months, we won’t even be having this conversation because they’ll have that too.
Capture One isn’t new. It’s been around for a while and it’s a great program. Once you get past the cost (which is twice of what most others cost each year), it’s a very mature and professional piece of software. In fact, it’s actually pretty darn close to Lightroom when it comes to the features in organizing and developing photos.
For me personally, I’ve always found it MUCH harder to use than Lightroom though. So if you’re reading this, and you’ve thought that LR’s catalog, interface, and import process was a problem, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say Capture One is definitely not for you.
So where does C1 shine? I believe their raw editor is the star of the show. Some people find it better than anything out there. For me, I’ve never really seen a difference. But there are people who have a more refined eye than I do – and I don’t say that sarcastically.
What I really mean by “refined eye” is this…
I’ve sat next to people that emphatically show me the difference between skin tones, and color, etc… in C1. And while I may see the direct difference when they have their photo open in C1 and I have mine open in LR next to it, I can’t actually tell that one is better than the other. And I don’t know that I’d ever see the difference if I didn’t have a Lightroom before/after next to it to compare. That’s what I mean when I say I don’t have the “eye” for it.
But that’s just me. Capture One tends to have a very “pro” following. I believe it’s for a working studio professional. High end fashion and commercial photographers love it (it’s got some of the best tethering support around). And if you look at their website, the very top of it says “Capture One Pro is the Professionals’ choice in imaging software”. It is indeed pro-quality software. Just keep in mind, along with that comes the complexity and learning curve. So if you’ve found LR to be intimidating, then I don’t think C1 is for you. But if you’ve mastered LR (and don’t care to use it anymore), and you have that refined “eye” I was talking about, then C1 could be your alternative.
It also has some great presets and styling choices. But it doesn’t have layers – meaning you can’t can’t layer multiple images on top of one another, and control them separately. Yes, they do have something that they call “Layers”, but it’s no different than adding multiple Local Adjustments like you can in LR and most other raw editors. When most people think of layers, they think of being able to layer multiple images on top of each other, and use various tools to select and blend them together. So if true “Layers” is something that’s important to you, then you’re going to end up buying another program as well.
Is There An Easy Way to Switch From Lightroom?
So that’s what I see as possible competitors to Lightroom right now (November 2017). The next question is, how easy is it to switch? I’m going to be honest right up front and say there is not going to be an easy way to switch from Lightroom. Everyone’s Raw engine is different and proprietary. They don’t share them with their competitors. You’ll probably be able to move your keywords, and star ratings, but not your edits. And yes, you can render out JPG/TIFF files from LR and use them in another software, but that’s not really what most people want. We want our raw edits in LR to look the same in ON1, Macphun, Capture 1, and whoever else.
And unfortunately we’re not there and I don’t see us getting there any time soon.
What About A Photoshop Competitor?
Photoshop is a massive beast of a program. It’s huge and complex and it does a million things and is made for everyone (designers, illustrators, web designers, graphic artists, and photographers). Right now, I think the only real competitor to Photoshop would be Affinity Photo. And I think they’re pretty darn close. So close in fact, that I’ve started doing my training courses to include an Affinity Photo version as well, since the steps are almost the same.
Past Affinity Photo, the best you’re going to find are programs that do “some” of the things Photoshop does. It’s impossible to make a full competitor to Photoshop unless you set out to make a FULL competitor to Photoshop. And I don’t see many companies running to create one because I think it’s a huge undertaking. So you’ll see a lot of companies are trying to pick out some of the common things photographers use in Photoshop, and include them in their software (layers, lookup tablets, blend modes, text, etc…).
I think this is great but keep this in mind. The allure to Photoshop for me is that I can do ANYTHING. And in some ways, I don’t even know what that is. But I know, that in Photoshop, I can find a way.
I think many companies will follow in trying to pick off things that photographers use Photoshop for, and try to add them in to their Lightroom-like software. And for many cases I think it’ll work. But… and this is a big but… there’s always going to be something that only Photoshop (or Affinity) can do. I don’t say this to be a downer. Just be aware of it and expect it to happen. On any given day, somewhere online, you’re going to find a tutorial that does some crazy, incredible thing to a photo in Photoshop. And it’s not going to be a feature in any other program.
All that said, for most things, we don’t need Photoshop. And if we do, it’s only to add a layer to replace a background or sky or something and maybe some text. Because of that, I think we’ll see a few companies get really close for what photographers need out of Photoshop. I just don’t think we’re there yet, so if you use Photoshop as a heavy part of your photo editing, I don’t see you having a replacement (other than Affinity Photo) just yet.
How About Other Programs Not Mentioned Here?
I’ve deliberately left out some other companies because I just don’t think any of them are there yet. Several other’s make some sort of a competitor, but they’re not at the point where I think they compare to the ones mentioned in this article. In my “Considerations” above, I left out another important factor – community and education. I’m sure several will comment that something like RawTherapee is an excellent and free program and why didn’t mention it. The main reasons: support, community and education – it’s just not there for some of those apps.
Now, DxO did acquire Nik recently, so that’ll be one to follow to see what they do with it. I’ve said before that I think software is kind of like raising a child – that child takes on a personality and life of it’s own based on the company that owns it. So essentially, Nik is a child that’s just been given to another family. It should be interesting to watch what happens, but I think we’re probably close to a year away from really finding out.
First… breath 🙂 Whatever happens in this industry, I promise you nothing drastic will happen tomorrow… or next month… or even next year. So if you’re not sure what to do, maybe wait it out. No matter which software you use, I can pretty much tell you they’re all going to be around next year, so you won’t end up with a program that is out of business, and frantically trying to find some place for your photos.
Finally, You may have heard me say this, but try before you buy. They all have free trials and most will give you 30 days. And if you forget to use it in those 30 days, send them an email and ask for an extension. But, because the features are so close, you need to download and kick the tires for a while to see what works for you.
Well folks… I hope this helped you a little. When it all comes down to it, most of you reading this aren’t doing photography full time as a working pro. So partly, photography is there for you to have some fun with it. And my goal is to help give you the tools to do just that. Have a good one!