Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are two of the stand-out photo editing software products of our generation. But what if you don't want to pay monthly for the privilidge of using Lightroom, what's available today that provide worthy competition?
Recently I have looked at a number of usable and reasonably priced photo editing products, all hoping to take on Lightroom and Photoshop and indeed, beat them at their own game. These include Photoscape X Pro from Microsoft, ON1 Photo Raw from ON1, DxO PhotoLab (and DxO Film Pack 5) from DxO, PhotoDirector from Cyberlink and Luminar 2018 Win from Skylum. While not an exhaustive list, these all represent affordable alternatives to Adobe and are all in themselves, quite capable photo editors. In looking at the various editors available I have also come into contact with and used Silkypix, which is mostly associated with the Panasonic RAW format (although strangly it also works on Canon CR2 RAW format) and PortraitPro 17, which is best suited to portraiture.
Where most of these editors break down, and I'll tackle this issue first, is that none really include any useable form of digital asset management or DAM as it is more usefully referred to. A DAM catalogues your photos and enables you to fully track every change to a photograph making it possible to go back to any point and branch off from there with a different perspective or variant. For professional photographers a DAM is often considered a "must have" when considering the purchase and use of a photo editor. Adobe include a DAM in it's most popular editor, Lightroom and there is also a stand alone DAM in Adobe Bridge, which can be also used with other 3rd party products.
If a DAM is vitally important to you, and you need it today, then Adobe Lightroom is for you at this point in time unless you are happy to compromise and use a 3rd party product such as Adobe Bridge or XNviewMP, both of which offer good functionality and the ability to work reasonably seamlessly with other products. I have used XNviewMP with Luminar 2018 Windows and Photoscape X Pro and it handles RAW files from all the cameras I own without issue. This includes RW2, CR2 and NEF RAW files.
Another negative for many is lack of colour management. This can be a major problem if your primary output is in print rather than say for digital consumption. Again if this is a key factor in your selection process then Lightroom and Photoshop are going to be your best options today. Few other products, and certinly those I've mentioned above, don't really have the same level of functionality in this area as do Adobe products. This means it can be a bit of a lottery when printing your photos as it is almost impossible to match what you see on the screen with what you see when printed.
Moving on, with these key factors out of the way, how do these other products stack up to the functionality of Lightroom and Photoshop? The truth is really well. None of the products I have mentioned require significant learning curves, in fact, they all work in a similar way and apart from having to learn the layouts of each editor, most use a similar subset of tools to help you create the look you desire for any photograph. Of these tools, perhaps the most important of these are presets which we will talk about next.
A preset is basically a combination of individual filters and effects designed to creat a specific look. For example, you can use a preset to turn a colour image into a B&W image, to add highlights or lowlights, to make an image softer or sharper, or perhaps more dramatic. These, together with Look Up Tables (LUT's) provide you with many fully customisable combinations to play around with. You can either just choose a preset and have done, or change the parameters of any of the filters to fine tune the look you are aiming for. You can also add additional filters of course. Presets are without doubt a fantastic start point for many projects. And since presets are common to almost every photo editor on the market today, you can pretty much use any editor that you feel comfortable with.
For those that prefer manual editing, all of the software products mentioned allow complete manual control over your image. Luminar for example provides two useful tools, a RAW developer and what's called Accent Ai-Filter, which basically is like a magic wand that enhances many aspects of a photo prior to further editing. RAW development is also a key feature of DxO PhotoLab but here it's taken to a completely new level in that DxO, best known perhaps for it's optics database, is able to provide fully autmatic corrections for many camera and lens combinations. This removes lens distortions and chromatic abberations without any human intervention and means that you are starting with the best possible image for final editing. Like Luminar, ON1, Photo Director and DxO include a number of useful presets as starting points for development of your image. Although not alone in this feature, Luminar in particular appears to have access to a vast range of presets due to many 3rd party developers working on the product. If you are into LUT's, again Luminar is up to the mark here as any .cube LUT can be added quickly and easily to the core product. I have added many free preset packs and LUT's to Luminar to increase it's functionality. Be aware though, like on Sky TV, you can spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the right look rather than just getting on with the job. Sometimes it is simply better to work manually.
Of all of the above, I found Photoscape X Pro perhaps the easiest product to use and get around. It's a really good photo editor with a lot of useful and intuitive tools. With a free to use version, and a pro version at under £30 to buy outright, it's without doubt the cheapest of all of the products i have tried out. To be fair, the free version is really good but it was so cheap and usable that I did buy the Pro version. It's a quick and easy "go to editor" for getting stuff done and there are a lot of features I really like. Included with Photoscape X Pro are a number of film emulations (presets by any other name) and some interesting backgrounds and overlays. Many more are available when you buy the Pro version.
PhotoScape X Pro - An excellent sub £30 photo editor. Here i've applied an overlay to create an abstract image
I'll review Luminar 2018 Windows soon as I have a lot of experience with this product and with the new version due at the end of this month, it's hoped that some of the areas it struggles with will have been rectified. As it is, it's a really good editor that's improving with each minor release. Again, at under £70 to purchase, it's a very cost effective alternative to Adobe Photoshop (it also works as a plugin to Photoshop) and once the DAM is released at the end of this year, it could be a lightroom killer.