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Photography

Creative Cloud Raining On Your Parade? 10 Alternative RAW Image Processors to Try

Are you looking for alternatives to Adobe’s Creative Cloud? There are a healthy handful of RAW processors that can give Adobe a real run for their money. There are even some great free options!

In this article you'll learn the pros and cons of ten worthwhile alternative parametric image editors. We've covered free alternatives to Adobe Photoshop before, and in a future article we'll tackle new raster image editor options to pair with these processors.

At the end of the article we will do a quick comparative test to see how a select handful of these programs stand up against each other on default conversion of a RAW image. Ultimately, which tool you use comes down to your needs, operating system, level of experience and individual RAW workflow style.

Not All Parametric Image Processors Are Created Equal

In photography, a parametric image processor is a type of program that interprets the raw information your camera recorded from the sensor when you took a picture. Your camera has a built-in parametric image processor that it uses to create JPEG photos. When you use raw, you get to decide how to interpret that data. Processing is an intermediate step: the RAW processor lets you manipulate the image data before you send the picture to a raster image editing program, like Adobe Photoshop or Affinity Photo.

There are two ways to store all that math before it's applied to the image: databases and sidecar files. We've included both kinds of program here. Both approaches have merit, and what you choose depends on your working style and needs. Generally speaking, though, if you work alone and have a simple setup, database programs (like Lightroom) have the advantage. If you work with other people, like retouchers, for example, sidecar-based workflows have the advantage.

In our review we've also noted other key factors, including cost, whether the program has a free trial and any limitations thereof, whether the interface is complex or simple and how easy it is to use, and finally the quality of base conversions. Final quality is a much more complicated thing to measure, but each of the programs here is very capable of producing quality conversions in the right hands.

OS X RAW Processors

Apple Photos

Apple Photos

Apple Photos was introduced with the arrival of Yosemite 10.10.3 as a replacement for iPhoto and Aperture. It is great for photographers who want a user-friendly, simple interface. However, if you are a more experienced with RAW processing at first blush you may find the available tools in Photos limiting, though many do include an optional advanced mode for more control. Plus, while it is not as feature-rich as Aperture, Photos can still handle Aperture libraries. Andrew Childress has a free course on Apple Photos here on Tuts+.

  • Processing: Database
  • Cost: Free with Yosemite 10.10.3
  • Pros: Apple Photos is considered a step up from iPhoto. It is user friendly and best suited for light users. It is intuitive, quick, and has an effective Retouch Tool that is similar to Photoshop’s Spot Healing Brush tool, allowing you to touch up specific areas. When you enable the iCloud feature, the program will sync up and you can access your photos on any device.
  • Cons:  It is not as powerful as the recently-retired Aperture, so pro-users may find that it falls short of their processing needs. Also, it is not possible to edit specific areas within an image (such as with Lightroom’s Adjustment Brushes and Aperture’s Quick Brushes). All changes are global, with the exception of the Retouch Tool mentioned above.

Iridient Developer

Iridient Developer is powerful enough for the advanced user, yet easy enough for the light user. Like Camera Raw (but unlike Photos or Lightroom) it is a RAW processor only, and works best when used with a companion application such as Photo Mechanic or Lyn.

  • Processing: Sidecar files
  • Free Trial Available: Yes
  • Cost: $99.00
  • Pros: Iridient Developer's focus is RAW conversion, which it does very well. It's base conversions are arguably the best of the bunch on a number of levels, though that's largely subjective. The interface is neat and not overwhelming. When working with a group of images, the last thing you want is the design of the program to slow you down and interfere with your workflow.
  • Cons: Iridient Developer is not able to copy and paste adjustments to multiple photos, as with Lightroom and others. Also, it lacks other features some may find valuable, such as integrated cataloguing, sharing, or printing.

Windows RAW Processors

ACDSee Pro 8

While sometimes a challenge to navigate, ACDSee Pro 8 is packed with powerful features for the professional photographer. On the processing side, it offers a wide array of essential RAW functions within its Develop mode. Unique on this list, it offers integrated raster editing tools that are similar to Photoshop.

  • Processing: Database and sidecar files
  • Free Trial Available: Yes
  • Price: One time cost of $149.99 for new users, and a $49.99 upgrade for existing users. There is also a subscription-based plan available, as well as additional subscription fees for its cloud-based online storage.
  • Pros: ACDSee Pro 8's capabilities generally on par with Lightroom, and its recent upgrade comes with a host of useful new features, including numerous filters, an Edit Mode Fill Tool, 1-Step EQ, Pixel Targeting, SeeDrive (cloud) access, a History Window, Gestures, a Smart Indexer, Auto Lens View, and Auto EQ. It also tends to load images quickly (a common complaint against Lightroom), possesses a powerful photo organizer, and has the ability to add metadata with ease. When you hover your mouse over your image, ACDSee gives you an instant preview. Any second you can save matters!
  • Cons: For some users, initially navigating the program is tricky, so be ready for a slight learning curve. Reportedly, it has been difficult for some newer users to tell the difference between the Develop (RAW processing) and Edit (raster editing) modes.

Also, it’s online cloud storage option, known as SeeDrive Online Storage, is a bit pricey. It allows you to share your photos between multiple devices, and starts at $9.99/month for 20GB of storage. It goes up from there, also offering a 40BG plan at $11.99/month and a 100GB plan at $13.99/month.

Cross-Platform: Mac and Windows

Phase One Capture One

Capture One

Feature for feature, Capture One is the most direct competitor to Lightroom on this list. It is also a great replacement for the recently discontinued Aperture. Product fashion photographers take note: C1 is known for color fidelity and the quality of skin tones. Among new features, it offers layers, local adjustments, and built-in film effects. It is best suited for the advanced DSLR and medium format digital market, and does not currently recognize iPhone or iOS devices.

  • Processing: Database first, sidecar files optional
  • Free Trial Available: Yes. 30 Days.
  • Cost: One time fee of $299 for two computers
  • Pros: Capture One is known for its excellent RAW processing abilities and has very good built-in RAW profiles as well. It has several new features, like local adjustments, gradient masks, and film effects. You can also share image catalogues and access system files and folders, two things that you cannot do in Lightroom.
  • Cons: Capture One does not offer much in the way of geotagging. If you are switching over from Lightroom and are accustomed to their Library features you may find Capture One lacking. Also, it does not allow you to flag unwanted photos as rejects. You either have to leave the rating at zero, or simply delete it. In addition, if you do decide to delete a photo, you have to go through the extra step of dealing with the resulting pop-up dialogue box, telling the program whether it should delete the file on the disk. You can see how this could get cumbersome when dealing with a high volume of images. It does not offer true high dynamic range options, although it does have an option named accordingly, which actually lets you bring out details in highlights and shadow.

DxO OpticsPro

Out of the Creative Cloud alternatives I have tried thus far, this one is a personal favorite. I really like how DxO OpticsPro makes accurate automatic adjustments to your RAW file based on the specific gear used, and all without being excessive. DxO does a ton of testing in their labs, and with as many camera and lens combinations as they can. Automation takes care of common correction tasks, such as lens distortion and pre-sharpening, so you can focus on adjusting the look and feel of your images. I recorded a course on RAW processing with DxO OpticsPro.

DxO OpticsPro interface
  • Processing: Sidecar files
  • Free Trial Available: Yes
  • Cost: $129 for Essential Edition/$199 for Elite Edition
  • Pros: It is powerful and full featured. The interface manages to be slick without being overwhelming. Even better, it allows you to customize the “modules” to your workflow. Integrates well with Lightroom.
  • Cons: It does not have adjustment brushes like Lightroom, which allow you to apply adjustments to specific areas within an image.

PictureCode Photo Ninja

Photo Ninja is a RAW processor by PictureCode, the people behind the popular Noise Ninja plugin. Photo Ninja can be used as a standalone application or in conjunction with another program. At the time of this article, Photo Ninja has some strong points but still has some refining to go through. On their website, PictureCode mentions they are working on a significant developments to the program, so look for enhancements soon.
  • Processing: Sidecar files
  • Free Trial Available: Yes, although the Render and File Save options are disabled without a license key. A temporary two-week license key can be requested via email.
  • Price: $129
  • Pros: Default processing has fewer blown highlights and less noise than other programs. Some people find the detail and saturation automatically applied to their images by Photo Ninja a bit too much, while others enjoy these defaults. Also, Photo Ninja can be used in close conjunction with other programs, especially Photo Mechanic
  • Cons: Photo Ninja does not offer adjustment brushes or spot corrections. It doesn't offer webpage, photo sharing or photobook options either, though that's not necessarily a big deal. It has very limited organizational tools, and limited rating tools. Also, it lacks many keyboard shortcuts, so moving through a large set of images will take more time.

Cross-Platform: Mac, Windows, and Linux

Corel Aftershot Pro 2

Corel claims Aftershot is up to four faster than the competition, although that may come at the price of reduced initial RAW conversion quality (see "Cons" below). That said, it has powerful batch processing capabilities and is skilled at quality noise reduction. It's a very affordable suite, and it's the most complete Lightroom alternative for Linux users.

Aftershot Pro 2 interface
  • Processing: Database and sidecar files
  • Free Trial Available: Yes. 30 Days.
  • Price: $79.99 for a new user, and $59.99 for an upgrade.
  • Pros: With batch processing features, a workspace redesign, and faster RAW conversion, many photographers find Aftershot Pro 2 quite useful. It is a photo organizer, and allows you to rate, tag, and categorize your images. Importing is fast with this program, and it has very good noise reduction and exposure tools.
  • Cons: It only allows you to export your files as a TIFF or JPG, and the importing options can be a bit cumbersome. While it boasts a 30% faster RAW file conversion, this may come at a price: the resulting initial RAW images have been reported by some to be lower quality than some of its competitors. Though it covers all the basics, it does not offer more advanced organizational features, and there are no sharing features for collections or albums. Also, its print mode is not as robust as Lightroom.

RawTherapee

RawTherapee is free and very powerful. Once you get accustomed to the dark interface and somewhat crowded layout, it is well worth giving it a try. I recently recorded a RawTherapee course.

  • Processing: Sidecar files, but in a non-standard format
  • Cost: Free!
  • Pros: It is very powerful with a ton of features that suit both novice and advanced RAW processing. Conversion quality is high, and RawTherapee packs some very precise tools under the hood, especially when it comes to noise control and sharpening.
  • Cons: As you might expect from an open-source project, the interface is a bit outdated. The dark colors can sometimes make it a challenge to keep track of which modules you are working in and where to find the one you are looking for. Your eyes will adjust over time, but expect to take slightly longer than normal finding your way around in the beginning.

The LightZone Project

This open-source RAW processor is supported by a group of members and volunteers. LightZone's approach is a bit different than the other programs. Based on the zone system, it divides an image into tonal areas which you can adjust. If you're into black and white photography this processor is worth a try, even if it's just to experience a unique way of working.

  • Processing: Sidecar files
  • Price: Free, open source
  • Pros: It is on the more simple side in functionality, which light users will appreciate. A processing metaphor that black and white photographers will find familiar and natural.
  • Cons: For some it may be too simple a program. There are no cataloging or keywording options. Correction tools are limited, and those that it does have are not nearly as automatic as other programs.

Mac & Linux RAW Processors

Darktable

Darktable is powerful, but decidedly not as user-friendly as the other options. Be prepared for a hard learning curve to overcome.

  • Processing: Database and sidecar files
  • Price: Free, open source
  • Pros: It is very powerful. With its navigational modules in the upper right corner, it noticeably resembles Lightroom.
  • Cons: Overwhelming. There is a learning curve, and is not considered as user-friendly with it's many modules. It offers limited lens correction through the Lensfun library, as opposed to the more robust Adobe lens profiles.

Comparative Default Conversion Test

Below is a quick and somewhat unscientific comparison of how a handful of the above programs automatically processed my test file. I shot the image with an extremely high ISO to induce image noise. DxO OpticsPro did the best at automatically taming some of it, while treating the colors better in my opinion. The photo opened in RawTherapee came out noticeably darker with the greens slightly washed out. The results with Iridient Devleoper and Apple Photos were relatively similar to each other. All of the programs made an image acceptable for daily use.

DxO OpticsPro

DxO Optics Pro Test

RawTherapee

RawTherapee Test

Iridient Developer

Iridient Developer Test

Apple Photos

Apple Photos Test

Final Thoughts

If you've read this far you're probably thinking about adopting a new processor. As you can see, there is a very healthy crop of alternative RAW processors available! The programs have varying qualities and intended purposes. There's enough selection that everyone, from the casual to heavy user, can find just the right tool for their workflow.

In fact, there are too many choices, even! There are a number of other programs that provide RAW abilities that we didn't have time to review here, like Mylio, Polarr, and Pics.io. These also look promising.

The next step is to select the one or two options you think will be useful based upon your needs and take them for a test spin! It is impossible to truly know if a RAW processor is a good fit for your personal workflow until you have run a set of images through it. Try to use the same set of images for each program. Through careful research and testing, you will be able to discover which one works best for your needs and your images.

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