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12 Top Photo Programs for Windows: Best Non-subscription and Free Apps

It’s no surprise that many people, including professional photographers, want subscription-free software. New to photography or not, whether it's for cost, long-term stability, or alternative features, there are some great Windows photography programmes worth considering. In this article we take a closer look at a few of the best, including free options. Especially if you pay for your own software, a buy-once license for your image editing might makes sense for your workflow.

Top Photography Software for Windows

Recommended Non-Subscription Software for Photo Post-Production

A photo editing workflow can be very particular and personal, and I’ve never met any two photographers who do things in exactly the same way, or who rate the same programmes. You may have a preference for a particular brand because that’s what you’ve always used. It makes sense that, should you need to move to a non-subscription workflow, you’d want to tailor the new layout to work in a similar way, and use comparable, similar-feeling tools that are comfortable for you.

There are three basic parts that we all need to work together to make up a photo workflow:

  • We need a processor to convert and adjust RAW photos into images viewable by humans
  • We need a pixel-based image editor to work on those images, and eventually print or save them
  • And we need a photo asset manager, to preview files and keep everything organised

For example, at the moment, I prefer Bridge, Adobe Camera RAW and an old copy of Photoshop, as I don’t actually use the latter for much more than a resize and export. Jackson, the editor of Photo & Video here at Tuts+, uses a combination of Photo Mechanic, Photo Ninja, and Affinity Photo. Or, for example, you might instead prefer to use Photomechanic for organising together with Gemstone for your RAW processing and layer-based photo retouching. We'll get into these below.

There are innumerable ways you can shake it up depending on your particular needs, and many of the programmes mentioned in this article offer a free trial, so it’s worth giving any you’re curious about a try for a month to see if you like the interface and tools.

So let’s take a look at subscription-free photography post-production options for your workflow. We'll look at photo suites first and then at a few software combinations to try.

All-in-One Photo Suites

All-in-one photo editing suites bundle workflow tools into an easy-to-use interface, and the subscription-only Adobe apps are the most widely used. Luckily, if you're looking for a non-subscription alternative you have some great options.

Capture One

A top choice for pro photographers but with a heftier price tag when compared to some. Capture One is probably closer to Lightroom than Photoshop in terms of features and is highly praised by photographers, particularly when it comes to its RAW editing capabilities. Like Photoshop, it takes time to get to grips with Capture One’s tools and interface, so be prepared for a longer lead in before you feel comfortable getting stuck in to your usual editing rhythm. The interface is more user-customisable than Lightroom, so you can set it up just how you like.

  • Cost: £299 one-time purchase (also available as a monthly or yearly sub).
  • Raw editing: Yes
  • Asset Management: Yes
  • Pros: High quality tools and in-depth editing in one place, aimed at professionals, highly praised for its RAW conversion quality.

  • Cons: The price tag, complex tools that need time to learn.

Capture One - Image via Capture One's Press PackCapture One - Image via Capture One's Press PackCapture One - Image via Capture One's Press Pack
Capture One - Image via Capture One's Press Pack

ACDSee

I like ACDSee, but with a variety of different photo editing packages that aren’t easy to compare or judge based on your needs, it can be a bit tricky to choose. That said, we gave its RAW editor in Gemstone a whirl and it was certainly very competitive, so we recommend you start there. Once you get it up and running it’s very easy to use, the tools are instinctive, and the interface looks good. It struggled slightly with large-size images, taking a beat to catch up on buffering edits, which lets it down a little.

  • Cost: It depends what you’re after. Between $44.95 and $129 based on whether you want a straightforward photo editing suite, or a package with asset management and some whizzier features.
  • Raw editing: Yes
  • Asset Management: Yes (at an increased cost)
  • Pros: Good price, variety of options, easy to use.

  • Cons: Variety of options, edit previews can be sluggish.

ACDSee's Gemstone Editor / Image via ACDSee product kitACDSee's Gemstone Editor / Image via ACDSee product kitACDSee's Gemstone Editor / Image via ACDSee product kit
ACDSee's Gemstone Editor / Image via ACDSee product kit

DxO PhotoLab

DxO are known for their impressive photo tools, particularly their noise reduction, and that’s carried across into PhotoLab. At just under £200, it sits firmly (and probably deliberately so) in the middle of the other popular one-cost options. Smart Workspace will help you quickly get tools and menus that you’re familiar with, meaning you can get to editing quicker. If you’ve used DxO plugins with other software, it will feel all the more familiar to you.

  • Cost: £199, though you can buy some of the component parts separately, like PureRAW, their RAW processor, for £115.
  • Raw editing: Yes
  • Asset Management: Yes
  • Pros: DxO make good filters and tools and you’ll feel the benefit of these in this studio.

  • Cons: Still quite expensive.

DxO PhotoLabDxO PhotoLabDxO PhotoLab
DxO PhotoLab / Image via DxO press pack

Mix & Match Your Photo Software

There’s no reason to stick to one programme or suite for everything. Lots of photographers like to mix up their workflow by cherry picking the best tools for each job and then combining those to form their workflow. The potential combinations are far too many to touch on here, but instead, try this list of standalone tools that are made to do one job and do it really well.

Digital Asset Managers

Photo Mechanic

Originally made with photojournalists and sports photographers in mind, Photo Mechanic is designed for a high volume of images and a fast turnover. It’s a highly rated digital asset manager and although it has a price tag to match that claim, you’ll probably never need anything else once you start to use it. The Plus version adds a built-in catalogue, making more advanced, Lightroom-like collections and asset management possible.

  • Cost: $229 (for version 6+)
  • Best for: People who want to get off the cloud or who can’t use a subscription service anymore. Professionals, people who do a lot of labelling, sorting and who deal with a lot of images.

Adobe Bridge

Bridge is fine if your asset management or cataloguing isn’t too complicated. If you just want to organise into folders, add metadata and rate your photos for sorting/editing, then there’s no reason to go elsewhere.

  • Cost: Free if you have a licensed Adobe programme like Photoshop or Lightroom, even if that’s a really old version.
  • Best for: Light cataloguing and sorting.

digiKam

Although the interface isn't as streamlined as paid software, digiKam is a long-lived open source photo organiser project with plenty of tricks and features, including albums, light tables, and batch tools.

  • Cost: Free
  • Best for: Enthusiasts, amateurs, and some pros

Raw Converting and Processing

Adobe Camera Raw

ACR has always been my favourite and the updates in the last few years in particular have made it a RAW processor that’s hard to beat. Tools like Super Resolution and Enhance Details have made it a game changer for older photographs where the scope of editing was limited by the technology of the time.

  • Cost: Free if you have a licensed Adobe programme like Photoshop or Lightroom, even if that’s a really old version.
  • Best for: Users who are comfortable with the Adobe interfaces.

RawTherapee

A cross-platform raw file developer that’s free and open source. While not all that instinctive to use, RawTherapee is surprisingly powerful, easily matching up to some of the popular suites and perhaps even surpassing them in some areas, like colour correction and sharpening. Needs some customisation and setup to get working well for your cameras and can be a bit slow for some workflows; overall produces very good results.

  • Cost: Free
  • Best for: Those on a tight budget, those not using too big of a file size

Photo Ninja

Can be used standalone or integrated into some image management and editing tools, especially Photo Mechanic. Tools include adaptive lighting, detail enhancement, noise reduction and more. There’s an integrated browser so that you can do some basic sorting and labelling without an asset manager.

  • Cost: $119 (upgrade for $49 for a year after that)
  • Best for: photographers who want professional, standalone RAW editing at a mid-range price

Manufacturer’s Software

We can be a little snooty when it comes to camera manufacturer’s own software but really they’ve come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Here are the three main ones, but most major manufacturers will have something and you don’t necessarily have to have that particular brand of camera to use their software.

Image Editors

Affinity Photo

One of the most popular Adobe alternatives for Windows, AP by Serif is packed with the photo-editing features you’d expect from top-tier software aimed at intermediate to professional users. There’s live, real-time editing and it can even open Photoshop's PSD and PSB files, which is really useful if you’re migrating from Photoshop — and to be honest Affinity Photo is quite obviously built with that in mind. You’ll find a lot of similarities between it and Photoshop, which can help your transition go more smoothly if you’re changing from Adobe.

  • Cost: £47.99, though quite often on sale for less than half of that price.
  • Raw editing: Yes, built in
  • Asset Management: No
  • Pros: RAW editing is built in; it supports a variety of LUTs for colour grading and can handle large images without grinding to a halt.

  • Cons: The interface takes a little getting used to, and with languages differences like ‘Personas', it requires a bit of a mind shift from what you might be used to.

Affinity PhotoAffinity PhotoAffinity Photo
Affinity Photo - Image via Serif

Krita Paint

Although designed for digital painting and 2D animation this free, popular, and powerful open-source image editor is cross-platform and contains a surprising number of photo editing tools, including it's own Raw editor. It might take you a while to figure it all out, but hey it’s free and always being updated, so the potential is huge.

  • Cost: Free
  • Raw editing: Yes
  • Asset Management: No

Pixeluvo

Though the pared-back interface makes it look a tad basic, Pixeluvo is a capable non-destructive editor that has the advanced adjustment layers, colour correction tools, pressure-sensitive drawing, and the image enhancement filters you need to work on pictures.

  • Cost: $34
  • Raw editing: Yes
  • Asset Management: No

Other Alternatives

Photoshop Elements

We want to love Elements, but in 2022 the program still looks essentially how it did a decade ago, with less features and at a higher cost compared to some of the other alternatives already mentioned. We’ve included it because although PSE is definitely not intended for professionals the basic tools are there, and those who are versed in the basics of photo editing in Adobe Suites might find its familiarity comforting. If you mostly use Photoshop to crop, resize, and adjust exposure before posting photos online, Photoshop Elements is a fine alternative.

  • Cost: £86.56
  • Raw editing: Yes, but a scaled-down version of Adobe Camera Raw
  • Asset Management: Yes, but Organizer rather than Bridge
  • Pros: A cheaper alternative to Adobe subs, if you’re used to using PS it will seem familiar, good for casual users or those just getting started.

  • Cons: It looks and feels cheap and dated, the tools are very limited.

PS ElementsPS ElementsPS Elements
PS Elements / Image via Adobe

Summary

The great thing about moving away from subscription tools is that there are a whole lot of options out there now, and at a variety of costs, so if immediate outlay is a big factor in your decision making, you can hopefully find a way to tailor something that fits your budget and also boosts your workflow.

One element of your process may be much more important than the others. For example, if you’re a photojournalist then you might want to invest in a good asset manager for organisation of large amounts of photographs, and then use a cheaper or free editor because in-depth processing might not be as central to your work.

Hopefully, whatever your particular needs are, if you’re looking to move away from subscriptions, there’s something in this article that can help you do that.

About the Authors

Marie Gardiner wrote this. Jackson Couse edited and published it.

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