Adobe Photoshop is the gold standard in the realm of photo editing and has dominated the market for years. However, due to its immense range of functions, the programme is often too complicated and expensive for amateur photographers and designers. It’s no wonder then that there are many appealing cheap and free Photoshop alternatives available.
Thanks to the rapid evolution of digital photography, web designers and artists are now able to take advantage of an almost inexhaustible array of options when it comes to creating and manipulating images. With ever more affordable DSLR cameras and the majority of the population in possession of continually optimised smartphones, getting the perfect snap is now easier than ever before. Powerful and intuitive image editing software like Adobe Photoshop and GIMP also enables users to create high-quality images and videos with little prior knowledge.
The line between formally trained, professional photographers and highly skilled amateurs is becoming more and more blurred, giving rise to the importance of digital photo management and optimisation. The internet is flooded with digital images for all occasions – from event photography for weddings and birthdays, to artistic, abstract designs, to functional images for online shops and business websites. The legal rights to images are a crucial issue for both the creator and the consumer. In addition, the increasing demand for visually appealing photographs and designs for image-based social media networks such as Pinterest and Instagram requires an option for fast and effective image optimisation.
With its wide-ranging organisation and editing options, the popular image management software, Adobe Lightroom, is currently the market leader in the area of digital editing. It’s the first choice of many professionals, with its extensive range of functions making it practically indispensable. Its hefty price tag, however, leads many photographers to seek a more cost-effective alternative. So what free photo management tools are the best substitutes for the market leader? Read on for a compilation of the best free Lightroom alternatives.
- Image files: compressed or ‘raw’?
- RawTherapee – the flexible all-rounder
- Darktable – intuitive and highly functional
- LightZone – multifunctional tool with an eye for detail
- Google Photos – mobile, simple, and playful
- PhotoScape – perfect for amateur photographers
- Freeware: solid alternatives for both amateurs and seasoned professionals
Image files: compressed or ‘raw’?
Before getting into the best Adobe Lightroom alternatives, it is important to include a side note on the topic of image formats. Before getting started with this software, it’s crucial to understand the difference between raw and compressed image files, which then releases the full potential of photo management software. In contrast to pure image processing programs such as Photoshop, the focus is less on the creative design than on the correct archiving, adjustment and presentation of the images.
When it comes to digital storage formats, there is a difference between compressed and raw image files. The most common compressed format for digital images is JPEG (the ‘Joint Photographic Experts Group’ format, usually written as.jpg or .jpeg); other very well-known formats include PNG, GIF and the container format, TIFF. It saves and compresses images so that they require 5 to 10 times less space than pure raw files, which also accelerates the storage process. However, compression also leads to a loss in visual quality; when it comes to JPEG compressions, an automatic white balance is set and image value are compressed in descending order according to relevance and the quality therefore fluctuates, with the loss in quality being more apparent in some images than in others. As a result, the loss in quality always depends on the level of detail in the image, i.e. the contrast or resolution.
As well as in their compressed form, files can also come in their ‘raw’ form. These raw files contain the unprocessed image information of the original file and are therefore of a higher quality than compressed files. Digital cameras issue raw files individually in different file formats such as .raw, .dng, .raf, and .crw. Some smartphones also support this output. Because raw formats contain different information depending on the camera manufacturer, you need additional raw-converters to change them to compressed, more manageable formats such as JPEG, TIFF, or PNG. Raw files are significantly larger than the latter mentioned formats, which means they also occupy far more space on an SD card, which is often rather unpractical. For this reason, photo management software for creating storage-friendly formats are ideal. Read on for a breakdown of some of the best free alternatives to Lightroom.
RawTherapee – the flexible all-rounder
RawTherapee is a comfortable alternative to Adobe Lightroom. The open-source software is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux. It offers many functions for archiving, converting, and processing raw data and other image formats. This useful tool makes it incredibly simple to implement colour correction, saturation, brightness, contrast, and sharpness, as well as crop and orient images. RawTherapee’s main strength, however, is the noise reduction function. Furthermore, the preview tool allows less experienced users to edit files securely without damaging the original file. Users can easily return to older versions of the file, which are all stored in the cache history.
The programme is available for a total of 15 languages and has a wide range of practical functions, including the creation of fixed processing profiles and batch processing, which means several files can be optimised at once. It also uses popular file formats such as HDR DNG (16, 24, and 32 bit), JPEG, PNG (8 and 16 bit), and TIFF files (8, 16, and 32 bit). The software can also save and create files in JPEG, PNG, (8 and 16 bit), and TIFF (8 and 16 bit). Even for inexperienced users, it should only take a little time to get to grips with this programme. And despite a few flaws in the processing and speed, RawTherapee offers a host of useful options, particularly in the conversion of raw files.
Conclusion: With its far-reaching functions and flexible operation, RawTherapee is especially recommended for its sophisticated image management. Its user-friendly interface alone has only a few small faults. Otherwise it makes a perfectly adequate Adobe Lightroom alternative.
|Compatible with Windows, macOS, and Linux||User interface takes a while to get used to|
|Secure preview mode (original version can be recovered at any time)|
|Practical application such as stacking function and autosaved processing profiles|
Darktable – intuitive and highly functional
Another bona fide, free alternative to Lightroom is the open source programme, Darktable. Experienced Lightroom users will immediately notice Darktable‘s similar black and grey design as well as the user interface with folding control panels, making their work far easier. However, the tool is mostly managed from the pure control panels, which requires some getting used to. Unlike its costly counterpart, however, Darktable does not allow users to create manual compilations, and instead automatically imports image galleries. Darktable is fully compatible with Linux and macOS and now also has a version that is compatible with Windows, although this is only suitable for 64-bit files.
With basic optimization - from cropping and rotating to gradation curves, colour correction and some image effects, Darktable users benefit from extensive functions. The tool also facilitates the creation, cropping, and adjustment of slideshows. Despite this, the software does lack some practical automation functions. You therefore need to save individual presets as a profile, which makes it easier to adapt to your favorite styles. Furthermore, the live preview function enables users to see any changes in advance. The application is somewhat cumbersome in certain areas, which means users need to spend some time to figure out and get used to the functions. With Darktable, it’s possible to organise photos, adjust their metadata, and export them in the correct file folder – as JPEG, PNG, 16-bit PPM, and TIFF formats as well as PFM and EXR files. This way, everything can be compactly found in one place in your computer.
Conclusion: Darktable is a great free alternative to Adobe Lightroom, in terms of its design as well as its functions. In comparison to Lightroom, the user interface and functions are similar, although the full range of tools is not entirely available. Furthermore, when it comes to processing raw files, Darktable is a reliable option for beginners, which offers an enormous amount of options for a free program.
|Operation and design similar to Lightroom||Workflow cumbersome in places|
|Live preview including changes||Weakness with the noise filter|
LightZone – multifunctional tool with an eye for detail
Looking at the sleek photo-editing tool, LightZone, it’s hard to believe that this software is free. But thanks in part to its polished and professional interface, the software’s developer has since gone on to work for Apple. Originally designed as a paid package, it’s now unreservedly available as an open source program. With this software, users can optimize raw data loss-free as well as edit and export JPEG and TIFF files. It pays to be a little more experimental here – the original images are automatically saved while editing and can be accessed at any time. In this way, you can design several versions without losing the original. In the flexible image view, you can either display all versions next to each other and compare them or simply keep the original view of the image folder.
With several practical style profiles, LightZone facilitates a quick optimization of several photos in the same way. This is particularly helpful if the group of images should have the same format and look as it means you don’t have to start from scratch each time. Rather than gradation curves, LightZone offers the ZoneMapper as a special feature that can identify 16 brightness zones in a photo and adjust contrast or color values using a preview image. With collapsible sidebar menus, you can easily integrate your images into your desktop’s folder structure and change your metadata (i.e. title, value, image description, author, and location). LightZone enables a loss-free optimization of raw data as well as the processing and exportation of JPEG and TIFF files.
Conclusion: LightZone is a sophisticated image management program that can satisfy practically every requirement. Its menus offer both a wide range of uses and are displayed clearly. The ZoneMapper is a unique addition, offering the targeted processing of tonal values, which can satisfy the needs of both amateur and professional photographers or designers. This free Lightroom alternative therefore makes it a solid all-rounder option for those with only a little prior experience.
|Compatible with Windows, macOS, and Linux||Loading delays possible|
|Original file is automatically saved|
|ZoneMapper enables specific tonal value optimisation|
|Preset style profiles simplify design process|
Google Photos – mobile, simple, and playful
Google’s browser-based image organising tool, Google Photos, presents a rather more simplistic Adobe Lightroom alternative with its more whimsical display. As part of the Google Cloud package, this programme enables registered users to archive, organise, and edit their images for free. An additional benefit is its relative simplicity compared to the previously mentioned desktop programmes. The tool’s primary focus is on sharing and storing images of up to 16 megapixels and HD videos of up 1.080p. The software is accessible on mobile devices, so it’s quick and easy to integrate photographs taken on smartphones and tablets. Users also benefit from the fact that the images are available via a server, meaning they can safely delete pictures from their mobile device as soon as they need the space. Photos saved on the computer can be automatically transferred to the cloud with the Google Photos backup function.
The photos are saved to the Google Cloud and are made available for albums, collages, animations, and panorama photos. Users can crop and rotate images and change the brightness, colour, and sharpness with simplified but intuitive tools. It’s also possible to add your images to a selected shared album, if you wish to share your snapshots with friends. The software even has a visual image search for facial recognition, which makes it easier to organise and name groups of smartphone images. One major disadvantage is that Google collects a certain amount of user data to make this possible; if this puts you off and you don’t want to share your personal information with Google account, or if you would rather use more professional software, you should stick to a desktop programme.
Conclusion: Google Photos is a great option if you just want a platform to edit, organise, and share photos quickly and easily. It’s an especially practical tool for users with mobile devices. However, users who want to edit their images on a professional level, or make extensive changes to their files will quickly discover that Google Photos has its limits.
|Browser-based (independent of operating systems)||Only rudimentary image editing tools available|
|Very easy to operate||Only available to users with a registered Google account|
|Very easy to share images via social networks, i.e. Facebook, Twitter||Primarily suited to recreational use|
|Possible to on mobile devices via the app|
|Saves work automatically|
|Very easy to create collages and animations|
PhotoScape – perfect for amateur photographers
No-frills freeware PhotoScape is the perfect Adobe Lightroom alternative for those who are unfamiliar with photo editing programmes. With its clear, pre-set functions, you can easily manage your photos and optimise them with various features. With basic functions such as retouch, crop, effect filters and colour and brightness correction, you can achieve everything that is necessary to edit an image quickly and simply. As well as this, there are other fun effects, such as collages, adding text, frames, and speech bubbles. Photos can also be edited by batch processing using the window menu integrated into the desktop view.
PhotoScape may be of particular interest to users of image sharing social media platforms, as the programme enables users to createsimple GIF files. It is also practical that photos can easily be dragged and dropped into different collage templates and individually arranged with the combine function – ideal for presenting photos of friends, family, and holiday snapshots. Thanks to its easy-to-use interface integrated into the desktop, inexperienced users can get to grips with PhotoScape in next to no time. Furthermore, PhotoScape is compatible with both Windows and Mac (as PhotoScape X) and the tool opens and converts raw formats into JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP and TIFF files.
Conclusion: Simple and fast: these are without a doubt PhotoScape’s defining features. If you just want to use your photos for limited, private use, and prefer to an intuitive design rather than to integrate more complex functions, you’ll find all the necessary tools here. For professionals or experienced hobbyists, however, the tool is perhaps somewhat basic.
|Simple user interface for beginners||Not compatible with Linux|
|Collage function (drag-and-drop)||Not suitable for more complex image optimisation|
|Simple GIF animations|
Freeware: solid alternatives for both amateurs and seasoned professionals
As these examples show, there is a great range of extensive and practical alternative tools to Adobe Lightroom that are helpful and generally intuitive for photographers and designers of all levels. Unfortunately, most free tools can’t boast the same enormous scope and potential for managing and optimising photos as the Adobe programme. Despite this fact, however, it’s still possible for experienced photographers to achieve great results with comparable programs such as LightZone. Whatever your specific requirements, there’s an option for you to create engaging photographs for free.
|Program||Operating system||Browser or desktop||File formats|
|RawTherapee||Windows, macOS, Linux||Desktop||Opens: HDR DNG (16, 24, and 32 bit), JPEG, PNG (8 and 16 bit), and TIFF files (8, 16, and 32 bit) Saves as/exports: JPEG, PNG (8 and 16 bit) and TIFF (8 and 16 bit)|
|Darktable||macOS, Linux||Desktop||Opens/saves as/exports: JPEG, PNG, 16-bit PPM/TIFF formats, PFM, EXR files|
|LightZone||Windows, macOS, Linux||Desktop||Opens/saves as/exports: JPEG and TIFF files|
|PhotoScape||Windows, macOS||Desktop||Opens/saves/exports: Raw formats in JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP and TIFF files|