I like Adobe’s products. But I don’t like their subscription model. Based on making many tests I think other, non Adobe, software is better. Here are my recommendations.
There is only one serious candidate for this: Affinity Photo.
At less than £50 Affinity is cheaper than Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Paintshop Pro and it is a fully featured image editor and RAW Converter. I have reviewed it here and here.
The only downsides are that it cannot edit videos and not all Photoshop plugins work with it. If you are seeking to escape Adobe’s subscription model, then I suggest downloading the trial version and seeing if it meets your needs. It runs on Windows, Mac and the latest iPads. Combined with Affinity Publisher and Affinity Designer, it is the complete image editing and desktop publishing suite, for less than £150.
As popular as Lightroom and Camera RAW are, they are demonstrably not the best RAW converters available. Several other alternatives exist. My top 3 recommendations are:
Here’s a brief rundown of why I rate them so highly:
Skylum Luminar 4
Luminar 4 is the most advanced and creative RAW converter and is one of the easiest to use. The recently released Version 4 has added such things as:
- Sky Replacement
- Facial detection and Enhancement
- Advanced Noise Removal
- Advanced Image Structure tool
My review of Luminar can be found here.
Luminar also features an Image Browser with limited Digital Asset Management functionality. To be honest, these features are not complete and cause performance issues, which Skylum say will be addressed in future releases. For now, I recommend using Luminar 4 for single image processing rather than creating a large image catalogue. There are better tools for browsing and managing images (see below). But Luminar is unsurpassed as a RAW converter.
Photo Ninja hasn’t received a major update in a long while, yet it remains one of the best RAW converters. It is not as fully featured as Luminar 4 but it performs clean, detailed and wonderfully colourful RAW conversions. It is also lean and fast – the fastest RAW converter I have tested. Its Noise Reduction is second only to Topaz Labs products.
Its only downside is that it does not support every modern RAW format. But it supports DNG. If you are prepared to use Adobe’s free DNG converter, then Photo Ninja is worthy of serious consideration. Read my reviews of it here and here.
DXO Photo Lab 3
DXO is a superior RAW converter that features:
- Camera and lens profiles for the best initial sharpening, distortion and aberration correction
- The best local adjustment selection method in existence
- Excellent noise reduction
- ClearView technology for enhancing images
Like Luminar, DXO has limited Digital Asset Management capabilities. They are not yet complete. Unlike Luminar, they don’t seem to slow DXO down and don’t impede the product.
Read my review of DXO Photo Lab 3 here.
You need to check that DXO supports your camera and lenses before buying it. It does not support Fuji X-Trans sensors.
Image Editing Suites
There are many Image Editing Suites available. Here are two that I think are worthy of consideration:
Topaz Labs Studio
Topaz Studio contains an incredible selection of Filters and ‘Looks’ (presets) and advanced selection and masking tools. It fully supports layers so you can make advanced adjustments to your images.
The list of filters is so impressive:
- AI Clear – one of the best noise reduction and image clarity tools available
- Precision contrast
- Precision detail
- Black and white
- and 26 more.
If I use Photo Ninja to develop a RAW image, I will usually complete the editing in Topaz Studio. Luminar 4 produces more complete images but sometimes I use Studio’s filter and presets. There are very few images that wouldn’t benefit from some extra work in Topaz Studio.
DXO Nik Collection
This is a suite of tools (and plugins) that can:
- Enhance and Correct colours
- Convert images to black and white
- Selectively enhance every aspect of the image (NIK Viveza – worth the price alone!)
- Perform HDR processing
- Sharpen images
- Advanced Noise reduction
Of the two toolkits, I prefer Topaz Studio because it is self contained and some NIK tools are no longer class leading. However, NIK Viveza is worth the price on its own.
Image Browser & Digital Asset Management (DAM)
So many tools offer these and that is itself a problem. Digital Asset Management needs to be done in one place and in one place only, otherwise you end up having to keep several tools synchronised. That’s a waste of time.
The problem with DXO Photo Lab 3 and Luminar 4 is that their image browsers are underpowered and their DAM functionality is incomplete. DAM software is hard to write and errors and bugs lead to endless frustration for you, the end user.
Lightroom is very mature in this area but, in my view, is both too intrusive and requires too much from you. It is too intrusive in that importing images takes way too long. It leans too much on you because it does not keep its database up to date. It relies on YOU telling it to bring its catalog up to date and find any missing images.
The problem is that you can access your photos directly from your computer. The DAM tools don’t and cannot control access to your pictures. If you move one or delete one using, say, Windows Explorer then the DAM software’s database will no longer reflect reality. Luminar tries to solve this by scanning your whole photo collection every time your run it. This takes too long and is fragile: shut Luminar down before it’s finished and you might corrupt the database. And it takes too much processing power, slowing the PC down.
The best Browser and DAM tool I have tested is:
Exposure X5 by Exposure Software
This tool is much more than a browser and DAM. It is a decent RAW converter and a very good photo editor. I last reviewed it here.
With DAM, Exposure X5 achieves the happy balance of being unobtrusive yet keeping itself up to date. There are no long delays when I add images to the database. I usually just copy my new photos to the target folder using Windows Explorer and then browse them in Exposure X5. It silently adds them to its catalog, and it doesn’t consume a vast amount of processor power when it does so. It just quietly keeps itself up to date, and it recognises that if I have deleted an image, then I (probably) meant to do that. So it silently removes it from the catalog.
Its browser is beautifully configurable, and I can compare up to 6 images at a time in it. Exposure X5 integrates so well with all my other tools. Its exporting capabilities are brilliant. I have set up many presets for exporting images for Instagram, eBay, my website and this blog. It optionally watermarks images as it exports them. It is the hub that my entire workflow revolves around and the one tool I would never be without.
Image Enhancement Tools
Here’s a brief rundown of specialist tools that I think are valuable
Topaz Gigapixel AI
This is the best image resizing tool for enlargements. There are no other contenders. If you enlarge your images for printing, then you need this tool. It is also good at upscaling images from, say, Instagram for use as a desktop wallpaper. Read my reviews here and here.
Topaz DeNoise AI
This is the best noise removal software. Again, no other contenders. Click here for my latest review. It features the new DeNoise engine as well as AI Clear. Occasionally, AI Clear produces better results so it is good to have them both to hand.
Topaz Sharpen AI
All images benefit from some sharpening. Sharpen AI goes further. It can improve out-of-focus images and images with some motion blur/camera shake. I tested it recently and am highly impressed.
This tool takes a JPEG photo and reduces its file size, often by up to 50%, without affecting its quality. It’s the ideal tool for website creators, bloggers and anyone who wants to reduce file sizes and speed up websites. Using it is a simple as can be, and it comes as a standalone app or a plugin for Photoshop.
JPEG To RAW AI
JPEGs are great until you want to make some serious edits. Then their limitations are exposed. This tool can convert a JPEG into a 16 bit DNG or TIF. It sounds impossible, but it can. See here for details.
That’s it for this year, I think. This post sums up many of this year’s photo software reviews.
Despite my disappointment at some ‘upgrades’ that added very little new functionality, there has never been a better time to be a digital photographer.
If you are looking to escape from being tied to a subscription model, such as Adobe’s, then there are plenty of alternatives out there. They are all first class and you won’t be disappointed using any of the tools I recommend above.