Alternatives to Photoshop CS/CC

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Thanks for reading! Andrew.


A few weeks ago I started exploring the use of alternatives to Photoshop CS/CC. It’s going to be a somewhat slow quest, as it takes time to try out and use software for long enough to make a judgement on how useful it is (you can read my thoughts on Pixelmator for the Mac here and here).

But I have to admit that the more I think about it the more it’s a foregone conclusion. Photoshop CS/CC is a brilliant image editing program, and for overall effectiveness for tasks like exposure blending, compositing, adding texture layers and high-end retouching. I’ve yet to see something that can match it.

The weaknesses of Photoshop CS/CC are that it is expensive, complex to use (it takes time to learn to use it without the need to refer to step-by-step instructions for many processes) and does far more than many photographers need. It also lacks a good file management system (Adobe Bridge lags a long way behind software such as Lightroom). Throw in the recent switch to subscription licensing and many users will be looking for an alternative.

The question isn’t ‘Is there a direct replacement for Photoshop?’. There isn’t. The question we should be asking is ‘What software best suits the requirements of photographers today? Do we need Photoshop CS/CC and if not, what software gives you the best bang for your buck?’

The transition to Lightroom

The way I see it is this. Photo editing software is going through a transitional stage. Not so long ago, most photographers used Photoshop as their main editing tool. Now, many of those photographers are switching to Lightroom (or a similar alternative). The benefit of these programs is that they let you manage your entire workflow from within one program. You can use them to import, view, search and organise photos, process Raw files and to carry out some processing tasks on JPEG and TIFF files. If you need to use alternate software to carry out a specific task that these programs can’t handle, then you use a plug-in or standalone program to do that. The benefit of plug-ins is a seamless transition from your main software (ie Lightroom) to the peripheral programs (Photoshop etc).

And yes, in this scheme Photoshop CS/CC is relegated to the status of plug-in. That’s because it carries out a single task – editing JPEG or TIFF files – and not much else.

In some ways it is like the transition from film to digital photography. Eventually so many photographers switched to digital that it became mainstream and film is now used by a minority. I predict the same will happen to Photoshop CS/CC and workflow based software like Lightroom will become mainstream.

Judging from the number of websites and books dedicated to Lightroom, it seems safe to say that it has become the most popular workflow application for photographers. But there is competition. Phase One’s Capture One Pro and Apple’s Aperture offer alternatives to Lightroom that feature digital asset management. DxO Optics Pro is another excellent Raw converter. They shouldn’t be forgotten.

It doesn’t matter how good software like Lightroom (or Photoshop CS/CC) become, they don’t do everything. If there is a specific task that you would like to carry out, such as converting images to black and white, there is probably a third-party plug-in to help you. Offerings from OnOne Software, Nik Software, Topaz Labs and Alien Skin are well worth a look. Many of these are available as both stand-alone programs and plug-ins for Photoshop CS and Lightroom.

Summing Up

In short, in the early days of digital photography most photographers simply wanted to know how to edit their photo files. Now, image editing has expanded to three main tasks:

  • Digital Asset Management. This is the job of organising, viewing and searching your photos. Over a number of years that can add up to a substantial amount. An organised approach saves time and helps you locate specific photos quickly.
  • Processing Raw images. This is the job of converting Raw files into the JPEG or TIFF format.
  • Editing JPEG or TIFF files. This includes a wide number of tasks such as converting to black and white, portrait retouching, emulating film and applying special effects. There is a lot of software available here, some of it for very specialised tasks.

Photo editing software infographic

I’ve created an infographic that divides image editing into these three tasks, and lists both the major players and some interesting alternatives in each category. It’s not exhaustive, and I’m sure there’s plenty of software I’ve missed. But it’s a good guide to the available options. Click here or on the image to view or download the PDF.

Lightroom workflow infographic

The popularity of Lightroom makes me wonder if photographers are splitting into two camps: those that use Lightroom and build a complete workflow around it, and those that use one of the alternatives. For those of you who use Lightroom, I’ve created another infographic that places Lightroom at the hub of a complete workflow. Click here or on the image to view or download the PDF.



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11 Responses to “Alternatives to Photoshop CS/CC”

  1. Tom Bourdon says:

    Cheers for this Andrew it will be interesting to see what follows.

    Don’t forget to check out Gimp ( I’ve just started testing it and does many of the things I used to use Photoshop to do – certainly not all but a fair few and is worth a look especially considering the price – FREE !!


    • I meant to include it, but forgot! I will definitely download it sometime and have a look. I hear good things about it.

      • Roberto says:

        Indeed I’d like to mention Gimp as well. I use only GIMP, mostly because Photoshop and Lightroom are costly and have a learning curve anyways. GIMP too needs some time to handle the most advanced features, but considering it is a free software is just amazing!
        I supplement it with some paid software that is specialized in beautifying portraits, but that’s the only thing I miss in GIMP, all the crazy stuff one can possibly imagine with layers, change of lights and stuff is all there …
        Go try it if you have not done it yet!

        • Roberto says:

          forgot … now that I have *all* the Adobe software of this world provided for free by my employer, I still use GIMP all the time … am I too much of a fundamentalist of free software?

  2. Darlene says:

    Andrew good summary. I personally have been using LR since version 0.9 as a beta tester. Once I started with it, I never looked back, and I’ve been using Photoshop since about 1997 when I was scanning some negatives and working on my files digitally even then. I also did manual, by hand, retouching for years and years with tiny little brushes.

    The way I see it, and many will agree, is that PS was created for graphic professionals and LR was created for photographers with people like Scott Kelby having direct input into its creation. For me 95% of what I do, including portrait work, is done inside LR alone. The only time I got to plugins or PS is for: HDR tone mapping (Photomatix is my program of choice), head swapping or need layers (PS), or specialized affects (Topaz).

    As for some of the alternatives, I’ve tried Canons DPP – they can keep it IMO. I’ve helped some of my students try and use Aperture with not much luck. I find it counter intuitive and sneaky (it hides your original files inside its own database and to get to them you have to export them as DNG files, had to do that for a student that wanted to move from Aperture to LR and move over 5000 images. It was daunting to say the least). Anyway that’s my experience. Have you tried many of the other options in your testing?

    Great infographics, thanks for sharing.

    • I’ve used Canon’s DPP extensively but not any of the other Raw converters, apart from a quick look at DxO Optics Pro (which seemed really good).

      I will be testing out some of these programs over the next few months and writing about them here.

    • Rod Lawton says:

      Hi Darlene,

      Sorry to hear about your experiences with Aperture. I hesitate to say it, but I think you may have leapt to some wrong conclusions about the export functions, though. First, you don’t have to store images in the Aperture library – you can reference them as external files too. Second, you can export any image(s) as JPEGs, TIFFs, PNGs or PSD files, and DNG isn’t even on the list. You’re not thinking of Lightroom are you? Finally, you can also export original ‘master’ images from the Aperture library, totally unchanged and in their original form.

      • Darlene says:

        Uh no I’m NOT thinking of LR! I have used LR since version 0.8 beta, I’m pretty darn familiar with it, thanks.

        IF any of those things are possible it was extremely unintuitive and even googling it got us no helpful information. There are very little help sites on it and it was NOT easy to figure that out.

  3. Tim Scott says:

    May I point you to a few alternatives for Adobe software
    Phase One’s Capture One (very similar to LR)
    Phase One’s Media Pro professional photo management software
    and the best suite for everything else one does to a photo
    OnOne Softwares Perfect Photo Suite

    and for most of my minor manipulations I go with that old stand by for Windows Corel PaintShop Pro (PSP)

    I use the following, Adobe LR4, when I can no longer use it stand alone I will dump it. I have also been a long time user of Capture One & Corel PSP . . My fave software for 90% of any post work is done in OnOne Software Perfect Photo Suite, so is there capable software that can easily replace Adobe’s CS and its cloud based leasing ideas? Yes. All software mentioned above works well and is just as capable at a greatly reduced cost and hassle, customer support is great as well. So I challenge any premise that one “must” play Adobe’s game.

  4. Mike says:

    I’ve just finished a comprehensive, fully functioning trial of Photo Ninja. Overall I was extremely impressed.

    To put Photo Ninja through its paces I used a range of new and old images, including some troublesome ones. What surprised me was how quickly I was able to produce RAW conversions that were superior to Lightroom and DPP. Photo Ninja has built in presets for portraits and scenes that make conversions almost one click.

    Results with the troublesome images were particularly telling. I managed to get better results with far less work than compared to Lightroom.

    The downside to Photo Ninja is that like DPP edits are global. However I genuinely look to get things right in the camera so a first class RAW converter is more important to me than retouching functionality. If I do need to make local edits I always have Elements.

    My conclusion was that Photo Ninja is a far better RAW converter than Lightroom. In fact it’s the best converter I have ever used, outperforming Lightroom on like for like functionality. The sting in the tail for Lightroom is that Photo Ninja is a also a lot cheaper.

    I have been a Lightroom user since 2006 when Adobe bought Pixmantec, developers of Raw Shooter Premium which at the time beat Adobe Camera Raw hands down. For a number of reasons though I’ve been looking for an alternative to Lightroom. I do use DPP regularly and think it’s underrated but it’s not the best out there.

    Based on the trial period Photo Ninja is my future RAW converter of choice and I have now bought a full licence. So it’s bye bye Lightroom.

  5. I like your idea of Photoshop as a plugin. I also use it for complex retouch, blending, etc. Lightroom is enough for 95% of my needs.

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