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3 Alternative Post-Processing Applications that Challenge the Adobe Throne

Image: Adjusting color, recovering highlights, and salvaging shadow detail are just some of the capa...

Adjusting color, recovering highlights, and salvaging shadow detail are just some of the capabilities that make these three software packages powerful challenger to the Adobe dynasty.



ON1 Photo RAW 2019, Alien Skin Exposure X4.5, and Capture One 12


Apples, oranges, and bananas

Yes, they are all fruits, all are natural, and they all taste sweet, but there are differences between each that appeal to different pallets. When comparing these three alternative post-processing applications to the revered Adobe offerings of Photoshop, Lightroom, and Camera RAW, the differences are as noticeable as the similarities.

A little background

When it all began, Photoshop offered digital photographers a simple collection of imaging tools that allowed them to adjust the colors, tones, and sharpness of their pictures. It was all nice and simple.

However, that simplicity got more complicated.

The ’90s was an era that awakened a new generation of photographers. The taste of blood was in the public waters, and it attracted all forms of predators. As users became more sophisticated, demanding more power and software magic, Silicon Valley awoke to the smell of profits. Computer technology companies sprung up everywhere, developing new and faster processors, higher resolution monitors and larger storage devices.

The door to the digital darkroom swung wide open, and the Adobe marketing machine began rolling out yearly updates for their breakthrough photo editing software. Cha-Ching.

Adobe not only started a new industry – they owned it. For the first ten years or so, Adobe wisely kept any imaging software challengers at bay by enlisting them to develop supporting software (called plugins) that added functionality to Photoshop without challenging its command directly. Dozens of very cleaver plug-in technology companies were welcomed to demonstrate their products (and their allegiance) to Adobe within their mammoth booth at all the trade shows.

Adobe Systems became a very extended family and quickly established themselves as the Goliath that nobody dared to provoke.

Image: Adobe booth at MacWorld show in San Francisco.

Adobe booth at MacWorld show in San Francisco.

The Adobe scientists invested in the digital camera manufacturers and Silicon Valley chip wizards. Every year these developers delivered smaller and more powerful image sensors and processors able to capture and deliver incredible levels of detail from digital camera images. Adobe introduced a powerful plug-in package of their own called Camera Raw, able to mine and manipulate the vast amounts of RAW data captured by the sensors.

Image: Early Panasonic PV-SD4090 PalmCam digital camera and Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 4K Mirrorless, 20...

Early Panasonic PV-SD4090 PalmCam digital camera and Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 4K Mirrorless, 2018.

When first introduced, digital cameras were only able to capture 256 levels (8-bits) of color. However, the sensors and processors for the new generation of cameras upped the ante by delivering up to 4 trillion (14-bits) color.

The Photoshop dreadnaught continued to grow and dominate the market. For that first decade, Photoshop was not only the digital imaging Sheriff – it was the law!

However, as it happens with many other products, Photoshop eventually became so gorged with various tools and appliances intended to address every need of photographers and artists, that it began to resemble a cramped and crowded commercial kitchen; pots, pans, and ladles hanging from every conceivable hook. The once swift, svelte and powerful software buckled under its own excesses, eventually being tagged by one industry pundit as bloatware.

But nobody has ever accused Goliath of being either daft or deaf. Adobe listened and learned from its more sophisticated photographer base who demanded a software package streamlined and focused specifically on the professional user. This new software would include filing and database features allowing professional photographers to catalog, label, sort, and shape their images in one arena, and free of most of the fluffy and artsy features of Photoshop. Adobe crowned this new pro-focused software Lightroom. Pretty cleaver… Photo Shop and Light Room. Hmm-m.

3 Alternative Post-Processing Applications that Challenge the Adobe Throne

Goliath and the David class

All this time, quietly in the background, several talented Photoshop plug-in developers were busy developing their own image-altering software. Software consisting of mostly specialty filters and visual effects tools that worked within both Photoshop and Lightroom as plug-ins. In addition, they operated as standalone software editing applications.

Behind the scenes, a silent revolution existed that would someday rise up and directly challenge Goliath. These same “deep-bit” RAW processing tools once only available in Camera Raw and Lightroom were now available from these independent developers who had quietly amassed millions of faithful followers. The “David” class of software emerged, with the battle lines now drawn. Goliath had some worthy opponents to contend with and some new battles to fight.

Many of the software developers in this “David class” were long-term seasoned veterans in the image editing field with their own stable of brilliant young engineers. They had initially opened their doors for business in the early nineties, just a couple of years after the introduction of Photoshop.

These companies included Extensis, Alien Skin, and Phase One Camera Systems. My own software company, ImageXpress, introduced our Scanprep plug-in product in 1993, so I have known and respected these companies for over twenty-five years. They each offer unique products and have earned long and distinguished records in the industry.

3 Alternative Post-Processing Applications that Challenge the Adobe Throne

Extensis, Alienskin and Eye Candy

Extensis, founded in Portland, Oregon in 1993, offered several products, including Intellihance. At that time, Craig Keudell was the company’s VP of Sales and Operations and would later become President. Originally developed as a plug-in for Photoshop, Intellihance offered simple image corrections.

Craig went on to found ON1, Inc in 2005. ON1 is the developer of Photo RAW 2019, a dead-serious Lightroom contender sporting a powerful Raw processor, image editor, and DAM (digital asset management) system.

Alien Skin Software was also founded in 1993 by Jeff Butterworth (joined soon thereafter by Finley Lee), on the other side of the country in Raleigh, North Carolina. This company’s first software product was called Eye Candy, an image interpreter that gave users the ability to produce attractive (and sometimes bazaar) special effects from digital images. Alien Skin’s current flagship software, Exposure X4.5, provides RAW processing, image editing, and a nearly exhaustive collection of pre-set filters. These filters simulate the look of just about every film-age photo paper, film emulsion, and toning process.



Phase One – Capture One 12

Phase One Camera A/S is a Danish company founded that very same year (1993). It produced a unique medium format digital camera system for the professional market. The Copenhagen-based camera manufacturer’s latest hardware offering is the XF IQ4 Camera System, now in its fourth generation. Phase One’s precision camera systems require a very sophisticated software product to exploit the massive amounts of spectral data delivered by their cameras.

In 2003, Capture One software first began to support 35mm DSLR cameras from third-party manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, and Fuji. The software now supports 500+ cameras. Capture One 12 is the current version of this advanced editing software.

Products and uses

Most users of Lightroom operate the software for similar reasons – cataloging, organizing, and the basic editing of digital images. In that respect, all of the challengers offer similar services and features.

But not all users have the same needs with their software.

Digital photographers come in all sizes with diverse desires. Many users don’t get beyond the simple primping stages of brightening, straitening, and cleaning up their images – the basic processes that all began thirty years ago with Photoshop. Others are either professional photographers or dead-serious enthusiasts who utilize very advanced features of the software.

With the variety of software available in this field, there is something for everyone.

The Adobe alternatives

Just as these original three “David class” developers focused on different areas of the imaging industry with their initial products back in the ‘90s, each of their current products has established turf in today’s market. While offering the same basic editing and non-destructive RAW adjustment tools as Camera Raw and Lightroom, each product maintains its own personality.

There are similarities with these post-processing applications in the initial “sliders” appearance and the operation of each application, but beyond the basic tonal and color adjustments, the individual strengths become more evident.

Depending on your needs and personal preference, you may find that one of these products appeal to you and draw you away from your Adobe subscription addiction.

Let’s take a look at the strengths and personalities of the software products.


ON1 Photo RAW 2019.5

Purchase price $100 (upgrade from the previous version: $80)

ON1 Photo RAW 2019.5 will give you the features photographers use the most from the Lightroom and Photoshop worlds in a single application. With Photo RAW, you can quickly browse, organize, manage, and catalog photos in your photo editing workflow. The ultra-fast photo browser and organizer are perfect for rapidly viewing and culling through photos without waiting on previews to generate or an import process.

Importing images is not necessary with Photo RAW. You don’t create libraries or catalogs with this software. Instead, you view the images where they reside on your computer. If you want easy access to specific images within specific folders, use the indexing feature. Indexing these folders in Photo RAW keeps track of all thumbnails in each folder. Photo RAW actually moves the image files to a folder that you specify.

Photo RAW key features: HDR, Noise Reduction, Versions (Virtual Copies), Photo Stitching (Merge to Panorama), Keywords, Tethered Shooting, Portrait Retouching, and Layers.

With the addition of layers, ON1 ups the ante by allowing you to blend, mask, replace backgrounds, and more. ON1 Photo RAW also provides 27 unique filters, LUTs, and textures, delivering ample interpretations of each image.

ON1 also includes a Lightroom Migration assistant that utilizes AI-powered algorithms to transfer Lightroom edited photos, keep the non-destructive settings, and move them into ON1 Photo RAW.


Alien Skin Exposure X4.5

Purchase price: $119, (upgrade from previous versions $79-$89), and bundled with Blow up and Snap Art for $149.

Exposure X4.5 offers powerful organizing tools, fast performance, an intuitive design, and a subscription-free approach. With this one piece of software, you can handle all your photo editing work. Exposure X4.5 is best known for its selection of beautiful customizable presets, which span the entire history of film and beyond.

With Exposure X4.5, you choose the image folders you want to organize by adding them as “bookmarks.” Once a folder is ‘bookmarked,’ you can browse the subfolders as indexed and cataloged folders, searching for photos using keywords or image metadata.

Exposure X4.5 key features: Extensive browsing, search, and cataloguing tools (Smart Collections and Bookmarks), Light Effects and Textures, analog film effects, ample LUTs (lookup tables for instant tone and color shifts), Virtual Copies, sophisticated Bokeh effects, transform tools to straighten and correct perspective shots and watched folders.



Phase One Camera Systems Capture One 12.03

Perpetual license: $299, subscription $15/mo.

Capture One offers a lot of everything for just about every level of interest. Delving into its inner workings allows one to tinker with color on a near-molecular level. While it is not a particularly intuitive tool for the beginner, it is a pure delight for those who want infinite control over their adjustments. New users can go to learn.captureone.com to get started. Capture One offers a very logical and exhaustive array of tools and controls, leaving little need for a wishlist. The learning curve is steep, but the control provided is nearly exhaustive.

Capture One offers two ways to access and file images:

  • Catalog – a full DAM (digital asset management) system which works very similar to Lightroom, and
  • Session – a per project-based image access process.

The Session choice works by clicking on the small folder icon in the upper left-hand part of the original open window and accessing a very simple Mac/finder-type search dialogue. You indicate your image folder and then view the images inside that folder stacked vertically on the right-hand side of the Capture One window. Double-click an image and start working.

Capture One key features: Near-infinite masking tools for Basic, Advanced, and Skin Tone colors, including Hue, Saturation, Lightness, and Smoothness (feathered edges), Color Balance for Highlight, Midtone, Shadow, 3-Way (overall), color channel controlled B/W conversions, Layers (up to 16, each with individual chroma/luma range assignments), and dynamic Histogram readouts that track every adjustment.

Capture One’s extensive masking tools provide unparalleled control over both color and tonal shape with each mask creating its own layer. The variety of masks include Luminosity, Linear Gradient, and Radial Gradients. Each mask is infinitely adjustable and can be tweaked and finessed at any time. You can also purchase additional Styles Packs (essentially, presets that don’t alter the exposure or white balance).

Image: The goal of any image editing software is a successful result. Each of the software packages...

The goal of any image editing software is a successful result. Each of the software packages mentioned herein is capable of delivering just that. I’ll leave it to you to predict which software I chose to rescue and produce this example.


I’ve made no attempt to declare a winner in this article, but most assuredly these alternative post-processing applications are very valid and capable challengers to the Adobe dynasty.

You certainly owe it to yourself to download a trial to each one of these packages and experiment with the possibilities. The alternatives are both diverse and similar in their offerings.

Each of these three packages requires a bit of habit remapping, and you should afford the time needed to draw your conclusions. Your personal requirements and tastes will ultimately deliver your answer.

I should note that no one piece of software; neither the Adobe family nor the challengers, provides a single comprehensive solution for all needs. Whichever addresses your particular needs best will become the backbone of your post-production work.

Fortunately for me, I own (and use) all of these alternative post-processing applications.

Have you used these any of these alternative post-processing applications? What are your thoughts?



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Herb Paynter
Herb Paynter

is the owner of Imageprep Communications, a photographer, author, and print consultant suffering in sunny Ormond Beach Florida. He is an award-winning Photoshop plug-in software developer who has been teaching digital imaging and production image editing for more than 20 years. Check his blog The Way Eyes See It, download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store or view his digital color video series at Gotta Know Videos.com.

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