When we think about photo processing software, Photoshop and Lightroom immediately come to mind. These are great tools and I have been using Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) for many years. Usually, they are part of my main workflow. Having said that, I do use other software as there are many other excellent tools for photo processing that often do a better job.
Free is Fabulous
I will primarily focus on the most common free options which could be used as a replacement to Photoshop and Lightroom. There are a multitude of free processing programs, all with various levels of complexity and functionality. In this post, I am covering the ones I have found worth the time and effort to learn and use. There are also free web based programs for editing. I am not a fan of these as I like programs I can run on demand and not contingent upon internet access for them to work. I have a lengthy list of issues with web based editing software.
Camera Maker Software
Way back when, camera makers used to include processing software in the box with the brand new digital camera. As internet connections got faster, they ditched the disk but the native software is still available, and relevant. All the camera makers for the most part have processing software available to download from their website. Some makers require the camera serial number in order to activate the software, most others don’t.
Why bother with the native software when there are well known alternatives?
- It’s free! No requirements for monthly subscription or updates.
- Native software reads native RAW files perfectly.
- Performs most if not all of the heavy lifting in processing.
- New cameras are supported way before 3rd party software.
- Can feel clunky. After all, the camera makers manufacture great cameras. Software is not their main gig.
- May make you annoyed you can’t do everything in one place. I parallel this to needing ACR or Lightroom to process RAW and then utilizing Photoshop for heavier duty processing.
As a Nikon shooter, I use Nikon’s NX Studio. Often. When other software makes my RAW image look “off” or just plain wrong, NX Studio comes to the rescue. I start with the RAW image processed in NX and export it as a 16 bit TIFF for further processing in Photoshop. When shooting infrared and low-light images, nothing beats starting in the native software. My astro images are cleaner (aka less noise and artifacts) and my infrared looks as it does on the LCD of my camera, not overly saturated and with a warped white balance. The detail and dynamic range that my camera imparts to the image remains intact. Using linear profiles in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom brings the dynamic range back, but that is a whole other story.
If you are a Photoshop or Lightroom user, think of your camera’s native software as Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) or the develop module in Lightroom.
If your RAW image looks or feels “off”, see what it looks like it the native software.
Below, a screen shot of NX Studio. The red box is the focus point I used when I shot the image. If your wondering if it shows multiple focus points as well, yes it does. I used a single focus point when I shot the image below, hence the single focus point. The visibility of the focus point(s) can be toggled on and off.
The panel on the right is the adjustment panel. It has the full gamut of tools, from basic exposure and white balance adjustments to healing brush, sharpening, noise reduction, perspective control, lens corrections, and much more.
Below are two screenshots, an infrared image as NX Studio sees it and how ACR sees it. No adjustments have been made in either.
In NX Studio, the image looks as it does on the LCD of my camera.
In ACR, the image looks vastly different. The histogram looks nothing like the one in NX Studio. This is an example of where the native processor is incredibly valuable.
If you don’t already have your camera’s native software, you can easily find it:
Canon shooters, search for Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP).
Fuji shooters, search for Fuji X RAW Studio.
Panasonic shooters, search for Silkypix Developer Studio SE.
Olympus shooters, search for OM Workspace.
Sony shooters, search for Sony Imaging Edge Desktop.
If your camera maker is not listed above, go to their website to find the associated or recommended software.
I discovered RawTherapee while trying out various tools for deep space photography. As it can handle 32 bit linear files that are generated from astro stacking programs, it is ideal for processing this type of image. It runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. This tool works incredibly well and it’s actually shocking that it free (and that good!).
The interface is clean, the tools are easy to use, once the light dawned on me that they are activated by clicking on the radio button that resembles a power button. Activating the button applies the default effect and enables the sliders. There are an amazing range of adjustments that can be done in RawTherapee, though you most likely will only use a handful. I suggest that you try them all and see what they do.
The Shadows/Highlights is now active so the sliders can be adjusted.
Enabling the various adjustments, you can quickly edit an image.
Once editing is done, you can export it as a jpeg or a 16 or 32 bit Tiff. If you plan to edit the Tiff in Photoshop, use the 16 bit as Photoshop gets really wonky if you try to edit a 32 bit Tiff.
- It’s free!
- It has a lot of power and editing features to pull out all you can from a RAW file
- Performs most if not all of the heavy lifting in processing.
- Uses 32 bit processing which prevents posterization of an image. More about what this is in this ,post.
- Works hand in hand with GIMP or as a standalone RAW processor.
- Can feel like the sliders aren’t making a change in the image. In other words, it can feel slow so take it slow so frustration doesn’t set in.
- Can feel overwhelming due to the expanse of editing options available, but don’t let it block you from trying it.
- If you are in the market for an alternative (and free) RAW processor, definitely check out RawTherapee.
The next two applications are parallel to Photoshop and Lightroom
GIMP is very much like Photoshop. It has layers, masks, brushes, and a gamut of tools. The layout is very similar so Photoshop users can dive right in. If you are looking for a free replacement to Photoshop, this is the tool for you. It runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. I found it to be easy to adapt to as the look, feel and function is so much like Photoshop. Use it in conjunction with RawTherapee and you have a suite of powerful processing tools. GIMP can’t read RAW files on its own (neither can Photoshop), hence the need for a RAW converter. Just like Photoshop, there are a multitude of plugins you can install. Google GIMP plugins for more features. ,,GitHub and ,,SourgeForge.net are good places to search as well. Don’t be put off by the geeky wording. The install of these features is easier than you may think.
The workspace can be configured as you see fit.
If the feature you are looking for in GIMP isn’t there, it most likely is a plugin to be installed.
Although I am not a Lightroom user, I am noting this program as it is a catalog and editor like Lightroom and offers many of the same functions. If you are a Lightroom user, you will have no issues using ,,darktable
Don’t be put off by using open source programs. They aren’t sketchy and malware laden. Open source programs are powerful. These are programs that are distributed with the source code that anyone can inspect and enhance.
As we are creatures of habit, we get stuck in a routine and forget to consider different ways to do something. Changing it up keeps you fresh in your approach.
Open-source software is computer software that is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to use, study, change, and distribute the software and its source code to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software may be developed in a collaborative, public manner.
© Silvana Della Camera