Digital Darkroom Software Review: Review

Before I get started, a disclaimer:

NO piece of software is going to make you a better photographer.

Practice might. But software will not.

Go out there and shoot. You can read this later.

ProgramLightZoneAfterShot Pro 2RawTherapeedarktableLightroom CC (and Mobile), Capture One Pro, RPP, DxO Optics Pro
Platforms Available Tested: (Linux), Mac, Windows
Prices: most free, some paid
Installation: variable

And… done.

After 4 months (or is it 5 now?) of not shooting much, processing the same 30 or so pictures over and over again, and cursing at computers more than I like, I found an answer. Not the answer, perhaps, but a good answer, and one that I didn’t really expect.

So what’s the answer? Well, let’s first have a look at Ripped, Drop the main comparison image, and compare/contrast the output from the various players.

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Actually, before we get too much into that, what’s the question, even?

First, some background:  Lightroom CC debuted back in April, and it was hard to even find a straight upgrade to LR6 at first. The extras in the subscription are enticing, if you need them, but the whole thing smacked of profit taking, to me. Adobe, of course, insists that the subscription is a response to government interference vis a vis Sarbanes-Oxley… it’s a bit complicated, and maybe true. And to prove it, they updated CC with shiny new tools just two months later, thus showing their commitment to subscription models/profits instead of users. Otherwise, why not delay the release a month, or just release the tools as part of the original release (after all, they had already demoed the tools at AdobeMAX back in 2014).

The subscription model is ok, I suppose: assuming a 2 year upgrade cycle, it’s triple the $80 upgrade fee, and for that $160 extra dollars, you get two years of Photoshop and Lightroom Mobile, plus whatever shiny tools that Adobe decides to grace users with,* and for many people, it’s probably worth it. I wanted to see if there was something else.

So the question: is there anything out there, free or paid, that can match or exceed Lightroom in ease of use and quality of output?

The answer, in short, is “Yes, absolutely and without question.”

But let’s take a bit of a deeper dive. I went much further in the reviews linked above, so I’ll try to keep this short and general.

I only reviewed eight applications, and there are eight pictures above. But if you read the RPP review, you know that I didn’t get a usable Ripped, Drop out of it, so where did that extra one come from?

The extra comes courtesy of Affinity Photo, which didn’t make the cut because it’s really a Photoshop rival (and a pretty good one) and I have no need of a PS clone, especially since I own a licensed—if rarely used—copy of CS6. But it’s useful to compare various outputs, and that image makes up the basis of my decision-making, so it’s good to have extra images to look at.

To answer my questions, I focused on two primary areas. First, on the photo-editing/negative conversion front, how easy was Ripped, Drop to process/modify and what was the outcome? (I’ll get to those shortly.) And second, on the Library/image organizing front, first, does the software have one, and second, can I use it to more or less easily organize my library, add/edit metadata, find pictures, etc.?

So let’s make this as short as possible, though I see I’ve already failed on that front… First, the Library functions, or lack thereof:

  • LightZone has no library, no catalog, no keywording, so it’s not really worth mentioning.
  • AfterShot Pro 2 has all the metadata searches and filters and all, but no user-definable albums or smart albums, both of which are more or less required for my workflow.
  • RawTherapee has no library at all, so it can’t be considered for a primary digital darkroom, sadly.
  • darktable has a library, if you can call it that, but it’s little more than a view into the file system, and a rather poor one at that.
  • Lightroom has the library against which all others are judged, as I’ve used it for a couple of years now and am familiar with and used to what it can do.
  • Capture One Pro has a library, keywording and filtering, albums and smart albums. It’s not quite up to the same standard as Lightroom, and I found a couple of bothers after I published the review on it (more about that below) but it’s passable.
  • RPP has less of a library than any of the others: you can view one image at a time, direct from the file system, and batch process (blindly) one folder at a time, but that’s it. Of course, it’s not even trying to be a DAM system or anything: it’s a digital darkroom only.
  • DxO Optics Pro has something of a library: it looks in the file system, and you can create projects with arbitrary images, but there are no project collections or smart projects, both of which are required for my workflow.

I know that’s only 8 tests (plus a couple of hours with Affinity that I didn’t much enjoy), but that’s all the ones I found… There’s also Iridient Developer, and some cobbled-together solutions involving Preview, the Finder, RPP, ACR and/or some other tools. And there is ACDSee, formerly Windows-only, which I didn’t test because there was no Mac or Linux version at the time. And there are likely others that I didn’t hear of in time, or still haven’t heard of.

But I think I tested enough to get a good idea of what’s out there, and to find a good answer, for me, I hope.

So on the image manipulation front, let’s look at Ripped, Drop again.

Take a few moments and flip through those, or scroll up to the top and flip through the slideshow. There’s a wide variety of white balance settings in there, owing partly to the complexities of the image, partly to the different conversion methods (mostly DCRAW, some internally-brewed converters), and partly to my shifting moods: some days, I thought it should look more blue; other days, more red; others, purple, yellow, green, desaturated, vibrant. So look past the color. Look at the sharpness, the clarity, the rendering of the drips, the rips, the creases, the uneven development. Look also at the chromatic aberration around the sprocket holes and in that scar in the top center. See any differences?

It’s clear, to me anyway, that every RAW developer has its strengths and its weaknesses, and I hope to have covered at least some of both in the original reviews linked above.

  • LightZone has some interesting tools, but there is no option to flip images, and since I “scan” the emulsion side so as to eek out the most detail, LightZone didn’t make the cut.
  • AfterShot Pro has some decent tools and great built in noise reduction from Athentech, but it has a bit of of strangeness and kluge that I just can’t get past.
  • RawTherapee is great. Its tools and output are superb, and the film simulations from Pat David’s Hald CLUT system make it worth keeping around, at minimum.
  • darktable is excellent too, with interesting tools and a slightly familiar layout. I wanted/expected it to win and I expected to be using it more or less full time by now, but as far as output goes, it’s bested by RawTherapee, I think, and it doesn’t quite have the necessary bits to do what I need/want to do.
  • Lightroom CC is the straight up industry standard, but I can’t swallow the subscription model, despite the rather excellent Lightroom Mobile. There’s also Lightroom 6, which I didn’t test since it’s essentially Lightroom CC, but without Mobile and an obvious profit-taking maneuver disguised as a couple of minor tool updates.
  • Capture One is missing a couple of things like support for the 15 year old C-5050Z and I just realized that there’s no way to import photos from the iPhone, but it has the image quality and toolset to beat, in my mind.
  • RPP has no invert function at all, so it’s useless for converting negatives, but its ability to show more data than other developers (or its refusal to show more than what’s actually in the raw file)
  • DxO will invert, and it does a really good job pulling out detail and its lens correction is (said to be) the best (I didn’t really test it), but it doesn’t flip (and it doesn’t see anything from the C5050), so can’t be the one for me.

So how am I going to reconcile all of this?

Well, if I was going to go pure open source, I would probably give DigiKam a look, but after my very brief look at it in VirtualBox, I’d more likely organize photos in gthumb and process raw files in RawTherapee, with some forays into darktable to play with some of its tools. With that combo, I’d get a library as good as the one in Lightroom and raw processors that beat ACR any day of the week.

If I was going to switch to Windows, I’d probably… I don’t know. I probably would’ve tested ACDSee, but I’d likely stick with Lightroom and probaby even go the CC route. RawTherapee has a Windows port, but I don’t know of any library software that could compete with Lightroom on that OS.

But InshaAllah I’ll be sticking with Mac, so I have a few ideas.

The cheap option: stick with Lightroom 5 for its organizational capabilities and send important raw files out to RPP and/or RawThereapee for some extra work. With that, I’d get the continued usefulness of Lightroom and it’s general utility, plus the power of RPP and RawTherapee.

The less expensive option: upgrade to Lightroom 6 for the speed, but stay away from CC, and add in RawTherapee as above. The speed improvement alone, on my machine, is worth the upgrade price.

The slightly more expensive option: go with CC, keep RawTherapee around for Pat David’s Hald CLUT film simulations and do most of the heavy lifting in Photoshop, not that I really have any need for Photoshop.

But after processing one picture in Capture One Pro, I knew it was the only choice for me. For my money/time, nothing else comes close to ease of use and output.

So here’s what I’ve done, and what I plan to do (preliminary tests look good, but more tests are needed):

  • I started by keywording and organizing all my pictures in Lightroom. (My initial plan was to stick with Lightroom 5 for this, but after using CC for a month, I couldn’t bear the dramatic slowdown in 5, and so I dropped the $80 and upgraded to 6.)
  • I imported my Lightroom Master Catalog into Capture One Pro. This brought along all the albums (but not the smart albums, sadly), keywords, star ratings, some of the crop stuff, and a tiny bit of the develop settings.
  • Going forward, I’ll do all of my file management, photo editing and raw developing in C1P.
  • Lightroom 6 will be used to intake files from the C5050 and convert them to dng for editing in C1P. It will also handle most of the video, and any of the pano stitching or focus stacking or HDRing that I do in the future. And if I ever need to dig into the old Lightroom catalog—and I already have—I’ll have a speedy version of the software to get me there.
  • RawTherapee will be around for the film simulations and for some of its tools.
  • RPP will be on the sidelines for any time where I have something that needs the absolute best.

With this setup, I’ll have by far the best Raw developer out there right now, and one that seems to be constantly improving due to direct user input, perhaps thanks to its foreign headquarters and the consequent inapplicability of SarbOx. I’ll also have access to raw panos, HDRs, and focus-stacks, plus an ability to make minor edits to video. And I’ll even have access to a wide range of film simulations and the best open source raw editors out there.

Sure, it’s going to be expensive ~$350 for the software ($80 for LR6 + $270 for a discounted copy of C1P), and $99 for C1P updates (vs. $79 for Lightroom). But the quality and ease of use will be nearly unbeatable.

So the project is at an end. Thanks be to God.

Will my photographs get better? Probably not. But I now have (I think) the best set of tools available for processing digital photographs, and I’m (mostly) out of Adobe.

Thanks be to God.

And now I can get back to shooting, and sharing what I shoot in a more or less timely manner.

Thanks be to God.

*If indeed they decide to include any other shiny new tools, something that remains to be seen.


Edit: reading back over this, I realize that I’ve forgotten to include the problems/issues I found with Capture One. That’s ok, as it deserves another post anyway, but if you were looking forward to that, I apologize, but you’ll just have to stay tuned!


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