Part 2: Lightroom Alternatives - An Intro to ON1 Photo

A look at the pros and cons of RAW converters

By johnhilvert in Articles and Tips on Jan 30, 2018

John Hilvert continues his flirtation with a Lightroom alternative. Three guidelines must be followed before choosing an alternative. He stresses the importance of having a safety net and embracing a strategy to strengthen a successful migration to sidestep heartaches and confusions learning to use a new raw editor.

He offers great reasons to switch, notwithstanding two irritating gotchas for Pentax users.

Three Requisites for a Successful Migration

As discussed in the last chapter, for many users, the issue is not so much what a Lightroom alternative offers as much as giving up on what worked for us in the past. You must commit to employ a new method of processing your RAW images or it can be just a confusing waste of time.

This means opting for a program that is close enough to Lightroom while learning the finer points of its eventual replacement the Lightroom.

Once you leave the safety of Lightroom for your processing, your support and training can be tough and important to manage from the outset. It's your time. Use it effectively.  

Migrating to a Lightroom alternative must satisfy three conditions:

  1. There should be many friendly YouTube tutorials, preferably from several qualified users that are concise and easy to learn from. The newer generation will sweeten the deal offering regular bonus clips and presets.
  2. There should be the possibility of phasing out Lightroom over time, rather than abandoning it completely. Many alternatives will mimic Lightroom’s GUI and even shortcut keys to assist.
  3. The alternative RAW editor should offer much more functionality to make up for the many hours of learning something new.

Taking each of these in turn, one score card regarding video tutorials based on video counts in Google reveals the following:

  1. Adobe (Lightroom) – 71.1K
  2. DxO Optics Pro – 28K
  3. Serif (Affinity Photo) – 25.2K
  4. Corel (AfterShot Pro) – 23.5K
  5. MacPhun (Luminar) –17.3K
  6. PhaseOne (Capture One) – 14.2K
  7. ON1 (Photo Raw Editor) – 13.6K
  8. Zoner (Photo Studio) – 12.5K
  9. Aurora HDR – 10.4K
  10. Polarr (Photo Editor) – 9.5K
  11. SilkyPix – 8.5K
  12. ACDSee Ultimate –6.9K
  13. Raw Therapee – 5.1K
  14. Cyberlink (Photo Director) –4.2K
  15. Magix (Photo Manager Deluxe) – 0.8K
  16. darktable – 0.1K

This offers one indirect measure of support and interest for each program. Significantly after Lightroom – which has been in the market for the longest – other editors offer a fraction of less than  a third of that for Lightroom.

It was the second factor of gradual migrating from Lightroom that made ON1 Photo RAW appealing to me. Key ON1 elements are installed as a plugin to Lightroom when it detects Lightroom on your device. The Google video ranking score for ON1 Effects tutorials is 1.7K, as well.  Indeed it became easier and less threatening for me that I could operate in either platform, switching between them as necessary.

Introducing ON1 Photo Raw 2018

I have now had two months with ON1 and it’s been great in a lot of ways.

It offers most of what Lightroom offers along with a several bonuses. It comprises four modules, Browse, Develop (similar to Lightroom’s Develop), Effects (masking tools including luminosity), Layers (Photoshop file functionality) and Resize (for Printing). It comes with a heap of presets and filters that can be stacked, switched on and off. Furthermore ON1 seems to offers new and easier ways to process RAW images that many Lightroom users have been demanding.

Fast browsing that even Lightroom users can deploy

ON1 loads images very quickly in its browse module because it offers a fast preview mode for quickly viewing and culling your images. When you open each image in Develop mode they may vary slightly as ON1 then uses its raw data and processing engine. There is also slightly slower “accurate mode” instead of fast, that you can catalogue them as well.

ON!'s Browser-View
ON1's lightning fast RAW image browser view blows away Lightroom's approach

As a fast image browser, sticklers for Lightroom can point ON1 at a folder/SD card of photos, viewing them instantly. Unlike Lightroom there is no need to import or catalogue them before processing. The ON1 Browse module can be used to sort, cull and rename images before they import them into Lightroom. The metadata added in Browse, from star ratings to keywords to IPTC core fields are stored in Adobe xmp sidecar files. Using Lightroom’s “Save Metadata to File” command will embed any metadata (like keywords) added to your photos. Then add your highest level folder of photos, like your My Pictures folder, as an Indexed Folder in ON1 Photo RAW. So when you catalogue your photos with Lightroom it reads these sidecar files and adds the metadata to Lightroom automatically. With ON1 Photo RAW metadata may be exchanged and kept up-to-date between Lightroom, Photoshop and ON1 Photo RAW automatically.

That said, ON1 also offers its own digital archive management. But I’m wary to embrace that just yet. It offers a conversion from Lightroom’s tested and polished catalogue that I may explore once I gain more insight into its merits. For now, my strategy is to persist with Lightroom’s archiving.

Training wheels: Workflow for Lightroom migrants

Likewise, ON1 Photo Raw 2018, also eased my concerns – a lot - by offering a separate “Like Lightroom” preset as part of its Develop module. While it’s similar it encouraged me to use my former Lightroom workflow for straight development purposes.

Here are three examples comparing ON1 with Lightroom using just the basic Develop module, in each case.

Lightroom version
ON1
Lightroom version
ON1
Lightroom version
ON1

Both seemed acceptable. However apart from small tonal differences, ON1 tended to offer a crisper more contrasty look than Lightroom. ON1 can create halos around some of the figures. This can be managed with masking and reducing opacity (to be covered in the next part) as required.

It appears that, whatever preset is set as the default, ON1 seemed too ready to apply midtone contrast adjustments. This difference may be due to my trying to drive ON1 as if it were Lightroom. Lightroom seems to offer a more gradual approach in its sliders moderating the image processing. ON1's generous use of opacity sliders for tone, color etc will be your friend.

Non halo typical processed image
With careful attention to its sliders, ON1 is capable of subtle output without haloing

A generous number of develop presets with instant image previews are available on its left vertical panel. These can be slid away allowing for more exploration. Being able to use my previous Lightroom workflow skills as necessary made ON1 atractive from the start. It also allows you to synchronise the same processing to enable batch processing as with Lightroom.

However ON1 lacks Lightroom's historical logging of your processing, depriving you off reverting to a previous point. Apart from repeatedly hitting <Control-Z>, "reset" and "reset all", the undo options are crude. You can save virtual instances of your image. But lacking the comfort of logging your process can reduce your productivity.

Though ON1 claims it has improved its highlight recovery, a comparison of its performance shows it is still weaker than Lightroom. Consider this rough image I captured at a tech conference below.

RAW image processed as is

While the figures were reasonably exposed, a bright display to the middle right of the image was so over-exposed it was blown-out. Below are the best efforts of ON1 versus Lightroom.

Lightroom out-performed ON1 on highlight recovery

More work is needed by ON1 to match Lightroom's facility in retrieving highlights, in particular.

However this was made up by its astonishing haze reduction filter. ON1 can offer subtle all the way to 100% over-cooked processing. This is the haze filter Lightroom should have offered us. Blown out clouds in Lightroom can be dialed back as necessary with this slider.

ON1's awesome haze slider offers intriguing approaches to highlight recoveryThe performance of ON1's haze filter makes up for its so-so highlight recovery

ON1's sharpness tools offer less refinement requiring more attention to its various sliders. If optimising sharpness and noise reduction are vital, I'd opt for specialised software such as Topaz. However ON1's array of filters and local adjustments (ie masking) - which I did not use with these examples, are in advance of Lightroom without Photoshop. Also local adjustments option in ON1 could have diminished the slight haloing that occurred.

While both ON1 and Lightroom offer non-destructive edits of RAW files, they are not compatible with each other. You can view your ON1 edits to a photo while you in ON1. To see those edits in Lightroom (or vice versa) you must export or save a copy of the photo with the edits applied, which is not re-editable.

Two downsides for Pentax users

Initial testing of processing the same image with Lightroom and ON1 suggests my conversion to ON1 will happen sometime later this year. But I do miss some functionality that is not available.

While it loads the large Pentax’s HDR files without issue, ON1 will reliably crash if you decide to open, let alone, try to reprocess, files separated in Ricoh’s Digital Camera Utility. This issue has been drawn to ON1’s support who confirmed its existence. If you wish to use ON1’s otherwise excellent HDR processing feature, you’ll have to do it via separate bracketed exposures. This bug does not feature in Lightroom or Aurora HDR 2018, both of which can process separated Pentax HDR files, without issue.

The second disappointment is that ON1 does not support Pixel-Shift directly. It has no plans to do so at this stage, according to its developers. However, saving a Pixel-Shift to a TIFF file seems to work without losing resolution. On a more positive note, a DCU 5 converted Pentax Pixel-shift DNG to 16-bit TIFF file can be loaded and enhanced in ON1 without tears. 

ON1 is configurable. You can expand an image being processed to take up the full size of its display. But it is yet to support dual displays enabling a separate display for the image being processed and the other dedicated to the various processing tabs. This results in a busier processing workspace that has to be tabbed off and on.

Next column we’ll explore more gotchas in my migration from Lightroom along with the delights to be found in ON1’s powerful masking modules, presets and filters.

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