This post is a narrative of my journey away from Adobe Lightroom Classic and CC to other applications and photography workflows. There will be no specific details given, just the ‘big picture’. The specifics of my workflows are tuned for the way I think, I strongly urge you to tune things laid out below to your specific needs, not mine.
In October 2015… I became an amateur photographer. My Significant Other had talked me into visiting an abandoned golf course that was slowly rebuilt as housing and the course itself wasn’t fully gone, just left with minimal upkeep where they didn’t build housing. I took a jpeg only (dang you past self!) of a squirrel and ’the rest is history’ as some would say.
At the time I had just bought a Sony QX1. It is a camera that hooks to your phone and uses your phone as the controls. I had purchased it and some basic macro photography kit to take photos of the electronics projects I was working on in my spare time. It was effectively a Sony mirrorless camera without the brains, you used a phone and app as the brains. Tellingly this setup became the standard remote control for most higher end cameras long term. It also meant I had the necessary hardware to become a serious amateur photographer very quickly.
Given I had started photography from the perspective of macro and product photography I was aware of a few editing tools like Lightroom but I didn’t have a lot of experience or theory stashed in my brain. I tried quite a few apps, including the apps I use today and landed on Lightroom.
How I Use Lightroom
Given the title of this post, you’re likely wondering if I’m going to disparage Lightroom and I will, jut minimally. As of this writing there are two main lineages of ‘Lightroom’. The ‘Classic’ version and the ‘CC’ version. Lightroom Classic I actually really like. It has a reasonably quick catalog, uses xmp files for edits and lets you manage your data fully. It’s also far less overwhelming to new users while allowing pros to do their thing efficiently. My only complaint is the cloud sync. I nearly lost data to their sync. Why? Because their sync doesn’t seem to sync the metadata to anything but the catalog database. If you need that info it won’t come across without doing some kind of export/import loop.
Lightroom CC is the new way according to Adobe. It has a mobile app and does sync to Lightroom Classic if you set the right options. To say I was happy with this would be under statement. I used Lightroom CC for all my mobile photography needs, especially when working on blog posts and other small items as my phone shoots raw, runs Lightroom CC and my Lightroom Classic presets were able to be converted to CC. That’s a lot of value for a serious photographer of any level. About 250 - 500 images were stored in my Lightroom CC account when I started my exit. Enough to be annoying and mildly painful but not enough for me to worry about lost data. I can add the metadata back later by hand for these. I got very lucky I didn’t have a lot of metadata in Lightroom CC, my shifting photos to Lightroom Classic to keep things in one place really saved me. I used an export + import to move things from CC to Classic.
Why did I do an export + import to move photos between the two? Remember my half aside about Classic not storing metadata in the sync’d image, just storing it in the catalog (usually, sometimes it worked for writing metadata to sync’d files)? This breaks my backups and data freedom. I want the file metadata stored in the file or in an xmp so my file backups have everything I need. It also lets me use many different apps to work with my photo catalog. That’s really important as I have years and terabytes of storage dedicated to photography. I’ve seen all kinds of apps (good and bad) disappear over time and I want my data to be free from such concerns. Lightroom sync in Classic breaks this requirement completely and I worked around it.
A Dangerous Discovery
Unfortunately I only recently looked closer at how Lightroom CC stores its data. I started a photo project that is focused on exposure and crop as the only edits. It’s also using a camera setup that is super easy to work with in Lightroom CC. I finally generated enough photos at a speed where the export + import process became a huge annoyance and was driving me towards stopping the project completely. I didn’t want to stop the project and decided to dig in a bit. I quickly discovered Lightroom CC (on my setup) doesn’t store all files totally. Just some and definitely not everything. The files were also devoid of any metadata in many cases.
This is when my head exploded. My approach of keeping my photography all in one place (in the end) and working around a limitation of Lightroom Classic sync had kept my data safe and if I hadn’t looked closer at sync in Lightroom CC… I’d have relied wholly on Adobe’s cloud and apps prior to my export + import loop. I predate “the cloud” and general use of the internet. Simply put: if you don’t have reliable backups at some point a “cloud” provider provider will lose all your data. Not if, WHEN!
When I discovered the deficiencies of Lightroom CC sync, I quickly exfiltrated all my data and imported it to Lightroom Classic. If nothing else I’ve got my data in a proper format in Lightroom Classic. That took a bit of time and verifying as I had been lazy about keeping Lightroom Classic in sync with Lightroom CC due to my frustrations that put me down this path to start with.
After doing some research I decided to go with some open source apps as an alternative to all things Adobe Lightroom on my desktop. The Lightroom sync is a lot of risk related to data loss and vendor lock in that I’m not comfortable with at this point. Thankfully I know folks running desktop Linux and was able to find a few options that also run on Windows / Mac. Getting full cross platform support is a nice touch for me as I’m a former desktop Linux and former mac and current Windows user. On mobile I chose PhotoMate R3 and a raw camera app that works with my phone’s firmware and camera. Use whatever you prefer on mobile as long as it writes metadata and files somewhere that allows for sync.
My big considerations were…
- large library support
- competent metadata editing
- robust catalog search
- face detect (local only and tunable preferred)
- raw development
- panorama stitching
- focus stacking
- robust export pipeline
- open catalog / data storage formats
- multi app setups well integrated and/or cohesive for full editing flow
- good backup and restore options
- automations and tuning parameters available if possible
- sync with mobile
If that seems like a large ask, that’s because it is a big ask. Even though Lightroom Classic, Aperture and others do these things that you need for edits, they are not easy to backup or leave. Frankly no one app can do all the things in a ‘good’ way without very careful consideration and motivation. It’s something a number of apps specifically call out or put forth in their documentation. As I reviewed alternatives it was clear that most paid apps were trading open data formats for deep integrations that simplify the code and improve the performance of a monolithic app that does All The Things. I can and will work with such tools if they let me backup and recover. Unfortunately, it’s usually a massive pain in the ass to manage and maintain over time.
After reviewing a number of monolithic app setups that were most recommended as a direct Lightroom Classic or Lightroom CC alternative I looked at the multi-app approach and quickly discovered the open source apps could fully replace Lightroom, Photoshop and Creative Cloud.
A Quick Aside
Before I go further, I’d like to state the “best” Photoshop alternative that’s open source is ‘The Gimp’. The developers have been shown to be hostile to the Disabled Community which includes me, KemoNine. This is a project I cannot support in any fashion and I will use Photoshop or an editor like Aperture instead. This is due to the developers toxic and intolerant attitude towards Disabled and Marginalized humans. I will say nothing further and I do understand I’m working purely on principle and ethics here. Any survival concerns you have may override this approach, I understand the difficulties thanks to shitty Tech Bros being assholes in this situation.
Getting Under Way Without Lightroom
Once you start looking at multiple apps for Photography it becomes clear you’re going to need a workflow that ties everything together in a way that works for your brain. There is also a pretty clear grouping of apps for 3 main elements of any workflow: catalog, editing (basic / single photo) and editing (advanced / multi image). You’ll also see distinctions based on the main focus of the apps devs and community, specifically around editing. I find I use different editing approaches when dealing in raw, jpeg or multi image situations. Lightroom does all of this well enough but I had already started using Photoshop for panorama stitching and focus stacking work. I generally prefer the Photoshop UI and workflow to the Lightroom ones for these tasks. Taking this a little further I realized I care about my catalog as my staring point and will use any editor based on actual need and limits if it ties to my catalog in a way that’s not too overwhelming to my brain.
The crux of my non Lightroom setup is a robust catalog manager. I settled on digiKam for this part. It has more powerful metadata and search tools than Lightroom (in my opinion) and it does a great job of putting all metadata into the actual files. It does use a database catalog to speed up search and more but I set it to always write to files and it does just that: keeps the data in the files too.
It also has a face detection feature that works as far as I can tell. It definitely gets more reliable as it gets trained but I worry about its hidden biases. Given I don’t photograph many human faces I cannot speak to any hidden biases or weaknesses in the model. Please look into their model prior to assuming it can or could be useful for your needs. The whole of AI training is rife with all forms of negative *isms and I don’t want to delve into the topic here. Please vet this based on your needs and regular subjects instead of assuming it’ll Just Work.
I could likely go on for two semi-long blog posts about the power and utility of digiKam for imports, photo organizing and metadata but I won’t. digiKam allows for a ton of tuning, tweaking and config for all of these things and more. I strongly recommend skimming the docs at a minimum. I was able to make a lot of workflow tweaks and adjustments that greatly increased utility and speed while removing frustrations in my workflow with digiKam. I made the most changes to the toolbar, key bindings and tuned the plugins/modules some. In the end I was able to create a workflow that worked for my brain’s needs.
digiKam has proven to be a very powerful tool for managing photos, the files and all their metadata for me. Thanks to its file manager heavy nature it lends itself well to import and export incredibly well. So much I now prefer it to Lightroom and find Lightroom lacking in flexibility and speed. digiKam is also great at managing photo editing workflows. In my opinion, it’s better than Lightroom for managing workflows, especially complex ones.
For import I use the standard digiKam import dialog with some filename cleanup. I import the files direct to my network storage, wait for it to pull in and sync the data and then get to work. It’s really just copying some files and making sure digiKam is aware of them and any automated processes for things like metadata sync, face search and more run prior to performing any edits or an export.
For export (I know I skipped editing, not to worry) I use the digiKam native export tool. From what I saw while researching: they use good open source image libraries and, thus far, all exports have matched Lightroom, Photoshop and jpeg mini to my eye and screens. I’m sure a pixel peeper can find a problem but I don’t operate at pixel peep levels and if I did, I’d expect a lot to be based on the image processing pipelines and internal application nuance around image formats. Said another way: pixel peeping will show it’s different and it always will be different at that level. Don’t use the digiKam export if it doesn’t produce the output you desire. However, I doubt you’ll find a meaningful difference unless there is a bug in an open source image library used in the processing engine(s). The tool also has some reasonable options for exports that I wanted and use regularly. Like import, it’s a pretty straight forward setup and most folks shouldn’t run into hassles.
For editing I use digiKam, darktable and Photoshop presently. If I need a new app in the future I expect it to be a simple matter of staring to use the app using the same methods I use with Photoshop: opening the files direct in the app and then refreshing the catalog folder in digiKam once the edits are complete. There are some options for ‘workflow’ in digiKam but I’ve not looked at them close, I prefer a more manual human process. For general workflow I setup my catalog to group images with a standard naming convention:
year-month-day - camera file name - [version].extension. By doing this I can have the original image from the camera and any editor output all in one place and in a way that visually shows me my past work. I open the main source image (usually a raw) in the image editor I plan to use, make my edits and export the results as a tiff next to the source image. I use labels to color code the different files fo easier visual tracking too. It looks a lot like the
virtual copies feature in Lightroom but instead of exiting only in the catalog, the whole of everything is stored on disk with full metadata. This allows you to use any editor and explicitly manage your edits and workflows. Once I hit on this approach and made some tweaks to the digiKam it ‘Just Clicked’ and I felt free of imposed editing paradigms or apps.
Once my setup became ‘just use the right editor for the task’, all hell broke loose for me. I reviewed or looked at a dozen photo editor apps and selected ones that fit my primary needs. I’ll reevaluate them over time and adjust as necessary. My approach is very ‘which is the best tool for this job’ again and I’m ecstatic to have that default mode back.
Developing raw Images
Given my published photography is almost completely shot in raw (some mobile and lomography work excepted), I started with finding a good raw development app. I settled on darktable. It is more powerful than Lightroom and they make it clear they just want to develop images, not manage files or metadata for you. I had to read the docs some, relearn a few fundamental principles I had buried behind Lightroom presets but I was able to get an image I liked in my style of photography. Was it a perfect match to my previous work? No. You can see my fingerprints on the final image if you know my work though. I need to spend more time with the presets and varied developing modules but it works and I can create my style in darktable. It will be a fixture for me going forward. I’d also like to add darktable is very, very different in how it edits a photo compared to Lightroom, I’d recommend planning on a bit of a learning curve and time investment.
Non raw Images
For jpeg and non raw images I use the digiKam internal editor. It uses some of the libraries used by darktable and has a far simpler UI overall. It’s perfect for exposure, white balance and crop edits for me. It can do more but I prefer to use more advanced tooling for raw image development and editing. It does a great job until advanced editing is needed from what I can tell, if not more depending on how you edit images. It’s definitely worth looking at during testing.
For panorama stitching and focus stacking I plan to keep using Photoshop and tiff files. I may look at alternatives in the future but for now I know I can just group the source images in digiKam, open them in Photoshop, merge and export to tiff so digiKam (or Lightroom!) can export the final form of the image with proper metadata.
For any other editing I need, I expect it to be using digiKam to manage the files and metadata and just calling an editor on the source file(s) I plan to work with. As long as the editor can save its edits in a non destructive, non lossy way (even if it’s just file copies managed in digiKam) I should run into few, if any, problems. It should be noted any problems I’ve had with this workflow were universal to all editors and adjusting my digiKam approach smoothed them out.
Mobile Photography Needs
On mobile I was never super fond of Lightroom and I ended up appreciating uninstalling it from my phone. I used it out of inertia, simplicity and not wanting to inadvertently disrupt my Lightroom Classic use. I was using Lightroom exclusively in the past and staying within its monolith structure is generally the right call. I don’t use my phone for ‘real’ photography At All. Certainly nothing remotely creative or artistic. I prefer other camera options generally and use my phone to take basic photos for blog posts and social media – at best – for creative use.
That said I do want raw photography on my phone just enough to solve the photography stuff on my phone. I always have a camera capable of shooting raw handy these days via my phone and I prefer have a setup ready to use prior to any needs which do pop up on occassion. The setup I wanted is a bit different and it’s meant to tie back to digiKam on my desktop so I can better manage photos over time via my main catalog(s).
The setup I went with can be setup to be bi-directional but I don’t sync to my mobile device(s) from my main computer photography zone due to storage and scale constraints. All I do is one way sync from the phone to the main computer zone. I re-organize on the main computer if needed and the photo gets removed from my phone. I feed the main digiKam setup from the phone via sync basically.
Mobile Photography Approach
On mobile I went with three apps: a camera app that supports taking raw images, a raw development app and a sync app.
I picked a simple camera app with good controls that can take a raw photo on my phone, use any one that you prefer.
I use PhotoMate R3 for developing raw photos on the phone directly. This allows me to turn around fast and basic edits if desired. Once a file is ‘done’ I use Syncthing to sync the photo zone to the back end storage I have here at home for my main photography work.
Syncthing is a super powerful tool and you can do 3-way sync (desktop + laptop + phone for example) and more. You can create really nice sync flows to get photos from your phone to other devices or from other devices to your phone. It’s also cross platform and can run on pretty much any device. It forms the crux of moving photos around so they are all stored in one spot that is reliably backed up every day. Definitely spend time with this and use a batch of test files to get a feel for how you want to tie sync together.
How Well Does This Work In Practice?
The above is where I ended up after leaving Lightroom behind. I’m super happy I put the time into this too. There is a lot of minutiae specific to my brain’s models of thought that I left out in the above. This is intentional. I spent about a month poking, prodding and learning my photo editing and management tooling from essentially scratch.
Shedding Lightroom’s assumptions and using the tools with the approaches laid out in their docs allowed me to find ways to realize my own creativity better and I even kept a few things I had in Lightroom that proved beneficial for my setup. I also found a few apps and approaches that don’t get along with my brain.
This is a very personal endeavor and plenty of others have written extensively – including books – about using the above apps, workflows and more. Please take this as more of a spring board into a deeper dive and added research, not ‘The One True Way’. There are many approaches and ways of realizing your own creativity. Lean into your own approaches if you can, make the apps work for you, not against.
Given the flexibility of these tools and exiting info on how to tune them to varied needs, I won’t be posting a detailed breakdown here. I do recommend trying out the above apps though. They provided me a lot of great insight into my creative process. Even if I had stayed with Lightroom I would have adjusted my approach some.
The whole overall flow I put together is simple yet flexible and lets you go about focusing on your art free of roadblocks and free of forced workflows. That’s a powerful thing that lets you map your mind’s natural flow to a digital flow on-screen. Don’t underestimate the reward for some up front efforts, even if the up front efforts take awhile to complete.
What I’ve outlined above will work alongside Lightroom allowing you to slowly migrate over time. I’m still not done and it’s been a month since I made my primary ‘flip’ away from Lightroom. I still use Lightroom for photography shoots and specific projects while I learn to make those edits in darktable.
Be Wary of ‘The Cloud’, Always
If nothing else: don’t trust “The Cloud” and ensure your data is safe and fully backed up in a way that can be recovered meaningfully at any time, be it 2 months or 20 years later. I completely shed Lightroom due to this. It’s worth considering what I’ve done relative to your risk model. I found risk I wasn’t comfortable with and along the way gained – for me – a better editing experience. You may or may not, but it’s worth reviewing.