Top Digital Darkroom Software for Digital Photographers

Software designed for advanced amateur and professional photographers

Digital darkroom software is designed for simulating darkroom techniques with digital photos. This software offers sophisticated tools for advanced amateur, fine-art, and professional photographers. It generally does not have painting, drawing, and pixel-level editing tools that a general-purpose photo editor would have, and it may or may not offer features for organizing and publishing your photos. Some are plug-ins to other software such as Photoshop, and most include raw camera file support.

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Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (Windows and Macintosh)

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. © Adobe

Through a series of modules, Lightroom helps photographers manage, develop, and present their photos. It's obvious that Adobe has gone to great lengths to meet the digital darkroom needs of photographers with Lightroom. Lightroom is best suited for serious amateurs and professional photographers who work with large numbers of images and who often work with raw camera files. Buy from Amazon »

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Apple Aperture (Macintosh)

Apple Aperture
Apple Aperture. Image courtesy PriceGrabber
Designed for the needs of professional photographers, Aperture supports raw formats from all leading camera manufacturers and offers non-destructive image processing, comparison, photo management, and publishing tools. Photographers can import photos, review and compare them, add metadata, experiment with image adjustments, and finally publish photos as prints, contact sheets, books, and websites. Buy from Amazon »

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DxO Optics Pro (Windows and Macintosh)

DxO Optics Pro
DxO Optics Pro. © DxO
DxO Optics Pro automatically corrects raw and JPEG images based on detailed analysis of hundreds of camera sensor and lens combinations. DxO Optics Pro intelligently corrects distortion, vignetting, lens softness, chromatic aberration, keystoning, noise removal, dust removal, white balance, exposure, contrast, and more. DxO Optics Pro produces impressive results batch processing multiple images automatically, but also allows for manual adjustments for creative control. DxO Optics Pro can work along-side Adobe Lightroom and a detailed document is available on how to use the two programs together. DxO Optics Pro is not terribly complicated, but the well-written user guide will help you get the most out of it. DxO Optics Pro is available in a Standard and Elite version, with the Elite version offering support for high-end cameras in addition to all the equipment combinations included in the Standard version. DxO's web site offers an online tool to guide you to the version you need and the free 30-day trial can be downloaded.

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Sagelight
Sagelight. © 19th Parallel
Sagelight is a low-cost 48-bit photo editor and raw file processor for Windows. Sagelight offers a lot of the same editing controls as Lightroom and other advanced digital darkroom software, but without the image management or batch processing functions--or the high price of entry. It also offers many interesting filters and effects for more creative photo experimentation. Sagelight includes integrated tips and detailed instructions throughout the program, making it great for beginners. A 30-day trial version is available for download, and for a limited time, version 4 can be purchased for only US$40 for a lifetime license. The price will double to $80 when Sagelight is split into Standard and Pro versions.

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Alien Skin Exposure
Alien Skin Exposure. © Alien Skin

Alien Skin Exposure is a plug-in designed to accurately simulate the look and feel of film in your digital photos. Exposure comes with a number of presets to imitate the appearance of Velvia, Kodachrome, Ektachrome, GAF 500, TRI-X, Ilford, and many other film types. It also offers controls for tweaking the color, tone, focus and grain of your photos. Through these settings, you can develop your own signature style and reproduce traditional darkroom effects. Being a plug-in, it runs inside a host program such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, Paint Shop Pro, or Fireworks.

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ACDSee has evolved over the years from a simple image viewer, to a full-fledged photo manager, and now there is the Pro version with advanced features and camera raw support for photographers. ACDSee Pro offers tools for viewing, processing, editing, organizing and publishing your photos at a price much lower than its competitors. In early 2011, a Mac version of ACDSee Pro was released as a public beta. It is a free download until the final release, which is expected in early 2011.

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Raw Therapee (Windows and Linux)

Raw Therapee is a powerful and full-featured free raw converter for Windows and Linux users. Raw Therapee offers all the features you should need for advanced raw conversion and processing. It supports a wide range of popular camera makes and models, and provides options for exposure control, shadow/highlight compression, white balance correction, powerful image sharpening, and luminance and chroma noise reduction. Raw Therapee can output processed files to JPEG, TIFF or PNG formats. As a free program, Raw Threapee can be useful if you're still deciding whether a Raw workflow is right for you.

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virtualPhotographer is a fun and easy plug-in that helps you add drama and artistic effects to your photos. The free software lets you experiment with a wide variety of color and black & white photographic effects by manipulating color, film speed, film type, and effects.

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Bibble (Windows, Mac, Linux)

Bibble's stand-out features are speed, selective editing through layers and regions tools, modest system requirements, and its multi-platform support, being the only tool in this list having versions for all major desktop computing platforms. Bibble seems to offer a lot of flexibility for image management as well, with the option to work with one or many catalogs, or directly from your file system. Though Bibble does list raw file support for a wide range of cameras, it does not support industry-standard DNG raw files. Bibble is available in a Lite version for US$100 and a Pro version for $200 (see comparison chart). A trial version is available to download. Buy from Amazon »

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Picture Windows Pro was designed for photographers and offers image management, image editing, batch processing, raw file support, and tools for printing and electronic output. It's one of the less expensive professional-level image editors, priced under US$90, and a 30-day free trial is available.

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Phase One Capture One is a raw converter and image editor with tools to help you capture, organize, edit, share and print images. Capture One is geared primarily for professional photographers, particularly studio photographers, who will appreciate the excellent tethering capabilities in the Pro version. Capture One is available in an Express version (US$129) and a Pro version (US$400) for more advanced users (see comparison chart).

Reader Suggestions

If you know of advanced digital photography software that I neglected to include here, add a comment to let me know.

Last Updated: May. 2014