On1 Photo Raw 2021.5: A Viable Alternative to Lightroom?

On1 Photo Raw 2021.5: A Viable Alternative to Lightroom?

On1 Photo Raw 2021 has come a long way over the last few years. Is it now a viable alternative to both Lightroom Classic and Photoshop?  

What Is On1 Photo Raw 2021?

If you are not familiar with it, On1 Photo Raw is an asset management, file browsing, raw development, layers-based image editing, portrait enhancing, resizing tool all rolled into one. It is available with a perpetual license and with a subscription service. If you subscribe to either the monthly or annual plans, you will always get the latest major upgrades of the software at no extra cost. These plans also allow you to sync photos, edits, presets, and more across your computers and mobile devices. Like Lightroom, it has a phone app too that can synchronize with the computer.

Development tab in the Edit module

The 2021.5 update for On1 Photo Raw is now available. I’ve used On1 software in its various guises alongside other developing and editing tools for years. It’s changed dramatically in that time, and it now has a lot going for it. For example, the edge-finding capabilities of the Perfect Brush are superb, and adjustment layers like Dynamic Contrast give unique results.

Without mentioning names, I’ve had some issues with other development software being quite clunky, and I have a relatively powerful machine. But On1 2021.5 runs smoothly on my computer.

Unlike the Adobe photographer’s package, all its functionality comes in one program; switching between modules is much faster than jumping between Adobe’s software.

In appearance and feel, both the Browse Module and the Develop tab within the Edit module are much closer to Lightroom than they are to Capture One or Affinity. As with every raw-processing tool, it gives different results from its competitors. I would not say these are better or worse, simply different. To my mind, that is a good thing, as it allows the photographer to produce their own look that is unlike the majority's.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, I differentiate between developing and editing a photo. I think of both being processing steps with the former being the non-destructive adjustments carried out in the raw stage, while editing is changes made to digital images, such as JPEGS, PNGs, and TIFFs. All photo editing in On1 is non-destructive, carried out using layers, and conversion from raw to an image file is at the end of processing.

Who Is On1 Aimed At?

On1 is aimed at all levels of user, with a range of simple, one-click filters as well as completely manual adjustments that include layers and masks. If you are familiar with Lightroom and Photoshop, then you will find the transition to On1 a simple one. If you are new to photo development and editing, On1 has a great range of video tutorials on its website.

Organizing and Browsing

The Browse module is a hybrid catalog and file browser. In much the same way as Lightroom creates Collections, On1 calls them Albums. Indeed, On1 provides a tool for importing the collections from Lightroom for those wishing to migrate to this program.

Portrait Module

The Portrait AI module in On1

ON1 Portrait AI claims flawless retouching. I am not a great fan of these sorts of filters, although I appreciate others love them. But the adjustments available here can be as subtle or heavy as your tastes dictate. Furthermore, independent adjustments per face means that each face in a group photo can be individually enhanced.

On1's Portrait AI

Automatic settings can remove fine blemishes, while larger changes can be made using the content-aware eraser and clone stamp. They work similarly to those found in Photoshop. Adding fill-light can lighten the face and other tools allow the photographer to re-sculpt the face to thin the jawline or balance eye sizes.

Automatic eye detection and enhancements brighten the whites and sharpen irises. Likewise, teeth and lips can be detected and adjusted automatically too. With Batch Processing, one can process an entire folder of photos, which is a huge time-saver.

Tool Improvements

Spot Healing Brush

On1 claims a new approach to removing distractions like dust spots, power lines, and unwanted people from your photos. By painting over a distraction, a matching area of your photo is blended on top to replace it. Then, you can adjust the pixels used to hide a distraction and adjust both the opacity and blending of that edit. Trying this, it worked seamlessly.

There are two healing modes. The content-aware mode blends with the surrounding pixels and the traditional clone stamp give aligned cloning, useful for copying patterns and lines.

Custom Brush Shapes 

Custom Brushes

On1 says brushing has taken a "quantum leap in control and creativity." The latest version included a number of custom brushes, and you can create and import your own. This is similar to Photoshop but something that is not possible in Lightroom. On1 has also added Flow, Angle, and Stamping Rate control. Custom brushes also have pressure sensitivity too. You can also create a preset that stores your brush tip and all the brush properties.

Other features

Effects Module

Full-Screen Preview is now available, which I found was a big omission in previous versions. As with Lightroom and Photoshop, this mode allows you to hide everything except your photo, removing the distracting panels and seeing your photo filling the screen.

There is also a Quick Slideshow feature. That gives a full-screen slideshow complete with user-adjustable delay and dissolve transition.

The Camera-Based Presets allow you to automatically apply adjustments to photos from a specific camera. If you always find yourself making the same adjustments, just making a preset and applying it to photos from that camera speeds up your workflow. Again, this is a feature that is in Lightroom and where, historically, On1 lagged behind but has now caught up.

Color-Sensitive Gradient Masks are straight, reflected, or round. These are re-editable and blendable using brush masks. The color sensitivity of On1's Perfect Brush, which I think has been one of its most powerful features, can be used with gradient masks. The tool can detect the color under the gradient. It then applies the mask to only that color range. In other words, it detects edges. This makes masking complex borders, like trees against the sky, much easier than it is with many other processing, development, and editing programs.

Batch HDR and Pano can now batch processing your HDR images and panoramas. I can see this is a big time-saver for real estate and landscape photoshoots.

Color Fill Layers are available. For reasons unknown, this feature was removed in a previous version of On1 Photo Raw, and many will applaud its return.

The Replace Color Filter can change the hue of an object to any new color, useful for working on eyes, flowers, and so on.

On1's resize module

User Interface Improvements

Based on user feedback, On1 says they have improved common controls like sliders to be more precise. They have given the interface a longer area for labels, allowing them to be more descriptive. They have also changed the Layers and the Edit module tabs, so they don’t scroll out of view on small displays or when there are large stacks of filters.

Interactions With Other Apps

Besides Lightroom and Photoshop, there is now plug-in Support for Affinity Photo and Corel Paint Shop Pro, so you can open On1 from those. I was also able to open raw files and PSDs in On1 and send images from On1 into the Topaz and DXO software as well, of course, Lightroom Classic and Photoshop.

In summary

On1 is designed as a standalone package, but it works well as a plugin for other programs too. It’s versatile and holds its own against other apps and even exceeds them in some areas. There is a 14-day trial available from the On1 website, and it is affordable; packages cost less than the Adobe equivalents. If you are looking for a change or wanting to get into raw development, I have no qualms in recommending it.

The 2021.5 upgrade is free to those who already have bought the On1 Photo Raw 2021 perpetual license and the subscription packages.

Whether the functionality of On1 is enough to tempt you away from the program you already use depends upon the features you need. For example, it doesn't have equivalents of Lightroom's Map, Book, or Web modules, nor does it have the advanced graphics capabilities of Photoshop; I would not suggest it as a tool for my son's digital art for college. However, I don't use any of those features and other respected apps like Capture One and Affinity lack them too. On1 does have greater functionality than Capture One and Affinity.

It also depends upon whether you like the results that On1 produces over any other software. This, of course, is subjective.

Is it a viable alternative to Lightroom and Photoshop? For photography, my answer to that is yes.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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I guess I'll stick with using Lightroom ;)

Thanks for reading and commenting. I can fully understand that; It too is an excellent program. (I have both, and a few others besides.) I know a lot of photographers have switched for various reasons and, like cameras, one has to have a good reason for swapping. Some did it for financial reasons, On1 is less expensive, and others because they like the results that On1 brings. I don't like the muddy noise reduction results in LR and I find On1's are much better. But then again I now use the Topaz Denoise plugin, and I like its results even more.

For those starting out in photography and looking to jump into cataloging and raw development, as well as photo editing, On1 is an attractive alternative to Lightroom and Photoshop.

Can you give any reasons as to why after reading this article? I'm not saying I'm switching but will give it a try, just if I save a few dollars each month. I'm new at photo post-processing so I'm not hooked on LR so willing to give On1 a try, but would like to know why you would stay on LR?

You directed this to someone else, but I will give it a crack. For me, it was LR that brought me from film into digital photography. It felt like I was still working in a darkroom without having the chemicals. After using it for so long, all of the elements are embedded into muscle memory. The other thing is that once you stop using Lightroom, you lose all of your edits of the photos in your library. So, a person would have to go back and export all of their edited raw files to TFFs or another format to keep and freeze the edits before abandoning LR. Finally, LR set the standard in photo editing (some would argue for Photoshop). Ergo, every article compares new products to LR. My take is why settle for a copy-cat when you can have the real deal. Now when new photographers or those who have never edited before check in with me, I do encourage them to explore new products. For me, LR is a photographic opioid to which I am addicted.

Jerry, it's horses for courses. I use both as I teach both to my clients. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For someone whose workflow is embedded in Lightroom, and it's a program with which they have worked for years, changing is a big step to make and I fully understand those who are happy with it staying. On1 is a super program too and for those who want to try something else and not follow the Adobe path - for whatever reason - On1 is a viable alternative.

If you are thinking about it, then do give it a free trial. On1 make some great videos to guide you through the learning process.

You got to the keys faster than me......

I use LR since the first betha version and now the last 'normal' version 6
I have moire than 100.000 pictures in the LR catalog and for switching i need a good import function of the the LR catalog
Is there any function like this in ON1?

Yes, there is an migration tool to take the catalog from Lightroom to On1. It takes time to run, but it worked for me.

I started using ON1 Photo Raw in parallel with Adobe in 2017, I was actually looking for a replacement for the filter-based NIK Collection and stumbled across it. What started as a tool for fast editing images destined for social media became my go-to editing app. Please note that I still subscribe to Adobe, yet I reach for ON1 first. Also, I used Genuine Fractals which became the ON1's Resize tool in my photo lab for years.

Why? In 2017 Photo Raw was a little clunky, but there was for me a draw to the all-in-one approach vs. LR paired with PS. But then I remembered that the original release of LR wasn't the smoothest experience either, so I gave it time. The improvements over time have been significant, and when I read about issues most of the time it's from users with underpowered computers. That is probably one of the biggest drawbacks of Photo Raw - it requires lots of computer resources and benefits from better GPUs which can hamstring even 3 year old laptops.

I like the layered approach of even basic development adjustments, that I can create composites where even the edits in the added images are non-destructive. Masking is very good but can cause some head scratching errors from time to time. I'm not editing dozens of images after a client shoot so I'm not under the gun (or on the clock!), so somebody who does would be able to offer more insight into batch / volume editing. It has taken five years, but now I'm considering migrating fully from LR... maybe.

It's a big leap, leaving Lightroom completely. I've dithered a few times. I actually like the results from On1 better, though that is subjective. But, as I get asked to teach Lightroom much more than I do On1, I haven't surrendered my subscription yet. On1 has certainly come on leaps and bounds over the last few years.

Been a happy ON1 user since version 2018 after travelling from Aperture through Lightroom. As the review indicates, it doesn't do the graphic functions of Ps but I don't need them currently and have found understanding and using layers in ON1 was pretty easy.
I have come across a few bugs over the time I've used it, and have had some problems of my own making but the tech support is responsive (given it is US based and I am in Europe) and the online forums extensive. Their website also hosts a good library of "how too" videos which is pretty much how I learnt to use it.
Totally agree with the review in so much as if you are not already invested in Adobe, and don't need to do graphic art, this is a great option.

Hi Greg, thanks for replying to the article. Historically, there were some instability issues, but this version has been running smoothly for me. Lightroom isn't without its own problems too and is still issuing bug fixes. https://helpx.adobe.com/uk/lightroom-cc/kb/fixed-issues.html, but that is an issue with any complex software.

On1 now supports other color profiles including Adobe RGB, Apple RGB and ProPhoto RGB up to 16-bits. Both camera and lens profiles are now available too. It also has a catalog, and is able to import the Lightroom catalog, and I can search my archives inlcuding keywords, star ratings, color tags, metadata and so on. It's come a long way from where it was a couple of years ago.

I guess that it is up to RNI to decide whether they want to create profiles for On1 as they do with Capture One and LR. They are not my thing, so that doesn't bother me (I shoot film and don't like faking it, but each to their own.)

Of course, anyone who has invested heavily in Adobe, or Capture One, or any other software is less likely to want to change. But for those starting out and for those who are having issues with other applications, then On1 is a viable alternative and it's worth giving it a shot.

I really like On1 Photo even though through the years, there have been a few annoying bugs. Lately, coming back to my desktop, it had suddently changed to another language. There have also been problems exporting and saving files, which never did or not as set.... On1 is also rather on the real heavy side regarding hardware requirements (and not really transparent of how it manages files) and storage space.
I use it mainly for images to be published on the net. I think it combines a bit of both worlds: a quite good editor with very useful near-PS functions and allows to get to the point rapidly if you know what you are looking for as there are many many many possibilities.
That's the reason I mostly edit with C1Pro: no gimmicks, just a lab with fine adjustments. Maybe this is what people puts off...?

I abandoned Lightroom a few years ago after a catalogue holocaust which put me in trouble. Won't look back.

Yes, Capture One is fine software and I see the attraction; it gives great results. The $228 per year price tag is quite hefty, more than double the cost of On1. Finances may well be a deciding factor for a lot of photographers, especially as it has a lot less functionality. It's also a subjective thing too. As you suggest, having something that is simple to use, which C1 is, will appeal to a lot of photographers. Thanks for taking time to reply.

I like ON1,But my D780 will not work in2020 or 2021.5. the colors are blown out. I have been asking for help since 2/2020 and sill no help. The customer service Suck's!

That's really strange not getting help because I've found them responsive and helpful.

If you are using a PC, have you checked the driver for the display adaptor (video card) driver is up-to-date with the manufacturer, as opposed to Windows update. That can cause issues like that with different software. There's a great bit of software called Driver Easy that can check it for you. There's a free version and a premium one.

If you want to message me, I am happy to look at one of your raw files and see if I have the same issue with On1. I can also check it in any of the other development tools I have if you like.

Others likely love LR catalogues, but they drove me crazy. I was fine working on my main computer, but when I tried to save to external hard drives I was always getting caught with the "catalogue image" while the actual file was elsewhere. I was intrigued that On1 files were moved and relocated in Explorer; much simpler for me. I never invested in nor learned PS although I used LR for years. I was intrigued that On1 had non-destructive editing with layers as well as the resize module. So, when LR needed to be renewed a few years ago, I switched to On1 and have been much more comfortable since then. And as noted, the features and capabilities have continued to be enhanced over the last few years.