Free and open subscription versus subscription: is Rawtherapee ready to challenge the Lightroom library?


Rawtherapee is free and open source software for editing your raw photographs. I look at the overall performance of organizing your photographs and make it easy for you to find what you are looking for.

Rawtherapee is only development software

My recent series on free and open source software “Darktable” caught the attention of the Fstoppers community. There was a lot of discussion in the comments, about whether it is worth paying for an Adobe subscription or working with free and open source software. A few times the name “Rawtherapee” has been mentioned in the comments. It made me curious: is this software also a competitor of Lightroom? I took a couple of weeks to check the manual, make some test changes, and develop a workflow.

As was the case in the Darktable review, there are a lot of criteria to consider when comparing software for photographers. In this article, I’m going to check out how Rawtherapee can help you manage your files – even if it’s not intended to. Why am I still doing it? Because I believe a one-size-fits-all solution is always better than separate programs. After all, I want to be able to compare and inspect photos before I edit them. Besides the fact that it’s not a file manager, Rawtherapee might still be good enough for my purpose. Here is what I discovered.

First round: user interface

Rawtherapee consists of three main working areas: the “File Browser”, the “Queue” and “Editor”. God knows why the “queue” is positioned before the “editor”, but in this article I will still focus on the “file browser”.

Just like Lightroom, Rawtherapee works with different sections. In the middle of your screen, you will see your photos. On the left, you can browse your images; on the right you will find some quick functions. Nothing surprising here, apart from the design. Rawtherapee looks a bit outdated compared to other software, but that doesn’t really affect its usability. Well i always wonder why there are flower stamps on the bottom right? It does not matter! The left and right panels are foldable. You can either click a button, or press “L” to open and close the left panel, or “Alt + L” to close the right panel.

While I don’t like the design of Rawtherapee, I wouldn’t rate the program any worse than others at first glance. Everything is clear and understandable.

Round two: import files

No matter what software we use, we don’t want to destroy our files when we edit them. Much like Lightroom, Rawtherapee works non-destructively. This way your raw files stay the same no matter how hard you edit your photos. Changes are saved and applied separately. When exporting an edited photo, you will create a separate expanded file, while the original remains in its folder.

Yet the first big difference in your workflow is when importing photographs. Most people I know use Lightroom to upload their images to a local drive and import them directly into their catalog. Rawtherapee does not know about catalogs and does not help you import your images. You need to save your images to your local drive first and then open them in Rawtherapee. It is not necessarily better but simply different. A feature that might be useful for some people is missing: In Lightroom, you can already add metadata when importing images. This is not possible at Rawtherapee.

The usability of your browser also depends on how you manage your personal files. I used to have a separate folder for each year and each day, as this is Lightroom’s default. If I gave my folders a more understandable name than “2020-01-05”, I would probably remember the contents better. However, browsing the images in Rawtherapee is faster than importing them into Lightroom. However, you will waste some time copying and then uploading your photos.

I’m also having an issue with the missing option to open multiple folders at once. When I select “2021”, no image is displayed. I need to select a folder that actually contains images, to display the preview. I know opening all images on my “G: ” drive at the same time will cause issues, but is there no trade-off?

The second round goes to Lightroom, because it is more flexible.

Round three: Preview settings

While Lightroom gives you a quick and easy preview of every photo in the “Library”, Rawtherapee’s “File Browser” makes your life a little harder. You cannot view a photo at full size and not even on thirty percent of the screen. A row of five (side panels folded down) or three (side panels open) in a row is as close as possible in the normal examination. It’s a file browser, after all.

At least it offers some cool functionality. In the right panel you will find the option “Inspect”. Once you select it, you will be able to review your photos in 100% preview no matter where you hover the mouse. For me, this turned out to be the fastest way to compare certain details from two photographs. My only problem: I don’t always use it and need to resize the panel to get a better impression of the preview.

The third round goes to Lightroom: I would like to have a single preview before selecting an image for the editing process. The “Inspect” panel is great, but it cannot replace a full screen exam.

Round four: metadata and research

If Rawtherapee is not a management system, then why are there so many management features? Let’s look at how we can filter our photographs at Rawtherapee: the number of stars? Yes! Color labels? Yes? Choose and reject? Well, there is something called “Trash” that works the same way. Rawtherapee even offers a “Filter” section to search for metadata.

However, due to the inability to search top-level folders, the filter only works for smaller entities. I could put all my photos together in one big folder, but is this a solution? Filters should search for all of my images and not just the sub-sub-sub-folder. This can be useful for a wedding photography day, but not for someone going through their files for a certain photograph.

Even if I had the chance to filter all my photographs at the same time, I would still be disappointed. I love keywords to organize my photographs. Therefore, the “Filter” panel seems unnecessary to me, at least to me.

Another slap in the face for Rawtherapee.

Fifth round: pre-edition

As soon as I hit the “Batch Edit” panel, things got crazy. My laptop fan flooded my headphones and some aspects of the program stopped working. I know the problem is usually in front of the screen. Yet even after multiple programs the affected folder no longer opens properly and for no visible reason, the previews of some files seem poorly edited. It only worked after restarting my laptop.

I didn’t use this panel too often so it had never happened before. It was only while I was writing this article and simultaneously capturing the necessary screenshots that Rawtherapee drove my laptop crazy. “Batch Edit” would be handy for quickly applying the same adjustments to your photos, before modifying the details. However, it got stuck in my case.

So let’s just forget about it.

Summary: Rawtherapee falls behind … and yet

While Darktable could work really well against Lightroom in its capabilities of managing your images, Rawtherapee is far behind. You could say it’s just a “theater” for your raw files and not the anteroom. However, it comes with a lot of management extras such as rating, color labels or search function. I just wonder: why?

Why offer certain features and not fully develop them? You could say, “Don’t look at a gift horse in the mouth.” But looking for a suitable replacement, I need these features.

I am indeed grateful to the developers of all free and open source software. I love the idea of ​​collaborating and opening up the creative world to newbies and all of us who can’t afford Adobe. In the case of Rawtherapee, I need a second program to manage my files. I love that Lightroom (and Darktable too) works as a management system and allows me to quickly find the photos I need.

If software lacks a bit of usability, doesn’t look as polished as expensive software, or has weird flower stamps under the edit panel, that’s fine for me. But if it lacks a handful of handy features, which I guess aren’t as hard to code as many of its other features, I get a little nostalgic. Next week we’ll see if the “Edit” panel can cheer me up a bit.

What I liked about Rawtherapee’s “File Browser”

  • Clear and complete structure
  • Fast data import and quick construction previews
  • The “Inspect” panel facilitates detailed revisions

What could be improved

  • Extension of filters at all levels
  • Inclusion of metadata and search
  • Possibility to review a single image

So far, this is my first impression. I guess a lot of you have tried Rawtherapee as well, so let me know: what do you like or miss the most? What software do you use to organize your photos before editing them with Rawtherapee – or are you okay with the file browser alone?


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