If you're like many photographers, the first thing you do upon taking a brand-new camera out of its package is to set aside the included software download info (or, with older cameras, the CD or DVD), opting instead for a third-party option like Adobe's Camera Raw or Lightroom. But is that a smart move in our newly-normal, more cost-conscious world, or could you get by just as well with your camera's bundled software?

Canon Digital Photo Professional version 4.12's user interface.

That's a question we've wanted to answer for a while now, and one which I'll discuss in a new series of articles comparing the user interfaces, performance and image quality of the manufacturer's apps with those of their much-vaunted Adobe rival. In the interests of keeping things to a readable length, I'm limiting myself only to image editing, and won't address features like image management, tethering or printing.

The ground rules

In this article, I'm comparing Adobe Camera Raw 12.4 alongside Adobe Bridge 10.1.1 versus Canon Digital Photo Professional, all of which are their current versions. My computer is a 2018-vintage Dell XPS 15 9570 laptop running Windows 10 version 1909.

To ensure neither Adobe nor Canon had any advantage out of the gate, I've aimed to reproduce, as closely as possible, the look of already-processed images from our galleries, without any prior knowledge as to the recipes behind them. I've chosen images from the EOS R for use in this comparison, for reasons we'll come to in a moment.

Adobe Camera Raw version 12.4's user interface.

To avoid getting too far into the weeds, sharpness and noise reduction were left at their defaults, while lens corrections were enabled for both apps with the exception of distortion correction, so as to make for easier comparison to our reference shots from the gallery.

Images processed in ACR were saved at JPEG quality 11, just as used in our galleries. For DPP, I saved at JPEG quality 8, producing near-identical file sizes.

The main differences

Of course, the most immediately obvious differences between ACR and DPP are their camera support and pricetag. You already paid for DPP when you bought your Canon DSLR, so it's effectively free. While it only supports Raws shot by the company's own cameras, you can expect full Raw support for almost every Canon camera to be available more or less immediately upon release.

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for DPP version

By contrast, ACR comes with a recurring subscription fee. While it supports a vast range of cameras from many manufacturers – even a couple of older Canon models that DPP no longer recognizes – that support can take some time to arrive after the release of new cameras. It's also sometimes more limited than that in first-party software. For example, Adobe doesn't yet offer 'camera matching' profiles for any Canon camera released since September 2018. (That's why I selected the EOS R for my comparisons here.)

Camera Raw's UI is more modern

Overall, DPP's user interface feels more dated than that of ACR, and occasionally more obtuse and frustrating. Both applications support modern features like 4K displays, touch-screens and pen control, although I did notice a few minor glitches in DPP's 4K support.

But where Adobe's controls are grouped together in clearly-named, collapsible sections within a single panel, DPP's span no less than nine different tabs, each identified only by a small icon. And many of DPP's sliders for contrast, tone, saturation etc. jump in large steps, unlike ACR's which move smoothly and precisely when dragged. For finer-grained adjustments, you must either type in values directly or click tiny arrow buttons.

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for DPP version

And the locations of DPP's controls aren't always logical, nor are their names always intuitive. For example, even if you've tweaked multiple images at once, the large Save button at the top of the screen won't process them together. Instead, you have to find a Batch Process command hidden within the File menu.

ACR is also much faster to use

But the biggest difference between ACR and DPP, operationally speaking, is in their performance. Compared to its Adobe rival, Canon's app feels glacially slow to use.

When you move sliders in ACR, the preview image updates in real time to show your change before you've even released the mouse button, even when using a 4K display. But DPP's previews frequently take anywhere from a couple of seconds to 10 seconds or more to update after releasing the mouse button. Worse still, the preview often updates in multiple passes, initially showing results that, misleadingly, differ significantly from the final pass.

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for DPP version

Things are no better when it comes to final output performance, either. Processing all six comparison images for this article in ACR took just 16 seconds, start to finish. DPP required longer than that to process a single image, making it 6-7 times slower than its Adobe rival. Processing all six images in DPP took a full 108 seconds – and that's even with it configured to take advantage of my graphics processor, which it wasn't by default.

The settings chosen for a given image do impact on performance somewhat, but they don't come close to explaining DPP's modest performance. Even with all six images reverted to out-of-camera settings and with all lens corrections disabled, DPP still needed 81 seconds to complete its work.

ACR makes lighter work of shadow / highlight control

Although most of their basic controls are broadly similar, ACR offers a few extra tools that DPP lacks. Both applications give you a one-click auto control to get basic settings in the ballpark, plus slider control over brightness, contrast, shadows, highlights, saturation and tone. But ACR adds sliders for vibrance, texture, clarity, dehazing and blacks/whites.

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for DPP version

I particularly missed these last two, and while DPP's dynamic range control helps make up for their absence, I found it less intuitive to use. Even with it, I had to resort to finely tweaking curves to try to hold onto the brightest highlights and deepest shadows, using the keyboard arrows to more finely position the points than I could with a mouse or touchpad.

Both applications are capable of great results with a little effort

ACR's one-click auto control tended to hold onto highlights and open up shadows much better than did DPP. But in return, Canon's auto control yielded more realistic colors, although it sometimes felt too muted in foliage. Adobe's results, meanwhile, tended decidedly towards the contrasty and garish, especially in foliage and skin tones.

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for DPP version

At default settings, DPP tended to control noise a little better than did ACR, although that advantage came at the expense of the finest image detail. In fact, even with its noise reduction sliders zeroed out completely, DPP showed similarly low levels of noise to ACR with both luminance / color noise reduction sliders set at around level 25-30.

Crop of lower-right corner of above image

But you really have to pixel-peep to notice these subtle differences. The effects of lens correction were much more noticeable, and both applications did a great job of automatically taming lens defects like chromatic aberration and vignetting.

Overall, I felt that neither ACR or DPP had a huge edge over the other in terms of basic editing. However, I found ACR quite a bit easier to work with, and spent several times as long working to get similarly-pleasing results from DPP.

Final thoughts

Click or tap for the full-sized ACR version; here for DPP version

Although it's capable of images just as good as those from ACR with a little effort, I personally found DPP's interface and performance issues quite off-putting. If you're on a shoestring budget, it could make sense as an alternative to paying the Adobe tax every month, freeing up cash for other gear at the expense of some convenience. But if you can afford it, I recommend spending the extra on Camera Raw for a much faster, more intuitive editing experience.

Canon Digital Photo Professional

Pros Cons
  • Available free with your camera
  • Excellent support for Canon's cameras from launch day
  • Realistic color with minimal effort
  • Tames noise well
  • Good lens corrections
  • Poor performance
  • Unreliable image preview
  • Only supports Canon cameras
  • Dated, clunky user interface
  • Doesn't do as well with highlights/shadows
  • Denoising robs some fine detail even if "disabled"

Adobe Camera Raw

Pros Cons
  • Clean, clear and modern interface
  • Supports a vast range of cameras from many brands
  • Great performance
  • Allows fine-grained adjustments with accurate real-time preview
  • Great image quality
  • Extracts more fine detail than DPP with minimal fuss
  • Does a great job with highlights/shadows
  • Recurring subscription fee with no perpetual license option
  • Camera support can take a while to arrive for more obscure features or even fairly big ones like camera matching profiles
  • One-click auto control produces overly contrasty, saturated results
  • Tends to leave more noise in images by default

Editor's note: We're aiming to have more of these comparisons between manufacturer software and third-party alternatives in the coming weeks. Either through our feedback form or in the comments below, let us know what you want to see us test to make these articles more valuable for you. Thanks!