Introduction

captureone_guiAs I wrote some time ago, I made a switch from Adobe Lightroom 6 to Phase One Capture One (now in version 10). In this review I will explain why.

I’ve been happy user of Lightroom since version 4. In fact I already tried version 3 but didn’t like it that much so didn’t use it a lot. But the problem with Lightroom is that with each release I have worse feelings about it (probably I grow as a photographer and have higher expectations). It’s terribly slow, rendering engine doesn’t improve that much anymore (of course things like new Dehaze slider are cool but they don’t improve general image quality), I experienced several crashes with version 6. Addition of HDR and panoramas didn’t change my attitude as both are too simple for my needs. My biggest gripe, however, is that Lightroom cannot decide whether it targets serious or amateur photographers. For instance merging to panoramas is a bit more “pro” feature but it’s a way too simple to be used by professional photographers.

So I started to look for more professionally-oriented solutions. And I found one – Capture One from Phase One. At the beginning I wasn’t very keen on using it, learning curve was a bit steep after all those years with Lightroom but when I understood some basic concepts of it – bam! I immediately made a switch. And I don’t plan return back to Lightroom anytime soon. Because it’s a real beast! A piece of software that makes your images look much much better than in Lightroom (or honestly – than in any other RAW processor I’ve ever tried!) and image quality is the most important thing after all.

New features is Capture One 10

Capture One has recently been updated to version 10 and here are main new features introduced in that version:

  • Improved performance – I always loved how fast Capture One was. And you know what? It now became even faster!
  • New 3-phase sharpening tools:
    • “Diffraction correction” – input sharpening that corrects sharpening problems of a lens
    • Regular sharpening – it’s a normal sharpening tool similar to previous versions of Capture One. It still got some enhancements. First, there is new Halo suppression slider that reduces halo artifacts caused by sharpening. Second, sharpening can now be added as a local adjustment so it’s possible to apply different sharpening to different parts of the image, which is great!
    • Output sharpening – you can also apply sharpening specifically for your output recipe (e.g. different for web, for full-size image or for print).
  • Camera Focus tool – although I hardly ever shoot tethered (although this changes as I’m playing with light recently in my small home studio) I think it’s a great feature. You can now adjust focus manually in tethered shooting mode. Both Sony, Nikon, Canon and PhaseOne cameras are supported.
  • Support for compressed RAW file formats like Canon sRAW or Nikon RAW M.
  • Some changes to the default workspace. For example photo browser is now on the right-hand side of the screen.

Pricing

Let’s start with prices. Basically there are two options:

  • Buy once (single user – 3 seats) – 279 EUR / 299 USD
  • Subscription-based – 12 EUR / month (in 1 year subscription plan); 19 EUR / month (in 3 months subscription plan)

I went with subscribtion model as I’m big fan of it but it’s good there are two options as I know a lot of people who prefer to pay only once and “own” the software without need of monthly payments.

The Good

Performance

First thing I noticed after starting up Capture One 10 was its speed. Everything from importing images, to generating previews, making adjustments (including local adjustments) and exporting processed images takes so little time! It’s a nice change after using very slow Lightroom for all those years! Also Capture One seem to make much better use of GPU than Lightroom. And I’m telling you this as a former GPU programmer.

Image quality

But as I mentioned, the most important thing for me is image quality. And RAW conversion engine of Capture One beats everything I’ve tried up to now. It’s simply incredible. Even with default settings images look so much better than in Lightroom (and often they look so good that I feel temptation to save them to JPEG straight away). They seem to be sharper, have better contrast, clarity and colour. And I’m not the only one who noticed that – everyone who has seen my images noticed that too. Also noise reduction seem to work a little better than in Lightroom, although I still prefer to use Topaz Denoise for really noisy images. What’s more Capture One produces images that resemble closer the images taken in the film era – they don’t look very ‘digital’. They are somewhat softer. I love this look. It’s so beautiful.

Take a look at below comparisons of the same image with default settings both in Lightroom and Capture One 10. “Before” is image processed in Lightroom 6 and “After” – in Capture One 10:

And now a 100% crop:

What you should notice is slightly better color rendition (colors are more vivid and natural in Capture One’s version), better contrast, clarity, less noise in the Capture One edited images. Also they appear to be slightly sharper.

You might wonder why there is such a big difference? Well, unlike in Lightroom, there is separate profile for each camera model so Capture One 10 deals with RAWs from different cameras differently. Simple and great solution.

There is a catch though. If you’ve used Lightroom there is a great chance that you also converted some (if not all) of your RAW images to DNG to save space. The problem is that when converting to DNG, Lightroom processes the data, translates them to common format (that’s one of the ,basic concepts behind DNG after all), meaning some of it is lost. It means that DNG doesn’t look as good as native RAW images when edited in Capture One as it cannot apply specific camera profile to it – generic profile is used instead. Due to that I cannot reprocess some of my older images… so remember don’t use DNG just in case you will decide to switch to another RAW converter in the future.

Color editor in Capture One 8

Capture One 10 offers a lot of options to color grade your images – from White Balance, to color balance of Shadows, Midtones and Highlights to Advance HLS color editor.

Powerful color editor

Next thing I really love are color editing options. In Lightroom you can change White Balance, Saturation & Vibrance as well as HSL for separate predefine colors. In Capture One there is much more options. Apart from the same tools as in Lightroom, there is 3-way color balance editor (allowing you to adjust highlights, shadows and midtones separately), advanced HSL editor allowing you to pick color in much more precise way (and not only apply your edits to predefined colors – but that’s possible too). There is also RGB levels and curves tool. And yeah I almost forgot about tools to work with skin tones. With so many tools color grading becomes so much easier and flexible. It’s so much easier to get desired look without even need to start Photoshop.

Local Adjustments

Another thing I adore in Capture One are local adjustments. Basically they are very similar to layers in Photoshop. You paint a mask (or a gradient) and apply various adjustments to it – from such basic ones as contrast or brightness to more advanced like noise reduction, specific color saturation, moire reduction and so on. You can also use them to clone or heal. The layers are listed just like in Photoshop what makes them easier to manage (you can always disable/enable them with a single click).

There are so much other things I love about Capture One that it would take several A4 pages to describe all of them so I would just like to mention a few more.

Other useful features

If you’re familiar with Upright tool in Lightroom then you’ll be happy to know that in Capture One, there is similar tool, named Keystone. You basically draw vertical and horizontal lines, click Apply and Capture One tries to fix perspective distortion. And if you aren’t happy with the results, you can fine tune it with a few sliders. There is also automatic mode but… it never works for me. Two times I tried to use it Capture One crashed and needed to be restarted and once it told me it cannot fix the distortion. So I’m no longer trying to use automatic mode.

Another thing I really like is focus mask tool. When activated it shows areas of photo that are in focus. It makes rejecting blurry or not sharp enough images much quicker. There is also loupe tool which can be used for same purpose. Just click an area of the image and you will see it magnified so you can check if it’s in focus or not.

Finally I love Capture One’s UI but it’s a love-hatred relation as initially it seemed unintuitive and very complicated. After I learnt how to use it, however, I changed my mind. It’s very flexible (you can adjust it so it best matches your needs and workflow – just like in Photoshop) and powerful. But yes, it requires some time to get used to it.

The Bad

Now as good as it is Capture One 10 unfortunately still isn’t perfect.

One of the most irritating things for me in Capture One is its spot removal tool. In Lightroom there is this fantastic “Visualize Spots” option which finds spots and mark them with white circles so removing spots becomes a simple task of clicking on those circles. In Capture One there isn’t anything like that (or I haven’t found it yet). So I often have to export to Photoshop, open Adobe Camera RAW and use its spot removal tool instead. This breaks workflow quite a lot.

Another thing I don’t like is the fact that there aren’t plug-ins for Capture One! One of the powers of Adobe products come from the fact that they are very extensible. You don’t like built-in noise reduction? No problem – use Topaz Denoise instead – directly from Lightroom. HDR is too simple – you can use Photomatix or Oloneo plug-ins instead. Want to improve colors of the image – ok, use Color Efex. And so on. In Capture One you’re limited to its built-in functionality. So I often end up exporting my image to Photoshop and use the plug-ins from there. That’s a pity because if the plug-ins were support Capture One could become my only photo editing app (apart from some rare cases when I have to either manually blend my images or use luminosity masks).

Lack of plug-ins support broke my HDR workflow a little bit. I managed to create alternative one, but will describe it in a separate post.

One more thing I like more in Lightroom are Highlights and Shadows sliders as they can be both negative and positive, i.e. you can both darken and brighten highlights and shadows. In Capture One you can only darken highlights and brighten shadows. Hopefully next version will allow for more flexibility here.
UPDATE: you can achieve the same effect (of brightening higlights and darkening shadows) by using other tools such as Levels tool for instance. In Capture One, Highlights and Shadows sliders are specifically designed to restore detail in those parts of the image.

Capture One also misses a few other Lightroom features like Map or Book modules, face detection (but honestly it works terribly in Lightroom), ability to create panoramas but I don’t find it a big problem. I use these features very rarely but if you use them frequently you might consider this an issue.

Summary

Capture One 10 is an excellent tool that I highly recommend for more advanced photographers who want to get the best image quality out of their RAW files. While it isn’t as easy to use as some other apps, it offers great control over the image and its colour. But as good as it is, it isn’t perfect. There are a few issues from the lack of support for plug-ins, which is the biggest one for me. It means that if built-in tools aren’t sufficient for you, you will need to use another tool supporting the plugins (like Photoshop or Lightroom for instance). There are a few minor issues but given image quality I don’t find them big problems.

Pros:

  • Great image quality especially when dealing with non-DNG RAW files – the images have better colours and are more crisp, they also look more “film”
  • Powerful colour editor
  • It’s incredibly fast! And supports GPU correctly. It’s faster to adjust image, when working with local adjustments or when exporting the image.
  • Great local adjustments – they are much easier to manage than those in Lightroom
  • Easier to use tools to “upright” (keystone in this case)
  • Very nice tools to increase clarity
  • Tools to estimate focus (focus mask, loupe)
  • Once you understand GUI, you will discover that it’s really powerful and flexible allowing you to edit your workspace so it matches your needs

Cons:

  • Too simple spot removal tool (I’m addicted to Lightroom’s “Visualize Spots” feature!)
  • Doesn’t support plug-ins
  • GUI is sometimes a bit unintuitive