There are plenty of things about Lightroom that bug me and despite being a hardened user of more than 6 years, I thought it was about time give something else a go. The newly updated Capture One caught my attention and opened my eyes.
Capture One 20 launched earlier this month and it claims to be the best version ever for dragging Lightroom users into its fold. In keeping with photographic traditions, the naming convention is illogical, having moved from Capture One 12 straight to Capture One 20, apparently to avoid unlucky 13 and reflect the fact that it’s 2020. (Shh. Almost.)
I should preface this article by explaining that this is entirely a personal experience and that your mileage will vary. Like many of us, I’m set in my ways and while I like playing with new things, I’m also resistant to change. The thought of ditching almost seven years’ worth of Lightroom images is not a pleasant one, and I can’t figure out how I could run these systems alongside each other for a year or two in order to transition without it being too expensive for me. That’s a big reason to stick with what I’m used to. With all of that in mind, if there’s an aspect of Capture One that I don’t like, it’s probably because it doesn’t suit me, rather than it being something fundamentally wrong with the software.
I will also add that I’m not delivering beauty, fashion, or product photography to high-end commercial clients. I’m a part-time professional working on small jobs and lots of personal projects. I’m often delivering large batches of images from events without intensely detailed editing. My post production is often light as budgets are small.
I downloaded a thirty-day trial, and being a Sony a7 III shooter, I opted for the Sony version. Capture One offers versions specific to Sony or Fujifilm cameras, and it’s much cheaper than the fully pro version: $9.99 per month compared to $20 per month. However, I sometimes shoot images on a Canon (one old camera and the odd rental), and I occasionally like to throw a Lightroom preset onto something shot with my iPhone. I can’t justify more than doubling the cost of a subscription to accommodate this infrequent use. Capture One is dramatically more expensive than Lightroom in this regard. Notably, my Adobe subscription includes Photoshop, and ditching Lightroom would mean having to fork out again for image-editing software such as Affinity Photo. Suddenly, making the transition is looking incredibly pricey.
(It’s worth noting that Capture One Express is available for free to Fujifilm and Sony users, but this Express version does not support tethered shooting and nor does it have any layer or masking tools. A few other features are omitted, such as annotating files, keystone correction, and spot removal. For a full list, click here. Given that the potential to remove dust specks is absent, it feels a little pointless.)
[Edit: Unlike Lightroom, Capture One Pro can be bought outright: $299 for all cameras, and $129 for the Sony/Fuji version.)
Capture One can import a Lightroom catalog, and one quick way to get started is to grab a load of images in Lightroom, add them to a Collection, export that Collection as a Lightroom catalog, and then import that catalog into Capture One. Ratings and collections are maintained, but any editing beyond crop, rotation, orientation, white balance, exposure, saturation, and contrast will be lost.
The Need for Speed
One of the first big changes compared to Lightroom is the speed. In Lightroom, if I’m browsing through a freshly imported batch of photos, hitting R to switch to the crop tool can take a moment. With Capture One, it’s instantaneous. Zooming in to an image is also refreshingly quick and far more logical, and with the completely different layout, there’s no need to transition between Library and Develop modules — something that can sometimes be quite laggy in Lightroom. While the process feels less intuitive (at first at least), spot healing is also noticeably more responsive.
Significantly More Control
The second major aspect that makes itself felt is how much more control there appears to be in Capture One, to the extent that it feels a little daunting. While I’ve been using Lightroom extensively for many years, it’s not so often that I dive into the HSL/Color panel, but when I do, I feel like I have a reasonable understanding of how things work. By contrast, Capture One feels like it’s on another level, with color wheels and words like “Uniformity” that quickly made me feel out of my depth. No doubt it’s a skin retoucher or product photographer's dream, but I just wanted to run back to the safety and comfort of Lightroom.
Layers Upon Layers
The third huge difference is how layers function. While Lightroom has never fully embraced the concept of Layers (which is a little odd given how fundamental they are to Photoshop), Capture One is invested in their power and deploys them very effectively. The potential to change specific parts of the image is vastly superior to Lightroom: simply create a layer, draw in a mask, and you can make any change you like, using any panel. While Lightroom restricts you to an adjustment brush (or gradient) that can be used to tweak exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc., Capture One’s entire array of panels is available. If you want to apply, say, a curves adjustment to a specific part of the image, go ahead.
You can even mask out a couple of separate parts of the image and apply completely different presets. Masks can be quickly inverted, filled and feathered at will, giving you far greater control.
Stepping back for a moment, it’s a little strange that Capture One's use of layers is so much more like Photoshop compared to Lightroom. Just being able to label your adjustments makes a huge difference, allowing you to keep track of multiple changes without having click around trying to remember which pin brings up which changes. Perhaps Lightroom has held back because it assumes you can do all of that stuff in Photoshop. Whatever the reason, compared to Capture One, it feels incomplete.
No Need for Photoshop?
My assumption is that these three factors — speed, color control, and layers — means that you will spend more time in Capture One and a lot less time in Photoshop. As someone who spends very little time in Photoshop beyond occasional compositing and the odd bit of cloning, for me, it’s overkill — especially given the step up in price. For anyone who’s shooting commercial work, it makes much more sense, especially given the control over color and potential for easily copying layers between different raw files.
After a Day of Play
After an hour of playing, trying to replicate the look and feel of one of my images edited in Lightroom was proving impossible. The learning curve here is quite steep and no doubt it’s doable, but it takes a greater degree of skill than I have available. I’ll be spending more time playing and watching tutorials over the coming weeks and if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments. A few bugs have sprung up: the keystone tool occasionally blacks out the image, and the entire application crashed once — “Graphics hardware encountered an error and was reset: 0x00000813.”
Speaking of the keystone tool, Capture One feels slightly more refined than Lightroom, but the basic functionality is the same. Photographing people in weird places on buildings at height combined with my alarming inability to hold a camera straight means that this is a tool I use quite frequently. As a result, Lightroom’s “Auto” button comes in very useful when trying to fix an image, especially photographing events when quick edits are crucial.
If you click Capture One’s keystone magic wand, you just get a message saying “Some of the selected Variants could not be adjusted.” From what I’ve gathered, this tool is only available if you shot your image using a Phase One back, as Capture One wants to use the data from a Phase One gyroscope and accelerometer. If you use Lightroom’s “Auto” button in the Transform panel regularly, expect a much slower workflow when switching to Capture One.
Capture One is not for everyone and certainly isn't for me, but I'm going to continue playing for the duration of my 30-day trial and I'd urge anyone to give it a quick spin, if just to see how much control the layers functionality gives you, and how much snappier certain aspects feel over Lightroom. If I were producing high-end commercial images, this would be the obvious choice as my retouching work would be a lot more detailed. I also feel that Lightroom is quite limited in terms of functionality by comparison, and jumping over to Photoshop to make up for its shortcomings isn't always ideal.
I'll continue with Lightroom in the hope that Adobe makes some significant changes in the next year or two, and also waiting to see what Serif produces. Its Affinity Photo software has proven very popular and there are rumors that it will create its own digital asset manager. Being a fan of Designer, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Affinity will produce an alternative Lightroom/Photoshop duo geared towards photographers that fixes all of the problems that Adobe seems reluctant to address.
Obviously I'm just scratching the surface here and no doubt experienced Capture One users will have a lot to say, but hopefully it's of use if you've not played with Capture One before. Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.