This is a really unique article for me to post. I was talking with my friends at New York City based Phase One dealer, Digital Transitions, and they were interested in sharing the story of how industry's leading RAW processing and tethering software, Capture One, evolved into what it is today. It is very interesting to learn how a company learns from its products weaknesses and grows to make something that really shines. Read below to learn more:
Capture One 8 software really has become a fast and effective tool for my tethered shooting and my RAW processing as well. It is literally one of the fastest and most accurate software on the market today. Although, previous iterations of the software were not as smooth. Some were slow, others were just buggy and hard to learn to use. It really has been an evolutionary process for Phase One and their software.
The story according to a NYC-based Phase One dealer (they sold me my Phase One camera system), Digital Transitions:
Construction: Code and Casas
Software Engineering is, in many ways, like building, renovating, and maintaining a house. This is a story about the creation of the House of Capture One version 8. We hope it will explain not just individual features, but its broader place in the history of Capture One. More to the point we hope it will explain why we think professional photographers should be especially excited about Capture One v8 - the fastest and most rock-solid version of Capture One ever.
And we hope to do it with as little technobabble as possible.
First, a quick word about who “we” are. Digital Transitions is the largest Phase One dealer in the world. For 11 years we’ve focused exclusively on medium format digital systems, and the high-end accessories that compliment them (Arca Swiss, Cambo, Eizo, and Profoto among others). As a result of our long and deep relationship with Phase One, we can provide unique insight on Phase One’s inner workings. Over the last few months we’ve performed extensive independent testing of C1v8 starting with its first beta, and had the pleasure of speaking with many of the developers responsible for its planning and execution. This has elevated our understanding of Capture One v8, beyond specific technical capabilities, to its motivations and underlying architecture. Doug Peterson was the lead author on a joint effort to tell this story, which included contributions from all four of our full-time dedicate technical support staff, and welcomes your questions, comments, and feedback at email@example.com.
Who Lives Within? Form Follows Function | Before “Capture One” Was Named
Before breaking ground on a new house, an Architect must make many choices regarding its overall design based on who will live in and use the house. Likewise the earliest constructs of Capture One (which didn’t even go by the name “Capture One”) were informed by a distinct and unwavering choice to serve, not the entire photographic market, but just the top slice of professionals and enthusiasts.
It was built at a time when only professionals and very serious hobbyists were involved in digital photography - “Uncle Bob” was still shooting disposable film cameras. In years since everyone has become a digital photographer, and numerous apps have sprung up to serve this consumer and prosumer market. “Uncle Bob” can edit his iPhone photos in iPhoto or upload his point and shoot images to Flickr, and if he upgrades to a Canon Rebel he might add LightRoom. There are many companies aiming to serve “Uncle Bob” - Phase One is simply not one of them.
The feature set in the early days wasn’t extensive (at the time even having a multi-point curve adjustment was cutting edge). The speed was only okay - better than alternative options at the time, but nowhere as fast as later versions. But a professional photographer or serious enthusiast moving into the House of (soon to be named) Capture One felt at home - it was built for them.
The Foundation Cracks | Capture One v3
But under the finely crafted wood flooring, and beautiful furniture there was a significant problem; the foundation was cracking. The reason was simple - when work first began on what-would-become “Capture One” it was envisioned as a small one story, one bedroom, home; able to tether to a Phase One LightPhase digital back (released 1998), and process it’s raw files into TIFFs for further work in Photoshop (at the time the world was eagerly awaiting the release of version 5). It was a simpler time.
But over the years the house was grown as the needs of its residents changed and greatly expanded. Phase One built on top of this small house, adding an entire in-law wing (allowing Canon tethering and raw processing for Canon/Nikon in addition to Phase One digital backs) and an extra floor of features (a standalone Color Editor, moire reduction, overlay, and stitching). The plumbing and heating/cooling, initially built to serve a small home, was causing nightmares. The coders would find low water pressure in a shower on the 2nd floor, and turn up the water pump, only to find out it caused leaky pipes in the kitchen; one bedroom would be boiling hot while another was freezing cold. For each of these problems Phase One would “patch” the underlying issue, with increasingly complicated spaghetti code to hold it all together – the equivalent of putting space heaters in the cold rooms since the heating distribution system was problematic.
The long term outlook was clear – residents of the House of Capture One v3 couldn’t continue to build on the same foundation. They had outgrown this house and would need to move to a house built on a modern foundation, with all new plumbing, ready for the future
Rebuilding Across the Country | Capture One v4
Work on a ground-up reworking of Capture One began well before its beta 2008 release. But like any home building project, it ran into several unforeseen delays. In the long run the right decisions were made - building a better foundation was consistently preferred to getting the work done faster; Phase One knew it was building a house that would need to stand for many years to come. The rooms were all sound proofed (in programming parlance it was “highly modular”) so that someone making an improvement in one area of the house (e.g. the Noise Reduction parlor) wouldn’t cause disruptions in others (like the Color Editor bedroom). The foundation was built so that it could be easily expanded for both the foreseen future (like the eventual switch to 64 bit) and the unforeseen future (like the addition of Sony tethering). It was a strong house, well built, and made on a great foundation, built for the future.
It was a massive move, to an entirely new foundational platform. In some ways it may have been more sensible to call this new house “Capture Two” rather than “Capture One v4” - it was a new start rather than a continuation.
As anyone who has made a massive move from one house to another knows, it takes years before the new home feels as lived-in as the old house. The two homes (C1v3 and C1v4) were so far apart that it was not feasible to move the furniture and decorations. In 2007, on move-in day, C1v4 didn’t even include the in-law suite, so 35mm dSLR users couldn’t move in. Moreover lots of the furniture (features like the Color Editor, Metadata Templates, Stitching) was left at the old house, and replacements were not in place in time for C1v4.
Capture One v4 was, frankly, pretty sparse: a beautifully built house, with a lot of empty undecorated walls.
Moving the Furniture, Getting Hitched | Capture One v5
From 2007 until 2010 the main focus of Capture One development was to get back to that lived-in feeling of Capture One v3. A Focus Tool, and 3-channel RGB Level tool, support for dual monitors and a few other old favorites from v3 reappeared in v5 alongside with Brand new tools, like Focus Mask, Dust Removal, and Vignette, and Watermark.
This was not a glamorous period in Capture One’s development. It was the first few years in a new house, and the developers were kept busy getting customers settled in to the new house. They got incredible volumes of feedback from users, many of whom missed the old house. Some because they just didn’t like change. But others had legitimate gripes - particular features or workflows which simply worked better in v3, and needed improvement just to be equally useful. The improvements in Capture One v5 went a long way to addressing these gripes - reestablishing Capture One as the solution for the world’s best photographers.
A New Big Screen TV, Pool Table, Wet Bar, and Sauna | Capture One v6 and v7
When you’ve moved into a new house, and spent the required several years to make it feel fully like home (often long days of nitty-gritty work on small details), it’s not unusual to splurge on adding a few significant “cool things”. For instance if you’re interested in sports you might add a big screen TV to the den.
Likewise, after completing Capture One v5 the architects of the House of Capture One started working on some “cool stuff” to add in the form of major new features. But instead of one or two major features they added several. In v6 and v7 they introduced: an entirely new image quality engine, an entirely new organizational structure (Catalogs), live view for dSLRS, camera controls, keystoning, a dedicated black+white tool.
At the same time they also went to work on some of the infrastructure of the house. Specifically they switched to native 64-bit operation - the equivalent perhaps of changing from Electric to Gas heating. They also switched to using OpenCL to offload heavy processing tasks to the Graphics card instead of CPU - greatly increasing processing speed. There is no great house-equivalent of adding OpenCL, no analogy is perfect, but OpenCL was a major undertaking.
Talking to the Residents
Having made all these significant improvements to Capture One, the question was what to do next.
Phase One is not a gigantic monolithic company. They are small and agile, with minimal layers of management, and a strong belief in getting out to the real world and listening to customers. Along this vein Phase One began soliciting feedback from customers, almost immediately after releasing Capture One v7, asking what they wanted to see in v8. The response was overwhelming; while many customers had specific feature requests, the central theme of the feedback was clear: “speed and stability”.
Anyone reading this blog will immediately understand why. In recent years ultra-fast turnaround times have become the norm, and expectations of productions have shot through the roof. Photographers are asked to produce many times the end product in the same amount of time - at the same production budget. Many photographers’ feedback included the need to walk off set, immediately after a shoot, with nearly-final JPGs for thousands of images. Others spoke of their frustration of waiting for previews to generate - Capture One was giving them the fastest preview they could find, but it still wasn’t fast enough for looming art directors. The House of Capture One needed an industrial kitchen and a freight elevator - it didn’t need to do more, so much as it didn’t to do it faster and it needed to do it even when pushed to the limit.
Spring Cleaning - Speed and Stability | Capture One v8
Making a software release that focuses on major features is easy - who doesn’t want a new pool added to their house? But making a release focusing almost entirely on speed and stability? That lacks sex appeal. That lacks marketing pizazz. But it’s exactly what demanding photographers needed most.
So for C1v8, Phase One went to work doing Spring Cleaning. Just like any house, even those in good order, some junk had accumulated in the attic and basement while efforts were focused elsewhere. They’ve spent an entire release cycle tidying up, organizing and optimizing. As a result they’ve created a speed machine, ready for the fast paced demands of modern productions. Capture One v8, especially on recent computer systems, flies.
Some of the Technobabble We Promised to Avoid
More technical readers might be interested to know that the “junk” mostly took two forms. First there was old code which was working perfectly fine, but which hadn’t been updated or optimized in years, and could be greatly improved by leveraging newer technology. Second, there was a lot of “workarounds” that Phase One had to make to support OSX 10.6.8. This older Apple Operating System had many land mines in its OpenCL graphics processing library, which caused massive headaches for Phase One. With the release of Capture One v8 only OSX 10.9 Mavericks is supported (support for OSX 10.10 Yosemite should come in the next month or two), which allowed them to discard all of this legacy code written to support OSX 10.6. Getting rid of this legacy support also freed them to aggressively optimize for the highest-end systems available. In a new Black Mac Pro with dual D700 graphics cards for instance Capture One v8 can now use both GPUs at the same, doubling their computing capacity.
Additionally, new database technology was used in v8 to improve the handling of large folders and catalogs. This was our largest gripe with v7 - it was quite fast for several hundred images, but many of our clients shoot many thousands of images in one session, and with that quantity of images v7 slowed down. With the improvements in v8 we are finding that speed is excellent even for massive quantities of images.
The result of all this work is that Capture One v8 contains less, but better, code - cleaner and faster than Capture One v7. You can eat off the floor in C1v8. Batch processing completes faster. Tethered shooters will find that the time-to-screen (between triggering a capture and seeing the result on screen) is faster in v8 than it was in v7, and much faster than in LightRoom. Working with really big sets of images is no longer a problem.
Speed and stability – it’s not sexy, but it’s greatly appreciated
Oh, and There Are a Few Great Features
While C1v8 was focused on speed and stability they did sneak in a few great new features. For those shooting product or table top the improvements to live view are especially nice. You can now shoot directly from Live View on supported cameras; in v7 you had to close live view, capture, and reopen live view (every. single. time. It was very frustrating!). There is also a focus meter which gives you an easy to read indication of whether you are in focus (in up to three places in the frame) which is supported for Phase One IQ and IQ2 backs and Mamiya Leaf Credo backs. This is great when using Scheimpflug focus.
There are also some improvements to the highlight recovery tool (larger adjustments can be made without the results looking fake) and local adjustments now include white balance (which we’ve wanted ever since they allowed local adjustments), HDR, and noise reduction. And finally the user interface (the “look” of the program) has been streamlined and modernized. It’s a subtle change in most cases but it’s easier to read and work with, especially in stressful situations like on a laptop outside.
Back to the Metaphor
The welcome mat is already on the front door of the House of Capture One. Unlike every previous release, and most other releases of software (whether it’s Phase One, Apple, Adobe or otherwise) we’re finding Capture One v8 rock solid from its first launch. There are of course a few bugs here or there (always are) for some specific workflows (e.g. Nikon D810 tethering). But overwhelmingly our results have been positive: fast, stable, and ready to go. The house is clean, and there is a waft of evergreen in the air.
Spring Cleaning is great; you find things more easily, lose things less often, and you feel better able to take on new projects. This is where Phase One’s Capture One development team finds itself today. Of course work on v8 will continue for months, to find and squash any bugs scurrying around the house - and of course to add support for new cameras as they are released. But soon many of them will raise their eyes from their glowing screens and ask “what’s next?” So if you’d like to vote for a hot tub, pool table, or foosball table for the House of Capture One v9 - let us know. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org