When it comes to raw converters and photo library managers, our choice of products has recently become more limited with the demise of Apple’s Aperture. My impression in the past was that one’s choice is largely based on features and ease of use with little difference in image quality between them. That opinion was quickly changed when I started digging into Phase One’s Capture One Pro 7.
For the majority of my work I avoided shooting tethered due to the pervasive connection issues that plagued Lightroom - my go-to raw processor for the last few years. A few weeks ago when while filming a new fashion, beauty and portraiture course for RGG EDU, I was forced to shoot tethered and decided to do so with Capture One. While I’ve had Capture One installed for a few months now, my initial impressions weren’t positive and so it sat idle on my computer. After completing the three days of shooting I began inspecting the images and while pulling them into Photoshop, I couldn’t help but notice that the quality felt better than what I’m accustomed to. I initially suspected that this might be due to the expensive Broncolor lights and parabolics that we used throughout the shoot, but to be sure I decided to pull my images into Lightroom for a comparison. It immediately became apparent that the quality upgrade I was seeing was the result of Capture One’s raw processing engine and little else. This was enough to encourage me to forge ahead with Capture One and further explore its options. After spending a fair amount of time with it, I thought I’d share some findings to help you make the right choice for the sort of work you do.
I’ve heard people going on about the improved image quality and tones out of Capture One (C1) for some time now, but always felt that these were overblown claims which varied by photographic genre, or were reserved for owners of the expensive Phase One Medium Format cameras. A raw file is a raw file I thought. When I first got my copy of C1 a few months back, I decided to put this claim to the test and loaded in some images from a recent beauty shoot. My excitement quickly turned to disappointed as the images looked no better, and in fact worse once I began to push the exposure and highlight recovery sliders. My more recent experience made me quickly realize the error I made in my first test. Rather than loading in the native manufacturers raw file, I loaded in a DNG file that was already converted with Adobe DNG converter. I have since asked the folks at Phase One about this and they have confirmed that it's best not to use DNG files with C1. Working with the original NEF (Nikon’s native raw format), the images felt crisper, cleaner and not as washed out as they do in Lightroom (see comparisons below). Although the images were sharper out of the gate, the sharpness wasn’t harsh and didn’t display any artifacting. One could argue that through a series of adjustments and filters you could achieve the same result as what C1 offers out of the gate, but I still feel as though the image is cleaner from the start and the work is done for you. Another area where C1 shines is the reproduction of tones. They appear more natural and representative of the original scene compared to Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. Studying the images between the two converters creates the impression that you’ve gotten an upgrade on your camera gear without shelling out thousands of dollars.
Although the interface felt unintuitive and foreign at first, it quickly became logical and well thought out. The key to adopting it was to stop thinking in Lightroom terms and treating it as a new product. The panels are organized in a logical order and can be customized to a large extent. Not only can you enable various sections (or tabs), but you can also tailor the individual tools within those tabs. This is helpful as you can save various workspaces for specific tasks or job types. For example, I can have one workspace for tethered capture which is kept clean and simple, and a more advanced workspace for my editing stage. As you become more familiar with the interface it becomes clear that it was designed with the professional in mind, hence its level of sophistication and initial feature shock.
My initial foray into managing my image library with C1 was met with a lot of curse words. The process was different to what I was accustomed to with Lightroom and so I immediately chalked it up to being worse. As I explored it a bit more and began using it on a more day-to-day basis, the design began to make more sense. While Lightroom is a collections based system, C1 offers the option of both collections (catalogs) and sessions. Sessions differ from collections in that they are more portable and transactional. A session is a organized into a session folder containing various sub-folders such as Captures, Selects, Output and Trash. Furthermore, each session contains a session file that can load the session contents into C1 regardless of where the session is located. For client work this sort of structure makes good sense as it allows me to shoot tethered to one drive, then copy to my main drive once I’m back the office and easily be able to open it without re-importing or re-mapping anything. Furthermore, the sub-folders help to organize the files outside of C1 for easy access directly out of the file system. In my case, the Output folder contains all the PSD files so I can quickly get to the completed files without searching for them in a large collection.
Culling images involves a great deal of time and it’s a process that we’ve all developed our own personal workflow for. While C1 is a star performer in many respects, this is the one area where it falls a bit short for me. My process in Lightroom was to go through each look and assign a star rating of 1-4. I would then grab all 4 star rated images and enter the survey view where I would compare similar poses, expressions, etc. and eliminate options until I get down to one or two final candidates. While C1 has a star and color rating system, the whole process is just a bit more cumbersome. In full screen mode, the left and right keys don’t cycle through images unless the image bar at the bottom is displayed and there is no survey style view. There are ways to simulate a survey view but it still doesn’t feel as smooth and polished as it is in Lightroom. That being said, C1 also offers a few helpful tools like the focus mask and loupe inspector for quick focus checking which are great when shooting shallow DOF images. C1’s session based file system is also useful as selects can be placed into the ‘Selects’ folder, again making for easier organization down the road. While I still give Lightroom a slight edge with respect to culling, I’m sure that over time I’ll be able to adapt my workflow to work smoothly inside of C1.
Although the initial image quality is great, you may be wondering how C1 stacks up once we begin to play around with the various raw processing sliders. The answer in a nutshell is, very well. In the context of raw processing there isn’t a clear winner however as each application has its share of pros and cons. Both applications have similar sets of exposure, shadow/highlight and other recovery tools, but they behave in slightly different ways. In Lightroom for example, shadow and highlight sliders work in both the positive and negative directions, while C1 treats them as recovery tools only. Although this isn’t a huge problem, I liked having the ability to bring out highlights or darken blacks (which is missing completely in C1) as a finishing technique on top of my PSD file. For this reason (and because C1 doesn't support PSD's) I still use Lightroom to house my finished PSD files. In terms of efficacy and quality of the recovery and exposure sliders, both applications work equally well, albeit with C1 producing a better looking result by virtue of it’s stronger starting point.
In addition to the exposure, white balance and other standard raw processing adjustments, Lightroom has grown dramatically over the years to include features that were once reserved for Photoshop users. Luckily, if you decide to make the switch to C1 you won’t find yourself stepping backwards in this regard. A lot of the same options such as spot healing and localized adjustments are also available and perform well. Where C1 outshines Lightroom is in its Color Editor tool (shown below). This tool is almost an application in and of itself by allowing you to specifically target a particular color and luminosity range and make hue, saturation and luminosity adjustments on that range. Combining this with the masking tools built into C1 allows you to make drastic yet controlled changes in an intuitive manner. Both the Color Editor and and local adjustments sections have well organized layers panels that more intuitive and better organized over what is built into Lightroom. Give the nature of my work, I typically do most of my editing inside of Photoshop but the Color Editor still proves to be useful during tethered capture. Due to its flexible nature, I’m able to setup a profile that will be used throughout the shoot to give the client or other members of my team a more accurate view of what the final images will look like as they’re shot.
Exporting and Working with Photoshop
When it comes to getting your files out, once again there are pros and cons here. While C1 provides an extensive and customizable set of output tools via “Process Recipes”, it lacks in its compatibility with Photoshop. Although Lightroom offers customizable output presets, C1’s Process Recipes are fantastic for batching and are easier to set up and maintain. Its ease of interaction with Photoshop is limited by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t use the Adobe Raw converter. Where I would previously open my Lightroom files as Smart Objects or open up multiple virtual copies as separate layers in one file, these capabilities are absent in C1. While opening multiple images or variants (virtual copies in Lightroom speak) will hopefully one day appear as an option, Smart Objects are simply not possible. This boils down to the fact that we’re using C1 for its superior raw processor and if it had to revert to a Smart Object, we’d simply be going back to using Adobe Camera Raw. While this is somewhat of an inconvenience, it’s a price I’m willing to pay for the improved image quality that results. Once again, the file structure of Sessions traditionally places these exports into “Exports” folder of that session (although this is customizable) which makes for easy retrieval outside of C1.
Choosing the Right Option
Asking which tools is better is like trying to compare a Nikon D800 and a Sony A7R. Both are similar in many ways yet fundamentally different. Neither product is right for everyone and neither one is a clear winner overall. My impression is that Capture One is a better professional or prosumer product while Lightroom’s ease of use make it more suitable for the consumer market. Capture One is designed to work the way most professionals do and its rich set of customizations reflect that. Much like in Photoshop, there are many ways to do the same thing which can make it overwhelming at first. My advice is to stick with it and not to get discouraged simply because it feels unfamiliar. I highly recommend checking out my Ultimate Guide to Getting Started with Capture One which covers everything you need to know in one free tutorial. Phase One also provides a number of topic based videos on their channel as well so it’s a great place to visit if you have questions on specific features. Click here for current deals and discounts on Capture One Pro.
Everyone's situation is a bit different so it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons I’ve described above and decide if the product offers enough benefit for you to make up for the steeper learning curve and inability to work with Smart Objects. For me, the more I work with it the more I’ve grown to appreciate the areas where it excels and the customizability it offers. These benefits were enough to make me switch to Capture One Pro as my primary raw processing tool with Lightroom playing only a secondary role in certain select situations. Despite my initial reservations and objections, it’s superior image quality and other benefits ultimately won me over.
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