Digital Darkroom Software Review: Capture One Pro

Program:  Capture One Pro 8 (8.3.3)
Platforms Tested Available:  Mac, Windows
Price: $299 (10% off coupons are available, and it seems to go on sale from time to time)
Installation: Very usual. Wholly unremarkable. Just as it should be.

To be perfectly honest, I had no plans to test Capture One. It currently doesn’t support files from the Olympus C5050, a 13 year old camera that I enjoy playing with from time to time, and so it was automatically excluded from consideration. Then, while trying—and failing—to come to a decision about Lightroom CC or 6, and after running across 8 or 10 articles and comments about Capture One and its purportedly superior RAW conversion, I decided to give it a try.

How does it measure up? Well, read on and find out…
General Comments

Capture One (hereafter ‘C1P’) is made by Phase One—makers of medium format digital cameras and backs—and was originally designed to be used with files from their backs in studio settings. It has excellent tethering support and this interesting and useful-sounding way of dealing with images called ‘Sessions,’ which I may or may not (will not, it ends up) go into later. If you surf the comment sections of Lightroom and other software reviews (I don’t recommend it, and you won’t find any here, since no one comments here) you’ll invariably see claims that C1P produces superior results to Lightroom and other softwares. Will these tests verify that result? Allahu Alim.

C1P started providing support for other camera manufacturers some time ago and introduced a catalog structure in version 7, so this puts it in a bit of a different league than other softwares tested here. As I showed in earlier reviews, the Open Source softwares are no slouches in the image-manipulation department and the major commercial offerings have money (and, in some cases) strong brand recognition behind them.

Open source software developers tend to be photographers or image enthusiasts in addition to coders, and therefore build in things that they find useful or have a need for. Strangely, these are often a bit lacking in the library department. I’m not sure why, but RawTherapee has no library, nor does LightZone, and the one in darktable is strange and hard to use—it seems to be little more than a front end for the file system, but one without any visible structure.

Then, there are the for-profit offerings from Adobe and Corel. These are good too, and while these corporations have a background in image softwares, they’re primarily profit-driven and so focus on delivering to the broadest constituency. This has benefits in excellent library management (in Lightroom, anyway), but can sometimes limit the tools a bit or make too many assumptions about what users want/need, and they’re primarily focused on profiting for their shareholders.

Then, there’s C1P: other than products from Nikon and Canon, Phase One is the only camera manufacturer I’m aware of that’s making their own darkroom software, and they’re definitely the only one that’s building in support for cameras from other manufacturers and selling the software commercially.*

Maybe this gives it a bit of a leg up vs. the others; maybe not. But it does make it unique, as far as I can tell.

Anyway.

The interface is easy to navigate and is different from many other RAW developers in two ways:

  1. there is essentially one screen: there’s no silo-ing of various functions in ‘Library’ or ‘Develop’ modules, for example, and you can go from editing to keywording to whatever without needing to load up a different screen: just switch tabs and get to work.
  2. The interface is also very customizable: you can change keyboard shortcuts, move panels around, rearrange toolbars, add new toolbars, move bits of toolbars out and create floating panels, etc. The screenshot at the top is the stock configuration, and here’s the one I rearranged a bit to more closely mimic the Lightroom workflow, sorta.

The worst thing I’ve found about C1P so far is the cost, but if that’s the only drawback, there are worse things in this world for sure.

So the positives:

  • Image quality right out of the gate beats Lightroom and anything else, to my eyes, anyway. Others don’t like it, or complain that C1P is baking too much in. That may be so, but it’s still getting better pictures than Lightroom right from the start
  • Clarity, vignette, film grain, and other things are far more natural-looking than what’s found in many other softwares
  • Tools are easy to use and fast
  • there are some interesting additions, things like a focus-peaking tool (see below) and the excellent Color Balance and Color Editor tools, about which I made a couple of videos:

Color Balance:

Color Editor

Both of those make color correction and manipulation so very easy, and they work as normal when processing negatives, for the most part. There’s nothing really like this in any of the other softwares I tested. darktable is the closest, what with it’s Equalizer and Zone System tools, but I picked up the Color Balance and Editor tools without much effort at all. I had to watch videos on how to use the darktable tools.

There will be some more positives below, in the various tests.

So what are the drawbacks?

  • no built-in support for the 13 year old Olympus C-5050 (I found a fairly easy workaround, but still… everything else I tested read those with no problem at all)
  • $299 is a bit expensive, but, as mentioned above, there are 10% off coupons floating around, and it seems to go on sale from time to time
  • The keywording and some of the library functions are somewhat harder to use than Lightroom and some other softwares, but they work fine

And that’s about it. C1P is really an excellent software, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed using it so far.

Anyway. That’s enough of the General comments… let’s get into the testing.

Test 1: Negative Conversion

As with most other programs, it’s easy: just flop the tone curve. It’s especially easy in C1P, or much easier than Lightroom anyway.

I’m going to be honest here… I started this review several days ago, and I had a dynamite version of the droplet image that all but convinced me to drop Lightroom and jump on the Capture One bandwagon. I wrote a brief post announcing the ‘Winner’ of these software tests and then started working on this review. But then my web host had some hiccoughs and somehow—they claim to have no idea—that post and the first draft of this review got lost in the ether, along with that dynamite edit.

No matter, the mythical ‘perfect edit’ was from a test I did where I used the Vivitar 70-210 instead of the Nikkor 24-105 as the lens in the Scan-O-Matic mkIII. The Vivitar actually gives nicer, sharper, slightly closer scans, but I’ve been busy with these reviews and Ramadan, and just lazy, so I haven’t made a mark IV yet. Anyway, I think Capture One did a bang up job with the version above anyway: it seems to pull a bit more detail out, the color is just a bit better, everything is just a bit sharper and clearer.

Here’s one that really brings it home. First, a new version from Lightroom:

Not bad… better than my original edit, for sure.

So how does Capture One do?

SubhanAllah. A bit better, I think.

Mind you, the Capture One version was produced my first day with the software, after about 4 minutes of slider/tool manipulation; the Lightroom version came after about 2 hours of slider play over 2 days, and only after doing a/b comparisons with the Capture One version.

I’m sure some could get those results from Lightroom, but I’ve been using that software exclusively for more than 2 years (or close enough), and I have no clue.

If you surf the comments on various reviews of C1P, you’ll invariably find someone who insists that C1P is just baking in all kinds of things that users can’t change, and that any competent image manipulator can easily get better results from Lightroom.

Call me incompetent, but 4 minutes in C1P, or 2 hours in Lightroom… which do you prefer?

So I think I’ve made my point there. Before I go on with the tests, here’s a treat:

With my recent-ish discovery of screen-casting ability, I thought it would be a good idea to walk through the negative converting process in C1P, so here you go.

Grrr. I just realized that iMovie cuts off the top and bottom of the frame to force the video into 1080p. I need to either find some way to frame things in 1080p, or find another software that will let me output video in mp4 at 16×10. Something to work on, if I keep making these.

If.

Ok. So that’s negative converting in C1P.

Test 2: ORFs

As mentioned above, C1P has no support for the C-5050. It’ll read files from the 7070 and 8080, but not the 5050. But I found an easy workaround:

Adobe’s DNG converter reads ORFs from the C-5050, and it’ll output DNGs with a flat tone curve:

C1P will happily process those just as well as anything else. Sure, it doesn’t have the custom built profiles for it like it does for the cameras it does support, but it does alright.

The flat curve took a bit of quite a bit of work to get even that far, so I might let the DNG converter use Adobe’s default curve, or come up with one of my own that gets things a bit closer to start.

This shows the biggest benefit of any Raw converter: it’s defaults. Lightroom has whatever Adobe cooks up; most of the Open Source ones use dcraw; C1P uses its own, internally-produced icc profiles, and those profiles are probably what makes the difference.

Honestly, Lightroom does a better job with ORFs from the C5050, as do RawTherapee and darktable. But these aren’t too bad for a quick hack-job, and with a better starting point—perhaps based off of dcraw’s curve, if I can figure out how to get Adobe software to read it—I think C1P would do fine with these.

Test 3: NEFs

Fortunately, C1P does support the D7000…

I’m not quite sure about the skin tone here… C1P has option to set white balance based on skin tone. This is an interesting and fairly novel way to set colors, but I couldn’t really find a good match for my skin color or that of my darling, adorable wife.

I used the ‘Rose Light’ preset above and set it based on the color of my lips, which is close to accurate in the above. Other presets include light, medium, and deep for Beige, Honey, and Rose, for a total of 9 built-in presets. I’m not sure what color I fall under; my wife is sortof an olive/caramel color. This probably works great with models in studio settings, though, and there’s an option to set your own skin tones, so I might use a color checker and set one up for the Hanabibti one day.

I got the self portrait balanced a bit better by switching to the ‘Beige – Light’ preset, and then manually dialing in a bit more blue and a bit less green to get something closer to my color.

It’s closer, but still a bit too orange, and my lips went purple.

There are probably better images to look at… let’s see.

So here’s a picture I took on a photowalk a couple of years ago.

And It Makes Me Shine

That was probably produced in Aperture… it was back during the 365 project of 2012, and I think I switched to Lightroom with 2013’s 7/52, so my vision has changed a bit, but here’s an edit I slapped on it in with C1P in about 2 minutes.

And It Makes Me Shine - Capture One Pro

For grins, here they are side by side:

The original is a bit more candy-coated, but there’s far more detail in the C1P version, and there are some blown out fuchsia areas in the original that show some nice variations of tone in the newer one. The saturation was there in the scene—I pulled back on it a bit in C1P, owing to my vision in 2015—but so was the detail that appears to have been lost in the Aperture version (or the three 3+ year old 800px wide jpeg it spit out).

So here’s one from a year and a half or so ago, definitely processed with Lightroom 5.

Fort Worth Botanical Gardens D7000|49|©JamesECockroft-20140104

This must be owning to a change in vision… Here’s a 30 second edit from C1P:

20140104-1152-Fort Worth Botanic Gardens-D700-42-©JamesECockroft-20140104-Capture One

And here they are next to each other… actually, this might benefit from an a/b with default settings, even though that can never really show you anything.

First, the edits:

And now, here’s what the picture looked like, as it was imported and interpreted with default settings:

The shot was taken in the Japanese gardens at the Fort Worth Botanical garden in early January of 2014. If I recall, there were a few clouds, but it was mostly clear, winter light. You can look back at the post… the iPhone pictures should be close to what the light was actually like. The picture was shot with the 75-150mm Zomb-E, and that lens tends to produce colors that I quite like, but I’m not quite sure which software gets it closest.

To maybe try and get around the change in vision thing, here’s a much more recent one, never before shared. To make it fair-er, I’ll edit it in Lightroom first, then upload, then have a nap, then edit in C1P and upload that one. God willing, I’ll not look at the Lightroom version while I’m messing around in C1P. And after this, I’ll be finished with trying to compare the arguably standard raw developer (Lightroom/Adobe Camera Raw) with a more specialized, near-niche product.

First, here’s the original file, as interpreted by Lightroom (left, using its default ‘Adobe Standard’ profile) and C1P (right, with its ‘auto’ profile (probably the ‘Film Standard’ profile)):

At this stage, they’re fairly close: Lightroom’s is a bit more muted, color wise, and a bit more dull; C1P is a bit more saturated and yellower; Lightroom is cooler.

So here’s my shiny new Lightroom edit:

Whew! That was fun… As you can probably tell, I did quite a bit more with that than I usually do, mostly just multiple brushes with various adjustments, etc. But maybe it makes for an interesting and hopefully not hackneyed concept.

And here’s my post-nap C1P version. I tried to keep pretty much the same crop and concept:

I guess I prefer candy after a nap… or maybe the light in the office was different. It definitely took a good bit more work: the brush in C1P is considerably more fiddly to work with than the one in Lightroom, and it took 7 adjustment layers and about 25 minutes to get this Lucky Charms-style edit together, vs. maybe 15 or 18 in Lightroom.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a nice a/b gallery of them together. I’m not sure which one I prefer… the Lightroom edit is too muted next to the C1P version, but the C1P version is a bit too saturated. (That said, both looked good to me in-app. It’s only here on the blog, in the edit window, that I get a good look.)

Interesting. One thing that bothered me in C1P was the transition between brushes/adjustment layers. The transitions seemed overly harsh in the app, and that’s what kept me fiddling. Now, looking at the Lightroom version, its edges look like dark lines, and the C1P edges look a bit smoother. I guess vision can change quite quickly.

I do think the C1P version is a bit too candied. That pink highlight in the center left side needs to be dialed back a bit: it distracts too much from the rim of the empty pot.

So here it is with a quick adjustment layer to dial that spot back:

Not bad.

So brushes, filters, etc. in Lightroom are, for me, somewhat easier to use, and there are more of them, what with the radial and graduated filters in addition to the brush (and in 6/CC, the brushes for the filters…). C1P has layers, and that adds some potential, for sure, but as far as brush options go, it loses to Lightroom by one brush.

The brushes/filters in Lightroom allow you to manually adjust Temp/Tint, Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Clarity, Saturation, Sharpness, Noise, Moire, Defringe, (in CC there are also sliders for White and Black points), and you can add a color layer, and there are presets for all of these plus Burn, Dodge, Iris Enhance, Soften Skin, and Teeth Whitening.

C1P has a brush, an eraser, and a gradient puller thing (which I only found after writing this bit… you can see it in the poorly edited, bad picture of my darling adorable wife, on the left side of the picture below) but it exposes Exposure, Contrast, Brightness, Saturation, Highlights, Shadows, Sharpening, Clarity/Structure, Noise Reduction, Moire, Purple Fringing, and the excellent Color Editor to the adjustments brushes.

As far as local adjustments go, I think Lightroom wins, but only by a bit, and only because I’m so bad at using brush tools and taking pictures of my Hanabibti, even after a full semester of Illustrator and another full semester of Photoshop back in Undergrad (and no formal Photography training).

But this is about C1P, not Lightroom.

Lightroom was last week, and the week before, and a couple of years before that.

This week, it’s C1P.

So with C1P, I found something interesting… No software is going to make a bad picture better. They can make mediocre pictures somewhat more interesting, but really bad pictures will always be really bad pictures.

Take the picture of my darling, adorable wife, from the AfterShot Pro tests, for example:

Adjustment Layer Skillz revealed 1

The original left my Hanabibti underexposed, with rather horrible white balance (probably thrown off by her hijab) and not really in focus.

If this wasn’t obvious to me in other softwares—and it wasn’t really: I thought it was ok, and just in need of some tweaks—it’s woefully obvious in C1P.

With deepest apologies to my darling, adorable wife—and may Allah azza wa jall forgive me—here’s what an hour in C1P got me:

If I hadn’t already learned this lesson, C1P brings it home: software can help make decent pictures a bit better, and can help make great pictures great-er, but if the picture is deeply flawed to begin with, no software is really capable of making it better.

So here. Let me almost make up for making my wife ugly above: here she is, looking much more like how I think of her:

MashaAllah.

Final Thoughts

The most common criticism I’ve seen about C1P is that it bakes a bit too much in, in particular the default sharpening. I disagree, for the most part. I think the starting points I get with Capture One, most of the time, are superior to what I get from Lightroom, and I think the results I get from C1P are superior to virtually everything I’ve gotten from any other Raw developer.

But it does oversharpen a bit if you look closely. Note the artifacts in this screenshot of a full size (not even blown up, just 100%) portion of the pot of gold image, above:

If you look close, you’ll note the tell-tale oversharpening artifacts. Tsk Tsk.

Of course, this is an entirely blurred image and since there’s nothing to sharpen,  the artifacts are particularly visible. You don’t see them at all in the pictures of my wife, or most other pictures from C1P, and so it’s not a very strong complaint, in my mind.

My biggest issue with C1P, at present, is my unfamiliarity with its tools. This can be easily remedied by spending a few months with it, and I may very well decide to do just that.

Oh, and I forgot to mention a couple of things…

Previews

When you first load files into a C1P catalog, the software creates Previews, much like Lightroom. Unlike Lightroom, the default size for these is 2560px on the longest edge (In LR6 and CC, the defaults are variable, based on the size of the monitor). Also unlike Lightroom, these previews are contained inside the Catalog itself, rather than in a separate file, and you can export “JPEG QuickProof™”s from these internal previews at the size of the preview. In Lightroom, you need a separate ‘Smart Preview’ for this.

If there’s a difference between a JPEG QuickProof™and a jpeg of the same dimension, I can’t see it… can you?

Focus Peaking

In theory, the Focus Mask shows you the areas of the picture that are in sharpest focus. There’s a nice discussion of it on the Image Quality Professor’s blog (part of Phase One’s site).

In practice, I found it to be a bit hit or miss… mostly miss.

Capture One Focus Mask, in use (1)

Those pictures are all from the LX-7, which, given it’s relatively tiny sensor, should be in more or less sharp focus, most of the time. I really don’t understand why my forehead, for example, which is in the same plane as the top of Hana’s hijab, has the green mask over it while the hijab doesn’t.

Highlights tend to fool it, a bit, I think, and it’s also easily fooled by other things. Here’s a green highlight on part of a completely out-of-focus lizard:

Capture One Pro Focus Mask in use (2)

I think maybe it doesn’t work so well with previews. Or maybe it doesn’t work well with files from other cameras.

There are two caveats in the Image Quality Professor’s blog post:

The analysis will sometimes misrepresent sharpness for noisy images, or branches from a tree out of focus. I do not recommended using the Focus Mask with images taken with a pocket-sized camera with a small pixel size at high ISO values, unless you tune the threshold to a high number.

I’m not sure how the first sentence is supposed to end or what’s missing… I think a clause was left out. I don’t fault the author for this: I make errors all the time and it often takes years for me to notice them. Please, for the love of God, if you see anything wrong grammatically, or if anything doesn’t make sense, please please please leave a comment and let me know so I can fix it.

So it’s acknowledged to make errors with out-of-focus and noisy images… Well that’s about all I shoot! lol.

Seriously, though, I do tend to miss focus quite a bit. This is either a complete failing or an artistic decision: I’ll leave that for you to decide. So the focus mask may come in handy for when I do product shots with larger-sensor cameras, but it’s unlikely to be of much use for my macro fun or film shots, and that’s really fine.

So that’s about all I have to say for C1P.

Final, Final Thoughts

As far as RAW processors go, it’s definitely at the top of the pack in my mind. Is it worth the $299 (or ~$269 after readily-available 10% discount)? Probably, but only if you (or I) can afford to drop $300. My stepdad had a saying, or a way of moving through the world that I’ve adopted, for the most part: Always buy the best that you can afford; or, never buy cheap just because it’s cheap. So it’s time to check my bank balance and either plunk down the cash or start saving.

Coming next, a review of my findings and how I plan to proceed. Look for that in the next week or so.

And please, please leave some comments to let me know you’re out there. Thanks in advance.


*DXO also makes a darkroom software. Its expertise has historically been in lens correction, and it has taken that expertise and recently introduced a little pocket camera that plugs into iPhones. I might also review DXO Optics Pro, but maybe not; I’ll probably not review their camera, since I’m currently more interested in playing with film and have a strong belief that larger sensor area yields better results than mere megapixels. But it still sorta puts DXO into a similar category—camera manufacturers that also make software—as Capture One Pro.

 

One Reply to “Digital Darkroom Software Review: Capture One Pro”

  1. James, thanks for the great reviews!

    A few weeks ago I spent several days testing C1P, DxO, Iridient Developer, and RawTherapee. For perfectly fine one-click images, DxO won in most cases (it always won if there was noise; DxO’s “prime” noise reduction is almost supernatural [Allah yustur!]). But, for preserving resolution, overall I favored RawTherapee. C1P consistently looked over-processed to me at defaults (too contrasty, too saturated, almost artificial). Additionally, I found that DxO and RT managed to produce images that were wider and taller. That is, they rescued the edges of the images that Lightroom and C1P lost. No doubt this is due to the variables of lens correction. In any case, if you have the time, try out DxO; I think you’ll very much enjoy playing with it.

    And, if I find a DAM that works with RT, I promise to tell you. I *really* want one. So far, digikam is not it, as it does not read RT’s .pp3 sidecars, nor does RT yet write .xml sidecars. I wish all these programs would agree to adopt open source standards.

    Thanks again!

    Franz

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