I’ve been using Lightroom 4 and now 5 for the last year and a half. Before that I used (and still use) Photoshop CS5 with the Nik software suite and Adobe Camera Raw for my RAW file processing. So it’s fair to say I’ve been invested in Adobe and their digital image editing products for a good amount of time now.
I’m always interested in new ways to expand the quality of my images, and alternative RAW converters have caught my eye over the years. This was particularly the case when I owned the Fuji X-E1; at that time Lightroom did a poor job with the X-Trans sensor, rendering the image (at 100%) with mushy ‘brush strokes’ that became particularly terrible looking with only moderate amounts of sharpening. Although that has, apparently, since improved with Adobe’s updates to Lightroom, the poor quality led me to look at both Capture One Pro from Phase One and DxOMark from DxO Labs.
Before really getting to know either product, however, I ended up selling the X-E1 and returning into the 36-megapixel fold of the Nikon D800E. Lightroom does well with the traditional Bayer-sensor D800E, and for a time I was content.
Then, recently, I decided to try the Capture One Pro 7 60-day free trial period. It’s free – the only cost would be time. I wanted to know if it could outperform Lightroom 5 in all areas as a RAW processor. One proviso to this review: I’m less interested in either programs’ utility as an image cataloguing service, since I do that on my own (at least right now). So this review is focused on image output quality and workflow as a RAW processor.
What did I find?
Well, it’s good enough that I ended up buying it after just 30 days of the 60 day trial. And since buying it I haven’t opened up Lightroom 5.
Let’s get the bad out of the way. You will need to adjust your workflow and habits if you switch from Adobe’s offerings to Capture One Pro 7. It isn’t as bad as some people online make it out to be, however; the basic digital editing controls are all there, and anything you do in one program you can – theoretically – do in the other. I found some things easier to do in Lightroom 5 (color band luminosity and saturation editing, for example) and other things easier in Capture One Pro 7 (e.g. lens-specific adjustments). I will say that, overall, Lightroom 5 feels more intuitive and easier for the less experienced digital photog to pick up and start using. It’s just a little friendlier.
Capture One Pro 7 also doesn’t seem quite as well optimized as Lightroom 5. It’s slower to import photos, takes longer to export them, and it also tends to rapidly gobble up harddrive space with image previews. I’ve taken to deleting the image preview folder to save space on my main SSD harddrive after I’m happy with the processing for a particular batch of photos.
I also wish the masking tool – for use with layers – had a smart-selection tool like Photoshop’s magic wand. There are many times when shooting landscapes that the sky is relatively simple to select, while the horizon itself is broken up by trees and mountains and buildings, etc; without the smart select tool you have to carefully increase and decrease the size and hardness of the mask tool and then select/deselect the masked areas by hand. Possibly I need to get a Wacom tablet to make things easier on myself here; but it’d also be handy to have that magic wand…(side note: the tool might be there and I might just be totally missing it, but I haven’t found it).
Now, the good stuff. The key for me is image quality – the end result. Here, Capture One Pro 7 really shines. It’s actually pretty impressive to me how much better the output can be than Lightroom 5, and with fewer adjustments and fiddling. Part of the key, I think, is the bespoke (customized) profiles available for most major cameras and lenses. If you are considering purchasing this software I recommend you check out the supported camera list on Phase One’s website and then go through the trial period and make sure your camera and lenses are recognized and have the bespoke profiles in place. For me, the Sony RX1R with Zeiss 35mm f/2 and the Nikon D800E with Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 and Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 are all fully recognized with bespoke profiles; however, the software returned “general” as the lens for older RAW files from my archive where I was using the Zeiss 100mm f/2 ZF.2 and 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2, and the older Sony A850 + Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 (it did recognize and have profiles for the Canon 7D and Canon 10-22mm lens that I used years ago).
The software lets you fiddle with distortion, lens sharpness, and light falloff percentages for the specific lens/camera combination you are using, as well as noise reduction based on the camera and ISO of the shot. This is in addition to another set of sharpening and vignetting tools. It defaults in what the Capture One developers feel is the best combination of all these settings, usually with distortion at 100% correction and lens sharpness and light falloff at 0%, with the secondary sharpness and noise reduction at varying levels depending on the camera and ISO of the shot. I like sharpness and clarity so I usually bump the lens sharpness to 100%, give the image some slightly increased Clarity (another slider) and Structure, but leave the secondary sharpening at the developer-recommended level (too much here and you get haloing and the obviously over-sharpened look).
With those settings (adjusted per image, of course), along with perhaps some white balance and color adjustment, as well as – sometimes – one or more layers to darken the sky or alter a specific part of the image, I’ve found I’ve needed much less time in Photoshop with the Nik Software suite than I did with Lightroom 5. I still tend to use Nik’s denoise a fair amount – it’s still the best I’ve come across at selectively denoising the parts of the image that need it, and the fastest – as well as some of the Color Efex Pro 2 tools. But – and this still amazes me – I rarely need to use Nik’s Sharpener anymore. Capture One just does that well, out of the box (so to speak). This contrasts heavily with the output from Lightroom 5, which always necessitated sharpening with Nik to get the image to properly pop.
I haven’t used Capture One Pro 7’s black and white conversion yet, because Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 is still just so good and so powerful. I’d rather output a TIFF from Capture One to Photoshop and use Silver Efex to make a monochrome image. So I can’t really comment on that portion of the software.
I also can’t comment on the image cataloguing abilities, or the tethering. I don’t use either right now. In the future I might, and it’s good to know the abilities are there.
And the end of the day, Capture One Pro 7 grabbed me and held on tight with pure image quality. When you try the software, don’t judge it on the preview within the program – it’s fine, but not really representative of what you’ll end up seeing (the image is just too small with the interface as currently designed). Instead, use the 100% loupe, tweak your settings, then export a TIFF or JPEG and view the result. I was certainly impressed. The RAW processing engine is just better than Lightroom’s right now, with files that show immense detail, clarity and pop.
Lightroom 5 is cheaper and, I believe, easier to get started using. It is still the main choice for many working professionals out there, and it is both fast and delivers relatively good quality, especially if you don’t make large prints. But if you do make large prints, or just care about getting the best you can from your camera and lenses, Capture One Pro 7 is the way to go.