Verdict: 5 stars ★★★★★
Anyone who thinks all RAW converters are the same should spend a little time with Capture One. Its RAW processing is superb, its local adjustments are powerful and controllable, its cataloguing tools are terrific, and it’s a brilliant studio tethered shooting tool.
Capture One Pro is a combined image cataloguing program, RAW processor and image enhancement program. It’s very similar in its scope and tools to Adobe Lightroom but it’s aimed even more clearly at experts and professionals.
It misses out on a couple of features that Lightroom has, notably cloud storage, mobile app syncing and online browsing and editing tools, but it has more sophisticated editing tools, professional studio tethering capabilities and, in many cases, produces superior results from RAW files. It is more expensive than Lightroom, but can still be bought as a regular ‘perpetual licence’ – though a subscription-based payment system is available too.
How does it work?
Like Lightroom, Capture One uses a catalog system to store, organise and search your images, so there is an Import process right at the start. You have a choice here, however. You can either ‘reference’ your images in their existing locations – useful if you need to store your images on an external drive – or import them directly into the Capture One catalog.
This is an interesting alternative because it lets you keep your working catalog separate from your main image archive, so you can just work on your top images and delete rejects as you go along, knowing that the originals are kept safe elsewhere. Apple Aperture used to offer this option, and it’s an effective and reassuring way to work. It also gives you a single, discreet catalog file that’s easier to manage than a separate catalog and referenced folder system.
For those who don’t like catalogs, Capture One offers a second, very different approach based on ‘Sessions’. These are most commonly used during tethered shooting in the studio, where you want to view, edit and cull images as you go along. However, you can also use session mode to view folders and images on your hard disk, so it can act as a regular folder and file browser – though you lose the more advanced organising and search tools in Capture One catalogs.
Like Lightroom, Capture One Pro is a non-destructive RAW processing tool – though it can also view and edit JPEGs and TIFFs. Any editing changes you make are stored as ‘metadata’ (processing instructions) either in the Capture One catalog or in a special folder alongside the images on your hard disk.
The editing tools are organised into a series of ’Tooltabs’ for Exposure, Color, Local Adjustments, Lens corrections, Details and Styles/Presets. There are also Tooltabs for checking image metadata (keywords etc) and for setting up recipes for image processing, where you export finished, processed images as JPEGs or TIFFs. This is how all non-destructive editors work – your changes are only visible inside the program itself until you export a new image where they’re ‘baked in’.
There are some things the editing tools can’t do, such as layered images and composites and effects that rely on direct pixel-based manipulation. It doesn’t support Photoshop and Lightroom style plug-ins, but it does let you round-trip images to other image editors, including Photoshop, Affinity Photo or the individual apps in the DxO Nik Collection for example. If you need a plug-in that doesn’t also work as a standalone app, then you can use an external editor like Photoshop to act as a plug-in ‘host’.
Unlike Lightroom Classic, which has separate Library and Develop modules, in Capture One all the browsing and editing is done within a single window.
The tools and workflow can look complex at first, but it’s very easy to re-configure the interface so that your most-used tools are on a single tab. You don’t need to use, or even see, tools you don’t use if you don’t want to.
And if you come up with a set of adjustments that give you the perfect ‘look’ for a photo shoot, you naturally don’t have to recreate them manually each time. Instead, you can use Capture One’s Copy/Apply Adjustments buttons to copy your changes to the Adjustment Clipboard (you can check this to choose which adjustments are applied) and add them to other images with a single mouse click.
You can also save Styles and Presets for later use. Styles are collections of adjustments from a range of different tools, while Presets are saved adjustments for one tool only, such as Curves or the Color Editor.
Even these Styles and Presets have another layer of control. There’s a ‘stacking’ option if you want to apply them cumulatively, you can apply them to new layers and then blend them with masks and opacity adjustments, and you can buy/download Style sets from the ON1 website.
Is it any good?
Capture One lacks the widespread consumer camera support offered by Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. It can open the RAW files of pretty well all key serious/professional programs, but now and again you might come across a gap. At the time of writing, for example, it doesn’t yet support the entry-level Canon EOS M100, for example or Panasonic GX9 compact mirrorless camera.
Version 11.1, however, does add RAW support for some key professional cameras, including the Fujifilm X-H1, Sony A7 III and Panasonic GH5 and G9 models.
The same applies to lenses. Capture One can apply automatic correction profiles for many key high/end pro lenses, though some consumer lenses aren’t supported (or support is slower to arrive), which means you’ll need to apply chromatic aberration or distortion corrections manually.
On the upside, the quality of Capture One’s RAW conversions is very high indeed, and it’s especially good at maximising the clarity of ultra-fine detail while minimising noise. With some camera models – Nikon and Sony for example – you might not see too much difference between Capture One and Lightroom – but with others, notably Canon models, default Lightroom conversions are both a little softer and a lot noisier.
Capture One’s editing tools are highly effective too. Its dynamic range tools are especially good at recovering highlight and shadow detail in RAW files while still creating a realistic, contrasty image. The colour tools initially look complex, but they allow very subtle adjustments to shadow, midtone and highlight tones as well as direct editing of individual colour ranges for hue, saturation and lightness.
Local adjustments are carried out using adjustment layers, each of which can have its own layer mask. These are created with a gradient mask tool and regular brush and eraser tools, each with an auto masking option that automatically identifies object outlines. It’s also possible to feather and refine masks and control the layer opacity – two new features introduced in version 11.
In principle, Lightroom edges slightly ahead by offering a radial masking tool which Capture One lacks. In practice, though, Capture One’s adjustment layer based editing is both more powerful and more intuitive than Lightroom’s. It’s also possible to use all the editing tools on each adjustment layer, whereas Lightroom’s local adjustment tools are only a subset of the full range.
Capture One does not, however, offer mobile apps, cloud storage and web/mobile synchronisation. If remote/mobile working is a necessary part of your workflow, you’ll need to take a portable computer and your image catalog with you, perhaps on a removable drive, or invest in extra Capture One licences for all the computers you want to use.
So should you get Capture One Pro? First, you need to check it supports your camera’s raw files and has profiles for the lenses you use most often. Second, you need to be prepared to pay for the privilege of using a premium professional application. Third, you need to make sure that it works with the other programs you like to use as external editors and that you can get by with its desktop based approach.
If you can tick all three boxes, then Capture One really is a great buy. Its raw conversions are second to none, its editing tools are logical, powerful and customisable and it runs pretty fast too on our test machine, where Lightroom Classic has slowed to a crawl.
What’s new, and what does it cost?
If you already own Capture One versions 9 or 10, you can upgrade to version 11 for 119 USD/EUR. It’s probably worth it because version 11, introduced in November 2017, brought substantial improvements to the local adjustment/layer tools, including the ability to use all the tools on layers, refine and feather masks after they’ve been created and adjust the layer opacity.
This version also came with ‘re-engineered’ colour controls, improved catalog performance and the ability to check for duplicate images on import.
Version 11 also introduced the ability to add annotations and export them to Photoshop as a layer – very useful for swapping retouching or layout notes with co-workers – and to add watermarks as a Photoshop layer too. It’s also possible to export a crop to a path when sending files to Photoshop so that the full image area is available if needed.
If you already own Capture One 11, the update to 11.1 is free. It’s worth downloading, since it brings the ability to add Styles and Presets, together with a free ‘Spring’ Styles pack. There’s also a new Resource hub accessed from within the program for tutorials, news, blog posts and webinars, and support for the Fujifilm X-H1, Sony A7 III and Panasonic GH5S and G9.
If you’re buying Capture One from scratch, it will cost you $299 USD or 279 EUR. That’s a pretty hefty price tag, but this is a polished, professional program that delivers superb results and you are getting a perpetual license.
The alternative is to go for Capture One’s subscription plan at 20 USD/EUR per month for a 12-month plan or 180 USD/EUR prepaid annually. That’s almost twice the price of the Adobe Photography Plan, but it’s a lower outlay than buying a regular license.
But you don’t have to choose either option straight away, because Capture One is also available as a 30-day trial. That should easily be long enough for you to decide if this is the right software for you.
Verdict: 5 stars ★★★★★
Price: $299 USD or 279 EUR plus taxes
More information: Capture One 11 (Phase One website) and 30-day trial