Editor’s note: This was written back in 2013 and I know it needs an update. The broad conclusions still apply – that different RAW converters produce very different results – but I do need to re-test the latest versions to bring the results up to date. Rod Lawton

All RAW converters are not the same! I’m surprised at how many people use Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom (it’s the same processing engine) as a default RAW converter and never think to check out their rivals. But I use and write about all image-editing tools, not just Adobe’s, and its clear to me that there are major differences between them.

I mention this from time to time in my posts on Life after Photoshop, but then I thought it would be a good idea to carry out a proper side-by-side DxO vs Lightroom vs Capture One Pro comparison, using three different RAW files which I think demonstrate exactly what I mean.

DxO Optics Pro 11 review

Lightroom CC review

Capture One Pro 9 review

I’m using the latest versions of all three programs: DxO Optics Pro 9, Lightroom 5 and Capture One Pro 7. I’m using the default conversion profile in each case, except for the first, where I start with an overexposed image and use each program’s exposure controls to try to recover the highlight detail.

In each case I display the full images side-by-side to give you an overall impression of their different styles of reproduction, but I add a close-up comparison underneath to show the differences more clearly. You’ll need to click on each image to see the full-size view to be able to judge the differences properly.

01 Colour rendition

DxO vs Lightroom vs Capture One

At first glance, these conversions all look pretty much the same, but if you look at the sky you’ll see some big differences in the way the blue sky has been rendered. DxO Optics Pro 9 has a hint of red in the blue, Lightroom 5 tends slightly towards cyan and Capture One Pro 7 – arguably – is the most neutral. I say ‘arguably’, because if you saw them individually you’d probably think they were all fine.

The colours in the rest of the picture are all remarkably close, though Capture One Pro 7 does deliver a little more saturation, particularly in the greens.

02 Highlight recovery

DxO vs Lightroom vs Capture One

The original image was overexposed by just over 1EV, which left the clouds in the top left corner right on the limit of what a RAW converter can typically recover. DxO says Optics Pro 9 has improved highlight recovery, and although my last test wasn’t conclusive, I think there’s a clear difference here. By adjusting the exposure value, I’ve been able to recover subtle highlight detail in the whole of the cloud, and where it’s right on the edge of clipping to a blank white, the transition is ‘graceful’ – there’s no sudden and obvious ‘blow-out’.

Lightroom 5 wasn’t as good. However carefully I adjusted the Exposure slider, the histogram showed a big ‘cliff’ at the end rather than a gentle tail-off and I couldn’t recover the cloud with the same subtlety. The Lightroom version is clipped in some areas and the transition is quite harsh, which makes the blow-out more obvious. It’s also showing some rather nasty blue fringing around the top edge of the cloud.

Capture One Pro 7’s result is better than Lightroom’s, and on a par with DxO Optics Pro 9’s. I didn’t really expect this result because I’ve always thought Adobe Camera Raw was just about the best there was for highlight recovery, but I guess its rivals have moved on.

03 Contrast and shadows

DxO vs Lightroom vs Capture One

One of the things that bothers me about Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom is that its default RAW conversions, to me at least, look a little ‘gutless’. There’s plenty of shadow detail, but at the cost of low overall contrast and saturation. You can see the difference in this picture between Lightroom 5, DxO Optics Pro 9 and Capture One Pro 7. The other two have produced noticeably more dense and saturated images.

DxO vs Lightroom vs Capture One

You can see this more clearly with this blown-up centre section. The Lightroom version in the centre has more ‘open’ shadows, but lacks the clarity and vividness of the other two. That’s not the only difference. DxO Optics Pro 9 delivers slightly more clarity in the fine details, and Capture One Pro 7 tops them both with the sharpest results of all. This is far superior to regular software sharpening – I think it’s the way Capture One Pro demosaics the original RAW data.

The penalty for this extra contrast and richness is the loss of some extreme shadow detail, but personally I’d rather have punchy images straight out of the box, which is why I prefer DxO’s and Capture One’s rendition to Adobe Camera Raw’s.

Incidentally, you can get punchier default conversions from Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom by using their Camera Calibration panel. This more closely mimics the camera maker’s intended contrast and colours, and it’s a handy trick to know.