Verdict: Capture One Pro 9 delivers superb RAW conversions, with effective image cataloguing tools and newly improved keywording. Its layers-based localised adjustment tools are terrific and with presets, styles and virtual ‘variants’, it’s easily got the measure of Lightroom. There are a couple of drawbacks, though. It supports one external editor but not plug-ins (not directly, at least) and it can’t quite match the scope of Adobe’s automatic lens and perspective corrections. 4.5 stars

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Capture One Pro is a serious piece of software in every sense. It was born in the professional studio photography market as a ‘tethering’ tool for parent company Phase One’s medium format cameras, but it’s evolved into an extremely powerful RAW conversion and image-editing tool for the wider market, with support for over 400 cameras, plus in-built lens correction tools and asset management/image cataloguing tools.

You can still use it in the studio for remote camera control and image capture, not just with Phase One’s cameras but with professional DSLRs, too. This is the ‘capture’ part – it’s designed for fast, on-the-fly image capture, enhancement and processing. Pictures are captured, sorted, enhanced and processed in ‘Sessions’, which are groups of folders set up for this process for each shoot.

But you can also use it as a standalone RAW image cataloguing, enhancement and conversion tool, working from a central image catalog/database, just like Lightroom. And this is where it gets interesting, because while they appear similar their strengths are very different.

Capture One’s conversions are very sharp, saturated and contrasty. With some cameras they are truly exceptional. Lightroom is certainly competent, and you can coax it into some great results – but not like this.

There are downsides to Capture One Pro, but let’s look at the strengths first.

Capture One Pro’s panels, controls and tools are pretty fearsome-looking, but the interface and workflow are really straightforward. Folders and Collections are displayed in a panel on the left, the images they contain are shown as thumbnails in a browser window at the base or side of the screen, and any thumbnail you select is shown as a full size image in the main window.

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From here, you use the different adjustment panels (‘tool tabs’) according to the correction and enhancement job you want to do. This is the Exposure tool tab, which contains every tool related to tonal control and a couple more besides. The Curve panel at the bottom left shows the new Luma tab for increasing contrast without boosting saturation. It’s been useful here – I wanted more contrast in this architectural shot but I wanted the warm colours in the stone to stay subtle.

You won’t need them all – the Capture tab, for example, is redundant if you’re not shooting tethered in the studio – and you won’t need all the tools on the tabs you do need.

The trick with Capture One is to decide what you do need and to add this tool to the ‘Q’ (‘quick’) tool tab or create a custom tab of your own. Then you can concentrate on the tools that are most relevant to the way you work, what they can do and how to get the best from them.

But Capture One doesn’t just carry out global adjustments. You can add layers and masks with adjustments for specific areas – the masking tools include a gradient tool (perfect for skies), brush and eraser tools.

In Capture One Pro 9, the brush tools are improved with the addition of ‘flow’, ‘airbrush’, ‘straight line’ and ‘brush linking’ options.

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This picture has two local adjustment layers – one to darken the sky and another to increase the contrast and clarity in the tower. Doing this selectively requires masks, and this is where Capture One is particularly strong.

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You can create a gradient mask for a sky, for example, and then use the freehand eraser brush to remove the effect from areas where you don’t want it applied – like the rocky outcrop jutting out into the sky. You have a good deal of control over the brush settings, and the ability to create and name multiple layers makes it easy to carry out and test complex adjustments individually.

This is an areas where Capture One Pro 9 is better than Lightroom. Lightroom’s localised adjustments are perfectly effective, but the way they’re ‘pinned’ to the photo and only appear when the appropriate tool is selected feels messy and muddled by comparison. Capture One’s system of layers and masks, however, is clear, direct and obvious.

Like Lightroom, Capture One Pro offers preset image effects and the ability to save your own. And, like Lightroom, it lets you create virtual copies of your images (‘variants’) that don’t take up disk space but do give you the opportunity to try out different effects.

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Capture One Pro’s presets vary from the subtle to the creative – like these selective colour effects for colourising red, green or blue areas in black and white images.

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Like Lightroom, Capture One Pro 9 supports virtual copies of your images – or ‘variants’ in Capture one. This means you can compare two or more ‘treatments’ for the same image, while only having one actual image file.

The difference between Capture One and Lightroom in the results. Viewed in isolation, Lightroom’s images look great, but viewed side-by-side with Capture One’s, the differences become obvious. Capture One’s images have a clarity, smoothness and edge definition at a pixel level that Lightroom rarely matches.

Not everyone looks at their images that closely, and not everyone attaches a lot of importance to this kind of fine detail rendition – but what it does show is that all RAW converters are not the same. If detail rendition is your thing, then you should at least look at what Capture One Pro 9 can do, even if you don’t end up buying it.

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You don’t have to use the zoom function to check fine detail. Capture One has a loupe tool – you just click on the part of the image you want to examine in detail. Capture One’s crystal clear rendering of fine detail means you could forgive it almost anything.

And it does have drawbacks, beyond its higher purchase cost. Capture One does not have as many lens correction profiles as Lightroom, so with some lesser consumer lenses you might have to make manual distortion corrections. It doesn’t have any equivalent of Lightroom’s ‘Upright’ tool, either, for automatic perspective correction.

Worse, Capture One does not support plug-ins. But it does support an external editor, so you can work around this by sending an image to a plug-in compatible application like Photoshop and using your plug-ins from there. When you save the image, it’s returned to the Capture One Catalog, so Capture One does support external editor round-tripping.

It’s a perfectly serviceable workaround, but Capture One still doesn’t quite match Lightroom’s scope as an end-to-end workflow for your photography or as a digital hub for other more specialised photo editing apps.

This makes the verdict very tricky. If Capture One supports your camera and lenses and offers all the enhancement and adjustment tools you need routinely, it’s well worth the extra financial outlay over Lightroom. It’s perfect for commercial photographers producing mainstream imagery and who have a clear ‘capture > edit > deliver’ workflow.

But if you constantly revisit your photo collection and rely on many different applications and plug-ins for different artistic effects, together with the ability to co-ordinate them from a single app, this is where Lightroom has the edge.