PhaseOne Capture One Pro 9 review

Verdict 9/10: 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.

Ratings are based on context: what the software is designed to do, who it’s aimed at.

What is it? Capture One Pro is a combined image cataloguing, raw processing and photo enhancement tool in the same style as Lightroom, offering a searchable image database, non-destructive editing and seamless RAW file handling. It does not offer Photoshop-style image layers, complex masking, compositing and retouching tools. For these you’ll to need to use Photoshop, or a tool like it, alongside Capture One Pro.

Closest rival: Adobe Lightroom Classic CC. These are the only two serious contenders in the pro cataloguing, raw processing, non-destructive editing market.

Capture One Pro 11.1 review

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.

captureone9-lumacurve

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.

captureone9-layers

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.

captureone9-masks01

captureone9-masks02

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.

captureone9-presets

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.

captureone9-styles03

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.

captureone9-loupe

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.

13 thoughts on “PhaseOne Capture One Pro 9 review

  1. If you have both Lightroom and Capture One, it is possible to continue to use Lightroom as your editing hub and Capture One as your RAW converter. You can send a RAW file to Capture One from Lightroom, edit your RAW image in Capture One, and return a TIFF to the Lightroom catalog for further edits in whatever else you use.

    Capture On has a video on their website describing the process, and there are some more advanced techniques described on their forum. I think the Capture One results are grand and I love the local adjustment layers. I have invested a lot in the Lightroom catalog and the ability to use Capture One as my RAW file editor makes for a winning combination.

    1. Thanks, Willy. I’ll see if I can take a look at this video. I was going to say I’d be surprised if many people were prepared to invest in both Lightroom and Capture One since there’s so much crossover, but thinking about it if you have a Photoshop Creative Cloud subscription you will have Lightroom too.

  2. I really like the way Capture One edits my RAW files. But I’d like to see the spot brush develop like the one in LR. Also, even though they say v9 is much better with keywords and organizing with their catalogs it has a long way to go to be anywhere near LR. I have a large library and I put all the photos in to one catalog and it was painfully slow when hunting up by a keyword. I’d love to use it as my all in one viewing, RAW editor and organize program, but that won’t happen until the organizing part has improved.

    1. Thanks, Sue. I haven’t tried Capture One Pro 9 with my full image library yet, but it sounds like I should so that I can check its performance. I know it gobbles up a lot of RAM.

  3. You can go into the Menu-File-Edit With- this will bring up a dialog box which gives you the option to choose what external program you want to edit with along with a host of options like file format, resolution, colorspace and others. Click the edit with button, I have mine set to export to PS as a 16bit tiff. The image then opens in photoshop then when I close the image it appears in the Capture One browser as a tiff file.

    1. [I originally reported that Capture One Pro 9 did not support external editors. Mark promptly pointed out that it did and saved me some embarrassment. The review above has been amended.]

      You’re right, Mark, and I’m annoyed with myself for missing that. I’m amending the review now. Thanks.

  4. I switched from Apple’s Aperture a while ago. I evaluated Capture One Pro and it lost against Lightroom because my focus is mainly on metadata – the catalog is not as capable and easy to use as in Lightroom.
    The main reason was that GPS support nearly doesn’t exist in Capture One Pro – there is an ugly workaround to get GPS data into the images but no other support.

    Meanwhile I use the program additionally to Lightroom but only for some images – in this case as RAW converter and for fine tuning color.

      1. That’s not what I mean. I want to be able to have my images displayed on a map and selectable within this map without switching to an external program which doesn’t have access to the catalog.
        Aperture did this and so does Lightroom. Capture One has no map module – simply displaying the GPS data in the metadata section is not sufficient.
        It is possible to display an image’s position with switching to Google Maps and not for multiple images. This I call an ugly workaround.

        For tagging the images I could live with an external program – using this data should be included in the digital asset manager (catalog).

  5. Yes, it works well with LR. I was just trying to use it as my “one and only” organizing program since that was a big “new feature” with v9. It is much better, but has a ways to go before I scrap LR for organizing.

  6. About to finally move on from Aperture. Your reviews of other software are helpful. I am a portrait photographer who does some landscapes. I was leaning toward Lightroom/PS package but not with a lot of enthusiasm. Want non destructive technology and good portrait retouching capability. I would like to be able to do more with my landscape imagery. Your reviews have got me thinking about Capture One more seriously, I have also been tempted by ON1 10.5.

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