Verdict: 5 stars
Capture One just keeps on getting better. The new basic color editor, improved high dynamic range options and numerous other tweaks are all worthwhile and well thought out additions to a program that’s already at the top of its game. Capture One 20 costs twice as much as Lightroom, but for pro photographers sticking to a desktop/laptop based workflow, the quality of the output and workflow tools, make it (arguably) twice as good.
- Tethered, session and catalog workflows
- Excellent editing tools
- Powerful adjustment layers masks
- RAW output quality
- Pretty expensive
- You’ll still need other software for layers and effects
- No cloud sync ecosystem/mobile app
What is Capture One 20?
Capture One 20 is an all-in-one image capture, organising and editing program aimed mainly at professional photographers. It’s published by Phase One, which also makes high-end medium format studio and field cameras. Capture One’s closest rival is Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, and these programs have a lot in common in what they do, but approach things very differently.
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With Capture One 20, Phase One has swapped numbering and naming systems. It’s now just called ‘Capture One’, not ‘Capture One Pro’, and the latest version is now numbered with the year rather than following on from the previous Capture One Pro 12.
Like Lightroom, Capture One can organise your images in flexible, searchable databases, or ‘catalogs’, and both can apply non-destructive adjustments to your images, working seamlessly across RAW files, JPEGs, TIFFs and even Photoshop PSD files.
There are differences. Capture One’s editing and local adjustment tools are more advanced and its RAW conversions are smoother and sharper. While Lightroom does offer tethered shooting for studio photographers with many different cameras, tethered shooting is what Capture One was built for, and it’s used very widely indeed by commercial studio photographers.
However, Capture One doesn’t offer an equivalent to Adobe’s Creative Cloud ecosphere – you can’t share images in the cloud with a mobile or web version. Capture One is designed very much for a desktop/laptop-based professional workflow, whereas Lightroom has a much broader base amongst both professional and amateur photographers and social media/mobile photography users.
Capture One 20 is available in a full version which supports multiple camera brands either as a single purchase or a subscription (more expensive than Adobe’s Photography Plan), as slightly cheaper Sony or Fujifilm specific editions and as a free cut-down Capture One Express for Sony or Fujifilm version.
The free Express versions don’t offer all the tools of the regular versions, obviously, but if you own a Sony or a Fujifilm camera, the Express edition is so far ahead of the camera makers’ own software, there really is no good excuse not to try it.
Sessions and Catalogs
Capture One can work either in Session mode or Catalog mode. Session mode is for photographers with a linear capture-select-edit-process workflow ideal for commercial/professional commissions – you shoot your images, choose the best, share them with the client and then archive the job before moving on to the next.
You can use this with images captured on memory cards in the normal way or via tethered capture, where the camera is controlled from a computer and images are captured ‘live’, with instant adjustments if required. Lightroom does offer tethered shooting with some cameras, but does not have an equivalent of this Sessions workflow.
Capture One’s Sessions have another, less obvious use. You can use a Session as a simple image browsing tool for your whole library. You don’t get the more advanced search tools of a Capture One catalog, but you can still sort, edit and filter images, create virtual copies and more. For those who don’t like having to import images into catalogs, it’s the perfect solution and a huge feature that Phase One doesn’t push perhaps as much as it could.
Otherwise, you use Capture One Catalogs. Here, you import your images into a catalog in the way that you do in Lightroom. You can then rate your images and apply colour labels, add keywords and work with other metadata. You can sort and filter images and you can create Albums or Smart Albums based on search criteria.
This is exactly what you can do in Lightroom, but Capture One does offer one very interesting difference; as well as working with images in their existing locations outside the catalog (‘referenced’ images), it can also import them into the catalog so that it becomes a single, self-contained archive that can be moved around as a single file and with no risk of accidentally breaking the links between the references to images and the image files themselves.
This was an option in Apple’s Aperture, and while it seems inefficient on the surface, it’s a way of keeping your catalog’s integrity more secure and means you’re working on imported duplicates of your images and not the originals.
Capture One editing tools
Capture One doesn’t support as many camera RAW formats and lens profiles as Lightroom, but the difference is mainly at the lower consumer end of the market. If you’re using almost any enthusiast/pro orientated camera and a mainstream lens, you’re likely to find Capture One can open RAW files and apply lens corrections automatically.
It can also apply perspective corrections for both horizontal and vertical keystone effects. It doesn’t offer automatic corrections like Lightroom, but its manual adjustments are quick and effective regardless.
Phase One is especially proud of Capture One’s editing finesse, and these have been substantially improved in Capture One 20. Contrast adjustments are designed to keep saturation and colour transitions preserved, brightness adjustments keep highlights protected and saturation adjustments stop colours from burning out.
You get both Levels and Curves adjustments, and the Curves tool offers both regular RGB and Luma adjustments – Luma curves change the contrast without affecting saturation. There’s also an option to choose different Film Curves for basic tone mapping before any other adjustments are made, and this is where you’ll find Capture One’s Fujifilm Film Simulation modes. Lightroom is better than it used to be at handling Fujifilm X-Trans files, but Capture One is out on its own. It’s another reason for any Fujifilm user to check out the Capture One 20 trial version or download the free Capture One Express Fujifilm edition.
Capture One has a deceptively simple-looking High Dynamic Range panel for highly effective shadow and highlight recovery. This has always worked really well, but Capture One 20 brings an upgrade – this panel now has additional White and Black sliders to restore a full range of tones and rich contrast after shadow and highlight recovery.
Capture One’s color editing tools, already very good, are now even better, thanks to a redesigned basic color editor. You can now click and drag any color in the image ‘live’ to change its hue or saturation or alt-drag to change its luminance. Capture One 20 has more powerful Color Balance and Color Editor tools for applying complex and effective colour shifts. These are used extensively in the Styles and Presets built into the program and available separately from the Phase One website and others. Styles are combinations of image adjustments which can be applied with a single click, while Presets are adjustments made with a single tool. You can create, save and re-use both types yourself.
Capture One doesn’t support plug-ins as such (though this may change with the new plug-in developer support added in the latest version), but it can round-trip images to external editors. As long as the external editor is able to operate as a standalone single image editor, it should work. Photoshop is supported, but also any program that can work as a standalone app, such as Alien Skin Exposure X5, the DxO Nik Collection tools (even though they are, strictly, plug-ins) and more.
You may not need external editing tools very often, though, because Capture One has its own – including powerful layers-based local adjustment tools.
Where Lightroom has gradient, radial mask or adjustment brush options displayed as masks and ‘pins’ on your images, each with relatively limited adjustments, Capture One allows up to 16 clearly separated adjustment layers, each with its own layer mask and each one supporting all the adjustment tools used individually or in combination (with the exception of some low-level profiling options).
You can create linear or radial gradient masks or use a freehand brush tool with or without an Auto Mask feature. Once a mask is created, you can use a Feather Mask command to soften the edges or the Refine Edge command to clean up outlines. You can also swap to a Grey Scale Mask display to check for holes or untidy edges in your masks.
Adjustment layers aren’t the only type available; you can also create Healing and Cloning layers for image retouching – with Healing layers, you can move the healing ‘source’ to a suitable area of the image and Capture One will match the tones and colours for a seamless repair.
As if all that wasn’t enough, you can also add handwritten notes and drawings to your images either as notes or reminders to yourself or instructions to a retoucher – these can be exported as a separate layer in a Photoshop PSD file.
What’s new in Capture One 20
If you’re already a Capture One user, is there enough in Capture One 20 to make you upgrade? That depends on how many versions behind the current one you are, and the decision may be taken out of your hands if you invest in a new camera and need the latest version of Capture One to open its RAW files.
Capture One 12 brought the addition of new ‘parametric’ linear and radial gradient masking tools. This means that they can be moved around, rotated and resized later, Lightroom-style, rather than being rendered as permanent pixel-based (raster) masks straight away. You will still need to rasterise a new linear or radial gradient mask before you can use the Feather Mask or Refine Mask command, or make manual adjustments, but that’s on only to be expected. Luminosity Masks were introduced in version 12 too. This made it possible to restrict the effect of an adjustment to specific tonal ranges, so you can create a gradient mask for a bright sky that leaves a darker foreground object unaffected, for example, or apply a clarity adjustment that only affects the darker parts of the image.
Capture One 20 brings its own changes. Apart from the new basic color adjustment tool and more powerful high dynamic range panel already mentioned, Phase One says the noise reduction has been improved too, with a stronger luminosity noise adjustment and ISO-specific optimisation.
The interface has been tweaked too, so that icons on the toolbar now have text labels too – which is pretty handy for new users – and the tools panel on the left now has a scrolling section. Previously, panels expanded or contracted as necessary to make them fit within the height of the sidebar; now, you can still do that, but there’s an additional scrolling section for people who prefer to leave their panels open and scroll/swipe up and down.
PhaseOne says Capture One 20 can now open DNG files from drones, smartphones and cameras that shoot in Adobe’s generic RAW format. That’s certainly good news.
Who should get Capture One 20?
Capture One will definitely appeal to professionals, but probably advanced amateurs and enthusiasts too. It initially looks quite technical and complex, but its default layout is easily changed and customised to suit the tools and processes you use most often and, unlike Lightroom, it’s not organised into ‘modules’ – everything happens within a single window.
The editing tools are both powerful and extremely effective, especially the layer and mask based approach to local adjustments. The built-in Styles and Presets offer a varied range of effects, and there are more available at a (relatively) modest cost if you’re looking for styling inspiration from professionals.
Image editing tools and workflows are a very personal thing, so this is a very personal opinion, but I find I can get the ‘look’ I want much more quickly in Capture One than with other photo-editors, and I’m more satisfied with the outcome.
For many, the quality of the RAW processing will be the key factor, and Capture One’s is quite superb. It strikes an excellent balance between noise control and detail rendition, and you have to work very carefully with Lightroom’s noise reduction and sharpening tools to even get close to what Capture One can achieve out of the box.
Capture One achieves excellent results with all camera brands, but it’s especially good with Fujifilm RAF files. It avoids the X-Trans sensor ‘worm effect’ in fine details you sometimes get with Adobe’s RAW conversion process and the new Film Simulation curves are excellent.
Like Capture One 12 before it, Capture One 20 is not cheap. It’s not designed for beginners, and it doesn’t have Adobe’s cloud-based ecosystem. But it’s excellent for tethered shooting, it offers both session-based and catalog-based workflows and its editing tools and output are superb. It’s not designed to be cheap, but it is designed to be effective, efficient and capable of the best professional quality output, and it succeeds at all three. For photographers who prefer to stick to a computer-based rather than a cloud-based workflow, it’s ideal. Its sessions are ideal for pro photographer shoot-edit-share workflows, and its catalogs are perfect for longer term image management.
Capture One 20