This comparison is an update to one first published in 2013 and which has proved to be one of the most popular articles on Life after Photoshop, so here it is again, updated for 2020.
Many of the differences between DxO PhotoLab, Lightroom and Capture One are self-evident and to do with the organisational and cataloguing tools, cloud sync capabilities (or lack of them) and so on. I’ll get these out of the way pretty quickly.
What this comparison is mostly about is just how good each one of them is at processing RAW images, and to test this out I’m going to use compare the RAW image processing of files from a series different cameras, including a Canon EOS 6D Mark II, Sony A6000, Nikon Z 6 and Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.
There are no Fujifilm cameras in this comparison. DxO’s RAW processing engine is not compatible with Fujifilm’s X-Trans sensor layout. If you have a Fujifilm camera, you probably have to cross PhotoLab off the list straight away – though it does support some non-X-Trans models, like the GFX 100 and X-T100.
There are two versions of Lightroom, but they both use the same Camera Raw processing engine with the same editing tools. I will used Lightroom Classic for this comparison, but Lightroom CC (or Adobe Camera Raw) will give exactly the same results.
Browsing and organising
This is not the main point of this comparison, but let’s get this out of the way first. Lightroom and Capture One are all-in-one cataloging and non-destructive editing tools, PhotoLab is not. PhotoLab does have basic search and album tools, but its main organisational system is folders. It is not a digital asset management system in the way that Lightroom and Capture One are, but should be thought of as a powerful non-destructive processor and editor with browsing tools.
• Capture One offers the greatest choice of workflows
Lightroom is the only one of the three programs here that offers cloud synchronisation and a mobile editing/capture app that works seamlessly with your desktop software. Lightroom Classic can sync images up to a point, whereas Lightroom CC is built for cloud-based photography. It means paying extra for renting the online storage space needed, but there it is.
• Lightroom is the only one to offer cloud sync and editing
1. Dynamic range and highlight recovery
One of the big reasons for shooting RAW files over JPEGs is the ability to recover blown highlights and bring up dense shadow detail. All three of these programs offer shadow and highlight recovery tools, but Capture One’s High Dynamic Range tools are probably the simplest and most obvious to use, though Lightroom’s shadow and highlight recovery is straightforward and effective too. PhotoLab complicates things with Exposure Compensation and Smart Lighting tools which interact to automatically optimise the image’s tonal range, but it’s not always clear what the program is doing and how to affect it manually. There are also manual Selective Tone adjusters for manual control but it’s not clear either how these interact with the other two. PhotoLab’s shadow and highlight recover is effective, but feels very complicated compared to the others.
The results are interesting. Testing all three programs across a series of RAW files I found there was little difference in the amount of highlight detail each could recover, when pushed, but that images looked quite different afterwards.
Capture One was the most convincing. Its highlight roll-off isn’t always the best – the transition from blown detail to recoverable detail – in sky tones and clouds, for example, but it preserves midtone and shadow clarity brilliantly.
Lightroom has – perhaps – a slightly nicer highlight roll-off and does keep midtones and shadows contrasty even when you use the Highlights and Whites sliders at quite high settings, but it can’t quite match Capture One’s ‘bite’.
PhotoLab proves quite hard work. Capture One and Lightroom have Whites as well as Highlights sliders, but in PhotoLab you have an overlap between the (automatic) Smart Lighting options and the (manual) Selective Tone adjustments, but you might need both, but whichever you use, once you’ve recovered highlight detail it leaves midtones and shadows looking somewhat flattened. No doubt you could get to the kind of sparkling clarity offered by Capture One and Lightroom, but it’s going to take a little more work. PhotoLab does offer a nice highlight roll-off without the color shifts the others can create, but the cost to the rest of the image rendering is perhaps too high.
All three programs are equally effective, but Capture One is best at recovering highlights without compromising midtone ‘punch’ and contrast.
2. Detail rendition
All RAW converters are not the same. Some seem much better than others at demosaicing the sensor data, and there are definitely differences in the crispness of the fine detail, noise control and artefact suppression. A lot will depend on how you juggle the sharpening and noise reduction controls (see the next section on noise control). I have tested these programs with their default settings and then, where necessary, experimented with the sharpening and noise reduction to see if that makes a difference.
I used to see quite noticeable differences in the fine detail rendition of these three programs, but they seemed to have evened up. I would still put Capture One first for outright fine detail ‘bite’, with PhotoLab a close second – but it does depend on the camera, and PhotoLab looked a little softer than the others with Sony A6000 and Canon EOS 6D Mark II files. By ‘softer’ I mean it lacked a little micro contrast and definition. I suspect the detail and clarity is there, but not brought out by default.
There’s not much here to separate Capture One and Lightroom, except that Capture One use has more ‘bite’ and definition in the fine detail. You probably wouldn’t notice this unless you zoomed in to 100% or beyond, but if you’re using a high-resolution display you might sense it even when an image is filling the frame.
Is it just different levels of default sharpening? I don’t think it is. More sharpening brings more noise, so you would expect Capture One to have more noise for that argument to hold true. It doesn’t – see the next section.
All three programs are similar for detail rendition, but Capture One sometimes has a slight edge.
3. Noise control
When you shoot RAW you can control the trade-off between detail and noise reduction at high ISO settings – a choice you don’t get with in-camera JPEGs. But not all RAW processors are equal for noise reduction. In particular, DxO PhotoLab offers two modes: a regular ‘fast’ noise reduction process and, in the PhotoLab Elite edition, a slower more processor-intensive PRIME noise reduction option which takes a couple of minutes to complete when you export an image.
This is where differences between these programs start to become apparent. Even at low ISO settings, it’s possible to see a noticeable marble-like noise pattern in Lightroom’s images. It may be faint, but it becomes more prominent with heavy image manipulation.
Capture One is creamy-smooth by comparison, without sacrificing any fine, textural detail. PhotoLab’s default RAW processing produces very little noise, too.
At higher ISO settings, Capture One and Lightroom start to show similar levels of noise with some RAW files, and while both offer luminance noise reduction sliders, both start to compromise fine detail and produce a ‘watercolor’ effect if pushed too far.
PhotoLab produces a similar level of noise at high ISO setting with a crisp, tight noise pattern, but the much slower PRIME process produced a level of noise reduction that the others just can’t approach. It’s in a class of its own – but you only get it with the Elite edition and even then only when you process a TIFF or JPEG image.
Making comparisons across a number of RAW files, I’d say that PhotoLab’s PRIME mode is unequalled but that its regular noise reduction is no better than Capture One’s – and Capture One does offer a nice balance between detail and noise. With Lightroom you’re fighting a constant running battle between the sharpening controls and the luminance noise slider to try to control its very strong base noise level without losing too much fine, textural detail.
PhotoLab’s PRIME denoise is the best, but Capture One offers a fast and effective balance of noise and detail rendition. Lightroom’s baseline noise level is disappointing and can be difficult to manage.
4. White balance
Different RAW processors handle white balance in remarkably different ways. This article shows just how different they can be. All three can deliver any white balance you want, but if you want to turn it into a science and type in absolute temperature and tint values, they won’t all respond the same way.
All three programs produced very similar ‘As Shot’ white balance with three test RAW files, and similar ‘daylight’ renditions too, though all three looked a little warm to my eyes when using their own presets.
Of the three, only PhotoLab gives the rendering you would expect from typing in manual temperature and tint values. Capture One, in particular, displays some very odd figures for ‘correct’ white balance settings. The results are fine, but the numbers look as if they’re being used for in-software correction and don’t represent what you might expect to see in real life.
Capture One also seems to show a bit of a shift towards green/cyan in blue skies which is quite subtle and which you might not notice or care about, but it is noticeable in some shots compared to the same images in the other programs.
PhotoLab’s white balance settings are the most reliable.
5. Color rendition
Color rendition is a very subjective thing. I haven’t run any calibration tests on these programs, and the level of color control each one offers makes this kind of comparison somewhat irrelevant, since you can arguably make the color what you like anyway. So I’ve started with the default color rendering you get ‘out of the box’ and how easy or difficult it is to tweak this to your own tastes.
PhotoLab’s default profile looks very neutral, but can also look a little ‘flat’. There are different presets to choose from and you might want to experiment with a few of them. Because of the way PhotoLab applies its Smart Lighting effect, these profiles also auto-adjust the dynamic range contrast and brightness, though you can change the settings later.
Lightroom’s color rendition became much richer and more natural when Adobe switched the default setting from the old, very flat Adobe Standard, to the newer Adobe Color. There are many more profiles to choose from to, both for black and white and color, and they can give you great results straight out of the box. You can use the Auto button to apply auto corrections too, and the transformations can be dramatic, though for my taste they often make images look over-light and over-saturated.
Capture One does not offer a choice of profiles like Adobes, though it does simulate Fujifilm’s Film Simulations for Fujifilm RAF files. Its auto corrections, however, are the best, giving good shadow and highlight recovery but retaining strong and punchy midtones and very crisp shadow detail – and without pushing the saturation too high.
All three programs produce similar results out of the box, but Capture One has a little more ‘punch’ especially after dynamic range adjustments. Lightroom offers a choice of profiles, PhotoLab can look a little flat without further editing.
6. Lens corrections
Lens corrections have now become a standard – and welcome – feature in RAW processing software. No lens is perfect, and the longer the zoom range and the more aggressive the pricing, the more aberrations you’re likely to see. A number of newer lenses I’ve seen and tested have clearly been designed for digital correction since they’re not really usable without it. So the question is, how well each of these programs corrects the three main lens bugbears: distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting. There is a fourth: edge softness. Only one of the programs tackles that too.
Capture One is potentially the weakest here, not because it’s corrections are less effective, but because it doesn’t support less common or ‘amateur’ lenses. I own a Sigma 8-16mm ultra-wide lens in Nikon fit but Capture One only has a correction profile for the Canon version, which is annoying. It can still apply it, but I have to do it manually, since the software won’t automatically apply it from the image EXIF data. However, Capture One does offer exceptional chromatic aberration removal. If the automatic lens correction profile doesn’t fix it, it has a manual chromatic aberration analysis tool which can fix even the worst fringing.
Lightroom supports a wider range of lenses, its corrections are just as good as Capture One’s, and its chromatic aberration removal option is almost as effective – and as simple as clicking a checkbox.
Lens corrections are DxO’s speciality, and PhotoLab goes further than the other two by including edge softness correction in its profiles. I take this to mean selective sharpening towards the edge of the frame that’s tuned for each lens, but it’s still very effective, and can make very average lenses look very good.
PhotoLab is king for lens corrections, but the margin is small and the others are good too.
7. Geometric/perspective corrections
Converging verticals are real nuisance in travel and architectural photography, and you can get horizontal convergence too and sometimes both. It’s really useful to be able to correct this in software these days, but how effective is it and how long does it take?
DxO specialises in optical corrections, so it’s a bit disappointing that you have to pay extra to get DxO ViewPoint to make any perspective corrections in PhotoLab. Once it’s installed, ViewPoint integrates seamlessly, however, and works extremely well – it can even fix wideangle volumetric distortion and create tilt-shift blur effects.
But for sheer speed, Lightroom can’t be beaten. It offers precise manual perspective corrections, but also a series of buttons (menu options in Lightroom CC) for automatically correcting vertical convergence, horizontal convergence or both, and nine times out of ten it does it perfectly.
Capture One has perspective correction tools built in, but they have to be applied manually – and sometimes strongly converging ‘verticals’ still don’t come out vertical even after adjustments. For most purposes, though, it’s as good as the others.
Capture One does have another interesting property. It will respect the camera crop of an image, but with wideangle shots it can often ‘see’ more image outside of this, and you can extend the crop borders to use it. I’ve never quite got to the bottom of this technically, but it does mean that some wideangle lenses are even wider than you thought, and that your camera captures more megapixels than it technically has. Very odd.
Lightroom is fastest for perspective corrections. PhotoLab is more precise but you have to buy the DxO ViewPoint add-on.
8. Local adjustments
Now that today’s non-destructive RAW processing tools also offer local adjustments, we need programs like Photoshop less and less. Lightroom, Capture One and PhotoLab all offer local adjustment tools, but they work in very different ways. This comparison is partly about the results, and partly about the whole editing workflow and how efficient and effective it is.
Lightroom is, perhaps surprisingly, the most primitive. You can make local adjustments using linear and radial gradients and a brush tool and eraser – and the latter have a useful Auto Mask mode. But Lightroom’s local adjustment tools offer only a subset of the full toolset – it’s enough, but you can’t use curves, for example, or absolute white balance settings (only relative values). The Auto Masking is effective but can often leave visible edge artefacts, and while the linear and radial filters offer color and luminance masking, it’s less useful than you might expect because it depends very much on having the ‘right’ subject – it’s an issue with the basic principle, not with Lightroom.
Capture One is much more powerful. It uses an internal adjustment layer system to make each adjustment easily identifiable – you can also name the layers. Each layer has its own editable mask. Capture One offers the same linear, radial and brush masking tools as Lightroom and the same auto masking and luminosity/color range masking. Capture One’s auto masking is equally effective and there is a Refine Mask panel for improving edge masking, which delivers much better results. The real clincher is that Capture One’s adjustment layers all offer the full range of editing adjustments (barring the basic color rendering profile).
PhotoLab runs Capture One very close. The local adjustment tools are quite different, based around the same trio of linear, radial and manual brush masks, but adding in the powerful control point adjustments first seen in the Nik plug-ins. These take a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve become fluent in how they work, the offer a level of masking and editing control – and speed – that the others don’t quite have.
The joint winners here are Capture One and PhotoLab. It’s going to come down to the one you prefer and which gels most effectively with the way you see and edit images.
Annoyingly, none of these programs is perfect, and it’s not easy to say which one is best even if they are being compared solely as RAW processing and editing tools.
For me, the winner is Capture One, for its combination of fine detail, low noise, its ability to recover shadows and highlights without ‘flattening’ the image and its all-round clarity and vibrance. On top of that, its layer-based system for local adjustments is powerful and intuitive and backed up with sophisticated and controllable masking tools.
PhotoLab is a close second, but let down for me by its somewhat flat tonal rendering – images often seem to need a little work to bring them to life – and the overlap of its Smart Lighting and Selective Tone tools, which still tend to squash the midtones if you do any serious highlight recovery. The local adjustment tools are really good, though, even if the adjustments are presented separately to the regular ‘global’ tools.
Lightroom wins on value and the efficiency of its interface, but it’s let down by its distinctly coarse underlying noise pattern. That’s not a problem at low ISO settings but proves increasingly difficult to combat at higher ISOs. And while Lightroom’s local adjustments do get incremental improvements now and again, you only get a subset of the full range of tools, and its system of masks and ‘pins’ is less intuitive than Capture One’s layers.
- Lightroom CC review
- Lightroom Classic CC review
- More Lightroom articles
- How to get Lightroom CC/Adobe Photography Plans
Comparing all these factors, I would say that for RAW processing alone, Capture One comes out on top. PhotoLab offers the best optical corrections, but brings a more painstaking approach. Lightroom is fast and efficient, but disappointingly noisy and a notch below the other two.