Capture One is a premium Raw Developer package, squarely aimed at professionals who need to combine excellent results with a robust workflow and the ability to manage large numbers of big files swiftly.
Version eight refines the image optimisation, adds some welcome new features such as clone and heal, and improves the tethering for Nikon devices. In keeping with Capture One version 7, it offers you the opportunity to work in traditional Capture One sessions, or to run smallish catalogues using technology from Media Pro, which is also owned by software makers Phase One. In a straight ‘feature for feature’ shoot-out, Capture One will always lose out to Lightroom, especially when it comes to social media and geo-tagging features, and the ability to install plugins. In terms of absolute image quality, DxO probably gets just a tiny bit more from your images. However, when it comes to real-world, real photography applications, Capture One is unsurpassed.
It goes without saying that ‘Capture’ is a key component of ‘Capture One’. Originally designed for medium format digital backs, makers Phase One have extended the hand of friendship to Nikon users over several versions, first by supporting pro cameras, then by allowing tethering, then tethering with Live View, then adding support for more cameras and specific lenses, and now by making the whole package much smoother.
Here’s a test we ran with a D800, shooting an image for an advertisement called ‘Tools of the Trade’. Eschewing fancy light tents and studio flash (more on why in a moment), we set this up in the dining room, shooting with an 85mm tilt/shift lens onto a soft cloth background.
Why this particular setup? Partly to test out the real strengths of Capture One by making things as difficult as possible, and partly to be able to combine the illumination from an iPad with natural light — you’ll see why in a minute.
As per usual, we tethered the camera via a long USB-3 cable to the laptop. The USB-3 cable supplied with the D800 is far too short for any serious tethering, but we obtained a longer one from Lindy, which works just as well.
You see the tilt/shift lens, 85mm, with its odd set of controls. Actually, for this shot, we didn’t need to work with tilt/shift, but, if you’re doing studio work photographing objects, a tilt/shift can make an enormous amount of difference, giving you infinite depth of focus in a plane which is at an angle to the camera, and enabling you to control perspective.
However, the important thing about the 85mm t/s for this review is that it is manual focus only, and it is almost impossible to get right at the wider apertures without hours of squinting.
Here it is on the laptop. Thats a vernier calliper, and the really interesting thing about a vernier calliper from a photography point of view is that it only looks right if at least part of the scale is absolutely in focus. We’re in Live View, showing just a portion of the image. In fact, to get the focus exact, we zoomed in to about 800x, and then waited for the residual vibrations since the last time we touched the camera to die down. If you shoot with an autofocus lens, you can adjust the focus in Live View using fine and coarse adjustments. With a manual-only lens, we were still able to make the adjustments by hand and get it absolutely right.
An additional refinement of Capture One is that you can then use any web enabled device, or, with a special app, an iPhone or iPad to both review the images and to trigger them.
You don’t actually get Live View on this, and you can’t change the focus, but its very powerful when used correctly, and adds a lot to your ability to manage a complicated shoot, especially if you are working with an entire team. It requires wifi, which may not always be available in the field.
Once we’d got one image done, we needed to move on to a measuring microphone, an iPad and a fountain pen.
With the nib occupying a very small portion of the image — as we didn’t want to change the perspective by moving the camera — it was imperative that it was absolutely sharp. Here’s how sharp we got it.
More of the power of Capture One comes into play now. Because the captured images are displayed at the bottom of the screen, it’s relatively simple to match up the shadows so that everything points in the correct direction. There’s nothing like badly matched shadows to spoil the illusion, and you can’t do anything about it in Photoshop, unless you’re prepared to mask them all out and start again.
You can pre-match the white balance while you tether, so adjustments that you make to one image carry over to the others — neat.
Because of the way we set it up, and the adjustments we made while capturing, we didn’t need to do any further work in Capture One, though, if we had, there are controls for working with ‘technical’ lenses — i.e., tilt/shifts like our 85mm, which would have been invaluable if we were doing anything more extreme. We’ll look at tonal editing with a different image.
To complete the image, we needed to output to Photoshop for comping. Capture One is very strong in output. It comes with a standard set of ‘recipes’, and you can add your own, which allow you to prepare images exactly the way you want them and then do it consistently. I have a recipe for Nikonians which matches the image requirements. For this, we wanted a PSD full sized output. We could also have chosen DNG, PNG, TIFF, JPEG, JPEG XR, JPEG 2000 or JPEG QuickProof. Capture One saved the files as per our instruction and then opened them in Photoshop, ready for comping.
Here’s the final image:
The importance of available light should now be clear — if we’d used studio flash, the iPad display, coming from the measuring microphone, would have been black.
Total time from start of setup to finish: less than one hour.
Incidentally, if you try this at home, Capture One likes to wait a few minutes before first recognising a tethered D800. I don’t know why, but don’t think it isn’t working and start unplugging things, turning them on and off or restarting, as it will only slow things further.
Capture One didn’t start life as an image editor, but it has picked up some functions on the way. You won’t be replacing Photoshop, but what it does do, it does extraordinarily well. As a general rule, anything that Capture One can do, I do in Capture One as it is i) quick ii) extremely pleasant to use and iii) non-destructive and doesn’t leave engorged files knocking around my hard disk.
Here’s a shot we took in Oxford a couple of weeks ago:
You may be forgiven for thinking this is an incompetent photo taken by a beginner who does not know that i) perspectives converge wildly with a wide angle lens and ii) you have to use spot metering to avoid the foreground being dark. Well, I do know both of those things. However, I have a long history trying to capture this particular image — that’ my college room from 1988 on the right, at the same level as the bridge — and I was anxious to make use of Capture One’s abilities in post-processing. This capture was hand-held — you can’t put up a tripod in the middle of this road — just before sunset.
Interestingly, I note they’ve changed the lamps: in 1988, they came out green, as they were using fluorescent lights then.
I exposed for the sky just beyond that funny green dome, which is the Sheldonian theatre. Now for some Capture One trickery.
As you can see, I left the exposure, contrast and brightness as shot, upped the saturation, and then applied Capture One’s own HDR functions to take the highlights right down, and lift the shadows right up. That can create a bit of a chocolate-box effect, but that’s what I was after.
Next, I adjusted the curves to give me just a little bit more in the lower middle. This is an awful lot easier to do in Capture One than in Photoshop, for some reason.
Finally, I turned the Clarity right down (it is, after all, the city of dreaming spires) and compensated a bit by turning the structure up.
All this jiggery-pokery generally comes at a price in terms of image quality. However, this is where Capture One 8’s greatly improved rendering engine comes to the fore.
I didn’t adjust this dialogue at all, because Capture One automatically recognised the lens, and applied the chromatic aberration and distortion controls. It is chromatic aberration which has the greatest impact in making an image look soft, so this really sharpens things up compared to some of the earlier versions. If it doesn’t recognise the lens, you can run the chromatic aberration manually and it will sort it out. Incidentally, the dialogue hidden behind this one called ‘Movement’ is what I was talking about for the Tilt/Shift stuff earlier.
Now for the clever bit. You notice on the original image that the verticals converge wildly. This is unavoidable when using a wide-angle lens and not pointing it directly at the horizon. There are a number of solutions. The first is to shoot even wider, point the centre of the lens at the horizon, then crop mercilessly. However, this reduces resolution by 50%. The second is to use a Shift lens (as above) which can correct the verticals. A 35mm PC (perspective control) lens would have been great here except that i) I don’t have one and ii) it really has to go on a tripod and is murder to set up (see the earlier section). Capture One allows you to draw lines on the image and it will then correct perspective, either vertically, or horizontally, or both. I rather went to town on this image — you should usually leave it at 80% because the eye auto-corrects, but I was looking for full chocolate-box.
By default, Capture One applies a reasonable amount of noise reduction. Looking at the bottom of the bridge (top of screen shot), you can see there’s a lot of noise there, an inevitable result of shooting at ISO 2000 and then pumping up the shadows. In this instance I’m going to leave it like this, but you can smooth things out more if you want to, albeit at a cost in sharpness.
In the output recipes there is an option to turn of sharpening on output. For high res outputs, you would generally want this, as it will allow you to perform more advanced refocusing, for example with Focus Magic, subsequently.
Now for some more magic.
As of (I recall) version 6, Capture One has adjustment layers. In the current version, these include access to clarity, as well as smart masking and both clone and heal layers. I did mask out the top sky to saturate it more, but, in the end, turned it off again. You can go too far, after all.
Here is the finished image:
Yes, yes, I know, it’s pure chocolate box. However, it was the image I wanted to capture 26 years ago, and never could. In retrospect, I think that going back over my old negatives with Capture One might produce something rather better — we spent about five minutes capturing this image, most of the time waiting for people to get out of the way. In my student days, I would spend hours and hours on this view.
If you were using this setting for a wedding (or for a Finals day picture), you could take about a hundred images and then very quickly apply all of the same settings, which would generate more or less instantly. Also, you can clone the picture and produce an entirely different set of settings on all or part of it. You can do this in Lightroom as well, of course, but with more than a few thousand pictures in your Lightroom database, the speed difference is dramatic.
Capture One builds itself around your workflow. You can customise the interface endlessly, and it will pick up on your previous customisations when you upgrade (unlike Photoshop). Generally speaking, I tend to stick to the stock layout. It makes a lot of sense to me without having to think about it.
To DAM or not to DAM?
In addition to its extensive and refined functions as a Raw developer, Capture One can be used to catalogue your files, in much the same way that Lightroom can. It actually offers both this mode and the Session mode, which is its original function. The Digital Assets Management (DAM) is drawn very much from Media Pro, which Phase One bought a few years ago. I’ve tried the catalogue function a few times, and my conclusion is that it does pretty much what Lightroom does as far as cataloguing is concerned. It’s great for a few hundred images, but you wouldn’t want to keep your master catalogue there. If your workflow involves keeping a discrete catalogue for each client, then using the DAM facilities in Capture One will probably work very well for you. I have 110,000 images on my master catalogue, and for that I use Media Pro, which has very good integration with Capture One, even allowing you to update the Raw image in Media Pro to match whatever you’ve done to it in Capture One.
What about Lightroom?
Adobe has been pitching Lightroom hard as the alternative for Apple users who are losing Aperture (whether this is actually true or not is another question, but Adobe says it is). I have the complete Adobe suite, for which I pay a monthly subscription, so it seemed worthwhile to do a head to head of Lightroom versus Capture One. Overall, Lightroom has most of the functions of Capture One, but Capture One is more refined and goes into more depth. It’s also significantly faster, at least on my MacBook Retina with 16 GB RAM, and it is that speed versus lag which is the most compelling reason to go Capture One rather than Lightroom.
Capture: You can tether with Lightroom, but it’s basically an ability to trigger the shutter and set a couple of controls. Although you can apply a preset in Lightroom, Capture One will take everything you do to a shot and pass it on to the next one, including white balance and cropping. With Live View, you can do an extremely sharp focus on Capture One manually, or control the focus for an autofocus lens directly, zoomed in to 800x.
Colour editing, levels, curves and white balance: Lightroom has colour editing, levels, cures and white balance, but Capture One is more refined in each of these, though the ability to put the mouse onto the levels pane and move the exposure up and down in Lightroom is quite cute. Lightroom’s curves, for example, allow you three control points. Capture One allows you as many as you want. More importantly, Lightroom lags quite considerably while you’re doing it, so you don’t have much feeling of control. Capture One is completely smooth. Lightroom offers you Vibrance in addition to saturation, while Capture One offers Structure in addition to Clarity, with three different methods of clarity. Capture One also offers Input and Output on the levels, and separate level controls for each channel, and the ability to create as many custom white balances as you want, and do white balance by skin tone rather than white, so that you can get a model’s face consistent across an entire shoot.
Lens controls, noise and sharpening: Capture One offers more refinements in lens control, including matching fall-off of sharpness across the lens, as well as the ability to profile unsupported lenses. Given the vast back catalogue of Nikons lenses that no-one is ever going to support, such as my favourite 500mm Reflex lens, this is quite important. Lightroom’s noise control is better than Capture One’s, but it isn’t the best there is, and if noise is an issue, then it’s something which can be worked on by a dedicated plugin later. Both systems offer sharpening, but not true lens deconvolution, though aspects of this are baked into Capture One’s rendering engine, which gets everything sharper and cleaner automagically.
Adjustment layers: you can do some cute things in Lightroom with adjustment layers with are either gradient, radial or brush-based, but in Capture One you can do much more, including the new healing layer and cloning layer. Layer control is also much more refined, and, once again, there is far less lag when working with them.
Output: The biggest difference between the two is in Output. While Capture One offers a range of export functions in recipes which will appeal to the busy professional, Lightroom provides slideshows, web uploads, a map to see where your pictures were taken, and, via plugins, uploads to all kinds of social media. Lightroom can also prepare a photo book.
What about DxO?
If you want to get the absolute maximum in quality out of a single image, then DxO, with its lens softness controls, extensive HDR, mixed lighting management and superb noise control may well be the way to go. I have DxO and Capture One, and, just occasionally, I go to DxO. But only occasionally. DxO is much more finicky about supported lens-camera combinations, and if your combination isn’t supported, it doesn’t offer much help. For dreadfully difficult images, such as those shot under a mixture of street lights and shop lights, the mixed lighting management can turn an unusable image into something quite refined, and, given the constraints on that kind of shot, DxO’s noise management also comes to the fore. However, Capture One is much easier and quicker to get to the right result on 90% of images which have been shot with good photographic technique in a decent environment. Aside from the mixed lighting management, which is why I go to DxO most often, all of the things that DxO does can be done in Photoshop afterwards — and the time it takes to prepare and process them in DxO means that you can probably do the round trip in Capture One and Photoshop, and a few other things, while DxO is still thinking about it. Capture One also produces images which are much more suitable for Photoshop, as DxO does tend to bake in some decisions which can’t later be reversed. It’s horses for courses — I wouldn’t write off DxO, but Capture One is a much more generally useful tool, and will produce images of the same quality in terms of colour, sharpness and managing distortion in all but the worst cases.
There are three core reasons to choose Capture One over its competitors, or over using Adobe Raw and going straight into Photoshop.
First, speed. Capture One is quick — you can very rapidly work up an image, and then instantaneously apply all the edits to a whole batch of images, finally exporting them consistently in exactly the way or ways that you want. Lightroom lags, DxO requires a long period of processing, and the Photoshop Raw developer is cumbersome.
Second, refinement. You can more or less get to almost any result that you can achieve in Capture One with other software, but for the exact fine focus we discussed in the tethering section, or the absolute management of light, shadow, flesh tones and others, it will be very hard to match it, and especially to match it consistently.
Third, compatibility. Provided that the camera is supported, and most higher end Nikons are (but do check), Capture One will always work with all of your lenses. It offers lens profiles as a convenience, but if you have a super-duper lens from the past that no-one is ever going to support, and you’re willing to invest a couple of hours in profiling it, Capture One will work as well with it as any profiled lens. If you just want to use it out of the box, you can still benefit from generic profiles and on-the-fly aberration profiling.
There are just a couple of reasons why Capture One might not be for you. First, it’s vastly less convenient than Lightroom if social media is a main part of what you do. Capture One is simply never going to be focused on getting your images onto Facebook. It’s only a couple of clicks more to get stuff there from Capture One, but that can be a lot of clicks if you’re doing a lot of images. Second, although there are some very nice presets for Capture One available, there aren’t many plugins which actually change or enhance its capabilities. The only one I know is the Profoto plugin and, though I shoot with Profoto lights, mine are too old to be compatible. Lightroom has hundreds of plugins available, and even DxO has its film pack, while Photoshop has thousands. Is this an issue to you? I tend to apply photographic plugins in Photoshop, with Capture One as a much better Raw front end. Most of the time, I don’t need to leave Capture One at all, but, when I do, all the power of Photoshop is waiting for me. On the other hand, the geotagging functions of Lightroom might be just what you want for managing an extensive road trip.
All in all, Capture One provides the professional or dedicated amateur with a highly refined, sleek and swift way to get the very most out of 90% of images, leaving photo manipulation and post-processing to other applications. It’s an excellent tool.
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