CaptureOne Pro 7 – the 12000lb gorilla of raw converters
Of gorillas and chimpanzees
Let me cut to the chase. If you are anything like me, when you read a review, you probably go straight to the conclusion, read what it has to say, then decide whether you will return to the beginning and start over.
Quite simply this is the most complex, fully-featured, flexible and capable raw converter I have ever used. So much so that I cannot believe I have waited so long to use it. Silly me. Quite simply, in terms of its functionality and power, it leaves most of its competition for dead.
Disclaimer: I promised this review six months ago, but it has taken that long to get to know it. This is an app that keeps on giving and offering new options. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, I would discover something new it could do.
I have a good friend Jef, who takes great delight in adding to my list of 1000 Raw Converters to Try before I Die. He takes great (sadistic) pleasure in alerting me to new entrants on the market, some which look interesting, and most of which do not. Or are not.
There are a lot of them.
It is a crowded marketplace out there.
The obvious question then is: why would you bother looking around? Surely, they all do the same job.
Well yes and no.
Understanding how one works will/may perhaps help us navigate through the supermarket.
A raw converter is the film developer of the digital photography world. Your choice and use of it will have a powerful effect on the finished file and the realisation of your vision. If time/confidence/inclination is an issue, then the best thing to do is pick one and stay with it. If however, you are perennially curious and looking for any way to improve your files and extract the maximum from them, then exploration is necessary.
There are three steps to the raw conversion process.
Firstly there is decompression, where the converter takes all that raw data, compressed in-camera and opens it up.
Secondly, there is demosaicing, where the raw converter decodes the file data and assigns RGB values to each pixel. The diagram at right from Stanford University will probably explain it (in part). For a more complete explanation, you could look here and here or even download this. Even a partial exploration will show that there are many ways to climb the mountain, and that different interpolation algorithms will produce different results, or a different “look”. Since few of us are computer scientists and probably fewer of us actually care how it works, what will make the difference for us will be the finished result, what comes out the other end. After all, how many of us need to know how our television works and what is going on behind the screen? Very few. All we care about is the size and quality of the image we are watching and perhaps what we paid for our set. However demosaicing is critically important because it affects the quality of the base data available for interpretation.
The third part of a raw converter’s design is the way in which it uses the exif data in the file to interpret such things as colour, exposure, lens corrections, and its ability to correct such things as blown highlights and noise in shadows. This will affect the finished result as well. Options for correcting colour and white balance are also vitally important. And it is here that individual app developer bias begins to show. Some converters will deliver a neutral, “realistic” effect, while others will give a much more dramatic result.
Furthermore the UI (user interface) is important. How you work with the file and the effortlessness of operation of the software will have a powerful effect on your workflow and ease of production. If you are a busy professional, getting work out to a client, then this is most important.
The thought may however sneak up on you that perhaps there are better raw converters than the one you are using. If I try that one, will it give me a sharper/clearer/better resolved image? If that happens to you, then why not check it out and see where it is superior and what type of images benefit from it? You can find more information by the wonderful Thom Hogan here (be advised: it is a little out-of-date).
How then, do we differentiate btween raw converters?
One way is to divide them into pure converters with a simple browser interface which are excellent for working on single images. This includes apps like PhotoNinja, Oloneo PhotoEngine, DxO Optics Pro, Iridient (Mac only), RawTherapee and the open-source (i.e. free) LightZone.
The other kind are all-you-can-eat converters, complete packages designed as one-stop shops for pros and working photographers, where ingesting and cataloguing is a necessary part of the workflow. In the beginning, there was Apple’s Aperture, created in a time when “real” photographers used Mac. It was designed for working digital photojournalists, to enable them to quickly ingest (download), sort, edit and upload finished files to the editor’s desk. However, it was MacOs only. Shortly thereafter Adobe released Lightroom in both MacOS and Windows, which gave a product both platforms could use. There are others, including the much-ignored ACDSee, but these have been the two big players and one of the reasons for their success is the powerful ingesting and cataloguing functionality built-in to them. Think of them this way: as databases with production modules attached, rather than the other way around.
Enter Phase One’s software, Capture One, originally developed for use with medium-format digital studio cameras. Phase One, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, have been making medium-format digital cameras for years and, as time has gone by, their production software has gone from strength to strength. With its powerful ingesting and cataloguing functions, this app squarely targets the working professional. According to Phase One:
In Capture One Pro 7, you get all the essential tools and performance in one solution to capture, organize, adjust, share and print your images in a fast, flexible and intuitive workflow. Think of it as your digital assistant, allowing you to focus on shooting. With its image quality, reliability and speed, Capture One Pro 7 provides you with an array of powerful tools that give you more flexibility to create stunning images.
With that glittering promise before me, and in search of a converter that would make the most of my Fuji X files, I downloaded a copy and installed it. I knew it was going to be a precipitous learning curve. Phase One know this also, which is why they give you a 60-day trial period, rather than the usual 30 days. You will need it! There is a huge amount to discover here.
However, a great way to understand this app is to realise that it is a tool designed primarily for professionals, and every professional’s needs differ. A studio-based commercial or fashion photographer will probably be working with an art director on-site, so there is plenty of functionality to shoot directly to a computer. A wedding photographer will be looking to process out many files and bring them to full resolution as quickly and perfectly as possible. There are plenty of options here. C1 Pro 7 attempts to create solutions for as many different working methods as possible, and its customisation options are huge.
There are two options for bring files into your computer, Sessions and Catalogues.
You will use this method if you shoot distinct and different jobs. In a session, all your files, both in and out, are kept together, along with processing data and relevant .xmp files. This will really suit a wedding photographer. Twelve months later, when they get around to ordering their album, or deciding they really do want a 30” x 40” print for the lounge wall, it will be easy to find the Smith-Chalmers wedding and resolve it out. If part of your work is shooting presentations and events (aka Grip and Grins), it will be easy to go back and find these. A job shooting the Ascot Motels (why are they always called that?) will be easy to locate when the agent rings up, claiming they have lost the files…
If your work spans longer time frames, multiple purposes, and is more fluid, that is, gets used for more than one reason/client, such as shooting for stock or exhibition, then using the catalogue approach is the way to go. You can import and keyword files and assign labels/stars to them and back them up at the same time. That said, the importing function is nowhere near as good or as complete as Lightroom or Aperture. LR’s Library really sets the standard for importing and cataloguing. C1 v7 really has a long way to go to compete with LR.
NB: while I was finishing this review, Phase One announced preliminary Beta support, enabling you to import your Lightroom catalogues. About time.
It is here that C1v7 really shows its muscle and its power. There is so much on offer and so many ways to customise to your own needs that it really needs time to get to know it and develop a workflow that will be best for you. There are so many ways to do anything and so much to explore that rather than do an in-depth analysis of each feature, I will focus on things I think are of real interest.
There is wonderful support for using multiple monitors. One contains the browser and adjustment palettes (tools), while your other screen contains only the image. You can move, remove and reorder tools to suit your own workflow. Across the sub-menu are the tools you will probably use most, set out in a default layout, which you can arrange to suit your own way of working. These include
- Capture (for tethered shooting),
- Color Black-and-white,
- Lens (correction),
- Composition, containing crop, rotation/flip, keystone and overlay (if you want to combine images)
- Details, including sharpening, noise reduction, moiré and spot removal
- Local Adjustments (more about that later)
- Metadata editing
- Process and
- Batch processing
All of these have sub-tools of one sort or another.
If you need, you can move, remove or reorder to suit your own way of doing things.
The Color section alone contains 6 tools for working with colour alone, including white balance, and specific colour adjustments, including ones specifically for adjusting skin tones. Each tool is titled on the left, while the right-hand side contains further sub-menus, including Help, copy adjustment to clipboard, reset, presets and the option to remove the tool altogether.
But wait, there is more.
In the middle , near, the top are more tools, which include Loupe, Crop ( with presets), Keystone correction and a very complete Picker, for selecting skintones, colour corrections, colour on specific layer, etc..
O and there is still more
A further set of guides near the top right of the window allow you to do such things as output to print, make auto corrections ( much more accurate than Lightroom), show gridlines and process.
And there are others…
The Highlight recovery tool is immensely powerful, possibly the best I have used. My sense is that it is quite capable of recovering 2 stops or more of overexposure. The shadow adjustment is able to pull out detail without creating noise and that ghastly blotchy effect which can happen with some converters.
The clarity tool is also hugely influential. It comes with 3 options; Classic, Neutral and Punch, with the ability to adjust clarity and structure separately. Caution needs to be exercised with these sliders as it is very easy to overdo it and end up with something quite…horrible.
The levels control allows you to quickly adjust either globally or by channel. A calibrated monitor is vital if you are not to end up with results which are very off-balance.
C1 has very powerful tools for correcting lens issues. It is possible to create a Lens Cast Calibration profile for a specific lens. This is really useful if you use tilt/shift lenses and want to employ them at the limit of their extensions, where falloff will be an issue. You even have the option to create a Dust Correction reference profile for easy batch removal of dust from images.
In fact, all the options to correct are extremely powerful and designed to be used at a very high level. However they take time to learn. Expect mistakes for a while until you get into the groove with this application.
What really got my attention most of all was the ability to be able to edit files in layers. Yes, you did read that correctly. This makes it possible to make local adjustments to such things as contrast, exposure, saturation, etc. to specific parts of your image within Capture One, rather than waiting until you get to PhotoShop. Unlike LR, you can add up to 10 layers, adjusting each one separately. Note that this is done non-destructively. When you are done, you can then Process (export) it as a jpeg, DNG, TIFF, PSD or PNG. Have a look at this video or this one to see how it is done. You can then create a new variant and reprocess. To my mind this one tool and its ability to allow editing multiple adjustment layers sets C1 apart from all the competition. And makes it worth the price. The masking tool also allows for very clever edge selection when there is sufficient contrast along an edge.
Getting to know Capture One is an investment in money ( $NZ380 +GST)), because it isn’t cheap, although for what it has to offer a user, it seems quite reasonable. It will also be an investment in time, because it takes time to get to know, a result of all the different ways it can be used. Don’t expect to understand this one in a weekend, or even a month. The results, however, will make you glad you put time and effort into learning it.
Fortunately, Capture One know that your head is going to reel for a while, so they have a phenomenal amount of literature and a huge number of videos to help you learn how to use it. I strongly suggest making them part of your learning curve.
Of course, you can buy it direct on-line. However, if you live in New Zealand, may I recommend getting it from Sean at Evoke Studios in Auckland? He is a Phase One reseller, along with being an amazingly knowledgeable, helpful and thoroughly nice guy. What he has forgotten probably isn’t worth knowing.
I initially got interested in C1 for its ability to handle Fujifilm X-Trans filters, which it processes superbly, even though Capture One refer to support for the X-Trans as “initial”. Then, when I began using it on conventional Bayer-array images (D800, A900), I was astonished by its ability to render fine details while holding dynamic range beyond anything Lightroom could. It made the steep learning curve well worth the investment in time and effort.
Some raw converters are a home handyman’s toolbox, with enough tools to get most things done. Capture One Pro 7 is a fully-equipped mechanic’s workshop, with every tool which might ever be needed for any job, from replacing a windscreen wiper on a Corolla to rebuilding an engine on an Audi RS8.
It’s that good and that comprehensive.