Capture One Pro beats Lightroom-except where it doesn’t

Fill maskI’ll start at the beginning in just a moment, but first an observation: it’s rare that you see software that makes an “oh wow” moment (I’m sure it used to be much more frequent in the past!). I had one of those with Capture One Pro’s fill mask feature – a simple solution to an everyday problem, certainly, but one that cuts out a massively tedious and error prone task (you leave gaps) in Lightroom.

Draw the outline of a mask and have the software fill it in. Something that has been around for decades – just not in a RAW processor. This should have been in Adobe Lightroom (ages ago); it’s something trivial to do in Photoshop. The resulting euphoria had me ready to buy the software right away, but I know I need to look more thoroughly. Hence this blog post covering what I found.

ightroom 5 developing magicI spend many hours editing images and only come up for air every so often to see if improvements in software have made it worth switching to something new. It’s a time consuming process to check out the plusses and inevitable flaws, but as I’ve spent time doing this, I’m sharing what I’ve learned about Capture One Pro 9.3 over the last few weeks. I was looking for options after having a horrible time with Lightroom slowing to a crawl while editing and being unable to speed it back up again.

After a rocky on-again-off-again start with Lightroom 3, I have been using Lightroom as an increasingly large part of my pre-Photoshop editing of images over the last five years. With the release of Lightroom 5 three years ago, my enthusiasm for its raw file handling increased as I was able to make some dramatic edits that brought the captured image much closer to what my eyes saw. I was already sold on non-destructive editing in Photoshop, but doing more with the RAW file as source was a clear win. Everything for stock ended up in Photoshop after Lightroom, but for many family images, Lightroom did the whole job. Harmony in the image editing universe!

Lightroom 6 improved things yet again with the ability to use brushes to edit the masks of the graduated and radial filters – not quite layer masks as in Photoshop, but taking a very good step in that direction. With the increased control over which edits were applied where in the image, I upped the amount of work done in Lightroom but over time, found editing became sluggish, particularly when using brushes to edit filters. Last month I lost my patience as the freezes made work difficult.

Performance problems got me restless

I looked at all the performance recommendations I could find: my catalog is on an SSD, is optimized, is of moderate size; my prefs have been trashed, history cleared, I don’t have many presets and my hardware hasn’t changed; turned GPU off-then back when things were just the same. Editing became so slow that I’d have to stop for 30 seconds every so often to let the system catch up. It messes with your head when things are in slow motion on the system – like the sound being out of sync when watching a movie. Looking around online, I saw lots of discussion that using the brush extensively could make things slow down. But that’s what makes the product useful! Boggles the mind that the advice is to use something so valuable more sparingly.

I had been sticking with Lightroom 6.1 as I use Photoshop CS6 (I’ll spare the rant about avoiding subscriptions if at all possible) and Adobe decided to upgrade the Camera Raw version after LR 6.1 so seamless round trips with Photoshop wouldn’t work with newer versions (you can export a PSD and edit that, but nice conveniences like opening multiple RAW files as layers in a single Photoshop file would be gone). I thought I’d see if upgrading Lightroom helped the performance issues only to find that Lightroom 6.7 no longer supported OS X Mavericks so I’d have to upgrade the operating system to upgrade Lightroom. I find it hard to credit that a point release of an application requires updating the operating system, but it’s moot as I can’t change it.

A little searching online led me to a couple of articles comparing Lightroom to Capture One Pro – my first RAW converter application other than Canon’s own software. I had dumped C1 Pro for DxO Optics Pro when the latter had lens-specific corrections, then dumped DxO for Lightroom when support for Canon L lenses was taking DxO forever and Adobe Camera RAW quality had really improved. The articles were very positive about C1 Pro’s features and they have a 30 day free (fully functional) trial so I thought I’d see if that would work better and faster for me than Lightroom.

C1 Pro needed at least OS X 10.10 (Mavericks is 10.9.x) so I bit the bullet, upgraded my operating system, upgraded Lightroom to 6.7 and installed the Capture One Pro free trial. Sigh…life with computers & software is always about tradeoffs and compromise…

Typical two-screen layout for Lightroom

Typical two-screen layout for Lightroom

Try Capture One Pro to compare

With the help of some video tutorials C1 Pro has on their YouTube Channel, I was able to get going in C1 Pro – unlike a total beginner, you know exactly what you want to do, just not how to get there 🙂 I also did a few tests in Lightroom 6.7 to determine that nothing had changed with respect to performance with multiple graduated & radial filters with edited masks.

Capture One Pro 9.3 impressed me – and also made it clear how easy it would have been for Adobe to dramatically improve Lightroom if it hadn’t been so distracted with the latest shiny object in mobile apps and such. Both the detail, color and quality in the images and the huge improvements in usability were really noticeable – and it seemed a lot faster to me. I started with a new catalog and added the images I had shot in August, many of which I had already processed in Lightroom.

One of many possible arrangements of Capture One UI

One of many possible arrangements of Capture One UI

Capture One performed much better than Lightroom (no lagging when painting masks or zooming in), so then I explored to see if I could do everything I need to in C1 Pro and re-establish an efficient workflow with a new tool.

Catalog and features other than RAW processing

I use Lightroom almost exclusively to process RAW images – I keyword and add other metadata in Photoshop and I have never liked LR’s world view about files, catalogs and such. I’ve tried, but I mostly avoid getting tangled in it as I work with my images. The Web module is weird (I use Juicebox for web galleries), I make books in Photoshop with my own designs and don’t use the Map, Slideshow or Print modules. In other words, if these features and modules matter a lot to you, comparing RAW processing features may not be the only investigation you need to do.

The Capture One of old didn’t use a catalog model, but now it does (along with a session model that is everything-in-one-folder, primarily targeted at those doing a tethered shoot). It’s similar to LR in that you can import directly from a card reader, or get the files onto your hard disk on your own and import files from your computer without moving them from where you put them. You can batch rename images; there are collections and smart collections – I think they did just enough to appeal to Aperture users and occasional LR defectors. The C1 Pro forums have complaints about limitations and bugs with catalogs; for some workflows, that’s a big deal, but I didn’t investigate. You can’t populate IPTC fields on import as you can in Lightroom (for example, I can put in a copyright statement, but can’t set the image as copyrighted so have to change that drop down list in Photoshop later).

User interface wins for Capture One

It’s probably pointless to complain about how Adobe has such huge user interface variations from Photoshop to Lightroom to Illustrator (over the things they have in common), but as a long-time user, it’s infuriating. Phase One has produced something pretty close to Adjustment Layers in C1 Pro and I wish Adobe had done that for Lightroom. The unnamed pins (segregated by type) in LR just don’t cut it (even if the performance held up).

Browser configurations

Another big win is that there are no module divisions in C1 Pro – I don’t know why LR separates into multiple universes, but I’ve never seen that as a feature – more as a limitation I can work with. All tools are available everywhere. C1 Pro also has single letter shortcuts – b for the brush, e for eraser, m for mask – many just like Photoshop. Lightroom  does have some – such as square brackets to change brush size) – but it’s a shame that LR didn’t allow b(rush) and e(raser) when editing gradient or radial masks in the Develop module. These sound like small things, but they make a world of difference when you’re doing lots of editing.

The C1 Pro UI is more customizable than in LR. In addition to not having separate modules, you can create floating windows (panels or palettes) from most of the UI elements and put them wherever you want – very handy if you have two monitors. The equivalent of the LR grid (library module) is the Browser window which you can show and hide while you’re developing images (Cmd-B). It can go below or on the right and have varying rows and thumbnail sizes. You can also easily add/change keyboard shortcuts (another thing PS has but LR doesn’t).

Different workspaces can be named and saved; you can recover highlights and shadows (although C1 Pro has a much narrower band of shifts that it supports than LR does, at least with the Highlight and Shadow sliders); noise reduction, sharpening, distortion correction and so on are all there.

Named layers

Named layersNamed local adjustment layers (up to 16) is a huge user interface win for C1 Pro and it is less about the names than how quickly you can work making edits. In Lightroom, if you want to switch from one radial or gradient filter to another, you have to find the “pin” on the page (which if you’re zoomed in to edit may require zooming out to see the whole thing) and select it. Then you zoom in again to resume edits. In C1 Pro you just click on the layer in the list and keep right on working. Notice that you can turn the layers on and off with the check boxes and can use the drop down list in the viewer window to select a layer (or verify which one you’re currently working on).

In addition to naming layers, there is a larger set of features you can isolate to a layer in C1 Pro. For example, in LR, I cannot make color-specific shifts (the Hue-Saturation-Luminance panel) on a graduated or radial filter.

Focus mask

Focus maskC1 Pro shows a color overlay on blown highlights and plugged shadows just as Lightroom does, but it also has a focus mask – visible in the browser (think LR grid) as well as when viewing a single image. It’s a good enough gauge as to what’s in focus that picking out images to look at more closely from a large group is made somewhat easier. You can fine tune the threshhold as to what’s in focus versus not, but I don’t think it’s as good as I’d like – some out of focus backgrounds marked as in focus.

Processing wins – details

The gnawed wood on a beaver-damaged tree shows how much detail Capture One produced- both versions had some capture sharpening applied (less than Capture One’s recommended which I found a tad heavy handed and the default in Lightroom but masked to about 85)

Another example of both fine detail and the ability of C1 Pro to do curve adjustments on the luminance channel only (to avoid over-saturating colors) can be seen in this example. Look at the bandana shadows and details on the tee shirt neck edge – same sharpening routine for all these examples

Shadows, noise and sharpening

I have found several examples of images which Capture One handles better than Lightroom in balancing sharpness without crunchy halos and smooth shadows without producing that nasty smooth plastic look. Here’s a 100% crop:

Zooming in to 200%, here is C1 Pro versus LR with no additional noise reduction in LR:

Compare C1 with LR where some luminance noise reduction was applied – resulting in a nasty plastic look. I still don’t think the noise is as good (meaning minimized) as in the C1 Pro rendering

Skin tones

Capture One Pro skin tones In addition to its default behavior rendering images from the RAW file, C1 Pro has additional tools specifically for working with skin tones. I’ve used an example here from an image with a scar that has discolored skin tones (not to mention my wrinkly, freckled face). The skin-specific changes – to homogenize hue, saturation and lightness based on slider settings – with a target color you pick can affect non-skin areas of the image, depending on colors. However you can make a mask from the color selection and then edit that to remove areas you don’t want evened out. Lips and around the eyes, for example.

Compare the scar area, first with C1 Pro’s default processing vs. LR and then the smoothed tones versus “regular”

Camp Lightroom or Camp C1 Pro?

At this point I was beginning to think that features and usability in C1 Pro would be the deciding factor – even if I could figure out how to restore decent performance in Lightroom. What I’m going to do is use both, at least for a while as I’m not quite ready to go cold turkey and give up Lightroom but I liked so much of what I’ve seen in Capture One Pro that I want to use it. What I’d really like is the best of both in one piece of software, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

I found the layer-based masks in C1 Pro  (there is a limit of 16) really easy to work with. C1 Pro’s Keystone interface produced better results than Lightroom on many of my test images which would save me an editing step in PS. It’s very easy to go overboard with sharpening in C1 Pro – I wish they had LR’s masking tool (when you hold the option key down and drag the slider, you get a preview of the edges that will be affected which is excellent). LR also has a wide range of presets and plugins which C1 Pro doesn’t (there are some film styles you can buy)

There are, however, some missing features (such as what you can fill on import in IPTC data) and some oddities with cropping the image after distortion correction (sometimes I want the whole warped thing to clone in missing bits), image re-numbering (you have to reset the start number to zero via a menu command or it just keeps incrementing; that should just be part of the dialog box). You can’t put PSD files into the catalog (OK for me as I don’t do that with Lightroom which I want to be for RAW files only), you have to write a PSD file on disk somewhere which opens in Photoshop so workflow is a little less streamlined. If you depend on presets from third parties, there just isn’t the ecosystem that Lightroom has (along with tutorials, blogs, books and such). I’m a little nervous at the C1 Pro forum complaints about catalog bugs. I haven’t seen a problem, but with Lightroom, I’ve never lost a catalog or had data loss problem. Once you invest more time in RAW processing steps, it matters if those get ditched when a bug destroys a database. The good and bad news about Adobe is that it’s a behemoth. Phase One’s a much smaller outfit.

Possibly whatever issues there are with LR performance will get addressed, and perhaps Adobe will add some more core RAW editing features to future LR versions. Perhaps C1 Pro will continue to build on their already excellent software base. In the meantime, I’ll straddle the fence and try and wring the absolute maximum out of these two RAW processors. I’ll also ignore incoming e-mail promos for other RAW editors (ON1 Photo RAW pitching that it’s lightning fast and no subscription required!) as I don’t need yet another piece of imperfect if promising software on my system!