Revisiting Capture One Pro vs Lightroom, plus a camera switch

Soda Butte Creek

Nearly a year ago I wrote about my experiences with Capture One Pro 9.3 following much frustration with sluggish performance in Adobe Lightroom 6.x. There was an incredible amount to like in C1 Pro, but also a number of Lightroom features I missed  – no slam dunk, but I was intrigued enough to keep working with C1 Pro for new images. Most of the time I went back to Lightroom for anything earlier unless the image had never been edited before – I didn’t want to invest the time to completely redo my years of prior work with Lighroom.

I’m updating my earlier report because there’s new everything!

A new version of Lightroom

6.12 supposedly has some  performance improvements as Adobe (finally) acknowledged that they had a problem. No word yet on when there might be more performance work – this review of 6.12 pretty much matched my experience that it was somewhat better, but by no means OK. One rumor site says Lightroom 7 is in beta and may get announced at the end of October, so possibly that will have some speed-ups.

A new version of Capture One Pro

C1 Pro is now at 10.2, with a number of improvements (not all of which applied to me, such as Tangent panel support, but see an overview here). The small-sounding feature to show a before version (original RAW file) was a welcome addition – with a catch. I wish they hadn’t used the revert button with a modifier for the “before” button as you risk reverting by accident if you release the Option key too soon. There’s undo of course, but I’ve had two occasions so far where undo is just grayed out for reasons I don’t know. Using the \ key as Lightroom does would have been perfect. Support for layered PSD files is nice for some, but I don’t really want to use C1 Pro with Photoshop files given my workflow. One big thing for me was improved support for Fuji’s X-trans sensor because…

A new camera – mirrorless to boot!

After more than 30 years as a Canon user I’ve switched over to Fuji’s lovely – and so light! – XT-2 and sold all my Canon gear. That’s a separate topic, but the primary goal was to have a camera that was as good, but much, much lighter to lug around. The DLSR to mirrorless switch has been part of the package – not a goal but a way to get to lighter weight. In addition to my earlier success with Capture One Pro and Canon RAW files, C1 Pro handles my Fuji RAW files beautifully, as long as I watch the sharpening (I think the default is a hair too aggressive, but that’s easily taken care of).

So I needed to review whether (a) Lightroom’s performance fixes made a material difference to me, and (b) the new camera’s RAW files were handled better by either of these two programs (or two other converters, one freebie from Fuji, Silkypix, or a beta Iridient X-Transformer that some people swear by). The X-trans sensor Fuji uses in these cameras is organized differently from other CMOS sensors – read an overview and another photographer’s comparisons if you’re interested on more on the technology.

Oxbow Bend sunriseTo put my conclusion up front, Capture One Pro 10.2 does a really good job with Fuji RAW files and Lightroom does not – sufficiently less good that I’m not even inclined to consider the remaining “I wish C1 Pro had that” items. Possibly with a future release, LR will be able to handle the Fuji RAW files adequately, but by then, I’m guessing I won’t much care. It’s funny how quickly you develop new muscle memory and I found myself typing “b” for brush or “e” for eraser in Lightroom, only to realize I was treating C1 Pro as the new mental default.

All the comments about Capture One features from the earlier review are still relevant. I find that the C1 Pro user interface continues to grow on me – Photoshop-like keyboard shortcuts, layers for local adjustments, no separate modules. Most of the wish-list items are still wish lists – Lightroom’s masking for sharpening, a preview on-off that doesn’t involve the reset button, a drawing mode for masks that has an absolute density maximum (so you don’t have unwanted build-up as brush strokes overlap). Limitations notwithstanding, I found myself gravitating to C1 Pro for new images because I preferred the way images looked.

Two other RAW converters – two losers

I did some pixel peeping on the results of four RAW converters. I picked one area to show a comparison of them – click on the image below to see some before/after comparison images.
Area of image detail

Sharpening and definition

Here’s a different image for Lightroom-Capture One Pro comparisons including overall definition of image details, particularly in the middle ground, and improvements in sharpening in Capture One Pro 10 – diffraction correction, halo suppression, full sharpening controls on local adjustment layers and output sharpening on export. I find  the basic conversion (no adjustments, no sharpening) to have better definition, color and contrast with Capture One Pro; processing adjustments only widen the gap. I can always do more in Photoshop to get the image where I need it to be, but I’m persuaded that it’s better (for image integrity) to do as much when working from the source RAW file as possible. Click on the image below to see before/after comparisons.

Areas of detail

Mushy middleground

Looking at the Snake River image in an area in the middle that isn’t in sharp focus (but isn’t entirely out of focus either), the Lightroom conversion looks mushy (it also looked quite washed out but I edited the comparison image in Photoshop to look more similar to C1 Pro so the difference in definition of the grasses and trees is more clear).

Another example of loss of color and definition comes from the Soda Butte Creek image (a wonderful part of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley), taken at sunrise where the warm light really lit up the lichen on the rocks on the river bank. Look at the differences in both the colors and detail clarity of some rocks with an orange/red lichen growing on them:

So where am I?

It’s possible that Adobe doesn’t consider the Fuji X-trans sensor important – it is different from the Bayer sensors found in other cameras and thus requires additional investment to engineer a good solution. Possibly as Fuji’s market share increases, quality of Lightroom support will improve, but then I’d be back looking at performance issues and how improvements there are progressing. I’d like to feel confident that my software suppliers are in the business for the long haul – we invest heavily in molding our workflows around our gear and software. Changing is time consuming and disruptive (not to mention potentially expensive).

Adobe is a huge company, but it seems to be off on some mission to chase lots of new mobile apps, subscriptions and features that from my point of view are more demoware than really day-in-day-out useful. Phase One is clearly in the camera business for the long haul but it’s a branch to support lots of other manufacturers’ RAW files in Capture One Pro. It has been around for years, and although it has some quirks (but so does Lightroom), Phase One has produced a really solid piece of software. I suppose the odds are good for both Adobe and Phase One to continue support for both pieces of software, but I am concerned Adobe will stop selling perpetual licenses for Lightroom in the future.

It’s certainly easy right now to continue using both programs – Lightroom for the older files and Capture One Pro for the newer – but at some point upgrades to software and the operating system (I’m currently running Mac OS X Sierra) may force hard choices.

Would I want to pay to upgrade Lightroom 6.x to 7.x to streamline access to my older catalogs? Probably as long as the price is reasonable and I can continue with a perpetual license. Software is always a blend of good news and bad, delight and frustration – as long as I can manage the frustrations so I can focus on processing images, I think I will count that as a win. For me, for now, Capture One Pro 10.x is the path forward.