From Phase One, the maker of top-end professional photography hardware like the remarkable 100-megapixel IQ3 100MP Trichromatic, comes Capture One Pro 20 photo editing software, which offers digital photo import tools, raw camera file conversion, image adjustment, local and layer editing, and some organizational features. Yes, that’s a big version number bump from the previous version 12, but there are a decent number of improvements here. The software supports tethered shooting with a live monitor view and focus tools for shooting directly from the app. Capture One is a strong competitor to Editors’ Choice winners Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, DXO Optics Pro, and others in the pro photo workflow space thanks to updates to its interface, export plug-in capability, masking tools, and especially its fine raw file conversion.
Getting the Software and Getting Started
You can either buy the software outright for $299 or subscribe for $20 per month. There’s also a $15 monthly plan if you prepay for a year. These prices are a bit steep when you consider that you can get Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic and Photoshop for a $9.99-per-month subscription. You get three Capture One licenses for your money, more than Adobe’s two-computer maximum. Upgrading from a previous version costs $159. Capture One (for Sony) and Capture One Fujifilm each cost $129; these versions are full-featured but only support raw files from those cameras of those brands. A free, fully functioning 30-day trial version lets you test the software before purchasing.
Capture One Pro is available for macOS (10.13 or later) and Windows 7 SP1 through Windows 10 (64-bit only), and both require a machine with least a Core 2 Duo processor, 8GB RAM, and 10GB of free disk space. I tested the Windows version. It takes up 620MB of hard drive space, but that’s quite a bit smaller than Lightroom Classic’s 2GB. I had to upgrade my image catalog on first running the update, but doing so was quick. You activate the software using a Capture One account as well as a serial number. In all, installation is no harder than getting going with Lightroom.
What’s New in Capture One Pro 20
For Capture One aficionados, here’s a crib sheet on what’s new for version 20:
- A new color editor, with eight color ranges and a cursor tool to see changes in-image
- Improved noise reduction,
- Interface improvements, including scrolling, button labels, changeable background color, updated white balance picker, and new keyboard shortcuts
- Improved HDR sliders, now with Black and White sliders for better contrast control
- Improved Crop tool with edge handles, aspect ratio locking, and (finally) Enter key finishing the crop
- Better DNG support and added camera model raw support, including for Canon 90D, Nikon Z50, Pentax K-1 II, Olympus E-M5 III, and Ricoh GR III
As a refresher, here’s what we got in the previous version (Version 12):
- Interface updated with Resource Hub (see just below)
- Revamped menu system
- Keyboard shortcut manager
- Luminosity range, linear gradient, and radial gradient masking;
- Plug-ins for exporting and publishing
- Extended AppleScript support
- Fujifilm film simulations
Interface and Import
When you first run Capture One, the Resource Hub pops over the main program window. This offers tabs for What’s New, Tutorials, Webinars, Support, and Plug-In Shopping. If you dismiss it, you can get it back up from the Help menu. Just about everything in the hub opens a webpage in your browser, so I’m not sure why there isn’t just a link on the program window to a web index page of all this.
Despite some interface tweaks, the app is still recognizable to longtime Capture One users, and it’s a lot busier than the Lightroom Classic and Skylum Luminar’s interfaces. The dark (adjustable) gray window features two large buttons for importing and tethered capture. Unlike Lightroom Classic’s interface, Capture One’s is not modal. That is, it doesn’t present different workspaces for different functions, such as organizing, editing, or output. Instead, you do everything in the one interface. You use buttons on top of the left-side control panel to switch between 10 (down from 12 in earlier versions) views based on what you’re doing at the moment—Library, Capture, Lens, Color, Exposure, Details, Adjustments (including presets), Metadata, Output, and Batch. You can remove any view you don’t use frequently.
Along the top, 11 toolbar buttons switch you among Select, Pan, Loupe, Crop, Straighten, Keystone, Spot Removal, Draw Mask, White-Balance, and Apply Adjustments cursors. Just as in Photoshop, right-clicking (or click-and-holding) these buttons opens a drop-down of more cursor choices, including Zoom and Pan. The Apply Adjustments cursor lets you copy and paste adjustments between images. The paste functionality is smart enough to not include spot removal and cropping, and new for Version 20 are improvements to layer copy-and-paste.
The program offers good right-click menu options, and keyboard shortcuts (for example, C for crop, Ctrl-T to hide or show the Tools menu, and number keys for ratings). You can even create your own shortcuts for any of the program’s menu options. You can search for shortcuts, by either the key combination or the command performed. Undo and Reset buttons are always at the ready to reverse editing goofs, something I like to see in an interface. Question mark icons in every tool take you to the appropriate help entry—very helpful indeed.
A simple roll of the mouse wheel quickly zooms your photo. Like Lightroom Classic, Capture One can’t zoom to a specific percentage. Instead, it stops at set amounts, such as 25 percent, 50 percent, and so on. There’s no indication whether the photo you’re viewing has been fully rendered. In my testing, photos rendered faster than in Lightroom Classic, which does, however, indicate when the photo is completely rendered. There’s a full-screen view in Capture One that shows both the side panel and your image, but this is far less useful than Lightroom Classic’s true full-screen view. I also found that the basic action of switching between gallery and image view was less intuitive than it should be. Sometimes I would hit the multi-image button and the program would keep me in single-image view. In Lightroom, it’s a simple matter of double-clicking an image.
As an alternative to the large Import button, you can set Capture One as your default AutoPlay option when plugging in camera media. The import dialog is powerful. It lets you choose the source, destination, file renaming, and copyright metadata. You can also perform a simultaneous backup during import, and even apply adjustment styles and presets such as Landscape B&W, midtone boost curve, and sharpening. Autocorrect is also a useful import option. You can zoom the preview thumbnails, view single images, and choose which images to import. You can’t rate or tag them before importing, unfortunately. The program’s duplicate detection (like that in Lightroom) saves you from having unnecessary copies on your drive.
Like Lightroom Classic, Capture One stores information (including any edits) for your imported photos in databases called catalogs. The actual image files can be stored in a different folder location from the catalog, or right inside it. Keeping them separate means you can have the large image files on a NAS drive, for example. Unlike Adobe’s app, Capture One lets you have multiple catalogs open simultaneously. The default is to open the catalog you’re importing to as soon as the import starts.
A double progress bar shows both the overall import and current file-operation progress. (See the Performance section below for a comparison of import speeds; long story short: Capture One imports faster than Lightroom, PhotoDirector, and ACDSee Pro.) You can start working on photos before the whole import finishes, which is handy.
Many raw camera files I tested in the program look noticeably better than the unadjusted Lightroom and ACDSee equivalents, and even better than in the excellent DxO Optics Pro . Capture One supports DNG images created by Adobe programs, treating them as original raw files. Even with these, I see more detail in Capture One than in the Lightroom’s initial conversion in some photos for some camera models. Lightroom sometimes tends towards oversaturation, though increasing Sharpening brought the detail up to Capture One’s initial level in my test image. Capture One’s documentation states that its raw conversion process “uses an extremely sophisticated and patented algorithm.”
You can switch the Curve presets in the Color section for rendering among Auto, Film Extra Shadow, Film High Contrast, Film Standard, and Linear Response. The first few modes are more saturated, and the last two give the most detail.
As its name suggests, tethered capture is a strong point for Capture One—it offers more than just about any competitor, with its live-view Sessions feature. There’s also an iPad app, Capture Pilot, that lets you show, rate, and capture photos using Apple’s tablet as a remote.
Capture One lets you add star ratings via thumbnails across the bottom of thumbnails and at the lower-right corner of the main photo view. It also lets you apply color tags for organization, but there’s no simple Pick or Reject option for people with less-granular processes. The Keyword tool accessible from the Metadata tab lets you add keywords to build a Library. The next time you start typing in the text box, any matching entry in the library is suggested. You can even import or export keyword libraries and add hierarchical keywords. The program doesn’t, however, offer you a prepopulated keyword library. A new issue is that, after adding a keyword to an image, the focus switches to the next image, which isn’t helpful when you’re trying to add multiple keywords (though you can turn off this behavior). I prefer the treatment of keywords in Lightroom Classic, however, which offers exhaustive help and presets for organizing your photos in this most useful way.
You can create your own albums (including smart albums based on ratings, color codes, or search criteria), projects, or groups (which can include any combination of the above). But forget about integrated geo-tagged maps or people tags, such as you get in Lightroom. Capture One does offer good search options by date, filename, rating, and keyword.
One helpful organizational tool in Capture One is called Variants. Similar to Lightroom Classic’s Snapshots feature, Variants let you create multiple copies of a photo with different adjustments and edits. Variants are the only way to get a before-and-after view of your adjustments, and even that method doesn’t work as well as Lightroom Classic and DxO’s side-by-side views.
Organization may not be Capture One’s forte, but in its selection of standard adjustment tools—exposure, contrast, shadows, highlights, white balance, and so on—Capture One is up there with the best. The program offers an adjustable histogram, white balance, exposure, HDR, and clarity. The last offers a few modes of its own, with Punch, Natural, and Neutral being more effective than Classic mode, which just seems to sharpen images. A couple of Lightroom Classic tools I miss in Capture One are Vibrance and Dehaze. The latter has made its way into several competing applications, so its absence in Capture One is now egregious. For the record, the haze-removal tools in DxO PhotoLab and Skylum Luminar worked better than the one in Lightroom, which added a color cast.
I can usually get an end result that is as good or better looking using Lightroom Classic’s tools, even though Capture One gets more detail and more-natural colors at initial raw conversion. Where there used to be an A button, Capture One now uses a magic-wand icon for autocorrect adjustments, in both the top toolbar and in each adjustment section (White Balance, Exposure, and so on). You can undo the autocorrect changes of any given setting (exposure, white balance, and so on) individually, without undoing the others.
The program’s High Dynamic Range section now adds two more sliders to the previous version’s Highlights and Shadows: You now get a Black and White slider, too. The new sliders really do help in creating an image with better contrast; adjusting highlights and shadows alone often results in a washed-out looking image. The tool’s purpose is not to deliver special effects, but rather to perfect an image, and for that they’re useful. By comparison, CyberLink’s PhotoDirector can create HDR images with extreme and artsy impact.
As for true HDR using multiple images of the same scene shot at different exposures, Capture One is completely lacking, with no such tool. The same holds for multi-shot panorama merging. Both of these are strengths of Lightroom.
The Levels and Curves tools in Capture One’s Exposure panel are far more useful for making vivid images. Capture One is all about image fidelity—though there are Styles that apply color and Black and White effects, as well as a Film Grain tool.
Capture One includes profile-based tools for correcting lens-geometry distortion, though the EF 70-300mm Canon lens for my Canon DSLR still isn’t included. Chromatic aberration correction comes under this lens-correction subset. A generic option did quite a good job in my testing. The Purple Fringing option is also effective. DxO Optics Pro remains my top pick for really doing away with chromatic aberration, though Lightroom has also gotten very good at it, too.
Capture One improved its noise-reduction tools in the latest release and I found that some images had less noise in initial raw conversation, to the point that I had to apply 50 percent noise reduction in Lightroom to get the noise level down to Capture One’s initial rendering. Turns out that’s because Capture One applies that much noise reduction by default. Even so, the Capture One result with the same settings was more detailed than the Lightroom result, with the same amount of smoothness. DxO Optic Pro offers the ultimate in noise reduction, however, with its time-consuming Prime tool.
Cropping in Capture One is improved in the new version: You can now just hit Enter after selecting the rectangle you want; the crop will still also take effect if you switch to another cursor. You can also simply start drawing the crop wherever you want, rather than having to start by adjusting the selection box edges, as you have to do in DxO PhotoLab. The crop tool helpfully shows you each side’s dimensions in inches or pixels. The straighten tool has you draw a line that will become the horizon, or you can manually tilt your photo while using the Composition panel’s Rotation tool, but there’s no auto-horizon adjuster like that in Lightroom.
Color management is a special strength in Capture One. You can adjust color ranges or individual colors, and you can also fine-tune skin tones, in particular, using a color picker. Other skin helpers are the Clone and Heal tools, which do a very good job of blemish removal. They work just about the way Photoshop’s similar tools have for years, but Adobe’s content-aware tools are more effective. The Mask From Color option in Capture One lets you create adjustment layers based on color-selected areas for local adjustments.
The new version offers even more color-editing proficiency, with eight color ranges instead of six, and a Direct Color Editor tool that lets you adjust the color by dragging up and down right over the color you want to modify. When I did this, I couldn’t see the image being affected until I chose to view the background layer instead of the adjustment layer.
Masks and Layers
The program offers accurate masking with a feathering tool and refinements for difficult selections like hair or trees. You can mask by luminosity as well as using linear and radial gradients. The luminosity mask option (called Luma Range and accessible from a button on the Layers dialog) is good for isolating bright or dark areas and especially helpful for selective noise reduction. There’s no blur tool for selective focus effects, but you can reduce sharpness and clarity using the mask. The gradient options are good for selective focus treatments. The Levels and Color Balance tools work in layers, and you can adjust the opacity of each edit layer.
The Annotations feature is useful for collaborative editing, so the initial photographer/editor can send notes to a retouching professional or client about areas on the photo. It’s basically a drawing tool that creates a layer, which you can hide or display and include as a separate layer if you export to PSD. I am sorry to see that the tool doesn’t work with touch monitors, which would be a perfect fit. You can, however, choose pen size and color, and an eraser tool eases fixing mishaps.
New in layer editing for version 20 is the ability to copy specified layers to other images, even if the second image has different dimensions. It’s not a simple matter of Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V, however. You need to choose Copy Adjustments from the Adjustments menu and then after switching to the second image, Apply Adjustments. This adds the copied layer on top of the second image’s layers. To be honest, I prefer Adobe’s strategy of hiding layers from you in Lightroom, for faster, simpler editing. If you need to work with layers, you head to Photoshop. But I suppose for some workflows it’s helpful to have both capabilities in one program.
Output of Photos in Capture One
Capture One includes a capable printing feature. It lets you select a color profile and offers standard layouts such as contact sheets and A3/A4 formats. You can customize layouts with your choice of column and row counts and spacing, and text and image watermarking are options. You can also save your own custom layout templates. The View menu offers a good number of Proof Profiles to show how your image will look on a selection of displays and print output types, but it doesn’t highlight nonprinting colors the way Lightroom Classic’s Soft Proofing feature does.
One weakness in Capture One’s usefulness as a workflow solution is its lack of online sharing capabilities. There’s a Make Web Contact Sheet choice that creates HTML for a web server, but aside from that the software basically leaves you to your own devices, with no web- or email-sharing features. There’s no built-in export to popular services like Flickr, 500px, or SmugMug, nor is there any integrated book layout and export tool such as you get in Lightroom Classic.
As mentioned at the top, version 12 added export plug-in support. At present, there are only four available plug-ins. One supports the Format portfolio service, another is for Helicon Focus, which works with the focus-stacking feature in the Phase One XF Camera System. The third takes advantage of JPEGmini’s technology for smaller file sizes (requires a $59 purchase), and the final option, Prodibi (still in beta), lets you send proofing galleries, auto-tag sessions and catalogs, publish web galleries on social media, WordPress or a website. But that’s only via a link to Prodibi online galleries, not direct sharing. When I tried using the Prodibi beta, Capture One crashed.
In standard use, Capture One feels responsive; I never noticed having to wait an inordinate amount of time for a procedure. For more measurable performance, I tested import speed with 268 raw images (a total of 5GB) from a Canon 80D. My test computer was an Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IC running 64-bit Windows 10 Home and sporting a 4K display, 16GB RAM, a quad-core Intel Core i7-6700T CPU, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M discrete graphics card. I imported from a Class 4 SD card to a fast SSD on the PC. For this test, Capture One took 5:34 (minutes:seconds), beating Lightroom Classic’s 6:31.
The Top Capture Tool?
For professionals who need tethered-shooting capabilities and serious amateurs who want excellent raw camera file import quality, Capture One is a fine option. Layer fans and those who need to mark up photos for collaborative editing will also appreciate it too. But the program still trails our Editors’ Choice pro photo workflow application, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, on the basis of interface fluidity, organizational tools, panorama and HDR merging, and profile support for cameras and lenses.