#251 Showdown: LightRoom Vs Capture One

#251 Showdown: LightRoom Vs Capture One

UPDATE : A comparison of C1 v7 with C1 V8 and LightRoom has now been published here.


Ever heard of David and Goliath? Well, that is about how things stand between the Goliath -nay the inventor- of photographic post-processing-, the ubiquitous Adobe, and small -but maybe nice, who knows?- Danish Capture One.

For a few years I have been a user of LightRoom, Adobe’s middling software. More powerful than Photoshop Elements, and sporting a useful catalogue feature, but a lot less potent than behemoth Photoshop. I am well used to LightRoom, and wasn’t especially unhappy with it until Adobe struck. They decided that all further upgrades to Photoshop would be on the Web-based, rental-version-only Creative Cloud. Clearly, not everyone loved the idea of having to pay a monthly fee instead of deciding if and when they might upgrade and own the software outright. They liked it even less when it transpired that, should you cease to pay the CC fee for whatever reason, you would lose access to your pictures, which became Adobe property. Now, it seems, Adobe will let you opt out of CC without seizing your pics, but in doing so, you lose all your edits and all your tools. Now some people claim to love this approach, but I did not, and still don’t. I decided it was time for me to look for alternatives. As I write this, I am not totally sure how matters progress, as it seems Adobe will, in fact, issue an upgrade to Photoshop. Still, the idea of losing access to my pics and/or edits is a powerful motivator even if Adobe hasn’t yet replicated its Photoshop policy with LightRoom, and claim to have no plans to do so.

There are essentially 2 alternatives: DxO and Capture One (and others as well, but not so widespread, and also the dedicated Canon, Nikon and Sony software). There also is Aperture software for and by Apple, who have just now announced that there would be no further development, so Aperture users may feel it is time to jump on another bandwagon. I had read many reports that the Capture One RAW converter was the best of the bunch, so I decided to try that one first.

1. Basics.

– Starting up with Capture One requires investing some time. The interface is not the same as Adobe’s, and it took me a few tens of hours before I got reasonably comfortable. Now, 3 months into the process, I am still learning quite a bit thanks to the excellent C1 tools (see later), and have yet to achieve the level of fluency 5 years of LightRoom brought me. But, as to finding out whether Capture “is your thing”, the 60-day free trial should be more than enough, as was the case for me.

– Capture One is more powerful than LightRoom in terms of post-processing, even if only because it will let you do local area adjustment layers and masks , a powerful feature Adobe only includes with Photoshop.

– There may be differences between RAW processors, but they are dwarfed by the differences the software generates at the post-processing level, simply because each one is a different tool, and, as such, induces the user towards different results. Thinking twice before spending 200€ for different software that could make all your pics better just sounds stupid when you think of the cost of any piece of gear.

– Capture One has a vastly better trove of learning and support tools, all of them free. Webinars, newsletters, online videos. Wow! By comparison, Adobe only offers a FAQ-type online help. No comparison! C1 could be better yet, though: their search engine for technical tips is not the best, and sometimes points you to pages that don’t exist.

– Price: LightRoom is a bit cheaper. I paid 90€ for mine, an upgrade to LR 5 from LR 4, and 120€ for Capture One version 7, using a promotional period. Hardly a deal-breaker, but a + for Adobe, if only of trivial importance.

– Migration: Capture One claims that they can migrate a LightRoom catalog into a C1. I haven’t tried it yet, but neither have I found evidence that this a fake claim

– Robustness: no doubt about it, LightRoom is very robust. Features work as advertised, they dont just “hang” the system, and neither do they crash it. So far, I would say that Capture One is robust, but not quite as much as LightRoom. I have had just a few minor hangups when trying to load pics from my camera. But no crash, or lost files (of course!). Not a deal-breaker IMHO unless you happen to be the really worrying kind, but that round goes to Adobe

-Speed: now I am not a PP expert or fanatic. I like to get, as much as I can, my pictures right from the start. Call me old-fashioned. So I don’t like to spend hours in front of my computer, agonizing tens of minutes to make one picture absolutely perfect. And, to some extent, neither do I enjoy beautifying a shot with software to the extent that the picture is better than reality is or was. With that in mind, I find the two essentially equivalent. With a bit of practice, I can process a standard shot (using no batch processing) in just about the same time, around 30 sec. and decide whether it is “worth” more care, or not. So I call this a draw

2. Features

– Sharpness. This round goes to Capture One big time. There is a slider called “structure” which, combined with some sharpness, gives me better results than I ever could get out of LightRoom. If you are a sharpness fiend, Capture One is for you.

– Noise suppression. Again, this round goes to C1. Better, more flexible noise suppression. If you are into noisy shots (I am not, I take care of those with a tripod and long exposures whenever I can), try C1. Though I suspect that LightRoom is actually a bit better at RAW conversion of seriously underexposed shots, so it may actually require a bit less noise suppression.

– Colours. This is a highly individual choice. I like C1 colours better. More saturated straight out of conversion, more sparkle. But that’s just me. And the combination of the colour adjustment tool and local area adjustment is just so cool…

– Dynamic range. Another round for Capture One. It has a great tool by which you can stretch the DR of a shot in a second, to great effect. LightRoom lets you do it too, but it is far from as nice and easy.

– User interface. Call it a draw. The LightRoom UI is more intuitive, simpler (and I have been used to it for years), but the C1 UI lets you do things that I would have LOVED to be able to do with LightRoom. It has an “undo” feature for your last stroke(s), as well as one on most major tools. This alone could be worth buying into C1 for those of us who love to try out stuff. But a simple and effective UI is no less desirable, so a draw it is, as I see it.

– Catalogue. This round goes to LightRoom. While this function exists in Capture One as well, it is simply better in LR, which was originally designed around it, and Capture One not.

3. Sum-up

I could of course, go on and on. There are many more features and benefits that are worthy of discussion, but, ultimately, it comes down to a binary decision. One or the other, as it would be overkill to have 2 processors and 2 catalogues of pictures, unless you are a lot more devoted to PP (Post Processing) than I am. So, how do I view things? Capture One is, in my view and for my needs, better than LightRoom. Learning tools are much, much better (I just got an e-mail that reminded me that I have a free Webinar on colour control for which I am signed up coming up tomorrow). That I can do layers and masks is probably the single largest difference, bringing it closer to PhotoShop. When it lets users process multiple shots, such as panos or HDR, which a major feature I would love to see, it will be a total no-brainer. Until then, it is my software of choice, and I encourage people to try it out.

4. Pictures

The first batch of pics is the one that matters most IMHO. I picked them from my Iceland trip with Boris, already posted on DearSusan. Without looking back at what I’d done then, I reprocessed a few from scratch on Capture One. So they are not identical, nor did I strive for them to be. I just went where the software lead me. The first pair is LightRoom, and the second Capture One

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As you have guessed, shots 1 and 4 are the same, but look very different.And, to be honest, becuse I didn’t look back at the shots I’d processed and posted 3 months ago, I am shocked. Capture One gets a lot more colour out of the shot, and that without help from the saturation slider. Part of the difference comes from the white balance tool. The A7R and Olympus combo gave me very blue shots, which needed correcting. The C1 tool just did a much better job of getting the foamy water back to white . And when I turned the exposure down, up came to glorious orange of the rising sun. Not so on LR, where I had to battle to get rid of the blue and settle for a much more “misty”, or “hazy” atmosphere. At this stage, to me as a non-expert, it does feel like Capture One’s highlight recovery is significantly better than LightRoom’s. The same which the swirling water, where LR gives a much smoother result, and C1, with the help of the “structure” slider shows more turmoil. 2 & 3 are not the same, but show that there is indeed a “group look” to what I chose to do with either processor. As they say “horses for courses”, choose the one that suits you.

The second batch is made up of pictures I took with my Canon camera (5DII and III), and processed originally in DPP, Canon’s proprietary software. In order to keep the test as bias-free as possible, I will now reprocess the shots fresh into LR and C1. This way, my “ability”, “mood”, my “taste”, and whatever else might have influenced the outcome of comparison n°1 will be eliminated.

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Now this is the first time that I process shots at the same time in LR and C1. The differences are striking. For example, on LR, the clouds are not burned out. On C1, I need to turn exposure down by 1.6 stops to eliminate any burnout.  The results are very much more comparable than on the previous batch. What does this mean? That the Sony preset on C1 is much better than LR’s, whereas this is not the case with the Canon preset.

We can check that with a third comparison. Simply RAW pictures unprocessed, so that the result shows only 2 things: the quality of the RAW processing engine, and the default presets for both. As always, LR first, then C1.



Now there is no doubt in my mind which one is more to my taste. While the difference is not as great as in the first batch, the colours in the mid-tones are better, and in particular the differentiation in colours is greater in C1. Oh, did I forget? This is with a Canon picture. Now let’s try a Sony unprocessed RAW. And, just to be as favorable as possible to LR, let’s choose one where there are no issues with highlight  recovery. Oh, and just because I am such a tease, instead of an A7R picture, I selected one with a NEX 7, well known at this time, so that any preset Adobe or Phase one have in place has already been fine-tuned.





Ok, now we know what is due to the RAW processing engine itself, and what is due to the processing possibilities. Remember, I am not a processing champ, far from it. Regular Joe is more like it. So I am not saying, coming back to the first and startling example, that LR “can’t do it”, only that, given both pieces of software, my limited ability, and my limited appetite for tens of hours of learning all the bells and whistles, this is what I get.

Last batch. Another Sony A7R shot, like the first pair, also processed in both LR and C1, but, this time, at the same time. And again a different type of subject.



5. Conclusion

So there it is. There is not one face-off where I prefer the LightRoom images. And in at least one case, it suffers a catastrophic loss. It also fails to win on features, and hugely on support, not counting the threat to Adobe users of being railroaded into a cloud-rental only program. Do you understand why I jumped ship?


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