My experience with switching to Capture One Pro 9

Phase One's offering has been increasingly seductive, but is it worth making the switch?

Adobe Lightroom (I’m not calling it “Photoshop Lightroom”) is the program that most commonly comes to mind when considering Digital Asset Management (DAM) software to maintain your collection of photographs. While easy enough to pick up on, the software is not without it’s share of quirks.

Lightroom’s interface is very modularized and requires you to switch between many views to do a variety of tasks. Sometimes it feels a little too long of a wait at the spinning “Loading” indicator (even if pre-rendering). Lightroom 6 was anything but the big performance release that Adobe promised and I eventually gave up and went back to Lightroom 5.7. The software is so slow at importing photos that I thought something was wrong with my memory card reader until I tried other import methods.

Despite things getting a bit better through bug and performance fixes here and there, the focus on most Lightroom updates seems directed towards new features and I think Adobe’s marketing team is to blame: such things make for better PR than under-the-hood improvements. So it’s not at all surprising for frustrated users to feel the urge to check out other offerings out there. There was Apple’s Aperture, but the Big A yanked the rug out from under users when they discontinued Aperture in favor of their new Photos app (currently not anywhere close to being a viable alternative).

There is yet another competitor out there that you might not have even been aware about. Capture One Pro is a photo editor from Phase One that dates back in various forms before the first releases of Lightroom and Aperture. It’s most famous for it’s robust and versatile RAW editing engine along with it’s sessions-based workflow, with other strengths being faster importing, tethering options and a completely customizable interface.

It all sounds good and there are no shortage of writing out on the web discussing the campaign of “switching” from Lightroom to Capture One. But is it truly worth dropping Lightroom in favor of Capture One? I decided to find out for myself. I wouldn’t call it a full out detailed review, but rather a collection of notes of my experiences / thoughts as I gave it the ol’ college try by attempting a switch and spending a lot of time with the program.

The price

First off, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. I mention the cost first and foremost because it will immediately be the biggest source of hesitation for users considering Capture One Pro: the full version is priced at $299 with $99 upgrades. Lightroom with a perpetual license can be had for about $150, or a Creative Cloud subscription with both Lightroom AND Photoshop is a compelling $10 a month.

To put things in perspective, the cost of Apple’s Aperture was around $500 when it first came out, and Lightroom was also more expensive at one time. Capture One can still be bought for less than asking price with discount codes and occasional sales. There is a 30 day trial if you want to take things for a test spin. I should note that there are also subscription plans available based on three-to-twelve month terms.

Catalogs and sessions

Typically users keep their entire collection of photos in a single catalog. In a catalog workflow in Lightroom, references to your photos is stored all in one place with the actual files archived in a separate location from the catalog file. The benefit is that you have your entire photos all in one place, and the detachment of the catalog allows you to freely move the catalog/previews to other machines for offline editing.

On the other hand, keeping all your photos in one catalog and hunting for specific ones can be overwhelming unless you have a trusty collection or keywording workflow in place. Speed and efficiency may also be impacted. With the files existing elsewhere, you can also break references to your photos in your catalog if you reorganize or delete them through your operating system rather than the photo software.

Sessions in Capture One differ from catalogs in that your library and photos are kept in one single folder/package: when moving the entire file all your photos and data comes along for the ride. You typically create a new session for individual jobs, such as separate model sessions or product shoots. In Capture One, session bundles are divided between four folders (Capture / Output / Selects / Trash) that you use to organize your captures, picks, rejects and exports. Sessions are great for compartmentalizing your jobs and makes the culling process much easier as a result, as well as being a natural fit for tethering sessions.

Historically, Capture One primarily utilized sessions but a catalog feature was added a few versions back. Whether you choose to work with sessions or catalogs exclusively is ultimately up to you, or perhaps a combination of both: after shooting in sessions you can choose to import your keepers into a single catalog for archival.

RAW and color engine

Everything said about Capture One’s RAW engine is true: it renders images much more beautifully than Lightroom by default. When I imported some photographs that I accidentally underexposed, Capture One was a doll and automatically made the proper adjustments.

Many opinions I’ve seen on Capture One cites it’s handling of images as the reason to ditch Lightroom, but there is a major caveat to this that most critics tend to leave out. Lightroom photos do look pretty drab on import, but that’s because Lightroom isn’t doing much work to them by default.

If Adobe’s Camera Profiles or import presets aren’t your cup of tea, you can use Lightroom’s Set Default Develop Settings option when editing an image in the Develop module to permanently change Lightroom’s default import settings for your camera model to that of your image. I configured my RAW images in Lightroom a while back to mimic how they look via JPEG previews, and to be honest Capture One’s output doesn’t look THAT significantly different to my personal import adjustments in Lightroom.

In addition, Capture One renders images a little more warm which may work fine with portraits, but might be too red for other kinds of photos. This is a personal preference that you’ll have to compare and decide for yourself.

Color grading and adjustment layers

capture_one_5

For me, the most valuable part of Capture One is simply the amount of control you’re given for colors over Lightroom’s capable but simplistic HSL / Color options. Though not without a learning curve, the color editor is extremely powerful and able to single out and fine tune specific colors and groups of similar / surrounding values. Lightroom can also edit single colors in the HSL panel, but Capture One offers far more control in honing in on a specific color spectrum. There is also a separate skin tone editor that can target colors in that spectrum, respectively. Another nifty feature is that you can create an adjustment mask from color areas.

On the topic of adjustment layers: the local adjustment brushes in Capture One separate things much like the layers in Photoshop rather than the “pins” that Lightroom uses. Aside from the standard fare like adjusting exposure, contrast and noise, Capture One takes things a step further and grants adjustment layers the ability to tweak adjustment curves and the color editor.

User interface

This is going to be a bit subjective here…off the bat it will appear that Capture One’s interface is a bit behind the polished UI offered in Aperture and even Lightroom.

What Capture One UI has going for it is over the others is that nearly everything is customizable. Don’t like the image browser on the bottom? Move it to the left or right. Too many confusing and useless panels? Get rid of them. Want Capture One to have a similar layout as Lightroom or Aperture? Make it so.

There is also the ability to customize, save and swap to different workspaces and layouts as you see fit, or you can use the ones already provided by the program. I also appreciate that Capture One works closer to Aperture and doesn’t necessarily divides editing up into a different module like Lightroom does, making workflow between browsing and editing much more pleasant.

Import and tethering

These are the areas where Capture One kicks Lightroom’s butt without much effort, as Lightroom is so ridiculously slow in importing RAW photos. The photos in Capture One comes in MUCH quicker and the preview image caching going on in the background doesn’t seem to get in the way. Images do have a brief wait before the full preview is shown, but it’s much quicker than Lightroom’s “Loading” indicator and makes intricate culling easier as a result.

Though Lightroom tethers fine but is simplistic and occasionally spotty, Capture One’s tethering works incredibly well with images coming quickly over the wire for preview. The workspace defaults has a tethering layout that is effective for putting the images front and center, something creative directors have appreciated when they wander by your laptop as you’re shooting and start flipping through photos.

Culling

Lightroom and Aperture has a dandy feature where you can flag pictures as “picks” or “rejects,” something that Capture One lacks. Capture One does have color labels and you can use the green and red colors to cull your photos respectively, but a flag option may still be desired if your own color labeling process differs (as mine does). Flags seems like low-hanging fruit for Capture One to implement and I hope they do.

In addition, Lightroom has auto-advancing during culling and try as I might, this is a feature I haven’t been able to find or replicate in Capture One without adding custom macros to my mouse buttons. It doesn’t seem hard to just hit the right arrow key after labeling each photo, but all of that time quickly adds up and auto-advancing is valuable for efficiency. If it’s not already in the program, this seems like another feature that would be simple to add in Capture One.

Performance and stability

Here comes the part where things take a turn for the worst.

capture_one_3Capture One Pro 9 is a major memory hog and there was big issues with leaks and management during my experiences, particularly with catalogs. I immediately ran into this issue after importing my Lightroom catalog: I expected things would be sluggish for a while as Capture One needed to render previews for my entire collection. The trouble was that memory was not being released as it did it: memory usage went so high that it seized up my machine with the “Your system has run out of application memory” dialog box (the first time I have ever received this in years of using and abusing Macs). It took me many rounds of opening the program, force quitting and repeating the process until everything was rendered.

If you’re starting a new collection from scratch or working with a much smaller collection of photos, I’d imagine this would be less of a problem. But I found that sessions are not free from issues either: the memory is not released when swapping between multiple sessions and it’s easy to make the Activity Monitor go berserk quickly.

Aw, hellllllll no.

Aw, hellllllll no.

Other areas where speed is an issue involves adjustment brushes where masks and slider effects can be slow to draw in. Keywording is also incredibly slow and expect a long wait when applying or editing keywords to a batch of images (Lightroom keywording is near instantaneous). Capture One also doesn’t appear to be play kindly with retina iMacs…I don’t know if it’s the fact that it has to drive extra pixels but my brand new iMac at work can be slower at things than even my five year old Mac Pro at home with standard monitors.

All of these are growing pains and can be dealt with via software updates, but the final straw was when I was adjusting a color slider that caused the program to hang indefinitely, requiring me to force quit. When I restarted, the program reported that the catalog was corrupted and was unable to be repaired. I fortunately had a backup, but I lost hours of work over the incident.

While no program is free from catalog and file corruption, the fact that this happened only two months into owning the software – and on such a trivial task at that – is a bad precedent. In contrast, I’ve owned Lightroom for years and have never had any issue with sudden catalog corruption whatsoever.

The verdict

After recovering my work and weighing my options, I decided to cut my losses and head back to the more trusty Lightroom. Though I had purchased Capture One months prior, I figured it couldn’t hurt at all to contact Phase One and rationally state my case to their tech/sales teams. I’m pleased to say that I was granted “most” of my money back: I figure a little bit of it was deducted for the time I had owned the software.

Although I am missing a lot of things about Capture One Pro like the image and color grading features, it is nice to have many of my culling features back in Lightroom and is easily the better program for image and metadata management. As I’ve been completing this article, Phase One put out a version 9.1 update to Capture One Pro that professes to have improvements to the catalog. I cannot confirm if this is so, but the feedback in their forum is not giving me a lot of confidence. I’m also not sure if Capture One’s woes is just a problem on the Mac side, or with the Windows version as well.

So my verdict is while the grass might look greener on the other side as people may be frustrated with Adobe and their antics, I would avoid the feeling of wanting something shiny and new and personally stick with Lightroom if you’ve been using that already. I should also note that while you can import your Lightroom catalog into Capture One, not all the edits (especially local adjustment brushes) will come over. This alone will make many users who have a considerable Lightroom library question the viability of switching regardless of how Capture One performs.

That isn’t to say that I would write Capture One Pro off completely. It’s worth keeping an eye on: the color editing tools are brilliant, the tethering is a no-brainer for studio/product shooters and if you’re just planning on using it to do those tasks, it becomes a little easier to recommend the software but the cost is an awful amount of money to pay to just use one aspect of the program. (Though subscription prices may be a drop in the bucket for commercial photographers.) It’s imperative that they get aggressive with making major improvements under the hood to the catalog and overall performance to win more users over.

If they can at least match the reliability and speed of Lightroom (and preferably outdo it) in the problem areas I mentioned above, Phase One has a beautiful opportunity to fill the void left by Apple and a compelling option for those disenchanted with Adobe. But time is critical for Phase One and they should not get stuck on the status quo: Adobe could always turn around one day and add updates to Lightroom that would implement the best of Capture One’s features.