Capture One 21 verdict
Capture One 21 is a Lightroom rival at twice the price, but it is worth it for its slick single-window interface, its superb layers-based adjustment tools, its flexible sessions or catalog-based workflows and, most of all, for the quality, richness, depth and clarity of its RAW processing. The latest version brings a host of new tools which do not just close a few remaining organizational gaps to Lightroom but extend the superiority of the Capture One editing tools still further.
- Tethered, session and catalog workflows
- Superb editing tools
- Powerful adjustment layers and masks
- RAW processing quality
- New Magic Brush and Style Brush tools
- Pretty expensive
- You’ll still need other software for layers and effects
- No cloud sync ecosystem/mobile app
What is Capture One 21?
Capture One 21 is an all-in-one image capture, organising and editing program aimed mainly at professional photographers. It was previously owned and published by Danish company Phase One, which also makes high-end medium format studio and field cameras, but it’s since been split and is now published and sold separately. Capture One’s closest rival is Adobe Lightroom Classic CC, and these programs have a lot in common in what they do, but approach things very differently.
• See also: Best image editing software – what to look for, how to choose
• Read more: Capture One vs Lightroom: which is best?
With Capture One 21, Phase One has swapped numbering and naming systems. It’s now just called ‘Capture One’, not ‘Capture One Pro’, and the latest version is now numbered with the year rather than following on from the previous Capture One Pro 12.
It also comes in different editions. Capture One ‘for all cameras’ is the most expensive option but supports RAW files from almost every camera brand, but there are Capture One for Fujifilm, Capture One for Sony and Capture One for Nikon editions which are around two-thirds the price, but only work with cameras from those brands.
There are even free cut-down Capture One Express for Sony or Fujifilm version. The free Express versions don’t offer all the tools of the regular versions, obviously, but if you own a Sony or a Fujifilm camera, the Express edition is so far ahead of the camera makers’ own software, there really is no good excuse not to try it.
Capture One is available both for a single one-off fee or on subscription. Be aware, though, that it’s around 2-3 times the price that Lightroom Classic ever was to buy, and that the monthly subscription for Capture One is more than twice that for the Adobe Photography Plan – and you don’t get all the extras provided by Adobe, including Photoshop.
With Capture One, you have to decide whether the features and the image quality are worth the extra cost. You might say it’s no different to choosing a top-quality lens or camera over a cheaper alternative.
Like Lightroom, Capture One can organise your images in flexible, searchable databases, or ‘catalogs’, and both can apply non-destructive adjustments to your images, working seamlessly across RAW files, JPEGs, TIFFs and even Photoshop PSD files.
Capture One doesn’t offer an equivalent to Adobe’s Creative Cloud ecosphere – you can’t share images in the cloud with a mobile or web version. Capture One is designed very much for a desktop/laptop-based professional workflow, whereas Lightroom has a much broader base amongst both professional and amateur photographers and social media/mobile photography users. Capture One does say, however, that an iPad edition is in the pipeline.
Sessions and Catalogs
Capture One can work either in Session mode or Catalog mode. Session mode is for photographers with a linear capture-select-edit-process workflow ideal for commercial/professional commissions – you shoot your images, choose the best, share them with the client and then archive the job before moving on to the next.
You can use this with images captured on memory cards in the normal way or via tethered capture, where the camera is controlled from a computer and images are captured ‘live’, with instant adjustments if required. Lightroom does offer tethered shooting with some cameras, but does not have an equivalent of this Sessions workflow.
Capture One’s Sessions have another, less obvious use. You can use a Session as a simple image browsing tool for your whole library. You don’t get the more advanced search tools of a Capture One catalog, but you can still sort, edit and filter images, create virtual copies and more. For those who don’t like having to import images into catalogs, it’s the perfect solution and a huge feature that Phase One doesn’t push perhaps as much as it could.
Otherwise, you use Capture One Catalogs. Here, you import your images into a catalog in the way that you do in Lightroom. You can then rate your images and apply colour labels, add keywords and work with other metadata. You can sort and filter images and you can create Albums or Smart Albums based on search criteria.
This is exactly what you can do in Lightroom, but Capture One does offer one very interesting difference; as well as working with images in their existing locations outside the catalog (‘referenced’ images), it can also import them into the catalog so that it becomes a single, self-contained archive that can be moved around as a single file and with no risk of accidentally breaking the links between the references to images and the image files themselves.
This was an option in Apple’s Aperture, and while it seems inefficient on the surface, it’s a way of keeping your catalog’s integrity more secure and means you’re working on imported duplicates of your images and not the originals.
One major improvement in Capture One 21 is a new Import Viewer. This lets you preview images at full size prior to import, so you can effectively cull your images before they even get ingested into the catalog.
That’s not the only thing that’s changed. Previously, Capture One could only show the contents of the currently selected folder, not any subfolders inside it. That’s now been fixed, plugging on of the few gaps between Capture One and Lightroom’s features.
And Capture One 21 plugs another. You could always ‘Synchronize’ your catalog folders to update them with any new images, but this option would not add any new folders – in Capture One 21, it will do that too. It’s an extremely useful feature for those who sometimes make changes to images and folders outside of the Capture One catalog and need to update it from time to time to reflect those.
Capture One editing tools
Capture One 21 doesn’t support as quite as many camera RAW formats and lens profiles as Lightroom, but the difference is mainly at the lower consumer end of the market. If you’re using almost any enthusiast/pro orientated camera and a mainstream lens, you’re likely to find Capture One can open RAW files and apply lens corrections automatically. It won’t process Hasselblad RAW files, presumably because the previous parent company, Phase One, is a direct Hasselblad rival.
Capture One 21 can also apply perspective corrections for both horizontal and vertical keystone effects. It doesn’t offer automatic corrections like Lightroom, but its manual adjustments are quick and effective regardless.
Capture One has a formidable array of adjustments. It offers both Levels and Curves adjustments, and the Curves tool offers both regular RGB and Luma adjustments. There’s also an option to choose different Film Curves for basic tone mapping before any other adjustments are made, and this is where you’ll find Capture One’s Fujifilm Film Simulation modes. Lightroom is better than it used to be at handling Fujifilm X-Trans files, but Capture One is out on its own.
Capture One has a deceptively simple-looking High Dynamic Range panel for highly effective shadow and highlight recovery. This has always worked really well, and Capture One 20 brought additional White and Black sliders to restore a full range of tones and rich contrast after shadow and highlight recovery.
Other improvements in the previous Capture One 20 update included a redesigned basic color editor, where you can now click and drag any color in the image ‘live’ to change its hue or saturation or alt-drag to change its luminance. There are also more powerful Color Balance and Color Editor tools for applying complex and effective colour shifts. These are used extensively in the Styles and Presets built into the program and available separately from the Phase One website and others. Styles are combinations of image adjustments which can be applied with a single click, while Presets are adjustments made with a single tool. You can create, save and re-use both types yourself.
Almost all of these adjustments are available in Capture One’s adjustment layers (next section), whereas Lightroom offers only a subset of local adjustment tools.
Capture One doesn’t support plug-ins as such (though this may change with the new plug-in developer support added in the latest version), but it can round-trip images to external editors. As long as the external editor is able to operate as a standalone single image editor, it should work. Photoshop is supported, but also any program that can work as a standalone app, such as Alien Skin Exposure X6, the DxO Nik Collection tools (even though they are, strictly, plug-ins) and more.
You may not need external editing tools very often, though, because Capture One has its own – including powerful layers-based local adjustment tools.
Phase One is especially proud of Capture One’s editing finesse, and this gets a major boost in Capture One 21. There are two key new local adjustment tools: the Magic Brush and Style Brush.
The Magic Brush tool is very simple to use – you just drag it over a range of tones you want to select and Capture One will then automatically extend and mask the selection to similar tones. You can control the masking tolerance, the edge refinement and more, and the brush is additive, so if you miss a bit you can just brush over it to add it. The Magic Brush creates a new, masked adjustment layer, ready for you to make any adjustments you like.
The new Style Brush does not, as you might imagine, paint Capture One Styles adjustments over areas of the image. Instead, it’s like a glorified dodge and burn tool with a far wider range of image enhancements. You choose an enhancement and then paint over the areas you want to enhance. Again, there are a wide range of brush controls, and what you get is a masked adjustment layer which you can go back to at any time to re-adjust.
Adjustment Layers are the secret of Capture One’s power. Where Lightroom has gradient, radial mask or adjustment brush options displayed as masks and ‘pins’ on your images, each with relatively limited adjustments, Capture One allows up to 16 clearly separated adjustment layers, each with its own layer mask and each one supporting all the adjustment tools used individually or in combination (with the exception of some low-level profiling options).
You can create linear or radial gradient masks or use a freehand brush tool with or without an Auto Mask feature. Once a mask is created, you can use a Feather Mask command to soften the edges or the Refine Edge command to clean up outlines. You can also swap to a Grey Scale Mask display to check for holes or untidy edges in your masks.
Adjustment layers aren’t the only type available; you can also create Healing and Cloning layers for image retouching – with Healing layers, you can move the healing ‘source’ to a suitable area of the image and Capture One will match the tones and colours for a seamless repair.
As if all that wasn’t enough, you can also add handwritten notes and drawings to your images either as notes or reminders to yourself or instructions to a retoucher – these can be exported as a separate layer in a Photoshop PSD file.
What’s new in Capture One 21
A few of Capture One 21’s new features have been described already, but here’s a summary of these and the rest:
- View subfolders: extremely useful when browsing as Capture One 21 will now show images in subfolders of the active folder, not just images in that ‘top’ folder
- Synchronise new folders: when you need to update your catalog following external changes, Capture One 21 will now see and import new folders
- Magic Brush: quick and easy auto-selections based on tone and color and turned into masked adjustment layers
- Style Brushes: like dodging and burning, but raised to a whole new level
- Import viewer: lets you browse full size previews and cull your images before importing them
- Redesigned export: not to everyone’s liking, maybe, but the redesigned window does show a full size preview
- Speed Edit: press a keyboard shortcut and use mouse or trackpad scrolling to make adjustments without having to select the relevant tool
- Dehaze: not quite like the Lightroom Dehaze tool, which adds a strong localised contrast adjustment, but subtler and still useful
- HEIC support: now you can open and edit HEIC iPhone images
- More ProStandard Profiles: subtler tonal rendition for key cameras
With the possible exception of DxO PhotoLab or PureRAW, Capture One has (in my opinion) the best quality RAW processing in the business. Its fine detail rendition and noise control is several steps ahead of Adobe’s, and while Capture One can’t match the extraordinary high-ISO image quality of DxO’s DeepPRIME processing, it does support Fujifilm X-Trans files, which DxO doesn’t.
As well as this RAW processing quality, Capture One also has an extremely powerful set of editing tools for both global adjustments and local adjustments, and local adjustments are handled with a very effective and easy to grasp layers system. Capture One is more like Photoshop than Lightroom is!
The new Magic Brush and Style Brush in Capture One 21 further extend its editing capabilities, to the extent that you might not often need any other editing too.
When you combine all this you get an editing tool of great power that’s also capable of the highest levels of image quality. Add to this Capture One’s expensive but excellent Style packs and you’ve got software that is certainly not cheap but is extremely good.
Who should get Capture One 21?
Capture One will definitely appeal to professionals, but probably advanced amateurs and enthusiasts too. It initially looks quite technical and complex, but its default layout is easily changed and customised to suit the tools and processes you use most often and, unlike Lightroom Classic, it’s not organised into ‘modules’ – everything happens within a single window.
The editing tools are both powerful and extremely effective, especially the layer and mask based approach to local adjustments. The built-in Styles and Presets offer a varied range of effects, and there are more available if you’re looking for styling inspiration from professionals – though like Capture One itself, Capture One’s Style packs carry a premium price.
Image editing tools and workflows are a very personal thing, so this is a very personal opinion, but I find I can get the ‘look’ I want much more quickly in Capture One than with other photo-editors, and I’m more satisfied with the outcome.
For many, the quality of the RAW processing will be the key factor, and Capture One’s is quite superb. It strikes an excellent balance between noise control and detail rendition, and you can work for a long time with Lightroom’s noise reduction and sharpening tools and still not get very close to what Capture One can achieve out of the box.
Capture One achieves excellent results with all camera brands, but it’s especially relevant for Fujifilm RAW shooters. It avoids the X-Trans sensor ‘worm effect’ in fine details you sometimes get with Adobe’s RAW conversion process and the new Film Simulation curves are excellent.
Capture One 21 is not cheap. It’s not designed for beginners, and it doesn’t have Adobe’s cloud-based ecosystem. But it’s excellent for tethered shooting, it offers both session-based and catalog-based workflows and its editing tools and output are superb. There are plenty of ‘value’ image editors on the market, and if cost is a key factor then Capture One is not really in the game. Instead, it is designed to be effective, efficient and capable of the best professional quality output, and it succeeds at all three. For quality-conscious RAW photographers who prefer to stick to a computer-based rather than a cloud-based workflow, it makes all the rest look second best. Its sessions are ideal for pro photographer shoot-edit-share workflows, and its catalogs are perfect for longer term image management.
Get Capture One
Capture One is available in different versions and on subscription:
• For all cameras: $19/month or $299
• For Nikon: $14/month or $199
• For Sony: $14/month or $199
• For Fujifilm: $14/month or $199
65% discount for students
Capture One 21 is available as a full featured 30-day trial