Capture One 23 verdict
Capture One 23 is a professional Lightroom rival that offers a step up in both image quality and editing tools, and supports a greater variety of professional workflows. The RAW processing is excellent, the editing tools are powerful and the new Cull view, layered Styles and improved Variant handling alone make the upgrade look worth it. Capture One is not cheap, but it’s designed for professional, quality-orientated workflows.
+ Tethered, session and catalog workflows
+ Powerful adjustment layers and masks
+ RAW processing quality
+ Magic Brush and Style Brush tools
+ HDR and panorama stitching
– Pretty expensive
– You’ll still need other software for layers and some effects
What is Capture One 23?
Capture One 23 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.
As well as a selection of new features listed below, Capture One 23 also comes with a free but limited version of Capture One Live, which is an additional paid-for service that allows for remote collaboration between photographers, clients and other stakeholders. The free version allows a single session at a time lasting no more than 24 hours, but that may be enough on its own – or may give you an idea about the usefulness of the full version.
There is also a Capture One for iPad, sold separately, which I have not tested yet. This looks like it’s designed for a tethered shooting workflow and not as a Lightroom mobile style app that synchronizes with a cloud-based photo library.
Capture One 23 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 such as Photoshop and cloud storage.
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.
What’s new in Capture One 23?
Capture One 23 brings a number of significant improvements. One of my favorites is the new Cull view, which can be used both when importing images and when sorting through images you’ve already imported into your catalog. It attempts to group similar images and offers tools for previewing and comparing as you work out which are the ‘keepers’. I’ve written a separate post on how to use the Capture One Cull view.
The Smart Adjustments feature looks interesting too, especially for wedding or event photographers, for example, who are shooting under rapidly changing conditions. You can set a ‘reference’ photo with the look you like and then Capture One will adjust the Exposure, White Balance or both across the rest of your images to give them the same look.
The ability to save layers in Styles is new too. This does not include layer masks, so you can’t set yourself up with one-click graduated filter Styles for landscapes, for example, but it’s still extremely useful because it means the adjustments that go to make up a Style can now be separated and masked individually.
Another new feature is the ability to change the capture time of images, which will be a huge thing for any photographers who’ve ever forgotten to set their camera’s time and date correctly, or who need to synchronise shots from multiple cameras.
But perhaps my favorite new feature in Capture One 23 is the way Variants can now be separated and stored in different albums. At last! Previously, they were locked together in a group, so that if you had set of black and white Variants from a shoot, for example, they couldn’t go into a album of their own without taking the original color Variants with them.
Interface and usability
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. This is where the new Capture One Live feature is likely to prove especially valuable.
You can create sessions with images captured on memory cards in the normal way and copied across to a computer, or via tethered capture, where the camera is controlled from a computer and images are captured ‘live’, with instant adjustments if required.
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.
One of the complaints about database applications like Lightroom is the need to import images first and then keep the catalog synchronised with your image folders. Capture One sessions don’t need any of that – they can browse folders live, store adjustments in a setting folder alongside the images, and sessions even offer some basic but useful album, filtering and search tools.
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.
Capture One is getting quicker at providing RAW support for new cameras, and 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.
You can also apply perspective corrections for both horizontal and vertical keystone effects. Capture One offers automatic vertical, horizontal and combined keystone correction, just like Lightroom, plus a Skew slider to correct skew effects that regular keystone corrections sometimes leave behind.
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 curves. 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 still 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 the additional White and Black sliders help restore a full range of tones and rich contrast after shadow and highlight recovery.
The color editor is particularly effective. You can 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 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, but it can round-trip images to external editors, which usually amounts to the same thing. 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 Exposure X7, the DxO Nik Collection plug-ins (which do work as standalone applications), Affinity Photo 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, including Magic Brush and Style Brush features.
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 over areas of the image. Instead, it’s like a glorified adjustment brush with a wide range of image enhancement options. 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.
Capture One 23 has HDR and panorama merge features just like those in Lightroom. The HDR merge is not designed to produce wild and spectacular HDR effects like those in Aurora HDR, for example, but to merge a series of bracketed RAW files (not JPEGs) into a single HDR image. It’s just as effective as Lightroom’s tool and, like Lightroom, it creates a fully-editable DNG file with all the processing headroom of a regular raw file but with extended dynamic range.
Equally interesting is the panorama tool, which doesn’t just stitch regular horizontal panoramas, but multi-row stitching in all directions. It works well with no user input, though depending on your lenses and limitations, you may need to do some basic distortion and vignetting correction first.
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 a better job than Lightroom, at least with the default processing settings.
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 Magic Brush and Style Brush further extend its editing capabilities, to the extent that you might not often need any other editing too, and the new HDR merge and panorama stitching options close one of the few remaining gaps in Capture One’s feature set.
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.
Capture One 23 verdict
Capture One will definitely appeal to professionals, but perhaps advanced amateurs and enthusiasts too. It has a highly customisable single-window interface without the more clumsy module-based workflow of Lightroom Classic. There’s less interface clutter around image thumbnails and, on my machine at least, it seems to run a little quicker.
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 quite match 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 its Fujifilm Film Simulation curves are excellent.
Capture One 23 is not cheap. It’s not designed for beginners, and it doesn’t have Adobe’s cloud-based ecosystem – yet. 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 as a one-time license or a subscription:
• Perpetual license: from $299
• Subscription: from $20/month
• Capture One Live: $9.99/month
65% discount for students
Capture One is available as a full featured 30-day trial