Capture One Pro 11: The Best Lightroom Alternative?

This pro-level Lightroom alternative offers excellent RAW processing and a highly customizable interface
The asset management, photo editing and workflow tool Capture One Pro started out life as a simple tethered shooting solution for developer Phase One to provide to their medium format camera users but has evolved into a powerhouse for professional photographers.

Lightroom alternative: Capture One Pro
An original RAW image, right out of the camera, is going to require some tweaking to bring out the vibrant colors that were present when shooting this sunrise in Oregon.

While Adobe’s Lightroom Classic CC has the lion’s share of the market, Phase One has been steadily gaining converts with each update to the app, thanks to a steady stream of feature enhancements, performance upgrades and a RAW conversion engine many feel is the best available today. The demise of Apple’s Aperture drove a large number of customers to Capture One Pro, thanks to an Aperture-user-friendly, non-modal interface that provided an easier transition for some than Lightroom’s system of moving images though different modules.

Adobe’s recent decision to fork the Lightroom product line into a desktop-based workflow (Lightroom Classic CC) and a separate cloud-based tool (Lightroom CC) has created an opportunity for Phase One to tout the benefits of its more traditional desktop tool and to reaffirm its commitment to the professional photographer.

The newest version, Capture One Pro 11, has the major focus of providing significant speed boosts but also refines editing and collaborating tools  to provide a more familiar work environment for Photoshop editors, as well as increase the communication between photographers, editors and art directors. With the new version upon us, it’s a good time to look at the Capture One Pro toolset as well as the program’s strengths and weaknesses.

RAW Power

The strength of the program’s tools wouldn’t be helpful if images processed with Capture One Pro didn’t look good, and fortunately the app has arguably the best RAW processing available. Each company that produces a RAW editor likes their engine the best, but to many photographers, Capture One Pro is the gold standard.

It’s also a RAW engine that’s very flexible, both in terms of processing images and in correcting visual problems caused by the characteristics of lenses and camera sensors. Phase One spends a lot of time analyzing the light transmission on commercially available lenses and camera bodies and creates fixes for these issues that can be toggled on and off. Capture One Pro can apply one set of corrections for flare and chromatic aberration to a Nikon wide-angle lens, and a completely different set of custom corrections to a Canon wide-angle lens.

Customizable To The Core

At first glance, Capture One Pro can be a confusing-looking working environment, especially compared to the modal Lightroom interface, which has clearly-defined modules for discrete photographic tasks. The Capture One Pro interface sports lots of small type and equally small adjustment tools, but part of this is by design—the smaller the tools, the more that a photographer can access without scrolling.

Once you scratch the surface, though, it becomes clear that Capture One Pro is capable of a level of customizable modifications that can tailor the interface to the user and even to the task at hand. Almost every aspect of Capture One Pro can be customized, from the layout of windows and tools to the keyboard shortcuts, and all can be saved for on-the-fly switching.

For example, Capture One Pro uses “toolsets” that are collections of similar tools for different phases of the workflow. By default, these are found on the left side of the screen, and there are tools for common tasks like adjustments, metadata and rating and export (called “processing”) found in those toolsets, as you’d expect to see in any photo editor. But the tools contained in these toolsets—and indeed the toolsets themselves—can be added, removed or reordered.

Lightroom alternative Capture One Pro has a very customizable tool set.
A mask made quickly using a combination of tools. The Auto Mask tool allows users to draw over clearly defined edges, like the tops of the mountain, and then use the Refine Mask tool and Feather Mask tool to adjust the edges.

In my main editing workflow, I have a “Favorites” toolset that contains basic adjustment tools like Exposure, HDR, Levels, Histogram, Saturation, etc., but I also have added tools to navigate my library’s structure and add metadata, as well as the tools to process (export) my images.

When I’m doing a basic set of edits for client review, I can use a single toolset for all the things I’d normally do: select, rate and keyword my images, make basic adjustments and export for the web with my single Favorites tab. Thanks to the program’s ability to assign custom keystrokes to just about any function, I’ve arranged this toolset as the first tab in my group of toolsets, and I can access that by pressing Command+1.

My next toolset is for local adjustments (now called “layers,” more on that below), followed by a toolset for processing images. I’ve also added the selection tools to this toolset, so if I need to find and export all my two-star images, I can do it in the Processing toolset.

Any of these toolsets can be made to float, as can any of the tools. It’s possible to have every single available tool as a floating element on the screen, if that were for some reason desirable. It’s also possible to save these workspaces, so I could create a workspace that uses my primary monitor for thumbnails and my secondary monitor for image editing, with tools floating over that secondary monitor. Then I could create another workspace for color-editing tasks, which only displays color tools on a single display, and the second display is set to soft proof for output.

It’s difficult to express how powerful it is to be able to adjust any part of the interface, but this flexibility also makes it a challenge to discuss keyboard shortcuts with other users—my keyboard shortcuts for jumping to the adjustment tools might be different from someone else’s, for example.

Capture One Pro also embraces variable-based naming and renaming of images and metadata creation. The complex array of variables allows for different naming patterns based on the needs of clients, and they can be assigned to Processing tasks. These variables can even be used in the creation of both input and export folders.

Users can save and share these customizations as well, installing them across multiple machines, saving a lot of time when configuring a lab full of gear.

Capture One is an excellent Lightroom alternative for pro photo processing.
Duplicating and inverting the mask, it was easy to use the Color Editor tool to increase the saturation on the mountains; the whole process took under five minutes. For additional editing, the mask can be adjusted, other layers added, or the image can be sent to Photoshop to remove unwanted items (like the puff of clouds between the edges of the mountain).

Processing Plant

One of the most powerful aspects of the Capture One Pro workflow is exporting, referred to as Processing. Users can create an infinite number of process “recipes” for different uses. You could have a recipe for a 1024px JPEG, one for a16-bit TIFF and so on, and even have multiple recipes with the same settings but different naming presets. Take, for example, the variable-based file naming and assign different presets to different recipes. You could make two different identical recipes in terms of output resolution and file type, but completely different naming and output folder locations, with one named the way an art director requires but another named for good SEO when posting to the web.

Process Recipes can be turned on and off by checking them, and a single click takes all the images and performs every selected recipe at once—no more processing a batch and then changing the names and the output folder and then processing them again—and the mistakes that can cause.

I use this to create web-resolution JPEGs with correct naming for any images I send to our websites, plus full-size JPEG files for use when we layout the magazine, and also 16-bit TIFF files to a connected NAS device, and they’re all triggered with a single button press.

On A Tangent

Another part of the flexibility of Capture One Pro is the tool’s ability to work with the editing panels from U.K. control maker Tangent (tangentwave.co.uk). Most often used for video editing, these tools are completely integrated with Capture One Pro. Imagine a video editing suite with buttons and dials, but each one is tied to a photo editing function. I’ve used several of the Tangent panels, and they radically increase productivity. One Tangent panel I have is configured with a row of buttons set to rate image, a row set to give them color tags, and one of the larger buttons set to assign an image to the selected collection. On another panel, I’ve assigned each dial to an adjustment tool. It’s possible to just dial up the exposure or dial down brightness, for example.

Layers

Capture One Pro also works flawlessly with Wacom drawing tablets, giving users precise control for local area adjustments. Previously called Local Adjustments, Capture One Pro 11 rechristens them Layers, to be more in line with traditional editors, and adds to the masking tools. It’s possible to make layers with very precise boundaries for detailed editing, all with auto-masking and new edge-refining tools. Coupled with a pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet, the Layers tool is so powerful that it’s usually unnecessary to round-trip to Photoshop, except to use Photoshop’s Healing Brush tool. There arehealing brush and clone tools in Capture One Pro, but it’s hard for any program to match the magic of Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill.

Don’t Cut The Cable

Since Capture One Pro started off as a tethered shooting tool, the program’s tethering support is the best available. It’s possible to control many cameras directly from the program, perform adjustments and add metadata on import, and the speed of operation reduces the lag between image capture and display.

Capture One Pro even has a type of catalog structure designed for tethered shoots, called Sessions. Sessions are designed for quick import, sorting and analysis of images (tethered or from cards), and they’re great for creating a self-contained project for a client.

Note Taking

As a nod to collaborative workflows, Capture One Pro 11 adds an annotation tool, allowing users to draw notes on layers that can be read by programs like Photoshop. In practice, a photographer could pass along notes to an assistant for color correction, or an art director could highlight a region to crop for final use.

Lightroom alternative Capture One Pro lets you annotate images.
With the new Annotation feature, photographers can communicate with retouchers or art directors just by drawing notes on the image. These notes are saved as a layer and are viewable in programs like Photoshop.

Limitations

Capture One Pro isn’t without its share of issues, and chief among them is the lack of modern-day sharing tools. While Lightroom offers modules to export images to Facebook, Flicker and more, Capture One Pro has none of that. If you want to get an image on Facebook, you’ll need to export it and then upload it yourself. It’s possible to use Mac OS Automator or a combination of something Dropbox and the automation website IFTTT.com to create some semi-automatic postings, but this is at best a workaround.

The program also lacks the plug-in support enjoyed by both Lightroom Classic CC and Photoshop, although it does support round-tripping to any external editor. I’ve used Capture One Pro and tools from companies like Nik and Alien Skin by round tripping to them, or accessing them inside Photoshop.

If you’re a user of almostany camera, you’ll be able to use Capture One Pro to process your RAW files, and the company has improved the speed with which it releases updates for new camera models. However, if you’re a Hasselblad shooter, you’re going to need to use a different tool. Despite the requests of users, Phase One doesn’t support this competing medium format camera company—something I can understand but still feel is a mistake.

Dual Platform

Capture One Pro 11 is available for both Mac and Windows, either for $300 or as a subscription for $20 a month. For Sony camera users, there’s a discount on Capture One Pro, priced at just $79. Upgrades start at $120 for existing Capture One Pro users and $70 to upgrade the Sony version.

While it might take some getting used to, especially for longtime Lightroom users, Capture One Pro 11 is a powerful, no-nonsense tool designed to manage all phases of a photographer’s workflow.


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1 Comment

    One addendum, Sony gives away a ‘Sony camera only’ version of Capture One Pro with certain cameras.
    There will be a slip of paper in the box mentioning it.

    It’s a somewhat pared down version of the Pro but it does 95% of what the full version does so if you have a Sony camera that qualifies run over to Phase One’s website and download a copy. There’s even a video on the site to help those thinking of switching from Adobe Lightroom to Camera One made the move.

    Years ago I wrote a review of version 5 of Capture One that Phase One had on their site and I found it a solid tool that every camera owner, from newbies to pros, should make the effort to check out. There is a learning curve similar to that of Lightroom or Photoshop but the results are top notch.

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