Capture One Pro: A Pro Alternative to Aperture and Lightroom

When it comes to editing photographs on OS X, Apple users are quite spoilt for choice. Those who just want to remove those ghastly devil eyes from their holiday snaps and turn them into a fancy scrapbook for the rest of the family to coo over can use iPhoto, part of the iLife package, which is bundled in with all new Macs. Photographers looking for a few more advanced features often turn to Apple’s offering, Aperture, or Adobe’s Lightroom — both offering a feature set that keeps most semi-professional and professional photographers happy.

You’ll notice my use of the word “often” in the above paragraph — this is because that for most, Aperture and Lightroom seem to be the de facto options. Funnily enough, there are other professional photographic programs out there for Mac users that offer a feature set that rivals both Aperture and Lightroom. To see whether this statement was true or not, I took a look at Capture One Pro, from Danish developers Phase One. What is interesting about these guys is that they are both a hardware and software manufacturer — the company sells camera bodies for professional use and lenses to match — much like Nikon does with its Capture NX 2 software.

Let’s see whether Capture One Pro lives up to the reputation of Aperture and Lightroom and, perhaps more importantly, if it is worth that €229 ($300) price-tag.

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Getting Started

Luckily enough, there is a demonstration version of Capture One Pro available for download from Phase One’s website (the demonstration version will be featured in this review, however it offers full functionality of the program’s features for 30 days after installation). You’ll need a pretty powerful Mac to run Capture One Pro — the recommended system requirements listed on the product’s website are 4 GB of RAM and at least 10 GB of free web space.

The startup screen for Capture One Pro.

The startup screen for Capture One Pro.

For users of Aperture and Lightroom, the interface of Capture One won’t cause many surprises. On the left-hand side is your Library, where all your photos are organised into folders after you’ve imported them. Capture One also features “smart folders”, so recently imported or captured pictures will show up in their own special folder and, just like Aperture, the app also features its own Trash folder, where you can restore any deleted photos if needs be.

Importing photos from your hard drive.

Importing photos from your hard drive.

Importing photos into Capture One is relatively straightforward thanks to the built-in Import tool. You can import photos from anywhere on your hard disk drive or from an external drive, and Capture One will also detect when either a camera or an SD card is connected to your Mac. Unfortunately you cannot easily import photos in an already existing Aperture or iPhoto library (as Capture One doesn’t recognise the file format), so if you want to transfer photos across, you’ll have to export them in a common image format (PNG, JPG and so on) then import them from there.

Capture One features a number of filters that help you sort through all your images. You can tag them by rating and colour and of course sort them by date, place (if the image location is embedded into the metadata) and by any keywords you’ve assigned to them.

Working With Images

Unlike previous versions, the seventh iteration of Capture One Pro comes with an all-new processing engine, which offers vastly superior image quality and excellent colours from your camera’s RAW files and I found this was indeed the case. I imported a few RAW files into the program to work with and colours came up bright and vivid and all the little details in my pictures could be seen. Obviously, the limitations of my camera meant that pictures did start to pixelate after a certain zoom level but on the whole, images showed up nice and clear.

Working with an image in Capture One.

Working with an image in Capture One.

Capture One is mainly aimed towards photographers who work primarily with RAW files and given its slightly hefty price tag, you won’t be using it to edit a few holiday snaps from your point-and-shoot. This is precisely what that new processing engine is designed to do: extract most of the details out of your RAW images. Independent tests have shown that Capture One draws more detail out (read: sharper images) and renders colours better and more vividly than both Aperture and Lightroom, though they do stress that this does depend on your camera.

Whilst zooming in and out, Capture One rendered the image very quickly and in some cases this was quicker than Aperture (for reference, I’m working on a 21.5-inch iMac with a 3.2 GHz processor and 16 GB of RAM). I was also delighted to see that the pinch-to-zoom feature was enabled in Capture One (just like in Aperture), so I could zoom in and out quickly and easily.

Editing Images

Editing your photos is a total breeze thanks to Capture One’s massive range of built-in tools and even the most hardy of photographers will surely find everything they need buried within its many menus. As I’ve explained above, Capture One is designed more as a replacement to Aperture and Lightroom, which are both photo editors, as supposed Photoshop or Pixelmator, which are both graphics editors.

Colours and Exposure

All image editing undertaken in Capture One is non-destructive (just like in Aperture and Lightroom), so you can easily revert back if you don’t like the changes you’ve made (this is one of the advantages of working with RAW files). You can lock images from further editing by exporting them either as a JPEG or TIFF files. Capture One’s editing tools are displayed in tabs on the left-hand side (much like in Aperture) and the selection is pretty decent — you can fiddle with the white and colour balances of your picture, change it into black and white and play around with the image’s exposure, its high-dynamic range (more on this in a second), the clarity and you can also add vignetting effects.

Editing an image using the Color toolbox.

Editing an image using the Color toolbox.

The white balance tab features a useful pipette tool which allows you to click on any part of your photo to set the white balance. Although this only works accurately when you zoom right in, you can change the look and setting of your photo entirely by experimenting around a bit — and I certainly found this with the photo I was editing. Clicking on one part of the image gave it a moody, industrial feel whereas clicking on another part brightened the image up considerably and made the colours a lot warmer and more vivid.

High-Dynamic Range and Lens Correction

The high-dynamic range tools within Capture One allow you to play around with your photo’s highlights and shadows. This lends it a more natural-looking HDR effect, unlike third-party plugins (some of which are supported by the program) such as HDR Efex Pro (of which I am a great fan, don’t get me wrong here) which tend to give photos a more artificial and surreal effect.

The built-in lens correction supports over 100 types of lens, including the most popular ones from both Canon and Nikon.

The built-in lens correction supports over 100 types of lens, including the most popular ones from both Canon and Nikon.

A further tool is lens correction and currently the list of supported lenses stands at around 100, with more expected in future updates. The software supports both Canon and Nikon lenses, as well as others, and this feature is something that fans of editing in the RAW image format are starting to expect in their software, along with the ability to customise the highlights and shadows when it comes to HDR. Luckily, then, Capture One includes these features and they are both very simple and easy to use.

For Those Little Tasks

There are also options for undertaking minor editing, such as adjusting the focus, sharpness and moire of your photos, along with noise reduction and spot removal. You can either use the sliders to adjust the levels for the entire photo or you can use the useful brush or gradient tools, which both allow you to selectively edit regions of your image. Any local adjustments, such as exposure and image sharpening are created on a separate layer, much like in Photoshop, so you can selectively delete adjustments if you don’t like them.

In this version of Capture One, your image catalogues and search tools are now incorporated within the application, as supposed to previous iterations whereby users had to download additional software (Phase One) to access these features. This brings Capture One up to the standard of more established and well-known programs in the same field, and makes it a worthwhile contender to both Aperture and Lightroom.

The quick tools available within Capture One Pro.

The quick tools available within Capture One Pro.

In the top-right hand corner of the screen are quick tools, which allow you to undertake some simple image editing without having to click through all the separate menus — I found these to be really useful if you just want to quickly touch up an image. A useful feature here is the little exclamation mark icon, which highlights all the “problem areas” in your image (overexposure etc). This detection is done automatically and my advice would be not to rely too heavily on it — I found that the app tended to pick up areas that weren’t actually overexposed. Having said that, it does help amateur photographers spot any areas in photos that need retouching.

For a quick fix, Capture One can automatically retouch any areas of an image that need it, such as the white balance, the exposure and the high-dynamic range — all you need to do is click on the A button. If you click and hold down on it, a little menu will pop up which allows you to select which areas of the image should be fixed.

In Conclusion

Capture One is certainly an extremely impressive software and users wishing to migrate from either Aperture and Lightroom will find their wishes fulfilled — there is certainly plenty to keep most photographers, no matter whether they are amateur or professional, satisfied. The image processing engine is one of the most impressive features about Capture One — as I mentioned earlier it has been rewritten almost from scratch and I found that it pulled most of the vital details from my snaps.

That being said, though, Capture One does carry a hefty price tag, and I really can’t see whether it’s worth shelling out any extra cash for it — especially when Aperture can be had for only $79.99 from the App Store (Lightroom costs $149 for new users, or $79 if you’re upgrading from an existing version). There are certainly some pretty nifty features, but if you’re happy with Aperture then I really don’t see a reason to upgrade. It’s extremely hard to test the image processing engines of all three applications side-by-side and like I said — sometimes Capture One rendered images better than Aperture and sometimes I really didn’t notice the difference.

So, the all important question still looms: should you buy it? I really can’t give an answer to this question — it’s like asking a wine expert what the best wine is. My answer would be: go with what you feel comfortable with. If you’re happy with either Aperture or Lightroom then stick with them — Capture One certainly isn’t worth the money. But if you’re looking to change, or if you just fancy giving a new piece of software a test drive, then Capture One is seriously worth considering. The developers offer a 30-day free trial from their website (with full functionality, of course) so you can have a play around with it, and there’s also a slightly cheaper sister option — Capture One Express — which is built around the same processing engine as its bigger brother but doesn’t offer all of its features.

Capture One Pro therefore earns a very commendable 9 out of 10 rating for all its fantastic features and ease-of-use, but if you’re perfectly happy with either Aperture or Lightroom, then stick with them. But if you’re on the lookout for a new photo editor then make Capture One Pro one of your options: the results are certainly very impressive.

Tip: Don’t forget to check out our in-depth comparison of Aperture and Lightroom, as well!


A high-end professional photo editor for OS X, featuring an advanced RAW processing engine and absolutely tonnes of features.