Raw Showdown: Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8 plus Lightroom 4

With the start of a new year, we thought it would be a good time to explore the current state of raw processing with a head-to-head comparison of the leading cross-platform raw image converters: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, Phase One’s Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8. Of course, today’s raw converters offer much more than just demosaicing algorithms. Issues such as processing speed, imaging workflow and output options rank right up there with image quality for amateur and professional photographers alike. And as software gets more and more clever about image analysis, the ability to start with a pleasing image at default settings is enticing as well.

So we loaded our test computer with hundreds of raw files from a variety of cameras and put each application through its paces to find out which one offers the best combination of performance, features and of course, image quality.

The minimum hardware requirements of each application are fairly similar, with all three available for both Mac and Windows operating systems. Each application benefits from multi-core processors, plenty of empty hard drive space and lots of available memory. I’d suggest at least 8 gigabytes of RAM on any system, particularly if you like to have multiple programs running at once.

The contenders

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4.3
US $ 149/ €134.07/ £106.48 (discounted upgrade pricing available)

Adobe’s raw converter and image management software offers tight integration with the company’s industry-standard editing software, Photoshop CS. Among the new features in the latest version of Lightroom are geo-tagging, soft-proofing and the ability to create print-ready books. You can read about these and other features in our Lightroom 4 review. For a list of currently supported cameras, visit Adobe’s Camera Raw page. Adobe also has Lightroom 4 online training videos available. 

Capture One Pro 7.0.2
US $ 299/ €229/ £228 (discounted upgrade pricing available)

Phase One’s raw converter has long been popular with fashion and studio photographers due to its robust support for tethered shooting. New to version 7 is a catalog-based asset management option and live view during tethered shooting for select DSLRs. The latest dot release (7.0.2) introduces support for Fujifilm’s X-Trans sensor cameras and you can see how it handles the X-Pro1′s raw files in our recent test. For a list of currently compatible cameras, visit Phase One’s support page. Phase One provides a video tutorial series for Capture One Pro 7 on their YouTube channel.

DxO Optics Pro 8.1.2
US $ 299/ €299/ £269 (discounted upgrade pricing available)

DxO Labs’ raw converter is built around the company’s well-regarded camera/lens correction modules. Long favored by many users in conjunction with external asset management apps, version 8 introduces selective tonal edits and print capability. You can read about these features in our DxO Optics Pro 8: What’s New article. For a list of currently compatible cameras, visit DxO labs’ support page. DxO Labs also hosts a library of DxO Optics Pro 8 tutorials on their web site.

In this raw converter showdown we’ll compare these three programs in the following categories:

Let’s get started with our raw converter showdown and find out which one comes out on top.

Click here to continue reading our Raw Showdown article…

Speed

In a raw editing workflow, overall image processing speed contributes to an application feeling either sluggish or responsive. We’re going to evaluate speed by taking a look at the time it takes to import raw files and export processed images. We’ll also look at how long it takes to generate high quality previews when cycling among images in fullscreen and 1:1 views.

Import times

With database-driven cataloging software you first must import an image before you can start working on it, so one of the more obvious questions is just how long this import process takes. DxO Optics Pro 8 is a file browser (more on the consequences of this later) that doesn’t require an image import, so here we’re comparing import times only between Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4. In both programs, selecting the Import option brings up a separate import window that can be expanded to fill the screen.

For this comparison I imported 200 raw files from a class 10 SD card plugged directly into the USB 2.0 slot of a 2010 27-inch iMac with 8GB of RAM. The raw files came from a combination of cameras with output ranging from 12-36MP. The applications were configured to copy files from the SD card to a folder residing on the internal SATA startup drive. The files were renamed on import but no metadata or additional image adjustments were applied.

On my 27-inch iMac screen, Capture One Pro 7, by default renders image previews of 2560 pixels in the long dimension during the import process. I set Lightroom 4 to render image previews of 2880 pixels, the nearest available match.

Capture One Pro 7 was able to import the raw files and render the 2,560-pixel image previews in 8 min., 55 sec. In virtually the exact same time, Lightroom 4 was able to import the images but took an additional 8 min., 30 sec to create its 2,880-pixel image previews.

WINNER: Capture One Pro 7 imports and builds previews nearly twice as fast.

Image viewing

In Lightroom 4, while generating previews essentially doubled the time of the import process, the upside is that those previews are stored in a cache on the hard drive which is called upon each time you browse through your image collection. There is no time spent waiting for a high quality preview in either the Fit or Fill image views precisely because Lightroom generated 2,880-pixel previews during image import.

Capture One Pro 7 also generated previews during import, yet when cycling through images for the first time there is a brief, but noticeable 1-2 second delay until a high resolution preview is visible. To be fair, once an image has initially been selected, subsequent visits to the image bring up the high resolution view immediately.

In DxO Optics Pro 8, you don’t have to go through an import process before working with an image, but you do have wait for a preview to be generated when you select an image. I’ve found this to take anywhere from three to six seconds depending on the magnification view and the image’s pixel count. Unfortunately, it appears these image previews are stored in a temporary cache, because they are available only on a per-session basis. If you quit and relaunch the app, new previews must be built all over again from scratch. In addition, in a 1:1 view, Optics Pro 8 only builds a preview for the visible portion of the image, so as soon as you scroll, you must wait for a new preview to be built.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 provides immediate high resolution views when cycling among images.

Export times

To compare batch processing times I selected a raw file, made edits to white balance, exposure, sharpening and noise reduction and then batch-applied those changes to 19 additional raw files located in the same folder. All 20 files were then exported in a single operation as full resolution JPEGs, with no EXIF data embedded, to a folder on the same hard drive. I repeated this test for each raw converter.

Lightroom 4 processed its files in only 1 min., 41 sec. while Capture One Pro 7 took 3 min., 33 sec. and DxO Optics Pro 8 clocked in at 5 min. flat. Obviously, your times will vary depending on file size and the types of edits applied, but each time I ran this test, Lightroom 4 was significantly faster.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 exports files in just under half the time.

Image quality and editing tools

For all of the additional functionality they provide, raw processing applications are ultimately judged on the quality of the images they produce. Here we’ll take a look at how these three apps handle a variety of image editing tasks. I should point out that many of the differences you see in this section will be subtle and may be hard to discern without a calibrated and profiled monitor.

Default color rendering

There’s no shortage of posts on the web claiming definitively that, ‘Raw converter X produces better images than Brand Y.’ The problem I’ve always had with general statements like these is that most raw converters provide so much editing flexibility that it’s pretty rare for one program to produce results that you cannot match reasonably well with appropriate adjustments in another one. There’s no denying, however, that if one converter provides a better starting point for your subsequent edits, that can be a real time saver.

Below we compare the color rendering of Lightroom 4, Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8 at their default settings. During evaluation of a range of images of varied subject matter and lighting, I’ve found that in many cases the differences between raw converters can be relatively subtle. Make no mistake, these applications won’t produce identical results, but the distinctions often come down to saturation and contrast differences.

*Note that both Capture One Pro and DxO Optics Pro have distortion and chromatic aberration (CA) correction enabled by default for supported lenses. We’ll discuss optical correction in a bit, so here I’ve enabled Lightroom’s auto lens corrections in order to concentrate on differences in color and contrast.

As you can see, the default color rendering differences in this outdoor low ISO scene are fairly subtle. Capture One Pro 7 produces the highest contrast while DxO Optics Pro 8 yields a slightly darker image with more saturated colors. Lightroom 4 takes the most conservative approach, offering a relatively flat-looking image. You can easily produce matching results with minor adjustments to any of the converters’ default settings. Yet it’s been my experience in evaluating dozens of default conversions that, as seen here, Lightroom is less likely than its rivals to produce ‘output ready’ results out of the box. In particular, Lightroom can often struggle to reproduce saturated reds accurately, typically veering towards a magenta-ish tone.

WINNER: DxO Optics Pro 8 typically provides more pleasing saturation at its default settings.

Default skin tones

One scenario where you will notice more obvious differences in default color output is in portraiture. Capture One Pro has long been touted by its users as producing more realistic skin tones out of the box. I’ve found, however, that this claim is largely dependent on which camera you’re using. Simply put, each of these raw converters produces more pleasing and accurate results on some camera brands and models than others, as you can see below.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 in diffuse window light: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings. Photo courtesy, Richard Butler.
Canon EOS T4i/650D in bright daylight: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.
Nikon D600 in fluorescent lighting: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.
Olympus E-PL3 in overcast light: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.
Sony Alpha SLT-A57 in overcast light: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.

For my money, Capture One Pro 7 produces more realistic skin tones for the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Nikon D600 shots seen above. DxO Optics Pro 8 delivers more faithful results in the Olympus EPL-3 and Sony SLT-A57 images. I’d rank Lightroom 4 the most accurate in the Canon EOS T4i portrait. This is an admittedly subjective ranking, and the differences are fairly subtle.

In processing dozens of portraits shot on a variety of cameras, however, I’ve found that both Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8 offer consistently more accurate (and pleasing) results than Lightroom 4. Your mileage may vary of course, depending on the camera(s) you shoot with.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8 consistently provide natural, pleasing skin tones.

Click here to continue reading our Raw Showdown article…

Highlight recovery

In this very high contrast sunset scene, highlight clipping is apparent along the left side of the image. Yet there are still areas containing some data in the green and blue channels. Below are 100% crops of the top left portion of the scene. Here we’re comparing how successfully each raw converter can recover actual tonal information. The adjustments used for each conversion are listed and the in-camera JPEG at default settings is shown as a reference. Click on a crop below to view the full size image.

DxO Optics Pro 8 offers the least effective results. Though it clearly recovers some information that was lost in the camera JPEG, you can see bands of yellow in abrupt transitions from areas with three-channel data to blown highlights. Capture One Pro 7 does a significantly better job here, recovering enough usable data to reproduce more distinct cloud patterns. Lightroom 4 also shows an impressive degree of cloud detail while avoiding some of the more obvious edge artifacts.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 both recover significant highlight information.

Distortion correction

All three raw converters include tools for correcting lens distortion. The differences lie in whether the corrections are applied automatically or require manual adjustment. The scene below was shot with the Sony DSC-RX100 at its widest focal length. Look closely at the first image and you see barrel distortion in the phone box. Click on any image to enlarge it for a better view.

What’s telling is that Capture One Pro 7 does not perform a behind-the-scenes correction for this distortion. Because the lens is not explicitly supported with a profile in Capture One Pro’s Lens Correction tab, the software defaults to a ‘generic’ setting that leaves visible distortion. Lightroom does not offer a specific lens profile for the RX100 either, but as you can see, does perform distortion correction at its default setting. In fact, there’s no way in Lightroom not to make this correction. Toggling the ‘Enable Profile Corrections’ box has no effect for lenses for which software corrections are part of the lens design.

In comparing images shot with various wide angle lenses, I found that Lightroom 4 and DxO Optics Pro 8 often gave reasonably similar results. Of course, lens correction is enabled by default in DxO Optics Pro 8, saving a step in the process. With neither program did I have to resort to manual corrections with a raw file as I’ve had to with Capture One Pro 7. And even when Capture One Pro 7 did have a matching lens profile, I found instances where it cropped off noticeably more of the image after correction than either Lightroom 4 or DxO Optics Pro 8 did.

TWO-WAY TIE: DxO Optics Pro 8 and Lightroom 4 both offer effective automated distortion correction.

Moiré removal

Color moiré removal can be problematic simply because you run the risk of desaturating and/or smearing real image colors along with the rainbow-like repeating patterns. Both Lightroom 4 and Capture One Pro 7 offer the ability to ‘paint in’ moiré removal over select areas of the image. As you can see in the crops below, however, DxO Optics Pro does a very impressive job of minimizing color moiré without desaturating other image colors, even though it only offers the moiré removal option as a global adjustment. Click on a crop below to view the image at full resolution.

With careful settings applied to their moiré removal tools, both Lightroom 4 and Capture One Pro 7 can effectively eliminate the color moiré patterns. Both applications also required some selective desaturation to avoid a slightly purple cast to the singer’s vest. By contrast, DxO leaves a hint of visible moiré even at its moiré tool’s maximum setting. You can see it also results in a less than neutral gray tone in the singer’s vest. And if you click to view the full size image you can see the effects of color bleeding in his wristband. DxO’s results are certainly impressive for a one-click global adjustment, but ultimately, the control offered by a localized adjustment tool pays dividends that are worth the additional editing time.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 offer localized moiré removal tools.

Default sharpening

In evaluating sharpness differences between these apps I turned to a file we shot this summer with the 36MP D800E. The conversions below were processed at each application’s default sharpening and exposure settings, with lens corrections enabled.

As you can see in the crops below, the differences come down to variations in edge contrast, which we perceive as a sharpness difference. Lightroom 4 takes the most conservative approach with its default settings, taking care to avoid edge halos or stairstepping, but yielding a softer image. It’s important to keep in mind that these 100% crops are analogous to a very close view of a very large print. Nonetheless, its clear that both DxO Optics Pro 8 and Capture One Pro 7 output crisper files than Lightroom 4 at their default sharpening settings. A trade-off of this more aggressive approach, however, is that some artifacts become visible in fine organic green textures like the foliage, something that Lightroom 4 manages to avoid.

In DxO Optics Pro 8, sharpening settings are built into the application’s lens correction modules. (While there is a separate Unsharp Mask tool, it is disabled by default and meant to be used in cases where there is no pre-existing lens support.) DxO leverages this lens module data with its Lens Softness tool, which automatically makes additional lens-dependent sharpening adjustments out towards the corners of the image. Below we examine crops from the bottom left corner of the image.

Here you can see that DxO Optics Pro 8 shows some benefits over Capture One Pro 7, with greater contrast in the chain-link fencing. A small advantage, to be sure, but one that requires no manual adjustment to achieve.

WINNER: DxO Optics Pro 8 offers crisp default settings and superior results in the image corners.

Noise reduction

All three raw converters do a very good job of suppressing color noise, even at their default settings. The differences lie in the effect that noise reduction has on artifacts and image saturation. In the examples below I’ve compared raw conversions using each application’s default sharpening settings.

At default noise reduction settings, you can see that DxO Optics Pro 8 aims to remove any trace of noise structure, with the result being a ‘smeared’ look. To be fair though, this suppression is applied intelligently so that it doesn’t result in any loss of detail compared to its rivals, but does produce a very unnatural effect. Lightroom takes the opposite approach, allowing for prominent noise structure that to my eye rather successfully mimics high-speed film grain. Capture One Pro 7, sits in between these approaches, with a good compromise between luminance noise smoothing and retention of image texture.

DxO Optics Pro 8′s undeniable advantage here is that it manages to retain more color than the desaturated results from both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4. And, as you can see below, by significantly reducing its Luminance slider value, you can get a much more natural image texture. Neither Capture One Pro 7 nor Lightroom 4 can move much further beyond their default desaturated results without introducing prominent color noise.

WINNER: DxO Optics Pro 8, with some manual adjustments produces very good high ISO detail while retaining more color data than the competition.

Click here to continue reading our Raw Showdown article…

Imaging workflow

Next to image quality, the ability to work efficiently may be the most important attribute of any raw converter. Whether you need to edit one image or 50, being able to quickly make and evaluate adjustments, isolate specific areas of an image to manipulate and save previous adjustments for future use are paramount in establishing a productive workflow.

Tool adjustments

Both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 provide smooth real-time updates to the image preview as you drag a slider. DxO Optics Pro 8, on the other hand, not only incurs a brief delay when dragging a slider, but the image preview immediately switches to a lower resolution version with visible artifacts, making fine-grained adjustments more difficult to evaluate until you let go of the mouse. Neither does DxO Optics Pro 8 allow you to highlight a slider’s corresponding value box to adjust the numbers via your keyboard. Instead you must click on very small up/down arrows to move the value in single increments. Both Capture One Pro and Lightroom 4 allow you the option to move in larger value increments by holding the Shift key while pressing the up/down arrows on your keyboard, a very useful way to quickly make gross adjustments.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 provide real-time feedback when adjusting sliders.

Localized edits

The ability to restrict edits to specific regions of an image is crucial to many photographers’ workflows. Capture One Pro 7 offers this functionality via an adjustment layer interface in which you create and then paint on image masks, a là Photoshop. A full complement of exposure, color correction and sharpening edits can be made in this way. Lightroom 4 bypasses the need for user-created layers, automatically creating a mask each time its localized editing tool is employed. Lightroom 4 also offers the option to apply localized edits, including white balance adjustments, with a graduated filter tool. DxO Optics Pro 8 offers no region-based selective editing tools.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 allows for localized white balance adjustments and automatically creates a layer mask with the Adjustment brush and Graduated filter tools.

Before/after comparisons

Lightroom 4 offers a very efficient and flexible solution to before/after comparisons. With a single keyboard shortcut (Y), you can display a 2-up comparison of the image’s current state with its appearance at the time of import. Better still, you can select any editing step in the History panel and set it as the ‘before’ image state. This means you can compare your current image to any previous editing state, whether it occurred 10 minutes or 10 months ago.

Capture One Pro 7 allows similar, if less robust functionality. But here, in order to view any side-by-side comparison you must first create a ‘variant’, Phase One’s term for a virtual copy, or metadata-based duplicate of the original image. You can easily make a variant that reflects the image in its original default conversion state, but making a comparison against a more recent edit is only possible if you had the foresight to have created a variant at that earlier point.

DxO Optics Pro 8 lets you view the current image alongside the unedited version without creating a virtual copy. Bafflingly though, this ‘before’ image has all default corrections disabled, meaning you’re comparing your current edits not against the image state you began working on, but alongside one that has every auto feature of the software turned off. It’s hard to image a scenario, outside a product demo, where this type of comparison would actually be useful.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 offers a user-defined choice of the ‘before’ image state.

Batch editing

Edits made to one image can be batch-applied to multiple images, though each application differs in the way these can be applied. All three allow you to create a preset consisting of adjustments you’ve made to all editing tools or just a user-defined subset of them. But Lightroom 4 and Capture One Pro 7 also give you the option of batch applying edits while avoiding the additional step of creating a preset.

In Capture One Pro 7, there are two distinct methods for applying edits from one image to another, depending on whether you want to copy editing parameters for all adjustment tools or just a subset of them. To batch-apply all adjustments you must first select the source image and copy its adjustments. Then, with another image(s) selected, you paste the adjustments. To apply edits on a per tool basis requires you to select both the source and destination images and click an ‘Adjustments Clipboard’ icon that is located atop the appropriate tool panel.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 has a unified interface for batch-applying edits for all tools or a subset of them.

UI customization

You can take advantage of a dual-monitor workstation in all three raw converters by displaying the thumbnail view and image preview window on two separate screens.

WINNER: Capture One Pro 7 allows you to arrange individual tool palettes so they’re accessible from any organization, editing or processing tab.

Click here to continue reading our Raw Showdown article…

Output options

Once you have a great looking image, your ability to share it depends largely on the raw converter you’re using. Here we’ll take a look at the options offered for producing rendered versions of your raw files.

File export

All three applications make it easy to select multiple raw files and export and rename processed files to a local or network destination. You can render the files in an ICC color space of your choosing, specify maximum image dimensions and save frequently used export configurations as user presets. Lightroom 4 is limited to initiating exports to one file format at a time, though you can configure multiple exports in succession which will then run concurrently. Both Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8 allow you to create multiple export configurations that will begin running simultaneously.

Lightroom supports free plug-ins that allow you to publish and sync existing image collections directly to social media sites like Facebook, Flickr and Picasa. DxO Optics Pro lets you upload images to your Flickr account.

Capture One Pro 7 offers the widest range of file formats you can export to – including three variants of the JPEG standard -  while DxO Optics Pro 8 lacks support for the PSD format and Lightroom cannot output PNG files. Both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 allow you to include/exclude some specific IPTC and EXIF metadata tags such as copyright and location information, while with DxO Optics Pro 8 you’re limited to enabling/disabling all EXIF data with the exported file.

Capture One Pro 7′s metadata naming options are limited to EXIF data and DxO Optics Pro 8 limits you to user-generated text which can only be appended as a filename suffix.

TWO-WAY TIE: Lightroom 4 offers the most flexible file naming options and publishing support for Facebook. Capture One Pro 7 supports PNG and three JPEG variant formats.

Web galleries

Capture One Pro lets you create an HTML gallery from one of four very basic templates using any selection of images in the catalog or current session. Lightroom offers a much more robust collection of highly customizable HTML and Flash templates with the option to configure FTP settings for direct upload to your web site directory.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 

Slideshow

Both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 let you create onscreen slideshow presentations of your image collection. Lightroom goes several steps further with a wide range of parameter adjustments, including backdrop, image border, and soundtrack options. In addition, you have the option of saving the slideshow as an MP4 video file at 1080 resolution as well as a static PDF document.

WINNER: Lightroom 4

Asset management

One of the bigger distinctions between these programs is the degree to which they aspire to sort and manage, rather than just edit your collection of images. DxO Optics Pro 8 makes no pretense of significant image management, lacking even the basic ability to add or edit image metadata, so if you’re looking for the ability to search or organize your image collection by any method other than the Finder/Explorer folder structure, the choice really comes down to Capture One Pro 7 or Lightroom 4. And because both applications are supported by a catalog-style database structure, you can even search and sort images that are currently offline.

Keywording

Adding keywords to your images is a highly effective, if unavoidably labor-intensive method of populating your images with searchable data. Capture One Pro 7 supports standard IPTC metadata fields which include ownership, copyright and image-descriptive metadata. You can create presets of commonly used information to batch-apply to additional images. Lightroom 4 goes much further, however, with the ability to create a hierarchical nesting of keywords, a user-specific frequently used keyword list and auto-complete function to aid in consistency when tagging your images.

WINNER: Lightroom 4

Search filters

Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 both have robust filter tools that let you winnow down your image collection by date, keyword, EXIF and IPTC metadata.

You can also apply star and color ratings to your images to identify the keepers or highlight images with specific processing needs for example. You can also create and save custom searches as image collections that match multiple criteria. You can also create ‘smart’ collections whose contents automatically update whenever new images with the appropriate criteria are imported.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture one Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 offer similar search functionality.

Organization options

Both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 allow you numerous options for storing your raw files. The files themselves can reside on any local or network drive of your choosing. You can work with an existing folder structure or choose to house your raw files in a single directory and organize them exclusively within the application.

With previous versions of Capture One Pro, images were organized into Sessions, each one a single holding place that encompassed your raw images, edit instructions and output files from a single shoot. The benefit was that you could easily move or archive an entire project at once. While maintaining support for a Sessions-based workflow, version 7 introduces a robust catalog option, which functions in a similar manner to Lightroom’s database-driven system.

Among the benefits here are the ability to search among images located on different hard drives as well as apply metadata edits even when images are offline. A Capture One Pro 7 catalog can be stored on a shared network drive where multiple users can have access.

Lightroom 4 offers the same cataloging benefits, minus support for network sharing of catalog files. And while you are free to create multiple catalogs, you must first close the current catalog before opening another one.

WINNER: Capture One Pro 7 offers both a project-based Sessions workflow as well as an all-encompassing Catalog workflow.

Click here to continue our Raw Showdown article…

Additional features

DxO Optics Pro offers little in the way of features beyond the image adjustment process, with even basic print functionality having only been introduced in version 8. Both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 by contrast offer a much broader range of options.

Capture One is perhaps best known for its robust tethered shooting capability, which allows you to auto-apply exposure adjustments and editing presets to each image as soon as it is captured. With a compatible camera attached you can even control shooting parameters and fire the shutter. New to version 7 is live view capability directly in the application for select DSLRs.

Photographers whose work goes off to a four-color press will appreciate the ability of Capture One Pro 7 to output raw files in a CMYK color space, while those involved with self-publishing efforts may benefit from the ability to overlay an existing graphics file (headline text, for example) to aid with image composition and cropping. 

Lightroom 4 has expanded its offerings significantly from its original release in 2006. Version 4 offers a Map module which allows for both automatic and manual geo-tagging of images. A new Book module lets users design custom photo books and even place orders directly through the app with the online book publisher Blurb.

All three applications offer color-managed printing with user-selectable output sharpening and print resolution, along with the ability to print multiple images on a page. Lightroom 4 and Capture One Pro 7 both offer a choice of rendering intents when an ICC output profile is selected and watermark options. Lightroom 4 is the only app that allows freeform (non-grid) image placement, which is helpful when printing images of dissimilar aspect ratios and resolution.

TWO-WAY TIE: Lightroom 4 clearly has the larger feature set. And recent additions like mapping and book-creation modules as well as soft-proofing reflect its appeal among a wide range of users. Yet Capture One Pro 7 has two features, namely robust support for tethered shooting and a focus check tool that may well be indispensable for product and studio photographers.

Recap

After taking an in-depth look at the performance of Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8 and Lightroom 4, it’s clear that these applications all have areas of strength and weakness relative to each other. And that’s undoubtedly good, as there’s no truly bad choice among them. But this does make it more difficult as a consumer to decide among them. Indeed, selecting the ‘best’ raw converter really means identifying the one that best fits your photographic needs and priorities. With that in mind, let’s recap the results from our showdown.

Speed 

If you regularly come back with hundreds of images from a shoot, your first objective is evaluating what you have, separating the keepers from the rejects. While Capture One Pro 7 can import and render image previews twice as fast as Lightroom 4, Adobe’s raw converter pays big workflow dividends as you can cycle quickly through your newly imported images without waiting for the screen to refresh with high resolution previews. To be fair, the lag in Capture One Pro 7 is only a second or two between images, and only occurs with the first instance of a newly imported file. And both apps outperform DxO Optics Pro 8, whose image preview cache appears to be rebuilt every time you relaunch the app.

And while Lightroom 4 does not allow you to export files to multiple formats all in one go, as both its rivals do, it does export images in about half the time.

Image quality

While image quality is what most of us think of as the defining trait of a raw converter, the truth is that the differences among Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8 and Lightroom 4 are relatively small. And those that do exist, revolve around default image rendering. Where global color, contrast and saturation are involved, it’s rare that you achieve a result in one converter that cannot be reasonably matched in the others.

Having said that, there is obvious benefit to having the most pleasing image to work with at the very start of the image editing process. And while each app handles colors from some camera models better than others, it’s hard to find much fault with DxO Optics Pro 8′s default settings. Its highlight recovery and moiré removal capabilities are not as robust as the competition, and luminance noise reduction at very high ISO values can be overly aggressive, but if I were on a tight deadline and had to export a JPEG to a client with no time for even basic manual corrections, I’d probably have more confidence in DxO Optics Pro 8 to produce the most pleasing file.

Workflow

When it comes to putting in the work of making your image look the best via manual adjustments, I found Lightroom 4 to have significant advantages in efficiency. From multiple methods of tool slider manipulation, to brush and gradient localized editing tools that don’t require user-generated masks, and highly flexible before-and-after comparisons, precision image editing is a very quick process. And batch-applying changes from a single image to multiple ones is very straightforward. 

Output

Lightroom 4 offers by far the greatest number of options for sharing your work. Its API allows for publishing and syncing to social media and it also supports old-school book creation. An extensive collection of both HTML and Flash web templates lets you upload highly customizable gallery pages to your site via FTP, and custom onscreen slideshows can also be saved as video files. 

Asset management

Capture One Pro has made significant strides as an asset management tool in version 7. Catalog support means you can search, sort and edit metadata for files that are currently offline. Images can be tagged with both keywords and IPTC metadata. You can easily separate keepers from rejects with a star rating system and highlight image status with color-coded labels. If all this sounds like a description of Lightroom 4, that’s really the point. Both apps are well-suited to keeping track of your image collection and Capture One Pro 7 even has one trick that Lightroom does not: its catalogs can be shared on a network among multiple users. 

Wait, which one should I use?

As I said earlier, the choice of which of these raw converters to use comes down to how you work. Shoot primarily in the studio and need robust tethering capability? Then you’ll be very happy with Capture One Pro 7. If you work on a relatively small number of images and/or already have an existing asset management system in place, DxO Optics Pro 8 offers perhaps the best starting point for your edits. And if you’re all about workflow efficiency, need tight integration with Adobe Bridge or Photoshop and want the most feature-rich cross-platform app on the market, Lightroom 4 can fit the bill. As raw-shooting photographers we’ve really got an embarrassment of riches at our disposal right now. You can create some great images no matter which one you choose.


Amadou Diallo is a photographer and staff writer at dpreview. You can keep tabs on what he’s up to on his Facebook, Google+, Instagram or Twitter feeds.

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