Dec 5, 2008

RAW workflow: Capture One 4.1

Phase One is a Danish company that manufactures high end digital "backs" for medium format cameras, systems that cost halfway into the five digits. They've also been developing Capture One (C1), RAW workflow software for both their cameras as well as popular digital SLRs. They've been releasing their full featured "professional" version, as well as a less expensive and dumbed down "consumer" version.

I bought Capture One LE (the consumer version) for $99 in 2004, and have been using it, along with free upgrade versions, since. The current consumer version is simply called Capture One 4 ($129), whereas the full-fledged version is Capture One PRO ($399). Although I've tried the demo of the pro version a few years ago, I've been using the consumer version, and the notes here reflect Capture One 4.1 (though now a more recent 4.5 release is now available). I definitely have a bias since I've grown used to C1's way of doing things, though that's probably had some negative influence as well.

The first step in RAW processing is to select images. At the very least, you need to be able to browse all the images available to select the single image, or the set of images you actually want to spend time working on, a process called "editing". When editing you need to be able to view many files at once, but you also need to able to zoom into an image to check the details. Sometimes you may also need to be able to view two or three images onscreen, but also in close enough detail to be able to compare side by side. Being able to do zoom in and out and switch between images exteremely quickly is key. Often it only takes a moment to determine whether an image catches you, but if it takes a few seconds to switch between views, the task of editing may take many times longer, a problem when you have hundreds of images to sort through. Although C1 4.x (built on .NET, at least for Windows) takes somewhat longer to start up than the older 3.x versions, it's still reasonably responsive when changing images or zoom.

When I edit in C1, I typically keep my hands on the keyboard, using the arrow keys to switch back and forth between images, and the number keys 1-5 to "rate" each image. When I'm done rating, I just sort the images by their rating, and decide where the cutoff point is. What C1 does not offer is an organizational tool for keeping track of a vast library of images. You cannot tag images with keywords, or search for particular images, or filter them by criteria (other than by sorting). Although C1 does allow you to create "albums" of images, they only exist within the application. Consequently, I haven't tagged or "organized" my archive of images, although I have organized them by date taken (outside of C1).

Photoshop is the gorilla standard of image processing applications. RAW workflow apps seem to know better than to compete; most focus on the basic tools that photographers use the majority of the time. Since I "grew up" on C1, I've managed to get by using the limited set of processing tools it provides. One tradeoff from having fewer possible tools is that it's easier to and quicker to switch between the few tools you have, or to be able to have the majority of them be displayed onscreen at the same time, as opposed to constantly having to switch between menus to get things done. One of the things I still like a lot about C1 is its simple and uncluttered UI that gives quick access to most tools without the need to search around much.

C1 lets you process whichever image you have selected while browsing, so you are free to adjust your processing even as you "edit". I've found this works well when you have a few images to go through, though when you have large sets, I find it easier to finish the edit first before going back through and processing your edit. I find myself using most of the tools provided in C1. I almost always use the curves and saturation controls, exposure and white balance whenever required. I crop a significant fraction of my images, but always with the same width to height ratio as the original image. I use the sharpening and noise reduction as they are applied, but I usually leave them fixed to a setting and almost never play with them, unless the noise is exceptionally bad. C1 3.x did not support arbitrary rotation (except in the expensive pro version) so I got by without it. Since it's been introduced, I've found it very useful in straightening slightly crooked pictures, but I wonder if it's simply encouraged to be lazier and less precise. The other recent addition has been to C1 4.x has been the high dynamic range tools to recover blown highlights and underexposed shadows. I'm extremely grateful that these are available when needed.

I find the quality of the output generally acceptable. The one exception is that when the noise reduction is turned up high on noisy data, one sometimes gets extremely muddy output tha tis pretty much unusable.


When generating output, C1 has options for formats (JPEG, TIFF, DNG), scaling, output location, colour profile to apply, and an option to launch a another app when the conversion is done. To generate output in C1, you first select an output directory. After that's done any image you view can quickly be "queued" to generate output in the background. The queue can either be running as you edit and process, or if your computer is slow, you can focus on processing, and have the queue run after you're done and you can let the computer crank away. Personally, I haven't had any problems with the queue running. I generally like this process since it's very convenient to generate output, and most of the time when I'm done editing and processing, the queue has often almost completed operating on my images. Earlier 3.x versions of C1 allowed you to specify that the output directory always be a subdirectory of the current image's directory, a system that worked well for me. This was removed in 4.1, meaning that I would have to manually create and select the output directory every time I switched to images in a new directory.

My current biggest grip with C1 is that it will generate a directory for temporary files (ie thumbnails, etc.) called CaptureOne in each directory that you work in, and it leaves this directory lying around. Since these are fairly large, I find myself cleaning them up fairly often. It would be great of the app had an option to clean these all up automatically (even though that implies losing track of your changes).

I'll probably continue to use C1 simply because I've already paid for it and am using it legally. It's reasonably functional and the drawback aren't too severe. It is however, currently outclassed by the competition.

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