Phase One Capture One Pro

review photography

I’ve recently been rethinking my photography workflow. Since I got my Fujifilm X100T camera, I have been mostly using the JPEG output, rather than shooting RAW. As I mentioned at the time, this was because the Fuji film simulations are so lovely, and because I felt that shooting images (rather than processing and tweaking them) was my favourite part of the process. I originally used Adobe Lightroom, but Lightroom and I never really clicked together. I never felt like I truly knew what I was doing with it, and captioning and processing photos always felt like a chore. As Adobe moved towards a subscription process, with photos managed in the database itself, and a shift towards a ‘filters and presets’ kind of workflow, I decided to look around for an alternative. I have also (for various reasons)1 gone back to shooting RAW.

(If you don’t feel like reading to the end of this admittedly long review, you can see some of the fruits of this tinkering here.)

As an interim measure, I started using Apple’s Photos to organise and share my images. The iCloud syncing between my iMac (on which I store the full-size originals) and other devices was great and usually seamless, and the editing capabilities (while rather clunky) were adequate for making a few tweaks. However, the means of titling, captioning and tagging were so awkward that I got lazy about doing it. Photos also suffers from the managed images problem, just like newer versions of Lightroom: if you want to sync with iCloud, you have to surrender your images to its database, and live with whatever opaque filing and naming conventions are used inside various packages.

I came across Jack Baty’s thoughts on the importance of captioning and organising your image files, and came to a similar conclusion. I want to be able to — at least minimally — organise my photographs so that I know when and where they were taken, or the event that they were associated with, if that’s relevant. Another of his articles also prompted me to take a look at Phase One’s Capture One Pro.

I had looked at some other candidates in the meantime. MacPhun’s new version of Luminar 2018 is very capable, and will get a digital asset management (DAM) module sometime later this year. It has some neat tricks up its sleeves, but I wasn’t keen on the way it processed the RAW files from my camera, and found it difficult to avoid a slightly ‘over-processed’ look, which isn’t really my cup of tea. It also seemed to tax the resources of my 2013 iMac, and took a long time to open each image. Since the DAM module is not ready yet, I would also still be stuck with managing my files in Photos for now.

I was back looking at Capture One. I have to say that I was nearly put off by two things: the price, and the fact that it is clearly orientated towards professional photographers. I’m always slightly wary of over-specifying things, and using professional level software unnecessarily. On the other hand, if it did the job I needed it to do well, and made me want to caption, process, and share my images, then it would be worth the price.

Phase One has a good, unrestricted 30 day trial of the software available, and some really excellent tutorial videos and webinars available on its YouTube channel. I spent a few days over the Christmas and New Year break playing with Capture One and watching the tutorials. To my surprise, I instantly felt at home with it. The tutorials and webinars certainly helped, but for some reason that I can’t put my finger on, the interface and workflow felt very natural to me. Processing images in Capture One felt far easier and more fun that Lightroom ever did. Capture One has a very flexible interface and workspace, so you can hide elements that you don’t use (for example, the tool tab for tethered shooting). It is also non-modal (unlike Lightroom)2, so you can bibble back and forth between the different tools at any time. I have developed a good workflow between the different tools, but like being able to pop back to adjust something or change my mind about a decision.

Capture One develops the RAW files from my camera extremely well. I’ve found that if I’ve done a good job with capturing a decent image, it needs very little tweaking (a bit of exposure adjustment and adjusting the white balance a little, perhaps) to produce something that I’m happy with. However, I can (and have) spent some very happy times playing about with slightly ‘meh’ images and tweaked them without a lot of time or effort into something that I love. I particularly love the Colour Balance tool. It makes sense to me, and I have found that I can create subtle but very attractive tweaks to images that fit well with what I saw in the scene when I was shooting it.

There are really excellent tools available to name and organise files as you import them, and also ‘Process Recipes’ to format and name files for export. On import, I file the RAW files in folders for the year/month of capture, and then name files with an event or location prefix (whatever makes most sense for the set of images), followed by a sortable date string, then a sequentially numbered suffix. This alone makes it pretty easy for me to narrow it down if I’m looking for a particular image, and puts the files into a format that should make sense in the future. The import tool can also simultaneously back the files up to another drive or location. I’m not using this yet but I’m planning to get another USB drive to put this backup in place. At the moment, I’m using the facility to do auto adjustments on import. This seems to me to do a good basic job, which I can adjust further (or abandon completely) for individual shots if needed. Once set up, this import process can be automatic: you simply insert an SD card, click the Import tool, and click the import button.

After import, I use the metadata tab to add locations, titles, descriptions and keywords to all the shots. There’s a copy/paste tool that makes it easy to avoid too much repetitive work at this stage, which is nice. I then use the star ratings and colour tags to first tag any completely rubbish shots with red tags, and then star rate the remaining shots. The focus and exposure check tools are handy here to double check on out of focus shots, or those with highlight or shadows hopelessly clipped. Since I wanted to make this process as simple as possible, I just use three possible star ratings: 5 stars means I love it; 3 means it’s a good shot, but not a favourite; and 1 star means it’s not of any great quality, but I’m keeping it for sentimental or documentary reasons. I can then use the filters to select and delete (from the catalogue only) the red-tagged images.

I then move on to processing the best shots (the 5- and 3-starred images) using the various tools available. What I love about Capture One is that the interface and tools help you to learn about what makes a good shot. As you move the cursor over an image, you get a display of the RGB and luminance values of the point beneath the cursor, and an orange line moves over the histogram so you can explore what tones in your image are shadows, highlights, and midtones. In the short time I have been using Capture One, this has really improved my understanding of colour, tone, light and contrast, both when processing and capturing photographs.

You can easily make ‘Variants’ of any image, which can either include the adjustments you’ve already made, or start again from the RAW file, with no adjustments. This is great for trying out different techniques on the same image (e.g. using either sliders or curves to adjust the contrast or exposure, or using the colour balance tool to colour grade), which you can then view side by side to decide which image you like best. Again, this is a superb learning tool: if you end up hating the alternative variant you’ve created, you can just chuck it away. The security of knowing that your RAW files are elsewhere and never altered by Capture One encourages experimentation.

Once I’m happy with the set of images I’ve worked on, I tag the ones I want to export with purple colour tags, then use a couple of Process Recipes to export large JPEGs to import into Apple Photos (for easy viewing on other devices, sharing and so on), and slightly smaller JPEGs optimised for the web. Unlike Jack, once I’ve imported these JPEGs at their final destination, I just delete the exported JPEGs (since I can easily regenerate them again). The Process Recipes are very flexible batch processing scripts which can be saved for re-use. There are several built-in ones (such as exporting for A3 prints), but you can easily create and save your own. You can rename files if you want, change the format, size, DPI, location, metadata, output sharpening and so on. Since you can pre-set all these variables, select a load of images and fire off multiple process recipes at once, it makes it a very efficient and consistent way to export your images.

In case it wasn’t already abundantly obvious, I ended up happily paying for a licence for Capture One. The performance is amazingly snappy on my 4+ year old iMac. It has made processing images fun and easy again, and it is teaching me more about how to capture and edit images than I have learned in the past few years. For me, that made it well worth the money. I’ll have to write about the related issue of deciding where to host my wandering Wings Open Wide photoblog later, but for now I am trying out Smugmug again. You can see some recent images I have processed with Capture One here, and here up to the end of the snow pictures. I haven’t settled once and for all on Smugmug, but it does make posting images very convenient.

  1. One of which was a very interesting chat with the wedding photographer at my brother’s wedding. He was using Fujifilm X-Pro2 cameras, saw my little X100T, and we got talking about Fuji cameras. He convinced me that I could have a lot more fun with RAW files.
  2. Apparently I like my text editors modal, and my image processing software non-modal. Like my men. Wait, what?
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