Phase Two: Capture One*

I had been using Adobe Lightroom since 2006 when it was a beta. At that time Apple had also just introduced Aperture. I devoured both of them and quickly found Lightroom to be more flexible (no self-contained catalog) and intuitive. At the time both of these applications represented a new paradigm in photo handling. Apple dropped Aperture after only a few years but a new kind of Camera RAW workflow was here to stay and Adobe was maybe not the only solution but it was certainly the most practical for the average pro or serious amateur. Fast forward to the 20teens and Adobe has moved to a full subscription model for using their software. As a photographer $10/month for an always up-to-date Lightroom and Photoshop is a great deal if you’re OK with renting your tools. However, the subscription model is a hook pulling you into their image creation eco system. They can’t just deliver an affordable solid basic Photo solution, they want to own the creative process and if you know me you know I’m not down with that.

Recently in a conversation with Dave Moser, he asked if I had ever checked out Capture One by Phase One*. I downloaded the 30 day (fully functional) trial at the first opportunity. Finding it overwhelming at first, I watched a few of their amazing tutorials and was hooked.

For the photo nerds: Any adjustment you can make can be made locally (and in nameable layers!). I can’t overstate how big that is for RAW processing. If, like me, you relied on the HSL panel for tricky color fixes you’ll find Capture One’s advanced color editor is what adobe’s HSL panel wants to be when it grows up. The best color control I’ve ever seen. (And usable locally!) Being able to adjust color balance** and not just white balance is also surprisingly powerful. Export “recipes” are also a huge improvement on Lightroom’s export pane and all that’s just scratching the surface. Speaking of surface, how about a really customizable interface? Here’s my 27″ iMac with 2 external displays:


OK, so that’s Lightroom dispensed with, what about Photoshop? In a future post I’ll further address Photoshop’s role in the photographer’s workflow but for me the last 5-10 years (since Lightroom got local adjustments) I’ve only ever used it to stitch my panoramas via the “photomerge” feature. Photomerge in Photoshop was always pretty good. It didn’t need to be great because you could patch things up easily enough in Photoshop after the fact. It even manifests in a layered Photoshop file with complex layer masks. The editing of these elements however is far from practical. It’s a huge layered file seemingly for show as far as the average user is concerned. I almost always flattened them first thing.

Recently photomerge was rolled up into Lightroom and now generates DNG files. Before I learned of Capture One I was very excited about that development (pun intended). I had high hopes having photomerge built into Lightroom, especially in that it generates DNGs. I quickly found it not an option because when trying to stitch a 360º panorama the resulting DNG only represented about 357º. That wouldn’t be a big deal if photomerge gave you any kind of control over your layout but it doesn’t. There is no way to define your center or left and right edges so you need at least the full 360º to “recompose” your image by copying, pasting, moving, and blending/healing. For photomerge’s shortcomings at least the PS version gave you a file with everything it could stitch (360° + overlap) allowing you to shuffle the composition.

Occasionally though any version of photomerge runs into an image that it has no idea what to do with. To wit:

Photomerge saw the 8 images making up the above pano and tried to stitch all of them to every other one because they all “looked” the same with the geometric repetition and the huge “blank” areas of concrete giving the software nothing unique to match from frame to frame. I tried everything I know including stitching 2 at a time and then trying to stitch those together manually. Not an option. Ultimately I ended up manually putting big dots on the pavement in places I could match from frame to frame. Then photomerge was able to identify those common spots to stitch. Then I healed out the “reference” dots. It was absurd but it got me the above image. That represents probably 4-6 hours of trial, error, and hair pulling. Hardly what you’d call a workflow. Of course this image is an exception and photomerge has worked great for many images but the lack of control was always a problem and surprising given Photoshop’s otherwise bloated stature.

I was extremely frustrated as I knew I was shooting more accurately with a better pano head than the one I’d used successfully for years. I needed dedicated stitching software. I did some research and thoroughly tested PTGui and Autopano Giga, the most popular options, over a couple days. PTGui was functional but Autopano Giga is one of the most polished apps I’ve ever used. As polished as any Adobe product. And photomerge is a toy compared to this beast. It’s not necessarily any better at stitching the above automagically (other images, yes) but wow what a tool. In 30 min or so I was able to take a different shoot of the same scene encompassing 360º x 180º, a full sphere, 26 images, and make this:

Both of those are the same image just viewed (quite) differently. Adobe can’t touch this and in fact, hasn’t. This went from Capture One > TIFFs > Autopano Giga>jpeg/tiff. I will need to go in there and patch a couple of small stitching errors but I don’t need photoshop to do that either. GIMP has been around forever, so it’s solid and supported, and it’s FREE. No, it’s not as polished as Photoshop, it doesn’t do 3d or video, and I’m sure it has other “shortcomings” for some uses. It still does everything the average photographer “needs” Photoshop for and again, for FREE. A step up from there are Affinity Photo ($49) and Pixelmator ($59), both workable stand ins for raster editing.

OK, so what’s the downside of all this for me? Upfront cost. Over the last 20 years the only time I’ve felt compelled to upgrade my adobe products is when they didn’t jibe with either my camera or my computer/operating system. This is a big reason why they went to subscription right?

Capture One 11 is $300 ($150 with my edu discount!) Autopano Giga is $250 ($140 edu price). That’s $550 retail ($290 edu) out of pocket. The Adobe photo package @ $10/mo for 5 years = $600. $50 more than Capture One and Autopano. Why compare at 5 years? Capture One supports my camera and the next camera I plan to upgrade to. Conservatively I shouldn’t need to upgrade Capture One for at least 5 years as I’m treating my iMac as a photography appliance. I don’t need it to do anything it doesn’t already do.

In all likelihood over the next 10 years I might need to upgrade each Capture One and Autopano Giga once. Capture One is $99 for the upgrade. Even at full price for Autopano that’s $900 for the package over 10 years vs $1200 for Adobe. Even if you consider that difference negligible over that time, you at least can’t claim Adobe is cheaper. And if I didn’t make panoramas and didn’t need Autopano, for the average photographer, it would be $400 for Capture One (upgrading once) + GIMP over 10 years vs $1200 for Adobe. That’s significant. Pros feeding their families with their cameras upgrade their gear more frequently so mileage may vary.

All that said, if you’re OK with the subscription or just can’t drop $300, Lightroom is still pretty amazing software. Until about a month ago I called it “the best photo software ever”. It’s flaws for me have far less to do with it as a tool than with the monopolization of creativity Adobe seems to be hellbent on. Capture One is intense and perhaps a bit of a commitment but it’s all about the RAW files without the bloat of maps, faces, web galleries, etc . . .

Ultimately the biggest takeaway for me is that, just like communication doesn’t mean Facebook, photography doesn’t mean Adobe.

as seen by . . .


*Capture One is made by “Phase One”. See, I told you it would be punny.

**not a control in Adobe Camera Raw and a concept I know from C41 printing though then we could only dial 2 colors to balance things.

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