If you’re contemplating which image editing package to use or you’re thinking about switching from Lightroom, I’d urge you to download the 30-day free trial of Capture One 21 and give it a go – especially if your camera is one that is compatible with the new ProStandard profiles. The Capture One team has done a great job of speeding the software so that thumbnails and adjustments are rendered quickly, and the Speed Edit feature helps you get the basics done very quickly. The customisation is very useful, enabling you to tailor the layout to suit how you like to work.
It’s also a great choice for photographers looking to tether their camera in the studio.
Excellent raw processing capability
Great ProStandard camera profiles
Perpetual or subscription payment plans with cheaper brand-specific editions
What is Capture One 21?
Capture One is a professional-grade image editing application from Danish high-end digital photography equipment and software specialists Phase One. It was originally introduced for processing raw files from Phase One’s medium format cameras, but it has developed to cater for over 500 cameras and has become very popular amongst professional photographers.
Despite this target audience, Capture One is compatible with raw files from some more entry-level cameras like the Canon EOS 4000D and Nikon D3500 as well as high-end models like the Canon EOS R5 and Nikon Z7 II. However, it’s worth checking that your camera is supported before committing to a purchase.
Launched in December 2020 and updated in March 2021, the latest iteration, Capture One 21, is faster and easier to use than previous versions. It also introduces new ProStandard Color Profiles, colour technology that is designed to preserve natural colours and reduce unwanted hue changes when adjustments are applied.
Helpfully, for new users, there are also enhanced tooltips and easy access to tutorials from within the software.
Purpose: Image capture, cataloguing and processing
Microsoft Windows minimum requirements: Intel or AMD CPU with 2 cores, 8 GB of RAM, 10 GB of free hard disk space, Calibrated monitor with 1280×800, 24-bit resolution at 96dpi
Apple Macintosh minimum requirements: Intel® Core™ i3 (1st generation), 8 GB of RAM, 10 GB of free hard disk space, Calibrated monitor with 1280×800, 24-bit resolution at 96dpi, macOS 10.13, macOS 10.14, macOS 10.15, macOS 11
Variations: Available with support for 500+ cameras or for just Fujifilm, Nikon or Sony cameras
Payment options: Pro perpetual license: £299 / $299, Monthly subscription: £19 / $19, Brand-specific version perpetual license: £199 / $199, Monthly subscription £14 / $14 per month
There are three strands to Capture One’s functionality, image capture, organisation and editing. The controls governing these functions are arranged into sections accessed by clicking on the icons (shown above) at the top of the control panel that by default is on the left of the screen.
The folder icon accesses the importing and cataloguing controls while the camera icon accesses the remote capture or tethering controls. Most of the editing controls are accessed via the next three icons.
The capture element is useful for studio photographers who want to shoot with their camera tethered to their computer. It enables remote control over the camera, which reduces camera shake, but more significantly, it means you can preview the image on a larger screen rather than on the back of the camera. Also, the image is stored on the drive selected on the computer, so you don’t need to transfer images from a card in the camera.
Capture One is the first software to enable tethering of Leica cameras.
Capture One Workflow
Capture One offers two workflow options, Session or Catalog. Session mode is particularly useful for photographers who shoot for clients. It’s designed to enable you to work on discrete batches of images, selecting your best shots, editing them and then sending them to the client.
Session mode is a good choice when shooting tethered, but it can also be used when you save images to a card in the camera.
Perhaps the most attractive feature for anyone thinking about switching from Photoshop, however, is that you don’t need to import images to work in Session mode. You can browse your image files wherever they are stored, then select and edit them as you like before outputting them in your preferred format to a folder of your choosing.
If you’re using the 30-day free trial of Capture One 21, it might be a good idea to use it in Session mode so that you don’t have to create a catalog or import images.
Lightroom doesn’t have the equivalent of a Session mode.
Catalog mode sets Capture One to work in a similar way to Lightroom with images being imported ready for rating, labelling, keywording and editing. It also enables you to filter images using EXIF data or keywords and create Albums based upon those filters or searches.
In Catalog mode, the images can be left in their existing storage location, but unlike Lightroom, they can also be imported into and stored within the Catalog. The advantage of the latter approach is that it means that everything is contained in one file that can be transferred, copied and backed-up without creating missing links.
Conveniently, Capture One doesn’t force you to stick rigidly to one workflow or the other, you can use Session and Catalog mode at the same time.
Capture One Editing Tools
Capture One has all the editing tools that you’d expect, including simple sliding controls to adjust aspects such as exposure, contrast, brightness and saturation as well as more sophisticated tools like the Curve tool that lets you adjust the brightness of particular tones and work on overall brightness or the three colour channels separately.
It’s also possible to make local adjustments using the brush, gradient and radial masking tools or the healing or cloning mask tools. These are all found in the Layers section. Helpfully, the brush, gradient and radial masking tools can be used to selectively apply any of the adjustments available in Capture One 21.
Crucially, the edits made in Capture One are non-destructive.
New Features for Capture One 21
Speed Edit lets you adjust images without touching a slider, you just hold down selected hotkeys and scroll, drag or use the arrow keys to make quick edits. This approach can be taken with several images for fast batch editing.
Although haze reduction has been possible within Capture One for a while, it previously required a combination of tools to get the desired result. Capture One 21 has a dedicated Dehaze tool that uses deep analytic algorithms to assess and automatically adjust contrast, saturation and other parameters to remove haze.
Faster File Management
Capture One 21 enables files to be imported faster than the previous version and search results appear quicker. In addition, thumbnails render quicker when browsing Catalogs and Sessions.
It’s also possible to import images from several folders at once and to select specific images for import.
Simply hover over a tool to see a short explanation of how it works along with links for more learning. This can be enabled or disabled via the Preferences.
A new ‘Learn’ button gives a quick route to a selection of tutorials from within the software.
With support for HEIC files (8-bit), you can now edit photos from your Apple devices and more in Capture One.
New colour science/technology in the new ProStandard Profiles enables you to make adjustments while retaining the true colour of the scene and prevent unwanted colour shifts caused by contrast changes.
This isn’t automatically enabled for existing cameras to prevent the software from making retrospective adjustments to previously edited images, but it can be activated. The profiles will also be available for any new cameras that come along.
At the time fo writing, Capture One 21 offers ProStandard Profiles for 22 cameras from Canon, Leica, Nikon, Phase One and Sony, but more are said to be in the pipeline.
Easy Brush Adjusting
Capture One 21 enables the size, hardness, opacity, and flow of any brush to be adjusted using modifier keys and a mouse or trackpad or pen, removing the need to right-click.
Extended Leica support
Capture One 21 brings a new level of support for a growing list of Leica cameras, and for the first time brings tethering capabilities to those models.
This support includes the development of unique camera-specific profiles that take into account the colour, sharpness, and noise characteristics of the camera model.
Style Brushes were added to Capture One 21 with the 14.1.10 update released in March 2021. They are tools that enable a selection of adjustments to be made with a brush, working directly on the image.
There’s a total of 22 different preset treatments that can be applied and they’re found in a new section under the Layers tool in the Exposure panel. They are organised into three groups, ‘Color’, ‘Light and Contrast’ and ‘Enhancements’ and they have names/functions such as ‘Color Balance (Cool), ‘Color Balance (warm)’, ‘Add Detail’, ‘Iris Enhance’, ‘Whiten Teeth’, ‘Red Skin Reduction’, ‘Dodge’, ‘Highlights (brighten)’ and ‘Highlights (recover)’.
Using a Style Brush automatically creates an adjustment layer with the name of the Brush being used, and the edits can be tweaked to get exactly the result you want.
It’s also possible to create your won style brushes, so if there’ an adjustment that you make on a regular basis, you can create a brush to apply it.
Editing images with Capture One 21
One of the nice features of Capture One 21 is that the interface is highly customisable. At its simplest, this can mean collapsing and expanding the controls arranged in the column on the left of the screen in the default layout. You can also drag any of the controls from the column to a different location on the screen, rearrange the order of the controls and shift the location of the thumbnails and main preview.
It’s also possible to remove any tools from the column that you don’t use on a frequent basis so they don’t take up room on your screen and it’s quicker to find the tools you want.
In addition, you can add tools that aren’t shown in the tools panel column. For example, the new Dehaze tool isn’t there but you can add it very quickly by selecting View > Customize Tools > Add Tool to Library Tab > Dehaze.
If you’re a regular Lightroom or Photoshop Camera Raw user, you’ll be familiar with most of the controls and adjustments in Capture One. There are a few differences, however, so don’t expect a seamless switch from one to the other.
There is some help in the form of the Migration Tool, which converts the layout and arranges the adjustment panels in a more familiar order for Lightroom users. That’s a good starting point for anyone switching from Lightroom, but before long, you’ll start customising the layout to suit your editing preferences.
Speed and ease of use was a key focus for the developers working on Capture One 21 and as part of that, the Speed Edit shortcuts have been introduced. These allow you to use a keyboard key to select a feature and they adjust it by dragging up or down or using the arrow keys.
For example, by default, pressing and holding the Q key while dragging up or down on the image adjusts the overall brightness. As you drag, a temporary slider appears on the screen to let you visualise the scale of the edit that you’re making.
The shortcuts keys are customisable which means you can set them up in a way that makes sense to you and that fits with the way you edit.
It’s also possible to adjust the size, hardness, opacity and flow of any selected brush by using a modifier key and a mouse, trackpad or pen.
As with any software shortcut, it takes a little while to become familiar with which keys do what, but once you’ve got the hang of it, the shortcuts can really speed editing. It’s well worth investigating the shortcuts options and introducing them one at a time to your editing process until eventually, you find that you’re using them all.
To make Capture One 21 easier to use, there are lots of short tutorial videos that can be accessed from within the software itself. Hovering the cursor over a tool, for example, reveals a short description of what it does along with a link to a tutorial about it. Most of these tutorial videos are less than a minute long and the longest is about 2 minutes, which means you don’t go down a YouTube rabbit hole.
In addition, there’s a searchable help section that highlights the steps you need to take when you need to know how to do something. As well as showing you the menu options to select, the help tool lets you jump onto the solution with one click.
Capture One 21 is faster to use than previous versions with thumbnails and adjustments rendering very quickly. It also handles image files very well, delivering excellent, natural-looking results. The new Dehaze tool is a great case in point. It works well, but don’t expect to get the eye-popping results that are possible from Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, it’s subtler.
Comparing high-ISO images processed in Capture One 21 and Adobe Camera Raw reveals that Capture One produces less gritty looking images. Significantly, this smoother appearance from capture One 21 isn’t at the cost of smudging or excessive softening.
The impact of the new ProStandard profiles is also very impressive.
Switching from the generic profile to the ProStandard version may not make a noticeable difference with all images, but it can significantly improve others. These profiles were developed with portrait photographers who have to handle delicate skin tones in mind, but they are also of use for other types of photography. Their effect is most apparent in images that have subtle gradations, especially towards the brightest areas.
With the generic profile, for example, the highlight in the sky in the image below shot on the Canon R5 is very pale blue, it looks as if the sun is close to the edge of the frame. With the ProStandard profile, however, the sky is deeper blue throughout.
The impact of applying the ProStandard profile is clearly visible in the sky in the right section of the image, the image to left of the split has the generic profile applied.
I particularly like Capture One’s Color Editor tool that gives three levels of control, Basic, Advanced and Skin Tones. They offer a really quick and intuitive way of working on colour and targeting the hues you want to address.
In Basic mode, you can adjust the Hue, Saturation and Lightness of the global colour using sliders or click on one of the eight coloured boxes to select a channel to adjust using the sliders.
In Advanced mode, there’s a colour picker to select the colour range that you want to work on. Once you’ve made a selection, the colour range is indicated as ‘slice of pie’ in the circular control. You can widen or narrow the colour range by dragging the control handles to make the slice bigger or smaller. Also, dragging the edge of the slice in towards the centre of the circle removes the darker tones from the selection while moving the centre point towards the edges, removes the lighter tones to focus the adjustment on the darker tones.
The Skin Tone controls work in the same way as the Advanced ones but they are specifically tuned towards skin tones.
Capture One 21’s new Style Brushes make applying local adjustments easier and more intuitive than with previous versions of the software.
At their simplest, you just need to browse the list of brushes and pick the one that is appropriate to the adjustment you want to make. With it selected, the software will create a new adjustment layer as soon as you start using the brush on the image.
Right-clicking (Control-click) reveals the brush panel to allow its size, hardness, flow and opacity to be adjusted. If you also tick the options to link the brush with the layer and link the eraser with the brush, the brush and eraser settings stay the same as you swap between the adjustment layers. It means you can work quickly, making quick adjustments to a range of settings with just a few clicks and brush strokes.
It’s also easy to create your own Style Brushes. The first step is to create a new Adjustment Layer by clicking on the plus in the bottom left corner of the Layers panel. Then you make all the adjustments that you want, including changing the brush settings if you like. With the edits made, ensure the Adjustment Layer is selected and click on … to the right of ‘Style Brushes’ and select ‘Save Style Brush’. Make sure that there’s a tick next to all the Adjustments and Brush Settings that you want to include in the Style Brush, and then click save, giving your brush a memorable name.
Helpfully, you can either save your custom Style Brush in the root of the Style Brushes folder, or a custom subfolder if you want to group your own collection(s).
Which version of Capture One 21 should I buy?
There are a few different editions of Capture One available. If you shoot exclusively with a Fujifilm, Nikon or Sony camera, for example, it’s better value to buy the manufacturer-specific version which only has the profiles for your brand of camera. In other respects, the software is exactly the same as the full version of Capture One, which is called Capture One Pro, or Capture One 21 Pro for the latest edition.
All the editions of Capture One 21 are available for outright purchase or as a subscription. A perpetual license of Capture One 21 Pro costs £299/$299, but if you pay annually, the subscription works out at £19/$19.
The Fujifilm, Nikon or Sony editions of Capture One cost £199/$199 for a perpetual license while when paid annually, the subscription works out at £14/$14 per month.
When a new version of the software comes out, it’s usually possible to upgrade a perpetual license for less than buying the software all over again. Anyone on the subscription model will be able to upgrade their software for ‘free’.
Capture One 21 isn’t quite a mind-boggling as Photoshop to newcomers and the developers have done a good job of integrating the help tools and tutorials to speed the learning process. However, it’s most suited to use by photographers with some experience of image-editing, it’s not really aimed at beginners.
There’s an excellent level of customisation available and it’s great that Capture One 21 allows you to work on your images as you want, you’re not forced to import images to a catalogue if you don’t want to, but you can use it to organise your images if you prefer.
The new Style Brushes that were added with the latest update (March 2021) are a great addition. They speed making a range of adjustments and make applying a host of edits more intuitive.
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Capture One does indeed make a wonderful job of demosaicing images. It is a good tool for processing a handful of images or working with small catalogues. It cannot handle large numbers of images.
Unfortunately it leaks memory and will not load a large catalogue. It is about time that the developers fixed the memory leaks that have existed for years … instead of messing about with “features”.
I tried to load 30,000 images and Capture One crashed my system at about 3,000. With appropriate tools you can watch the amount of real memory that is being used increase up to the point where there is none left and you get (on Windows) the BSOD.
I presume that reviewers never load more than a few dozen images so they never see the problem.
I’ll have to check, I’m sure I have imported a few thousand images at a time, but definitely not 30,000.