Capture One RAW Software for D-SLR

Overview

For an "Introduction to RAW Images" by Andy Rouse click here

Hopefully those of you not familiar with RAW images will have read the short RAW overview beforehand. The purpose of this review is to show how Capture One DSLR can be used to convert a group of RAW images with the maximum quality, maximum control and quickest workflow. In my humble opinion it's the top of the tree where RAW converters are concerned and I've tried every product on the market today (including recent releases). Capture One is my product of choice.

Three factors make it stand out from the crowd:

  • Quality -

    the quality of the output, in terms of noise, banding, dynamic range and overall image sharpness is second to none.

  • Usability -

    The dynamic nature of all modifications, the results of which can be seen instantly on the large preview screen (yes, even sharpening) Magic wands are provided for quick white balance and exposure correction and they give consistently good results

  • Productivity -

    Clever batch multiprocessing technology converts all files in the background whilst freeing you up to move onto the next image (thus savings lots and lots of time)

For the purposes of this review I think it best if I just work through a few conversions that I have made recently, highlighting the features along the way. The images that I am using were shot on commission during the Salisbury Cathedral Darkness to Light Advent Service on November 29th. I shot these images in the evening, they then had to be processed within a few hours and sent off to the cathedral PR department for publication worldwide. Time was of an essence and it took me less than 5 minutes to process 40 images from RAW to 16 bit RGB TIFF (including ALL corrections to white balance, exposure and saturation). After captioning the IPTC data in Photoshop CS, I reduced all files to high quality jpegs and emailed them straight out. Done and dusted within the hour. For the record I could have converted the RAWS straight to JPEGs but I knew the client might come back and ask for RGB TIFFs so there seemed little point in going through the conversion process twice. An interesting aside is that I covered the same service last year with my EOS 1D and processed the images with my previous browser; these were some of the images rejected by one of my agents (see RAW document for details). This years images, processed using C1 were totally noise free and were accepted without question. The proof is in the pudding so to speak.

The C1 suites of products are now almost identical in functionality for the MAC and PC. I say almost as I think that the MAC has a couple of nice extras, which are not found on the PC product. This review has concentrated on the PC platform, solely due to my current workstation setup, but MAC users should be assured that the functionality is EXACTLY the same.

The essence of C1 is a logically structured workflow to guide you though all the necessary steps to get the best from your RAWs. Making changes to the RAW is simple in C1 and will result in a better quality output image that will need little, if any, tweaking in an image editor.

The workflow is as follows:

  • Load RAW images into collection
  • Set Noise Reduction / Banding Parameters
  • Adjust White Balance
  • Adjust Exposure / Contrast / Tone Curves and Saturation
  • Adjust Sharpness
  • Develop RAW into desired format
  • Bingo, your image converts and you can move onto the next

Step 1 - Load RAW Collection

For this test I pre-loaded all files into a directory (in this case Windows but the MAC version is now identical and fully functional) and didn't use the tethered mode (see later). The default C1 screen (which can be displayed in several customisable formats) is shown below:

Step 1 - Load RAR Image

The screen is divided into four distinct panes - tree view, thumbnails, previews and workflow (correction).

The LH pane is a file tree and allows C1 to define the location of the RAW files to process. This can either be standalone or as a "Collection"; this is a managed C1 group which assigns a name and location to the images for ease of processing. Note this collection can be added / modified and deleted at will without affecting any of the files it contains, it is just a convenient way of seperating (and processing) groups of RAWS by name.

Once the location of the RAWs is defined, C1 loads in the thumbnails and immediately creates much larger previews of them for ease of editing on the third pane. An image (or group - see later) is then highlighted and it appears in the third pane - the Preview window. As can be seen I have highlighted the best image from the sequence at Salisbury Cathedral, showing the candle trails of the choristers as they leave the service. Using the zoom function (button at top) I can control how this preview is displayed; using the crop tool I can crop the RAW image at this stage rather than in an image editor (for reasons of quality). This preview image is now used for all manipulations; remember that any changes made will be dynamically shown. I have also used the information option (the "i" within a green circle) to display the shooting data:

RAW Thumbnail image

Another icon allows display of two preview images side by side as shown below. This is useful for evaluating the best image in a sequence:

Split Image

The final pane is the main workflow area, where 4 logical steps (the Capture tab is used mainly for tethered mode) allow you to make any changes to the RAW file before conversion into your desired output format.

Step 2 - Set Noise Reduction / Banding Parameters

All RAW images suffer from a degree of noise, which varies according to the camera used and the climatic conditions. Some cameras also have inherent banding, for example the EOS 1D, which is particularly apparent in the dark, shadowy areas. To negate this, C1 provides excellent noise reduction technology that is inbuilt within the product, and is applied to each image depending on the ISO and camera model used. It is found within the Preferences Tab as shown below:

Step - Set Noise Reduction/Banding Parameters

Two sliders are provided, one for banding and one for noise. By default they are at their lowest settings but can be adjusted for a particularly noisy image. My cathedral image was taken at ISO 200 in a very dark setting (the only light is from the candles), so a 25 second exposure produced a very very noisy image. So confident am I in the C1 noise reduction that I switched off the noise reduction function on my 1Ds camera (it doubles the write time to buffer which is a pain in times of rapid shooting and also does not give me any control over what detail in the image it defines as noise). When I viewed this image on the preview window I could see several stuck pixels (which is hardly surprising) so I set the noise slider to one up from the lowest, which would apply a modest amount of noise reduction to the image. The noise setting is global, i.e. once you set it the amount is applied to each image until you change its value in preferences. In all the time that I've used C1 I have seen a marked reduction in the noise of my images, without any noticeable change in their sharpness.

Step 3 - Adjust White Balance

The first tab in the workflow pane controls the white balance (WB) of the image:

Step 3 - Adjust Whit Balance

Several options are provided to adjust the WB including pre-supplied WB settings, a magic wand, a Colour Temperature slider or an eyedropper to pick a convenient grey point on the preview image. I shot the cathedral image on WB Auto, which has made a valiant effort but is a little too red for my liking, although I want to retain some of the redness from the candles. Using the magic wand gave me a much better result (it isn't always perfect but always worth a try) and I used the colour temperature slider to adjust the warmth slightly. On this occasion I have no need to use the colour wheel, but this is useful for removing (or adding) a colour caste to the image.

Step 4 - Adjust Exposure / Contrast / Curves and Saturation

Step 4 - Adjust Exposure / Contrast / Tone Curves and Saturation

The next tab controls several exposure adjustments; the image clearly needs some slight tweaking in this area. Changing these paramters with RAW data has little or no effect on the noise of the image, since C1's noise reduction technology will take care of it during processing (changing it after the fact in an image editor is not so noise free). Using the sliders I add a little brightness and contrast as shown, again the changes are instantly represented on the preview image. Tone Curves and Levels are provided for those photographers that require more detailed control (complete with extra eyedropper tools), although to be honest I have rarely used them. A default set of tone curves is supplied - Film Standard, Film Extra Shadow and Linear) and in this case I chose Film Extra Shadow to give a little bit more shadow detail. Since the image was saturated enough I had no need to add any more so left the final slider at its default.

Step 5 - Adjust Sharpness

The third tab controls how much sharpening is applied to the image:

Step 5 - Adjust Sharpness

There are two sharpening algorithms provided with C1 - Soft Sharpening and Standard Sharpening. Testing both of these options I really liked the effect of soft sharpening as it produced a nicely sharpened result that had none of the artefacts that standard USM sharpening has. A zoom function allows selected areas of the image to be viewed at high magnifications to observe subtle changes in the sharpening settings; in the above image the zoom is into a small group of the congregation. Normally a highlighted box surrounds the selected area on the preview to serve as a navigation aid but unfortunately my screen capture software did not pick it up. As with all the other functions, the effects of applying sharpening are shown dynamically on both the tab image and on the preview image (if the relevant option is selected).

Step 6 - Develop RAW into desired format

The previous few stages have taken far longer to read than they would in real time, in fact around 30 seconds from start to finish. The final stage and tab in the workflow is the batch processing option, and this is where C1 really shines. Once the RAWS have been added to the batch queue, they are processed in the background, allowing work to begin on the next image(s). Like the rest of C1 the batch processing is dynamic and new conversions can be added to the running batch at any time:

Step 6 - Develop RAW into desired format

The batch process is controlled via the small window and symbols shown at the bottom of the tab. Images are procesessed according to their default size, but C1 can interpolate them directly from the RAW image to a greater size if required. It's a simple matter of two keystrokes to convert one file at 100% size and a second copy of that file at 200%; in reality I found the results of this in-built interpolation not as good as Photoshop CS bicubic but know that some professionals swear by it.

A second copy of an image, perhaps with more saturation or less sharpening, can be instantly added to the batch with just a couple of keystrokes. In the above example you can see how several versions of the same file are being processed (C1 ensures that each has a unique name), all of which took just a few seconds to add. Experienced users simply hit the INS key at any time which adds the currently selected RAW(s) to the batch processing; as I never sharpen I generally hit the INS key after I've finished with the exposure tab.

Processing Multiple Images

C1 also applies the same workflow to groups of similar images, allowing changes made to one image to be applied to all the others in the group. Reverting to the cathedral collection, the three images shown below are similar and need to have the same changes applied:

Processing Multiple Images

One image is selected as a large preview and changes to WB, Exposure and Sharpening are made as before. This time, before processing, the group symbol (shown highlighted by a red circle) is selected to apply all the changes to the other members of the group. In this instance, the exposure tab allows full control of which parameters to apply to the group and which are just for the image being previewed. Once all these changes are complete, hitting INS adds all the images to the batch process.

Output Quality

The bottom line; no matter how many features it has and how much hype it has, a RAW converter is only as good as its output quality. This is extremely difficult to show in this review as the small image size and JPEG compression necessary for the web will ruin the quality of any image and thus make any comparison invalid. Suffice it to say that most professionals consider C1 to be the product that offers the ultimate in image quality, noise reduction, shadow detail, flexibility and time saving. If it did not produce the best output then I wouldn't use it, it's as simple as that.

Other Features

This review has only scratched the surface of the C1 product and there are many features and functions that have not been discussed. Amongst the most important are the following:

Colour Management

C1 supports a fully colour managed workflow for those photographers that require it. Options are specified via the preferences dialog shown below:

Colour Management

This dialog allows camera profiles, the destination working space and the monitor profile to be specified. In addition a CMYK or printer profile can also be specified for those photographers that shoot directly for print. Colour profiles can also be edited within C1 to provide a customised output specific to a photographers requirements.

Tethered Operation

C1 supports tethered operation whereby the camera is connected directly to the workstation. Images taken on the camera appear on C1 within seconds and can be edited / saved immediately. For most of us this feature has no interest but for studio / location photographers it is a godsend. Note that this is only supported for Canon cameras.

Documentation

The product comes with four forms of documentation:

  • A printed "DSLR Quick Guide" in the CD Box
  • A PDF copy of the above
  • A PDF Technical User Guide
  • Online help

Undoubtedly the best help facility is the online help, with the workflow overview providing a good working reference for most operations. The Technical User Guide is very good too, explaining all the ins and outs of the product with useful examples. The DSLR Quick Guide is best left well alone, as it doesn't do much at all apart from looking good in the CD box.

In addition to the usual forms of documentation, the website www.c1dslr.com provides an extensive FAQ Knowledge Base which can be useful for answering questions. In addition there is plenty of knowledge at all the usual digital websites and probably more than a few Forums running on the subject too.

Supported Platforms / Cameras

Platform / camera support is as follows:

Windows 2000 and XP

  • Pentium III PC or above, 384MB RAM, 5GB free disk space, one firewire port if you want to connect the camera to download images
  • Cameras supported are the Canon EOS 1Ds, 1D, 10D, D60, D30 and 300D, Nikon D1, D1H, D1x and D100.

MAC OSX version 10.2 or higher

  • G3 or G4, 384 MB RAM, 5GB free disk space, one firewire port if you want to connect the camera to download images
  • Cameras supported are the Canon EOS 1Ds, 1D, 10D, D60, D30 and 300D; support for Nikon will be available Spring 2004

Product Offerings

The Capture One DSLR software is available as two distinct products - C1 PRO and C1 SE. The differences between the two products, although minor in my opinion, reflect the differing needs of the amateur and professional photographer. C1 SE is effectively a subset of C1 PRO, and this applies equally to the MAC and PC product lines.

A full feature comparison can be found on the PhaseOne website, but since I am a lovely bloke I've decided to summarise the differences below, along with my thoughts on them:

Differences between C1 PRO and C1 SE - PC Operating System

The following features are the ones that are in the PRO version but omitted / changed in the SE version:

  • Number of Output Files per conversion - C1 PRO allows you to specify three different output sizes for one conversion, whilst C1 SE only allows 1. This is no great shakes, if you need to do this then simply add the first file to the batch, then change the scale % to your chosen size and add this to the batch. Just a matter of a few extra keystrokes.
  • Batch Renaming - C1 PRO allows batch renaming of files whilst C1 SE does not have this feature. It is useful admittedly for renaming RAWs but of course you can achieve the same in Windows Explorer or an image editor such as Photoshop.
  • Tethered operation - C1 PRO supports this and SE does not. For most of us this feature would never be used and it's only the studio / portraiture types that would find this invaluable. If you need it then PRO is your choice.
  • Image tagging - images in the PRO version can be tagged and those in the SE version cannot. No big deal either way.
  • Output interpolation - the ability to scale up an image to a larger size; C1 PRO has it and SE does not. Not really a big issue either as there are plenty of third party products to perform this function on the converted file (such as Photoshop CS excellent new bicubic interpolation), although there is some merit in the argument that performing this on the RAW data gives better results.
  • Photoshop Anti-Moire Plugin - Moire lines manifest themselves in converted files under certain conditions and can take some skill to remove them. C1 PRO contains a Photoshop plug-in to perform just this function and in general it seems to do a good job. C1 SE does not have this function.
  • CMYK Output - if you are shooting directly for repro, or a CMYK printer, then it makes sense to convert your RAWs directly into CMYK format instead of RGB. Using the colour management facility a CMYK conversion profile can be specified. Again if you need this facility then the PRO product has it and the SE version does not.
  • Profile editor - an editor is provided with the PRO product to alter the characteristics of the supplied profiles. Great if you really do need to make permanent changes to the profiles, for the rest of us not having this facility won't cause any sleepless nights.
  • Background Batch Conversion Limit - the PRO product allows an unlimited number of conversions to be added to the processing queue, whilst the SE version allows 100. Again if you are likely to need to process a lot of files quickly then the PRO version is the one for you.
  • Phase One phone support - telephone support is available for the PRO product only. Since the online documentation is pretty good there is little need for this for most of us.

Differences between C1 PRO and C1 SE - MAC Operating System

The following features are the ones that are in the PRO version but omitted / changed in the SE version:

  • Number of Output Files per conversion - C1 PRO allows you to specify an unlimited number of output sizes for one conversion, whilst C1 SE only allows 1. This allows more flexibility than the PC version (3 only). This is no great shakes, if you need to do this then simply add the first file to the batch, then change the scale % to your chosen size and add this to the batch. Just a matter of a few extra keystrokes.
  • Profile editor - an editor is provided with the PRO product to alter the characteristics of the supplied profiles. Great if you really do need to make permanent changes to the profiles, for the rest of us not having this facility won't cause any sleepless nights.
  • Output interpolation - the ability to scale up an image to a larger size; C1 PRO has it and SE does not. Not really a big issue either as there are plenty of third party products to perform this function on the converted file (such as Photoshop CS excellent new bicubic interpolation), although there is some merit in the argument that performing this on the RAW data gives better results.
  • Batch Renaming - C1 PRO allows batch renaming of files whilst C1 SE does not have this feature. It is useful admittedly for renaming RAWs but of course you can achieve the same in a variety of MAC applications.
  • Add Copyright text into output file - I've included this here, as it's an addition over the PC product. Both C1 PRO and SE allow a watermark to be embedded in the converted file. Since I don't have a MAC I cannot test this out but those that have tell me it's a useful tool to have.
  • Photoshop Anti-Moire Plugin - Moire lines manifest themselves in converted files under certain conditions and can take some skill to remove them. C1 PRO contains a Photoshop plug-in to perform just this function and in general it seems to do a good job. C1 SE does not have this function.
  • CMYK Output - if you are shooting directly for repro, or a CMYK printer, then it makes sense to convert your RAWs directly into CMYK format instead of RGB. Using the colour management facility a CMYK conversion profile can be specified. Again if you need this facility then the PRO product has it and the SE version does not.
  • Background Batch Conversion Limit - the PRO product allows an unlimited number of conversions to be added to the processing queue, whilst the SE version allows 100. Again if you are likely to need to process a lot of files quickly then the PRO version is the one for you.
  • Phase One phone support - telephone support is available for the PRO product only. Since the online documentation is pretty good there is little need for this for most of us.

Conclusion

Hopefully in this review I've wetted your appetite for what the PhaseOne DSLR products can do. In truth I've only covered a subset of the functions available in both products; this has been deliberate to just highlight the main features for a broad range of photographers. Both the SE and PRO products are feature rich and both have their targeted markets. If you're a busy pro, perhaps in the area of studio / weddings / portraiture then the PRO product will be your natural choice. For the rest of you, and in that I include professionals, semi-professionals and keen amateurs alike, C1 SE will provide you with everything that you need to get great images from your RAW files. In my humble opinion they are the best RAW workflow products on the market today and in a short time C1 PRO has changed forever my digital photography. It can do the same for you, all you have to do is try it and you'll be hooked!

Please Note:
Since Andy did this review Phase one have discontinued the C1 SE version. They now offer the LE "Limited Edition" which offers similar specifications. For full details visit www.phaseone.com