Capture One Express 7 [Review]
I’ve been a Lightroom user off and on since version one came out in 2007, though I’m far from what you would call a Power User (I’ve been getting better at establishing a workflow, with the help of Gavin Gough’s fantastic eBook, The Photographer’s Workflow). The Lightroom interface and toolset clicked with me straight away, despite the fact that I’ve been using Photoshop since version 3.0. Don’t get me wrong, I love using Photoshop for making images, but Lightroom’s streamlined UI and more focused toolset is much better suited for editing images. With each iteration of the software, the tools have gotten not only better, but also more nuanced. So, if Adobe’s other piece of image editing software is so great, why look at anything else?
Not long ago, I sold all of my Nikon gear and picked up a Fuji X-Pro1. I won’t get into the reasons why (you can read about it here, if you’re interested), but, suffice to say, I love this camera. The out of camera JPEGs are among the cleanest I have ever seen; so clean that I found myself shooting JPEG quite a bit. Actually, until recently, shooting RAW with the X-Pro1 was a little tricky. The camera uses a new type of sensor, called X-Trans, that arranges the pixels in a different pattern than the traditional Bayer sensors found in Canon, Nikon and most other cameras. Consequently, the RAW conversion has to be handled a little differently, and Lightroom 4.3, had a tendency to smear the colors and just wasn’t able to resolve all of the detail captured by the sensor. In looking through the Fuji forums, several people were talking about a new beta version of Capture One Pro, which had support for the X-Trans sensor and actually did a proper job of converting the RAW files. Though I had seen several BTS videos of pros using Capture One (Paolo Roversi, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz, to name a few), from what I knew of it at the time, Capture One Pro was much more suited to a session-based workflow, or shooting tethered, nether of which applied to me. Not to mention that if Phase One was working on X-Trans support, Adobe couldn’t be far behind. In February, Phase One released Capture One Express 7, a lower-priced, reduced-feature version of their flagship Pro product with support for the X-Trans sensor. Several people in the Fuji forums posted X-Pro photos, processed with this new software and I must say, on close inspection, they looked better than what I had seen in Lightroom 4.3. However, Adobe had recently made the Lightroom 4.4 Beta available on Labs, which also had support for the X-Trans sensor. I tried the 4.4 Beta for myself and the results looked great, but were they as great as what I could get from Capture One? Only one way to be sure; I emailed Phase One and asked if they could provide a copy of Express 7 to review, which they did (thanks guys). To be fair, we waited until the final version of LR4.4 was available, rather than the beta. We’ll be looking at four basic areas: User Interface, Features, Performance and Value. We’ll look at not only how well Express 7 performs, but also how it compares to Lightroom. Let’s get started.
User Interface (UI)
If you’re coming to Capture One from Lightroom, the first thing you’ll notice about interface is, well, it’s not Lightroom, which is definitely not a bad thing. Though I am a Lightroom user, I quite like the interface in Capture One. In fact, there are a few aspects of it that I actually prefer. For one, I’ve never really liked the concept of Modules in LR. Sure, it’s technically one application, but there’s a slight disconnect, not to mention lack of functionality when in one module versus another. Capture One eschews the module approach and instead uses tabs to hold the various tools and panels. The Pro version adds the ability to customize the order of the tabs, as well as the tools within them. Strangely, hovering over a tab icon in Express displays “Cmd-Drag To Reorder”, despite that functionality not being available. If you’re coming from an earlier version of Express, not much has changed, UI-wise, though the interface has been tightened up a bit to enhance workflow. Also, Express 7 now uses a catalog-based system, rather than sessions, which offers the advantage of being able to quickly and easily sort your photographs by projects, albums and groups, which you’ll find under the Library tab. The import panels differ slightly between the two and, while I prefer the layout of the Express import panel, Lightroom’s ability to import as DNG, as well as ignore suspected duplicate files are fantastic features that are missing in Express.
One of the biggest draws to Capture One has always been the superb RAW processing engine. Under the hood, Capture One Express 7 gives you the same RAW processing engine, as Capture One Pro, which is a dramatic improvement over version 6 in both speed and color rendition, and uses individual profiles for your camera to provide the most accurate color possible. Additionally, higher ISO noise reduction has been dramatically improved, though the default settings may be a bit aggressive for some (see below). HDR has also been given some attention in the new release, offering better control, as well as separation, of both shadow and hightlight detail. The Clarity tool now includes two new modes, Neutral and Punch, as well as the previous Classic mode. A new Structure slider allows you to add even more separation and detail. Express 7 now has the ability to do black and white conversions with finer control and the ability to perform basic lens corrections (CA, fringing and vignettes), though if you want to do keystone corrections, you’ll need to opt for the Pro version.
One of the biggest features missing from Express 7, and frankly one that surprised me, is a local adjustment tool. The software offers fantastic global adjustments to color, noise reduction, etc, but if you want to make any sort of local adjustments, you’re out of luck. This also includes any sort of dust spot correction or healing. However, two features that I absolutely love in Express 7 are the Histograms and the Color Editor.
Rather than displaying as solids, each of the channels are displayed as wireframes, similar to a vectorscope, which allows you to more accurately see how the color channels are affecting each other.
The Color Editor allows you to make color tweaks that are both intuitive and precise. Simply select a color you want to change with the picker, then ticking the “View selected color range” box, which isolates the color range and makes the rest of the image go to black and white. You can then refine the selection (even more tools for refinement are available in Pro), un-tick the range box and make your adjustments. Use the smoothness slider to either widen or choke down the selected color range. The Color Editor is more than capable in Express, but I think I may prefer the additional control offered in Pro. For a full list of differences, check out this feature comparison.
Raw Conversion (DNG)
Capture One is known for its superb RAW conversion, but how does Express 7 stand up to Lightroom 4.4? See for yourself. The DNG below was imported using the default settings in each application. While the colors are a bit more vibrant on the Lightroom side, the overall exposure looks a bit better in Express 7, especially in how the highlights roll off a little more naturally. The default noise reduction settings in Express 7 are a tad aggressive, resulting in a very slight softness, compared to Lightroom 4.4. Again, these are default settings; with a few minutes of making adjustments, the images were virtually identical unless you’re viewing them at 100% or better and, even then, the differences are slight.
100% crop on a Nikon DNG file. (Image courtesy of Nicole Rae)
Raw Conversion (RAF)
Okay, we’ve seen what the default RAW conversion looks like on a DNG, but how does it handle the files from Fuji’s X-Trans sensor? After all, that’s what really got me looking at Capture One in the first place. Here’s an RAF file from my XPro1; 200ISO, 1/3200 @ f/2.8, imported into both Express 7 and LR4.4 (Final) with default settings. To my eye, the Express 7 file has a tad more detail, contrast and clarity than the LR file, though, again, not by much. The biggest difference, in this example, is the accuracy of the warm colors. While the blues and greens look very similar in both versions, LR has pushed the reds of the bicycle too far towards the magenta. Now, could you correct for these issues and make them look virtually identical? Most likely, but that’s not really the point. These things speak to the look of the image, just as some may insist that the look of the Nikon 85mm lens is superior to the Canon, or vice versa. Again, though the variations are minor, for some of you, they will may make all the difference.
While these differences are visible at 200%, it’s doubtful that they will be noticeable on a print or in your website portfolio.
Value + Wrap Up
So, what are you missing with the $99 USD Capture One Express 7 vs. the $299 USD Pro version? The short answer is it really depends on what type of photographer you are. If you don’t need features like live view, multiple monitor support, the ability to shoot tethered, advanced lens corrections, a customizable workspace or the ability to perform local adjustments, Express 7 is definitely worth looking into. However, for many photographers, not being able to make local adjustments to exposure, saturation, contrast, etc. may be a deal breaker and that alone warrants the $50 USD price difference for Lightroom, though making the $200 USD jump up to Capture One Pro is, perhaps, another story. On the other hand, if you are a photographer who doesn’t want to spend a ton of time working over your images, but does want superb color rendition, noise reduction and the ability to make simple and effective global adjustments to your photographs, Capture One Express 7 may be just what you’re looking for.