With the new releases from Adobe, DXO Labs and Phase One, I’ve decided to put to the test some of the top RAW processors. These are:
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 1.3;
- DXO Pro Optics Suite 5;
- Capture One 4.
I would have wanted to also test Apple Aperture 1.5, but it wasn’t possible at this time, so, I decided to postpone that test.
These programs represent the high-end segment of the RAW converters, since they are all geared (or at least marketed) as tools for professional photographers. This doesn’t mean that Bibble, Silkypix or ACDSee Pro are not capable, it’s just that they have a different market.
Of course, their features and intended uses do not overlap completely. Lightroom in particular is billed as a DAM (Digital Asset Management) software, whereas DXO has extended features in term of image geometry correction. Still, I’ve tried to judge all three of them fairly and bring the best out of each one, rather than trying to prove a point.
All three programs have similar interfaces. It would be definitely unfair to say that any of them copied the other. They all employ a dark, monochrome look that is essential in avoiding misjudging colors, and they all use collapsible side-panels.
Unsurprisingly, Lightroom has the most complex interface. It has five tabs on the right, called Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, and Web as well as panels on the left and right. The nice thing about its interface is that all of them can be hidden, including with an auto-hide option, allowing for a very efficient management of screen estate. Moreover, in the “lights dim” mode, the interface is faded, allowing the user to further concentrate on the photo itself.
DXO has a more workflow-oriented interface, with four main tabs called Select, Prepare, Process and Review. Its focus is on the Prepare tab, dedicated to adjusting the image. On the right side there are a number of panels stacked one on top of the other (similar to Lightroom) that can be also quickly accessed via the icons on the top right, although I still find them a little confusing due to their number and location (e.g. the White Balance is somewhere in the middle).
Capture One takes a different approach. It doesn’t want to be a DAM, but a very fast RAW processor. It has some quick tools at the top and some tabs on the left (Library, Quick, Exposure, Color, Details, Crop, Metadata, Adj. Clipboard, Output and Batch). The first tab lets the user select the files from the drive and then the next tabsset different processing parameters. With the Quick tab and the Copy/Paste settings tools at the top, adjustinting settings is very fast and efficient.
Of all three, Lightroom is certainly the most ambitious. Its image management features allow for thousands of photos to be maintained by the Library and retrieved with ease. Still, the library management is rather slow compared to dedicated programs such as ACDSee. Even with that, Lightroom has plenty of other features to keep one happy. For example, the History tool allows the photographer for unlimited undo since all edits are non-destructive while snapshots and virtual copies lets one experiment with different looks. Web Slideshow and Print Management are nice perks too, although not essential.
DXO has different strengths. Its image management features are minimal, yet it shines in a different area: geometry correction. Having separate profiles for each camera/lens combo, DXO can automatically correct distortion, chromatic aberration, purple fringe and softness. Actually, DXO will automate many things: noise reduction, shadow/highlights and more. Features like keystoning and volume anamorphosis corrections are not only impressive, they are essential especially for architectural or wide-angle shots.
Capture One represents a huge improvement over version 3, but it has a different philosophy. It reminds me a little of RAWShooter – very small, very fast, allowing for quick corrections. It has less options, but they are arranged so that it’s extremely easy to correct and process hundreds of photos. It too has a Variants feature but lacks advanced color correction, a “healing brush” and other features present in its competitors.
Camera sensors differ from one model to the other; most RAW processing software use their own camera color profiles, so it’s not surprising to get different colors out of the same picture by using different programs, even when leaving the white balance, contrast and saturation to “as shot”.
In my tests I’ve tried to get the best colors out of each picture, rather than relying on defaults. Below are some photos processed with each of the programs:
In all nature shots, I noticed Lightroom’s tendency to produce yellowish greens. Here, without a doubt, DXO produces the best image without even trying (it was on default settings), whereas I couldn’t get the same look in the other two even after many tweaks. Capture One fared the worst with unnatural colors (see the blueish shadows on the roof).
This is a more extreme case. In order to get a nice blue sky, I’ve used the Vibrancy control to enhance the colors. Capture One doesn’t have the vibrancy feature, so I had to rely on plain old saturation, with disastrous results. Lightroom and DXO produced virtually identical photos, with DXO having a slight edge.
Here DXO misses by automatically applying too much of its “lighting effects”, which is a Shadow/Highlight recovery control (it can be turned off but I left it on for this photo to illustrate how sometimes too much automatic control can degrade a picture). Capture One creates a more natural-looking image, but overall Lightroom renders the most pleasing photo. Also notable is that Capture One is the only one missing a healing brush, which was used on the girl’s face in the other two images. The absence of this tool is not really a big deal, but it would have been nice.
Sharpness, noise and dynamic range
Now lets look at the level of detail provided. Note: to avoid any compression artifacts, details are presented in PNG format.
Detail and artifacts
Capture One doesn’t have any chromatic aberration control, which is responsible for the vertical blue line. I was very surprised and disappointed by DXO performance; even though it boasts a new processing engine designed specifically to avoid these kind of situations, it still produces some rather ugly color artifacts while at the same time looking not sharp enough. The only way I could remove them was by increasing the color noise reduction, which in turn would have negatively affected other areas of the picture. Lightroom provides a sharp, clean and detailed image, clearly the best.
Light and shadows
Now here DXO gets to show its power. Its lighting control is more advanced than the Fill Light present in Lightroom and Capture One, while the perspective correction (keystoning) capabilities allow for a superior photo. The shot was made at ISO800, 1/10s handheld, f5.6. Looking at the details, Lightroom and Capture One manage to create very clean images, although Capture One leaves some specks. The DXO version features more noise (to be expected in the shadow considering the extra processing) but also more detail. Annoyingly, DXO loses detail in the stained glass, which is peculiar since the brighter area of the photo shouldn’t have been affected.
Going back to the portrait above, lets see a 100% crop:
I have “played” considerably in each program, trying to achieve the best possible results, but Lightroom manages the best balance between sharpness, cleanliness and noise.
Processing speed is dependent on many factors, including the processor, available memory, image size and amount of processing applied to it, making perfectly objective tests rather difficult. The numbers presented here are meant just for comparison.
Still, the fastest program is, without a doubt, Capture One, which is also impressive because it seems to be written entirely in C# (DXO is also based on .NET). On my laptop, the processing speed on capture One was 10 seconds/picture. In the second place, I had Lightroom, with 32 seconds per picture. I’ve tried to make things fair for DXO by removing all advanced processing such as lighting effect, geometry correction, even chromatic aberration and vignetting. Still, DXO came in last, with an atrocious 94 seconds spent for each picture, or almost 2 minutes per picture will all options activated.
In terms of output quality, the differences aren’t that huge and in some cases are more related to personal preference; all three tools are very capable of high quality output.
Of the three, Adobe Lightroom is the most consistent. It has a nice set of tools and features, solid results and few weaknesses. It’s integrated features allow the photographer to do all their work, from start to finish, in one program, in many cases with no need for Photoshop or other tools.
DXO is a mixed bag. It produces great colors, especially for nature and its geometry correction tools are a real life saver. On the other hand, it’s very slow, rather very unstable and just not great in terms of processing details. [Edit: I’ve thought initially that there must be something wrong with my computer but then I’ve found out on forums that many people complain about DXO 5 stability issues; for me, it crashes 80% of the time, when doing simple things like zooming in or applying sharpness.]
Capture One seems like a very nice “quick” tool. Even though it’s a beta, it’s fast in all areas (UI, workflow and processing), polished and stable. The pricing is also very attractive – just $130 compared to about $300 for the competition.