Capture One Testing (1/??)

Published: 12/05/2019

Optimal image post processing is crucial to obtaining a strong image. This starts with the RAW file in a chosen RAW converter. These software range from free to hundreds of dollars, and vary in their functionality. Ubiquitous between them however is their ability to handle adjustments to noise, sharpening, color, contrast, exposure, and highlights and shadows. For the past couple of years I've been using Nikon's own Capture NX-D: a free, very basic, software that I find produces very accurate colors and can handle noise and detail well even at high ISOs.

However, there are some limitations to the software that bother me. It's pretty slow, although not terrible, and given that I'm doing limited adjustments, this isn't a big deal. The software layout itself is pretty minimalist, but actually doesn't really display the file very large as most space is taken up by various other windows. However, there are obvious strengths such as image quality and the ability to see Nikon specific capture information such as focus point, auto focus fine tune, etc. One complaint I do have about the image quality is the ability to recover highlights. This is shockingly limited and generally you have to do it from the exposure slider as opposed to the highlight slider. This isn't usually a big deal, but it's a big bummer when you blow the highlights on a nice image.

This is exactly what happened to me recently, and prompted to me to test out the trial version of Capture One 20. This is the first part of likely a multi part blog post as I explore the software over the next month.

A couple of days ago I was photographing a NZ Sacred Kingfisher in the rain. Between kneel-crawling on uneven wet rocks, the rain blowing about, and shooting with a rain cover, sometimes you knock a knob or don't adjust a dial as much as you thought and you end up way over or under exposing a file in such conditions, as seen below on a 100% crop panel (here, 100% crop means 1 pixel from the original capture is 1 pixel on the screen).

This file was taken at on a D500 at 700mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, and ISO 3,600. As you can seen on the original capture (far left), the image is very overexposed and the white on the neck is just a solid block with no detail. Not ideal.

I loaded the file into Nikon Capture NX-D (middle panel) and even with all my various tricks I couldn't get any detail out of the whites. I dropped exposure, reduced contrast, played with the highlight slider, etc, but even if I took the exposure down -5EV there was no detail there. The whites read 243 (blown is 255 in all three channels: red, blue, green), but still frustratingly, blown and "hot".

Next, I loaded the same file into Capture One 20 (far right) and adjusted pretty much the same sliders as NX-D and pulled the highlights down about -50. That alone brought back all the detail on the neck without the "hot" glowing appearance. Not too bad. These results may not be surprising to regular Capture One users, but I was still surprised to see that this software could extract more information in this specific situation from a Nikon file than Nikon's own proprietary software. 

Comparing the outputs between the two converters on just this file (i.e., not exhaustive!) I felt like the color was more accurate on NX-D, and the saturation slider was really sensitive on Capture One, easily giving over the top results on the greens / blues of this bird. My initial thoughts are sharpening and noise reduction are good, and very fast, in Capture One, although I like the quality of the noise more in NX-D. Of course, Capture One is expensive compared to the free version, but given every single file I keep goes through a RAW converter, that isn't a big deal in my opinion.

All in all, playing with this single file and getting an acceptable output was enough to convince me to keep exploring Capture One. I have other files of this kingfisher with the correct exposure without any highlight issues, but sometimes you only get one crack at an animal or really only one pose that you find acceptable, and making the most of those opportunities is what it's all about.

So this will probably be a series of multiple short posts over the next month ultimately culminating in a decision to switch softwares or not. So stay tuned...

Finally, here is the final edited output:

Feel free to share any thoughts, or especially Capture One tips and tricks, and feel free to follow me on social media (profiles above).

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