Raw Conversion and Editing Software

The pluses and minuses of Aperture, Lightroom, and CaptureOne

By Mark Dubovoy Back to

Dubovoy1so9

In my opinion, photographers should always shoot Raw— after all, if you don’t, you’re throwing away much of the information your camera captured. Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of different Raw formats and dozens of Raw converters on the market. There also are a multitude of products that allow you to edit photographs out of Raw. Which should you use?

Trying to compare them all would be a massive undertaking. Although most major manufacturers have their own Raw conversion/editing software, (and there are a number of small, independent companies with Raw conversion and/or editing products), three products currently dominate the market: Apple Aperture 2, Adobe Lightroom 2, and PhaseOne CaptureOne 4. Even a comparison of only these three products is a daunting task. They are extremely sophisticated products with large amounts of tools and functions. It takes time, training, and practice to learn how to use them effectively. One could literally write a couple of books on the subject.

In spite of this, I decided to attempt a comparison based on a set of criteria that I believe will make this article useful. Before launching into the other details about this comparison, however, it is worth noting a few things.

Everything that follows is based on my experience and opinions after working extensively with all three products. I believe that the vast majority of photographers would come to similar conclusions, but there is certainly room for disagreement. Another photographer may dislike a tool I like, or feel more comfortable with a specific product for reasons other than those explored in this article. On the other hand, there are objective criteria, such as the speed to import an image or the quality of Raw conversion, where the facts speak for themselves.

Organization

All three programs offer ways to organize your image files in many different ways. You can also rate your images and include metadata, key words, copyright notices, and what not. You can search for specific images using various tools and criteria.

I do not have the space to go into all the details here, so let me just say that for me, the database organization and the related tools in Lightroom are the best of the group. In terms of organization, I would place Lightroom first, Aperture second, and CaptureOne third.

Note that unlike other editing programs (including Photoshop), all the edits in Aperture, CaptureOne, and Lightroom are non-destructive: All three programs preserve the original Raw image information intact. Instead of modifying it, they save an instruction list with the edits you want performed. When the edited file is opened, the edits in the instruction list are applied to the original Raw file and a new f ile is produced for display purposes, for printing, for further editing, or for export to other applications; the original data is always safe and is never touched. This also allows all three programs to produce a large number of variants of a single image without filling up your hard drive. Only the original data and the different instruction lists of edits need to be saved.

Aperture

Let’s start with Aperture. As with most Apple products, the packaging, the user interface, the documentation, and the tutorials on the Apple site are superb.

It has a very slick and intuitive interface that becomes instantly natural to anyone who has used other Apple professional products. Aesthetically, it is the best interface of the three. Some of the tools in Aperture are, in my view, extremely useful, beautifully thought out, and obviously unique to Aperture. These include the Loupe tools, the Light Table tools, and the Fine Tint controls, just to mention a few.

In addition, the tools for making a book, for creating galleries in Mobile Me, and for creating Web pages are so good that if these are the main applications for your images, I would recommend Aperture as the most appropriate application for you. (Note that I am referring to relatively simple books ordered online through Apple. This is not the appropriate application for the production of complicated books or extremely high-quality fine art books.)

The software is extremely fast on my dual-processor Apple Mac Pro. It imports and processes files much faster than the other products.

Lightroom

Adobe has done a great job with Lightroom. Although somewhat different and perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing as Aperture, the user interface is also extremely user-friendly and very intuitive. I personally prefer the user interface in Lightroom. I may be biased because I have worked with Adobe products for a long time. Other users may differ with me and prefer Aperture.

Like Aperture, Lightroom has some unique tools that I find particularly useful and well thought out. These include the Targeted Adjustment Tools (TATs) that allow you to click and drag your mouse at specif ic points inside the image to adjust preselected parameters. I also very much like the Adjustment brushes and gradients. I f ind Lightroom’s Vibrance and Clarity tools, as well as the printing module, to be superior to the equivalent tools in Aperture.

CaptureOne

The CaptureOne interface is the more diff icult to learn of the three. However, once mastered, it is also the most f lexible and powerful. This clearly is a product built for serious professionals. It is evident that CaptureOne is all about maximizing image quality while simultaneously providing effective communication with clients.

Of the three products, CaptureOne is the only one that does not have a print module. To print, one needs to export the image to another application (such as Photoshop). That is a minus, but the list of unique tools and functionality in CaptureOne is quite long and includes: a superb color editor, lens corrections (distortion, chromatic aberration, purple fringing), rendering intent, styles, lens cast calibration, skin tone tools, and output scaling that produces better scaling than using post-Raw scaling (such as bicubic, Genuine Fractals, or PhotoZoom). The customizing options, the curves tool, the histograms, and the navigator are better (in my opinion) than in Lightroom and Aperture.

Other differences

There are other key differences between the three products that will be important to some users. For instance:

• CaptureOne and Aperture allow tethered shooting, but only with specific cameras. Lightroom does not allow tethered shooting at all.

• Lightroom and CaptureOne support PhaseOne medium-format backs, but Aperture does not.

• Likewise, Aperture supports certain Hasselblad backs, but CaptureOne does not.

There are also differences between the hardware requirements for each product. Therefore, besides all the other issues mentioned in this article, the user needs to make sure that the product supports his or her cameras, and that his or her hardware meets or exceeds the minimum hardware requirements for the product.

Table 1 lists the functions I find particularly useful and unique in each of the three products, as well as which tools and features are better implemented.

Image quality

To me, the ultimate test is image quality. Therefore, the burning question is whether there are any differences in the quality of Raw conversion between these three products, and if so, how big are they?

The answer is that there are significant and quite visible differences in quality of the image after Raw conversion. Before I get to them, I should mention that although the interface is different, Raw conversion in Lightroom is identical to conversion in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) in Photoshop.

I have chosen to show three representative examples. The first two images were shot with a Canon 1DsMK III. The third example was shot with a Canon 1Ds MKII (Figure 3). I also shot a WiBal calibrated gray card immediately after each exposure, and used it to set a custom accurate white balance for each image. The images were converted from Raw to 16-bit TIFFs with no sharpening or adjustments other than those mentioned. No scaling was performed.

Figure 1 is a screen shot of the Aperture user interface with a photograph of white flowers selected. I specifically chose this image because of its high dynamic range. Notice the red warnings that some highlights might be blown out.

Figure 2A shows the same photograph magnified to 100% in Aperture. Figure 2B shows the same image at 100% in Lightroom. Note that the overexposure warnings are slightly larger in Lightroom. Figure 2C is the same image at 100% in CaptureOne. The overexposure warnings in CaptureOne are much more intense in spite of the fact that the preferences in all three programs were set the same.

I used the highlight recovery tool in each product until the warnings barely disappeared. The results are shown in Figure 3. CaptureOne clearly does a much better job of recovering detail in the highlights. Also, the contrast and color rendition of CaptureOne with no other adjustments is far better than the other two products. Lightroom recovers some highlight detail. Aperture is quite poor.

It is important to note that stronger highlight-recovery adjustments darken the highlights, but do not recover more detail.

The second example is a photograph of some very highly saturated red flowers with deep orange tones in some areas. Highly saturated reds and oranges are usually a real challenge in photography. I imported the image into all three products, adjusted the white balance, and then performed the conversion from Raw to TIFF.

Figure 4 shows the results at 66% magnification. Aperture has a very difficult time with these deeply saturated colors. It loses the most detail in the flowers and the color does not match the original flowers. The greens also look weak. Lightroom shows very fine detail, to the point that it makes me suspect that regardless of the settings there is some sharpening going on in the background. The color is noticeably better than in Aperture, but it still misses some fine color nuances and most of the orange. CaptureOne, on the other hand, gets the color of the flowers and the color of the leaves almost perfect, and with a tiny bit of sharpening (not shown) visually matches the detail retrieval of Lightroom. I hope that magazine printing is able to show these differences.

The final image is a family portrait taken in Lake Tahoe four years ago. All I did was adjust the white balance by clicking on the WiBal card; then I performed the Raw-to-TIFF conversion. The results are shown in Figure 5. The best skin tones, the best color in the grass, the best dynamic range, the most natural contrast, and the most detail are in the image processed in CaptureOne. Lightroom is second, and Aperture again comes in third with skin tones that have a somewhat yellowish, washed-out look compared to CaptureOne.

In general, regardless of what image I choose, or what adjustments I make, I can get more highlight and shadow detail, more fine detail in the mid-tones, more accurate color, more natural-looking contrast, and more fine gradations and color nuances with CaptureOne than any other Raw conversion product I have tried.

Which to get?

I have processed thousands of images in Lightroom and CaptureOne, and hundreds in Aperture. From my experience I have concluded that the best image quality in Raw conversion is obtained using CaptureOne.

I have not tested CaptureOne with every camera in existence, so I should qualify the above statement by saying that at least with Canon, PhaseOne, and Leica files this is definitely the case. I hear from other photographers that this is also the case with Nikon files, but I have not personally tested this. Given the care that PhaseOne puts into very carefully characterizing and profiling each camera, I would not be surprised if this is the case with all the cameras they support.

I also have concluded that Lightroom has the best database structure and organization, as well as some very useful adjustment tools.

It is also quite obvious that for Web-related use of images and for speed, Aperture is unmatched.

At the same time, none of the three products provide many of the fine tools and functionality available in Photoshop. So for those of us that routinely use the Photoshop tools and functionality, a trip from the Raw converter/editor to Photoshop is inevitable. (Lightroom has one small advantage in that being an Adobe product, it is more closely integrated with Photoshop.)

What can one do? Well, I want to have it all, so I have settled on the following workflow:

1. I import my Raw files into CaptureOne, where I perform all the basic adjustments such as white balance, exposure, highlight or shadow detail retrieval, contrast, curves, levels, and color editing.

2. Once I am done with these basic adjustments, I convert the Raw image to TIFF and import both the original Raw files and the TIFF files into Lightroom. This gives me access to all my f iles using the Lightroom database organization and corresponding tools (I always save all the original Raw files for future use as technology evolves).

3. At this point, if I need to make adjustments for which the Lightroom tools are particularly suited (like clarity, vibrance, gradients, or sharpening), I make these adjustments to the TIFF files in Lightroom.

4. After I am finished with Lightroom, I export the edited TIFF files to Photoshop, where I perform all the final fine adjustments.

5. Before quitting Photoshop, I save the final images in Photoshop’s PSD format to preserve all the layers, channels, and selections.

6. Out of habit, I usually print from Photoshop, but I can just as easily print from Lightroom.

Obviously, nothing prevents me from importing my final images into Aperture should I need to create a book or a Web gallery.

I sincerely hope that this article helps readers better understand the differences between Aperture, CaptureOne, and Lightroom. I know photographers who are delighted using only one of these products for all their work. Others use more than one of these products, either alone or in combination, in order to satisfy their specific needs. And then there are those of us that use one or more of these products and still export to a more powerful editing program such as Photoshop.

While all three products are excellent, in the end it is up to individual users to determine what is important in their work and which application or set of applications fits their needs the best.

We are truly privileged to be living in a time when these kinds of imaging tools are available to us at such a modest cost. Besides, they are so much fun to use!


About the Author

Mark Dubovoy
MDubovoy
Dr. Dubovoy is highly regarded as a technical expert in many aspects of photography and printing technology. He is a regular writer of technical articles for The Luminous Landscape and photo technique magazine and is a lecturer at various workshops. His photographs are included in a number of private collections, as well as the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Monterey Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Nanao, Japan. He is a partner and Board Member of The Luminous Landscape, Inc., and holds MS and Ph.D. degrees in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley.