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Capture One DSLR

Phase One Magic

Film-based photographers tend to have fixations (some would call them fetishes) about their favourite film / developer combinations. D76 2:1 for 8 minutes with agitation every 30 seconds, or the like. There's a bit of voodoo to it, but there's sometimes also years of experience that tells a photographer that some things just work better than others. The same with lenses and other gear. An EL Nikkor enlarging lens has a certain look, or a cold light enlarging head is preferred. This is what the craft side of photography thrives on.

The digital image processing world is new enough that even for those of us that have been at it for a number of years such preferences are still developing (pardon the pun). In the past few days I've discovered my first such fetish — Capture One DSLR from Phase One.

What Is It and Who's It For?

Phase One is a Danish company that makes a line of high-end digital backs for medium and large format cameras. Their products have a sterling reputation. Unless you're a commercial studio photographer you likely haven't seen or used their products, but those that have seem to have little but praise for them. The proprietary image processing software that Phase One has developed for these backs has been especially well reported on by critical users. Since I no longer do studio or commercial photography, and haven't the need for a $25,000 large format digital back, I've only had reports to go on till now, but no first hand experience.

At Photokina in late September 2002, Phase One announced that they would be bringing out their proprietary RAW image processing software for the then just announced Canon 1Ds, as well as the previous Canon 1D. This was quite a surprise since till then the company had only produced their software for their own digital backs. More surprising was the price announced — U.S. $500.

$500 for a RAW file converter? You've got to be kidding. Canon D30 and D60 users are used to getting basic RAW conversion capability for free, and really good conversion software for under $50 is available in the form of BreezeBrowser or YarcPlus. (See my comparative review here). Nikon DSLR owners also get basic conversion capability for free, though their high-end NEF processing software has always been expensive.

Naturally I was eager to see if Capture One could match the hype. It became available for download (it's a 12 meg file) from the Phase One web site as an unrestricted 30 day trial on November 28th, just 2 days after I took delivery of my own 1Ds, so I've been using it almost from the start.

The RAW Facts

If digital photography is still new territory for you you need to understand that a RAW file is like a digital negative. While a JPG produced in-camera has had white balance, sharpening and several other forms of processing applied (including lossy compression), a RAW file is just that — raw — a monochrome file without Bayer matrix encoding applied and also without a linear tone correction curve. (The human eye and electronics see differently).

The advantage of this is that you make all the decisions about how the image is to be processed, not the camera. The first downside is that these files are quite a bit larger than JPGs, though they are somewhat compressed — usually about 3:1. This compression though is lossless, and so there is no image degradation. The second downside is that the file has to be processed on a PC using somebody's RAW conversion software before anything can be done with it, and this takes time — both yours and computer processing.

Honestly, I didn't want Capture One to be very good. Why? Because it costs $500, and after spending some $8,000 for a Canon 1Ds adding another 6% for RAW image processing seemed like an undesirable expensive. I was wrong.

Profile & Calibrate Your Monitor

Anyone with a 1ds and Capture One probably doesn't need to be reminded of this, but I'll do it anyway. You must profile and calibrate your monitor for the use of this program to make any sense. Processing your images requires that what you see on your screen accurately reflects the changes that you're making. Capture One is a highly profile-aware program. Profiles are provided for various light conditions and if your monitor is profiled properly and your printer also uses profiles appropriately you'll be able to produce remarkably accurate and reliable results. Otherwise you're wasting your time and money and will be SOL.

In Use

OK. Let's start with my conclusions first. Capture One is as close to magic as I've yet seen in imaging software. After just a few days of use I regard it as an almost indispensable tools for working with Canon 1D or 1Ds files. I wish I could scientifically quantify what I'm seeing — but I can't. I do know though that this software is able to produce tonalities from the 1Ds that are a significant step above those from Canon's own software, and better than I can get from Photoshop.

I won't go into too much detail on how the program functions because you're able to download the file and try it yourself, but here are some highlights of what this program is about.


Fig. 1

The main screen is highly configurable, but usually consists of 4 major panels. Reading from left to right there's a file browser, thumbnails with basic EXIF data, a large preview window and then five vertical tabs; Capture / Gray Balance / Exposure / Focus / Develop, as seen below in Fig. 2.


Fig. 2

This tabbed layout makes for very efficient screen usage. It's also worth noting that by pressing F8 the orientation of the windows shifts so that the main preview window formats appropriately for either a vertical or horizontal frame.

In Fig. 2 above we see the Gray Balance tab. here you have the ability to place an eye dropper on a white point in the image as well as comprehensive tools for fine tuning colour balance, either in composite RGB or for each individual colour channel.


Fig. 3

The Focus tab (Fig 3) performs two functions; it serves as a magnifying area, and secondly provides USM tools. My preference is to leave these at "0" because I feel that sharpening should be done after everything else and just before printing, with the amount of sharpening based in the final print size. But, this software is designed so that you can produce images that are essentially "finished", even without going into Photoshop, and so USM is one of the tools provided.

It's worth noting that I find RAW files from the 1Ds to require much less sharpening than I've been used to from the Canon D30 or D60, and vastly less than from scanned film.


Fig. 4

The Exposure tab provides both Levels and Curves adjustments as well as an Exposure slider (EC) and a Contrast slider (CC). Again, this can be done either in composite RGB or for each individual colour channel.


Fig. 5

The Capture tab (not shown) is used primarily when the camera is used in tethered mode, but it does display a histogram. In Fig. 5 we see the Develop tab which controls how files are converted. The items you see are pretty much self explanatory. At the very bottom you'll see that you can set the program to automatically open your favourite image process software, such as Photoshop, once the file has been saved and to automatically load the file.

The Batch Editor window is worth mentioning, but let's look at it in the context of one of Capture One's primary advantages. That is that it performs everything that it does in real time.

Real-Time Processing

If you've ever used Canon's RAW processing software you can't help but to have noticed that whenever you make any adjustment the program has to re-process the file, and this takes time. Change the colour balance, black point, white point and other basic adjustments and you'll age considerably waiting for each step. The Capture One software uses a relatively small (several megabytes) file that it uses for display purposes, performing all adjustments on it in real time. When you finally tell the program to convert the RAW file to TIFF it applies these adjustments to the main file.

Because you have essentially instant feedback you are able to quickly and easily fine-tune your photographs. Doing the RAW processing takes some time though; about 70 seconds to take a 1Ds 11MB RAW file and convert it into a 63MB 16 bit TIFF. This is with a 1.8Ghz Pentium IV and 512MB or RAM.

What makes this much less onerous than it might otherwise appear to be is that one can do this is batch mode, applying corrections to a group of images. But also conversions can be stacked, and will be done in the background while you continue to work on new RAW files. Clearly Phase One understands how photographers need to work.

Colour Management


Fig. 6

Capture One is a colour management savvy program. The settings screen seen above in Fig. 6 shows how profiles can be assigned from camera through the monitor to your final output. You can use and create your own profiles with a program such as InCamera Pro, or use one of the half-dozen generic camera-specific profiles that Phase One provides.

I have found that Capture One handles colour management workflow brilliantly. What I see on my screen in Camera One is almost exactly what comes out of my printer later in Photoshop.

DeMoirize Plug-in

When you install Capture One you have the option of also installing a Photoshop plug-in that removes Moire patterns. I have only used this for a short time, so won't comment in detail, but it seems to do an "OK" job. My concern is that on several occasions it crashed Photoshop. But, I had a number of other applications open at the same time and so may have simply run into a memory allocation problem. The plug-in does appear to change the colour of certain objects so it needs to be used with care.


Fig. 7

Color Editor

As mentioned above, Capture One is provided with several generic profiles for both the 1D and 1Ds. These include Daylight, Flash, Tungsten, etc. These are provided as part of the program's comprehensive approach to Colour Management. Uniquely, Capture One also provides a utility that allows you to edit these profiles; to fine tune them to your particular needs. Note that this is not a general purpose profile editor and that it only works with Phase One's provided profiles.


Fig 8.

Disappointments

When a program performs its intended task this well it's disappointing to discover the areas in which it falls short. None of these are show-stoppers, but I feel that if they were corrected the utility of the program would be greatly enhanced:

  • Audio files are not available. I use audio notes extensively when shooting on location, and having to have Canon's File Viewer open at the same time so as to be able to hear these shouldn't be necessary.
  • Focus Points are not displayed. When a shot fails due to poor focus it can be very informative to see where it was that the camera focused on. Again, this is available in the Canon software and should be in Capture One as well.
  • Only basic EXIF data is displayed within the program and none is transferred with the exported TIFF file. This is not acceptable.

I was also disappointed in the manual. It covers the basics, but does so in a disjointed way. It's neither a reference tool nor a tutorial.

The Alternatives

Canon provides their File Viewer Utility with the 1D and 1Ds. It does the job, but frankly it's not a very polished piece of software. It has a poor user interface, it's slow and it's buggy. Adobe showed a RAW camera file conversion capability for Photoshop at Photo Plus Expo in early November, and it appears that it will have some remarkable capabilities. I'll reserve judgment until it becomes available. Breezebrowser now supports the 1Ds and YarcPlus undoubtedly will soon as well.

My suggestion is that you download Breezebrowser, YarcPlus and Capture One. All can be tested out without charge. Compare them with Canon's File Viewer Utility and see which one meets your needs and budget.

Price and The Final Verdict (Revised and Update 20 Dec. 2002)

After downloading Capture One and testing it for several days, I wrote the above review and fully intended on buying the software when it because available. On December 18th Phase One contacted everyone that had downloaded the program and advised them that the program was available for download, but that the price was now U.S. $600.

I was annoyed when I saw that instead of the $500 price first announced, that Phase One had decided to raise the price to $600. I wrote on these pages of my disappointment. I was also disappointed at Phase One's corporate position that anyone buying the Windows version now would have to buy the Mac OSX version separately again when it came out in March. As a consequence I was thinking of taking a pass on Capture One, regardless of how good it was.

Just two days later I, along with everyone else who had downloaded the 30 day free trial version, received an e-mail stating that while the download price from the Phase One site was indeed $600, the $500 price was available from authorized Phase One dealers. I think this went a long way towards making prospective purchasers feel that they weren't being gouged. Also, of significant benefit to some users (including me), Phase One announced in their e-mail that they will be providing a free upgrade to Max OSX when the new Mac version ships in March, allowing their customers to use the software on both their Windows and Mac platforms at the same time. Excellent news!

Consequently I have changed my position on this software three times; from I have to have it, to I'm not going to bother, to it now makes sense. So much for consistency.

But, for many the price is still high, so let's look at the alternatives? At this time there's Canon's own File Viewer Utility, which is free, and which supports both the Windows and Mac platforms, including OS X. Breezebrowser is only $35 and is a very competent program. YarcPlus, the other leading Canon RAW converter will support the 1Ds shortly as well, and of course already supports the 1D. And then there's the forthcoming RAW conversion program from Adobe, which they previewed at Photo East Expo in November. No price or feature list yet, but trust me — it's bound to be great and unlikely to be very expensive.

Should you buy Capture One? That has to be your decision. It's a great piece of software. Only you though can make that choice, but you have 30 days to try it out and see if its advantages are worth the price for you.

Incidentally, along with commercial availability has come an upgraded release to V1.02. This new release (available from the web site, even though the site still says it's V1.0) has fixed a number of the initial bugs and is well worth the time to download even if you're still in the 30 day trial period. If you've already bought the software it's a must.

Disk Space — Update

One of the pleasures of using Capture One is how quickly it provides large and detailed thumbnails, as well as preview images. It does this by creating small work files on the fly. But, these files (and they are not really that small at about 3.5 MB each) are retained even when you have long finished with reviewing a RAW file directory. If you have a huge hard disk, no worries, but you may want to check the Previews subdirectory under the Capture One DSLR directory. You'll likely find that it contains many Gigabytes of preview files. These can safely be deleted if you need the disk space.

Another review of Capture One is also available from Digital Outback.


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Concepts: Raw image format, Image processing, Digital camera, JPEG, Digital photography, Phase One, Exchangeable image file format, File system

Entities: December 18th Phase One, Canon, Adobe, Nikon, Mac, U.S., image processing, BreezeBrowser, windows, Windows, OSX, OS X., CC, Michael Reichmann, Bayer, Breezebrowser, InCamera Pro, Max OSX, Photoshop, RAM

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