Additional features

DxO Optics Pro offers little in the way of features beyond the image adjustment process, with even basic print functionality having only been introduced in version 8. Both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 by contrast offer a much broader range of options.

Capture One is perhaps best known for its robust tethered shooting capability, which allows you to auto-apply exposure adjustments and editing presets to each image as soon as it is captured. With a compatible camera attached you can even control shooting parameters and fire the shutter. New to version 7 is live view capability directly in the application for select DSLRs.

Capture One Pro 7 also offers a very useful Focus Mask tool (highlighted in red) that uses image contrast to identify areas of sharp focus for more efficient selection during the image culling process. Note that the focus mask is applied to image thumbnails in the filmstrip viewer as well.

Photographers whose work goes off to a four-color press will appreciate the ability of Capture One Pro 7 to output raw files in a CMYK color space, while those involved with self-publishing efforts may benefit from the ability to overlay an existing graphics file (headline text, for example) to aid with image composition and cropping. 

Lightroom 4 has expanded its offerings significantly from its original release in 2006. Version 4 offers a Map module which allows for both automatic and manual geo-tagging of images. A new Book module lets users design custom photo books and even place orders directly through the app with the online book publisher Blurb.

Also new to Lightroom 4 is the ability to soft-proof your images, previewing changes in contrast, color and saturation that will occur when printing your image so that you can proactively make a separate set of adjustments to compensate for them.

All three applications offer color-managed printing with user-selectable output sharpening and print resolution, along with the ability to print multiple images on a page. Lightroom 4 and Capture One Pro 7 both offer a choice of rendering intents when an ICC output profile is selected and watermark options. Lightroom 4 is the only app that allows freeform (non-grid) image placement, which is helpful when printing images of dissimilar aspect ratios and resolution.

TWO-WAY TIE: Lightroom 4 clearly has the larger feature set. And recent additions like mapping and book-creation modules as well as soft-proofing reflect its appeal among a wide range of users. Yet Capture One Pro 7 has two features, namely robust support for tethered shooting and a focus check tool that may well be indispensable for product and studio photographers.

Recap

After taking an in-depth look at the performance of Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8 and Lightroom 4, it's clear that these applications all have areas of strength and weakness relative to each other. And that's undoubtedly good, as there's no truly bad choice among them. But this does make it more difficult as a consumer to decide among them. Indeed, selecting the 'best' raw converter really means identifying the one that best fits your photographic needs and priorities. With that in mind, let's recap the results from our showdown.

Speed 

If you regularly come back with hundreds of images from a shoot, your first objective is evaluating what you have, separating the keepers from the rejects. While Capture One Pro 7 can import and render image previews twice as fast as Lightroom 4, Adobe's raw converter pays big workflow dividends as you can cycle quickly through your newly imported images without waiting for the screen to refresh with high resolution previews. To be fair, the lag in Capture One Pro 7 is only a second or two between images, and only occurs with the first instance of a newly imported file. And both apps outperform DxO Optics Pro 8, whose image preview cache appears to be rebuilt every time you relaunch the app.

And while Lightroom 4 does not allow you to export files to multiple formats all in one go, as both its rivals do, it does export images in about half the time.

Image quality

While image quality is what most of us think of as the defining trait of a raw converter, the truth is that the differences among Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8 and Lightroom 4 are relatively small. And those that do exist, revolve around default image rendering. Where global color, contrast and saturation are involved, it's rare that you achieve a result in one converter that cannot be reasonably matched in the others.

Having said that, there is obvious benefit to having the most pleasing image to work with at the very start of the image editing process. And while each app handles colors from some camera models better than others, it's hard to find much fault with DxO Optics Pro 8's default settings. Its highlight recovery and moiré removal capabilities are not as robust as the competition, and luminance noise reduction at very high ISO values can be overly aggressive, but if I were on a tight deadline and had to export a JPEG to a client with no time for even basic manual corrections, I'd probably have more confidence in DxO Optics Pro 8 to produce the most pleasing file.

Workflow

When it comes to putting in the work of making your image look the best via manual adjustments, I found Lightroom 4 to have significant advantages in efficiency. From multiple methods of tool slider manipulation, to brush and gradient localized editing tools that don't require user-generated masks, and highly flexible before-and-after comparisons, precision image editing is a very quick process. And batch-applying changes from a single image to multiple ones is very straightforward. 

Output

Lightroom 4 offers by far the greatest number of options for sharing your work. Its API allows for publishing and syncing to social media and it also supports old-school book creation. An extensive collection of both HTML and Flash web templates lets you upload highly customizable gallery pages to your site via FTP, and custom onscreen slideshows can also be saved as video files. 

Asset management

Capture One Pro has made significant strides as an asset management tool in version 7. Catalog support means you can search, sort and edit metadata for files that are currently offline. Images can be tagged with both keywords and IPTC metadata. You can easily separate keepers from rejects with a star rating system and highlight image status with color-coded labels. If all this sounds like a description of Lightroom 4, that's really the point. Both apps are well-suited to keeping track of your image collection and Capture One Pro 7 even has one trick that Lightroom does not: its catalogs can be shared on a network among multiple users. 

Wait, which one should I use?

As I said earlier, the choice of which of these raw converters to use comes down to how you work. Shoot primarily in the studio and need robust tethering capability? Then you'll be very happy with Capture One Pro 7. If you work on a relatively small number of images and/or already have an existing asset management system in place, DxO Optics Pro 8 offers perhaps the best starting point for your edits. And if you're all about workflow efficiency, need tight integration with Adobe Bridge or Photoshop and want the most feature-rich cross-platform app on the market, Lightroom 4 can fit the bill. As raw-shooting photographers we've really got an embarrassment of riches at our disposal right now. You can create some great images no matter which one you choose.


Amadou Diallo is a photographer and staff writer at dpreview. You can keep tabs on what he's up to on his Facebook, Google+, Instagram or Twitter feeds.