In a raw editing workflow, overall image processing speed contributes to an application feeling either sluggish or responsive. We're going to evaluate speed by taking a look at the time it takes to import raw files and export processed images. We'll also look at how long it takes to generate high quality previews when cycling among images in fullscreen and 1:1 views.

Import times

With database-driven cataloging software you first must import an image before you can start working on it, so one of the more obvious questions is just how long this import process takes. DxO Optics Pro 8 is a file browser (more on the consequences of this later) that doesn't require an image import, so here we're comparing import times only between Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4. In both programs, selecting the Import option brings up a separate import window that can be expanded to fill the screen.

Lightroom 4 arranges image source locations on the left column and destinations along the right column of the import window. Capture One Pro 7 opts for a two-column interface, devoting more available space to its image thumbnails.

For this comparison I imported 200 raw files from a class 10 SD card plugged directly into the USB 2.0 slot of a 2010 27-inch iMac with 8GB of RAM. The raw files came from a combination of cameras with output ranging from 12-36MP. The applications were configured to copy files from the SD card to a folder residing on the internal SATA startup drive. The files were renamed on import but no metadata or additional image adjustments were applied.

In Lightroom 4's Catalog Settings dialog you can set the maximum dimensions of the image previews it will generate during the import process. Capture One Pro 7 lets you configure the preview size for file imports in its Preferences>Images tab. The setting defaults to the nearest match to your primary monitor's resolution.

On my 27-inch iMac screen, Capture One Pro 7, by default renders image previews of 2560 pixels in the long dimension during the import process. I set Lightroom 4 to render image previews of 2880 pixels, the nearest available match.

Capture One Pro 7 was able to import the raw files and render the 2,560-pixel image previews in 8 min., 55 sec. In virtually the exact same time, Lightroom 4 was able to import the images but took an additional 8 min., 30 sec to create its 2,880-pixel image previews.

WINNER: Capture One Pro 7 imports and builds previews nearly twice as fast.

Image viewing

Once images are loaded by the raw converter, an important speed issue concerns the ability to cycle among images quickly when making initial selects.

In Lightroom 4, while generating previews essentially doubled the time of the import process, the upside is that those previews are stored in a cache on the hard drive which is called upon each time you browse through your image collection. There is no time spent waiting for a high quality preview in either the Fit or Fill image views precisely because Lightroom generated 2,880-pixel previews during image import.

Capture One Pro 7 also generated previews during import, yet when cycling through images for the first time there is a brief, but noticeable 1-2 second delay until a high resolution preview is visible. To be fair, once an image has initially been selected, subsequent visits to the image bring up the high resolution view immediately.

In DxO Optics Pro 8, you don't have to go through an import process before working with an image, but you do have wait for a preview to be generated when you select an image. I've found this to take anywhere from three to six seconds depending on the magnification view and the image's pixel count. Unfortunately, it appears these image previews are stored in a temporary cache, because they are available only on a per-session basis. If you quit and relaunch the app, new previews must be built all over again from scratch. In addition, in a 1:1 view, Optics Pro 8 only builds a preview for the visible portion of the image, so as soon as you scroll, you must wait for a new preview to be built.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 provides immediate high resolution views when cycling among images.

Export times

In Capture One Pro 7, you can create and save multiple output options and run them simultaneously, although you're allowed only one filename and destination per operation. DxO Optics Pro 8 also lets you create and run multiple output configurations simultaneously. You can export files to multiple locations, with different filename suffixes, at the same time.

To compare batch processing times I selected a raw file, made edits to white balance, exposure, sharpening and noise reduction and then batch-applied those changes to 19 additional raw files located in the same folder. All 20 files were then exported in a single operation as full resolution JPEGs, with no EXIF data embedded, to a folder on the same hard drive. I repeated this test for each raw converter.

Lightroom 4 processed its files in only 1 min., 41 sec. while Capture One Pro 7 took 3 min., 33 sec. and DxO Optics Pro 8 clocked in at 5 min. flat. Obviously, your times will vary depending on file size and the types of edits applied, but each time I ran this test, Lightroom 4 was significantly faster.

WINNER: Lightroom 4 exports files in just under half the time.

Image quality and editing tools

For all of the additional functionality they provide, raw processing applications are ultimately judged on the quality of the images they produce. Here we'll take a look at how these three apps handle a variety of image editing tasks. I should point out that many of the differences you see in this section will be subtle and may be hard to discern without a calibrated and profiled monitor.

Default color rendering

There's no shortage of posts on the web claiming definitively that, 'Raw converter X produces better images than Brand Y.' The problem I've always had with general statements like these is that most raw converters provide so much editing flexibility that it's pretty rare for one program to produce results that you cannot match reasonably well with appropriate adjustments in another one. There's no denying, however, that if one converter provides a better starting point for your subsequent edits, that can be a real time saver.

Below we compare the color rendering of Lightroom 4, Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8 at their default settings. During evaluation of a range of images of varied subject matter and lighting, I've found that in many cases the differences between raw converters can be relatively subtle. Make no mistake, these applications won't produce identical results, but the distinctions often come down to saturation and contrast differences.

Capture One Pro 7 DxO Optics Pro 8 Lightroom 4*

*Note that both Capture One Pro and DxO Optics Pro have distortion and chromatic aberration (CA) correction enabled by default for supported lenses. We'll discuss optical correction in a bit, so here I've enabled Lightroom's auto lens corrections in order to concentrate on differences in color and contrast.

As you can see, the default color rendering differences in this outdoor low ISO scene are fairly subtle. Capture One Pro 7 produces the highest contrast while DxO Optics Pro 8 yields a slightly darker image with more saturated colors. Lightroom 4 takes the most conservative approach, offering a relatively flat-looking image. You can easily produce matching results with minor adjustments to any of the converters' default settings. Yet it's been my experience in evaluating dozens of default conversions that, as seen here, Lightroom is less likely than its rivals to produce 'output ready' results out of the box. In particular, Lightroom can often struggle to reproduce saturated reds accurately, typically veering towards a magenta-ish tone.

WINNER: DxO Optics Pro 8 typically provides more pleasing saturation at its default settings.

Default skin tones

One scenario where you will notice more obvious differences in default color output is in portraiture. Capture One Pro has long been touted by its users as producing more realistic skin tones out of the box. I've found, however, that this claim is largely dependent on which camera you're using. Simply put, each of these raw converters produces more pleasing and accurate results on some camera brands and models than others, as you can see below.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 in diffuse window light: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings. Photo courtesy, Richard Butler.
Canon EOS T4i/650D in bright daylight: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.
Nikon D600 in fluorescent lighting: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.
Olympus E-PL3 in overcast light: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.
Sony Alpha SLT-A57 in overcast light: (From L to R) Capture One Pro 7, DxO Optics Pro 8, Lightroom 4. Each image processed with default raw conversion settings.

For my money, Capture One Pro 7 produces more realistic skin tones for the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Nikon D600 shots seen above. DxO Optics Pro 8 delivers more faithful results in the Olympus EPL-3 and Sony SLT-A57 images. I'd rank Lightroom 4 the most accurate in the Canon EOS T4i portrait. This is an admittedly subjective ranking, and the differences are fairly subtle.

In processing dozens of portraits shot on a variety of cameras, however, I've found that both Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8 offer consistently more accurate (and pleasing) results than Lightroom 4. Your mileage may vary of course, depending on the camera(s) you shoot with.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture One Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 8 consistently provide natural, pleasing skin tones.

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