Phase One Capture One 20
$129-299 | captureone.com/en/store

For many years, Adobe's Lightroom was seen as the gold standard for photographers seeking a way to manage and edit their Raw files on Windows or Mac OS. These days, though, there are an ever-increasing selection of third-party alternatives on both platforms, and one of the most popular of these is Phase One's long-running Capture One series. I regularly hear from pros who've switched to Capture One, and its popularity with enthusiasts is also on the uptick.

Now in its 13th generation, Phase One's flagship imaging application covers all the bases: Images can be tagged, rated or given easily searchable keywords, and a wide range of manual and automatic tools are available to correct common exposure issues and lens defects, or to grade color and bring your artistic vision to life.

And for many cameras and camera backs from Canon, Fujifilm, Mamiya Leaf, Nikon and Sony, Capture One can even take charge of the capture process, allowing you to shoot remotely by tethering your camera to your desktop or laptop.

Key takeaways:

  • Organize, rate, cull and edit your photos in one app
  • Improved ease of use and image quality
  • Redesigned Basic Color Editor is both intuitive and powerful
  • Fair performance, but image rendering is on the slow side
  • Easily import your catalogs from Lightroom
  • Good support for mainstream/pro cameras, but less popular brands and some consumer-oriented models are missing from the list
  • Higher pricing than rivals, but you can choose subscription or perpetual licensing

What's New in Capture One 20

Capture One 20 follows on from Capture One 12, released in 2018 and will still look very familiar to anyone who's used recent versions. Although it's not the revolution that the new version number might suggest, it nevertheless includes a few new and updated features, as well as support for a variety of more recent camera models.

In addition to its new camera support, Capture One 20's main focus is on improving ease of use, and on getting better results from your images. Its extremely customizable user interface has been updated to make it less intimidating to new users, and it's also easier to keep the tools you most use close to hand. Updated tools and algorithms promise easier cropping plus better noise reduction and dynamic range adjustments, while improved support for layers-based editing makes it simpler to copy your changes between images. And there are a variety of more minor tweaks and bug fixes on offer, as well.

The tool stack in Capture One 20 is now split into pinned and scrollable areas. You can easily add or remove tools, or drag them between the two sections.

A friendlier UI that's easier to learn

Phase One has put a fair bit of work into making Capture One 20's user interface more approachable, and I think it's succeeded pretty well. New users will definitely appreciate the addition of text labels beneath the icons in the main toolbar, whose function otherwise might not have been obvious. And I found myself quite a fan of the tooltips which pop up when you hover your mouse pointer or pen over individual UI elements. These not only tell you what the various unlabeled controls do, but also show which shortcut key you could've used to access them more quickly.

You can now pin your most-used tools atop the redesigned tool stack for quick access

Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, these are searchable through the edit menu too, making it very easy indeed to learn how to operate Capture One from the keyboard wherever possible. (You can also customize them all to your heart's content.)

Another notable redesign is in the tool stack which, by default, lines the left-hand side of the screen. Your most-used tool panels can now be pinned to the top of the list for quick access, while the others remain accessible in a scrollable area beneath, and it's very easy to drag individual panels between the two sections to arrange things to your liking.

The Basic Color Editor is surprisingly powerful

Phase One has tweaked several of the individual tools on offer in Capture One 20. The most significant change is in the Basic Color Editor, which now sports two additional color ranges for a total of eight. Tweaking a color range you want to modify is now as simple as clicking on the nearest color in the tool panel and then dragging the hue, saturation and lightness sliders to make your change without affecting any other color range in the image. As you do so, you see your change take effect in near-real time.

Capture One 20's new Basic Color Editor makes adjustments to specific colors -- whether subtle or, as here, quite radical -- both quick and easy.

While this in itself is great, I found the Basic Color Editor's eye-dropper to be even more powerful and intuitive. To use it, you click to select the color you want to edit from the image itself, and then while holding the mouse button down, drag either horizontally or vertically to adjust the hue or saturation directly. If you want to adjust the lightness, you do the same thing, but hold down the alt key (or, on Mac OS, the option key) as you click-and-drag.

Regardless of which method you're using, the Basic Color Editor tool now also supports layers-based editing, helping you to avoid the more complex (but also, even more powerful) Advanced Color Editor.

Better noise reduction, cropping and HDR editing

The updated Basic Color Editor is more of an attention-grabber, but several other tools have also received some useful updates. The noise reduction tool can now hold onto detail and color better, taming unsightly noise patterns. I still don't think it's as powerful as the PRIME de-noising engine in DxO's PhotoLab, but it's also far, far faster. A fairer comparison would be to Lightroom Classic's noise reduction tools, and here I think Phase One is the equal of its main rival.

Capture One 20's noise reduction can now better hold onto detail and color. Here, I'm comparing before-and-after 100% crops from a Canon M6 II shot at ISO 25,600.

The crop tool, meanwhile, now has visible handles at its corners and the center of each side and, when used in concert with the shift and alt / option keys, allows you to either fix the aspect ratio or to lock the crop adjustment around its center point. And the HDR tool has gained new white and black sliders to adjust the darkest and brightest areas of the image, while its highlight and shadow sliders now default to a centered position when zeroed out. Layer-based editing support has also been improved; you can now copy layers between photos even if their dimensions differ, all without replacing their existing layers in the process.

Improved camera support

One of the key changes in Capture One 20 is its improved support for more recent camera models. With eight cameras added to the list, the app can now work with raw files from almost 560 different models from most of the main brands used by enthusiasts and pros alike, and it also sports profiles for a similar number of fixed-lens or interchangeable-lens optics.

Capture One 20's updated HDR tool in use.

Newly-supported cameras include the Canon EOS 90D and M6 Mark II, Nikon Z 50, Leica V-Lux 5, Panasonic Lumix DC-S1H, Pentax K-1 II, Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III and Ricoh GR III. In addition, GoPro's HERO line of action cameras have received generic Raw support, and you'll get better results with native or converted DNG Raw files from cameras which aren't explicitly supported. There's only one new lens profile, though, for the Rodenstock RS-23mm/Aerial.

If your camera's Raw format isn't supported, you'll still be able to edit JPEG images or Raws that have been converted to DNG format, but you're not going to get the benefit of Phase One's custom profiles which are tuned based on the company's in-house hardware testing process. Phase One's website has lists of cameras whose raw files are natively supported by Capture One 20, and lenses that Phase One has profiled for automatic correction.

Support for pen / touch and 4K, even on Windows

Although 4K displays are now quite common even in laptops, Microsoft's Windows OS still doesn't support them terribly well, and many apps are harder to use on really high-res screens. Thankfully, Capture One 20 has no such issues, even on Windows. All of its user interface elements are shown at a size that is not only readable, but also large enough to serve as touch-screen targets. (And they all function properly with my Wacom AES 2.0 stylus, as well.)

Modern hardware like 4K screens, touch screens and pens / styluses is all well-supported

Really, my only complaint on the resolution front is a relatively minor one. For the best performance, Phase One recommends making previews with at least the same resolution as your display, yet Capture One 20 defaults to previews that are just 2,560 pixels on the longer side even if installed on a machine whose display resolution is far higher.

It takes only a few clicks to change the preview image size in the preferences dialog, but new users with high DPI displays are likely to find themselves wondering why it takes a moment for their images to render when browsing them full-screen. I'd like to see Phase One detect the display resolution instead, and then either adjust the default appropriately, or prompt the user to do so on startup.

The updated crop tool in Capture One 20 is now easier to use.

Performance is fair, but could use improvement

Speaking of performance, I found it to be a bit of a weak point. Initial imports are pretty quick, letting you start browsing and editing images relatively swiftly. And browsing / editing of images is reasonably swift as well, although previews did lag behind my adjustments by perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 second, which is a bit slower than Lightroom Classic on the same hardware.

Creating preview images on my machine, however, took about twice as long as Lightroom, even if I allowed my computer to remain otherwise idle until the process was complete. And processing / exporting full-res images took about 20-30% longer in Capture One than in Lightroom, using similar settings.

Creating preview images and exporting full-res ones is a fair bit slower than Lightroom

Interestingly, this seems to be a conscious decision on Phase One's part. If I open Windows 10's resource monitor during these processes, I can see that Lightroom pegs all my CPU threads at 100% for the duration of the operation, whereas Capture One 20 would typically hover at around the 40-60% utilization mark on all threads, with only occasional spikes to 80%, and seldom reaching 100% utilization on any core.

I can only speculate that Phase One is attempting to keep the UI responsive during image processing, and indeed I did find it much more usable than Lightroom if I continued to browse and edit other images while these background tasks continued. But if so, I'd rather the full processor power be unleashed when the machine is otherwise idle, as it's frustrating to be kept waiting longer than necessary.

On the plus side, though, Capture One does at least give you a surprisingly accurate estimate of how long each operation will take to complete. Adobe gives you no such estimate.

It's likely Phase One are intentionally trading off pure rendering performance for a more responsive user interface

For reference, I am using a 2018-vintage Dell XPS 15 9570 laptop with 2.2GHz hexa-core processor, not a cutting-edge machine by any standard, but nevertheless reasonably recent and powerful. To ensure a fair comparison, I imported the same mixture of several thousand raw and JPEG images shot with several recent cameras to both Capture One and Lightroom. I first reset both applications to their defaults, and also used a fresh catalog. (The preview image size was set to 3840 pixels in both apps.)

Up next - let's take a look at how Capture One 20 compares to an industry standard: Adobe Lightroom Classic.