With new releases in RAW processing software, I decided to take a look at the newest professional programs and see how they measure up in terms of image quality, features, UI and speed. The results will surprise you.
Table of contents
For this test I selected:
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 beta;
- Bibble 5 Pro;
- Capture One 5 Pro;
- DXO Optics Pro 6.
Notable absents would be Apple Aperture and Silky Pix.
I did not select Aperture for this review because it’s older (apart from updates and patches it’s still a 2008 product) and it’s also the only Mac-only product (all the programs in this test are available for both PC and Mac; Bibble is also available for Linux). In the case of Silky Pix, I started testing it, but I felt it’s not in the same league as the others, so a direct comparison would not be fair.
Also, in the case of Lightroom 3, it is still beta software; I decided that it’s stable enough to be used in production, so it wouldn’t be unfair to it. It’s good to keep in mind however that it may add features and/or improve image quality before it is released.
Originally, this article presented the beta version of Bibble 5, once it was released I retested and included new results from it.
For this test I found myself in the difficult position of not having enough test images. I made a habit years ago to convert all my pics to DNG. Unfortunately, DXO and Bibble don’t support DNG, so for this test I had to find some RAWs. If you think that would be easy, well, I actually had to run a program to recover some pics from my cards.
Second of all, I initially had some nice architectural pictures from Milan and Paris that were taken with a compact camera (a perfect test for noise reduction, chromatic aberrations and so on). Again, some programs (DXO and Capture One) did not support it.
Third, I wanted flawed images. I believe that test images should not be perfect – how would I be able to check chromatic aberrations if the image was taken with a razor-sharp, $2000 lens? Or how could I evaluate highlight recovery for a perfectly-exposed scene? Or noise at low ISO? or… you get the picture.
So if you look at the images in the test and wonder why they’re not so good – it’s because I selected them to be like that.
All four programs have remarkably similar interfaces: dark/gray color schemes, tabs and sliders.
I absolutely love Capture One‘s interface. It’s polished, simple and logical. It’s very easy to find the tools and the tabs are arranged in the proper order – from capture to details.
Lightroom comes very close, but for it the keyword would be ‘customization’. You can easily customize the interface to fit your own workflow, turn panels off, even customize the “nameplate” to your company name – a nice touch for when you’re working with a client.
Bibble is more of a mixed bag. They changed the UI completely from version 4 and copied many concepts from their competitors, but it’s still a bit confusing as buttons are all over the place.
DXO suffers from the same problems as Bibble – a rather confusing interface, with options arranged not very intuitively; for example, why is White Balance (a basic setting) placed after DXO Lighting (an advanced feature)? Still, in terms of speed and stability, it’s a huge improvement over DXO5.
Lightroom has probably the widest camera support – it can read all camera formats under then sun and it also supports DNG (obviously, they invented it). Lightroom also goes beyond the typical RAW processor, as it aims to be a full DAM (Digital Asset Manager). In two years, it still hasn’t convinced me to use it exclusively, but it’s simple enough to import photos in its database and process them. It can also handle variations, has an unlimited history, snapshots and more. New in version 3 is the export system – you can publish from it directly to a service like Flikr. For me, it would be incredible to output directly to iStock, so I can only hope a plugin will come.
Bibble also has a wide camera support, but they don’t support DNG (despite numerous customers requesting it, I might add). Import and export are very easy and I like how printing is also treated like an output option and how easy it’s to define your own presets.
Capture One has a very straightforward way for import and export, focusing on simplicity. I might add that tethered shooting is perfectly integrated in the interface, a bonus for studio photographers. Capture One is more picky about direct camera support, but it does support DNG, so you can always convert to DNG first and then import.
DXO is the most cumbersome in this regard. First you must drag-and-drop files from the file system to a project, edit them and then drag and drop files from the project to the output queue. It just feels tedious for me, without enabling any advanced behaviour. DXO is also very picky about camera support and adds lenses into equation as it provides automatic correction for known camera-lens combinations. It also doesn’t import DNG (why oh why); it can output linear DNG, a feature I never used.
As mentioned above, Lightroom is not only a RAW converter but a complete DAM, which comes in handy when you have tens of thousands of images (I have about 16,000 DNGs since 2003). You can easily filter by multiple criteria – tip: it really helps to use keywords for all images. The unlimited history, snapshots, virtual copies help you play creatively with photos, trying different looks. On the other hand, it’s the only program in this test that does not posses any sort of lens distortion correction, which is very disappointing (I still have hopes for the final version). Since version 2, LR also has some localized corrections (color, sharpness, exposure) via a brush or a gradient.
DXO is the unchallenged master in optical corrections. If you have a supported camera and lens, the precise corrections are great, and even if the lens is not recognized, you can still apply most of the corrections – sharpness falloff, light falloff, distortion corrections, even fish-eye corrections. The most impressive feature would be the keystoning, which lets you easily correct perspective distortions – a must-have for architectural shots (not everyone has a tilt-shift lens). It also has a built-in color rendering for emulating different film looks and more.
Capture One has the best support for tethered shooting and a very useful focus checker – it will overlay the areas that are in focus, a great way to quickly asses a collection of images without zooming in, making it almost perfect for studio work.
Bibble has an incredibly powerful feature: layers. You can make a selection on the image and make any and all settings apply only to it. You can have an image with two or more different WB settings if you want. Areas can be defined using some tools or brushes and you can easily set/change the feathering. The system goes way beyond what Lightroom can offer. Bibble also has some interesting features licensed from other companies – Noise Ninja for image reduction and a lens distortion database from PT Lens.
This is where the fun begins.
With each program, I did not rely on defaults, but tried to achieve the best look. Looking at the image below, you can still see that each one has a different philosophy:
White balance was set for the black+white dress. I did not enable any “creative” color settings or film emulations.
Capture One really likes to stay neutral and true to the ‘real’ colors. Besides the WB tool, it also has a ‘skin color tool’ for achieving a pleasant skin color.
Lightroom throws more contrast; at least for my camera it has the tendency for more reddish skin, which I dislike. I know I can make my own color profiles (and I have), but how many users will?
Even with the Portrait contrast setting, Bibble generated a more contrasty image, while DXO created a very punchy result – very contasty, more yellowish skin and lipstick.
Four programs – four interpretations of the same scene with WB set for the eye white. What’s not to love?
Capture One again favors a very bland/neutral look, while DXO goes “a little” overboard with contrast. I think I like Bibble best.
For this image I also used a little Fill Light to open the shadows in the flowers and fruits. WB was adjusted for the white wall. Both Lightroom and DXO produce beautiful colors – Lightroom with a great blue sky (not very realistic since it was overcast, but beautiful nevertheless); DXO has a bit unnatural grass, but I’ve seen the color in magazines and ads a thousand times. Lightroom also gets the purples right but gets the orange walls a bit wrong. But this is just nitpicking.
Capture One misses it – the grass seems dirty/muddy and the Fill Light doesn’t work nearly as well. Bibble fares better but the colors are off and the contrast and shadow/highlight details are not that great.
You could get a taste of how well Fill Light & Highlight recovery work from the previous test, but now lets try something extreme:
DXO is really amazing with this image. Beautiful colors and look how detailed the dark, shadowed part of the building looks. Lightroom comes in close.
Initially, Bibble generated a rather poor image in the Preview release 3, but in the final version I managed to get better results.
As for Capture One, it just can’t.
Let’s see now how much detail vs. noise can our four contestants extract from an image (100% crop):
DXO produces a clean but not very detailed image, with some speckles here and there. Capture One removed too much chroma and has a quite speckled look (but note how natural the skin looks). Bibble 5 puts Noise Ninja to good use, leaving a pleasing image in terms of noise and details. Lightroom 3 renders the best image in terms of details, even though it’s slightly noisier.
I don’t shoot usually at high ISO, but I have for this test- a boring detail of my keyboard.
The image above was shot at ISO6400.
Thanks to Noise Ninja, Bibble gets the crown. Lightroom 3 has the luminance noise reduction disabled in the beta, so the final version may look different. Although very noisy, it’s not that bad – I prefer Lr3 over C1. DXO cleans the luminance nicely but leaves some coarse chroma noise. With Capture One I tried 2 different approaches but the results are still very poor. The one shown above has luminance noise reduction very low, chroma to max; also reduced sharpening to zero.
Unfortunately I did not have any RAW picture to really have a need to correct the chromatic abberations or barrel/pincushion. As I mentioned in the beginning, almost all of my pictures are DNG.
Having said that, based on my past experience I can safely say that DXO is unmatched in optical corrections – especially with a supported lens, whereas Lightroom comes in last since it has no distortion correction.
Here’s something from a previous test in 2007:
I was able to test for purple fringing:
Bibble has the least effective fringing correction (I couldn’t actually see it making any difference, although the Fringing option was set to Standard). Lightroom is also largely ineffective in this area (Purple fringing was set to All Edges). Capture One corrects the purple fringing but leaves a glow. DXO corrects both the color and the luminance in the affected area, leaving a sharp image.
It’s also worth mentioning the noise – Lightroom image is noisy but detailed (look at the black lace), while Capture One’s looks clean but speckled.
Speed comparisons are not very fair, as we’re comparing apples and oranges – some programs offer more advanced corrections so it wouldn’t be fair to say that they are slow when they also offer superior quality. Also, speed is dependent on many factors and will vary greatly from image to image.
As a general statement, Bibble is the fastest, followed by Lightroom and Capture One and unsurprisingly DXO comes at the end.
Quality is not the only factor in making a decision. Let’s see how competitive are the prices:
- Adobe Lightroom 2: $300 USD (I can only assume version 3 will be priced the same)
- Bibble 5 Pro: $200 USD
- Capture One 5 Pro: $400 USD ($130 for the standard version)
- DXO Optics Pro 6 – Elite Edition : $200 USD ($109 for Standard edition)
- Capture One 5 standard does not offer optical correction and tethered shooting.
- DXO differentiates Stardard and Elite based on the supported camera bodies. High-end (full frame) digital SLRs require the Elite edition.
I intend to update this article when the final versions of Lightroom 3 and Bibble 5 are released and to also add more tests – so please come back.
I will also gladly correct any factual errors that may have slipped in this review (I worked for a week on it).
Updated on January 4, 2010 with the final release of Bibble 5. I changed some three of the Bibble results and used the new sales price.
It should come to no surprise that there’s no “perfect” program – each one has its strengths and weaknesses and your decision on which one is better for you should be based on the type of photography you do.
Having said that, I have a hard time recommending Capture One. I really wanted to like it and I know it has its fans, but I just can’t justify its price tag vs the output quality or the workflow. The interface is nice and clean, but it has nothing worth 4 times the price of DXO or the quality and workflow offered by Lightroom. It may work well for studio photographers because of its tethered shooting features and focus checker but even then it might be worth testing it along with Lightroom.
In terms of features and quality over price, DXO 6 is an absolute steal. If your camera and lenses are supported, $110 is nothing, even if you also use a different RAW converter. If you shoot landscapes or architectural elements, HDR, ultra-wide and so on DXO is a must. DXO 5 used to be a nightmare, with frequent crashes and a very slow interface, but DXO 6 is nothing like that – it offers a solid experience and in many cases it produces beautiful results.
Bibble 5 has great potential – it’s very fast and its adjustement layers feature is truly powerful. It supports more camera models than DXO and Noise Ninja does wonders for high-ISO images (obviously, you can always purchase Noise Ninja or Neat Image separately).
Lightroom is a very good all-round program. Its image management and workflow features are very useful for professional photographers. On the other hand, it’s relatively more expensive and lacks more advanced optical corrections. Adobe has included optical corrections settings in the latest DNG standard I hopefully support will be added in Lightroom 3.
So which one is best for you?
If you’re an amateur with a compact camera that supports RAW and want to get creative, go with Bibble. It will correct noise problems and optical distortions and will let you get creative.
Landscape and architectural photographers will benefit from DXO advanced corrections.
Portrait and studio photographers who work closely with their clients and shoot thousands of photos will be best suited by Lightroom.
Capture One has its fans too. It has some very professional features but its scope is limited. I would recommend it for professional studio photographers who worry more about correct colors than high ISO performance.