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Head-2-Head RAW Processor Review: Adobe Camera RAW vs. Phase One Capture One Pro
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posted on Mar 18, 2010 at 6:26PM

Head-2-Head RAW Processor Review: Adobe Camera RAW vs. Phase One Capture One Pro

Introduction: The Matchup

By Ted Dillard



The RAW file is often described as the “digital negative”, basic digital information that has to be processed to become a photograph. In fact, it’s more accurately described as the “digital latent image”, a term made popular as far back as the Zone System and Ansel Adams, describing the film in the camera, exposed to light, but not yet processed into a negative.


It’s more accurate because the RAW file represents the light that fell on the sensor before any interpretation, before white point, contrast and scaling have been established. Rather than a “negative”, where several decisions have been made (B/W or color? High contrast or low? Saturated or unsaturated?), the RAW file allows the photographer to reprocess the information that came directly through the lens.


The processing of the RAW information, as a consequence, has a great deal of influence on the ultimate look of the file. Like film emulsions and developers, a RAW processor has certain characteristic looks, methods, and results based on the manufacturer's basic philosophy. As with any system that processes information and renders results, the RAW processor must make certain exclusive decisions about how colors, contrast, and resolution are rendered.


Arguably, two of the most popular RAW processors are the Adobe Camera RAW engine, used both in Photoshop and in Lightroom, and Phase One’s Capture One Pro (C1). Both systems arose from a need for a good, general purpose processor that was fast, effective, high quality, and supporting a broad array of professional digital cameras. Camera manufacturers’ packaged solutions were, and remain, woefully ineffective. Most offer slow, basic, workflow solutions targeting the consumer market. 


Adobe Camera RAW evolved out of an add-on “plug-in” in Photoshop 7, integrating RAW processing into an already powerful image-editing program. Capture One Pro was developed from the same software solution Phase One used for their high-end Medium Format Digital Backs, adapted for use with the more popular Digital SLR cameras. It was originally a production-oriented workflow for tethered shooting in the studio, but, as one of the most flexible packages available, adapted well to the DSLR photographers who shoot to cards and download to a workstation rather than shooting tethered to a computer.


Ironically, Adobe and Phase One are at two ends of the corporate spectrum. Adobe is one of the larger, most influential companies in digital imaging today; as a result we see nearly universal support of Adobe products by smaller companies, as well as broad support of other companies (like camera brands and models) by Adobe.


Phase One, on the other hand is a small company with relatively limited resources, producing not only software to support current DLSR lines and current Operating Systems, but also Phase produces and supports two of the major Medium Format Digital Backs in its Phase One line, and most recently, Leaf.


In spite of these striking differences in scale, both companies stay current with the latest models and RAW file standards, and maintain stable, usable processing for the cameras they support - often better and faster than the camera brands themselves.


Adobe sells the Camera RAW engine packaged within two basic systems representing quite different workflows- the Bridge/Camera RAW/Photoshop package, selling at $700 for a full version, and Lightroom, a complete workflow/editing solution, at $300 MSRP. Capture One Pro sells for $400 as a complete package.

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