Photoshop CS4 vs. Lightroom 2 vs. Aperture 2 vs. Capture One

Details in the eyes and surrounding area vary by application.

Details in the eyes and surrounding area vary by application.


While doing some post-processing on a shoot that I did recently, I noticed something interesting that I thought I should share. Depending on the program of choice for post-processing, the images changed in their quality, some quite significantly.

I had to do a doubletake since I didn’t believe the difference can be so dramatic, but even after doing it twice over, the results were still the same. I’m wondering if it had to do with certain settings in the program that I was not aware of.

I decided to see how the following programs differed in their ability to edit a RAW file coming from a Nikon D3: Adobe Photoshop CS4, Adobe Lightroom 2, Apple Aperture 2, Phase One Capture One.

Procedure:

  1. I took one NEF (Nikon’s RAW format) file, imported it into each program, and simply exported the resulting file as a 16-bit uncompressed TIF. No other editing was done to the image.
  2. I then took this TIF and imported it into Photoshop CS4, and made the collage as seen on the left.
  3. The resulting collage was exported as a PNG.

By looking at the two examples shown here, you can see the difference from one program to the next.
Adobe Photoshop CS4 and Adobe Lightroom 2
These two programs yielded identical results. Examining the photos in CS4 side by side and layered over each other, there was no telling which image came from which program. The treatment in color, detail, saturation, and sharpness were all very similar – if not identical – to each other. Perhaps this is the result from the programs coming from the same manufacturer: they may more than likely use the same processing engine.

Apple Aperture 2
This image was the least impressive with its flat look (little depth), and noticeable lack of detail and sharpness. I actually wondered if I was doing something wrong with Aperture since the results were so different with this program. While the color treatment was similar to that of CS4 and Lightroom, it was still overall a little more neutral yielding in a flatter look.

Phase One Capture One
Capture One’s image was by far the most satisfying of the bunch. The color treatment was drastically different in that it resulted in a much more saturated and contrasty look to the image without even altering any settings, which in turn gave the image much more depth. Edges were much sharper, crisper, and the level of detail seen in the photo was astronomically different than what was seen with Aperture 2. Perhaps my only complaint with this image was the sharpness and/or saturation of the image. I felt it was a little too strong off the bat. But no worries here as these settings can be changed to your liking manually.

Sleeve details on various post-processing applications.

Sleeve details on various post-processing applications.

Overall, I would put CS4 and Lightroom 2 right in between Capture One and Aperture. The Adobe products yield an image with lower contrast and detail than Capture One, but more than Aperture 2. Up until now, I have always been a prominent user of Apple’s Aperture 2 because I was so comfortable with its ease of use, its smooth integration in my workflow, and its simple user interface. However, I’ll have to double check from now on to see exactly how it affects my other images.

While this testing is by no means concrete evidence of how any of these programs operate, it has opened my eyes in seeing how each program treats the same image differently. Perhaps if you can, you should test out one of your images to see if it changes as well.

For now, I will see if Aperture handles other images in similar ways and assess each case on a picture-by-picture basis.

18 replies
  1. Luca
    Luca says:

    Really useful!! I was trying to understand if upgrade to Aperture 2 and which software could be better for the workflow and I found your post really good.
    Also working on Canon RAW files, the difference is huge and sometimes there’s nothing better than the native RAW converter.
    Thanks so much for sharing!
    Luca

  2. William Nichols
    William Nichols says:

    What I think you are finding is that Aperture modifies the RAW image the least when you import it into the program. If you look at the sharpening settings in all the applications as well as the color settings based on the type of camera you are using. All the applications give a default starting point. Aperture starts with more subtle adjustments than the rest and expects you as the professional to adjust them accordingly.

    With film you had a choice of different contrast and saturation types. All films reacted differently. Now based on the type of camera file, all the applications are trying to give you a standard result on import and you have to be the lab and printer to get exactly what you want.

    A RAW file typically gives you a lot of latitude and a wide range from whites to blacks and backs off on sharpness so you have the control. If you were to look at the RAW data before importing it in any software you would notice that it is really really flat and unsharp. So whenever you import a RAW file into an application it is making choices and adding correction to give you a starting point.

    So in my experience it is not the application that you are using, but how it is being used. There is not information missing from your files when you import to Aperture. The application is just modifying the image in a more subtle way.

    Her is a good analogy. If you take a black and white negative and process it with normal processing, then go into the dark room and make a contact print, should you expect that image to be a final print? No there is a lot of testing that needs to be done in that whole process. The more you test the more reliable your results are going to be and you will become more efficient at getting to the final result.

    The most important thing is to understand your starting point, which is where you are right now. Then keep making adjustments to your workflow to get the results you are after. Every application is going to work differently, but in the end you are the one that has to create the result. The application has no idea whether you are creating a high contrast, extremely sharp image of a weathered barn, or a soft image of a new born baby. Aperture just leans a little more to the soft baby side of things. Capture One will lean toward the Velvia high contrast, saturated, and sharp side of things.

  3. josh
    josh says:

    I like this blog. has useful information. but dude, i had to zoom into the text like 5 times before i could even begin to read it. seriously, up the font. back away from your monitor more than 1 foot and you’ll know what i mean. unless your objective is not letting people to read it. in that case. great job.

    and yes, raw conversion software is different. phase one is considered very good. gut lightroom makes workflow so damn great its hard to break. but phaseone is considered #1 by many many pros.

    another is bibble but i hate the user interface.

  4. Eric
    Eric says:

    Hi Smaku,

    Your test only suggest the result from the default settings of each program. It didn’t really tell the abilities of each programs. I think anotehr interesting things to do is, try to optimize the image to your like, and see which one is better.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

    Eric

  5. Taku Kumabe
    Taku Kumabe says:

    Hi all,
    Eric, yes I understand that this only shows how each program treats the original RAW image by default. I simply wanted to show how each of them treat them so differently. Each of them start off from the same information in the RAW, as mentioned by William, but it’s just interesting to see how drastic a change the treatments are, just by default. Perhaps I’ll try out your idea a little later and see what I get.

  6. Alexey
    Alexey says:

    This comparison doesn’t show anything meaningful.
    The most important thing is how colors are presented and how easy it is to perform corrects.
    According to this images one could assume that Aperture is the worst. But:
    1. It’s possible that the whole image looks better in Aperture.
    2. It’s possible that with a few clicks one would get better look in Aperture

  7. tarragon
    tarragon says:

    I’ve noticed JPEGs (produced by Aperture) also appear different in Aperture and Capture One in the same way – higher clarity/sharpness and contrast in Capture One.

    Also played with the knobs in Aperture to try and get the Capture One look. After quite some effort I got close, but still the difference remained significant. This would suggest that the knobs are different enough between the two programs that they don’t appear to get you to the same place. Even if that weren’t so, the better default settings in Capture One still seem to be useful time savers, bearing in mind it’s easier to make a soft image, low-contrast image out of a sharp, contrasty one (you are losing information) rather than the other way round.

  8. Seven
    Seven says:

    Recently I’ve come across a similar test, with very similar result, Aperture 2, Lightroom 3 beta, Capture One Pro 5. Capture One Pro 5 yield the best result, the images are sharpest, lots of detail, great contrast, but yet the result are natural, not over processed.

    Currently I am a Aperture2 user, I cannot reproduce a close result no matter how I fine tune the control. Other the other hand, the DAM capability of Aperture 2 is superb however.

  9. David
    David says:

    Ahhh!!!! What about using Nikon’s software that comes with the camera (in my case the D700) to import the raw images from the card and then transfer them over to Aperture?? Does that work any better????

  10. magnetas
    magnetas says:

    Hey guys,

    Well I am a bit lost in all of those – starting from the photoshop itself and ending with capture one pro. This thing is quite serious as it requires a well monitor calibration. Use X-rite equipment and a hard Mac user. Can’t decide – like the Aperture in another way. Is Aperture the most right thing? What do you guys think? I can’t stop travelling between those, but as far as I can see, you are right – they are all different in results..

  11. Chris
    Chris says:

    Hi all,

    As mentioned in a comment above, Lightroom 3 Beta is publicly available now. Adobe Labs’ demo videos make LR3 look like it’s going to be pretty freakin’ awesome, especially with the completely re-written demosaicing engine.

    Taku: Your choice of sample images is great. I’d love to see a similar article written comparing LR3 and C1v5 using these exact same images. Yes I know C1v5 is final and LR3 is beta but still …

    My initial tests with LR3 are very positive – the new processing engine in LR3 is *far* better than LR2’s engine.

    LOL just noticed you use the same blog theme as me. 😛

  12. Tom Steger
    Tom Steger says:

    Thanks so much for a thought-inspiring article. As the owner of a Nikon D90 and Leica D-Lux 4, I am “stuck” using both Aperture 2.x and CaptureOne 4.x (I think they are up to 4.8.x now.)

    I very much appreciate the image quality insights provided…this definitely takes me to the “next level”. Great work and thanks for sharing!

    Now if I could find a similar analysis of work flow and digital asset management…

  13. W. C.
    W. C. says:

    Aperture 3 is rumored to be out soon, the book Aperture 3 is out in Holland. I heard Feb 2010. I hope so.

  14. LC Lambrecht
    LC Lambrecht says:

    I just did a test with the new Capture One 6, and the raw conversion is hands over fists better than the CS4…..I have a Phase One P45+ back on a Contax 645, with an Apple 30″ display, believe me you would switch over immediately.
    I’m only upset I didn’t do it sooner….

    LCL

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