Review of Capture One Pro 6 vs Silver Efex Pro for Black and White Images

This review compares the Black and White conversion capabilities of the new Capture One Pro version 6 RAW processor with Adobe Camera Raw 6 plus Photoshop CS5 with the popular plugin Silver Efex Pro. My earlier ‘First Impressions’ review describes the new Capture One release and its additional features, but the main focus of this comparison is to see how well the new Black and White conversion facilities in C1 compare to the equivalent in the Camera Raw / Photoshop /Silver Efex Pro combination.

The image I chose to use for this test was a contra-jour shot taken with a Leica M9 Rangefinder at the balcony cafe of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, very late in the afternoon. The longest lens I had with me was the Zeiss f/2.0 50mm ZM Planar, and as you can see from the image below, that didn’t allow me to fill the frame with the subjects. So, we begin the work without the benefit of all the pixels available. The crop I selected was roughly 50% of the frame. The image below is the Jpeg straight off the Leica M9 and the shot was taken at f/8.0, 1/80th at ISO 160.


The Capture One Workflow

I chose this image because I had already worked through a conversion in Silver Efex Pro and had seen that it presented a number of issues, and I was keen to see how Capture One would help me deal with them and what quality of results I could achieve with it.

First was the slight underexposure coupled with the blown highlights and the backlight bounced off the white building in the upper left corner. The colours were over saturated (in the Jpeg) and, of course, things have to be balanced with best colour before attempting any monochrome conversion. Also, the strong lighting and the shadows created by the huge sun umbrella, under which the people were sitting, required some careful local adjustments to reduce the overall contrast in the scene and produce an acceptable rendering.

Capture One allows you to build your processing choices non-destructively on a ‘Virtual Variant’ (cloned copy) of the original RAW file, which means that no changes are made to the raw file and your final image is a new file based on all the ‘edits’ you’ve chosen in your workflow. The Process tab in the workspace allows you to specify how this new file is to made at the end of your editing work. You start the process by bringing in the RAW file you want to work on and creating a virtual variant of it.

C1 – White Balance, Exposure and Highlight Recovery

Here is what the Capture One Workspace looks like together with some notes on the problem areas which were addressed in the image, as shown below. You can also see just how different the basic ‘out-of-the-box’ RAW conversion preview looks by comparison with the default Jpeg straight from the camera!


This workspace is the Exposure Layout and the first adjustment on the variant image was the white balance. I used the sampler next to the mode selector and picked the neutral area on the umbrella stand to provide a more accurate balance.

Next, after toying with the Exposure slider, I chose to recover the blown and extremely bright highlights with the upper sliders on the top axis of the Levels tool. This seems to work very well to bring down overblown highlights without over compressing the ‘dynamics range’ of the image and making it look dull. Then you can use the Highlight slider in the High Dynamic Range tool in combination with the Levels sliders to get the best effect. All capture sharpening was turned off; Curves was set to linear and I applied a very modest amount of Clarity to increase the mid tone micro contrast in the image.

C1 – Black and White Conversion

Next, I switched to the Black and White conversion workspace. Here is where you use either a preset conversion style or use the individual colour sliders to vary the way in which the constituent colours are rendered into their greyscale tonal equivalents. I used the sliders on this occasion; increasing Blue to 50, reducing Magenta to -47, taking Green right down to -100, Yellow down to -39 and increasing Red by just 10 points, gave me the best tonal balance for the interpretation.


C1 – Local Adjustment Layers

Next, I needed to do a couple of local adjustments using the new layer and local adjustment tools. If you are working in colour, local adjustments will allow you to change colors, exposure, contrast, brightness, saturation, sharpening and moirĂ©. If however you are by now working in a monochrome image, only exposure, sharpening amount and moire controls are activated, so that’s all you can adjust in this release of the software. While I applaud this implementation, I can’t help wondering why Phase One limited the choices in such a way in this mode. Perhaps it was lack of development time. Not good enough, I think, but at least a solid start.

I expect that Phase One see this as just the beginning. At present, Silver Efex Pro offers far more flexibility with their (U-Point) Control Point functionality, but I have no doubt that if this foundation was fully implemented and exploited it would give SEPro a serious run for its money. Switching to the Local Adjustment workspace automatically presents the tools that can be used in this version.


So, local adjustments are made by going to the Adjustment tool and clicking on the ‘+’ sign to add a new adjustment layer. Next, at the top toolbar above your image you select the ‘Draw Local Adjustment’ menu, from which it’s best to select ‘Always Display Mask’, then click on the ‘Draw Local Adjustment’ tool to allow you to ‘draw’ the adjustment mask directly on the area of the image where you want to make changes. Here you can see that I masked the ladies’ faces so that I could easily increase their brightness with the exposure slider. Right clicking your mouse button over the image brings up a dialogue which you can use to set the size and hardness of the brush you use to create the mask. When you, inevitably, make a mistake you can select the Erasure tool and easily remove any unwanted area from the mask.

When the mask is complete, you can select the setting on the appropriate tool until the edit is correct. You can return to these layers individually at any time to change the mask and / or the parameters you are tweaking. What I like about this implementation is that it is layer based and that you can specify exactly where you want the specific effect to apply. This approach gives you potentially greater accuracy and control over the adjustments. SEPro’s Control Point technology, by comparison, is limited to a radius of control – which doesn’t suit every situation. I hope Phase One eventually adds the ability to control adjustment layer opacity / fade level, as provided by Photoshop, which would give even more control over the final effect of each adjustment.


The images above show the other local adjustment layer masks I created for dealing with the remaining bright highlights, to tone them down a little more, and the figure’s woolen shirt tone, which I wanted to darken to make it slightly less prominent in the foreground.

Image Reduction and Output Sharpening – In PhotoShop

The final step in the workflow was to use the Process tab functions to render out a full size 16 bit Tiff file, which I then loaded into CS5 for final editing. In Photoshop, I used the downsampling method recommended in Jeff Schewe and Bruce Fraser’s book. I made two 50% reductions using Bicubic and one final reduction to a whole numbered percentage of the second reduction closest to my desired size. The final reduction used the Bicubic Sharper algorithm. I checked this against a single pass reduction and there was a small advantage in image quality to using the multi-step reduction method. Finally, I added an output sharpening for the Web in PK Sharpener for the size of the image, and reduced the opacity to 40%. I then made a Jpeg at maximum quality. This is the final image, below – very nice:-


The Silver Efex Pro Workflow

Starting with the same RAW file, I made similar adjustments to white balance, exposure, highlight recovery, fill light and blacks in Camera Raw to bring the colour image up to the best starting point I could. I used the same crop as in the previous example.


Opening the result in Photoshop, I then created a duplicate background layer and made this a Smart Object so that when I invoked SEPro I could return to the parameters I used in the conversion if I later needed to tweak them.


Next, I invoked the Silver Efex Pro plugin and used the Neutral setting on the film type tab to give me the opportunity of building the conversion from scratch. To do that I used the colour sliders under the Sensitivity detail tab until the blend of the conversion met with my visualisation of the shot. No contrast curve, sharpening or structure enhancements were added.


Next , I used several Control Points to enable me to deal with the very bright highlights that remained and which also allowed me to brighten the face of the lady on the right of the picture. The image below shows you how SEPro makes it possible to see the area of the image which will be affected by each Control Point’s local adjustments. These local adjustment can vary brightness, contrast and structure. The area affected can be controlled by varying the radius of an enveloping circle which limits the extent of the effect. Where, to get the correct coverage, you have to overlap these Control Points in SEPro, you can see that the C1 masking method is easier to use and offers superior control.


Applying the collection of Control Points produced the required overall effect:-


Cilcking on OK in SEPro commits the conversion to a monochrome rendering which is then available in a separate layer in CS5. My final adjustment was to use a Levels layer to set the final black, white and mid-point levels.


Finally, as described in the Capture One workflow above, I used a three pass image size reduction, added the same amount of output sharpening from PK Sharpener, faded to 40% as for the C1 example. The image below shows the final SEPro result:-

Final Image – Silver Efex Pro


And here, for comparison purposes is the C1 Pro developed version again:-

Final Image – Capture One Pro



Given that Silver Efex Pro is a well established plugin with a huge, devoted following, it would be a tall order for Capture One to be able to topple it from it’s acknowledged premier position in a single release. Granted C1 isn’t deliberately targetting SEPro, but, for people like me who are keen to get the very best from every image, I’m very keen to encourage more competition at this level, for the specific task of colour to black and white conversions. SEPro still has the edge in terms of selective local edits with its Control Point functionality, but that lead will be eroded quickly if C1 gets extended layer and adjustment facilities.

At the end of this exercise I found myself genuinely impressed by the new release from Phase One. With layer based adjustments and multi-colour sliders for controlling the tonal blend of a monochrome conversion, I think that C1 is an excellent contender for SEPro’s crown. Capture One’s implementation means that you are blending tones directly from the RAW file data, which seems to make a difference to the final ‘punch’ and detail of the results. C1’s conversions do seem to have the edge in image quality. If Phase One can add to the local adjustment features in their next release, C1 could well turn out to be the very best choice for this kind of work. The gauntlet has been thrown!


I’ve just added another comparison, this time between Lightroom 3 and Capture One Pro 6. Very interesting results. You can find the review article here.