RAW converters compared

Quick comparison of 3 top raw converters – CaptureOne Pro, Phocus 2.5 (Mac) and Nikon Capture NX.

Well, it’s not a real test, but a quick side-by-side comparison of the same NEF file, converted with every one of these top-level pro converters.
I wanted to test the ability of the software to extract maximum detail in highlights and shadows with a regular ISO400 file. High ISO noise reduction is not essential for me, as I shoot mainly at ISO100, but controlling the noise is an ability that many photographers do need.

For the conversion I used a 17″ MacBookPro laptop, attached to a hardware-calibrated NEC2690WUXi2 monitor. My main machine now is a powerful PC, but the new Phocus 2.5 exist only for Mac, so I used my laptop to do the test.

The file is a 14-bit NEF from a Nikon D3x with a EF-S 300/4 lens, shot hand-held at ISO400, f5 and 1/1250 sec..

CaptureOne Pro

I have a licensed copy or C1Pro that allows me to install it on two computers, so I have it installed on both a Mac and a PC. It works well on both platforms, but has some bugs on PC and works significantly faster on the Mac, no matter that my Mac is a 2.5GHz C2D laptop , while the PC is a powerful 3.6GHz C2D with a fast RAID0. The RAM on both systems is 4Gb, but while the PC runs with a 32-bit Windows XP, it uses only 3Gb of all 4.

This is a very powerful software with lots of options and controls. You can do everything that can be done with a converter and obtain a ready-to-use high quality photo without having to use Photoshop or other photo editing software.

Pros: lots of controls, very convenient interface, works very fast for such a feature-rich software, very powerful tools to work with batches, opens files from a large range of manufacturers

Cons: expensive ($399.00 US at this moment)

Phocus 2.5

I downloaded Phocus 2.5  from the Hasselblad site and I was very excited about the opportunity to convert NEF files, as I have some experience with previous versions of this powerful software and Hasselblad H3D files and I know how good this software is. It was a big disappointment when I realized that some of the main functions do not work with NEFs and other third-party files – these are the Shadow and highlight corrections, Lens correction and Noise reduction options.
The file I used for this comparison was shot with Nikkor 300/4 lens and has no big problems wit chromatic aberrations and distortion, so especially in this conversion the missing options were not a problem. But if you work with some wide angle and/or zoom lenses, correcting aberrations and distortion is always preferable.

Pros: absolutely free (USD 0.00), works very fast on Mac – fastest from all 3 converters

Cons: missing essential controls


I use an evaluation version of the latest CaptureNX from Nikon. I still doubt about buying it, because it shows very controversial results. Sometimes it makes wonders, but sometimes I just can’t obtain an acceptable result and all this is very strange for me. It seems that CaptureNX makes lots of works in the background and I have no options to control this.

The main benefit of using this software is that lens distortions and aberrations are corrected automatically and you do not worry for these at all. Color is good, but a little over-saturated. The white balance controls are a crap – color temperature can be set with accuracy of 1K, but the Tint slider is a nonsense – if I move the slider with 1 point to the left or to the right, this makes a dramatic change in color. Because of this, the Tint control is completely useless! The noise is controlled generally very well, but the fine detail is often sacrificed on behalf of the smooth picture – something that is very impressive for amateurs but I do not like at all.

CaptureNX works EXTREMELY slow on both Mac and PC. Yes, it works faster on Mac, but still much slower than CaptureOne Pro and Phocus. And this is the main reason I prefer CaptureOne Pro.

The controls are many, but I find the big part of them completely useless and confusing. There are duplicate controls for sharpness, contrast and so on, while some essential tools are hidden. When I open a new file, all the controls are reset and hidden. This is no good when working with many files, as I have to do the same clicks again and again with every new file.

The most confusing thing with this software is that it is paid ($179.00 US for online purchase, and more expensive for a CD package) even for the users of PRO bodies like D300, D700, D3(s) and D3x. All other manufacturers offer their own software for free, but Nikon does not.

Pros: very good automatic correction of aberrations and distortion, good control over noise at high ISO settings

Cons: very slow, perplexed interface, working with series is a pain, controversial results

In practice – the results

Here are the three frames. As you can see, there is a significant difference in colors and contrast, as I used the default settings for all converters. Only the color temperature was set manually at around 4500K. Some other adjustments were made in CaptureNX to achieve acceptable result. My goal was to fill-in the histogram, so the tonal range is from black to white. The settings for every converter are mentioned bellow the photos.

CaptureOne Pro, White Balance: 4500K, Tint: +1, all other settings at default
Conversion with Phocus 2.5
Phocus 2.5, White Balance: 4498K, Tint: +0.9, all other settings at default
Conversion with CaptureNX
CaptureNX, White Balance: 4507K, Tint: 0, Neutral style, Contrast: +8, Saturation: +2

And here are 100% crops:

The center of the frame, with the white house, to show how the converters handle highlight and fine detail, and the bottom-right corner to show detail, contrast and color rendition in dark areas.

100% crops highlights
100% crops from the center of the frame with highlights. Click for 100% view!

100% crops form a dark area
100% crops from the bottom-right of the frame with dark tones. Click for 100% view!


It’s better that everyone makes its own conclusion if it’s possible with this type of very basic comparison.

My thoughts (based on some time of using these converters, not only on this particular image):

CaptureOnePro – Good result straight from the camera. The rich multitude of controls allows to tune-up the picture according to your needs and achieve almost perfect result. Very good detail in light and dark areas. Light areas a little blown-out because of the high contrast by default, but this can be easily corrected via a slider for highlight recovery (not done here).

Phocus 2.5 – Despite it’s limited functionality with non-Hasselblad files, Phocus is a good alternative to the paid converters. The results are very good to perfect, especially with good quality lenses that do not need correcting aberrations and distortion. The colors in shadow areas are very good, but there is some little posterization, the same I see in files converted with Adobe ACR/Lightroom, but it is not an issue if you do not need to print at very large sizes. The highlights a little washed, but not too much – can be corrected by a little exposure correction. The colors are very natural and pleasing, as they are with native Hasselblad files. The overall quality is very good, especially if you have in mind that you pay nothing for this software. I really hope that Hasselblad will make future version full-functional.

Nikon CaptureNX – Not as good as I expected, but a must-have since sometimes files, processed with it are much better than the ones converted with other software. The shadow areas are with very good micro-contrast, but there is some lost of color in these areas. The highlights are well controlled. The price of $179 is not an issue, but it is strange that Nikon does not provide this software free of charge as other manufacturers do.

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