It all started with a question, as many things do. A fairly innocent question: What is the difference between two computer programs that can both edit RAW image files? I gave my answer as I have extensive experience with both. Many others gave thoughtful and concise answers even better than mine. I trust the questioner got an answer that helped her decide whatever needed deciding. But a funny thing happened as these threads unspool. It’s amazing to me how easily misunderstandings accrue with the written word. I apparently greatly offended a user or two of one of the programs in question by pointing out what I consider a limit in its capabilities versus the other. Then it occurred to me that the two who misunderstood me, perhaps didn’t understand what working with RAW files on a computer screen really means.
There is a very good explanation on the Capture One Pro (one of the programs asked about in the question) website about what a RAW file is and how it gets displayed on your computer screen. Essentially it comes to this: the RAW file is sacred and never “touched”, that what you see on screen and can edit/adjust is NOT the RAW data itself, but a proxy, a representation of the RAW image, and as such it has no file format. It is not a JPEG or a TIFF file, at least not until you export the results. It exists within the program as a virtual reference file.
Now Capture One is a very good program and RAW image editor, but it is not without its flaws which I have pointed out. There is a great, if geeky explanation behind what it takes to render RAW data into a workable image on screen at the end of this blog post about RAW Converters and Editors. It references the other program in the question, Affinity Photo, and is well worth the read.
Now the surest way to piss someone off in the digital imaging space is to say something perceived as disparaging about their choice of gear or software. After all they’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money on it and woe to you for bringing up its faults. It’s as if you questioned their choice, when in actuality you are speaking from your own experience and choices. In answering the question posed at the beginning of this: “What’s the difference between Capture One and Affinity Photo for RAW processing?”, I mentioned (as I have before) that Capture One, like many programs of its kind, renders RAW data into image form “behind the scenes” and with “secret sauce” the user never gets to see or adjust themselves. What you see is what you get, and based on their (brilliant) engineers decoding decisions.
Capture One only gives you three choices to adjust what your RAW render will look like before you delve into further adjustments. The Basic Characteristics Panel is where you can adjust ICC Profile (based on camera model and lens - try applying a completely different profile from the camera you used, you’ll get interesting results!) The other parameter is a Curve, either Auto or Linear, and lastly you can choose to update the render Engine to the latest version which may or may not change your image slightly. That’s it. That is all the control Capture One gives users in how their RAW image is rendered. Now an interesting feature of Capture One is the Basic Characteristics Panel is not exclusive to RAW image files. You can access those tools even if you load a JPEG or TIFF image in your viewer.
Even Apple’s Aperture which lived from 2005-2015 gave us more choices than Capture One does today! Every RAW Decoder/Render software I know of and have worked with, when you load a RAW file into the viewer you are given a set of tools to specifically adjust that RAW preview.These tool sets disappear or are simply not available when you load a JPEG or TIFF or other image file, except in Capture One. Like the RAW Fine Tuning brick (as tool sets were called) in Aperture above, more detailed adjustments are available than what Capture One offers. I really don’t know exactly what RAW adjustments are included in a given ICC Profile, or what a Linear Curve adjustment does, let alone an Auto Curve. And the exact changes to an updated Capture One engine are a mystery. I guess we are not supposed to know. No tools, no sliders, just three choices, take it or leave it. I will say from considered experience that Aperture’s RAW Sharpening tool is nothing like the regular Sharpening tool. It is a brilliantly implemented feature of Apple’s RAW Fine Tuning set.
RAW Power, another newer RAW Processing software available on the Mac 🖥️ and iOS devices offers an even greater, or should I say, deeper set of tools for fine tuning RAW files.
These tools make for the ability to render your RAW image virtual representation just as you want it, before you get into your regular kinds of edits, and all without requiring you to be a RAW programming genius!
Now about Affinity Photo and the RAW Persona part of the question:
When you load a RAW file into Affinity Photo (which is more like Photoshop and less like a dedicated image editor like Capture One), you are taken straight away into a well appointed and furnished room known as the RAW Persona. This is where everything you would want to play with in adjusting how Affinity will render your RAW virtual variant is yours for the asking. Isn’t having choices a wonderful feeling? Don’t want to make choices? You are free to simply check the mark ✅ at the top and let the Affinity default settings apply. Again, more choice. It’s a good thing.
Affinity gives you so many tools and features at this stage of RAW image development, you could almost be forgiven for feeling like a RAW Imaging engineer yourself!
Now with all those tools at your fingertips in Affinity Photo RAW Persona, you can only work one image at a time, and Affinity is no DAM (Digital Asset Manager.) There are things Capture One excells at, and the two softwares certainly don’t compete with one another. That said, I find the lack of RAW editing choices BEFORE a file is rendered is a weak point in Capture One. Even after a RAW image variant is rendered on screen, the inability to affect the render in an understandable and meaningful way for the user is a flaw. Capture One is effectively saying, “Trust our brilliant engineers choices for how to render your RAW files. We know better and you don’t need to worry your pretty heads about how we do it!” And while many may like that approach and swear by the results they get, there are alternative approaches to the question.
And given some people’s proclivity for making fools of themselves and misunderstanding the written word, it is worth noting that I teach students in photography to question everything and everyone (including me), from the marketing-speak of companies touting their latest and greatest tools and features, to those deemed “experts” and “well-known” industry influencers touting whatever it is they are touting at the moment. Do your own comparisons and insights, side-by-side if you can, and rely on your own experience for your choices, even if (or especially if) it goes against the popular sentiment. 😎
* One Note: All of the images of Affinity Photo RAW Persona above were taken from the Affinity Photo 2 iPad version which Affinity brilliantly keeps all its apps across all platforms updated at the same time.