Ever since that dark day when Adobe made the shift from the perpetual licensing model of the Creative Suite to the subscription-based Creative Cloud, many photographers have been searching for a viable alternative to Adobe Lightroom. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of contenders: from open-source alternatives like Darktable, to Mac-only options like Pixelmator, to universal options like On1 Photo RAW.

But one app has emerged as the de-facto alternative that’s better, or at least more widely adopted, than the rest: Capture One Pro.

While nobody has yet managed to unseat Adobe’s Lightroom Classic as the “industry standard” Raw photo organization and editing tool, Capture One has arguably come closest, earning a major following among photographers who want a highly customizable do-everything editor with tons of professional-grade features, layer support and, if the hype is to be believed, much faster overall performance.

Some of these claims are more subjective than others, but today, we’re going to tackle one in particular: is Capture One really faster than Lightroom Classic? And if so, by how much?



The tests

As with our Final Cut Pro vs Premiere Pro comparison, we did our best to put these two programs on an even footing and test them on a wide variety of different computers with different specs.

Is Capture One really faster than Lightroom Classic? And if so, by how much?

We don’t just want to find out if Capture One is faster than Adobe Lightroom for one specific camera’s Raw file or on one particular operating system. The broader our testing, the more we can learn about when, how, and why one program out-performs the others.

To that end, we installed C1 and LRC on four different computers – two PCs and two Macs – and ran the software through through the same battery of tests, using Raw files from four different cameras: the 20MP Canon EOS R6, the 47MP Nikon Z7 II, the 61MP Sony a7R IV, and the 100MP Fujifilm GFX 100.

Adobe Lightroom Classic CC Capture One Pro 21
Import and generate 2048px previews Import and generate 2048px previews
Apply custom preset Apply custom style
Export full resolution 100% JPEGs (sRGB) Export full resolution 100% JPEGs (sRGB)

To keep the results as comparable as possible across cameras, we used the Raw studio scene comparison image from each of our four cameras and duplicated it 100 times, leaving us with 400 raw files in all. Each set of 100 was then imported, previews were generated, an identical custom preset/style was applied in both programs, and variants were exported as full resolution 100% JPEGs to a subfolder on the Desktop.

Each test was repeated a minimum of three times in a row to ensure consistency and eliminate outliers. Full hardware acceleration was turned on in the settings and, where possible, the cache and/or catalog were cleared and the program was restarted between each run.

Finally, since both programs are updated quite frequently with further performance and feature improvements, it’s important to note that we used the latest versions of both Capture One 21 (14.3.0) and Adobe Lightroom Classic (10.3) as of August 1st, 2021.

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The computers

The Razer Blade 15 Advanced shows off how Lightroom and Capture One take advantage (or don’t) of the latest hardware.
Photo by DL Cade

To give the broadest basis for comparison, we ran our tests on two Macs and two PCs: one M1 Mac, one Intel Mac, one AMD PC, and one Intel PC. You can see the full spec breakdown below:

M1 Mac mini 13-inch MacBook Pro Razer Blade 15 Advanced 2021 ASUS Zephyrus G14
CPU Apple Silicon M1 8-core Intel Core i7-1068NG7 Intel Core i9-11900H AMD Ryzen 9 5900HS
GPU Apple Silicon M1 8-core Intel Iris Plus

NVIDIA RTX 3080

16GB VRAM

NVIDIA RTX 3060

6GB of VRAM

RAM 16GB Unified Memory 32GB 3733MHz LPDDR4 32GB 3200HMz DDR4 32GB 3200MHz DDR4

Storage

2TB Integrated SSD 4TB Integrated SSD 1TB PCIe 4.0 M.2 NVMe SSD 1TB PCIe 3.0 M.2 NVMe SSD
Display None

13-inch Retina Display

15-inch 4K OLED 14-inch QHD IPS LCD
Price $1,700 $3,600 $3,400 $2,000
Price w/ 1TB of Storage $1,300 $2,600 $3,400 $2,000

Admittedly, the PCs we tested are quite a bit more powerful than either of the Macs, but this isn’t about comparing operating systems. Using these four machines allowed us to see what sort of impact a discrete GPU has on performance, compare M1 against Intel, compare AMD vs Intel, and compare at four distinct price points.

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The results

In our testing, we found that Capture One is faster overall, but not across the board.

In terms of navigation, copying edits or presets across hundreds of files, and the smoothness with which an image preview renders as you move a slider back and forth, there was no noticeable difference between the two programs running on the same computer.

This is because both Capture One and Lightroom Classic use GPU acceleration to help with high resolution displays and most basic photo editing tasks, putting them on an even footing. And in terms of browsing images in your catalog, a recent update has pushed Lightroom ahead somewhat, making it possible to speedily inspect even 61MP Raw files at a pace that most users would expect to find in Photo Mechanic.

But back to our measurements. Where the two programs differ most is in exactly those tasks that we decided to benchmark: Import/Preview Generation, and Export.

Import Test

When it comes to import and preview-generation, it might surprise you to learn that Lightroom Classic was faster across the board. With standard previews set to the same resolution in both programs, Adobe never took more than 50 seconds to generate previews, even with our largest 100MP Fuji GFX files, while Capture One slowed all the way down to 4 minutes and 18 seconds on the Intel MacBook Pro—an 81% difference.

This was on our slowest test machine with the largest files. As file sizes get smaller and hardware gets better, the gap in performance decreases. Still, in our testing, Lightroom Classic continued to outperform Capture One each and every time.

On our two high-powered PCs, Lightroom was able to generate previews from the Fuji GFX files in approximately 40 seconds, while Capture One performed the same task in about 1 minute and 35 seconds— a 58% difference.

You can see all of the data in the tables and graphs below. Times are minutes and seconds, and the winner for each computer/camera combo is highlighted in green.

Blade 15 M1 Mac Mini ASUS G14 MacBook Pro
EOS R6
Lightroom 00:28 00:28 00:27 00:34
Capture One 00:33 00:37 00:32 00:47
Nikon Z7 II
Lightroom 00:29 00:30 00:27 00:35
Capture One
00:45 00:59 00:50 01:55
Sony a7R IV
Lightroom 00:30 00:27 00:26 00:31
Capture One
01:14 01:12 01:04 02:34
Fujifilm GFX 100
Lightroom 00:40 00:44 00:39 00:50
Capture One 01:37 01:53 01:35 04:18

Unfortunately for Adobe fans, that’s pretty much the end of the good news. When it comes to exporting full resolution JPEGs at 100% quality – the more time-consuming task by far – Capture One 21 is much faster in our testing.

Export test

The results of our export test show that the more powerful the machine, the wider the performance gap between Capture One and Lightroom. This is because Capture One uses GPU acceleration for processing and exporting files, while Lightroom Classic does not.

When it comes to exporting 100% JPEGs – the more time-consuming task – Capture One 21 was much faster than Adobe Lightroom.

For our slowest laptop, the Intel MacBook Pro with integrated graphics, the gap was quite small. Capture One was between 15 seconds and 1 minute and 48 seconds faster depending on the file type. But once you throw in a discrete GPU or Apple Silicon, plus hardware acceleration, the difference is staggering.

Our ASUS G14 was able to export all one hundred Fuji GFX 100 raw files, fully edited, in just 6 minutes and 39 seconds when using Capture One. This same export, with the same edits, took more than 24 minutes in Lightroom Classic. Even the M1 Mac mini, which doesn’t have a discrete GPU to pick up the slack, saw export times drop by up to 27 minutes when switching from Lightroom to Capture One.

You can browse the raw data for yourself below. As with the imports, the winners of each computer/camera combo are highlighted in green:

Blade 15 M1 Mac Mini ASUS G14 MacBook Pro
EOS R6
Lightroom 3:13 4:04 3:57 5:52
Capture One 1:31 2:06 1:35 4:41
Nikon Z7 II
Lightroom 7:01 8:54 8:50 12:59
Capture One
3:17 5:22 3:01 12:44
Sony a7R IV
Lightroom 9:04 15:38 11:40 16:26
Capture One
4:03 6:44 3:41 15:28
Fujifilm GFX 100
Lightroom 20:07 39:56 24:02 27:54
Capture One 7:10 12:19 6:39 26:06

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The takeaways

When you add up the total time spent importing and exporting images, Capture One 21 is definitely faster than Lightroom Classic CC. Much faster. But the size of that gap in performance depends on a few factors.

As far as we can tell, there are two major takeaways from the testing above.

1. It’s all about the GPU

We said it in our head-to-head comparison of Final Cut and Premier Pro, and we’ll say it again here: nothing beats a well-optimized app.

While Lightroom Classic does use GPU Acceleration to help with certain tasks, the app makes no use of the GPU during import, preview generation, or export. This is incredibly frustrating for PC users, who are more likely to own a system with a beefy NVIDIA or AMD GPU. When it comes time to export a few hundred fully edited JPEGs from your most recent shoot, this lack of GPU acceleration leaves a lot of performance on the table.

The same applies to Apple Silicon Macs, which still benefit greatly from Capture One’s hardware acceleration even without a discrete GPU.

Lightroom Classic makes no use of the GPU during import, preview generation, or export.

For users of Intel-based machines with no GPU it’s basically a wash between both programs when it comes to import and export. But for M1 Mac users and PC users with discrete GPUs, exports from Capture One are between 40 and 72% faster across all file types, with the gap getting wider as file sizes get larger.

Even in a small-scale test, where we’re only exporting 100 Raw files at a time, that translates into 13 to 27 minutes saved per export if you’re working with a camera like the Fujifilm GFX 100. Extrapolate that up to hundreds of images exported week-in and week-out as part of a professional workflow, and we’re talking about saving several hours of export time per month, while giving up only a few minutes during import, compared to Lightroom.

2. Prioritize the hardware that matches your software, and visa versa

Whether you’re a die-hard Capture One fan or you’re determined to keep using Adobe products, keep these results in mind when making your next computer purchase: to get the most out of your software of choice, you should prioritize the right hardware (and visa versa).

For Lightroom Classic users, that means betting heavily on CPU performance and RAM. These are the only bits of hardware that Lightroom actually uses during import, preview generation, and export, so unless you also regularly use GPU-accelerated apps like Adobe Premiere Pro, you’re better off skimping on your graphics card and putting your money elsewhere.

To get the most out of your software of choice, you should prioritize the right hardware.

For Capture One users, your best bet will be to purchase a well-balanced system, or go with an M1 Mac. You probably don’t need to pony up for a system with an NVIDIA RTX 30-series graphics card, but you definitely don’t want to skip the discrete GPU entirely. For the best value, look at AMD Ryzen-based systems like the ASUS G14, or pick up a last-gen RTX 20-series laptop for even less. You can, of course, also build your own PC, mixing and matching parts as you see fit.

Just know that you can get away with spending less on RAM and CPU performance if you have a good GPU to pick up the slack.

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Final thoughts

The two programs may look similar, but there’s a huge performance difference between Capture One Pro and Adobe Lightroom Classic.
Photo by DL Cade
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Capture One Pro
Pros: Pros:
  • Faster at importing files and generating standard previews
  • Gives you the option to generate 1:1 previews (if you have the time)
  • Seamless integration with Adobe Photoshop and other CC apps
  • Robust cloud integration and companion mobile apps
  • Faster at exporting heavily edited files
  • Features significant GPU hardware acceleration
  • Better optimized to take advantage of Apple Silicon M1
  • Available as Sony-only, Fuji-only, and Nikon-only versions for less money (or included with camera purchase)
  • Available as a one time purchase
Cons: Cons:
  • No GPU acceleration for import, preview generation, and export
  • Export speed is heavily RAM dependent
  • May eventually be discontinued and replaced by cloud-based Lightroom CC
  • Not everyone loves the subscription model…
  • Performance is similar to Lightroom when using low-end hardware
  • No cloud integration or companion mobile apps (yet)
  • Pro-focused interface comes with a steep learning curve

For many – possibly most – photographers, the decision to switch to Capture One Pro from Lightroom Classic will be driven by the desire to escape Adobe’s subscription model. The ability to pay once and buy yourself a perpetual license is a massive draw. Better yet, Capture One offers Nikon, Sony, and Fuji users an even cheaper version that only supports their camera brand. (Though they do also offer a subscription option, so who knows what the future will bring.)

But there’s one other huge reason why people switch, and that reason is speed.

As we showed above, Capture One users aren’t lying when they say that C1 is faster than Lightroom Classic. If you’re rocking a new M1 Mac or a PC with a discrete GPU, Capture One is much better optimized to take advantage of the graphics capability lying dormant on your motherboard when you’re exporting batches of heavily edited files.

Capture One users aren’t lying when they say that C1 is faster than Lightroom Classic.

For the enthusiast users who edit and export a few photos at a time, a couple of times per week, Lightroom is still probably best. Cloud integration, mobile support, and the ability to transition seamlessly between Creative Cloud apps is great. Even if you hate Lightroom and the subscription model, you may want to look for another alternative with a more user-friendly design and less focus on “pro” workflows.

But for professional users who are working with thousands of images week-in and week-out, Lightroom Classic will cost you twice: once when you pay that subscription fee, and again when you count up the hours lost waiting for your exports to finish.

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