There’s a line on the DxO Optics Pro website that explains its aim perfectly: “Upgrade your images without upgrading your equipment”. DxO Optics Pro 11 does this in two ways. First, it uses lab-developed lens profiles to correct aberrations in over 950 camera lenses, fixing distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting and even edge softness. Second, it uses DxO’s own RAW conversion and enhancement tools to produce the best possible quality from camera RAW files – it currently supports over 300 cameras. It will also correct JPEG images straight from the camera, though of course you won’t get the benefit of its RAW conversion tools.
In fact, DxO Optics Pro treats cameras and lenses together rather than individually, and now boasts corrections for a total of 30,000 camera/lens combinations. And if all this sounds like a technical nightmare, don’t worry. Optics Pro can read the EXIF (shooting) data for each picture, identify the camera and lens combination and apply the correct profile automatically. If it doesn’t yet have the appropriate profile, it automatically opens a dialog prompting you to download it – the process is quick and simple.
There’s really very little to know about the lens corrections, which seldom need any modification. The main interest lies in DxO Optics Pro’s RAW conversion tools which are both powerful and, to be honest, sometimes quite complex.
For a start, there’s a choice of noise reduction processes. The standard noise reduction operates in real time, but there’s a PRIME Denoise mode in the Elite edition that is much more powerful, albeit at the cost of processing time (a couple of minutes, sometimes, for each image). For each pixel, the PRIME Denoise engine analyses up to 1,000 surrounding pixels to identify similarities and ‘recombine information’.
It also has a feature called DxO Smart Lighting, which can pull back subtle detail in bright highlights, bring out deep shadow detail and yet preserve midtone contrast.
There’s also a DxO ClearView feature similar to the Dehaze option in Lightroom, which restores contrast to washed-out areas of a scene.
There are, in fact, two versions. There’s a cheaper Essentials edition (£99 in the UK) and a more expensive Elite edition (£159). The Essentials edition offers lens corrections and most of the RAW conversion controls, but if you want the PRIME Denoise and ClearView options you’ll need the Elite edition, which also offers an anti-moiré tool, a presets editor, customisable palettes and support for camera ICC profiles in a colour-managed workflow.
Both editions will integrate with two other DxO applications – DxO ViewPoint 3 and DxO FilmPack 5 – which can also be bought and used separately.
DxO ViewPoint 3 offers complex perspective corrections, automatic straightening and corrections for ‘volume deformation’. This is the effect at the edge of the frame commonly see with wide-angle lenses, where objects become elongated and deformed – you notice this especially with people and faces.
DxO FilmPack 5 replicates the look of analog films, darkroom processes and effects by combining film simulations, grain, vignettes, blur, frames and light leak effects. It might seem an odd departure for a company intent on the maximum technical accuracy, but an increasing number of photographers are looking for ways to add a little analog ‘soul’ back into their digital images.
How does it work?
It might sound complicated, but at heart DxO Optics Pro is incredibly simple to use. It operates in two modes: Organise and Customise. In Organize mode, it works as a simple folder browser, much like Adobe Bridge, except that when you navigate to a folder full of images, it immediately sets about rendering corrected, optimised versions of your images – you don’t have to do a thing.
The only time you need to intervene is when you think you can do a better job of the RAW conversion settings than the default conversion profile. You can either open a drop-down Preset menu to browse through a series of alternative ‘looks’ for your image, or your can dive into the manual settings and adjust the image precisely to your taste.
This is where you need to switch to the Customize module, and where it gets a little more complicated, because at heart this is really quite a technical program. Over on the right side of the screen is a stack of panels which expand to reveal further sub-sections and sliders, some of which have obvious functions and some which are a little more complicated.
The Light section is perhaps the most important and potentially hardest to fathom. DxO’s Smart Lighting system does a good job of improving shadow and highlight detail, but it operates at three levels – Slight, Medium and Strong. These are reflected in an Intensity slider directly underneath, and you can set intermediate values.
The complication here is that DxO has changed the Smart Lighting engine more than once, and the Mode menu that contains the strength settings also has DxO Optics Pro 7 and DxO Optics Pro 9 modes, presumably for users who prefer the old rendition, or who have applied corrections to images in previous versions of the software.
DxO Optics Pro 11, by the way, adds a Spot Weighted mode here, so that you can weight the correction towards any human faces (the software will look for them automatically) or you can define a key area of the image yourself with a rectangular marquee tool.
With luck, this is all you will need to do. In practice, you may also need to adjust the Exposure Compensation slider to bring the highlights back into range in high-contrast or overexposed images. Here again you have a choice between automatic adjustments – Highlight Priority Slight/Medium/Strong, Centre-Weighted Average and Manual.
In fact, there’s a further option, Smart, which sounds like it ought to be the best of all, but in fact this applies to the DxO Optics Pro 9 Smart Lighting engine, not the latest one. DxO’s determination to cater for legacy tools is making successive versions more complicated.
That’s not quite the end, either. In addition to the Smart Lighting controls, Optics Pro also has Selective Tone sliders for adjusting Highlights, Midtones, Shadows and Black tones individually. These can be used to fine-tune the Smart Lighting adjustments or as a purely manual alternative – they’re improved in DxO Optics Pro 11 to offer better midtone rendition with highlight and shadow adjustments.
The interactions between the Smart Lighting, Exposure Compensation and Selective Tone adjustments are complex and not explained in any great depth. It’s easy to end up chasing your tail with constant tweaks and adjustments without really getting anywhere – and perhaps longing for the relative simplicity of Lightroom’s tonal controls, for example.
Noise, colour and DxO’s add-on applications
It does get better. The Detail panel offers a nice clear choice between the standard HQ (Fast) noise reduction, which is actually very good, and the PRIME mode, which is even better.
The Color panel is pretty straightforward too, and in addition to choosing a custom white balance preset you can use a Multi-Point Color Balance tool to adjust the hue and saturation of specific colours in a simple, intuitive and effective way – this tool is on the top toolbar rather than the sidebar.
If you have DxO ViewPoint 3 and FilmPack 5 installed, these get their own panels in the sidebar (ViewPoint 3 also adds perspective correction controls to the top toolbar), though the options are pretty brief and FilmPack 5 offers simple drop-down menus instead of effect previews – surely it would be better to have FilmPack 5 open in its own window.
All of these adjustments are non-destructive – you can go back at any time and change what you’ve done. Like Lightroom and Capture One, DxO Optics Pro saves its adjustments as processing metadata that’s only visible within the software. To make permanent, edited versions of your photos for use in other applications, you need to export them as JPEG, TIFF or DNG files.
So what’s new?
There are many more tools than there’s been space to describe here, but these are the most important. DxO Optics Pro 11 does add some features not found in the previous version but they don’t represent a major upgrade.
The DxO PRIME denoise engine is now faster, the Smart Lighting Spot Weighted mode (already mentioned) is new, as is red-eye correction. Version 11 adds Auto Microcontrast which, DxO says, is smart enough not to modify faces and high ISO images. The improved Selective Tone rendition has already been mentioned and there’s now a full-screen display mode, extended white balance range for shots taken underwater and at concerts, for example, and more ‘reactive’ sliders which are up to twice as fast.
DxO has also added shortcuts for rating and filtering images to make it easier to ‘cull’ photos from a shoot.
Is it any good?
DxO Optics Pro 11 does what it does extremely well. It’s what it doesn’t do that could be the problem. But let’s start with the positives…
Its lens corrections and RAW processing are excellent. It’s not just the quality of the results, but the simplicity of its approach. All you have to do is browse to the folders containing your photos and the rest is automatic – lens aberrations disappear, the lighting is subtly optimised and if you care to zoom in you’ll find a clarity and a ‘cleanness’ in the fine detail you probably weren’t aware your camera and lenses were capable of.
Other programs can do this too, but perhaps not as well and certainly not as simply as this. Sometimes DxO’s default sharpening can produce edge artefacts which become apparent when you zoom in, but the overall effect at regular viewing distances is excellent.
DxO’s boast is “unparalleled rendering… automatically”, and you probably wouldn’t argue with that, except that when you carry out such a profound optical clean-up on an image you do sometimes lose a little of its character. Sometimes a little lens vignetting helps the contrast and the composition, sometimes dense shadows and blown-out highlights give a ‘look’ you don’t want to lose. In making an image technically perfect, DxO can sometimes suck some of the life from it.
Of course, you can switch off the vignetting correction, and manually add contrast and colour you feel you’ve lost, but it does add an extra step or two to the process.
So far so good. Very good, in fact. The problem is what’s missing.
DxO Optics Pro 11 doesn’t offer any real image cataloguing tools, just a relatively simple file browsing approach. Well, for a lot of folk that’s OK, and it does have good filtering and rating tools for organising your images at a folder level.
Worse – much worse – is the lack of localised adjustment tools. You can’t darken a sky. You can’t lighten a face. There are no gradient masks or adjustment brushes here. DxO Optics Pro 11 can create some very fine black and white image conversions, for example, but you’re going to have to do any dodging and burning elsewhere. This hurts the DxO FilmPack 5 add-on particularly, a program designed to produce finished images, but without the selective adjustment tools you’ll almost certainly need to do the job properly.
So however good DxO Optics Pro might be at improving your camera’s output, it’s unlikely to be the only program you’ll ever need. It excels at the first part of your workflow but stops at a point where you might need to carry on.
For Fujifilm fans there’s more bad news. DxO Optics Pro’s RAW engine does not support the X-Trans sensor because, it seems, the software is designed for regular bayer sensors, not the unique Fujifilm photosite array. It doesn’t even open non X-Trans Fujifilm RAW files such as those from the X-A1, for example.
All of this makes DxO Optics Pro 11 quite difficult to rate. It does a brilliant job at what it sets out to do. It can transform the output of a relatively modest camera and lens combination to produce a level of technical quality which is, as DxO’s marketing spiel claims, is almost like upgrading your camera. Its manual controls are sometimes complex and confusing, but at a simpler level its default corrections are fully automatic and you don’t have to lift a finger – figuratively or literally.
But unless you’re one of those rare photographers who makes every image entirely in-camera, it’s not going to be enough. Even if you can live without database-driven cataloguing tools, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to manage without selective adjustments. So you’re going to need other software and you’re going to have to figure out how to integrate DxO Optics Pro 11 into your workflow.
For me, DxO Optics Pro’s folder browsing can’t replace Lightroom, which is my preferred organisational tool, and I routinely need to make selective adjustments to my favourite shots. It is possible to export RAW files to DxO Optics Pro 11 from Lightroom and have them re-imported automatically as edited TIFFs, JPEGs or DNGs, but it’s clunky and slow, and I’d probably use Optic Pro as a batch RAW converter right from the start and import processed images into Lightroom.
I could then apply local adjustments in Lightroom and use DxO FilmPack 5 as a plug-in for the final stage in producing an ‘analog’ look. Neither, however, is ideal.
So DxO Optics Pro 11 does face you with some tricky decisions. Some of the controls are tricky, its lack of local adjustment tools makes things trickier still, and figuring out how to integrate its unquestionably excellent results with your own photographic workflow could be the trickiest thing of all.