Verdict: 4 stars ★★★★
PhotoLab’s RAW processing, lens corrections and local adjustments tools are just as spectacular as they ever were, but its new ‘PhotoLibrary’ feature feels unfinished and disappointing and drags down the rating. If you can pretend it’s not there (and you don’t use a Fujifilm camera) this is still a five-star program.
What is PhotoLab?
PhotoLab is a high-end RAW conversion and image correction program from French software company DxO. It’s the new name for DxO Optics Pro, a program which brought powerful lab-developed lens corrections and PRIME de-noising tools to the camera market.
With PhotoLab, DxO introduced local adjustment tools, so you can now use it as a regular photo-editing tool not just a raw image processor, and PhotoLab 2 introduced a new PhotoLibrary feature for organising and searching your images.
How does it work?
The PhotoLab workspace has two tabs. The PhotoLibrary tab is where you view, search and sort your pictures, and the Customize tab is where you carry out the image editing.
When select a folder containing images in the PhotoLibrary tab, PhotoLab will automatically check the image (EXIF) data to identify the camera and lens used and then automatically apply a correction profile to fix lens distortion, chromatic aberration, corner shading (vignetting) and lens softness towards the edges of the frame.
If it doesn’t have a correction profile for that particular camera and lens combination it will prompt you to download a profile from the DxO website. This only takes a few seconds, and while there might be a handful of cameras and lenses which aren’t supported, DxO supports the vast majority of cameras and lenses on the market, and issues regular updates to add the latest camera models.
You may find you don’t need to make any changes at all to the automatically corrected image. Alternatively, you can browse a selection of custom presets to apply specific ‘looks’ to your picture. All these changes are made non-destructively so you can reverse or modify them at any time. You can also create Virtual Copies to try out different presets or adjustments without creating new files on your computer
The local adjustment tools include a gradient mask tool, brush and auto-masking tools and control point adjustments introduced when DxO took over the Nik Collection. These control points operate over an adjustable circular radius and automatically add a mask to similar tones so that complex manual masking is unnecessary.
For local adjustments you move sliders next to the adjustment ‘pin’ on the image – just like you do in the Nik Collection software. For regular global adjustments you use stacked adjustment panels in the sidebar on the right side of the image. These are pretty technical, with a multitude of sub-panels and drop-downs, but you can customise these panels to show only those tools you use regularly.
The big news with the introduction of DxO PhotoLab 2 was the new PhotoLibrary feature, the new name for the program’s old ‘Organize’ panel. At the top of the new panel is a search field which automatically adapts to your input as you type to search for text in filenames, specific camera settings like the focal length used and more. At the moment the options are relatively limited, but DxO says it plans to add many more search parameters in future, including keywords.
DxO has also revamped its ClearView feature, a local enhancement tool similar to Lightroom’s DeHaze feature. The new version, ClearView Plus, virtually eliminates the ‘glow’ effect around object outlines you sometimes got with the old version and which is a common problem with local contrast enhancement tools in general.
PhotoLab 2 introduced support for DCP colour profiles, which could prove useful to pro photographers who need precise colour rendition from their cameras and will use tools like X-Rite colour checkers to get it, while version 2.1 brings support for new cameras, including the Nikon Z7.
Is it any good?
DxO PhotoLab 2.1 has some major strengths and some significant weaknesses, which makes it tricky to rate.
Its strength is its lens corrections and RAW conversions, which are simply the best you can get. Other programs come close, and are better at integrating RAW processing into an overall workflow, but PhotoLab’s detail rendition and microcontrast enhancements give even average lenses a sharpness and a ‘bite’ you might never have imagined they were capable of.
The DxO PRIME noise reduction (available only in the Elite edition) is spectacularly good at enhancing high-ISO images. The process is not instantaneous – it takes a couple of minutes per photo – but it manages to restore a level of detail and sharpness to high ISO shots that other noise reduction tools don’t match.
Even the new ClearView Plus tool is impressive. It’s not just effective on misty landscapes but can instantly improve any flat-looking image. Again, though, this is only available in the Elite edition.
It’s fair enough that DxO should offer a two-tier product with a cheaper Essential edition and a more powerful Elite edition, but you do need to make sure you’re getting the one you need (almost certainly the Elite edition).
That’s not all, though. If you want perspective correction tools and a wider range of film simulations and effects, you need the extra DxO ViewPoint and FilmPack programs. Most users could probably do without FilmPack, but ViewPoint adds in perspective correction tools which rival programs offer as standard. It’s disappointing these are not built into PhotoLab from the start.
Fujifilm users will be left out in the cold too, because PhotoLab does not support Fujifilm RAF files. Apparently this is because the X-Trans processor’s colour filter array layout is incompatible with DxO’s demosaicing engine, and it doesn’t look as if this will change any time soon.
The new PhotoLibrary feature is disappointing. PhotoLab could already organise photos ‘virtually’ in Projects and this carries on in the latest version, but these can’t be nested like the albums and collections in rival programs, you can’t create ‘smart projects’ and it’s a long way from a proper organisational tool.
The new search feature is equally disappointing. It feels like it’s the start of something but not a finished feature. You can’t yet search for keywords and other IPTC metadata, and searches take some time to complete. It doesn’t help that PhotoLab searches your entire system, including all connected volumes, with no way to restrict your search to a nominated image archive or volume.
It feels like PhotoLab 2.1 needs two verdicts. It’s as good now (better, actually) than PhotoLab 1, which got a five star rating. However, the new PhotoLibrary tools are slow and disappointing. They add another layer of convenience, perhaps, but they do not make PhotoLab 2.1 a serious digital asset management tool.
All these negatives do start to add up: the extra cost of the Elite edition, the need to buy ViewPoint separately to get perspective correction tools, the lack of support for Fujifilm RAW files and now what feels like an unfinished search tool.
PhotoLab’s RAW processing, lens corrections, denoising and local adjustments are superb, but the program’s appeal is now diluted by this new and somewhat overhyped PhotoLibrary concept that doesn’t match the quality of the rest.
Where to get PhotoLab 2.1: DxO website
What it costs: Essential edition £99, Elite edition £159, DxO Viewpoint £59