PhotoLab 2.3 is a terrific standalone photo browser, RAW processor and photo-editing tool, producing superb picture quality and with rather good local adjustment tools. But which version should you get? PhotoLab Essential is cheapest, the DxO Nik Collection (which includes it) is best value, and it makes PhotoLab Elite (which doesn’t have the Nik plug-ins) look expensive. And there’s still no support for Fujifilm X-Trans files. DxO’s software is great, choosing the right bundle and the right time to buy is trickier.
What is it?
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 RAW processing tools to the camera market.
The change came about when DxO bought the Nik Collection and its control point image adjustment technology from Google. With PhotoLab, DxO has introduced local adjustment tools, so you can now use it as a regular photo-editing tool not just a raw image processor. PhotoLab 2 introduced a new PhotoLibrary feature for organising and searching your images.
PhotoLab is available in a basic Essential edition and a more powerful Elite edition. The Elite edition adds DxO’s excellent PRIME denoise tool for transforming high-ISO images, ClearView Plus for improving contrast and cutting through haze, and advanced camera profile and colour management tools for users with a strict colour management workflow.
In a new development, DxO has now launched the Nik Collection 2, which includes PhotoLab Essential as part of the package, which is a kind of middle-tier choice for users who want both PhotoLab and the Nik Collection.
Bad news for Fujifilm owners
DxO PhotoLab does not support Fujifilm X-Trans RAW files. There are technical issues for this that DxO says would require major re-engineering work to fix, and it has current no plans to do so.
FilmPack 5 and ViewPoint 3: optional extras
Just to add one more layer of complication, PhotoLab can work alongside two other DxO programs, sold separately.
FilmPack 5 sets out to replicate the look of classic analog films, developers and darkroom processes, adding in textures, borders and light leaks to give a real timeless, vintage feel. FilmPack 5 becomes a whole lot more useful now that DxO PhotoLab offers selective local adjustments. However, the Nik Collection 2 plug-ins go much further, so if you have those you might find FilmPack 5 redundant.
ViewPoint 3 is a tool for applying automatic lens corrections, just like PhotoLab but also for correcting more esoteric geometric problems like volumetric distortion – this is what makes people and objects near the edges of wideangle shots look stretched out sideways. ViewPoint 3 also has an array of tools for correcting perspective distortion, including converging verticals (keystoning), horizontal keystoning and both at the same time. It can also correct perspective distortion across two planes simultaneously.
Annoyingly, although PhotoLab offers excellent lens corrections, there are no built in perspective/transformation tools, and you need to get ViewPoint for this. Once it’s installed, though, it integrates fully with the PhotoLab interface.
Both FilmPack and ViewPoint are installed on the machine used for this review, so their tools and panels may appear in some screenshots. However, the text of the review covers only those tools that come with PhotoLab.
How it works
DxO’s processing technology has one key aim – to get the maximum possible quality from your camera. This is done in two ways. First, the software identifies the camera and lens used to take the shot and automatically applied a lab-developed optical correction profile to correct an array of optical imperfections, or aberrations. Second, it uses a top-quality RAW processing engine to deliver high sharpness, low noise and a wide tonal range from your camera’s RAW files.
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. 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.
Is it any good?
First, the image quality. For ultimate quality I’d say it’s a toss up between this and Capture One Pro, depending on the camera model and whether or not Capture One has a matching lens profile. Both produce superb results from RAW files, but DxO PhotoLab perhaps does it more consistently across a wider range of camera models and lenses – except for Fujifilm, of course, where Capture One is the obvious (well, the only) choice.
DxO PhotoLab can extract a level of quality from your camera’s RAW files that you probably never imagined it had. You have to look closely to see the improvements in noise, sharpness and especially edge sharpness, but the optimisation of the lighting and the effectiveness of the lens aberration corrections are obvious straight away.
A couple of tools deserve special mention. DxO’s ClearView option is a forerunner of Adobe’s Dehaze control – and it delivers a crisper, less over-the-top correction that adds drama to skies and overall contrast to flat-looking images, and the new ClearView Plus is better still. (ClearView is only in the Elite edition.)
ClearView adds contrast on a broad scale, but DxO also has a Microcontrast slider that does it on a small scale. Other programs have Clarity or Structure sliders that do a broadly similar thing, emphasising textures and objects with localised contrast adjustments, but PhotoLab’s Microcontrast slider seems to add crispness and detail in an altogether more natural and less obtrusive way – but with just the same intensity.
And then there’s the DxO PRIME denoise tool – another option only in the Elite edition. The standard noise reduction process already gives well above average results, delivering crisp detail and low noise without excessive smoothing, but the PRIME denoise feature goes a step further, using complex image analysis to reduce noise to very low levels even in the highest ISO images.
It’s not all good. PhotoLab’s folder browsing and image filtering tools offer a basic but effective way of finding and organising your images, but the new search tool introduced in version 2 is pretty weak. It works only on embedded image metadata like date ranges and camera settings rather than user-defined keywords, it’s not very quick, and on our test machine it kept finding images that it then said were missing. Perhaps the less said about this particular new ‘feature’, the better.
The other issue is performance. If your computer uses SSD storage you might not find PhotoLab’s startup time much of a problem; on the iMac used for testing, which has a Fusion drive (part SSD, part HD), PhotoLab can take a couple of minutes to load – or longer.
DxO doesn’t always make things easy for itself, or for its customers. The ‘Photolibrary’ concept introduced in version 2 is a little lame, to say the least, the lack of support for Fujifilm cameras becomes ever more painful as time goes by, and it’s quite difficult to steer a path through the different DxO PhotoLab purchase options to choose the best (I’ll come to that shortly).
The bottom line is, however, that PhotoLab’s results are spectacularly good. It can get superb results even from basic or middle-of-the-road cameras, its local adjustments are powerful and effective, and if you go for the Elite edition and its PRIME denoise feature, you can get high-ISO image quality that you might never have imagined possible.
If you love image quality above all else, you need to at least try PhotoLab. It’s not quick, it’s not always straightforward, but the results you can achieve are amazing.
But which version do you get? DxO’s bundles and pricing change all the time, so this advice is only correct at the time of writing…
PhotoLab Essential is a good starting point, but the DxO Nik Collection 2 feels like a much better deal. It comes with PhotoLab Essential anyway, but includes the Nik Collection plug-ins too, and these are as inspiring and as powerful today as the day they were launched.
Recommending PhotoLab Elite is more difficult. Yes, you get DxO PRIME denoise and ClearView Plus, not to mention advanced colour management, but it costs a lot more than both the Essential version and Nik Collection 2, and right now there’s no obvious way to get the Nik plug-ins to go with it without apparently paying for another PhotoLab Essential licence as part of the deal.
I have checked with DxO about this and the company is refusing to split the Nik plug-ins and PhotoLab Essential, even for users who already own PhotoLab. It doesn’t affect the quality of DxO’s software, but it doesn’t feel like good customer relations, either.