DxO has sprung a surprise with two major announcements. The first is the acquisition of the much-loved Nik Collection from Google, possibly saving it from doom in the process. The second is the release of a new program called PhotoLab, reviewed here, which is a development of its highly-regarded Optics Pro software. Both are big stories in the world of digital image editing.
DxO PhotoLab is the successor to DxO Optics Pro, a program designed with one simple 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.
This hasn’t changed. It’s what DxO Optics Pro did before this, and it has built a well deserved reputation for very high image quality. But DxO PhotoLab adds a whole new ingredient – localised image adjustments. This was the missing link in DxO Optics Pro. Great as it was, Optics Pro offered no way to adjust smaller areas within the picture.
But now you can, and it makes an enormous difference to this software’s capabilities. Before, DxO Optics Pro was a great RAW converter but you’d still need other software to finish off and enhance images which needed local adjustments, such as a darker sky, or a lightened face in a portrait. Now, it’s a genuine standalone photo editing application in its own right, and unless you want to start compositing multi-layer images or creating HDR stacks or panoramas, you might not need any other software.
This, we presume, is the reason behind DxO’s name change, from Optics Pro to Photolab. Otherwise, DxO’s software bundles follow the same route as before, so PhotoLab itself is available in both Essential and Elite editions, and it’s the Elite edition that offers more advanced tools like DxO’s ClearView feature and PRIME noise removal tool. DxO also offers two add-on programs, ViewPoint and FilmPack, which offer advanced perspective corrections and analog film effects respectively. These are available separately or as part of the DxO Photo Suite bundle. Once they’re installed, they integrate with DxO PhotoLab to offer additional panels and controls.
You can find out more about ViewPoint and Filmpack below – all the screenshots accompanying this review are of the PhotoLab Elite edition with these two add-ons installed.
So what’s new?
DxO says it will carry on developing the Nik Collection plug-in suite and plans to release a new Nik Collection 2018 version in the middle of 2018. In the meantime, it’s incorporated at least one of the Nik technologies into its new local adjustment tools – Nik’s U-point automatic masking tools.
Users of the Nik Collection will know how this works. You add a control point to the centre of an area in the image that you want to adjust, then use drop-down slider controls to change the exposure, contrast, saturation and other properties for that area.
The U-point selection works over a circular area, but within that area it uses the colour values at the point where you clicked to select areas with similar tones only, fading the masking effect towards the edges of the circle and masking areas which don’t match that tone.
You can move the control point around to pick the best location and adjust its radius to control how far its effect spreads. It might sound a little haphazard and imprecise compared to the selections you might make in Photoshop, for example, but it’s fast, intuitive and effective and lets you enhance your images in a very intuitive and visual way.
How the selective local adjustments work
So here’s how the new DxO PhotoLab local adjustments work. First, you click the new Local Adjustments button on the top toolbar. Next, you right-click on the image to display the local adjustment selector. This is a circular gadget with tool icons around the outside, offering a Brush, Graduated Filter, Control Point, Auto Mask, Eraser, New Mask and Reset buttons.
The Brush tool is simple a feathered freehand brush you can use to paint over areas of the image. When you finish painting the area is displayed as a mask overlay, together with a row of vertical sliders for making adjustments. As soon as you start moving the sliders the mask disappears and you see the effects live on your image. Using a freehand brush tool might sound like a pretty basic way of making adjustments but it’s quick and easy and very effective for smaller areas.
The Graduated Filter tool works just as you’d expect if you’ve used them before in other programs. You get a feathered linear mask you can rotate, position and extend at will, with the same available adjustments – Exposure, Contrast, Microcontrast, ClearView, Vibrancy, Saturation, Temperature, Tint, Sharpness, Blur.
I’ve already talked about the Control point tool above, so the next one is the Auto Mask tool. This is designed to automatically detect the edges of the object you’re painting over. The mask doesn’t adapt to fit the object edges – it overlaps the boundaries even after you release the mouse – but the rendered adjustments show that it works very well where the edges are sharp and clearly defined, though soft or defocused edges produced a slight edge halo effect.
Lastly, there’s the Eraser tool, which is actually very important for refining adjustments you’ve made with a Gradient Filter, Control Point or Auto Mask. All of these can produce some unwanted ‘spillage’ on to surrounding areas, and the Eraser is a quick and simple way to clean them up.
These local adjustment tools work very well. The screen can get a bit cluttered and untidy when you’ve got a bunch of overlapping mask outlines and adjustment sliders, and there is a bit of slow-down when you’re making a number of adjustments and the image has to re-render between each one, but this is still a really good effort – it feels like a finished, polished system, not just a first attempt.
What’s it like to use?
The local adjustments are the principal change between the old DxO Optics Pro and DxO PhotoLab. The rest of the tools and workflow work pretty much as before, split between an Organize pane where you browse your image folders, a Customize pane for carrying out image enhancements and an Export to disk button for batch-exporting edited images in a variety of formats to a destination of your choice.
The Organize panel is pretty straightforward. DxO PhotoLab is not a digital asset management system (DAM) like Lightroom or Capture One Pro. It’s simply a folder browser with added rating, flagging and filtering tools for images within folders. It’s easy to filter out 5-star images, RAW files or image ‘Picks’, for example.
You can also create Virtual Copies, which is a major advantage. This enables you to try out a whole series fo different ‘looks’ for single image without having to create duplicate files that gobble up your hard disk space.
It’s the Customize panel where the real editing work is done, and here DxO PhotoLab can get quite confusing. It applies lens corrections, and lighting adjustments to your RAW files automatically, so you don’t need to know anything at all about the technicalities at this stage, but once you start working on images manually, there’s quite a lot to learn.
PhotoLab splits its tools into a series of stacked panels organised according to theme, for example Essential Tools, Light, Detail, Geometry and Color. Within these are individual tools, many with their own expanding drop-down options. There are lots of these tools, some appearing in more than one palette, and some which appear to do similar things to others.
Perhaps the best example is the DxO Smart Lighting system, which attempts to bring out detail in dark shadow areas and bring back highlight detail in the brightest. It’s never explained exactly how it does this, and you might prefer the straightforward Highlight and Shadow sliders of a program like Lightroom. But it does work pretty well nonetheless. However, there is an additional Selective Tone tool with sliders for manual Highlights, Midtones, Shadows and Blacks which appears to do a very similar thing. I’ve been using DxO Optics Pro for a long time and I’ve never worked out whether it really does and which of these tools – Smart Lighting or Selective Tone – I really ought to be using.
That’s my only ongoing criticism of DxO’s flagship software – there’s too much technical complexity and apparent repetition in the tools and their organisation. You can, however, create your own custom workspace, and I’d suggest doing that sooner rather than later. You can also save a lot of time by choosing a Preset effect you like and tweaking a handful of the processing parameters if necessary.
DxO ViewPoint 3 and FilmPack 5
This is a good point to mention the two add-on apps from DxO. They can be bought and used separately, but they also integrate with DxO PhotoLab to offer additional panels and tools within the PhotoLab interface.
DxO 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.
FilmPack 5 is quite different. Where ViewPoint 3 is all about mathematical precision, 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.
To be honest, I’d recommend getting both of these at the same time as DxO PhotoLab despite the extra expense, as part of the DxO Photo Suite.
So is it any good?
DxO Optics Pro was always a great program even without selective local adjustments, but now these have been added in DxO PhotoLab, it takes it to another level. I’ve already talked plenty about these tools, so I need to briefly mention the results.
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 superbly results from raw files, but DxO PhotoLab does it more consistently across a wider range of camera models and lenses.
This software 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.
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. 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. There are two caveats. First, the PRIME process is slow, taking a couple of minutes to process a single image, and you can only preview its effect on a small section, and even this takes some moments to render. The other is that high ISO shots don’t just suffer from noise – they will also have an underlying loss of detail that the PRIME process can’t fix, and eliminating noise can often make this more obvious. Nevertheless, if you have the time to use it, DxO’s PRIME noise reduction is very, very good indeed.
I really rated DxO Optics Pro before but the lack of selective local adjustments was a problem for me, so DxO PhotoLab changes everything. It’s not perfect – it can be sluggish, and the adjustment tools are still presented in a way that’s far too complex and technical – but its raw conversions are superb. I would definitely get ViewPoint 3 to add in its powerful perspective correction options and FilmPack 5 is a good call too, given that if you go for all three you can save some money on the combined cost with the DxO Photo Suite bundle. And do get the Elite version not Essentials so that you get the full range of tools.
If you’re not sure, or you’ve never tried DxO software, download the 30-day trial version. There are no watermarks or feature restrictions so this will give you plenty of time to try it out!