Verdict: 4.5 stars
PhotoLab has quirks and limitations. It also gets expensive if you want the whole DxO ecosystem (and you probably will). It’s also no good for Fujifilm owners. But if understand and accept all this, and you remain preoccupied with image quality above all else, there is nothing like DxO PhotoLab. Even if you leave out its excellent global and local adjustments, for sheer quality of output alone, it really is out on its own.
- Excellent RAW processing
- Excellent optical corrections
- Excellent local adjustment tools
- PhotoLibrary features are limited
- You probably need the Elite edition (and ViewPoint and FilmPack)
- Does not support Fujifilm X-Trans
DxO PhotoLab 3 is a photo editor with a difference. Its speciality is high-quality RAW processing and optical corrections for lens defect, but since DxO acquired the Nik Collection and its U-point masking technologies from Google, PhotoLab now has powerful local image adjustment tools too.
PhotoLab is available in two editions. The Essential edition is cheaper but lacks some of the more advanced (and desirable) options of the Elite edition, such as the exceptional DxO PRIME Denoise tool and the similarly impressive DxO ClearView Plus feature.
What complicates things slightly is that there are two add-on programs – DxO ViewPoint 3 and DxO FilmPack – which can be bought and used separately, but which also integrate with the PhotoLab interface to offer extended perspective correction and analog film tools. These are not reviewed here, but their buttons and palettes will be visible in the screenshots with this review.
The further (final) complication is that DxO has decided to sell the Nik Collection with DxO PhotoLab Essential included. It’s a great idea for first-time DxO customers because they get the amazing Nik Collection plug-ins and an excellent raw processing and browsing tool to pre-process raw files (or any other type) before sending them to the plug-ins. Again, this is a separate review, but the Nik Collection button will be visible in these screenshots.
Disappointingly, if you already have PhotoLab and decide to get the Nik Collection, you still have to pay the full price, even though you already have the PhotoLab component.
There is one more important point. PhotoLab does not support Fujifilm X-Trans files. The unique color filter array of X-Trans sensors is incompatible with DxO’s RAW processing engine. That will be a big blow to Fujifilm fans and immediately rules out PhotoLab as RAW processing and editing tool for them.
The DxO PhotoLibrary window
DxO PhotoLab has two main workspaces. The first is PhotoLibrary, where you browse and organize your images. The second is Customize, which is where you do the editing.
In both views you can display a browser at the bottom of the screen and an image viewer at the top, and change the sizes of both. In practice, you might want to hide the viewer panel completely in PhotoLibrary view and keep the browser panel to a strip at the the bottom of the Customize view.
‘PhotoLibrary’ is a rather grand term for what is a fairly basic image browsing system. Your image folders are displayed in a panel to the left and these correspond to real folders on our computer. Changes you make here are reflected on your computer and vice versa.
You can create virtual albums, or ‘Projects’ as they’re called in PhotoLab, but these are shown in a simple linear list, so they don’t offer the depth or hierarchical organization of a program like Lightroom.
There are some search tools in PhotoLab but they are semi-automatic, so that you type what you’re looking for in the search box and it will suggest possible data types like ISO settings, shutter speeds, other EXIF (shooting) information or, in the latest version, keywords.
It’s not clear what folders PhotoLab is searching, but it’s likely to be every folder it has ‘indexed’. You can ask it to index a folder manually, but it does this every time you visit a folder and show its thumbnails anyway.
The PhotoLibrary is a reasonably powerful image browser but not a cataloguing tool or digital asset management (DAM) system. It does have some useful tools within the browser panel once you’ve selected a folder, however. You can filter images by rating and color label, for example, and create virtual copies for trying out different processing options or preset ‘looks’.
The PhotoLab Customize window
This is where all the editing work is done. You can customize the layout of the panels, but by default PhotoLab displays a Navigator window and image EXIF date in the left sidebar and numerous editing palettes stacked in the right sidebar. You can show other images in the current folder in a browser panel at the bottom of the screen, dragging the top edge upwards to make it larger or downwards to hide it completely.
PhotoLab carries out some image corrections by default. It automatically identifies the camera and lens used to take the image and applies an automatic correction profile to fix distortion, color fringing, vignetting and edge softness. Other programs also correct the first three, but not always as well as PhotoLab, and without the correction for edge softness.
PhotoLab will also correct the lighting, using its Smart Lighting process to recover highlight details, tones and hues while subtly bringing up dense shadow detail. These Smart Lighting options can be changed, removed or modified manually.
So although PhotoLab looks and is a technically complex program, you don’t necessarily have to do (or know) anything at all to get an instant improvement. It’s also possible to apply a preset ‘look’ via a button in the top right corner, for strong black and white images, subtle color effects and more – also without having to master the manual controls.
Sooner or later you will want to make your own adjustments, though. This is where PhotoLab can start to get complicated – if you let it. The tools palettes in the right sidebar expand to display further sections and sub-panels, and if you leave them open as you work you can very easily get swamped in sliders and lose track of where to find the tools you need.
There are a couple of secrets. The first is to close every panel or palette you use when you’ve finished with it; this makes it much easier to find and open the next one. The second is to be aware that a tool may be in more than one palette. They are organised according to a general theme, but you may find certain tools in two or more places.
You can in fact customise the workspace, creating your own palettes containing the tools you use most often and organized how you like them. That might not be a bad idea, in fact.
But apart from these ‘global’ adjustments, PhotoLab also has powerful local adjustments based around a manual brush tool, radial and gradient filter effects and, possibly most important, the U-point technology it gained with the acquisition of the Nik Collection.
When you add a control point to the image, it adds mask based on the tone and colour of the image under its central ‘pin’. The control point adjustments act over a circular radius – you can control the size of this – but within that the image is also being masked so that only the tones you’ve selected are adjusted.
This is so unlike any other method of masking and adjustment that it takes a little getting used to. It feels a little ‘random’. Once you understand how to use and combine control points, however, you realise just how fast and powerful this method of adjustment actually is.
The adjustments you can apply have been substantially extended compared to the first version of PhotoLab, and include Exposure, Contrast, Microcontrast, Hue, Saturation, Vibrancy… even Sharpness and Blur.
PhotoLab’s local adjustments are actually very powerful indeed, and in the latest version you can duplicate adjustment masks and even name them for easy identification later. PhotoLab doesn’t offer the highly efficient adjustment layer system in Capture One, for example, but it’s far more powerful than the tools in Lightroom.
PhotoLab is a non-destructive editor, so all your changes are stored as metadata and your original images are unchanged. If you need to share an edited image you’ll need the Export to Disk option, which generates a processed JPEG or TIFF image.
Like any program, PhotoLab is under constant development. Version 3.2, reviewed here, has a new DxO ColorWheel (introduced with version 3, in fact) for complex, powerful and subtle selective color adjustments, a Local Adjustment Masks Manager and the ability to Invert adjustments masks (it’s often easier to select the object or area you don’t want and then invert the selection to get the part you do).
The Repair Tool has been redesigned so that it’s easier to see the ’source’ area being used, and there’s a new Clone mode for using a direct copy of adjacent areas rather than attempting to merge them with the existing tones.
Keyword support has been extended so that keywords can be displayed as pop-up tooltips in the file explorer and you can now add, delete and rename keywords and apply them to batches of images. (Even so, this is really an additional convenience in an image browsing tool and doesn’t really elevate PhotoLab to a proper image cataloguing application.)
Is it good?
PhotoLab is not without its flaws. If you want the full suite of tools, including ViewPoint 3, FilmPack 5 and the Nik Collection, you will end up buying several programs not one. You also need the Elite not Essential edition to get the DxO PRIME and ClearView Plus tools, plus high-end color profiling. And the lack of support for X-Trans RAW files immediately wipes it out for Fujifilm fans (though it does support the GFX 100).
The quality of PhotoLab’s RAW processing is simply sublime. With some cameras it’s merely good, with others it’s a transformation, producing a level of detail you might not have imagined the camera capable of.
Its lens corrections, too, are remarkable. The worse the lens, the more spectacular the transformation. It can’t completely eliminate edge softness or general lens softness, but it corrects them to a degree that can make previously B-grade images (and B-grade equipment!) genuinely usable.
PhotoLab’s global adjustment tools are powerful, precise and effective, as are its local adjustment tools. It doesn’t do Photoshop-style montages and composites, but for most photographers it’s single images that matter.
DxO ClearView Plus (Elite edition only) is very good indeed, not just ad de-hazing landscapes, but adding contrast, punch and clarity to images generally.
And while the DxO PRIME denoising technology (also Elite edition only) is far from new, it remains as spectacular now as ever it was. I’ve tried a lot of noise reduction tools and plugins, but none can do what DxO PRIME does. Its ability to reduce noise and extract detail you probably thought was lost is uncanny. It’s not fast – it’s too processor-intensive to offer a full image live preview and each image takes a minute or so to process on export – but the results will almost certainly shift your expectations about your camera’s high ISO image quality by a couple of EV at least.
Who should get it?
It’s worth laboring the point that Fujifilm users need to look elsewhere. And if you’re hoping for Lightroom-style image management, then think again. You will also need to dig into your wallet more than once to get the full suite of DxO applications – and you will almost certainly want them.
But if you understand and accept all this, and you remain preoccupied with image quality above all else, there is nothing like DxO PhotoLab. It’s complex, it’s quite an investment and it has quirks and limitations, but even if you leave out its excellent global and local adjustments, for sheer quality of output alone, it really is out on its own.
DxO PhotoLab 3.2
PhotoLab 3.2 has excellent features for photo editing and enhancements, but its organising tools are quite basic and it’s a shame it can’t edit Fujifilm X-Trans RAW files. The results, however, are spectacular. No other program can achieve this combination of detail rendition, lens correction and noise control (if you include the PRIME Denoise tool in the Elite edition).