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DxO Optics Pro 3 Review

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DxO Optics Pro 3.5 – A significant update?

More corrections for your digital camera files



Keith has previously written two lengthy reviews about the lens correction and raw camera file processing aspects of DxO Optics Pro.

DxO have just announced a new version (V3.5) that adds some significant new features to the program. Version 3.5 is a free upgrade to users of Version 3 (and some of V2.2), and there is a free demo version available from DxO.

dxo v3.5 versions

Keith has regularly used earlier versions of DxO for some of his landscape and commercial photography and here looks at the new version to see how it fits in with his professional needs.

This review is based on the Apple Macintosh version running on a Dual 2.7GHz G5 Mac, running OS X 10.4.3. The software runs on PCs as well.

What’s new

I’ve discussed various aspects of what the DxO software can do, in some depth in previous reviews, so I’m going to concentrate on some interesting features of the new version 3.5 release.

First of all, DxO have simplified their sales options, offering 3 versions running from £49 to £199 ($79 – $299). The version fitting your need will really depend on your camera and lens choices.

The two versions of the software supporting DSLRS (£99 and £199) are now available with all lens options – much simpler than the old licensing system. It also includes support for all lenses, rather than individual pricing.

I’m not going to list all the available options here since DxO are continually adding support for different cameras and lenses. Have a look at the DxO site for a current list of what is supported.

As before, if your camera body and lens are not listed, then the software won’t work for you. This is since all the various corrections and effects are finely tuned for different camera/lens combinations. So, for example, my Canon EF 16-35 2.8L lens produces different image distortions on a Canon 5D than my Canon 1Ds.

The key elements of the software are:

  • DxO Optics Engine V2 – Image distortion correction
    lens distortion, vignetting, lens softness and chromatic aberrations.
  • DxO Lighting Engine
    local exposure and dynamic range optimisation.
  • DxO Noise Engine
    Noise reduction, customised for each camera type and picture settings
  • DxO Raw Engine
    Raw camera file conversion – this works in conjunction with the other elements

I’ll show some examples of these aspects later, but suffice to say, they are tightly integrated together. I’m going to be looking at using the software in its ‘Expert Mode’ since I want control over what’s happening to my images :-)

The more automatic modes are surprisingly good, but since I tend to use DxO on many of my best images I’m sticking with ‘Expert’…

What does the software do?

Effectively, you load up images, adjust settings as needed and set the program to work. It will make all the corrections you have specified and save new files as you request. You can also directly view files after conversion.

You can save files as JPEGs, TIFFs or even in DNG format.

one file loaded and being previewed

One image has been loaded and I’ve selected it for preview

main window with files loaded

12 images loaded — setting DxO Optics options

In expert mode there are a huge number of settings and options you can choose. You can see 9 different groups in the top left above.

One problem here is that you can’t see the zoomed (fully corrected) sample of the image while you are changing other settings, this makes it very difficult to toggle between settings when deciding which looks best. The preview image only displays some of the adjustments, due to the amount of calculations needed to update it continuously.

I’m not going through all of the menus here, since there are a lot of options. Unfortunately there is no context sensitive help, so you really had better read that 150+ page pdf that pops up when you click on help :-)

Showing fine details of high resolution images on the web is never easy, but hopefully the next section will convey a sense of what kind of results you can expect…

How well does it work

I’ve picked a few examples that show some of the features of DxO Optics Pro.

For a more detailed look at some of the functionality, have a look at my two previous articles.

Lens correction – the ‘Optics Engine’

The new correction mechanisms can create an image file of larger dimensions after applying the correction. This varies with the lens type and settings. Not all lenses have this feature, it depends on the amount and nature of corrections applied.

The first example shows a very wide angle (16mm) room shot, where I’m going to apply a transformation (and hefty crop) afterwards to correct the diverging verticals. If you mouse over the picture it will show the DxO version, as opposed to one using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) in Photoshop CS 2.

The red border gives an idea of how much the image shape changes.

Interior shot, showing lens distortions

You do not have to have this change of image size, but if not, the image content will be cropped slightly to fit the available size.

Chromatic aberration and ‘purple fringing’ can also be corrected to a large extent. The examples below show an ACR conversion and the automatic settings in DxO. These are 100% crops from the image above.

ACR (note this is the default setting, without any lens correction applied)DxO default settings for cleaning up colour fringing

You can correct vignetting and colour fringing quite well in ACR, but it does take some fiddling around to get the best results. The DxO software has all the settings built in and adjusts them depending on image EXIF data.

Dynamic range – the ‘Lighting Engine’

The lighting effects can have quite a pronounced effect on images, giving a view that much more closely reflects what would be seen if you were actually at the scene.

The example below shows the effect quite lightly applied to bring out some of the shadow detail in this image.

The picture is the standard ACR conversion, using the ‘auto’ functions in camera raw. If you mouse over the image you will see the DxO version.

ACR and DxO conversions

The unsharpened web pictures above don’t really do justice to either picture, but it should give an idea of the differences.

The lighting engine would be a superb tool to include when I’m batch processing loads of images from an event. If you include the highlights recovery features as well, then it would be a winner.

Image noise – the ‘Noise Engine’

I’ve taken a small sample of the image above to show the differences that DxO noise reduction makes on a 1250 ISO Canon 1Ds image

DxO - no noise reduction

Image noise in a DxO conversion with noise reduction turned off

Dxo with noise reduction

Image noise in a DxO conversion with noise reduction turned on

ACR with colour noise reduction

Image noise in a Adobe camera Raw (ACR) conversion with colour noise reduction at the default setting (25)

At lower ISO settings, the DxO noise reduction is very good, although for the Cape Kiwanda picture below, I kept noise reduction at a low level so as to keep maintain fine detail. This is important when you are looking to enlarge an image to the size of print I was making. I’ve written an article covering some of my experiences in making the big prints for the exhibition.

Raw file conversion – the ‘Raw Engine’

Sunset at Haystack Rock, Cape Kiwanda, OregonI’ve covered this to some extent in the previous reviews.

However I noticed a comment regarding my findings about sunsets on the ‘Luminous Landscape’ site which expressed some doubt over their accuracy. Well, needless to say, I stand by what I said :-)

It may be that the effect varies with different cameras, so try it for yourself with the free demo, and make your own mind up!

Digital cameras handle blown highlights in a pretty abrupt way and DxO offers several options in regard to ‘highlight recovery’.

Don’t forget that you can always do several conversions at different settings and mask the images together to get the very best results.

 

Haystack Rock, Cape Kiwanda, Oregon

I used this image (slightly cropped) as the basis for a print in an exhibition.

A 65″x43″ print is about as large as I can do on my Epson 9600 printer (44″ width paper).

At that size, the quality of the raw conversion was vital.

The enlarged samples below, show why I used DxO for the raw conversion.

Keith's pictures at an exhibition

Large print across from balcony

In this picture I’ve also used the lighting adjustments to slightly improve the overall tonal balance, and the lens correction to get a sharp picture over the entire frame. Noise reduction was set at a low level to preserve detail.

Canon 1Ds (ISO 100) + EF 24-70mm 2.8L (40mm) 160th sec @F5.6

Above, a100% crop of detail from the sunset image processed from a Canon 1Ds RAW file using Adobe Camera Raw 2.4 in Photoshop CS2

100% crop of detail from the sunset image processed from a Canon 1Ds RAW file using DxO Optics pro 3.5

Foibles?

The software is not without it’s problems. You should read the release notes carefully for known issues.

On my Mac, the file sizes were sometimes wrongly indicated, with one converted 1Ds file showing as 324k in the finder, although when copied it became 63.2MB (the correct value) The default setting procedure is not entirely clear, which means that if you are not careful you could, for example, do a load of conversions only to find that it has used sRGB for your files when you actually wanted Adobe98.

The interface style is somewhat idiosyncratic and has a distinctly non-Macintosh feel to it. I kept feeling the functionality of the software jarring up against my desire to get on with using it. Look at the interface design in Adobe Photoshop, for examples of how to make Windows software behave like Windows software and Mac software like Mac software.

If you’ve read my review of the Eye One design package, you’ll know that I take a dim view of poor interface design (I used to be an HCI/usability consultant). Now don’t get me wrong, the interface is not truly awful like Eye One Share, but it kept -almost- getting in the way of what I wanted to do — things like custom (unclear and very non Mac style) icons, not being able to drag a file to the dock icon of DxO, having to drag not click to position the zoom box, and not being able to toggle settings while looking at a zoomed section of the image just kept slowing me up. All little things, but these are what helps make a program easy to use, whatever platform it is on.

Then there is the speed … on my Mac (the fastest ever dual-processor Mac in Sept. 2005) converting 12 Canon 1Ds raw files took long enough for me to walk downstairs, go to the kitchen, get the coffee from the fridge, empty the old filter, put some coffee into the machine, fill the water tank, brew a cup of fresh coffee, and return to my office to start to drink it (9m30s). Photoshop CS 2 took 45 seconds to open all 12 images on the screen. OK, I was applying all the corrections, but sometimes I have 4-500 raw files to convert, and I want to get a DVD (and invoice ;-) in the post on the same day…

Conclusions

If you’ve just read some of my gripes, you may wonder why I choose to use DxO Optics Pro? One simple reason – image quality. The speed means that I’m unlikely to use it converting 300+ raw files from an event that I might have covered. Whilst it works on JPEGs from a camera as well, I always shoot RAW (some of my reasons).

For individual images, where quality comes foremost, it is currently my raw converter of choice. With raw files from my 1Ds it handles partially burnt out highlights in a much more graceful way than Photoshop ACR. Much better for sunsets, and since I know that others have questioned the validity of this conclusion, I’d just say ‘Try it and see for yourself’ :-)

I’ve used it extensively for my black and white landscape prints, where the ‘lighting engine’ helps provide colour images that convert very well to black and white.

The lens correction (‘Optics Engine’) provides sharp images over the whole frame which give much better prints when enlarged. It’s also great where I know that I’m going to be correcting perspective and need truly straight lines. I particularly liked the slight change of image size after geometric corrections – often I’m distorting images to correct for perspective, and that bit extra helps — see also my thoughts on using the Canon TS-E 24mm 3.5L

The noise reduction is very effective, but I tend to need noise reduction most when I’ve been shooting lots of images at high ISO (1250 on my 1Ds), typically at an event where I’ve avoided using flash. More than a few images and I’ll be using Adobe Camera Raw and the excellent Noise Ninja as part of my workflow — for my commercial work, time and ease of workflow is often what counts.

In fact it is workflow that is my major problem — I’m sure lots of professional photographers would jump at ways of integrating the DxO functionality into their Photoshop based workflows.

Not having a PC in the building I’m unable to see how performance varies between platforms, but whatever you use I’d thoroughly recommend you download the free trial and see how DxO can improve your own images.

Other areas of our site that may be of interest...

All the latest articles and photo news items appear on Keith's Photo blog .

We've a whole section of the site devoted to  Digital Black and White photography and printing. It covers all the specialist articles and reviews written by Keith Cooper.

There is a gallery of landscape photography and fine art prints.

 


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