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DxO PhotoLab review

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DxO PhotoLab review – photo editing and processing

Raw processing with added local edit adjustments


Trying out DxO PhotoLab V1 shows up more changes than you might first think.

What could have been DxO Optics Pro Version 12 gets a new name.

This reflects its steady move from simple RAW camera file processing and lens correction towards a much more rounded and feature loaded bit of editing software.

Why the mention of Optics Pro? Well, Keith Cooper has reviewed every single version of DxO’s image editing software right from the start and it still remains his RAW file processor of choice for handling awkward lighting and images for his large prints.

dxo photoLab

This review gives an overview of what’s changed, along with some examples of processing camera files.

Do have a look at some of the earlier reviews (use the DxO category in the list to the right) since the fundamentals of image editing with DxO Optics Pro have not changed markedly for a while.

DxO PhotoLab V1

I’d been wondering what was going to appear with V12 of Optics Pro for a while and the initial announcement of PhotoLab made me wonder if one of my software regulars was about to become an also-ran?

Fortunately I quickly noticed that all the usual features were there -and- DxO had acquired the Nik U-Point technology from Google. Given that the Nik plugins have been a regular part of my Photoshop editing workflow for years and with DxO promising a new set in 2018, this looked good.

Anyway, I’ve explored PhotoLab V1 quite a bit and it has now replaced Optics Pro V11 in my day to day workflow for ‘special’ images. (I’ll come back to this in the conclusions)

What’s new in PhotoLab

You get the same underlying RAW file processing that’s been a feature of DxO for a while, but all the various options and adjustments are there too (this from DxO)

  • Smart Lightning : Optimises the dynamic range of your image and brings out the details from both under- and overexposed areas.
  • Clearview : Intelligently boosts local contrast and effectively removes distant haze.
  • Prime: Automatically de-noises high ISO RAW images and recovers accurate details and colours
  • Optical Corrections: Leverage your equipment with tailored automatic corrections based on DxO’s  expertise in measurement and calibration.

The new local adjustments  are listed as:

  • CONTROL POINTS: Manually select your editing area by simply clicking on the part of your image you want to adjust.
  • BRUSH TOOL: Freely paint and manually adjust small or large areas of your image.
  • GRADUATED FILTER TOOL: Simulates a graduated ND filter and lets you apply artistic effects.
  • REPAIR TOOL: Allows you to remove dust spots or unwanted objects from your photos.

Other features

Processing large series of photos is no longer a nightmare

  • Intelligent algorithms adapt settings to your gear as well as to image content
  • Copy and paste settings from one image to another
  • 30 built-in presets, fully customisable to give your photos the look you like

Multiple exports in one click

  • Export to multiple formats for web, printing, or backup
  • Export directly to social networks such as Facebook, Flickr, or to other photo editors

Fully adapted to YOUR workflow

  • File management that works with your computer (no import step required)
  • Direct access to images
  • Seamless integration with Lightroom via plugin
  • Customisable workspace to adapt to your needs – Dual-screen friendly

I’ll look at a few specific areas of the software in this review. There is a free trial version of the software available for a month – plenty of time to get a feel for what else it can do.

Installation and updates

The software download  (Mac version is tested here) installs simply

install photolab

You need to go through an activation process (there is a one month free trial).

activation

There are two versions of the software available (Elite and Essential). I’m looking at the more fully featured Elite version. For details about differences, see the requirements section at the end of this page.

photolab startup

The software picks up my DxO ViewPoint and DxO FilmPack extensions from my previous Optics Pro installation.  These expand some PhotoLab capabilities (links above are to reviews). I often use DxO ViewPoint as a Photoshop plugin for fine tuning image geometry.

PhotoLab can work in conjunction with Lightroom as well – I’ve not tested this. (Sorry, I don’t like/use LR)

Not long after starting my testing, an update was available. These regularly update supported cameras, and in this instance specific tool functionality.

update to V1.1

With the vast number of cameras and lens combinations available, specific modules are only needed for what you’ve got.

Recently, I’ve tested the Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens on my Canon 5Ds (review).

As you can see, the software wasn’t entirely sure of what lens I was using (this happens sometimes with third party lenses).

lens modules

I picked the Irix option and it worked just fine for the photos I’d taken – one of which I’ll use below.

It’s worth noting that if your lens has no electronics, such as the (rather good) Laowa 12mm f/2.8 I tested, then there will be no lens data in the EXIF image data. No lens data means that automated correction of lens aberrations is not possible. You can still process your RAW files with PhotoLab, but you’ll have to manually set some adjustments.

A woodland scene

The software has two main modes. In one you select the image or images you want to work on, and in the other you change any processing settings or simply apply one of the presets available.

choose file

The software handles multiple screens well, so that the image strip along the bottom could be detached and moved to my second monitor.

There is no catalog or library with PhotoLab – something I’m very grateful for. I already have all my images sorted the way I want. PhotoLab does support Projects or groups of images if you wish, but this workflow is fortunately not enforced.

I can even open an image from Adobe Bridge (from Photoshop CS6) directly into PhotoLab. As I’ve mentioned, for fans of the Lightroom catalog, you can process files in PhotoLab from there too.

There are default processing options, which given the potential number of adjustments available are a welcome starting point. [click image to enlarge]

default corrections

The split screen view shows just how dark the shot is, given I’d exposed not to blow too many of the highlights.

At this point I’d note that DxO do have a lot of support materials available.  Also, from my own POV I’m really pleased that they include written tutorials as well as video and webinars.  I wish more companies would realise that not everyone finds video tutorials helpful.

All kinds of info is available – you can select what is displayed to avoid clutter as you wish, such as this zoom navigator and EXIF data.

exif and zoom info

The various adjustments do interact to some extent, so for an image like this that’s got a very wide range, I’ll try several options. [click to enlarge images]

Smart lighting is a good area to look at once the basics such as white balance are sorted.

smart lighting medium

‘Smart lighting’ is a nicely designed adjustment that can work very well with images.

It is sometimes a little unpredictable and you might prefer the more controllable highlight/ midtones /shadows/ blacks adjustment of the ‘Selective tone’ or even a basic tone curve adjustment. That said, I’ve edited images in the past where a simple bit of ‘Smart Tone’ adjustment made all the difference.

A bit of ‘Clearview’ can work wonders on some images, but I’ve found it often needs reducing in intensity if it’s not to look overly artificial.

clearview

Finally, a bit of contrast enhancement and manual exposure adjustment (for the highlights) gives an image I’m happy to work with.

mixed adjustments

Do enlarge the images above to see the settings and a better view of the actual image.

There are a lot of other adjustments I can make. These can be arranged or hidden as you wish.

Here are some options whilst I’m looking at the lens correction controls.

palette options

Normally I’d export the image as a TIFF file at this point and carry on working in Photoshop – especially if I was making something like a 30″x 20″ print.

I can export the file in several formats at the same time (two different size JPEGs for example)

output options

PhotoLab has quite a few features that work well, but are something I’d generally do after I’ve exported the image.

The ‘Repair tool’ works well for example, but for my work, that sort of stuff usually gets done after I’ve moved to Photoshop.

One of the key advances for PhotoLab is actually the introduction of localised adjustments with the Nik U-Point method of selection.

Think of it as a very intuitive method of masking your adjustments. If you’re curious, have a look at my Nik Silver Efex Pro review, where there are examples of using control points and perhaps an idea of some of the features that will become available?

If you know the Nik plugins, then the new features of PhotoLab should seem a bit familiar.

adding a control point

Move your mouse over the image below to see a simple localised adjustment for the darker tree. Not much but just enough to change the balance in a way I wanted.

I’ve a few more examples with a photo I took in the Lake District, on a cloudy day.

On the lake

I’ve a photo of Derwent Water in the Lakes.

It’s taken on a dull wet day, not uncommon in the Lake District.

Here’s the image after a bit of overall adjustment, but the island area is just too dark.

local adjustment

I’ve added a control point – the circle shows the area of influence for adjustments. You can also see the controls sliders for this area.

select adjustment area

Two important things to note about this adjustment are that there is no hard edge to the circle of influence, and that what’s going to be affected in the image is based on the image at the control point.

One useful result, is that a small move of the control point can have quite an effect on the whole adjustment area.

In this case, whether it’s over a brighter or darker part of tree.

Each of the sliders alters the image in different ways, such as this increase in exposure for the adjustment area. [click to enlarge]

increase exposure

You can have multiple adjustments for each control point. [click to enlarge]

multiple adjustments

You can change Exposure, Contrast, Microcontrast, ClearView, Vibrancy, Saturation, Temperature, Tint, Sharpness, and Blur.

If the effect bleeds into parts of the image you don’t want affected, just add neutral control points to selectively ‘turn off’ adjustments.

This short video clip from DxO shows how quick this is to do once you get the hang of it – this is one of the reasons the Nik plugins have been so popular over the years.

Using control points in DxO PhotoLab from DxO

As well as the control point based method, you can have graduated masks for the application of the adjustment, or custom masks.

You can paint in your own mask for the adjustments or use the auto mask tool, which will build a mask based on the image content.

This works well, but can need a bit of work to avoid halos on areas like the tops of the trees. Sometimes a finer mask looks worse than a smooth adjustment. You can of course fine tune any mask with the eraser if needed.

Remember that the visibility of edge halos is very scale dependent, so what might not be obvious on your screen might be all too clear on a large print.

Here’s a graduated mask (rendered visible in blue) for changing some of the sky.

show mask full

I like how the mask extends past the edge of the image to give a better feel for its presence.

Here’s a slight boost in contrast for the sky.

local graduated adjustment

Next, a boost in micro-contrast.

Beware adding much of this, it’s a guaranteed way to make you picture look un-natural and over processed.

microcontrast grad mask

Just because all those sliders go up to 11, doesn’t mean that  0,1,2 should be avoided. In fact low and subtle settings can work far better much of the time.  You may disagree, but I’m trying to convey an image of the scene, not yell out what editing tricks I’ve done…

Anyway, here’s the image exported from PhotoLab. [click to enlarge]

adjusted image PS

OK, it’s after I removed that central post in Photoshop.

This mildly irritated me at the time I took the photo and I’d decided it would be removed long before I even pressed the shutter. [Does this concern you? See an article I wrote a while ago about just what I’m happy in ‘fixing’ in images for different uses]

Presets

In terms of making PhotoLab easier to use, you should pay attention to Presets. That’s both the bundled ones and also making your own.

presets

Here are some of the black and white ones.

some-bw-presets

They are collections of settings that can be applied to images, and importantly they do not need to specify every slider, so you can have partial ones.

An example would be just applying lens and noise corrections and then using this to convert RAW to DNG files.

Printing

PhotoLab lets you print images.

print options

The ‘contact sheet’ setting (in ‘Layout’) looks potentially interesting for quick testing, but I can’t imagine printing any image of any size from PhotoLab. I can put quite a lot of work into preparing an image for print and I’d no more make one of my very large prints with PhotoLab than I’d consider Lightroom adequate for the task.

However… DxO have announced that they are releasing new versions of the Nik plugins, and you have to assume that they will work with PhotoLab. It so happens that one of them – Sharpener Pro – has been one of my go-to selective sharpening tools for quite a long time.  See more in my Sharpener Pro review

I’d want tools such as resizing, soft proofing and a few others adding, but I can see a time when PhotoLab becomes more than just a superb RAW processor for my images.

Some thoughts and conclusions

At one level, PhotoLab is just the next version of DxO Optics Pro. That means I’m comfortable in using it and it continues to be one of my first choices for some types of my work.

At another level, it starts showing signs of being a more complete editing package at a significantly more capable level.

Sure, the print side of things still feels a bit of an afterthought, but with the incorporation of the Nik style editing capabilities, I can start to see a much more rounded product.

The Prime noise reduction feature is still one of the best available, and along with the steady improvements in RAW file processing and lens correction, means that some of my 2004 11MP Canon 1Ds files look vastly better (another good reason to always keep your RAW files)

I’m glad that there is no shoehorning your workflow into a rigid ‘Catalog’ based workflow. I can see aspects of this coming about, but at the moment I want to be able to choose not to use any such features.

When do I use PhotoLab?
In my work I rarely come back from a job with large numbers of images. I don’t do weddings/events or anything like that, where I might want to supply many hundreds of images. A few dozen images is usually the maximum.   My ‘quick’ workflow still uses Adobe Bridge for selection and ACR/Photoshop (CS6) for processing. DxO Optics Pro, and now PhotoLab comes in when I have images with tricky lighting.  At the moment, my ‘quick’ workflow stays, but in testing PhotoLab I see more likelihood of it making it into more of my work.  Please note though that such workflows are always a very personal choice, so I make no other claim than it works for me and my business at the moment – YMMV as they say.

The multiple output options are helpful, especially if you need a set of small JPEG files to send off quickly for proofing purposes.

That said I still find it puzzling that you cannot export images in any specific larger colour space than Adobe 98 – I have images, for colour and for B&W, that have sometimes benefitted from a larger space for initial editing.

There are colours that modern printers can reach that are outside of the Adobe98 gamut. You can export the file as a DNG file, but that begs the question of how you wish to process that file? The fact that I still choose PhotoLab for RAW processing for prints shows that this is not a showstopper though.

There are numerous aspects of the software I’ve not addressed in detail, since there’s a lot to it and I’ve concentrated on the areas that I find most useful.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, please do have a look at the trial version

Software options

Essential Elite
RAW conversion RAW conversion
High-quality denoising (RAW and JPEG) High-quality denoising (RAW and JPEG)
Optical corrections Optical corrections
DxO Lens Sharpness  (IMPROVED) DxO Lens Sharpness  (IMPROVED)
DxO Smart Lighting DxO Smart Lighting
Spot Weighted mode Spot Weighted mode
Selective tone Selective tone
Image tools Image tools
Repair tool  (NEW) Repair tool  (NEW)
Red eye correction Red eye correction
Protection of saturated colors Protection of saturated colors
Advanced light and color Advanced light and color
Auto mode for microcontrast Auto mode for microcontrast
Presets Presets
Batch processing Batch processing
Customizable workspace Customizable workspace
Full screen mode Full screen mode
Shortcuts for rating and filtering photos in full screen Shortcuts for rating and filtering photos in full screen
Integrated export feature Integrated export feature
Interaction with Adobe Lightroom Interaction with Adobe Lightroom
DxO Local adjustments (NEW) DxO Local adjustments (NEW)
PRIME denoising (RAW)
DxO ClearView
Anti-moiré tool
Managing camera-calibrated ICC profiles
Colour rendering profiles
Multiple outputs
Presets editor
Creation of partial presets
Creation of customized palettes
Number of activations: 2 Number of activations: 3
Geometrical corrections:
Add – DxO ViewPoint plugin
Geometrical corrections:
Add – DxO ViewPoint plugin
Analog and creative renderings:
Add – DxO FilmPack plugin
Analog and creative renderings:
Add – DxO FilmPack plugin

Info from DxO

Lightroom/DxO compatibility

LR compatibility

System requirements

Apple OS X

  • Intel Core i5 or higher
  • 4 GB of RAM (6 GB recommended)
  • 2 GB or more of available hard-disk space
  • OS X 10.11 (El Capitan), 10.12 (macOS Sierra)
  • Graphics card with 512 MB of video memory to handle GPU acceleration

Microsoft Windows

  • Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64 X2 or higher (Intel Core i5 or higher recommended)
  • 4 GB of RAM (8 GB recommended)
  • 4 GB or more of available hard-disk space
  • Microsoft Windows 7 (64-bit) with Service Pack 1, Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit), or Microsoft Windows 10 (64-bit)
  • DirectX 9.0c-capable system
  • OpenCl 1.2-capable graphic card with 1GB of video memory to handle OpenCL acceleration

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