DxO PhotoLab Review

January 11, 2018 | Tim Coleman | Software Reviews |

Introduction

DxO PhotoLab was launched in the last quarter of 2017 and succeeds DxO Optics Pro. It’s a popular editing software among photographers looking to get the best quality possible out of RAW format images.

The big selling point of the predecessor DxO Optics Pro is the prowess of its RAW processing engine. It’s quite easy and quick to create images with excellent sharpness, low noise and wide tonal range. Many will swear by its RAW image editing quality over competitors such as Adobe Lightroom.

DxO PhotoLab builds on DxO Optics Pro. So what’s new? Mainly, localised image adjustments. It is now possible to make edits to selected areas within an image.

It’s an enticing prospect. You don’t need to go through the hassle of making general RAW edits to an image in the DxO software, only to then reopen it in different software in order to make localised adjustments. Now, fine quality adjustments are all in one package. These are encouraging steps in the right direction for DxO.

DxO PhotoLab starts at £99 and is available on the DxO website. Let’s take a closer look.

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DxO PhotoLabs is available in two editions; Essential and Elite. The Essential edition costs £99 while the Elite Edition is £159. There is a free one month trial to try the software out first.

There is a list on the DxO website highlighting the difference between the two Editions. We expect most users will want the Elite Edition, which among other things has the new PRIME 2016 denoising RAW tool, ClearView, anti-moire tool and Presets editor.

This review is based on the Elite version 1.1.0 build 56, using a MacBook Pro Retina (early 2015) with 16GB memory, 2.7GHz processor and Mac OS High Sierra 10.13.2 operating system.

DxO regularly adds profiles for lenses, so there is no concern about compatibility issues with new RAW files. The software will automatically detect the RAW files being imported and download any necessary camera/ lens combination DxO profiles (‘modules’) for these files.

In addition to JPEG images, we’ve made edits to images of a few RAW files formats; Nikon NEF, Sony ARW and Canon CR2 files.

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Of course in this review we do not have the space to comment on all file formats. We suggest downloading a trial version of the software to see for yourself, if you’re RAW format is not listed here. 

There are optional add-on programs called ViewPoint and FilmPack, that integrate to DxO PhotoLab once installed. ViewPoint is used for perspective corrections, while the beginner-friendly FilmPack offers numerous single-click analogue film effects.

DxO PhotoLab is set up with two main windows; Organize and Customize. There is overlap for these two windows in our Ease of Use and Performance review sections. However, the Organize window mainly covers the Ease of Use section, while the Customize window demonstrates how effective the software is in the Performance section. 

Let’s first then look at the Organize aspect of DxO PhotoLab.

Ease of Use

Organize

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By default, Organize displays all your image folders in the left hand panel. There is no need to import images into the software. Instead, you work directly onto the image files in their original location. Things are simpler this way, since edits made to RAW files are non-destructive. However, there is an additional option to create a Project under a new folder. 

On opening an image folder, DxO PhotoLabs detects the camera and lens used for any of the pictures. The software uses DxO Optics ‘modules' for each lens and camera combination in order to get the best results for that image. Users swear by the image quality from these modules.

If you have not already got the module downloaded, DxO PhotoLab suggests you do so via a pop-up window. The process is quick and painless.

Whenever you click onto a new image in the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen, the default RAW corrections are applied. (We’ll say at this point that the default corrections for sharpening, lens distortion, contrast and so on look great straight off-the-bat and we’ll comment more this in the Performance section.)

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Through ‘Compare’, which is found at the top of the window, it is possible to flick between the original image and the corrected version. Alternatively, alongside Compare is Split Preview that displays before and after corrections simultaneously. 

The Split Preview vertical line that divides the two versions can be shifted anywhere in the screen. That's a nice touch, because the middle of a picture is not always the best place to split the before and after display for comparisons. 

It’s easy to navigate images in the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen. There are options to display the images in order of Filename and a further ten display options. There’s also a filter option to view images only within certain criteria, for example all the 5* images. 

On that note, you can rate an image from 1* to 5* by pressing the corresponding number on the keyboard, and that goes for multiple images simultaneously. We like that simplicity. 

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In the Organize window there is a direct option to Print or to Export to disk. Check the latter and you have options to export a corrected image in full quality JPEG, JPEG for tablet/ HDTV, TIFF or DNG. 

There is also the option to create many of your own export settings, for example to a specific file size or dimension, that are selected in the Resize menu.

Of course you can select the destination folder when exporting, though disappointingly we could not see an option for fully renaming the files on export. Any files that have been edited will consequently have an additional .dop alias containing any edits made. 

A final point in the Organize window is on the Presets tab found in the top right. Here you can make single click edits to selected images. There are four general purpose presets, as well as grouped adjustment presets for Black and White, Portrait and Landscape, ‘Atmosphere’, HDR and Smartphone among others.

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Again, just to briefly touch on the Presets now - many of them look great. We’re not talking gimmicky effects here - these are mostly realistic and punchy effects for tasteful image editing. 

We’ve used a lot of image editing programmes and DxO PhotoLab is up there with the most easy to use. 

That’s not all. If you already own Adobe Lightroom, there is a DxO PhotoLab plugin for seamless image transfers between the two.

DxO PhotoLab is what is know as a DAM (Digital Asset Management) like Adobe Lightroom, rather than a comprehensive editing software like Adobe Photoshop. 

For instance, you can’t make multi-layered images like double exposures, star trails, panoramas, HDR stacks and so on. This is an editing software primarily for individual images. Naturally then, blending modes do not feature.

Let’s move on to the Customize window, where more detailed edits are made.

Customize

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There are a lot of tools and image information in the Customize window, but it is all laid out really well. You may need a large display to really navigate the window properly, but the same can be said for the majority of photo editing softwares. 

Put simply, DxO PhotoLab displays all the image data that a discerning digital photographer needs and places all the ‘basic’ editing tools to hand.

EXIF data takes a prime spot next to the image viewer window. The viewer indicates the area being displayed in the main image window when zoomed in, which is really useful for navigating around an image quickly when zoomed in.

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With our operating system we’ve experienced slight lags when scrolling around images that are displayed at 100%, but nothing too irksome. 

Of course you also have a detailed histogram. Below this, the editing tools are split into five sub menus that can be collapsed; Essential Tools, Light, Colour, Detail and Geometry. Confusingly some tools appear in more than one of these sub menus.

In the top panel is a basic selection of tools, with edits such as Crop, White Balance Picker, Horizon, Repair, Red Eye and Miniature Effect among others. 

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Now we’ve made our way around the Organize and Customize windows, let’s get on to the quality of RAW format editing. 

When first selecting an image in DxO PhotoLab, it automatically applies a range of edits. These include white balance, noise reduction, lens sharpness, contrast, chromatic aberration, vignette and smart lighting adjustments. 

Those default adjustments look great for a large portion of images. In fact, in many cases we felt it was possible to move straight to export.

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The default settings are changed once you start manually fiddling around with the adjustment values. Basically, when reopening DxO PhotoLab, you continue where you left off from the previous image. In the Elite edition you can create Presets and then apply those edits with a single click.

When pixel peeping the before and after corrections, we have been really impressed with DxO corrections. The PRIME 2016 noise removal, Lens sharpness, DxO Smart Lighting (for highlight/ shadow recovery) and colour rendition give superb results.

This is a standalone review and not a comparison test between DxO PhotoLab and Adobe Lightroom/ Capture One Pro. But we suggest based on the quality of RAW image adjustments alone, DxO PhotoLab is well worth a look.

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We looked at the already impressive standard Noise Reduction tool compared to the new PRIME denoise tool. The new tool is a definitely even better and will give the best results for high ISO images. It is a bit slower to render its noise reduction adjustments, but the wait is worth it. 

What’s new to DxO PhotoLabs is Local adjustments, also found in the top panel. Each local adjustment is made through a new Mask.

With Local adjustments selected, a right click brings up a circular tool with icons around the circle including Auto Mask, Brush (fully manual), Eraser, Graduated Filter, Control Point and New Mask.

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There are shortcuts to adjust the brush size, feather, flow and opacity amounts. Once a masked is added using one of these tools, an overlay is displayed of the mask area.

It’s possible to create multiple masks in the same image - for example a Graduated filter for the sky and with Brush mask to lighten a face.

With each mask comes a row of vertical sliders with editing effects that include Exposure, Sharpness, Vibrancy, Colour Temperature and so on. It’s easy to erase the inevitable unwanted areas of a mask with the Eraser tool. 

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Auto Mask is a handy tool for making quick local adjustments. The tool automatically detects the edges of the subject you’re painting over and only make those adjustments on the subject. This means you can quickly paint over the subject without needing the same precision as the Brush tool. 

We’ve used the auto mask tool for a lot of portraits and to separate objects from the background and in general have been really pleased with the performance. Of course the results are best when there is clear separation between subject and background and for subject with sharp edges. 

For the times that we were not entirely happy with the Auto Mark results, for example occasional haloing, we opted for the Brush tool for those precise adjustments. However, for most images, Auto Mask is a big timer saver.

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Each mask can be reselected by clicking on its icon within the image, much like Adobe Lightroom. There is not a separate Layers/ Mask panel. Things can get a little complicated when creating numerous masks in the same image, as you will need to remember what each one is for.   

Considering this is the first time DxO has introduced localised adjustments, the tool functions extraordinarily well. 

Lastly, let’s look at the overall speed of DxO PhotoLab. The handling of the software presents no issues. 

As mentioned there is a slight lag in a clear display when moving around magnified images and applying certain edits, but nothing we wouldn’t experience in other leading software.

We have been a little disappointed in the speed of image exports. Of course there are factors at play when sharing this sort of data, such as the file size of the original image, export settings (JPEG or DNG) and the total number of images being exported. So don’t read too much into these numbers, but two minutes is typical time for processing a single 40MB RAW file.  

Before and After

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Conclusion

If the chief concern for you is the final quality of individual RAW image files, then you will struggle to beat DxO PhotoLab. It’s library of camera and lens profiles is perhaps the most comprehensive around and gives consistently excellent end results.

DxO PhotoLab pretty much does the basic RAW image adjustments job for you. On first opening images, those automatic edits are usually bang on and we’ve quickly seen why many users swear by the predecessor DxO Optics Pro. 

We’ve pixel peeped to check the automatic Lens Sharpening, Noise Reduction, Smart Lighting, Colour and Contrast adjustments and are really happy with the results. PRIME 2016 Denoise goes one step further than the existing noise reduction tool.

Then there is the new champion feature, local adjustments. You wouldn’t know this is the first time that the tool has featured, it is right at home in DxO PhotoLab. The Auto Mask tool is highly intelligent and a big time saver, while other local adjustments offer all the features you might hope for.

The software handles really well too. We love the layout of the Organize and Customize screens, especially tools like the Split Preview. 

There are are a couple of downsides. It takes a little more time to work your way around the Customize window and it’s confusing to have the same tools in multiple sub menus (though this can be changed). The biggest downside is the slow pace of image exports. On the flip side, the overall editing part feels a little quicker than most.

All in all, DxO PhotoLab is very much a viable alternative to Adobe Lightroom and Capture One Pro and comes highly recommended by Photography Blog. 

4.5 stars

Ratings (out of 5)
Design 4.5
Features 3.5
Ease-of-use 4.5
Value for money 4.5


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