DxO PhotoLab 3.2
Despite not being a complete workflow solution, version 3.2 of DxO PhotoLab provides the most refined set of tools for editing raw files we’ve encountered.
The inclusion of Nik-based U Point technology and PRIME denoising (RAW) plus DxO’s own ClearView Plus, Smart Lighting and Lens Sharpness functions creates a unique tool set for both global and local adjustments that is more powerful and capable than you’ll find in many higher-priced image editors.
DxO Labs is a French company founded in 2006, initially as DxOMark.com, which was created to provide image quality ratings for cameras, lenses and mobile devices with cameras. In 2017 the company acquired the Nik Collection assets (seven specialised plugins) from Google and in the following year, DxOMark became a separate company and DxO Labs focused on software development. DxO Photolab, now in its third generation, is its main image editor.
DxO Photolab is best seen as a highly efficient raw file converter with extensive editing capabilities, rather than an image editor per se. Like most modern editors, it uses a non-destructive workflow for demosaicing and processing raw files. Consequently, if you process a raw file in DxO PhotoLab and then open it in, say, Photoshop or Lightroom, any adjustments you made won’t be visible unless you have locked them in by first saving the file in TIFF, JPEG or PSD format.
The software comes in two versions: Essential and Elite. The table below shows the differences between them.
|New||Essential Version||Elite Version|
|Yes||Local Adjustments Palette||Local Adjustments Palette|
|Yes||Keywords Support||Keywords Support|
|Yes||DxO ColorWheel||DxO ColorWheel|
|Local adjustments||Local adjustments|
|Control Points (U Point Technology)||Control Points (U Point Technology)|
|DxO PhotoLibrary||DxO PhotoLibrary|
|Improved||Repair tool||Repair tool|
|DxO Lens Sharpness||DxO Lens Sharpness|
|RAW conversion (except for Fujifilm X-Trans cameras)||RAW conversion (except for Fujifilm X-Trans cameras)|
|High-quality denoising (RAW and JPEG)||High-quality denoising (RAW and JPEG)|
|Optical corrections||Optical corrections|
|DxO Smart Lighting||DxO Smart Lighting|
|Spot Weighted mode||Spot Weighted mode|
|Selective tone||Selective tone|
|Image tools||Image tools|
|Protection of saturated colours||Protection of saturated colours|
|Built-in Presets||Built-in Presets|
|Batch processing||Batch processing|
|Customisable workspace||Customisable workspace|
|Full-screen mode||Full-screen mode|
|Integrated export feature||Integrated export feature|
|Interaction with Adobe Lightroom||Interaction with Adobe Lightroom|
|Geometrical corrections||Geometrical corrections|
|Analog and creative renderings||Analog and creative renderings|
|PRIME denoising (RAW)|
|DxO ClearView Plus|
|DCP Colour profile support|
|Managing camera-calibrated ICC profiles|
|Colour rendering profiles|
|Partial presets creation|
For this review, we were supplied with the Elite version, which includes four proprietary tools: DxO PRIME for noise reduction, DxO ClearView Plus for haze removal, DxO Smart Lighting for automatic exposure optimisation and U POINT local adjustment technology. The Essential version doesn’t include DxO PRIME or DxO ClearView Plus.
Who’s it For?
DxO Photolab is quite different from other image editors in its focus as well as in the way it uses image metadata. The software is based on more than 18 years of expertise in camera and lens testing, which have resulted in a comprehensive library of performance data that is used when the program applies automatic corrections each time a file is opened.
Image metadata can be viewed by right-clicking on the image and selecting Image Properties from the drop-down menu.
Although DxO PhotoLab does provide some file management capabilities (metadata, shooting parameters, folders, keyword management), they don’t compare with those offered by programs like ACDSee Ultimate 2020 or Adobe Lightroom. Fortunately, images can be moved seamlessly between DxO Photolab and some other applications if additional capabilities are required. They can also be exported directly to Flickr for sharing.
Exporting from DxO Photolab to Flickr.
While the user interface is similar in many ways to other editors, it’s targeted at photo enthusiasts and professional users with prior editing experience and would probably be daunting for novice users. Like other ‘serious’ editors it uses a non-destructive workflow. But some tools are different and a number of important functions are missing (see below).
Curves adjustments are available through the Tone Curve function in the Light sub-menu. White balance control is available in the Essential Tools sub-menu and its dropper colour picker (shown below) is quick to use and remarkably effective.
Before and after examples of using the white balance colour picker.
While many adjustments are automated, most have manual over-rides although the adjustment sliders are quite short, so making precise adjustments can be tricky. But in general, they work remarkably well once you’ve learned how to use them. Plenty of free tutorials are available here.
The software is available for download now as a free 30-day trial with all features unlocked. The Essential version sells for US$129 (AU$197.06 when this review was published), with the Elite version priced at US$199 (AU$303.99). No discounts have been offered during the COVID91 period so it’s not exactly cheap.
Both prices are for ‘lifetime’ licences and, although you may have to pay for the occasional updates, when compared with Adobe’s photography plans (which include Lightroom and Photoshop plus cloud storage) they are very competitive over the long term. The Adobe photography plan with 20GB of cloud storage costs AU$14.29/month or AU$171.48/year, while the plan with 1TB of storage is AU$28.59/month or AU$343.08/year.
For starters, there’s no facility for importing image files directly from media into a management facility, although the PhotoLibrary will include a memory card linked to the computer in its browser column. However, you can’t view images uploaded in a specific importing session, although if you’ve labelled the folder with a name you remember you can search by folder names as long as you can guide the software to the best place to look.
Otherwise, searching functions are limited to Exif information but you can’t add Exif data to images. Additionally, while you can search by date and focal length as well as f-stop and ISO value, you can’t search by camera or lens name.
Layers are not supported. There’s no Levels adjustment and you can’t make tonal adjustments by moving arrows on the histogram, although a comprehensive RBG/L (brightness) display is provided.
There’s no History panel so it’s more difficult to go back and view the sequence of edits you’ve applied. The alternative is a persistent Reset function, which steps you back through edits but it’s not as good as being able to get a simple overview of what you’ve done.
Face detection functions aren’t provided, although the Smart Lighting tool uses face detection and applies spot-weighted correction. Geotagging is not supported unless you use DxO PhotoLab as a plug-in for an application that supports these features. Sharing to social media is limited to Flickr, which means you can’t email images directly from the program.
Finally, although both ICC and the newer DCP colour profiles are supported, you can’t export images with the latter. And soft proofing is not available.
The User Interface
Although the workspace layout of DxO PhotoLab (shown below) appears quite similar to many other image editors, it actually works quite differently. It takes a minute or so to open the application in the PhotoLibrary mode and in the process it automatically scans the Pictures folder on your computer to identify the cameras and lenses used to capture the images it contains.
The PhotoLibrary workspace.
It will then allow you to select and install the DxO Optics Modules for automatically correcting any images you upload for editing. Being camera and lens matched, these corrections may be all you need for shots that were exposed correctly.
The DxO Optics Modules installers for camera bodies and lenses.
The Image Browser is the PhotoLibrary enables users to sort through images folder by folder. Opening a folder displays its contents as thumbnails, with the first image selected enlarged in the main panel above the thumbnail display. Users can mark images with ‘traffic lights’ and ratings to make files easier to sort and sorting and filtering menus allow images in the filmstrip to be displayed or hidden.
When you open an image, the software will use the data from the DxO modules it has loaded to provide an automatic ‘best guess’ correction based upon the camera, lens and exposure settings it ‘reads’ from the Exif data. This correction may be all you need, although further adjustments are readily available.
The editing workspace selected via the Customise tab.
While it opens in the Photo Library, DxO PhotoLab’s main workspace is reached by clicking on the Customise tab which provides access to the editing tools. These are located to the right of the main panel and grouped into six categories: Histogram, Essential Tools, Light, Colour, Detail and Geometry.
The dropdown menus in the six categories of editing tools.
The Customise workspace also extends the toolbar at the top of the main panel, which contains buttons for selecting Compare (corrections with/without geometry adjustments), side-by-side preview, full-screen viewer, fit on screen, zoom to 100%, a drop-down selection of magnifications from 400% to 25%, the cropping tool, white balance colour picker dropper, horizon straightener, repair button, red-eye correction button and Local adjustments selector.
The Horizon straightening tool above the main workspace panel is quick and simple to use. A second control with the same capabilities is included in the Essential Tools sub-menu.
The main panel is adjustable; just drag its edges in or out until it’s the size that suits you. You can also adjust the size of the image by rotating the scroll wheel on your mouse. Individual tools can be switched on and off with mouse clicks
Raw File Editing
DxO PhotoLab’s greatest strength is as a raw file editor/converter, where it has few equals. Most camera brands are supported and the support appears to be up-to-date, with the latest additions being the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, Leica D-Lux 7 and Q2, Nikon D780 and Olympus E-M1 Mark III. The only exception we found among the recent cameras we’ve reviewed was Fujifilm’s cameras that use X-Trans filtration, which is also problematic for some other editors.
When you transfer a RAW file to DxO PhotoLab’s Customise workspace it opens seamlessly with a full suite of adjustable controls, most of which operate much as they do in other image editors.
Another significant point of difference for DxO PhotoLab is its support for local adjustments of selected areas within images, which are applied on top of any overall global corrections. The Local adjustments tools replace conventional selection tools like magic wands, lassos, dodging/burning brushes and freehand selection pens.
While they work quite differently, in many respects, DxO PhotoLab’s Local adjustments are often more powerful and easier to use than the standard equivalents, although there are times when they can be less convenient. This function is based on U Point Technology, which was developed by Nik Software and acquired when DxO purchased the Nik Collection from Google in 2017.
‘U Point’ (which stands for ‘You Point’) enables users to click on an area of an image they want to edit, selected with a brush, graduated filter or mask. This click analyses the luminosity, contrast, and colour of the pixels at that point and establishes an adjustable Control Point that covers the area to be edited. This applies the same corrections to all pixels with the same characteristics within the defined area.
Control Point tools.
A circle at the click point provides various selection tools, including a brush for delineating the area to be adjusted a graduated filter, masking and erasing brushes and a reset function. Control Points are then used to adjust the Light, Colour and Detail parameters.
Within each parameter sliders allow additional fine-tuning, as shown in the screen grab below. Click on the scale and move the mouse vertically to increase the value when it’s moved up and decrease it when it’s moved down. A blue bar shows the adjustment and a numerical value appears in a floating tile when the mouse is moved.
Control Point adjustments.
This process creates a mask over the part of the image selected. Live previews show the effects of adjustments as they occur, making them easy to control. Clicking on the Local adjustments tab turns this function on and off. (Windows users can also vary the response speed of the correction by moving the mouse horizontally.)
Control Point adjustment parameters.
Brush sizes are adjustable and users can also set the feathering, flow and opacity parameters, making this tool really useful and more powerful than parallel tools in some other editors. Selected areas are highlighted with a blue mask (shown below), which makes it easier to see what you’re working on.
Selecting the graduated filter from the Control Point tools provides a way to simulate the effect of optical graduated filters. The mouse pointer changes to a cross (macOS) or a gradient icon (Windows), which is placed at the top of the image and moved down, as shown in the screen grab below.
The slider controls on the Equaliser are used to make adjustments. The top set of sliders provides adjustments for lightness, tone and contrast; the one below has colour adjustments and the bottom one is for tweaking sharpness. Some powerful effects can be created, as shown below.
Graduated filters can be applied from any direction—starting from the top, the bottom, sides, or corners. They can also be rotated by tilting the dotted line. Several graduated filters can be applied to an image.
Multiple masks can be created on an image by deselecting the current mask (click inside the circle) then placing the blue disk with the plus sign wherever you want to creates a new active mask and clicking again. New masks can also be created with the Control point tools.
The latest edition of the software adds Duplicate and Rename settings to the masking options, making it easier for users to manage several local adjustment masks within a single image. Windows users can also move automatic masks and masks created with the brush tool and rename a mask in the local adjustments palette. Keyboard shortcuts are available for certain adjustment features.
Like Affinity Photo DxO PhotoLab makes side-by-side before and after comparisons of edits quick and easy via a clickable button in the panel above the main workspace.
The ClearView Plus tool (shown above) is designed mainly for haze-reduction but it can be used in place of a Clarity tool for boosting edge contrast and a slider is provided for adjusting its intensity so quite subtle tweaking of tones is possible. We found it worked well for retrieving detail from a shot of a misty scene taken through a bus window, although the full scope of adjustment was required to achieve the ‘after’ result shown below.
This pair of images shows how effective the ClearView Plus tool can be for extracting details from misty landscapes.
The Microcontrast tool, which sits just below the Contrast slider, boosts edge contrast to create the impression of additional sharpness. Manual control is provided by the slider, while a ‘magic wand’ button automatically applies settings deemed appropriate for the current image.
The screen grab above shows the effects of editing adjustments made with the DxO ClearView Plus tool on a raw file. This adjustment has been augmented by an increase in the strength of the Microcontrast adjustment.
Noise reduction with the PRIME denoise tool.
The PRIME (which stands for Probabilistic Raw IMage Enhancement) denoise tool, does a great job when it comes to noise reduction but it’s only usable on raw files. Unfortunately, you can’t view its effect on the image as a whole, only on a magnified section, which is selected via the icon to the right of the PRIME button. There’s a HQ (Fast) denoising button for use on other file formats, although it’s not quite as effective.
The top image is cropped from the original, unedited file shot at ISO 3200 with a M4/3 camera while the bottom image shows the effect of PRIME noise reduction on the same area. While these are low-resolution images, the differences in apparent sharpness and detail resolution are apparent.
DxO PhotoLab provides additional adjustments within the noise reduction tool set, with sliders for adjusting Luminance, Chrominance and Low Frequency corrections plus a tool for identifying and correcting dead pixels. Together they can make usable images that would have previously been discarded due to noise-related issues.
The repair tool (shown as the cyan circle in the upper picture below) has been updated to make it easier to see and use. The source area for replacing the deleted pixels is selected automatically when the area to be repaired is chosen but repair masks can be displayed using contour outlines instead of coloured areas.
Unfortunately, it only works when there’s a consistent area of tone and texture around the area you want to remove. When complex patterns are involved, as shown in the lower picture, the results are often disappointing. Using the Clone function delivers better results.
The Customise workspace also lets users access a range of templates (outlined in red in the screen grab below) that will re-set the original image to a pre-set set of values that can be applied to the image. Collections of presets are grouped under eight headings: Portrait & Landscape, Black & White, Atmospheres, High Dynamic Range (single-shot HDR), Smartphones and DxO One Scene Modes (three selections plus ‘No correction’).
The HSL colour wheel in the Colour sub-menu (shown below) lets you enhance and/or substitute colour ranges or apply consistency within a selected range, providing a real-time preview as adjustments are made. Hues outside of the selected parameters are not affected, making this tool useful for operations as diverse as adjusting tones and saturation in portraits where subtlety is required or adding ‘punch’ to skies in otherwise dull landscapes. The Uniformity slider enables users to standardise variations within a specific colour range.
Most users will find the automatic Geometry corrections applied when images are opened will eliminate potential issues like distortion and vignetting and the top toolbar covers basic cropping and straightening (although if you want to change the aspect ratio you must resort to the toolbar below the main panel and de-select the default preserve aspect ratio setting).
The Geometry tools in the right side column (shown above) provide greater control over parameters like straightening, cropping and distortion when it’s needed. DxO PhotoLab can also performs well when removing chromatic aberration and correct less common issues like moiré, should the need arise.
Keyword management has been improved for both macOS and Windows with the ability to edit a keyword by double-clicking on it or use the context menu and right-click on the keyword. Keywords common to more than one image in a selection of multiple images can be used for searching and are now visually distinct from keywords belonging to only one image.
Users can identify keywords common to multiple images.
The latest version of the software is also more stable than previous versions, notably when using the Nik Collection of effects and during masking. Selecting the keyword text field is no longer affected by moving the mouse over the main window and exported images now display their keywords correctly in Flickr.
There’s no File>Save function; instead you ‘export’ edited images to the storage drive on your computer or to another application, such as an Adobe application like Lightroom or Photoshop or the proprietary software supplied with your camera (which is identified automatically). Files can be saved as JPEGs, 8- or 16-bit TIFFs or in DNG.RAW format.
There are also direct tags for exporting to Lightroom and Flickr as well as for printing directly from the application. The printing dialog box (shown below) supports ICC colour profiles and will identify drivers for printers and profiles that are linked to your computer.
The Print dialog box provides all the standard adjustments required for ICC profiles and use of professional-standard printers.
Clicking on the Printer properties box takes you directly to the printer driver but the default settings shouldn’t require much over-riding. Margins can be adjusted by sliders and the dialog box has the option to crop images for borderless printing and enlarge the image to fill the sheet of paper.
Whichever export option is chosen, expect the program to take a while to deliver the image, particularly if you’ve used the PRIME denoising function. Processing can take a minute or so, depending on the adjustments made and the size of the original file.
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Hardware: Intel or AMD processor with 64-bit support; Intel Core i5 or better processor recommended; DirectX 9.0c compatible graphics adapter for Windows; OpenCl 1.2-capable graphics card with 1GB of video memory (Windows) or graphics card with 512 MB of video memory (Mac OS)
Systems compatibility: Microsoft Windows 7 (SP1) or higher (64-bit editions only); Mac OS X 10.11 (El Capitan) or higher
Display support: 1024 x 768 display resolution (1920 x 1080 recommended)
Disk space requirement: 4GB of available hard disk space
Minimum RAM: 4GB RAM (6-8GB recommended)
Supported image formats: JPEG, TIFF (8 or 16 bits), DNG
Raw formats supported: Raw files from most camera manufacturers except Fujifilm’s X-Trans cameras
DxO Optics Modules: More than 42,000 camera/lens modules available
Computer interface: Internet connection and registration are necessary for software activation and access to online services
Batch processing: Yes
Export to social media: Yes, direct export to Flickr
Mobile device support: No
Distributor: DxO Labs
RRP: US$129 (Essential edition); US$199 (Elite edition); upgrades from $69
- Features: 8.8
- Ease of use: 8.8