/DxO PhotoLab

DxO PhotoLab

DxO has long been one of the most dynamic makers of photo editing software, as well as a test lab for all major new digital cameras. PhotoLab continues DxO’s tradition of automatic lens and camera body-based image correction, unmatched noise reduction, and other innovative image improvements. PhotoLab also incorporates Nik U Point local selection technology for some excellent local adjustment tools. For the latest version, the software adds helpful new search capabilities and improved haze reduction. The resulting software deserves a place in every serious shooter’s digital camera bag.

Pricing and Getting Started With DxO PhotoLab

PhotoLab is available at two pricing levels, Essential ($129) and Elite ($199). To get a couple of DxO PhotoLab’s coolest features, such as Prime de-noising and ClearView, you need the Elite version, which is what I tested for this review. That version also includes some pro features, such as the ability to manage camera-calibrated ICC profiles, custom palettes, and editable presets. Essential still gets you the excellent raw conversion, Smart Lighting, the Spot-Weighted mode, the Microcontrast tool, and local adjustment features.

PhotoLab is available for Windows 7 SP1 and later, and for macOS 11.11 and later. The installer weighs in at 455MB, which isn’t outrageous when you consider that Lightroom Classic(9.99 Annual Plan for Creative Cloud Photography, Paid Monthly at Adobe) is pushing 2GB. Speaking of Adobe’s app, at installation, you can choose to include installing the DxO software as a plug-in for Lightroom Classic. (The new Lightroom CC, which targets nonprofessionals, doesn’t support plug-ins.)

When you first run the program, a popup tells you that it would be a good idea to download modules that support raw files shot with your equipment, based on photos it finds in your Photos directory. The profiles include DSLR camera body and lens combinations as well as smartphone cameras.

The DxO PhotoLab Interface

The dark gray interface of PhotoLab has a clean, subdued look. The program interface has two modes: PhotoLibrary and Customize. The latter is where you do all your editing and tuning. That’s really all you need, but Adobe’s Lightroom Classic offers more flexibility with modes for sharing, printing, maps, and books, as well. Fortunately, DxO makes Lightroom round-tripping an option in PhotoLab.

DxO PhotoLab InterfaceDxO PhotoLab Interface

I really like DxO’s top button-bar options—one click for full image-size viewing, fit on screen view, full-screen view, and side-by-side comparison views. A key button here is Compare, which shows you what your photo looks like without DxO’s corrections. It’s key because the software automatically applies the fixes as soon as you load a photo. In Customize mode there are also buttons for cropping, forcing parallel lines, and a neutral color picker.

Across the bottom of the program window is a filmstrip view of the images you’re currently working with, replete with subtle icons indicating whether the photo has been processed, whether camera and lens modules are installed for the image, and a star rating. (You don’t get similarly helpful clues in Adobe Lightroom CC, though you do in Lightroom Classic.) Each time you open a folder containing images, the program detects the camera and lens used for the photos therein, and it prompts you to download a module for the combination so that PhotoLab can optimize the image based on the equipment used.

One thing I miss in the interface is simple image-rotation buttons, though you can rotate photos via a right-click menu or keyboard shortcut. Another MIA option is a history panel, which would let you undo back to a particular edit. Helpfully, there is a persistent Reset button. The program makes good use of keyboard shortcuts, like Ctrl-J for creating a virtual copy of your photo. I also like how the mouse wheel zooms you in and out without requiring you to use a key combo.

DxO OpticsPro 11 Full ScreenDxO OpticsPro 11 Full Screen

The interface is somewhat customizable: You can adjust the interface border color from the default dark gray to anywhere from full white to full black. The full-screen view, summoned with F12 or a button in the top toolbar, lets you browse through images with the arrow keys and use hidable, discreet rating and EXIF panels. You can also detach the image browser for full viewing on a second screen, keeping all controls on the first screen.

Search ParametersSearch Parameters

Organizing with PhotoLibrary

With the new version 2, PhotoLab gets a bit more capable in the organization department. The former Organize mode is now called PhotoLibrary. The program indexes folders containing photos to let you search by shot settings. That means you can enter a date, focal length, f-stop, and even ISO setting. It’s even possible to combine any of these in a search. Unfortunately, there’s no searching by camera or lens, though a DxO rep told me that the company was working on this capability for an upcoming update. Lightroom CC lets you search by camera but not settings, while Lightroom Classic offers all the above, and adds the very useful ability to search based on the lens used.

PhotoLab still doesn’t have a full workflow function—as mentioned, there’s no importing from media. This obviously means you can’t view all photos from a specific import session, a feature I find quite useful, a nd one that is offered by Apple Photos, both Lightroom products, and Cyberlink PhotoDirector.

You simply open images from a card shown in PhotoLibrary’s folder tree. You do get star ratings, and even pick and reject designations for organizing your photos. But forget about using keyword tagging, geotag maps, and face recognition—DxO doesn’t offer them. If those things are important to you, you’re better off using DxO PhotoLab as a plug-in for Lightroom Classic, a perfectly viable setup. The program does let you organize photos into Projects, in which you bring together pictures you want to work with as a group from various sources.

Image Corrections With DxO PhotoLab

DxO is different from most photo software in that it starts you off with its best-guess correction for your photo, based on the lens, camera, and exposure settings used. DxO Labs actually shoots thousands of shots on test patterns at different lighting conditions to create lens and camera profiles for each camera and lens supported to tune these corrections. The auto-correction is far better than you see in most photo software, and it’s often all you need. I did find that Phase One’s Capture One software does a slightly better job of rendering raw camera files than PhotoLab, but DxO’s presets bar offers, in addition to the standard DxO auto correction, choices for neutral colors, black and white, portraits, and landscapes. You can also dig down into other presets like HDR (high dynamic range) and Atmospheres, which produces some effective colorizations.

New for DxO PhotoLab 2 is support for DCP color profiles. These are newer than the previously supported ICC profiles, and they’re used by Adobe. So if your workflow involves using Lightroom or Photoshop, this option produces the same color rendering. Third-party utilities like those from X-Rite let you create your own profiles with a color target board. Below, you can see how to apply a DCP color profile to your image.

DCP Color Profiles in DxO PhotoLabDCP Color Profiles in DxO PhotoLab

If the auto correction doesn’t quite hit the mark, the program’s Customize mode lets you change exposure compensation, contrast, color, and more. In addition to the standard exposure slider, you can use DxO’s Smart Lighting slider, which can brighten shadowy areas without punching out whites. Cranking this all the way up creates a decent single-shot HDR effect, but for more drastic HDR effects, check out CyberLink PhotoDirector . Each slider also has an Auto option, as well as setting choices like highlight priority or Strong. I also appreciate that double-clicking on a slider resets it.

Beyond simple contrast, the Microcontrast tool can add serious sharpness to images without adding the typical distorted edges sharpening can cause. A magic wand button automatically sets the microcontrast for the current image. In my tests, its results were impressive in sharpening photos, though it’s not something you’d want to use for face shots.

Speaking of sharpness, DxO’s Lens Sharpness tool impresses. Based on particular lens profiles for the equipment used, the Sharpness tool can noticeably improve the detail in your shots.

DxO PhotoLab Lens SharpnessDxO PhotoLab Lens Sharpness

Smart Lighting uses face detection and spot-weighted correction. Note that the face detection isn’t for organizing and retrieving images with faces, but just for lighting correction. The tool can bring a face out of obscurity in cases where there’s a bright background. It does an even better job at this than the Shadows tool, which can tend to wash out images. Lightroom lets you get about the same result with some tweaking, and DxO’s tool doesn’t find faces in profile. No worries: You can select the face or any other object to meter on manually. It works the way spot metering in a camera works, but lets you apply it after the shot.

DxO Optics Pro spot meteringDxO Optics Pro spot metering

DxO PhotoLab’s red-eye tool works completely automatically, and nearly perfectly if the red areas are clearly delineated and the faces not obscured.

DxO Prime

Probabilistic Raw IMage Enhancement (Prime) is a noise-reduction tool in PhotoLab that the company claims will add an extra stop of exposure to your digital photos. (As the acronym implies, Prime only works on raw camera images.) This means you can shoot in low light or at higher ISO and still retain sharpness and detail. The deal with Prime is that it lets the program take as long as it needs to analyze and correct digital noise. The technology is now reasonably fast, even for high-ISO shots, though it’s still much slower than the standard noise reduction in other software.

Most noise correction just compares nearby pixels to determine which represent noise, but DxO examines a much larger area to make this determination, which should remove more noise while leaving more detail. When you choose Prime noise reduction, you won’t be able to see its effect on the full image view, just on a small area. The only way to apply Prime to the whole image is to export it, which can take over a minute.

Once you hit Export for a photo for which you selected Prime noise reduction, you see an icon in the photo’s thumbnail that it’s being processed, and a tiny progress bar that you can click to enlarge and view a countdown timer. Prime has noticeably sped up since it was first introduced; applying it to a 29MB raw file from a Canon EOS 6D shot at ISO 5000 took 40 seconds to export on my Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IC running 64-bit Windows 10 Home and sporting a 4K display, 16GB RAM, a quad-core Intel Core i7-6700T CPU, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M discrete graphics card.

Prime NR DxOPrime NR DxONote how the noise on the dark gray bench in the nearby image has been impressively cleared up in the right side after Prime processing. It’s basically taken an unusable mess and made it clear and natural.

The result is stunning. In my testing, more noise was removed and more detail was preserved than I could achieve in Lightroom’s noise reducer or with Capture One Pro. For initial raw file conversion, however, Capture One still beats DxO, getting more detail out of raw image files in my test images. If you’re not completely satisfied with the results, you can tune the amount of correction with the Luminance slider, and even dig into Chrominance, Low Frequency, and Dead pixel corrections. Tthat last correction is a lifesaver for me, since my backup Canon T1i has a hot pixel that always shows in pictures up as bright red at 100 percent magnification.

ClearView Plus

ClearView can very effectively take the haze out of a landscape shot. The feature saves you from having to create masks for different areas of an image to adjust them independently. It determines distance in the photo and adjusts the black level accordingly. In my test landscapes, ClearView, which is completely automatic (though you can adjust its intensity), did a bang-up job of retrieving detail from distant regions in the photos. I was unable, in my testing, to achieve as good a result by adjusting black and highlight levels using the standard tools.

ClearView and DehazeClearView and Dehaze

The sample image above shows a hazy original photo detail on the left, with DxO PhotoLab ClearView Plus applied in the middle, and Adobe Lightroom’s Dehaze on the right. Note that these results are only using the respective haze-removal tools—you can get a better image in both programs by applying other adjustments on top of the autocorrection. But it does show the natural detail that DxO’s software can restore. Here’s another example, with DxO on the left and Lightroom on the right; it shows the Adobe Dehaze tool applying a strong blue color cast, while DxO ClearView Plus leaves the colors more natural.


Local Adjustments With DxO

Since its acquisition of Nik Software, DxO’s software now includes a Brush and other tools for making local adjustments. The Brush tool is clearly accessible from the big Local adjustments button at the top of the Customize mode. It’s really powerful: You can adjust its width and feathering. The Equalizer control has sliders for adjusting Exposure, Contrast, Microcontrast, Clearview (see next section), Vibrancy, Saturation, Temperature, Tint, Sharpness, and Blur. The last can even add bokeh iris circles if you crank it up enough. Its Feathering, Flow, and Opacity sliders let you control the transition from the effect to the unaffected areas, as well as, obviously, the effect’s transparency.

DxO EqualizerDxO Equalizer

Right-clicking while the brush tool is active shows a circular (or radial) menu that lets you switch among the software’s other local adjustment tools, including Graduated Filter, Mask, Eraser, Auto-mask, and Control Point. The Auto-mask isn’t fully automatic, as Photoshop’s Magic Wand is, but rather gives you a brush with edge detection. The graduated filter is a typical gradient tool, useful for things like the faux tilt-shift effect or intensifying skies. It lets you adjust the effect area with a line you can grab, extend, or rotate with the mouse cursor.

The last tool, Control Point, applies the correction to all pixels in the selected area of the same color and brightness value as the point. It selects a circular area for its effects, with feathering at the edges. This is where the U Point technology comes in, and it’s similar to Lightroom Classic’s Range Masking tool for color- and tone-based selection for local adjustments. The DxO tools offer fun and powerful ways to alter images, for example intensifying a sky or changing a shirt’s color. I like how in this mode you get a split-screen view that lets you slide a divider back and forth in the image to show before and after adjustments.

DxO Split ScreenDxO Split Screen

One thing missing is layers, but you can actually add multiple masks from a choice in the radial menu. Capture One, in its last update, made a big push with layers in its latest version, letting you see, for example a mask layer. Truth be told, I’m not a huge layer fan, and I suspect there are other photographers like me in this regard, but there are certainly times when you may want to be to see or disable a layer, particularly if you’re working with multiple masks.

Auto RepairAuto Repair

Another new local adjustment for PhotoLab is its Repair tool. This is similar to Photoshop (9.99 Annual Plan for Creative Cloud Photography, Paid Monthly at Adobe) ‘s Content Aware Fill tool, letting you remove an undesired or distracting object from a scene and replacing it with nearby material. As with all similar tools, Repair only works if there’s a consistent texture around the object you want to remove. But it works very well in the right circumstances. I even found myself panning through a photo that I’d removed an extraneous head from, forgetting that I’d done so—I couldn’t even tell where it had been.

Geometry Correction

Another DxO product, ViewPoint ( at Amazon) , tackles a rather intractable issue of photography: volume anamorphism, where objects like human heads become distorted when they’re at the edge of a wide-angle image. PhotoLab does camera and lens-profile based geometry correction for barrel, fisheye, and pincushion distortion automatically, also letting you fine-tune.

A basic geometry correction, cropping, is well handled and available from PhotoLab’s always-present top toolbar, but I wish it remembered your aspect ratio choice: I usually prefer Unconstrained, but the program always switches me back to Preserve aspect ratio. And the horizon-leveling tool does the job, though not automatically the way Lightroom does. Finally, the program also can correct moiré, vignette, and chromatic aberration. As in previous versions, DxO PhotoLab does a remarkable job of removing chromatic aberration.

Export to DiskExport to Disk

Output and Sharing

Once you’ve perfected your image in PhotoLab, the blue bar at bottom-right lets you output directly to disk, to another photo editor, to Facebook (though only on macOS), to Flickr, or to Lightroom Classic. The Facebook exporter lets you choose a target album, but not privacy level or tagging. The Flickr export has better control, letting you choose an album, add keyword tags, and set privacy. It even pulls in your previously used tags and albums and offers them as selections. One online sharing capability that’s lacking is via email: Lightroom Classic lets you quickly send out any image onscreen via a right-click. The lightweight Lightroom CC, however, is far more restricted in export options—you can’t even choose a new filename.

When exporting to disk, you can choose multiple outputs at once. Unfortunately, you can’t choose a DCP profile on export, only an ICC profile. When exporting to Lightroom, too, I noticed the file size was nearly doubled. On a more basic level, I wish all photo editing programs would simply use the standard Windows export feature, which would ease exporting and sharing in general.

PhotoLab includes basic printing capabilities, accessible from a permanent button next to the Export button. You can choose a grid size for multiple images, apply sharpening, and add a caption in the font style of your choice. But for more layout options (included savable custom layouts) and soft proofing (which lets you see colors in the photo not supported by the printer) look to Lightroom Classic.

Get More From Your Photos With DxO

Though it’s not a complete photo workflow solution, DxO PhotoLab gives you a real edge when it comes to refining images. DxO’s lens and camera-calibrated corrections achieve results that can be hard to accomplish in other software, and it often does so automatically. Its unique Prime noise-reduction feature, U Point local adjustments, Lens Sharpness, and ClearView Plus tools bring us close to photography nirvana. The spot-metering and auto-microcontrast tools benefit both portrait and landscape photographers. PhotoLab is a PCMag Editors’ Choice award for high-end photo editing. For a fuller workflow solution, check out fellow Editors’ Choice Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, and for the best initial raw conversion, Phase One Capture One.

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