When DxO bought the Nik Collection from Google, I was immediately interested, I’ve been using Silver Efex Pro for probably ten years now and now its in the hands of DxO its future is bright. This is not a review of Silver Efex Pro though, if you want to take a closer look at Silver Efex you might start with my review of the Nik Collection.
Some context. I’m a commercial photographer used to using Capture One in the studio and Photoshop for creating client ready pictures. The first time I heard of DxO was when I read that the photographer Sebastiao Salgado had used their FilmPack software to emulate film stock when he found himself having to go digital half way through a book project. He now endorses DxO on their web site and has made it an integral part of his work flow as the Kodak Tr-X emulation is apparently indistinguishable from the real thing.
The second time was when I picked up some plugins for Photoshop created by another photographer whose work I admire, Joel Tjintjelaar, BW Artisan Pro X which will be the subject of a review when I can get around to it. The book he wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou describing their processing workflow, From Basics to Fine Art refers to the excellent Viewpoint 3 software that runs as a standalone package or as a plugin. I have to say, Viewpoint 3 is hands down the best viewpoint correcting software I’ve ever used, streets ahead of Adobe. I use it on all of my Wide Angle photography.
DxO Photolab review
DxO Photolab is a RAW conversion software that I suspect may be better than Capture One and is definitely better than Adobe. DxO have added library capability and a lot of processing capability to the mix and now have a suite of tools that stands roughly in the same patch as Luminar. That is to say its Library capability is not as sophisticated as Lightroom, but its processing capability is jaw droppingly good.
What makes DxO so good?
DxO started out as a company that tested lenses. The DxO Lens database is very well respected in the industry and lo and behold, they’ve used it to inform Photolab. When you open a RAW file in Photo;ab, the first thing it does is load the camera profile and the lens profile. It then applies corrections – distortion, vignetting etc.
I’ve got used to doing the lens corrections first in Lightroom because it can noticeably alter the image. I never understood why Adobe hid this step so far down the workflow. Apparently DxO agree with me. It also applies some corrections to the dynamic range, so that you start off with a picture that is technically, in very good shape indeed.
In this example, shot on a cloudy day with a Canon 5D mk III and a 17-40mm lens at 30mm we can see a slight warming of the tones and a small perspective correction. In Lightroom, you start with a raw unaltered image and apply corrective and creative edits as you go. There is an “auto” option in Lightroom but I don’t use it because it seems inconsistent and I know that I’m starting with an image that is already a little “off” as it conforms to a subjective notion of a good edit. With DxO I get an objective notion of a well exposed image.
No DxO Photolab review would be complete without mentioning the very flexible layout. Like Lightroom, you get the thumbnail top left, bu this column also contains the metadata. On the right you get the histogram and out of the box, a long list of tools, beginning with “Whats New in PL3” (HSL) and continuing through “Essential Tools”, “Light” , “Color”, “Detail” and “Geometry”. The Elite bundle gives you “Viewpoint” and “Filmpack”, both of which work as standalone applications, but are integrated with Photolab.
“Essential Tools” as in the Lightroom layout is the basis of a Workflow that you can rearrange and add to. The idea is that you can arrange the toolset to work with your own workflow.
Two noticeable differences in the Essential Tools workflow. Firstly in the Selective Tones panel. Here you can apply adjustments to highlights, midtones, shadows and blacks. No separate white point adjustment. Secondly in the Contrast panel you can apply adjustments at three levels, Contrast, Microcontrast and Fine Contrast. This gives a lot more control than is easily available in Lightroom.
Active Editing 1 – Chromatic Aberration and Horizon, Contrast & Sharpening
Here, I have applied some very basic edits – removed the purple fringing in the top centre around the olive tree and more noticeably corrected the horizon. Note that this is independent of the lens corrections, here we are correcting my own inability to set the camera straight! Finally I’ve applied the bundled ClearView Plus which gives me an idea of where the photo might go from here. It’s put a little more contrast and sharpening into the image.
Instead of Photoshop’s Masks and Layers, DxO have integrated Nik’s U-Point technology. For the purposes of a DxO Photolab review it’s important to point out that this technology is in place across the Nik Collections. It is very different to the layer and mask approach used by Photoshop and for landscape photographers quite probably more intuitive.
Essentially, I can create a control point on any part of my picture and apply a number of intuitively deployed adjustments to Light, Color and Detail within a circle whose radius I can expand or contract. The software will pick up the color of the spot that I have clicked on and apply the adjustments to a range of hues around that precise pixel. I can create overlapping control point circles and control precisely what is effected. If this sounds complicated, it isn’t.
This image shows the UI with masking made visible – one click on the greenery gave me a mask that applies only to. the greenery around the central point. I’ve increased the exposure slightly and decreased the contrast. The three controls next to the sliders switch functionality between Essential controls, Colour and Sharpness/Blur.
What this brings me is the ability to do broad brush edits applied to the entire picture and then specific adjustments to certain parts. The preview screen allows me to see exactly what the effect of these edits will be.
Active Editing 2 – Viewpoint and U-Point
This image has had Viewpoint applied to correct the wide angle lens distortion and shows the effect of the U-Point adjustment applied in the previous image. I’ve de-applied the Clearview edit and instead applied my own contrast and sharpening settings, slightly more subtly.
I’m very impressed with the way this works and can see huge potential in Landscape photography in particular. I’ve demonstrated some very simple edits here on a very ordinary photograph taken in very flat light, it’s the sort of image I’d normally throw away. It’s taken me only a couple of minutes to get from the RAW image in the first picture to the more presentable image in the last frame and had included a couple of steps that Lightroom simply cannot emulate. Viewpoint correction and the intelligent masking used in U-Point.
Like Luminar and to a lesser degree, Lightroom, Photolab has been equipped with a range of presets that can give you a “look” to use as a starting point or simply for inspiration. These looks draw on the pre-cooked templates used in HDR Efex, Color Efex, Silver Efex and FilmPack, and are probably aimed at the social media market rather than the professional photographer, but they are there to be used if you don’t fancy moving to another program to edit, or if you don’t have the Nik Collection.
Photo management in DxO Photolab is improving, it’s still nowhere near as good as Lightroom and here DxO have played a blinder. You can now manage all your photos in Lightroom and send them to DxO Photolab for processing. When you’ve finished, you can send them back as tif, jpg, or dng files and they will appear in your Lightroom library. If you need to do more, you can repeat the cycle. This works fine for me.
DxO Photolab Review Summary
Ease of Use
One Payment, no subscription
Excellent RAW Processor
Integration with Lightroom
It won’t deal with outputs from another program – its a RAW processor first and foremost. That is not a disadvantage, simply something to be aware of. So if your workflow includes Compositing, HDR and so on then think carefully about where Photolab can be effective.
DxO Photolab Review summary – I’ve been using Photolab for just over a month now and so I’m sure there are things that I haven’t discovered yet. I will continue to use Lightroom to organise my photographs, but for Landscapes in particular I’ll be using Photolab. It’s too good not to.
For my professional product work I’ll continue to use Capture One, PhotoLab doesn’t do tethering and of course as a RAW processor it’s not interested in working with composites put together in Photoshop.
For the price, I think it edges Luminar out. It’s a better RAW processor and for me, that matters. I love that its integrated so well with Lightroom. It’s ease of use makes it suitable for any level of photography, and I’d have no hesitation recommending it.