Product review: DxO Photo Lab 2
If you care enough about the quality of your image captures to shoot raw format files, you want to process those files in software that extracts the highest quality image output. DxO OpticsPro software has earned a well-deserved place among the applications that can do the job, but it’s lacked some of the features that would make it a total image processing workflow package. After a name change to DxO PhotoLab and the addition of Nik U Point technology last year, the program only required a more robust digital asset management (DAM) module to bring it close to the top. DxO has added those DAM tools as well as other valuable features in DxO PhotoLab 2.
PhotoLab 2 is available in two versions: Essential for $99 and Elite for $149. The Essential version allows two activations and a more basic toolset. The Elite version offers three activations plus DxO Prime noise reduction, DxO ClearView Plus, anti-moiré tools, ICC profiles, DCP profile creation, export to multiple image sizes and formats, preset editing, and customized palettes. I worked with the Elite version, which is well worth the extra cost.
The PhotoLab workspace is easy to use even if you’re unfamiliar with imaging software. Users of previous versions will note that the Organize module is now the PhotoLibrary to denote the new DAM module. Unlike Adobe Lightroom, PhotoLab uses your existing folder structure to view images and doesn’t require you to import to a catalog. You can’t move images from your camera or media card into a folder on your storage media from within PhotoLab, though.
As part of the new DAM capabilities, you can search for images based on EXIF data, file name, capture date, star rating, camera model, focal length, and more. The software will even find images captured at a specific focal length taken with a zoom lens. I look forward to more options such as lens model, keywords, and geotags to be added in the future. If you need one of the DAM options available only in Lightroom, you can still use PhotoLab’s superior raw file processing by accessing it as a Lightroom plug-in.
To speed the search process, PhotoLibrary indexes the image folders. You can run the indexing function in the background as you work, or type in search parameters and the program will index your photo library as it searches. The search results are nearly instantaneous when indexing is complete. Results are displayed in the filmstrip below the main preview window, or you can open them in grid view in a new window (View>Unlock image browser or cmd/ctr+U). Well designed and implemented, this search feature is a valuable addition to PhotoLab.
While the new DAM features are important, the heart of PhotoLab is its capacity to get the highest quality out of processing raw files. DxO has tested thousands of camera body and lens combinations, creating a powerful database from the results. As PhotoLab identifies a camera/lens pairing in your image files that matches one in its database, the program asks if you want to download the corrections. It takes just seconds, and when complete, the adjustments are applied to the present image and any others that you open with the same camera and lens combination. These adjustments are generally excellent, but if you prefer not to adjust them or not apply them at all, you can use the tool panel to do so. To facilitate your decision, you can see before and after views of the image.
One of the automatic corrections is DxO Smart Lighting. In most cases it does a great job expanding the dynamic range of an image, especially if the image is underexposed. But at times it can lower the contrast when applied globally. The Smart Lighting tool allows it to be applied locally, which is useful in an image with faces.
Noise reduction is also automatically applied to raw captures, and DxO’s noise reduction is the best in any software I’ve tested. The Prime noise reduction found in the Elite version is capable of eliminating noise altogether at the highest ISO settings of every camera I’ve tested. Even the standard noise reduction found in the Essential version is outstanding.
The ClearView tool has been upgraded to become DxO ClearView Plus. ClearView Plus analyzes image and reduces the effect of atmospheric conditions such as fog and haze to add contrast and clarity. This is a particularly valuable tool for my outdoor photos in Southern California. In images that have areas of high contrast, there’s still some haloing, but this latest version doesn’t degrade sharpness as the previous one did. And the effect is adjustable with a slider from 0 to 100, with a default setting of 50, so you can apply whatever level suits you.
While it’s not new to version 2, the incorporation of Nik Software’s local adjustment U Point technology is another factor that sets PhotoLab apart from competitors. There are three groups of adjustment available—Light, Color, and Detail—each with its own settings, allowing you to adjust 15 different parameters in any selected area. One of the parameters is ClearView Plus.
U Point technology automatically masks the image area contained within the adjustment circle based on a mathematical analysis of the image. It works remarkably well, and the improvements DxO has made to the Nik implementation make local adjustments a pleasure with no need for complex masking. Manual masking tools, though somewhat rudimentary, are also available, as is the ability to simply brush adjustments onto the image. I only wish I could move the controls off of the image area they affect to allow better viewing of the adjustments.
Also new in PhotoLab 2 is support for DNG Color Profile (DCP). This allows you to achieve consistent color rendering that’s compatible with or close to that produced by Adobe software. You create a DCP using an X-Rite Color Checker and the free Adobe DNG Profile Editor. PhotoLab 2 supports only the Dual Illuminant DCP (DPL) form of DCP, which means you must create a DCP using two different color temperatures. This is much more difficult to describe than to do. Instructions are easy to find online, and it’s well worth doing if color consistency is important to you.
There are many options for correcting, enhancing, and outputting raw files, but only a few programs are able to extract the full amount of information available. Among those, even fewer make the adjustment and output tasks relatively easy and pain free, with a minimal learning curve. DxO PhotoLab 2 is one of these few.
Stan Sholik is a writer and photographer in San Clemente, California.
In the slideshow below: The original (first image) was captured on a foggy morning in California. I applied the DxO ClearView Plus adjustment to reduce haze and enhance clarity (second image). Note the lack of haloing in high-contrast areas. Finally I brushed a mask onto the surfer and applied U Point adjustments (last image). Because of the dark water behind the surfer, using a Control Point and making the adjustments also affected the water.