Review: DxO Optics Pro

Process RAW photos easily. (August 22nd, 2011)

You can process RAW photos or edit JPG and TIF files with an endless array of editing options. Three workspaces help make it easy.

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Product Manufacturer: DxO Labs

Price: $169 and $299 US

The Good

  • Processes RAW photos for lens & camera defects.
  • Three workspaces for different levels of editors.
  • Easy to correct horizontal or vertical orientation problems.
  • Fixes chromatic aberration well.
  • Two versions for different cameras.
  • Comprehensive PDF manual.
  • Updated regularly with new camera modules.

The Bad

  • Cannot process DNG files.
  • Progress bar appears often.
  • No multiple image HDR processing.
  • Naming saved projects implemented poorly.
  • Save images to a new folder works oddly.
  • Multi-Point Color Balance tool difficult to use.
  • Needs more video tutorials.

If you shoot RAW images with your camera, the first suggestion often made to convert images is the rather expensive Adobe Photoshop ($699) or Photoshop Lightroom ($299). Yet, there are many lesser-known products that offer extensive editing capabilities at more reasonable prices. Paris based, DxO Labs is one of those contenders, with their image editing software DxO Optics Pro 6.6, which was updated twice in August, 2011 with a total of 60 new camera and lens combinations.

RAW images include all the data that your camera sees, but the file isn't usable until you convert it into another format, such as TIF or JPG. What sets DxO Optics Pro apart lies in their scientific method. They have tested a huge variety of camera bodies and lenses and incorporate the known issues into their product modules, so that when you open a RAW photo, you take advantage of tested results. Image corrections are applied automatically from specific camera modules that you download from the site from within the program. Effectively, the image you select to edit is already optimized based on their camera profiles.

 New Camera Modules

Download New Camera Modules Dialog

DxO Optics Pro processing is not automatic if it does not have your camera profile, but you can edit JPG or TIF images or process RAW from unsupported camera models. You can check the site to see if your setup is supported. They also recommend whether their Standard or Elite edition is best for you.

Camera and Lens Calibration

If you are an enthusiastic photographer, who has not studied the intricacies of lens manufacturing, you may not know about lens optical defects, but they exist, and they affect your shots. For example, each lens has different level of noise (or grain) applied, softness or vignetting, geometrical distortions (edge of photo distortion), and ability to show shadows and highlights. Unless you want to spend more time learning camera calibration then shooting, it is a science better left to the experts. DxO Optics Pro automatically corrects your shots, based on their extensive research, but you can fine-tune those corrections within the software.

The Basics

You can process any number and kind of images in one DxO Optics Pro project. All of the edits or corrections are applied to copies of your images, so that you do not change the originals. You can save the edits as 8- or 16- bit JPEG, TIFF, or a 16-bit linear DNG. If you shoot JPEG files, they recommend that you do not use in-camera features, such as sharpening or anti-noise, because you can use the software to apply these edits.

When you first open DxO Optics Pro, you can download new Optics Modules or jump right into the program.

 Start Up Screen

Start Up Screen

The main program buttons appear in the upper left. You Select your photos, Customize them with the editing palettes, Process the changes and lastly, View them. Just like other photo editing software, you Select your photos from a folder list on the left, then drag your shots to edit in the Project bar on the bottom of the screen.

Workspace

Workspace (Compiled from Two Screens)

The program's interface is familiar, with photo thumbnails on the bottom, file management on the right, and editing options on the right in a series of panes. Yet that familiarity may confuse you. The bottom area isn't where you choose your photos with which to work, it is your Project area. You put only the shots you want to process in that area. In Lightroom, for example, you have thumbnail views at the bottom of the screen and choose which shots you want to edit. In DXO Optics Pro, the thumbnails on the bottom are only the shots in the Project, so it's not as flexible.

When you select your photo(s) to edit, by default it walks you through the process with onscreen help. This feature is only available in the DxO First Steps Workspace, which offers basic editing palettes. The Workspace button, from which you can change the editing palettes appears when you are in the Customize tab.

First Steps Wizard

First Steps Wizard Screen One

You can Select then Process your photos, if you don't want to apply any custom edits. The First Steps Workspace editing options include: Exposure Compensation, HDR, Vignetting, Distortion, Lens Softness, Unsharp Mask, Noise, and Chromatic aberration. The automatically applied edits have checkmarks next to the palettes, but you can open each palette to add your special tweaks.

Two other workspaces offer more advanced editing options. The Essentials workspace adds a histogram display on the left, plus groups more editing options into palettes with sub-palettes with sliders. The groups include: Detail, Light, Color, and Geometry Essentials. You also access the optional DxO FilmPack module from this workspace. The FilmPack module lets you simulate the color rendering and grain of many types of film and will be covered in another review.

Essentials Workspace

Essentials Workspace

The Advanced User workspace adds an EXIF display on the left and includes all the editing tools available. You can also customize which palettes appear. While the interface may be familiar, the sheer volume of options is a bit overwhelming.

Advanced User Workspace

Advanced User Workspace

An Apply preset button on the top of the window also lets you customize the edits, with a number of automatic settings. DXO Optics Pro automatically applies the default v2 preset to imported images, unless you change the default. You can apply multiple presets, but unfortunately, no notation appears to let you know which preset you chose. This is the first editing program in which I recommend you keep a notepad handy to write down edits applied.

Advanced User Workspace

Available Presets

The Process tab brings up the Output Options, which allows you to check multiple formats to save. You can simultaneously output a JPG, TIF, or even DNG file at the same time, which is a unique feature. Although you can save your edits as DNG files, it will not process them. You cannot print your photos from DxO Optics Pro either.

Output Options

Output Options Under Process Tab

You can save your set of photos as a Project from the File menu, but that feature is not implemented well. It saves Projects as Untitled 1, Untitled, 2, etc. You must choose Rename Project to give it a real name. The Projects are saved in one database, stored in your Pictures folder. The normal options to choose where to save this database don't exist.

The long manual presents how to use the program well. They even include a handy page of Mac OS shortcuts that you can print. Only one tutorial exists on the site, and I think it would be helpful if they added more video tutorials. DxO Optics Pro is compatible with Lightroom and you can download a separate user guide on the site. The guide offers different ways you can use the two programs together.

DxO Optics Pro in Action

The bottom line is, does this program really make processing RAW photos easier? Unfortunately, most of the lenses I use with my Nikon D90 are not on their list, because they're much older than my camera. My Sigma 170-500mm lens was made long before digital SLRs, and when I use this lens on my digital camera the shots are noisy, have soft focus, and color problems. I'm very interested to see if DxO Optics Pro can make my post processing easier, quicker, and less painful.

I chose a mix of good and bad images and started many projects. I used shots taken with my Nikon D90 and the old Sigma lens, and ones taken with the stock lens, plus a Panasonic DMC-GH1 camera. Profiles exist for the latter two setups. The three-step process is: Select, Customize, and Process. I tried a few of the simplest customized settings and was surprised to find that it took about 2 minutes per RAW photo. That seems very slow and I did not feel as if I had enough screen real estate to judge my images. The corrections were subtle on most shots, but definitely an improvement.

My first set of images saved as JPEG files and stored in the same folder as the originals with _DXO appended to the name by default. It is a mistake to save files you think may need further editing as JPEGs, because you lose a lot of file color information in the conversion. I wish they'd make TIF or DNG the default. I processed these images again with a few variations and changed my output settings to save them as TIF files, which only took about a minute for each file.

I did have good luck fixing purple outlines and reducing noise. My old lens adds Chromatic aberration in my shots. In short, that means there are color variations around the edges of objects that don't belong there-this is also called color fringing-and often occurs between a light and dark object.

Robin's Head

Look Carefully At Robin's Head

Removal of that purple fringing was easier in DXO Optics Pro then in other programs I've tried. You can see how it reduced the noise in the shot above also. So, it worked very well for these problems in my older shots. The program is more useful if your supported setup module exists, especially if you tend to shoot at high ISO.

Panasonic GH1

Processed Panasonic GH-1 (Module Installed)
Original on Left/Processed on Right

It also lightened up some shots that I took on the wrong settings, plus it corrected noise well. I think landscape, architectural, and real estate photographers should find DXO Optics Pro useful to correct horizons or crooked shots, which is called keystoning. The crooked JPG my son sent to me, taken with an unsupported Panasonic DMC FZ-28, came out nicely when corrected, although it did not correct the overexposed sky.

JPG Keystoning

Unsupported JPG Keystoning Fix

The HDR works on one image, but you cannot use a set of bracketed images. Sometimes it over processes the image, but it certainly fixed the soft focus on a couple of my shots. You can choose from HDR Effect or Artistic, Realistic, or Slight for different effects.

HDR

HDR Effect on Right (Crane at Rehab Center-Panasonic GH1)

Distortion Correction

I enlisted the help of another photographer who shoots with a fisheye lens and he compared how DXO Optics Pro fixed his shots compared with Lightroom. Raj Golawar writes, my lens correction was tested using Nikon D90 with 18-70 f/3.5-4.5 at 18mm and if the correct module is installed, DxO evens out the image very well.

Fisheye

Original Shot with Fisheye Lens

Although, room for correction is limited by the profile, you can go further when you select manual correction and set type as barrel, pincushion or fisheye. I found the fisheye distortion correction to be very useful for de-fishing photos to give an ultra wide look.

Fisheye undone

Photo Fixed in Lightroom

The results are much better than in Lightroom. De-fishing always stretches out corners, so a soft cornered image can result in very blurry corners with over emphasized chromatic aberrations.

Fisheye undone

Photo Fixed in DxO Optics Pro

Note: This screen shot looks blocky, because it was done over screen sharing. DxO Optics Pro fixed the image horizontally better than Lightroom.

Annoyances

Every time you add a filter or process an image, a small progress bar comes up with the percent of the image processed Processing. Raj notes that it would be useful if it didn't pop up even when you moved the cursor to another part of the image . You spend half your editing time, watching that little message on the screen-it becomes seriously annoying and it interrupts your thought process.

Initially, when I tried save my images, I got an error message. DXO wanted to put those images into a folder on a hard drive that wasn't mounted, even though the originals I used were on my internal drive. I could not process the images until I mounted my external drive. It saved the images into a folder I'd used to process images last month, even though I had changed the folder in which to save them in the Output Options.

Process Error

Process Output Error

Your only option upon receipt of the error message is to return to the Process tab. The solution, buried on page 111 in the manual, is to save your changed Output settings. This area needs a better implementation that allows you to change your save location.

Another output problem lies with processing a photo twice. You cannot rename the saved file inside the program, but a dialog appears announcing you will overwrite the previously saved photo. You must rename the first saved photo in the Finder before you Output the second iteration. This dialog needs an overhaul too.

Overwrite File Warning

Overwrite File Warning Dialog

The bottom line is that DxO Optics Pro works well on RAW images that are shot with supported camera and lenses. You may find its RAW processing worth the $169 investment for the Standard version. It is so feature rich, that it takes a long time to learn, plus it is a bit slow to process images. I don't think you can replace your Adobe products with DxO Optics Pro, but you may want to add it for its specialized editing capabilities.

Some options are buried, so read the manual carefully. (Example, to save a virtual copy, you must right click a thumbnail.) As noted above, I think the program is useful for high-end shooters, and those that work with architectural objects. Better dialogs are needed, along with a speed bump. On the plus side, DxO Labs regularly updates the program for new cameras and lenses. The $299 Elite version offers modules for professional cameras. You can download a fully functioning 30-day trial from the site and the program works in Windows and Mac OS. I tested it in Mac OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.8, but it also works in OS X Lion 10.7. I've given DxO Optics Pro 3.5 stars, because it does some types of processing very well, but there are problems that need to be fixed.

duck

Old Photo Made Good Again




Raj Golawar helped test this product. Photographs © 2011 Ilene Hoffman, except where noted.

by ilene Hoffman, Reviews Editor


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