By Jimmy Cheng
DxO’s latest software promises powerful Raw image correction, but does it deliver? Jimmy Cheng fires it up to find out
Back in the days when working in a physical darkroom was the only way to get an image out of a camera, developing photographs took time, patience and skill to create something outstanding. However, the parameters of the development process were set by physical components like chemicals, films and paper.
In the digital world, especially for those who are Raw shooters, things are not so clear cut. To get the best out of the Raw data from your cameras and lenses, you will need the best Raw image engine. This intangible software engine is what translates the ones and zeroes into what you see on your screen, and eventually on your prints.
I cannot stress how important it is to choose the best Raw converter out there for the equipment you use – although, strange as it may seem, I haven’t seen one that definitively excels for any particular camera system. There are, of course, the camera manufacturers’ own software, which usually come bundled with individual cameras, and then there’s Adobe’s ACR (Adobe Camera Raw), probably the most widely used engine around.
However, as now more and more people shoot Raw, the demand for something that offers not only conversion but also editing capability has never been higher. Apple pioneered this type of Raw image management and editing software with its Aperture software back in 2005. It was an instant success. Over the past few years, others have caught up with various popular alternatives such as Lightroom, Capture One Pro, DxO Optics Pro and Coral AfterShot …etc.
With the sudden death of Aperture, a lot of followers have been turning their heads looking for a new home for their images. Together with the emerging interchangeable system cameras like the Fujifilm X series and micro four thirds, the battle between different imaging companies over a new customer base is heating up.
Why DxO Optics Pro 10?
In the digital processing world, one non-Adobe name that stands out from the crowd is DxO. With probably the best scientific laboratory for sensor and lens tests, DxO has the most comprehensive database for almost all the latest digital cameras and lenses. As you can imagine, the result is a detailed record of profiles of sensors and lenses.
Speaking of profiles, there are more and more Raw converters adapting lens profiling to make sure their conversions can squeeze every last bit of ‘juice’ from the file. Most of these profiles correct the imperfections of the optics themselves such as distortions, light falloffs (vignettes) and to some degrees chromatic aberration. Yet, they only utilise lens profiles rather than lens-and-body/sensor combination profiles. This is where DxO Optics Pro comes to its own. Since it has access to all the profiles of the latest digital sensors and lens from its laboratory database, it can easily get the ‘best’ match during Raw conversion. The result can be significant, as you may see later.
Purists may only say that the best optics will require no corrections but the fact is, in the commercial world, almost all the images you see on billboards and posters have been processed to the degree that they look perfect. Unless there’s a desired effect required, they just look too good to be coming straight out of the camera. Professionals will need something to help them to get the best out of the best kit, and the quicker the better.
One of the key benefits of DxO Optics Pro is that it can run as a plugin or as a standalone application. For the purpose of my review, I will stick with the plugin route so it won’t break my workflow.
The Best Bits
I am not here to drill into every single feature that DxO Optics Pro offers, but instead to provide more of an overview with reference to things that I use on a daily basis. I want to see the differences and perhaps the benefits of this software over Adobe Lightroom CC.
Optics Pro 10 has a very familiar ‘development module’, resembling the interface from Lightroom, with sliders for almost everything. Though I want to highlight a few interesting enhancement options: as well as the optical and sensor corrections from its profiling that nobody else offers, you’ve got PRIME (noise reduction), ClearView (haze reducer) and Smart Lighting.
While the optical correction is automatic (provided a profile exists, and bear in mind it only works for Raw files and not JPEGs), all the other parameters can be turned on and off. PRIME, ClearView and Smart Lighting can be fine-tuned using the sliders.
Optical Correction (Lens Profiling)
Let me start with the profiling first. I am truly impressed just how much better it is than Lightroom’s lens profiling. In Lightroom, lens distortion correction can result in significant loss of pixels, especially the lens suffers from particularly heavy distortion. Lightroom will apply an opposite effect to a fault in order to counteract it, so for instance if a lens suffers from barrel distortion, Lightroom will apply a pincushion effect to ‘push’ the image back to resemble how it is seen by human eyes. You will thereby lose pixels along the middle on all four sides of the image. If you are making architectural images that require critical perfect accuracy, this is a big problem. It will result in the final image being cropped.
Optics Pro, however, will stretch the appropriate portion of the image to get the same effect. This means that there’s no loss in pixels! What you saw through the viewfinder initially, before you took the photo, is pretty much what you will get at the end.
PRIME (Noise Reduction)
With more and more professionals shooting at high ISOs in tricky situations, noise reduction has become a heavy part of the pro workflow. I personally don’t like shooting at high ISO settings, as it often means losing not only dynamic range but also sharpness in general. However, as a wedding photographer, I can’t afford to lose a shot when I am in the dark, so I do often pump up the ISO to around 1600 or 3200, with 6400 as a real emergency backup. I understand that these days many photographers shoot even higher, but the truth is that my photos are often collated into albums or made into large prints, and this means that any higher settings are simply not suitable. Therefore, an effective noise-reduction solution is always on my wish list.
Optics Pro’s PRIME noise reduction is pretty good. From what I can see, Lightroom and Optics Pro’s noise reduction capabilities are neck and neck. In some situations, DxO is a little ahead. This means you can be sure that Optics Pro is a great solution for cleaning up noisy images.
PRIME is only available for Raw files. You can still apply general luminance and colour noise reductions to JPEGs, though the results may not be as good.
ClearView (Haze Reducer)
I have only used this a few times with some environmental and landscape photos, and it’s not suitable for use with human subjects in my opinion. It basically adds contrast and saturation to the image so it appears to be less hazy; however, it is a little cleverer than just adding a global effect. It applies the effect to the right parts of the image for an overall improvement, particularly those photographed through glass windows or (surprise, surprise) on a hazy day. Overall, it is quite useful, but only if you are photographing a scene without people in it. It’s just too severe an effect to keep human faces looking natural.
This is perhaps the most intriguing feature of all, at least to me. As much as you want to automatically tone down the highlights and boost the shadows in Lightroom or other programs, the results can be rather unnatural. A little like a very bad HDR photo, looking absolutely unreal. But DxO’s Smart Lighting is truly genius. When adjusted correctly, the photo will have all the details preserved, both highlight and shadow, without looking horribly fake, and be much more pleasing to the eye.
One note however: Smart Lighting can get confused when there’s a mix of artificial and natural lights, such as with a room lit both by bulbs and windows. The result will be an overly saturated photo. My solution is to turn Color Rendering on and lower the intensity to get the colours back to acceptable levels.
There are plenty of ways to make an image look sharp other than the standard Unsharp Mask, such as micro contrast adjustment and DxO’s proprietary module named DxO Lens Softness, where you can adjust the global, detail and bokeh sharpness. It does seem to give the user all the controls he or she needs to make a very sharp and pleasing digital photo.
While DxO Optics Pro offers some exciting and genuinely useful features, I am a little disappointed in terms of speed however. Perhaps I am just nit-picking, but unlike Apple’s Aperture, or now Adobe’s Lightroom or ACR, Optics Pro’s ‘Correction Preview’ usually takes a few seconds to reflect each adjustment. Nothing happens in real time, and this makes adjustment a little cumbersome.
Exporting a 24-megapixel JPEG back to Lightroom takes around 30-50 seconds, though this can be an individual case as I believe it depends on system specifications and files.
DxO also offers other packages that can be bundled in Optics Pro 10 to make it almost a one-stop-shop for all your photographic needs. These include DxO’s own Film Pack, very much like VSCO plugins, which allows the user to create film-looking digital images, and View Point, an add-on that allows users to correct perspective of an image.
I strongly believe DxO Optics Pro 10 is a great Raw converter. Some of its features are truly unique and that makes it stands out from the crowd. Yet, at this stage, I would prefer to use it as a plugin rather than a standalone program, even though it has the capabilities, simply because it’s still not perfect on ALL photographic applications. However, I can utilise its unique power to make some of my images even better!
I am eagerly looking forward to future versions to see if DxO can address some of my concerns, most notably the speed issues. Until then, it will remain a plugin for my workflow and will mainly be used as a perfection tool.
*Note – some features are either restricted or disabled when editing JPEG files.
- Smart Lighting is very useful to reveal hidden shadows and retain highlight details
- PRIME Noise Reduction is VERY effective on Raw image files
- ClearView can be very effective for landscape and cityscape photography
- Automatic optic correction is a godsend and much better than rivals’ lens profile corrections
- Multi-Point Color Balance – cool (preserve global white balance)
- DxO Lens Softness can sharpen selective details on the images
- Colour Rendering – lens or body significance also film results (if film pack is installed).
- Correction Preview needed a few seconds to re-render after every single adjustment on my system
- Smart Lighting can be confused by a mix of artificial and natural lighting, resulting in an unnatural looking image even when used with correct camera profile
- Weird skin tones by default
- Slow export hinders workflow when used as a plugin
About the Author
Jimmy Cheng is a devoted Leica M photographer who specialises in wedding and street photography, as well as dabbling in the odd bit of travel. Catch up with him at his website.