Software review: DxO PhotoLab 4 brings several small improvements

Introduction

First launched in early 2004 under the name Optics Pro, DxO rebranded its Raw processor as PhotoLab back in 2017 to better reflect that its capabilities now go far beyond just lens corrections, and simultaneously absorbed the popular Nik Collection plugins from Google for integration into its own software. It has also shuttered its nascent hardware business altogether, and spun off its DxOMark camera, lens and smartphone testing lab as a separate company in 2017.

Now entirely focused on software development, DxO has nevertheless stayed the course with a perpetual licensing model for PhotoLab, eschewing the controversial subscription-based pricing that rivals like Adobe have used to increase revenues.

Since it’s a comprehensive digital darkroom application, I’m not going to aim to cover every feature of PhotoLab in this review. Instead, in the interest of readability, I’ll aim to hit the highlights while comparing improvements versus the previous release, and against its still-dominant Adobe rival as appropriate.

Key Takeaways:

  • Competitive pricing, no subscription
  • Class-leading (but slow) DeepPRIME noise reduction filtering
  • Friendly and easy-to-learn user interface
  • Great automatic lens and image quality corrections
  • Good to great performance in most areas
  • No support for multi-shot imaging or Fujifilm X-Trans images

DxO PhotoLab 4 is available immediately priced at US$129 for the Essential edition or US$199 for the Elite edition; the extra cost gets you PRIME / DeepPRIME ‘denoising’, batch renaming, moiré removal and more. There’s also upgrade pricing if you have a previous version of PhotoLab or OpticsPro.


What’s new in DxO PhotoLab 4

Compared to the preceding major release, PhotoLab 4 has several significant new features and a raft of more minor ones. Key among these is the new DeepPRIME denoising engine, an artificial intelligence-based evolution of DxO’s already-impressive PRIME noise reduction from earlier versions. DxO has also introduced a selective copy-and-paste function which allows you to take just your chosen parts of the recipe you’ve applied to one image, and apply those to as many other images as you like with minimal fuss.

PhotoLab 4’s user interface now allows searching, filtering and customization. At left, I’ve clicked the “Color” button (marked in blue at the top) to filter to color-related tools, then started to type “saturation” in the search field, and after two letters my chosen tool was already located in two different palettes. At right, I’ve made my own user palette called “Optics”, and populated it with copies of DxO’s popular lens correction tools.

Also new are a history palette that allows you to see and quickly revert processing changes, and a DNG export option that lets you save images either with all corrections, or optical corrections only. There’s also a batch renaming function and the ability to add either text or image-based watermarks to your images. And DxO has also made PhotoLab’s user interface more approachable, allowing more advanced controls to be hidden, individual controls to be rearranged or added to your own user-created palettes, and available controls searched or filtered by type (see above images).

Finally, support has been added for a raft of cameras including all of the following: The Canon EOS R5, R6 and Rebel T8i (EOS 850D); DJI Mavic Air 2; Nikon D6, Z5 and Z6 II; Olympus E-M10 IV; Panasonic Lumix S1H and S5; Sony A7c and A7s III. A full and searchable list of supported cameras can be found on DxO’s site.

The new Advanced History palette tracks your changes to images, allowing you to roll them back or see exactly what changes you made later. Here, I’ve tweaked color, exposure and perspective, then cloned out a number of distracting leaves in the temple’s courtyard.

The basics: DxO PhotoLab’s feature set

At its core, DxO PhotoLab is a full-featured Raw processor that offers a range of quick-and-easy automatic corrections based on lab testing of camera bodies and lenses, as well as a profusion of manual controls allowing you to tune the look of images to match your artistic vision. Camera body and lens corrections are contained in profiles which the application prompts you to download as required.

As well as global adjustments to variables like exposure, contrast, white balance and the like, PhotoLab also allows for local adjustments that can be brushed into specific areas of your image, overlaid as graduated filters or attached to specific areas with control points. Based on U Point technology first developed by Nik Software, these are a clever way of creating masks to select specific areas of the image without needing to resort to hard-to-master tools like Photoshop’s magic wand or lasso.

Your edits can be stored in two ways, neither of which alters the original file itself so there’s no risk of corruption and edits can easily be undone. Firstly, DxO stores these edits in its own database, much as does Adobe’s rival Lightroom app. On top of this, PhotoLab can also write sidecar files in the same folders as your edited images, either automatically or manually. These sidecars can be copied between computers to make your edits portable, and if that machine already has its own edited version of the same image, PhotoLab will intelligently create virtual copies for you.

As well as global adjustments, DxO PhotoLab 4 also allows for local adjustments that can be brushed onto and erased from your image, as well as graduated filters like the one I’ve applied here, and also more selective filters set using the U Point technology bought from Google and originally developed by Nik Software.

Images can also be keyworded and rated, and again, these changes aren’t saved into the original file itself, but rather the database and sidecar file, although exported versions of the image will have this metadata baked-in. PhotoLab can also read IPTC metadata added to images at the time they were captured, if your camera supports this. Support is also provided for both printing and export to Flickr.

Modern features like high-resolution 4K displays, touch-screens and pens are all supported. So are multiple monitors, allowing you to use one display for editing and another for file browsing.

PhotoLab 4’s newly-customizable Smart Workspace can be rearranged to mimic that of other applications as closely as possible. Here, I’ve tried to make its layout (left) match that of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (right). There are obviously differences in the tools that each offer, but you can still get fairly close.

Editing controls can also be moved to the secondary display if first docked to a user palette, allowing near full screen preview on the primary display. And most adjustments can be previewed in almost real time, although previews for some more computationally-intensive adjustments such as curves or noise reduction can take a little longer.

If you prefer to use another app to manage your catalog, DxO PhotoLab can function as a plugin for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic. It can also export processed images to Photoshop or Lightroom, and its functionality can be extended by DxO’s own ViewPoint, FilmPack and Nik Collection plugins.

PhotoLab can function as a plugin for Lightroom, and accepts several plugins such as the popular Nik Collection suite itself.

ViewPoint and FilmPack integrate into PhotoLab’s own interface, while the Nik Collection suite is accessed via a popup menu. On choosing a Nik plugin, PhotoLab exports your image as a TIFF file, and this is then opened in your chosen plugin. Since this takes you out of the Raw workflow and bakes in your prior PhotoLab edits, it makes sense to do it as a last step before final export.


How DxO Photo Lab 4 compares to Adobe Lightroom

So what’s missing when compared to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom? Quite a few things, although many are fairly obscure features that many photographers won’t need. There’s no import/ingest function to copy images from your camera or flash card to local or network drives, or tag them in the process. Multi-shot editing functions like panoramas, focus stacking, resolution enhancement or HDR are not supported.

Less significant omissions include tethered shooting or a mapping / GPS module, although PhotoLab can recognize and display location info in its metadata panel. Nor can it create slideshows, and other than Flickr support it provides no built-in photobook or web gallery creation functionality.

DxO PhotoLab 4 offers most Lightroom / Photoshop features that photographers regularly need, while foregoing some of their lesser-used, more obscure functions

DxO’s software also tends to support fewer cameras than does Adobe, especially for older and more obscure models. Particularly noteworthy is a lack of support for any camera using Fujifilm’s X-Trans sensors, something that seems unlikely to change in the near future. And just as it lacks support for multi-shot imaging, PhotoLab also doesn’t fully support single Raw files based on multi-shot techniques like Pentax’s Pixel Shift Resolution and Raw HDR, or Canon’s Raw Burst format. These files will typically open, but are treated as if they were standard single-shot Raws.

Great image quality and true-to-life color

Much like its Adobe rival, DxO PhotoLab is capable of providing excellent image quality, with pleasing color and loads of detail. There are some interesting differences in the two companies’ approaches, however, that become apparent when comparing their automatic corrections side-by-side. For the below images, PhotoLab 4 is on the left, Adobe on the right.

Where Adobe tends towards a consumer-friendly look with higher contrast and much punchier color: sometimes almost cartoonishly so. DxO PhotoLab’s automatic results tend to feel more convincing and realistic, if perhaps a little muted.

And the situation with exposure adjustments is similar. PhotoLab’s automatic corrections tend to use a softer touch, whereas Adobe typically makes bigger changes to exposure. With scenes where the camera missed the mark on exposure, I found Adobe’s algorithms tended to do a better job, but with more challenging scenes they sometimes yielded rather unnatural results. DxO comes closer with challenging scenes simply by dialing up its Smart Lighting correction from the default Slight mode to Medium or Strong, however.

DxO’s algorithms (left) typically don’t make huge adjustments to exposure by default, whereas Adobe (right) seems to give more free rein to correct difficult images.

Of course, should their automatic corrections miss the mark, both companies’ results can be tuned to match your tastes. In terms of detail, I found little to choose between the two, although Adobe’s apps default to higher levels of sharpening by default, sometimes leaving noticeable haloes when viewed at 1:1. And while PhotoLab and Lightroom’s automatic lens corrections do vary somewhat, neither program seemed consistently better in my testing.

Compare the default PhotoLab result with Smart Lighting set to strong instead of light (left) versus Adobe (right).

The story is very different when it comes to noise reduction, however, where even DxO’s base HQ noise reduction seems to do a better job both of squashing noise and holding onto finer details at higher sensitivities, where Adobe’s results are typically grainier. And enabling DxO’s PRIME or DeepPRIME noise processing puts it in a different ballpark.


The big news: DeepPRIME denoising is very impressive

Of course, that difference comes at a cost. Both PRIME and DeepPRIME work by throwing a lot more processor power at the problem of identifying and removing noise from your images. When either technique is in use, processing your images will take significantly longer – we’ll quantify this in a moment – and you’ll also lose the ability to see a full-size preview of your results as you dial in your corrections. Instead, you get a relatively tiny 278 x 150 pixel preview which you can move around the image to check the results in different sections.

The other main drawback to PRIME and DeepPRIME denoising is that they work only with Raw images and not JPEGs, because their algorithms function before the data is demosaiced, a process which tends to smear noise across adjacent pixels and make it harder to remove.

Let’s start off with an extreme example. Above is an ISO 204,800 shot from the 51.4-megapixel Pentax 645Z, as processed with DeepPRIME. Below, and clockwise from top left, are 100% crops as processed by Adobe, PhotoLab HQ, PRIME and DeepPRIME. (Click or tap the previous links for full-res versions.)

Let’s continue our look at how DeepPRIME compares to PRIME, HQ and Adobe denoising with more samples, as well as analysis of even more new features and our final conclusion on the next page.

Read page 2: PRIME and DeepPRIME continued

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