Real-world Review: DXO PhotoLab 1.2 with Nikon NEF

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In my original comparison of raw converters for Nikon NEF files, I mentioned DXO Optics Pro briefly. While it appeared to be a decent RAW processor software, a major shortcoming was that it did not have any local adjustment capabilities. Hence it was a difficult option to recommend, especially since it was not significantly cheaper than competitors which do have local adjustment capabilities and which were selling at similar (or lower!) prices.

Fortunately, things have changed now. DXO Optics Pro has evolved to become DXO PhotoLab and now includes the very highly regarded U Point technology from Nik Collection Plugins for making local adjustments. With this change, the value proposition of DXO PhotoLab has improved dramatically and is now a serious challenger to the other tier 1 RAW processor giants including Adobe Camera Raw (from Adobe CC/Lightroom/Photoshop) and Phase One’s Capture One Pro. In this review, we will make comparisons with Adobe Lightroom and Nikon NX-D. My observations come from working with Nikon NEF files. Of course you can make the usual inferences if you are work with RAW files from another camera maker. However, please note that there may be differences in results among different RAW formats. If you want to be sure you will be satisfied with the results from DXO PhotoLab and your camera’s RAW files, download a trial of the software and try it yourself.

Absent Features

I will start with notable features that are absent in DXO PhotoLab(DPL) which are present in its main competitors. These features stand out to me because I find them very practical during post-processing and use them often.

Absent: DAM

Let us start with the most obvious omission: DAM features. Both Adobe Lightroom(LR) and Capture One(C1) has built in Digital Asset Management features, and even 2nd-tier players such as On1 Photo and Alien Skin Exposure are building up their DAM functionalities. DPL does not offer any such features, so you will have to look at using another software solution to track, keyword and organise your images.

The good news is that I do not consider this to be a huge disadvantage for DPL. DPL should focus on its core competencies – RAW conversion and processing – and leave DAM functionalities to other more specialized software. Indeed, there are dedicated DAM software that do a much superior job than RAW processing software which try to cram in sub-standard and incomplete DAM functionalities.

DXO2Some alternative software actually provide better DAM capabilities than Adobe Lightroom

ACDSee, Photo Mechanic and Phase One’s Media Pro are great examples. These are all very capable DAM software available across a sufficiently varied price range and feature set to satisfy any budget or requirements. So use a dedicated DAM tool to organise images and focus on using DPL for RAW processing. No problem!

Absent: Local defringe brush

Another missing feature is that of a local defringe brush. Actually, only LR offers this feature. Unless you are using LR, local defringe operations have to be carried out using more complex post-processing software such as PhotoShop or Affinity Photo.

DXO11No matter what RAW processor software you choose, you will have to supplement it with a more powerful image editing tool to deal with the most difficult-to-correct aberrations.

The lack of a local defringe brush is an important point to note if you are thinking of replacing LR and do not have access to local defringe capabilities via alternatives. To be honest, LR’s built-in local defringe brush does not qualify as the best tool I have used, but is still better than having nothing. Of course if you do not care for local defringe removal, you probably will not care about this. Personally, I use Affinity Photo which comes with this feature. Hence its absence in DPL does not bother me.

Absent: Live exposure indication

The final missing feature of note is that of a live exposure indicator. That is, when you mouse over any spot of an image, the exposure level of that spot will be indicated on the exposure histogram. Very useful for determining the exposure of selected regions of an image. Even Capture NX-D has this feature!

However, this feature is strangely missing in DPL. The absence is a bit of a bother to my workflow, but I can tolerate it. Your preferences may vary. If DXO is open to customer suggestions for DPL, adding this feature will rank very high on my list of suggestions.

Imperfection: Image preview lag

One aspect that is not a missing feature but an operational imperfection is that DPL’s image preview takes a short while to process your adjustments before rendering the preview image. You make an adjustment, the image preview becomes totally blurred, an hourglass appears for 1-2 seconds (3 seconds sometimes), then the result of your adjustment is finally displayed. In practical usage, this means that dragging a slider value to see how it affects an image is unworkable – the image will be blurred most of the time with a spinning hourglass. This will be a much different experience for those coming from LR, where the time taken to update the preview image is nearly immediate.

To be honest this issue is imperfect, but not a big deal. There is a trivial workaround. Just key in adjustment values directly with your keyboard instead of dragging sliders, and the usability problem is solved. Modifications still take a while to appear, but at least you now have better control than the “update-in-progress” blurry mess you get from dragging sliders in DPL.

This concludes the main list of missing features from DPL that are most obvious to me. If these do not bother you enough to make you turn away from DPL, congratulations and read on for the good stuff!

Features and Performance

Now we answer the big question. How well does DPL work with Nikon NEF files? Does it get the colours right? After all, if Adobe Camera RAW in LR and PS could get accurate colours in Nikon NEFs, I would never have to spend so much time comparing RAW converters for NEFs.

Colour rendering for NEF

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I am glad to announce we have a winner! Yes DPL does render colours for Nikon RAW files correctly. I compared the colours of images between DPL and Nikon’s own Capture NX-D. Although I need to use different colour rendering options in DPL for different images and the colours are not an exact match to NX-D results, the colours are neutral and look way better than what Adobe Camera Raw(ACR) produces. Slight differences are irrelevant and just a matter of aesthetics – you may even end up preferring DPL’s colour rendering.

Image detail and sharpness

DPL fares well in bringing out image details and contrast as well. It actually brings out a little more micro-contrast and fine-contrast by default than either ACR or NX-D. I even manually pull back on the default micro-contrast and fine-contrast settings for portrait images most of the time. Now some people reading this might think that this makes DPL the better RAW converter because I am implying that images look a little sharper under DPL. This concept of image sharpness is not the best and only metric to judge a RAW converter. As a reminder, I moved away from ACR because the inaccurate colour rendering for NEF iss a nuisance to my photographic needs. Other aspects of a RAW processor such as colour accuracy, correction of aberrations and ease of achieving the aesthetic you want are more important. Besides, any image taken with good photographic discipline will look sharp with any decent RAW converter. However I will not deny that DPL seems to pull out a little bit more fine image detail by default.

Lens corrections

DPL also performs well when correcting distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations. After all, DXO’s signature differentiation from other competitors is that they profile a comprehensive list of camera bodies and lenses to create a set of RAW corrections and enhancements profiled to the specific lens. In actual use, I do not find it especially superior to some competition which have the same lens correction profiles. However it still has a huge library of lens profiles which is regularly updated, so this already means DPL has the most up-to-date library of lens profiles among RAW processor software. Note that there are extreme cases of fringing that DPL will not be able to totally correct – but this is not any different from any other competing RAW processor software anyway. You have to pull out a PhotoShop or Affinity Photo to perform these levels of corrections.

Sharpening features

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DXO9

Unique to DPL is that it has a sharpening feature that uses its library of lens profiles to apply sharpness enhancements intelligently. In actual use, sometimes I like the effect. Sometimes I do not. This enhancement can be toggled on or off, so it is a nice optional feature to have access to. In the event that you do not like the result of the lens profile-based sharpening tool, there is also an unsharp mask sharpening tool available.

Noise reduction

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One of the most famous features of DPL is its highly-acclaimed PRIME noise reduction engine. In short, it works as expected and deserves the praises that it receives. It is a CPU-intensive operation though, and will add additional processing time when you finally export an image file from a RAW file. An extremely important point to note is that the “Essential Edition” of DPL does not include PRIME. More reason to choose the “Elite Edition” for the full DPL experience.

Local adjustments: U Points and more

The poster feature of DPL’s 1.x release is the inclusion of U Point technology for local adjustments. This is integrated into the RAW processor software itself, meaning that all U Point changes you make to an image are fully non-destructive and can be tracked, modified or removed as you please. This is a significant advantage over other RAW processing software using U Points from the Nik Collection plugin, where changes are definitely destructive. Those alternate solutions write all your RAW changes destructively to a new TIFF file whenever you activate the Nik plugin. As you continue to move between your RAW processor software and the Nik Collection plugins, you keep generating new TIFFs with un-trackable, un-modifiable and un-reversible changes. This creates a workflow and file management hassle. No such problem in DPL!

DXO10

DPL’s local adjustment toolbox also include graduated filters, intelligent brush, and a repair tool. The repair tool works surprisingly well. If there is something too challenging for the repair tool, it probably will be too challenging for the competition as well. These are the cases where you need to pull out a PhotoShop or Affinity Photo.

Contrast controls

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Another notable feature of DPL absent in alternatives is that it allows you to control contrast, micro-contrast and fine-contrast. This is very useful as it allows you to fine-tune how much “contrast sharpness” or “contrast bite” you want an image to have. Even more advanced options are available to allow control of contrast in the highlights, mid-tones and shadows separately. You may not use these every time, but it is good to have access to that additional level of control and flexibility when you need it.

Smart lighting

DXO3

The Smart Lighting feature in DPL has some similarity to Capture NX-D’s D-Lighting. It will attempt to even out the exposure in your image. Whereas D-Lighting will always lift up the shadows, Smart Lighting may pull down the highlights if the image already has very strong highlights. It may not be useful for every image you have, but it is a tool that I find helpful in at least half of the images I have.

Haze removal

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DPL has a haze removal tool that is useful for correcting hazy images. I rarely use this. The effect is quite strong and should be only useful for images taken on genuinely hazy days.

Integration with DXO Filmpack and DXO Viewpoint

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DXO14

If you purchase DXO Filmpack or DXO Viewpoint, these tools will be directly integrated into DPL. This means that unlike a plugin, any changes you make with Filmpack or Viewpoint occurs within DPL’s RAW conversion engine and are non-destructive and modifiable. DPL will not generate a new TIFF every time you use Filmpack or Viewpoint like it does when used with other RAW processing software. Big bonus points here.

Verdict

My list of recommended RAW converters for Nikon NEF files has a new champion – DXO PhotoLab! Combine DPL with a DAM software product like ACDSee and a tier 1 image editor such as Affinity Photo, and you pretty much have a complete class A package that can do almost everything you may want to do with managing and processing still photography images without stepping into Adobe’s subscription-based ecosystem. Most importantly, DPL does a better job at RAW conversion than ACR for Nikon NEFs. If you want to save even more money, wait for the seasonal discounts to get a good price for the software you want. I waited and picked up copies of DPL, ACDSee and Affinity Photo when they were discounted at different times.

(Some retouching professionals insist that there still isn’t a worthy substitute to PhotoShop for high-end commercial work. But if you do not work within that segment, Affinity Photo should be sufficient.)

One important point to note. Ignore DPL’s “Essential edition” and go for the “Elite Edition” to get access to the full, un-crippled package.

There is a lot of potential for DPL to evolve. As DXO has acquired the Nik Collection, it should be possible to integrate even more non-destructive editing features and effects from the Nik Collection into DPL. That would be big poster features for a DPL 2.0. I just hope DXO stays away from committing resources to adding DAM features, and just focus on its core imaging-processing competencies.

-WY

2 thoughts on “Real-world Review: DXO PhotoLab 1.2 with Nikon NEF

  1. Good review. I’m a fan of your NX-D workflow guide and had switched not too long ago to using NX-D as my main processor. Thanks to you I decided to give DXO PL another spin (I had used the demo but did not really go deep). I agree that this is a great processor for Nikon RAW files.

    I have been testing DXO PL with some files from my D70, D7000, and D750. The quality looks great and I think it comes down to preference. Overall I like the DXO interface over Nikon’s (I get the sense they are doing some sort of work if you look at their ViewNX-i and NX-D packages). DXO feels faster but I suspect that NX-D is slower because it may be using floating point calculations to process their files as opposed to integer based calculations as many other programs do. That said I do like the results I am getting from NX-D over DXO (though DXO is right up there as well from an initial look).

    Aside from some of the features you mentioned (no DAM) there are two features I am not sure DXO has that are kind of a deal breaker. 1) It looks like using their curves tool is editing the entire RGB spectrum and not just luminance. I can edit the luminance curve in NX-D and I find I get much more detail than I do exporting as a TIFF and editing the luminance curve in Photoshop. It makes me feel like I am not getting the most detail by not editing that curve on a RAW file (though I might be able to get some of the same results by using the micro contrast setting which I will argue is not true micro contrast as that is rendered by the lens). 2) I did not see a way to change your working color space. I did see you can choose a custom profile on export but I don’t know if that will actually allow me take advantage of the ProPhoto color space. I can’t tell what color space it uses by default. For example, say DXO is using AdobeRGB and I export a TIFF and attach ProPhoto as the icc profile I don’t think I will get all the extra data back that the ProPhoto color space can hold.

    DXO looks great. I can dream that maybe Nikon will license their demosaicing algorithm to DXO and add the couple features and you got a product that can beat the living day lights our of ACR and Capture One RAW processing wise. Thanks again for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

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