DxO Photolab 5 Review
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DxO Photolab 5 Review

I was a beta tester on PhotoLab 5 so I’m delighted to finally get my hands on the finished article! For the full DxO Photolab 5 Review read on… but first here’s a chance to get a 30% discount.

Disclaimer

I am affiliated with DxO, so I will get some reward if you use the link here to purchase. The software won’t cost you any more and I have been using PhotoLab for Landscape Photography since Version 3.

First Impressions

PhotoLab 5 has been improved in several key areas.

  • Remodelled U Point Technology
  • Metadata Management in PhotoLibrary
  • Improved Keyword Management
  • New version of Deep Prime Noise reduction with improved performance
  • Support for Fujifilm X-Trans files (in beta)

These are all things that users have been crying out for, particularly the Fujifilm support.

Improved PhotoLibrary functionality brings the product closer to being a credible alternative to Adobe Lightroom.

The U Point interface is definitely an improvement. DxO have taken something that works and made it work better.

Deep Prime was already, hands down, the best noise reduction software available. Now it’s faster.

What’s not to like?

Workflow

The easiest way to describe a workflow is to step through the paces, so that’s what we’re going to do here.

There are two ways to use PhotoLab 5.

  1. As a part of an Adobe Lightroom workflow
  2. As a Library Management tool in its own right.

I’m going with the first option – I’ve written about the Library Management capabilities of PhotoLab before, although that article is due an update. There is some detail in this review about the improvements that have been made.

We’re going to work with this RAW file (the image is an unedited RAW file converted to jpeg so that it can be embedded in this web page).

DxO PhotoLab 5 Review

Like any RAW image, it’s fairly flat but reasonably well exposed, there are no blown out highlights and the detail is visible in the shadows.

I use Lightroom to manage my photos so I’m going to export from Lightroom directly to PhotoLab5. I can return the image to Lightroom when I have finished editing as a tif file with all the new metadata I’ve added in PhotoLab.

So without further ado…

File – Plugin Extras – Transfer to DxO Photolab 5

PhotoLibrary

Image Export Lightroom to PhotoLab 5
Image exported from Lightroom to PhotoLab 5

It’s important to realise that this doesn’t actually move the RAW file – it simply notifies PhotoLab of its location in the file system.

If we want quick access to the photo you’ll see at the bottom of the screen left a project called Lightroom – that’s the default project for all photos exported from Lightroom and it will create a different project for each export.

Metadata

This has been substantially improved.

We can see on the right, the histogram, the Exif Data and a Keywords panel.

We can add, edit, associate, disassociate and delete keywords here. Similarly to Lightroom, you can nest keywords by right clicking on the keyword in the Keyword list view.

keywords in PhotoLab 5

For example I could decide to use a keyword Shrewsbury as a “parent” to Frankwell – I can do that by right clicking on Shrewsbury and making a new keyword inside of Shrewsbury, or if I’ve already created the keyword I can drag and drop it into Shrewsbury.

Any keyword I create in PhotoLab will be synchronised with Lightroom.

Why is this important? Because keywords are essential to finding photographs in a large catalog. A well designed structure is really helpful in this.

The next step is to move to the Customize Tab

Customize

Customize tab in PhotoLab 5
Customize Tab in PhotoLab 5

On the left we can see that the histogram and metadata fields are available to us and on the right, the editing controls.

On the top right there is a button called Presets

Here, you can see the real power of this RAW processing engine – you can choose from three basic import settings – Standard, Optical Corrections Only and No Correction there are also presets for Black and White and Neutral Colours but I’ll leave those for now.

No Correction is self explanatory.

Optical Corrections Only applies a set of corrections derived from the characteristics of the camera/lens combination.

Standard applies some further corrections optimising the quality of the image.

We can see exactly what corrections have been applied at any stage in the workflow by clicking the icon to display the relevant group of corrections and the toggle on top right just below the presets button.

In this case, the image was well exposed to begin with and in the Light group PhotoLab has applied Vignetting correction as an Optical correction (the Canon 17-40 lens has a tendency to vignette) and DxO Smart Lighting as a Standard correction.

You can check the before and after look of the image by clicking the compare button in the top menu. What will be obvious is that Smart Lighting brings up some of dark areas in the picture. Like any correction this can be turned off if you prefer it the way it was.

Corrections

DxO have chosen the word Corrections to describe the very powerful toolset they provide. Other companies call them enhancements. They are the same thing in principle but the terminology is interesting. To correct a picture implies it was imperfect to begin with and that we are working towards a perfect picture. Of course my perfect picture may be radically different to somebody else’s!

The layout of the Customize Panel is quite intuitive. At the top there are six icons arranged in order from left to right grouping the controls into categories.

The first group of corrections are Light oriented and include Smart Lighting, Contrast, Tone Curve and Vignetting.

The second Group is about Colour. Here we find White Balance, Colour Accentuation, colour Rendering, Style, HSL Wheel and Channel Mixer,

The third is concerned with Detail. Denoisinng, Sharpness, Chromatic Aberration, Repair, Unsharp Mask, Moire and Redeye.

The Fourth is about Geometry, here we correct Focal Length, Focusing Distance, Crop, distortion, Perspective and Volume Deformation.

The fifth, Local Adjustments is about applying masks and applying corrections locally.

and the sixth, Effects now includes Filters, Miniature Effect, Grain and Creative Vignetting.

This is a nice touch as the sequence is quite logical. Picture editing is all about getting the image to the next stage using the most appropriate tools and having a repeatable process helps this along. First correct exposure and lighting, then colour. Thirdly detail like denoising, sharpness, chromatic aberration etc. followed by Geometry (converging verticals for example) and finally local adjustments.

So let’s put the picture through its paces..

Light

I’ve applied a little bit of contrast and microcontrast. A very slight S on the Tone Curve deepening the shadows and lifting the highlights.

Colour

Here, I’ve saturated the oranges, yellows and blues to heighten the Autumn colours a little, using the HSL Wheel.

Detail

Denoising, Lens Sharpness and Chromatic aberration were all switched on by my selection of the Standard preset at the beginning so there’s nothing to do with this particular image here.

Geometry

Nothing to do here. I could straighten the horizon if it was off, but it was shot on a tripod with a spirit level.

Local Adjustments

I’ll use a local adjustment to raise the lighting in the dark section by the riverbank on the left. This is much better done this way, because the adjustments I make from the corrections panel are global, There are dark areas in this image I’d like to keep dark, so a local adjustment is the way to go.

Local Adjustments

The usability of this panel is much improved.

The tool defaults to a Brush, but by right clicking on the brush icon at top left, I can select from a range of tools including Control Point, Control Line, Graduated Filter, Eraser, New Mask, Brush, AutoMask and Reset

Brush

I can alter the size, flow and opacity of the brushstroke in bottom left and I can choose Light, Colour and Detail on the sliders above.

Control Point

Control Points are the technology transferred over from the Nik Collection. They give you the ability to sample the pixels you place the point on and then make adjustments to pixels with the same characteristics within the scope of the control point circle.

Control Point in PhotoLab 5

In the picture I’ve placed a control point in the reflected blue sky on the water and dragged the circle to include the whole area containing blue. I can now make adjustments to that colour using the light, colour and detail tools in the control point.

You can use the Show Masks control at the bottom, to check the pixels that are selected within the circle.

You can also fine tune the selection in the Mask Selectivity tool in the Local Adjustments Panel on the right using the Chroma, Luminence and Opacity sliders.

Control Lines

New in PhotoLab 5, Control lines give us a different way of selecting large areas and correcting elements contained in that area. For example, skies typically feature clouds, especially in the UK. I may want to change the characteristics of the blue sky, leaving the clouds alone.

Control Line in PhotoLab 5

This is done by placing the Control Line at the top of the area you want to correct and dragging the second line down. You can see the dotted line across the centre of the image defining the sky within the two lines.

Next, drag the dropper to the area that represents the aspect of the image you want to change . In this case it’s the blue sky, I want to leave the clouds alone. So the dropper goes on a patch of clear blue sky and then I can adjust only the blues within the two lines.


Conclusion

The Good

There is a lot to admire about PhotoLab 5, the RAW processing is about as good as it gets, only Capture One comes close.

The Library Management is much improved and brings the product within range of its main competitor Adobe Lightroom. Interesting to note that if you use it in a workflow that begins in Lightroom, changes to the metadata are synchronised.

The enhancements to the editing tools have been well implemented and thoughtfully applied, for example adding chrominance and luminance sensitivity to the corrections gives a finer degree of control in a way that is accessible and straightforward.

Performance is noticeably better in Deep Prime – this is hands down the best noise removal tool in the industry so its worth waiting for. DxO have done a great job here.

The Not So Good

Exporting images takes a little while longer than it does in Lightroom or Photoshop. This is not the end of the world, but could be improved.

The repair tool is not in the same league as the Photoshop tool. Great for taking birds out of the sky, but not so good at the more detailed work that Photoshop is capable of.

Is it Worth the Investment?

As a RAW editor, PhotoLab is better in my view than Lightroom, and on par with Capture One. I prefer PhotoLab to Lightroom for Landscape work. Capture one for studio work.

The big question for most people will be “Is it better than Lightroom?”

For keen amateur photographers and professional Landscape photographers I think the answer is ‘Yes’ so far as comparing functionality with Lightroom Classic is concerned. Let’s look at the cost.

Cost of Ownership

Adobe Lightroom

£119.21 a year – for which you get Adobe Lightroom classic, Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and 20Gb Cloud Storage.

DxO PhotoLab 5

£99.99 Standard Edition (one off payment)

£149.99 Elite Edition (one off payment)

Upgrade Price £69.99 (Elite Edition)

Comparing the Elite edition, Cost of ownership for one year is nearly £30 more than the Adobe bundle.

Cost of ownership for two years is interesting. Adobe comes in at nearly £260 while PhotoLab still costs the original investment. That’s a saving of £110.

If a new major version of PhotoLab were released in that second year, then that would cost roughly £70 to upgrade.

PhotoLab 5 is the clear winner in terms of cost of ownership.

Verdict

Its difficult to compare like for like because the way the products are bundled is so different. PhotoLab is not a cloud application, it’s standalone like Lightroom Classic. PhotoLab is not bundled with other tools.

My own view is that if you are a photographer who takes editing seriously, you’re more interested in defining your own look than applying templates, then I think you will love DxO PhotoLab 5.

I’m sufficiently impressed to buy both, but I’m increasingly using PhotoLab in my Lightroom workflow.

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4 Comments

  1. A personal frustration is that iPhone support stopped with model X. So many photos are being taken with iPhones which now also allow for RAW. Yes, I am happy with y Fuji cameras and lenses being supported but modern iPhones are an unexpected oversight in my opinion. It would be great to unleash the DXO magic on them.

    1. Yes, it would be a nice thing though it would only be good if the photos were RAW/DNG. I’m hoping we’ll see this in the future.

      The problem may be that the default format for iPhones is still jpeg and there’s not a lot of point unleashing the DxO magic on jpg. When iPhones can comfortably store images of 20mb or more, with all the detail that brings wth it then we may see progress.

      Adobe are already in that space with the cloud versions of Lightroom and Photoshop.

      There is precedent for DxO in that they recognise DJI drone cameras and there is a lot of demand for this capability making itself known in the DxO forums. Let’s hope!

    1. Hi Jiri – I agree. In a perfect world we’ll see this as standard in future releases. And it’s a definite gap. DxO have not added support for iPhones since X. It has been a topic in the DxO forums for quite a few years now. I’ve raised it again myself today. I’ll update the article when I get a response.

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