DxO PhotoLab Review
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DxO PhotoLab 7 Review

My favourite RAW processor, PhotoLab 7 has been with us for a few weeks now. I thought I’d give it time to test multiple use cases with challenging images before writing my DxO PhotoLab 7 Review and seeing how the new release stacks up against the competition.

The version I have used for this review is DxO PhotoLab Elite 7.0.2.

Challenges for DxO in 2023

Time in the photography industry doesn’t stand still. Where there was clear blue sky between DxO and Adobe in terms of noise processing, Adobe’s new noise processor in Lightroom Classic closes that gap noticeably. CaptureOne have added Stitching (For Panoramas) and HDR merge, powered by support for Layers. So where are DxO placing their bets?

Colour is the main battlefield and in the new release we see DxO catching up with both Lightroom and CaptureOne in terms of colour management. Extra flexibility is introduced via the addition of LUTs and Colour profiles. The tooling is now much more capable of delivering high precision colour grading, based on empirical data than it was in previous editions.

Additionally there is improved support for Black and White processing which is more usable than the equivalent offerings from Adobe and CaptureOne. Throw Silver Efex Pro into the mix and you have class leading processing for black and white processing throughout the workflow.

Where competitors use layers, DxO have revamped the local adjustment tools bringing them into direct competition with Adobe Lightroom’s new implementation of layers. In fact where Adobe risk adding complexity having completely different implementations of layers in Lightroom and Photoshop, DxO have simply made local adjustments more powerful and more accessible. A win for DxO.

First Impressions

These impressions are subjective, however I’ve found the UI to be smoother and more quickly responsive, using the same computer I used to review v6.

The system I use is a three year old Mac Mini with 3 GHz 6-Core Intel Core i5, Intel UHD Graphics 630 1536 MB and 32Gb RAM. So not the fastest, but not quite obsolete either.

The images and working directories are stored on a G-Dock containing two drives linked via Thunderbolt to the computer. The speed of the old fashioned G-Tech EV spinning disk drives is the bottleneck in the system.

To have such responsiveness from PL7 is a very welcome improvement.

New Features in PhotoLab 7

Colour Correction


PhotoLab 7 empowers photographers to apply true-to-life, scientifically accurate colour profiles to their images. PhotoLab 7’s unique tool, working with industry-standard colour checker charts from Calibrite and DataColor, enables consistency of colour to be applied to batches of images.

Simply include the colour chart from DataColor or Calibrite in one photograph, apply the correction using the correct preset (DataColor or Calibrite) and copy to the rest of the batch.

Cinematic-Style Grading


Look Up Tables (LUTs)are now available in PhotoLab 7: now available with 17 DxO starter
presets. LUTs builds on previous advances made in colour management at the beginning of 2023 where DxO re-engineered the colour processing algorithms, introduced DxO Wide Gamut extended working colour space and improved Soft Proofing mode. Using LUTs enables photographers to speed up their workflow by capturing a combination of global edits in a LUT and applying that to their images in one stroke.

HSL Editing Available in Local Adjustments


PhotoLab first began to raise the standards in colour control through its innovative and much imitated HSL Colour Wheel. Photographers can now use the HSL Colour Wheel as part of local adjustments, enabling you to adjust the colour of a subject’s clothing, or the autumn foliage of a tree for example, without impacting other areas of the image where the same colour exists.

Black-and-White Workflow


PhotoLab 7 has new tools that help photographers create a better monochrome workflow. The interface introduces a new tab to switch between colour and monochrome and a range of new film renderings – plus PhotoLab 7 includes introduces a six-channel mixer for complete tonal control across black-and-white photography.

Revamped Local Adjustments


The ability to make precise local adjustments is a vital part of creative photo editing. PhotoLab 7 makes this easy by organizing local adjustment tools such as Control Points into a new dedicated panel on the right of the workspace. This declutters the UI by removing the adjustment panel for any given control point or line from the image and placing it in the panel itself, benefitting from the extra space available in the panel and clearing the view of the image.

Step by Step Workflow

I’ll be writing a more detailed article on workflow further down the line, this section is focused on comparison with the competition and highlights the new features DxO have introduced in V7 as well as the Wide Gamut Color Space introduced at the beginning of the year.

Library

These days, most people use external storage to store images because the size of the images produced by modern cameras is large and it is better to use the computer disk for applications rather than data.

DxP PhotoLab 7 PhotoLibrary Screen

DxO’s approach to managing the photo library is essentially to use the file system. This places the responsibility on the photographer to come up with a sensible system to begin with. I like this, and prefer it to the Adobe system where it is all too easy to lose images by inadvertently storing images in the default location (on the computer) rather than the disk you want to use.

That being said, Adobe offers more flexibility in its library management, including the concept of Collections which are undeniably useful.

Functionally, the PhotoLibrary in PhotoLab, viewed from from left to right shows you the Filesystem on the left where selecting a directory containing images will display the images in the centre screen. Hovering over an image will display the existing metadata in a pop up. This is also displayed on the right hand side of the screen where you can add keywords.

An option (and this is what I do) is to use the Lightroom catalogue to organise photographs and do the RAW processing in PhotoLab, thus getting the best of both worlds. The integration with Lightroom is seamless so this option is baked into the software, requiring no extra steps to accomplish.

Preset Corrections

DxO Presets Applied

The Presets button at top right allows you to select a preset to apply on import into the Customize panel.

The Presets are divided into categories and use your image as a preview so that you can assess the impact of any given preset. The first category is called General Purpose and here you can choose between 6 settings.

  1. DxO Natural
  2. DxO Standard
  3. DxO Optical Corrections Only
  4. Neutral Colours
  5. Black and White
  6. No Corrections Applied

Other categories include Portrait & Landscape, Black and White, Atmospheres, HDR (Single Shot), SmartPhones and DxO FilmPack.

Many photographers use these presets as a starting point for further processing. I prefer to apply optical corrections only and work towards my own interpretation of the image but that’s a personal choice.

What is a very useful addition here is the Active Corrections button, top right just below the presets button. Here, after selecting a preset, you can see exactly what settings that preset has applied to the image in each category.

The UI helpfully breaks the Tools Panel into logically arranged sections, these include Light, Color, Detail, Geometry, Watermark & Effects and Local Adjustments. This represents a basic workflow, moving from exposure through colour and detail to finish with local adjustments. This isn’t set in stone, its simply a suggested (and quite logical) workflow.

I said I would use problematic images. Let’s take a simple walkthrough.

Light

DxO Light Controls

This picture is problematic because I shot into the sun, exposing for the light and so the foreground is almost completely black. I can see from the histogram that the highlights are slightly blown out – I’m shooting into the sun, so that’s a given. But it looks as though the Darks will be retrievable.

I don’t want to alter the exposure to bring up the shadows, because that would result in more blown out highlights. Selecting the foreground would be tricky. Fortunately DxO provide a tool called Smart Lighting, found directly below Exposure in the Light panel.

DxO Smart Lighting

To get from the original to this, took just two actions. I turned on Smart Lighting, choosing the Uniform setting and manually adjusting the strength until I was happy the detail in the foreground was visible, without it becoming unrealistic.

Color

This is where DxO have placed a lot of the development budget this year. I’ve selected DxO Wide Gamut as my Working Color Space and warmed the image up a little using the White Balance tool. This was a sunset, not a dawn.

In the Color/B&W Rendering panel I chose to apply a film effect – Color Positive Film, selecting Kodak Elite ExtraColor 100. This is all new to PhotoLab 7. Some film effects are supplied with PhotoLab, but the selection is extended if you use DxO FilmPack 7 as well.

Check out my DxO FilmPack 7 Review.

I then used the Tone Curve to apply a little bit of contrast in the shadows before moving on to the Color. I used the HSL Color Wheel to warm up the Oranges on the rocks and on the horizon. This was done by selecting the eyedropper tool, sampling the colour in the area I wanted to affect and increasing the saturation.

Note that these adjustments are global, I might sample the rock, but the colour will be affected everywhere else it is found in the image. I can refine the scope of that selection by adjusting the highlighted section on the wheel itself.

DxO have also introduced a Black & White workflow, so let’s take a quick detour into that toolset.

Black and White

The Color/B&W Rendering panel can be quickly switched to Black and White and a type and rendering setting chosen from the drop down. I like my black and white to be high contrast, without losing the detail in the shadows so I opted for a type of Black and White Film and a rendering of Fuji Neon Acres 100 with an Intensity of 66.

I then went down to the Channel Mixer to alter the red and blue channel settings to get more contrast.

Details

I applied High Quality Denoise to the image. There was a little colour noise in the rocks. Choices here are High Quality, Prime, DeepPRIME and DeepPRIME XD. This is where DxO are way ahead of the competition. Adobe have improved their offering dramatically, but I’ve compared pictures from this same session shot at ISO 5000 and DxO restores more detail without any doubt.

The UI for Noise reduction is very usable, simply click on the magnifier tool and the area chosen is shown as it would look after Noise Reduction.

Note that Noise Reduction is applied on exporting the image. It takes a while to complete so this is a very good way of encouraging users to continue with their work rather than interrupting them for five minutes or more.

Geometry

There are some interesting correction tools here that allow the photographer to specify Focal Length and Focusing Distance in the event these have no been captured accurately in the metadata. I don’t know for sure but I think that this would only occur in the event of using an obscure lens that DxO have no data for.

Watermark & Effects

This panel is now populated with useful effects including some that Adobe have only recently released as Previews.

The first of these is Miniature Effect, the popular Tilt/Shift emulation that makes the area of sharp focus look like miniatures. Not appropriate for the image I’m working on, but it has its uses.

I’ve applied a warm filter to accentuate the sunset effect throughout and a very slight vignette to draw the eye into the picture

The other effects are Frame, Texture and Light Leak.

Local Adjustments

Last year Adobe Lightroom introduced Layers and Masks in response to DxO’s local adjustments, moving in my opinion slightly ahead of the game. The downside for Adobe was that the implementation was different to that in Photoshop so users stayed in Lightroom to finish the image.

The latest implementation of Masks in PhotoLab 7 improve on PL6 by having better usability and more flexibility. In my opinion, with these improvements, these masking tools are now as good, possibly better than the equivalent tools in Lightroom.

New to the local adjustment panel is Luminosity Masks – you need to have a license for FilmPack 7 to activate this feature. I would say it’s well worth the investment, luminosity masks are a very powerful tool for landscape photographers.

I’ve used three masks here, a Brush to darken down a distracting highlight at bottom left, a Control Line to bring the sky down a notch and a Control Point to adjust a very dark area, highlighted at centre bottom in the image above.

This screen demonstrates the way that the options for control points, that used to appear on the image nest to the highlight, have been moved to the panel itself. This is a huge usability improvement, especially the inclusion of the HSL wheel to apply only to a specific area of the image.

Observations

Less is almost always more with color editing. As a rule, I usually revisit my images after several hours to see if they still look as good as I thought. Very often this causes me to reduce the amount and intensity of certain edits. The adjustments I’ve made here have been slight but cumulatively effective. The vision I had in my mind was to bring out the warmth and colours of the sunset without straying into the realms of overcooking the result. I have exaggerated a couple of things to allow for the inevitable degradation of the images when viewed on mobile phones over a poor connection!

Overall, having edited the same picture in both Lightroom and PhotoLab 7, I prefer the PhotoLab 7 result. The definition around the sun is better and the colours flow more naturally in this version.


Price and Availability

Trial versions are available, these are time banded and allow you to download the software without obligation to try out for 30 Days..

Download a Trial Version here

Buy the Elite Version here

The price for the Elite Edition is €229 the upgrade price, from PL5 or PL6 is €109.

The price for the Standard Edition is €139 or €75 to upgrade.

By comparison,

Capture One costs €349 to buy outright, with no future upgrade path, or €18.25 a month with upgrades.

Adobe Lightroom costs €12 a month.

Cost of ownership over three years assuming one upgrade in the third year.

Software12 months24 months36 months
DxO PhotoLab 7 Elite Edition€229€229€338
Adobe Lightroom€144€288€432
CaptureOne€219€438€657
RAW Processor Cost of Ownership

N.B. DxO release upgrades every year, but the upgrade price remains the same for two versions. The most economical way to own DxO would be to upgrade every two years.

DxO PhotoLab 7 Review – Summary

It’s worth repeating here the baseline that differentiates PhotoLab from every other RAW Processor.

DxO used to own DxOMark, the industry-leading testing ground for lenses, camera bodies and mobile phones; the two companies separated in 2018 but the lens and body profiles used in PhotoLab benefit from independent data accumulated during testing real-world kit, rather than the data issued by the manufacturers. This has been hugely important and in my view gives DxO an edge over both Adobe and CaptureOne. If you are a landscape or commercial photographer and accuracy is important, then this alone is an excellent reason to use PhotoLab.

PhotoLab can be configured to apply lens corrections automatically, on import. This step can optionally be applied manually and gives you the best possible RAW file to continue working on.

I’m personally very impressed with the advances made in PhotoLab. DxO have avoided the temptation to add new features before they are properly ready for market, preferring to major on what they do well and making it work better. Notably, Colour and Noise Processing but also improvements to the UI resulting in better usability.

I think there are currently three RAW processors rewarding serious investigation. Adobe Lightroom, DxO PhotoLab and Capture One.

Of the three, DxO PhotoLab delivers the best value for money despite the fact that it currently lacks support for multi image HDR and Panorama Stitching. As a landscape photographer I prefer the RAW processor in DxO to that in Lightroom and that makes it worth investing in. It helps me make better images.

More Detailed Reviews and Commentary

DxO vs Adobe Repair and Clone Tools

DxO – Control Lines and Grad Filters

Using Luminosity Masks Effectively in Landscape Photography

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4 Comments

  1. Hi Chris – good article – thank you.
    I am a DxO PL user and a long-time fan of the product. I’m not a LR user, but is perhaps the Projects feature in PL similar to LR’s Collections?
    Cjeers
    Rick

    1. Hi Rick,

      Thanks for pointing this out. The Projects feature is the closest thing to Collections, the difference is really about deliberation – DxO requires more thought from the photographer – this isn’t a bad thing by any means!

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