DxO PhotoLab 4 verdict
The lens corrections and RAW processing in PhotoLab 4 are superb and the results from its new DeepPRIME processing are genuinely breathtaking. Some may find its PhotoLibrary folder browsing and simplistic Projects and Search tools just a little to basic, however, and the fact it still cannot process Fujifilm X-Trans files will immediately rule out a significant set of users.
+ Excellent lens corrections
+ Superb RAW processing
+ Extraordinary new DeepPRIME processing
+ Interface improvements
– Elite version and add-ons push up the price
– Does not process Fujifilm X-Trans RAW files
– Basic image organising/browsing tools
DxO PhotoLab 4 is a raw processing and image-editing program that specialises in high-quality lens corrections and advanced RAW processing technologies, which take another step forward in this latest version.
• See also: Best image editing software – what to look for, how to choose
It started out as DxO Optics Pro, but mutated into DxO PhotoLab when DxO acquired the Google Nik Collection and its local adjustment tools. Where Optics Pro was simply a RAW processing and lens correction tool, PhotoLab adds local adjustments to become a much more powerful photo editing tool.
PhotoLab 4 comes in two versions: Essential and Elite. This review covers both. The screenshots also show palettes and tools from DxO ViewPoint and FilmPack. These are separate add-ons described below in the review.
The DxO PhotoLab PhotoLibrary
The PhotoLab interface is in two parts. The PhotoLibrary window is where you browse and organise your photos – though the organising tools are quite basic compared to those in Lightroom or Capture One, for example. You can browse folders on your computer (which is all many photographers need, admittedly) but while you can create ‘Projects’ (PhotoLab’s equivalent of ‘albums’), these are displayed in a simple linear list and are really only useful for work in progress rather than long-term organisation.
You can also search for images in ‘index’ folders, i.e. folders you’ve visited in PhotoLab or added for manual indexing. You can find pictures according to keywords or shooting information, like lens focal length or ISO setting.
PhotoLab’s PhotoLibary window is effective enough for browsing your photos when you already know where to find them, but it’s not at the same level as Lightroom, Capture One or Exposure X for image cataloguing and searching.
Instead, its real strength is in its image-editing and enhancement tools. This is where DxO PhotoLab really excels, even against the best of its competition.
DxO PhotoLab 4 editing tools
DxO PhotoLab’s editing tools are quite technical when you get into them, but it can also be used on a very simple level. When you browse a folder of images, it will automatically apply camera RAW processing and lens correction profiles based on DxO’s own database of camera and lens data.
DxO’s lens corrections are especially impressive. We’re used to photo editing software correcting lens distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting (corner shading), but DxO practically invented lens corrections, back in the day of Optics Pro, and its correction profiles are still arguably the best. It goes further than other programs in automatically correcting lens softness to, and even applies greater sharpening towards the edges of the image where a lens has particular weakness in edge definition.
All of this happens automatically. If the software doesn’t already have a profile for that camera and lens combination, it will offer to download one – this process takes just a few moments. It’s rare to find a camera-lens combination that PhotoLab doesn’t support, though very new cameras and lenses may not appear on the list straight away.
There is one notable exception to its coverage. DxO’s RAW processing is designed around the ‘bayer’ pattern sensors used by almost all cameras. It does not work with the RAW files from Fujifilm cameras with that company’s unique X-Trans layout. We’re told that the software would have to be completely re-engineered, and so far DxO has not wanted to take that step.
Automatic lens corrections are just one part of PhotoLab’s default image processing. The other is its Smart Lighting exposure adjustment. This recovers highlight and shadow detail in a RAW file to produce a more balanced image with greater dynamic range.
If all you want is this automatic image optimisation, then you can stop there. PhotoLab will do this automatically, and all there’s left for you to do is export a TIFF or a JPEG image for printing or sharing.
All of PhotoLab’s editing adjustments are non-destructive. Your original photo is never modified, even if it’s a JPEG rather than a RAW file. You can undo or alter any of the changes you’ve made at any time, and you can even create ‘virtual copies’ to try out different variations on the same image.
You’re not restricted to the default processing style. This is just one of many presets offered in PhotoLab, each of which uses combinations of adjustments but can be applied with a single click without having to dig any deeper into the manual tools.
However, it’s in the manual editing controls that PhotoLab reveals its real power. You can pick a preset as a starting point, then see exactly how that effect has been achieved – and then modify it or create your own – using the expanding tool palettes on the right side of the screen in the editing (‘Customize’) window.
These alter the image ‘globally’, with controls for exposure, contrast, Smart Lighting, Selective Tone, white balance, straightening, cropping and much more besides. PhotoLab is a full-power photo-editing application with all the color and tonal controls you’d expect from any professional image editing tool… and a few more besides.
It also offers local adjustments. These can be applied via a graduated filter tool, a manual brush tool and a control point tool brought over from the Nik Collection and which will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s used the Nik plug-ins.
The local adjustments don’t use the same tools panel as the regular global adjustments. Instead, they display an adjustment gadget alongside with tabs for different adjustment types and sliders for making adjustments – many of those are the same as those in the main toolbar, in fact, just displayed differently. It’s a really effective system, and DxO’s control point adjustments offer a combined masking and adjustment process that’s both more intuitive and faster to use than the tools in rival programs.
DxO versions and add-ons
There is one thing to be aware of. PhotoLab comes in two versions, and while the Essential edition is a cheaper way to get started, you need the more expensive Elite editing for the full range of tools, including the company’s latest DeepPRIME processing technology (see below) and ClearView Plus Dehaze tool.
That’s not all. At one time DxO Optics Pro, PhotoLab’s ancestor, had built in perspective correction tools for fixing converging verticals and other geometric issues, not to mention the ‘volumetric distortion’ created by ultra-wide lenses, where objects near the edge of the frame appear elongated. Other lens correction tools don’t even attempt to correct this, so that’s one up for DxO, but these days you have to get the separate DxO ViewPoint add-on for perspective corrections.
This can work as a standalone program but also integrates seamlessly with DxO PhotoLab once installed to offer these perspective corrections within the PhotoLab interface.
The same applies to DxO’s other add-on, FilmPack 5. This offers a wide range of analog-style film effects, many matched to the look of classic black and white and color films. Again, this can be bought and used independently, but also integrates with PhotoLab so that you can get these analog effects and film simulations without leaving the program window.
What this means is that although PhotoLab Essential is a cheap enough way to get started, there are some incremental costs involved in getting the full DxO experience and toolset. Even if you don’t go for DxO FilmPack, you’d be wise to consider the extra but worthwhile expense of PhotoLab Elite and DxO ViewPoint.
What’s new in DxO PhotoLab 4
PhotoLab 4 is a significant upgrade, and one of the most significant features of all its DxO’s new ‘DeepPRIME’ noise reduction. This is a development of its existing PRIME noise reduction, itself a very powerful noise reduction process pretty well in a class of its own.
DxO says DeepPRIME has been developed from 15 years of image testing expertise and lab results and uses two key techniques. First, it combines the RAW image demosaicing and noise reduction process rather than following the usual process of applying one and then the other. Second, it combines ‘convolutional’ neural networks and deep-learning AI to produce better results even than DxO’s existing PRIME denoise technology. DxO makes very big claims for the results achieved with this process.
In PhotoLab 4, DxO has also tamed its rather technical looking interface in a couple of clever ways. First, adjustments can now be viewed in themed tabs for tone, color, detail and more. Second, you can mark your most-used tools palettes as ‘favourites’. There’s a button for these, so with a single click you can see just those adjustment tools you actually use. Third, there’s a switch to show only those adjustments that have been applied to the current image. This is useful not just for your own edits, but for seeing what tools and adjustments have been used for different DxO presets.
These interface improvements are a lot more useful and important than they might sound, and will make life a lot simpler, both for existing PhotoLab owners and for new users.
DxO has also added an Advanced History palette that doesn’t just let you step back through your adjustments, but has the option to group adjustments together (for preset effects, for example) for a simpler history display, and to show (or not) the adjustment values.
Other workflow improvements include the ability to batch rename photos easily using search-and-replace tools for custom filenames, more easily synchronise adjustments across multiple images, and to add text or image watermarks – or both – to photos.
Adobe has made a fuss of its new Lightroom watermarking tools recently, but it’s worth remembering that Adobe is playing catchup just as often as it’s leading the way, and PhotoLab’s watermarking is both powerful and comprehensive, right down to a choice of blend modes.
DxO PhotoLab 4 results
PhotoLab 4 can rightly claim to be one of the best, if not THE best RAW processing and editing tools on the market. Its lens corrections are second to none, taking into account its lens sharpness correction, which other programs don’t have, and its raw processing extracts every ounce of detail from your images.
All RAW processors are not the same. Almost any photo-editing program can edit and process RAW files now and do a half decent job. But if half decent isn’t good enough, then there are just three: Lightroom/Adobe Camera RAW (OK), Capture One (excellent) and DxO PhotoLab (excellent).
What really sets PhotoLab 4 apart is its new DeepPRIME processing. It really is everything that DxO says. It doesn’t simply smooth over noise like so many rivals – it preserves biting detail, rich colors and tonal range that you might never expected your high-ISO RAW files to have. It will make you revisit old high-ISO shots you’ve previously written off to discover a new and extraordinary level of quality.
DeepPRIME has a couple of drawbacks. It’s an intensive process with results that can’t be displayed live while editing except in a small preview window, and the only way to see the result is to export a processed JPEG or TIFF. This itself can take up to a minute (maybe more, maybe less, depending on your computer). You will also need to pay the extra for the PhotoLab Elite edition.
Even without DeepPRIME, PhotoLab 4 is an excellent RAW photo editor. Its automatic lens corrections are superb, its shadow and highlight recovery is powerful and effective (if sometimes complex when carried out manually) and its ability to extract definition, clarity and sharpness from the most ordinary cameras is quite something to see. Even its local adjustment tools are good.
PhotoLab 4 is not for everybody. It CAN be used as a fully automated RAW processing and lens correction tool, but its real strength lies in its extensive and powerful adjustments. These are quite involved and technical – though the new interface features are surprisingly effective. Even so, this program is probably best suited to painstaking perfectionists who are obsessed with detail and quality.
PhotoLab 4 is not really a Lightroom or Capture One rival, even though there is some crossover. These programs are better for bulk image organisation, fast and sometimes pressurised professional workflows and, in the case of Lightroom, mobile and cloud synchronisation.
It also depends on how you ‘gel’ with a particular piece of software. The quality of the results is one thing, but it’s whether you get an instant ‘feel’ for how to get there that matters too, which is why I always advise people to download the trial version of a program first and spend some time with it before splashing the cash.
DxO offers and online shop
Check the latest offers and buy DxO software here