DxO PhotoLab 5 verdict
PhotoLab 5 is a significant step forward for DxO’s flagship RAW processing, lens correction and all-round image-editing tools. The lens corrections and RAW processing in PhotoLab 5, together with the results from its superb DeepPRIME noise reduction. The single biggest piece of news for a large section of the photographic community, however, is that it now supports Fujifilm X-Trans RAW files! PhotoLab 5 is not really aimed at beginners and it’s fairly pricey too, but in terms of results you really do get what you pay for.
+ Excellent lens corrections
+ Superb RAW processing
+ Extraordinary new DeepPRIME noise reduction
+ Now supports Fujifilm X-Trans files
– Elite version and add-ons push up the price
– Image organising/browsing tools better but still basic
DxO PhotoLab 5 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 version 5 to include more advanced local adjustments and – at last – support for Fujifilm X-Trans RAW files, albeit in a ‘beta’ version which does not yet offer full editing features.
• See also: Best image editing software – what to look for, how to choose
DxO PhotoLab 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 5 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 5 is still a browsing tool rather than an image cataloguing database, but It’s a simpler approach that may well suit some photographers. Besides, version 5 brings support for IPTC metadata (an industry-standard format for adding image information) and keywords, which should make it easier to search for specific images.
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 5 editing tools
DxO PhotoLab work on two levels. It will automatically apply lens corrections and default processing adjustments as soon as you browser a folder full of RAW files. (It can also be used to edit and enhance JPEGs, but here it loses any real advantage over rival software.) Straight away, without you having to know or do anything, it will make your RAW files look great. Having said this, if that’s all you need, you might be better off with the cheaper and simpler DxO PureRAW.
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.
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.
If you decide you would like a different ‘look’, you can also browse the in-built presets. These use quite large thumbnails with may take a few moments to build. If you want some designer presets and analog looks too, you will need the DxO FilmPack 6 add-on, sold separately.
The automatic corrections and preset are fine, but the real strength of PhotoLab 5 lies in its manual adjustments, and this is where things get more technical. If you can find your way around a ‘serious’ image editor like Photoshop, Capture One or Affinity Photo, you won’t have much trouble here – but PhotoLab is not the best tool for beginners.
Previous versions of PhotoLab had one significant restriction – they didn’t work with Fujifilm X-Trans RAW files. In PhotoLab 5, that’s all changed! You can now edit Fujifilm RAW files just like any others – though this X-Trans support is still in ‘beta’ mode and doesn’t yet support all features. You can’t apply DxO’s DeepPRIME noise reduction yet, or its automatic Exposure Compensation, for example.
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.
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.
It’s with the manual editing controls that PhotoLab reveals its real power. You can start from scratch, or 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, and these are substantially improved in PhotoLab 5. These can be applied via a graduated filter tool, a manual brush tool and a control point tool brought over from the Nik Collection, plus a brand new Control Line tool, which takes a little figuring out but is essential a linear gradient with an eyedropper for targeting specific tones.
On top of that, you can now adjust the chroma (color) and luminance (brightness) sensitivity of control points and control lines to make the automatic masking even more precise and selective.
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.
There is a panel in the sidebar showing all the local adjustments you’ve applied so that you can go back at any time to select and modify them. You can even name them to make them easier to identify later.
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 DxO’s amazing DeepPRIME noise reduction 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 6. 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, it costs rather more to get 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 5
There are three key new features in PhotoLab 5:
- Support for Fujifilm X-Trans files (beta)
- Improved local adjustment tools
- IPTC metadata and keyword support
The X-Trans support is arguably the most significant, and while it doesn’t yet support the full set of adjustments, it’s enough to get Fujifilm fans on board, at least to try this software out. Even without DeepPRIME noise reduction, the results from DxO’s X-Trans processing easily match or surpass those of rival programs.
The improved local adjustment tools haven’t got any simpler, but they have got better. Once you figure out what the new control line tool does (the clue is not in the name), it’s actually very effective, and the chroma and luminance sliders for control points are genuinely useful. DxO’s control point technology deserved credit for its fast, effective and subtle approach to local adjustments.
The IPTC metadata and keyword support could also prove very useful, though (personal opinion) using PhotoLab for anything but basic image browsing, filtering and management is like pushing a rock uphill.
For anyone using an older version of PhotoLab who skipped version 4 before this one, here’s what that included:
• DeepPRIME noise reduction both faster and more effective than PRIME
• A redesigned interface with tool panels grouped by purpose, e.g. exposure, color, geometry. It does help to tame some of PhotoLab’s complexity
• An Advanced History palette that can now group adjustments together, like presets, for example
• Powerful and comprehensive image watermarking
DxO PhotoLab 5 results
PhotoLab 5 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 main contenders: Lightroom/Adobe Camera RAW (OK), Capture One (excellent) and DxO PhotoLab (excellent).
What really sets PhotoLab 5 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 5 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 as good as those of its rivals. It doesn’t have the equivalent of Adobe’s new AI Sky and Subject Selection, or Capture One’s new Magic Brush, but they don’t have DxO’s control points and selective masking.
PhotoLab 5 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 updated interface makes this more straightforward. Even so, this program is probably best suited to painstaking perfectionists who are obsessed with detail and quality. If that’s the way you like to work, I don’t think PhotoLab will disappoint you. It’s quirky, clanky in parts, and not cheap if you want all the extras, but what it does, and what it can achieve put it right in the top echelon of image-editors.
PhotoLab 5 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 software downloads and pricing*
DxO PhotoLab 5 Elite: regular price $219/£199
DxO ViewPoint 3: regular price $79/£69
DxO FilmPack 6 Elite: regular price $139/£129
DxO PureRAW: regular price $129/£115
DxO Nik Collection 4: regular price $149/£135
• 30 day trials are available for each product and bundle deals are available.
*Check for the latest offers at the DxO store