DxO Optics Pro Review
The most well known feature of the award winning DxO Optics Pro from DxO Labs is its ability to correct perspective distortion, but this isn't what sold me on switching to it as my preferred raw converter. No, what sold me is its uncanny ability to extract the best conversion from nearly every raw file I threw at it. And in less time than with other programs too.
DxO Labs is a French company that started out as the maker of DxO Analyzer, a program that applies complex mathematics to image analysis in order to measure distortion, noise and other image quality attributes. The program is used by a number of leading photography magazines and websites as part of their regimen for evaluating lenses and cameras.
They then used what they had learned from this to create the first version of DxO Optics Pro back in 2004. It did a great job of correcting the consequences of lens defects such as barrel and pincushion distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting and blur, but there was no way I could justify buying it. At the time, it wasn't cheap, and it worked on jpeg images only. An interesting technology, but not something that fit in with my workflow. But 2004 was ages ago in the rapidly changing world of digital imaging, and DxO has been busy enhancing Optics Pro, turning it into a real winner. The original lens correction features have morphed into the DxO Optics Engine and have been joined by a number of other modules that all work together seamlessly.
DxO's expertise at mathematically analyzing images is still central to how the product operates. They individually test each supported camera body and lens to build a "module" for it that contains the specifics needed to best process images shot with each. Unlike their earlier releases, when you purchase DxO now, all lens modules are included in the cost.
Significant for shooters like me that rely on a raw file workflow, DxO now has an excellent built in raw converter known as the DxO Raw Engine. It includes all the normal raw features including white balance, tint and exposure, along with hue, saturation and lightness and an RGB tone curve tool. It produces high quality demosaiced conversions with good detail and very few if any aliasing, Moiré or other artifacts, even when viewed at high magnification.
The DxO Optics Pro workspace
Among the many cool features of DxO, DxO Lighting Engine is one of the coolest. It does an excellent job of performing local exposure and dynamic range corrections to bring out the most detail possible in an image. Evaluating each part of an image separately, DxO Lighting automatically performs adjustments similar to traditional darkroom techniques while providing excellent shadow detail and highlight recovery. Even if you later one to dodge and burn areas manually in Photoshop, the aim of a good raw converter should be to extract the maximum amount of detail and I commend DxO how they have approached this feature.
DxO Lens Softness uses a proprietary model of the inherent softness introduced by each supported camera/lens combination dubbed the BxU or "Blur Experience Unit." Regardless though of what they call it, the results appear much sharper than do images processed with unsharp masking yet have no halos or other artifacts. Essentially, it is mathematically descrambling or de-blurring detail latent in the image. We're talking spy satellite stuff here. DxO also includes traditional unsharp mask capability, but I doubt you will need it. Any additional sharpening is generally best added at the end of your workflow based on the specific output size and media being used.
DxO Noise Engine uses the specific knowledge embedded in each camera and lens module to characterize the noise profile at each ISO speed to be able to remove it better than most noise reduction programs. At very high ISO I still find that Neat Image can do better, but for normal work the build in DxO Noise comes out on top and is automatic. DxO claims a two-stop improvement in noise which seems about right from what I have seen.
Collections of settings including the default ones can be saved and recalled later by name. For my needs, I've toned down a few of the default settings for DxO Lighting Sharpening.
The program can operate in any of three modes. Fully Automatic does as its name suggests and is remarkably good at guessing what will work best. Key Controls exposes just the major adjustments such as white balance and exposure for you to fine tune the results. And Expert Controls gives you the ability to manually adjust everything or leave any or all the controls on automatic. Not wanting to miss out on anything, I settled for running DxO in Expert Controls mode but have found that I rarely have to adjust many of the settings myself. Indeed, one of the best things about the product is how much time it saves. While much but not all of what it does I can duplicate in other raw converters and Photoshop, it takes a heck of a lot less time and effort with DxO.
Output from DxO can be in any or all of tiff, jpeg or Adobe DNG formats. Multiple formats can be created from the same image simultaneously. To maximize the potential for subsequent optimization in Photoshop, I currently output as DNG which I can then open in Adobe Camera Raw as normal. The color space for converted files can be either sRGB or Adobe RGB, or you can select any other profile you may happen to have installed on your system such as ProPhoto RGB.
DxO Optics Pro is sold in three different editions varying based on what kind of cameras each supports. DxO Starter Edition works on jpeg images only and includes camera modules for many popular high-end digicams but no digital SLR's. The Standard Edition adds support for most DSLR models except for a few top of the line models such as the Nikon D2x and Canon 1D and 1Ds variants which require DxO Elite Edition. As can be guessed, the price goes up with each increase in Edition. This pricing model provides an affordable product for amateur needs while still making available (for an added cost) solutions that meet the needs of the professional. All editions are available for both Windows and Macintosh platforms.
DxO Lighting settings and the Histogram
DxO Optics settings
DxO Lens Softness settings
DxO Optics Raw Color and Exposure settings
Is DxO Optics Pro perfect? Nope. While it produces some of the best results I've seen from any raw converter it is not without room for improvement, most notably in its user interface. Indeed, DxO makes the ungainly interface of Nikon Capture seem downright elegant by comparison. Reading the manual is definitely recommended. This of course would be more of a problem if DxO didn't do such a good job on automatic.
There is also no facility for previewing raw images at full 100% view, undoubtedly due to the amount of processing power that would be needed to apply all of DxO's features on the fly. After using DxO for a while, I grew to trust it more though and don't miss this feature as much as I thought I would. It does have a tiny zoom window that lets you see a portion at actual size if you feel a need to double check things.
It's built in "Add Image" browser seems slower than comparable portions of other programs. Opening a folder containing a large number of images can take a while. Instead, I use Adobe Bridge that comes with CS2 and have changed the default action for Nikon NEF raw files to open with DxO. If DxO is already running though new images added in this way are not added to the running copy and a new instance of DxO gets launched instead. Luckily, the program itself starts up quite quickly.
All these are minor quibbles though and have just become things I have to live with, at least in the current version, in order to get the results that DxO provides. You can download a 21 day free trial copy if you want to do side by side comparisons against your own current favorite raw converter.
Update - 07/10/2006 - DxO has announced the upcoming release of Version 4.0 of DxO Optics Pro. I'll have more to say about this as the release gets closer, but my initial impression is quite positive. They seem to have spent a lot of effort on improving both speed and workflow issues as well as adding a number of new features. Featured is the third generation of the excellent DxO Optics Engine and the new DxO Color Engine. Version 4 will also include a Photoshop compatible plug-in to allow users to access the program from within Photoshop or Adobe Bridge, much as is currently possible for Adobe Camera Raw. An Intel Mac version is promised along with Windows and "traditional" Macs. Upgrades will be available for recent purchasers of the current version.