DxO Optics Pro is a high-end raw developer designed to extract the maximum optical quality from laboratory calibrated lens combinations, but also offering maximum freedom to the user to use the same tools with unsupported combinations, or for creative effects. It is highly specified as a batch processor, and has by far the simplest out-of-the-box interface for optimising an image. However, working on an individual image is significantly slower than Capture One, and it doesn't have the databasing functions of Lightroom or the layer and pixel editing functions of Photoshop.
Out of the box
DxO labs are an internationally respected technical optical measurement facility, and the original purpose of DxO Optics Pro was to completely overcome all the shortcomings of measured device combinations. In practice, this means that if you open up DxO for the first time and load up some of your images, it will immediately suggest that you download the relevant profiles, provided that your combos are on their list. You should do this — it takes moments, and unlocks the real power of Optics Pro.
On screen you are now offered three choices — Organize, Customize, and Process.
The Organize screen is a fairly rudimentary — and fairly slow — image browser. It works on your disk folder structure, but, as it likes to try to load all the pictures in a particular folder, it can take a while. Although you can apply a preset here, the real purpose is for you to choose which image you want to work on — and see the automatic corrections applied to the image you have. At first sight, this is amazing — it takes what appears to be a slightly blurry image, when seen at 100%, and produces something which is tack sharp. Unfortunately, as you realise a little later, what it's doing is offering you an upsampled preview first, and then the full rendered image afterwards. In other words, although DxO is good, it isn't as good as you might first imagine.
To see what it's actually doing, go to the Customize screen, and one by one turn on and off the various automatic options. You know its an automatic when it says 'based on DxO Module'. A bit of switching backwards and forwards on a D3 with 24-70 combination reveals the following:
- It's definitely sharper. This appears to be using a version of capture sharpening, because the very slightest halo is discernible at points of strong contrast. In principle this isn't as good as running your own Focus Magic routine in Photoshop, but Focus Magic is no longer supported on current PS versions, and it may be time to leave it behind.
- The chromatic aberration controls are very refined — it gets it right out of the box
- The geometry control subtly corrects for the lens characteristics. If you try it with a Fisheye lens, then it does the best job I've seen yet of turning Fisheye into wide-angle
- The HDR controls, when turned on, bring about a subtle improvement. It doesn't look like HDR, which is a good thing as a general rule
- The exposure controls are fine, but nothing to write home about
For most images, you can leave it at that — they definitely are better, and you don't have to do anything at all to get them into that state. However, if you switch from 'First Steps' mode in the Workspace menu to 'Expert', a lot more things appear. More on that in a moment.
Once you're satisfied, you can go to the Process Screen, and select how you want it to be output. Like Capture One, there are defined presets, and you can define your own as well. Everything you expect is there, and it works well. Drag as many images as you like onto the screen, and it will process them in accordance with what you've defined, or, if you haven't defined anything, will apply its standard DxO improvement.
Let's pause a moment before going back and see what you've actually got. The fundamental promise of DxO is this: run your images from a supported camera/lens combination through our software, and, without any work on your part, they all come out better. This is what DxO has done since the start, and it really does achieve it. Today's version is much more refined than the version 1 which I personally felt gave a much too heavy unsharp masking. You can take the images out of DxO, and use it as your workflow first step before going onto Photoshop or something else.
If you do decide to do it that way, you should introduce DxO as a more or less turnkey solution in your workflow — everything goes through DxO, possibly on another computer from your main one, and you work on the results.
But, you can do more. Let's go back to that Expert mode on the Customize screen.
DxO Advanced Users — the Expert mode
Expert mode is styled 'DxO Advanced users'. What it does is introduce a bucket full of additional possible corrections onto your screen. The two most important are the geometry adjustments and multi-point colour balance.
If your lens-body combo isn't supported, or if you want to correct something which isn't technically 'wrong', such as the way people on the edges of crowds in wide-angle pictures get stretched out, then DxO offers you more control than any of its rivals. As well as horizon control and perspective control, which Capture One gives you as well, it offers anamorphics including recovery of spheres and recovery of cylinders. I've never seen this on any other software except for specialist plugins for Photoshop. If you have a critical image which you can't reshoot, it can make the difference between 'good enough' and 'pristine'. It's not something you are going to want every day, mercifully, but it's there in the arsenal if you need it.
Multi-point colour balance
What's the right way to balance colour? Answer, through the way you control the lighting when you take the shot. Turn off those greenish fluorescent lights, balance the flash to the main light source, get rid of any off-colour sources. The trouble is, you can't always do this. I was out shooting on the street late at night a couple of weeks ago. Getting the colour on faces right was essential, but the strong orange street lighting was more than the D3 could handle automatically, and the club and shop lights were purplish in comparison. I wrestled with them in Capture One for an hour before getting to the 'good enough — giving up' point. Using multi-point colour balance in DxO enabled me to recover really quite good colour in just fifteen minutes. This is a life-saver, because the images had to go on display boards the next day, and nothing shows up 'good enough' like a display board. Multi-point isn't especially intuitive, and nothing in DxO is really quick — the screen refresh at 100% is painfully slow. But the result couldn't be achieved with any of my other tools, and it was easy to then apply from one image to the next.
In case you want the power of Expert mode but not the messing around, DxO comes with a number of presets, and you can make your own. This is great for applying the fixed street lighting across a whole shoot. For more general tasks, presets include colour correction and distortion correction for group portraits — a massive time saver, since, for most indoor portraits when shooting events, you can never get back far enough to use a reasonable lens angle without also including most of the audience in the shot.
DxO Film Pack
In among the presets is very, very tight integration with DxO's own proprietary Film Pack. This is a set of laboratory measured filters to simulate T-Max, Provia and Velvia among others. If those names mean nothing to you, then film simulation may not do a lot for you. On the other hand, if you used to be immersed in the different qualities of different films, and the precise nuances of negative and positive film, and cross-processing, then the film pack offers you by far the most authentic digital film look. This is a world different from the free 'Velvia' actions you can find on the internet, which just pump up the green a bit and change the overall gamma.
Conclusions — who's it for, what's it for?
If you're a dedicated amateur, then quality of image is probably your most pressing concern. If you're an art photographer, it's creative possibilities you want. If you're a pro-shooter, your main issue is likely to be workflow. DxO Optics Pro has something to offer each of you.
There's no doubt that you can get the most quality out of your image immediately using DxO. Its standard preset is all you want for most images, provided that your lens/camera combination is supported. The range is good, but not amazing. D3 and 1.4 85mm is in, but 1.8 85mm isn't, for example, and don't even think about getting auto-help with your 500mm reflex lens.
For the art photographer, DxO has options nothing else does, but they may not be as intuitive as you will find with, say. Nikon Capture's interface, which, albeit slow, makes doing stuff very easy. Likewise, the paint-on effects in Lightroom and, indeed, Capture One, may be more to your taste. DxO doesn't support layering of any kind.
For the Pro shooter, your choice is probably going to be DxO or Capture One — or a combination of the two subject to your requirement. For batch processing of vast numbers of images to give them a common refinement, DxO is hard to beat. On the other hand, for prepping that one fantastic image for a billboard advertisement, Capture One is a lot quicker, and it batches nicely too.
The bottom line
Do you obsess about the imperfections in your glass? Do you wish you could get rid of that barrel distortion that's troubling you? Would you like to move up to the optical quality of much more expensive lenses, but without the expense? If you do, then you are DxO's ideal customer, and you will probably get more out of this product than out of any other software you will ever buy. If you're not, DxO still has a lot to offer you, because it is so powerful and so flexible, and can do an awful lot of the donkey work of prepping images without you having to be involved, but there are other choices.
For what it's designed to do, optimise images, DxO is in a class of its own. It probably always will be.
More articles that might interest you