DxO Optics Pro 9 review

DxO Optics Pro imaging software can get quality results from your raw camera files like no other photo application—automatically.
Photo of DxO Optics Pro 9

DxO make the standard camera sensor testing software, meaning they’re a pretty good authority when it comes to photo software. So it’s no surprise DxO Optics Pro ($99 direct) is indeed one of the most impressive pieces of photo software out there, and, since my last review of the software, it’s made large leaps forward, particularly in improved organization features and program stability. It tops these off with unmatched image processing: DxO claims the new, unique Prime feature gives you a full extra stop of exposure with no increase in noise level. Even without that, Optics Pro can do wonders for your digital photos—particularly if you shoot in camera raw mode.

Installation
Available as fully functional 31-day trial, with Mac and PC versions. After the trial period, a DxO watermark appears on photos processed with the software. You still have to register an email account to use the trial, too. There are two editions: Standard and Elite. If you shoot with a pro-level, full-frame camera like the Canon 1dS, Nikon, or Sony Alpha 7R, you’ll have to get the Elite edition, while most consumer DSLRs and point-and-shoots, are accommodated by the standard edition. You can check whether your equipment is supported on this page.

Interface
Optics Pro only has two modes: Organize and Customize. The latter is where you do all your editing and tuning. That’s really all you need, but Adobe’s Lightroom 5 offers more flexibility with multiple modes for things like sharing, printing, and books, as well. I really like DxO’s top button bar options: a one click for full image size viewing, fit on screen, and side-by-side comparison views. A key button here is Compare, which shows you what your photo looks like without DxO’s corrections. Buttons also offer some geometry correction and color tools, like cropping, forcing parallel lines, and a neutral color picker.

Across the bottom of the program window is a filmstrip view of the images you’re currently working with, replete with icons indicating whether the photo has been processed, whether camera and lens modules are installed for the image, and a star rating. Each time you open a folder containing images, the program detects the camera and lens used for the photos therein, and prompts you to download a module for the combination so that Optics Pro can optimize the image based on the equipment used.

One thing I miss in the interface is simple image-rotation buttons, though you can rotate via a right-click menu or keyboard shortcut. Other MIA features are a history panel, which would let me undo back to a particular edit, and an ever present Revert button. The program makes good use of keyboard shortcuts, like Ctrl-J for creating a virtual copy of your photo. I also like how the mouse wheel zooms you in and out without needing a key combo.

The interface is somewhat customizable: you can choose which adjust the interface border color from the default dark gray to anywhere from full white to full black. The full-screen view is less satisfying than Lightrooms, since DxO always keeps the control bar onscreen, though you can detach the image browser for full viewing on a second screen.

Organizing
Despite the name, the Organize mode doesn’t have a full workflow function—there’s no importing from media, though you could simply open images from a card shown in Organize’s folder tree. You do get star ratings, but no “picks” or color codes for organizing your photos, and forget about geo-tag maps, and face detection. If those things are important to you, you’re better off using DxO Optics Pro as a plugin for Lightroom or Aperture. The program does let you organize by Projects, in which you bring together photos you want to work with as a group from various sources.

Image Corrections
DxO is different from most photo software in that it starts you off with its best-guess correction for your photo based on the lens, camera and exposure settings used. DxO Labs actually shoots thousands of shots on test patterns at different lighting conditions to create lens and camera profiles for each camera and lens supported to tune these corrections. The auto-correction is far better than you see in most photo software, and it’s often all you need. DxO’s presets bar offers, in addition to the standard DxO auto correction, choices for neutral colors, black and white, but you can also dig down into other presets like HDR, portraits, and “Atomospheres,” with its effective colorizations.

If the auto correction doesn’t quite hit the mark, the program’s Customize mode lets you change exposure compensation, contrast, color, and more. In addition to the standard exposure slider, you can use DxO’s Smart Lighting slider, which can brighten shadow areas without punching out whites. (Cranking this all the way up creates a decent single-shot HDR effect.) Each slider also has an Auto option, as well as setting choices like highlight priority or Strong.


DxO Prime

This new version 9 adds a hallmark feature called Prime (Probabilistic Raw IMage Enhancement), a noise-reduction tool that the company claims will add an extra stop of exposure to your digital photos. (As the acronym implies, Prime only works on raw camera images). This means you can shoot in low light or at faster speeds and still retain sharpness and detail. I was excited about this feature, in the way I was excited by Photoshop CC’s camera shake reduction—both are ways to get better photos without investing in new lenses and other equipment. Both have disappointed me to some extent.

The deal with Prime is that it lets the program take as long as it needs to analyze and correct digital noise. Most noise correction just compares nearby pixels to determine which are noise, but DxO examines a much larger area to make this determination, which should remove more noise while leaving more detail. When you choose Prime noise reduction, you won’t be able to see its effect on the full image view, just on a small 150×150 pixel area. Even viewing that preview takes a few seconds, and the only way to apply Prime to the whole image is to export it, which takes several minutes.

Once you hit Export for a photo you’ve chosen Prime on, you see an icon in the photo’s thumbnail that it’s being processed, but there’s no estimate or counter telling you how long it will take. DxO’s Windows taskbar button does show a green progress bar, however. A test 27MB image took 5 minutes to process on my 3.4GHz quad core test PC running Windows 8.

The result: Yes, more noise was removed, particularly in eye whites shot in low light at high ISO. And indeed, more detail was preserved than I could achieve in Lightroom’s noise reducer. But I was somewhat disappointed that too much smoothing had taken place for my taste at the Auto setting. Fortunately, you can tune the amount of correction with the Luminance slider, and even dig into Chrominance, Low Frequency, and Dead pixel corrections. By the way, that last correction is a life-saver for me, since my Canon T1i has a hot pixel that always shows up as bright red at 100 percent magnification.

One important point to make about DxO Optics Pro is that it offers nothing in the way of local (aka “brush”) corrections—no dodge and burn, no selective blur, no retouching, not even red-eye correction. For those things, a more complete tool like Lightroom is warranted. But for sports, nature, or night-event photographers who need to shoot at high ISO, Prime could be a godsend in getting less noisy images to their clients.

Geometry Correction
Another DxO product, ViewPoint, tackles a rather intractable issue of photography: anamorphism, where objects like human heads become distorted when they’re at the edge of the image. Optics Pro borrows some of these tools; you’ll see them if you open the Advanced Detail and Geometry panel. The program also lets you force lines to be parallel or rectangular.

A basic geometry correction, cropping, is well handled and available from the always-present top toolbar. And the level tool does the job, though not automatically the way Adobe software does. Finally, the program also can correct moire, vignetting, and chromatic aberration. As in previous versions, DxO Optics Pro does a remarkable job of removing CA automagically.

Output and Sharing
Once you’ve perfected your image in Optic Pro, the program lets you output directly to another photo editor, to Facebook, to Flickr, to disk, or to your printer. The Facebook exporter lets you choose a target album, but not privacy level or tagging. The Flickr export has nice control, letting you choose an album, add keyword tags, set privacy, and even pulls in your previously used tags and albums to pick from. One online sharing capability that’s lacking is via email: Lightroom lets you quickly send out any image onscreen via a right-click.

Optics Pro includes utilitarian printing capabilities, in which you can choose a grid size for multiple images, apply sharpening, and add a caption in font style of your choice. But for more layout options (included savable custom layouts) and soft proofing (which lets you see colors in the photo not supported by the printer) look to Lightroom.

If You Want to Be an Optics Pro, DxO
DxO Optics Pro 9 is hardly the last word in workflow, but it can give you an edge for better images not available in other full-capability photo applications. Even without its new and unique Prime noise-reduction feature, DxO’s lens and camera calibrated corrections achieve results that can be hard to accomplish in other software—automatically. Professional photographers will want Optics Pro at least as a tool in their photo software toolbox for the edge it can provide. While it won’t turn a bad photo into a good one, DxO Optics Pro 9 can make a good photo great. That’s enough to earn our Editors’ Choice award for this remarkable piece of photo software.

Specifications
Tech Support Phone and email support.
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS, Windows 7
Type Business, Personal, Professional

Verdict
DxO Optics Pro imaging software can get quality results from your raw camera files like no other photo application—automatically.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc