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Post-Processing

A Guide to DXO Optics Pro, a Seriously Smart Image Processor

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There are plenty of RAW-processing and image-management suites out there. Lightroom, Bridge, Capture One Pro, Phocus, Bibble, and more. Recently, my photojournalism mentor and former editor told me about DXO's Optic Pro and how well it handles his files from his Nikons and his Hasselblad. So, let's take a look and see what DXO is offering the digital photographer.


DXO Labs

A lot of you are familiar with DXO Labs because of their camera-sensor ratings at DXO Mark. They do an extensive analysis of the sensor and image processors performance and give each lens an overall score and sub-scores in various image-quality areas such as dynamic range, signal-noise ratio, and color depth.

What is less known is that they use those tests to help their RAW-processing application provide intuitive, accurate, and robust renditions and adjustments for practically every camera-lens combination on the market. DXO Labs has an extensive background as an image-analysis company based in Europe and with that expertise they provide various solutions in the pursuit of great images.

They provide silicone archicteture solutions for cleaner images, optics analysis, hold patents, and provide software solutions to give their clients the best images or image evaluation they can. DXO Labs has injected this experience into their image processor, DXO Optics Pro.

Bearing that background in mind, you can expect the application to approach images differently than Lightroom or Capture One Pro. And it does in a wonderful way.


DXO Optics Pro

DXO Optics Pro falls into the same category of image application as Lightroom, Capture One Pro, and Bridge. It helps organize, edit, process, and export your images in a variety of ways. And like pretty much everywhere else, it has features that have become standard and must be done well:

  • Robust import/export options
  • Logical workspace
  • Intuitive and powerful image adjustment tools
  • Faithful yet customizable image rendering
  • Learning curve

All of these categories are important to investigate because they relate to workflow and to the end-product: the image. If there is a serious deficiency in any one of these, it could really slow you down or produce undesirable or unpredictable results. Basically, it needs to makes sense, be quick, and give great results.

Let's see how DXO is applying their image-analysis experience to make their application a great addition, or replacement, to a photographer's toolbox.


Import and Export

Let's begin with first and last steps that interact with images in Optics Pro. On the front end, Optics Pro has three methods of accessing your images: Folders, Projects, and Lightroom.

The folders method is a simple file browser where you navigate to your images as you would in pretty much any other software. It is a fast way to get started in Optics Pro because of the familiarity. It works like Explorer in Windows or Finder in Mac.

The second method is through Projects. Projects are very similar to catalogs in Lightroom and Capture One. These are database files that reference the source images and contain the adjustment side-cart files. Projects are flexible as you can add, remove, move, and tag your images to suit your needs while retaining the original location and folder structure of the source files.

Unfortunately, creating a Project isn't obvious and I actually had to consult the users manual to figure it out. This isn't a huge deal, but every other RAW-processor and image-organizer I have tried that uses cataloging makes it plainly simple and presents you with options for importing or navigating to your images so you can get on it right away.

It's just more intuitive with Lightroom, Capture One Pro, or Photo Mechanic. That being said, Optics Pro's Projects have great flexibility once you get past this initial hang-up.

When you create a Project (Ctrl+N or Cmd+N) and then name it, it is empty and there is really no way to navigate from within it to get to your images. To populate it, you have two main ways which makes this software's organizational element begin to come to life: drag and drop and selecting files from the Folders view.

You can simply drop in entire folders from system's browser into your Project to populate it. Or navigate to your images via the Folders view, open the folder to either add your images or clumps of them. This can be done by highlighting the images in the thumbnail browser, right-clicking and selecting "Add current selection to project..."

There is no need to wait for the software to import like in Lightroom, it simply references them and tracks the metadata (ratings, EXIF, etc.) and you're ready to go. Being able to adjust your organization quickly and without sucking up disk space or system resources is a great feature of Optics Pro.

The third way you can use Optics Pro is with Lightroom. Optics Pro can read Lightroom's database files and Lightroom can read Optics Pro files. This integration is very useful as you can use Lightroom for image management and manual adjustments and Optics Pro for batch processing and exporting. Here are some suggested workflow orders in the Adobe-DXO relationship:

  • Optics Pro for batch calibration and RAW-conversion and into Lightroom for image-managment then output.
  • Lightroom for image-management and manual adjustments then into Optics Pro batch calibration, then back into Lightroom.
  • Optics Pro accesses Lightroom's database for multi-format exporting.

DXO has a lot of pre-packaged exporting options for your images. It works pretty quickly too.

DXO has a lot of exporting options available by default under the "Process" section. You can set the parameters of each default to your liking or create custom export settings easily. TIFF, JPEG, or DNG are the available formats and you can create variations for each to suit your job's needs.

On top of the customization, DXO Optics Pro is very fast in converting your RAW files into TIFFs or JPEGs. Optics Pro converted a 16MP RAW file with various adjustments into a full-res 300dpi, 16-bit TIFF and a full-res 72dpi JPEG at 100 quality with renaming in 25 seconds. Capture One Pro 7 with its own adjusments to match the DXO version and same export options took 35 seconds. Ten seconds per dual export per file adds up.


Workspace Layout


This is the "Customize" section of Optics Pro 8. It is similar to Lightroom 4's "Develop" module. I really like that you get to preview your changes before committing to them.

The application's workspace is thought out well and divides the workflow into three logical steps: Organize, Customize, and Process. The Organize tab is where you can navigate throught your Project or Folders and well... organize yourself. The Customize tab is where your image adjustments take place and is the backbone portion of the application. The Process tab handles all your export parameters.

The Organize section is simple enough, a browsing tree on the left, thumbnail film strip on the bottom, and main viewing window dominating the upper right portion of the screen.

The Customize section is a lot like the Develop module in Lightroom, where all the goodies are located. It is a highly customizable workspace where you can add and remove tools, group them how you would like, and rearrange the workspace to your liking. I personally like just how customizable this section really is. Grouping tools in the way that I like and being able to toggle their effects with a single click is a great way to increase efficiency.

You can move any tool group, or tool into any of the panels in this section or simply float it over the main image area. Optics Pro also has a nifty side-by-side "Correction Preview" when applying adjustments while in "dual image mode". This side-by-side comparison is great way of evaluating your adjustments as you work.

The Process tab is just as straight-forward as the Organize tab. Set up your export parameters, toggle the default or customized presets you've created and batch process away.

The two strengths within the workspace of Optics Pro is the high level of workspace customization and the ability to apply various adjustment presets, ratings, etc. at different stages in the editing.


Powerful Adjustment Tools

DXO has given their clients a lot choices and great tools when it comes to adjusting their images. Firstly, is the DXO Optics Module. Secondly, they have allowed each tool to be toggled by clicking a little box, allowing you to see difference an adjustment made. Thirdly, some of the tools are "smart" and even when automated have good degrees of manual tweaking.

DXO Labs has done extensive testing with pretty much every lens-camera combination on the market. Whenever you load an image, folder, or project DXO will prompt you to apply a DXO Optics Module. These modules correct for lens faults such as vignetting, chromatic aberration, softness, and distortion. The modules also take into consideration the camera's sensor characteristics, image processing methods, and how it interacts with the lens under different lighting situations. You don't have to do it, but I haven't been disappointed yet.


These lens profile corrections are so good, that after one or two tests, I set my preferences to automatically download and apply them whenever I open a new batch of images.

Each of the tools in the Customize section are very powerful and come with good degrees of customization. One great tool is the Multi-Point Color Balance (MPCB) tool. It allows you to establish multiple color balance points throughout your image. This can be helpful to correct for color contamination or create custom WB for your shadows, mids, or highlights.

Another interesting tool is DXO's approach to exposure. In "Exposure Compensation" it has two options that I find really cool: Smart and Center Weighted Average. The Smart setting is a lot like "Auto" but not as heavy-handed as I have found it to be in other applications. It's actually pretty intuitive, like it "knows" what I wanted. Another feature I like is Center Weighted Average and it acts very much like the namesake metering mode in my camera. I use this if "Smart" screws up.

Another tool is somewhat magical. The DXO Smart Lighting tool is like Brightness, but intelligently applied. It just seems to know how to treat the image, coaxing the pixels into the right place. It adjusts the brightness of the image while preserving the highlight and shadow details. So, in a way it gently applies Shadow/Highlight recovery as you brighten the image. Using this feature in conjunction with the "Smart" Exposure Compensation brings most of my images into pretty much done, even the screwed up ones. It is hard to explain this tool, but when I started playing with it I was like,"Ooooooh!"


Aside from a little manual tweaking in the "Exposure" slider, I'm letting DXO's "Smart" stuff do the thinking. The Smart Lighting adjusts itself relative to your other image settings like exposure and contrast.

DXO has taken some of the usual tools that deal with exposure and put better brains into them. It's not a fool-proof system as it does get tripped-up by very poorly exposed images, but so does every other RAW-processing application. Aside from the tools that have "smart" options, you can adjust the intensity with other preset strengths as well as fine-tune the effects manually.


Excellent Image Rendering

The image rendering and lens-camera profile corrections in DXO Optics Pro is perhaps the best I have seen. As I have mentioned before, DXO does extensive testing to know and correct for the unique characteristics a lens, camera sensor-processor, and their union perform in various situations. These results and corrections are stored in DXO Optics Modules that you can dowload and update when desired.

Prior to the application of the Optics Module, a very gentle preset correction rendering is applied. All RAW-processing programs do this. What is displayed is the application engine's interpetation of the colors and tonality of the file being accessed. When viewing the default settings of the same image from application to application, you'll notice a difference in the "look" of the image despite the RGB numbers being the same.

Adobe Camera RAW's engine (also used in Lightroom) has a saturated and contrasty interpretation. Capture One Pro has a more neutral and flatter tone-curve and color interpretation, giving the perception of more dynamic range. Optics Pro's default profile is somewhere between the two.


You can see how each RAW-processing application interprets the same photo. Each utilized its default camera profile, default noise reduction, default sharpening, and it's own pre-packaged lens corrections. (Canon 1D Mark IV, ISO 3200, 16-35mm f/2.8L)

Of course, you can change the rendering of any of these programs to your desire. What is great about DXO's default is that it is gentle enough to not deceive you, and also gives you an excellent idea of what your color and tonal range is, provided your monitor is calibrated.

This intelligent yet gentle hand is found throughout Optics Pro's treatment of the images with their modules. The modules correct for a plethora of abberations and image degradations, but don't beat the file over the head with the math. Each time, I've been prompted to download the relevant module, the correction applied has been honest and consistent with what I saw when I took the photo.

"Yes, that's what it looked like," I find myself saying.

Personally, I am fine with Optics Pro batch-correcting my images for lens distortion, softness, etc. before shipping them off to another RAW processor, so it can have consistency rather than deal with the inconsistencies off the bat.


Pretty Easy to Learn

Like any new piece of equipment, you do have to take some time to figure it out. DXO Optics Pro is no different. However, I found that it was pretty easy to figure out just by using it and applying my experience with other similar programs to begin to adjust my images. The greatest stumbling block was populating a Project, but after that it was pretty smooth sailing.

A few hours of "what does this button do?" and right-clicking here and there was sufficient to get my images behaving the way I wanted. After I customized my workspace and only a few visits to the DXO Optics Pro site, I was moving very quickly.

Sure, some of the shortcuts and terminology are different, but if you're experienced at using these kind of programs it is not a problem. Besides, you can always customize your workspace and adjust your shortcuts to suit your style.

With its integration with Lightroom and similar layout, Lightroom users will make the transition — or integration — much more easily. As a heavy Capture One Pro, Bridge, and Photo Mechanic user, the shift was a little rough as the default interface is laid-out and named differently. So, Optics Pro is a great addition for Lightroom users.


Conclusion

While I don't see myself making DXO Optics Pro a major player in my photography workflow, I do see it being a pinch-hitter. What the program offers photographers is consistency from project-to-project and images with a lot of ease. The backbones of the consistency are the sidecar files (XMP-like files) and the DXO Optics Modules. For me, I could use it as a pre-processor or a post-post processor for lens corrections.

I still find Capture One Pro 7 and Adobe Camera RAW in CS6 to be superior in the power of their tools, their terminology and default workspaces, but DXO's image profiles and renderings are simply surperb. It is great to see on my monitor what my camera is seeing without the application's rendering engine getting in the way.

DXO Optics Pro will grow on you and weasel its way into your current workflow simply because you'll spend a ton of time seeing what the DXO Optics Modules will do your images, including the old ones you've been "done" with. So, demo with caution.

Visit the DXO website to buy, try, or learn more about DXO Optics Pro 8

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