DxO PhotoLab 3 Review

A review of the RAW photo editor DxO PhotoLab 3, released in October 2019. Featuring an overview of the program's best new features, with many screenshots and examples.
DxO-PhotoLab-3_Launch-Screen

What is DxO PhotoLab 3?

DxO PhotoLab 3 is professional level image processing software that specializes in editing RAW photographs. It has light file management capabilities. DxO is a French company founded in 2006. The version of PhotoLab in this review was released in 2019.

There are two versions of DxO PhotoLab 3: Essential and Elite. The Essential Edition is a one time cost of $129, while the Elite Edition costs $199.

PhotoLab is most similar to Adobe Lightroom, Capture One, Luminar 3, On1 Photo Raw, Alien Skin Exposure X, RawTherapee, and darktable.

The Interface

Tabs

The interface is split up into two tabs: the Photo Library tab, where you browse and search for images, and the Customize tab, where you make all the changes and adjustments to the images.

However, the splitting of functionality between the Photo Library tab and the Customize tab does run against my workflow a bit. The Photo Library tab is where you search for images, browse your folders and organize projects, yet the Customize tab is both where you enter keywords and view metadata. I get that they are probably organizing it with Photo Library being for browsing functions and Customize being for any kind of changes to the image. However, I had to frequently switch between tabs as I was trying to organize my files. It would be more efficient if all the organization features were available in the same place.

The Customize tab is divided into four parts:

  1. The command bar above the image controls how the image is displayed and a number of other tools. It cannot be customized.
  2. The side bars are divided up into palettes with all the correction tools. The correction palettes include the histogram, light, color, detail, geometry, essential tools and a palette highlighting the newest tools in PhotoLab 3.
  3. The viewer displays the currently selected photograph in the central portion of the program. Only one image at a time can display here.
  4. The image browser displays as a filmstrip along the bottom by default. I like that I can undock the image viewer and put it on my second monitor. This allows me to see more of my thumbnails at once, gives me more screen space for my image preview and allows me to switch images without leaving the Customize tab.

Image Organization

DxO didn’t hassle me about importing files. It’s super easy to browse files in their original locations on your hard drive.

In order to use PhotoLab’s search, you’ll need to index your folders. The program will either index files automatically as you browse, or you can choose to index your folders up front.

Once your images are indexed, you can search them by EXIF data, dates, file names, folder names (Windows), file type (Mac), and ratings. The criteria can be searched independently or combined. Although there are many options, it was sometimes difficult to know what my options were. It was also missing some functionality I’ve seen in other programs, such as searching for specific lenses. PhotoLab will save your last five searches, but it isn’t possible to save a custom search filter beyond that.

One downside of not importing images is that you can’t easily view images from multiple directories grouped together. To work with images from multiple directories, you’ll need to manually group them together in a project. You can have multiple projects with different collections of images.

PhotoLab’s keyword implementation is simplistic. You can add keywords to images, but there are no keyword sets. It does offer hierarchical keywords by using < and > operators.

Overall, PhotoLab might be fine if you prefer keeping your files well organized in folders and only need the most basic file organization capabilities from your RAW processor, but you’ll probably want to use it along with a second program if you’d like more advanced image organization features.

Sorting and Selecting

PhotoLab offers a few helpful tools to make image selections. You can compare your image with its unedited version either using the compare button to toggle the view, or as a side by side comparison. You can use selection markers for picks and rejects, or give your images a star rating. There is a full screen mode so that you can view your images without any distracting interface elements. Full screen mode will also allow you to compare your image with a virtual copy or another reference image.

Automatic Adjustments

Lens Profiles

One of the first things you may notice when you launch the program and load an image is that PhotoLab looks up your camera and lens profile and prompts you to install a module. PhotoLab is unique in that it downloads profiles for your lens and camera with settings optimized for that specific combination. These can automatically correct known issues with that lens such as distortion, vignetting, aberrations, and more. DxO recommends that you only download the profiles you need. You can manually disable profiles that you have already downloaded if you no longer need them.

 
Presets

By default, the program loads a DxO standard preset that it applies to each image you view. You can change this to another preset included in the software or create your own.The 39 included presets are organized into seven categories: General, Portrait and Landscape, Black & White, Atmospheres, High Dynamic Range, Smartphones, and DxO One Scene Modes.

DxO loads thumbnail images quickly, but can take a couple more seconds to apply the selected preset. For faster performance, you can select the “no correction” preset and only apply presets to your selected images.

You can create your own presets, but DxO reserves some of the preset features for the Elite version. This includes the abilities to edit existing presets, to create partial presets that leave some corrections undefined, and to organize your presets into folders.

New in PhotoLab 3

Grouped under the histogram is a section called “What’s New in PL3” that highlights the three new tools PhotoLab rolled out in this version: repair, local adjustments and the HSL (hue, saturation and luminance) color wheel. I’ll take a look at each one of them in this section.
 
Repair Tool

The repair tool is similar to Lightroom’s, where you brush over the area you want to remove and can place a control point over the area of the photo you want to sample from. There are two modes: repair and clone. Repair attempts to blend with surrounding pixels for a softer transition, while clone is a more direct replacement.

The repair tool is fine for the easy stuff, but you’ll still likely need a tool like Photoshop or Affinity Photo for more complex repair jobs. It did a satisfactory job helping me clean up the cluttered scene below so I could isolate the bikes.

Local Adjustments

PhotoLab 3 includes local adjustment tools where you can select a portion of your image to edit. There’s a brush with adjustable size, feathering and opacity. There’s a control point, which intelligently applies your corrections only to pixels in the same area with a similar color or brightness. DxO calls this U Point technology. There’s a graduated filter that applies adjustments as gradients. The Auto-mask tool gives the brush edge detection. There is also an eraser for cleaning up your corrections.

The local adjustments appear directly on top of the image next to where you’re editing as a series of vertical sliders. You can adjust exposure, colors, sharpness and blur. Unfortunately, not all tools in DxO can be applied as local adjustments. 

The local adjustments also appear as a list in the the palette bar. Here you can toggle the opacity and visibility of each adjustment. You can also delete them. This is as close as having layers as DxO comes.

HSL Color Wheel

The HSL color wheel makes it easy to selectively change colors in an image and create more dynamic black and white photos. I found it powerful, fun and easy to work with. My bike recoloring is an extreme example of how far the tool can go, but it’s also great for more subtle edits to skin tones. The uniformity slider allows smoother transitions between the color changes.

The HSL wheel is only available as a global adjustment. This is unfortunate because this is a tool that I would often want to apply as a local adjustment so I could ensure I’m only targeting the area I want to change. (Good news: the DxO developers say that is something they already want to implement in a future upgrade.) Another tool I miss from Capture One’s implementation is the ability to use a color picker to target the colors I want to change directly from the image.

The New Tools Combined

Here are before and after comparisons of an image where I used all three of the new tools being advertised by DxO:

DxO-PhotoLab-3_bikes_1-Original DxO-PhotoLab-3_bikes_2-Repair
DxO-PhotoLab-3_bikes_2-Repair DxO-PhotoLab-3_bikes_3-U-Point
DxO-PhotoLab-3_bikes_3-U-Point DxO-PhotoLab-3_bikes_4-HSL

Adjustment Tools

Smart Lighting
PhotoLab’s Smart Lighting tool can automatically brighten up shadowy areas without blowing out the highlights. It does a reasonably good job on most photos. For trickier situations, there are a variety of tools to adjust the exposure, highlights and shadows. The highlight recovery results vary between images, but it can rival the best I’ve seen in other programs.
 
The original photo of the eagle below is backlit and has blown highlights. The only change I made between these images was turning Smart Lighting to its full intensity. It still isn’t a perfect photo, but it’s an impressive improvement considering I achieved it with only a couple of clicks.
DxO-PhotoLab-3_Eagle_1-bad-light DxO-PhotoLab-3_Eagle_2-smart-light
ClearView Plus

ClearView functions as a Haze remover and clarity enhancer. It’s especially good for landscape and architecture photography, but in my example I used it to get a clearer view of colorful koi fish that were in murky pond water.

DxO-PhotoLab-3_Fish-1-clearview DxO-PhotoLab-3_Fish-2-clearview
Noise Reduction

PhotoLab has two tools for noise reduction. The default is HQ (Fast), which is available in both editions. This is good enough to reduce low noise levels, and is probably preferable in most cases since it’s much faster. PRIME Noise Reduction is only available in the Elite version. It’s slower than the HQ tool, but much more powerful.

Lens Sharpness
PhotoLab 3 does an excellent job of sharpening images.I was happy with the default lens sharpening that was applied for most of my images. For special cases, there is also the Microcontrast tool, which can be useful for sharpening without distorting edges. Finally, there’s an Unsharp Mask tool, which applies a more traditional sharpen effect.

Other Tools

In addition to the tools I featured in this review, PhotoLab 3 has a standard range of post-processing tools. These include tools to adjust tone curves, exposure compensation, vignetting, white balance, color rendering, anti-moire, red eye, cropping and horizon leveling, and distortion.

Exporting and Sharing

PhotoLab 3 can export to disk, to another photo editing application, or directly to Flickr. Files can be exported to other applications without processing, or as DNG, TIFF or JPEG files. It couldn’t export files to Photoshop as PSD files as some programs can, and I did miss that functionality since I had to convert them manually. Exporting images to disk will allow you to select multiple output formats at once.
 

Final Verdict

DxO PhotoLab 3 was the first version of any of DxO’s software that I tried, so this review came from the perspective of someone completely new to the software trying to use it for the first time. After my week of testing, I believe this program is a worthy contender among the top RAW photo processors. My favorite things about it were the lens profiles and how well the one click adjustments work. Those could save a lot of editing time. I still prefer the HSL tool in Capture One, but I believe DxO is taking a step in the right direction and I look forward to seeing where they go with it in the future.

What might hold me back from using it more is the lack of workflow customization. I’m particular about where my panels and buttons are placed when I’m trying to be efficient, and only being able to drag entire palettes around in their designated tab isn’t enough for me. I might use it in conjunction with another program, but it’s unlikely it could be the only program I use to deal with RAW files.

Strengths:
  • The software seems fast and stable.
  • The lens profiles and default presets are unique and did a good job making my photos look good.
  • This software is particularly good at dealing with sharpness and noise.
  • Overall competent selection of RAW tools that are competitive with other software on the market.
Weaknesses:
  • DAM functionality is still minimal and not as easy to use as some other software.
  • Can’t export files to Photoshop as PSDs.
  • Not much flexibility in customizing the workspace.