I usually use several applications to edit images. I always start with Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) and then use Noise Ninja, EnfuseGUI and GIMP, when I need to do selective noise reduction, tone mapping and additional editing and scaling. When I learned that DxO Labs, which maintains an awesome database of camera sensor test results, offers DXO Optics Pro v6.1.1 that does it all in one package, I decided to check it out.
DxO Optics has quite intuitive workflow and although I never liked wizard-style UI, this one didn't bother me too much. The first screen shows a list of all files in a file directory, project database or Lightroom catalog.
Selected files are considered a part of the project and remain in the lower pane, which can be conveniently minimized when editing images. The customization screen may be configured to show only beginner-friendly tools (DxO First Steps), intermediate tools (DxO Essentials) and all tools (DxO Advanced User).
Each of the two side panels can be tucked away when not needed and so can be individual tool panels, making up space for more important tools.
The remaining two screens are utility screens and show files that are being processed and show processed images. Processed images may be rendered in JPEG, 8/16-bit TIFF or DNG formats.
What I found missing in DxO Optics was an image browser, which would allow me to view all images on a full screen and mark in some way those that I intend to work on and those that I would like to delete. The thumbnails in the selection screen are simply not big enough to make a decision on whether to keep a picture or throw it away.
The customization panel in the advanced mode provides just about every tool needed to adjust images. Tools are grouped by category - Light, Color Geometry and Detail. Most tools were usual image editing tools, such as saturation control, tone curve, etc, but there were a couple of tools that I found quite interesting.
One of the interesting tools was DxO lighting, which seems to be a tone mapping tool often used to produce high dynamic range (HDR) pictures. I haven't played too much with its advanced settings, but even the default setup did a very decent job on this image that covers the entire 12 EV range captured within this image. Hover your mouse over the titles below the image to see the difference between the original unprocessed image and the one produced by DxO Optics:
One annoying little thing in the UI was that some tools, such as DxO lighting, offered a way to rollback each change to its original value, while many others, such as the HSL tool, didn't and I had to write down some of the numbers on a piece of paper in order to restore the original look if any of the experiments didn't work out.
I also found it surprising that the tone curve tool didn't allow me to switch between luminance and RGB curves, which I find quite important because the luminance curve does a better job with some images. The one shown above is one of them, because the RGB curve kills texture details in bright reds.
DxO Optics makes use of a lens database built by DxO Labs, allowing it to correct vignetting, various distortions and chromatic aberrations caused by lenses. My lens was not supported by DxO Optics (Sigma 18-250mm f3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM), but I still was able to correct geometric distortions and vignetting using manual controls, which worked really well. Hover your mouse over the titles to see the difference between the original image and the corrected one.
Note that the original image is lighter because it was edited separately in DPP/GIMP and not as a function of distortion or vignetting correction, even though the latter does change brightness around the edges.
A tonal curve alone sometime is insufficient to bring some images back to life because it works on all pixels, as opposed to various tone mapping tools that may look at the pixels surrounding the current pixel. It seems that DxO Optics uses tone mapping techniques to recover details in shadows.
For comparison, I edited the same image three times, once using DPP, which doesn't do any tone mapping, then once using all default settings in DxO Optics and once more by adjusting anything in DxO Optics I considered necessary to produce a better image. Hover your mouse over titles to see the difference between images.
Of course, this comparison demonstrates my curve-pushing skills just as much as what each tool can do, if not more, but it still shows that DxO Optics can recover a lot of details in the shadows that were not visible in the original image.
Images scaled down to 500 pixels never tell the whole story, so let's take a closer look at each of the images. The samples below show 100% crops of Santa's and anchor's suits. Hover your mouse over each title to see the difference between DxO Optics and DPP.
Notice how by default DxO Optics jacks up luminance noise reduction to the point where the fabric loses its texture and becomes plastic-like. However, both, DPP and DxO did a decent job when chrominance noise was reduced more aggressively, but luminance noise was left at a bare minimum, which salvaged texture details in both images.
In addition to this, you can see how DxO Optics increased contrast and added highlights and shadows that make fabric folds more visible in Santa's case, but didn't do as good of a job with the anchor's suit.
Well, it appears that all of these numerous features were too much to handle for the DxO Labs team - DxO Optics is full small and not so small bugs. First, I installed DxO Optics on a 64-bit Windows 2008 R2 Server and the application was simply crashing with invalid memory access violation right on start-up. I had to install DxO Optics on a less powerful 32-bit machine (dual-core 1.8GHz CPU, 1GB RAM) running Windows XP and was able to launch DxO Optics.
However, even in this setup, it turned out that DxO Optics fails to work properly with dual displays and shows only a small fragment of the edited image, as you can see on the picture below.
I had to disable one of the displays, which did the trick and DxO Optics finally could be started.
Granted, 1.8 GHz is not the fastest machine and 1 GB of RAM is far from ideal for image editing, but DPP, Noise Ninja and GIMP manage to work smoothly in the same environment, while DxO Optics was quite sluggish when applying any changes and the image was always going through a phase when it would be pixelized for a fraction of a second, so it was hard to notice the difference between the previous image and the new one. The before and after views are always there for comparison, but the after view contains all the changes and watching how the adjustment applied is the only way to see how the change affected the image.
When I saw the multi-point color balance tool, I though it was just awesome. This tools allows one to select up to four colors and change saturation and hue for each of these colors using a nifty color wheel. However, when I started using the tool, it turned out that there was no way to just adjust the saturation or hue - as soon as I clicked the little circle, it would move and there would be no indication anywhere what was the original numeric value of each of the variables. Even the angle of the hue was not shown anywhere, which made the tool usable only for coarse mouse adjustments.
The tonal curve tool, which is probably the most important tool in image editing, turned out to be one of the worst I have ever seen. It was really sluggish, points on the curve were hard to select and the tool would sometimes create additional points right underneath of the existing ones instead of selecting them. What's even worse, Bezier curves were so buggy that they created angles in the curve, which made this tool unusable for any editing beyond just changing the gamma value of the curve.
Smaller, but just as annoying bugs kept popping up as I went along with my trial. For example, the folder view wasn't refreshing when one of the folders was renamed outside of DXO Optics, even though I selected the Refresh command a few times from the local menu in the folder tree pane; renamed pictures would appear side by side in the project pane with the picture under the same name; camera name would have garbage characters at the end in the file view pane, which seems like a buffer overrun.
DxO Optics Pro packs an impressive list of features and its engine does an excellent job when rendering the final image. However, the UI that controls this engine is not as well thought through and left me thinking "I wish it did this or that" at almost every step of the way while I was editing my test pictures, except when I was using geometric distortion and vignetting tools, which did wonders with pictures full of buildings. Needless to say that having to cope with numerous bugs didn't help first impressions either.
Overall, DxO Optics Pro seems to target less experienced users who can produce great-looking pictures without having to understand the mechanics of image processing, who can afford to spend about $100-150 USD on an application that does it all. Advanced users, however, would probably find better uses for this money. I know I did.