Software Review: DxO Optics Pro 8

April 9, 2013

By Dan Havlik

DxO Optics Pro 8 is of that multipurpose school of imaging software that does a little bit of everything and does much of it well. In that respect it’s similar to Adobe’s Lightroom, Apple’s Aperture, and all the other digital asset management, RAW conversion and editing packages that have flooded the photography market since 2005.

Though I’ve tried seemingly every one of these programs, I had never gotten around to testing DxO Optics Pro, for one reason or another. Mostly it’s because I’ve become a little burned out on this type of software since so much of it I can do in Photoshop with the help of Bridge and a few plug-ins. But after seeing a demo of DxO Optics Pro 8 at PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo last year, I have been intrigued by some of the new features and decided to take it for a spin.

Here’s a short take on what I thought about this all-in-one imaging package from the France-based company DxO Labs.

Interface & Speed
While at one point in the not-so-distant past, asset management software designers had the not-so-bright idea of creating systems that forced users to import all their images directly into a digital organizer, that’s thankfully changed. When you open DxO Optics Pro 8, you’re taken to the Organize tab, which lets you tap directly into your hard drive’s folder hierarchy so you don’t have to waste time importing and reorganizing your entire photo library. In other words, the software serves more as an image browser than an archive, which is a good thing.

With Optics Pro 8 up on my screen, I opened a folder of RAW images of the Grand Canyon I shot several years ago with a 21-megapixel Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, and watched the program generate previews of the hundred or so images in a folder on my external hard drive. While the thumbnails came up right away across the bottom, it took several seconds to see an image at full-size in the main window. Also, even though I have a fairly new iMac with 8 GB of RAM, working in Optics Pro 8 seemed to bog down the rest of what I was doing on the computer, making it somewhat difficult to multitask when the program is in the midst of processing a large batch of RAW images.

On the plus side, Optics Pro 8 did an excellent job with the Mark III’s RAW files; they looked beautiful even before I started editing them. I also liked the attention to detail DxO Labs takes with the program. DxO has a reputation for its first-hand knowledge of the traits of a vast group of actual cameras and lenses through the company’s test center—its DxOMark service rates cameras and lenses—and it brings that background to Optics Pro. In the midst of looking at my Grand Canyon images, the software prompted me to download specific Optics Pro modules to correct for the lenses I used at the time: a Canon EF 14mm F/2.8L II USM and EF 200mm F/2.8L II USM. (I had completely forgotten I had shot with those lenses.)

Optics Pro 8 does a good job of centralizing all its tools in one main workspace, so once your RAW file loads, just hit the Customize tab and you can work on white balance or exposure compensation, or adjust color and contrast. You also get access to DxO’s new, slider-based Smart Lighting tool, which corrects for light and contrast in an image to recover detail. While using the Smart Lighting slider to tweak shadows in an image I shot at sunrise, the program occasionally paused for a second or two—I got Apple’s notorious spinning beach ball—before it made the correction. Again, that’s not entirely surprising considering the size of the files and the fact that it was working on full-resolution versions sitting on an external hard drive, but it might catch you off-guard if you’re used to whizzing through shots in Lightroom.
The third tab in the interface is Process which, duh, processes selected images either by pressing a button or by dragging and dropping images into the browser.

New Tools
I’ve already mentioned the revamped Smart Lighting tool, which, largely, did a good job of recovering detail in dark shadows and seemingly blown-out highlights in a single slider interface. I also liked the Selective Tone tool, which lets you separately adjust highlights, midtones, shadows and blacks via sliders for more precise lighting adjustments.

I had a little trouble finding the tool, however, until I switched the workspace to the Advanced User setting. I can understand that DxO doesn’t want to confuse beginners with too many bells and whistles but it should be clearer that you’re in the First Steps interface rather than Advanced User from the outset, or you might miss a lot of what this software can do.

The Protection of Saturated Colors tool has an odd, long name but its useful and not something I’ve seen before on competing programs. Basically, it lets you preserve detail in images that have strong, saturated color, such as bright reds or oranges, so you can get vibrant-but-natural-looking color without losing image data.

The Lens Softness tool also has a funny name since it sort of does the opposite of what you might think. The tool lets you crank up sharpness while preventing ugly artifacts and chromatic aberrations in areas of high contrast as you sharpen the shot. There’s also now a dedicated button to target purple fringing. Noise Reduction has been updated in Optics Pro 8, letting you easily get rid of dead or hot pixels that can appear in long-exposure shots.

DxO has finally added a printing module to Optics Pro and, while I like that it’s there, it’s pretty basic, letting you print your images directly from the program either as full-page photos or contact sheets. You can adjust margin settings, image sizes and include EXIF data, if you’d like. As with some competing programs, however, I’d like an easy way to integrate the program with online publishing services, such as Blurb, so you can lay out and print a photo book right from Optics Pro.

The Bottom Line
While you might already have a digital asset management/RAW processing/editing all-in-one image program that you know and love, DxO Optics Pro is a great option for any photographer looking to get his or her image library in order. Thanks to DxO’s deep-rooted knowledge of the particular quirks of a wide variety of cameras and lenses, this program fine tunes each individual RAW image to a precise set of algorithms to produce photos that look fantastic even before they’re edited. Add in some great detail recovery tools for lighting, color and noise, and Optics Pro 8 could easily serve as the focal point for an entire imaging workflow.

Pros: Cleaned up, easy-to-use interface that acts as a browser rather than a library for your images; beautiful processing of RAW images; excellent new editing tools including simple Smart Lighting slider for recovering detail in highlights and shadows

Cons: Can be slow to use at times; tends to hog memory on your computer; new print module is welcome, but pretty basic

Price: $99;