Why DxO Optics Pro 10 stays in my toolbox

I’ve used over a dozen apps in the last decade to convert my raw files and process my digital images. Today I rely on four main tools to process my images: Lightroom 5.7, the Nik suite of apps (now owned and published by Google), onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite 9 — and DxO Optics Pro 10. I want to talk about Perfect Photo Suite some other time; it’s my replacement for Photoshop and I really like it. But today, I want to say nice things about Optics Pro 10. Might seem an odd thing to admit, but I don’t really want to use Optics Pro. It can’t hold a candle to Lightroom for browsing and managing images. And it doesn’t support layers (like Perfect Photo Suite) or much in the way of selective editing (like Lightroom, Nik and Perfect Photo Suite do). I’m able to get what I want from most of my images using Lightroom, or Nik or Perfect Photo. So most of the time, I don’t need Optics Pro.
But for certain kinds of problems, nothing else does as good a job as Optics Pro. It’s major strengths are:

  • lens corrections based on extensive research into various camera-lens combinations;
  • noise reduction with remarkably little loss of detail;
  • correction of perspectival distortion, especially when paired with DxO ViewPoint 2.5; and
  • pulling detail from images.

It’s very good at all of the other ordinary post-processing tasks, as well, but those are the key points. Anyway, I seldom use Optics Pro for portraits or people-shots generally. But for architecture and landscapes, it is indispensable. If I were mainly a landscape photographer, Optics Pro 10 might be my main tool.

In this article I want to show why I feel the need to have many tools available to me — and in particular, why I keep Optics Pro around.

Little River Canyon National Preserve

Driving back to Dallas after spending spring break in Washington, D.C., my wife and daughter and I decided to detour near Fort Payne, Alabama, to see the Little River Canyon National Preserve. We’d never been there, and I’m glad we went. It’s said to be the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi, which mainly proves that there aren’t many deep canyons east of the Mississippi. Of course, nothing in the world competes with the Grand Canyon in Arizona; but Little River Canyon doesn’t compete with Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado or even Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. Still, the Little River Canyon runs along the top of Lookout Mountain, which is interesting in itself; and it’s really quite beautiful in its own way. If you can find the entrance to the park (bit of a challenge, that), you’re in for a treat.

The day we drove through the preserve, the weather was cool and damp. I had only my 14mm and 25mm lenses with me. That’s for the micro-four-thirds Olympus E-M1, so these focal lengths translate to 28mm and 50mm lenses respectively in full-frame terms. In other words, “medium wide” and “normal” angles of view.

NOTE: I’m afraid that some of the subtle distinctions I’m trying to make here won’t be visible if you’re viewing on a small or poorly-calibrated screen. Click the images here to view them large, then click again to continue reading.

Here’s a picture of one of the signature attractions in the Preserve, a 130-foot waterfall called Grace’s High Falls. If I’d had my Sigma 60mm or even the Olympus 45mm lens with me, I’d have been able to take a photo that really focused on the waterfall. But I didn’t, so instead I took a photo of the canyon, showing the waterfall “in context,” as it were.

Here’s my first quick edit, done in Lightroom 5.7.

First attempt in Lightroom 5.7. Decrease contrast, increase clarity, play a little with the tone curve, et voilà! A so-so rendition.

The scene was lovely, and mist always adds something to an image (“mistery”). Anyway, I thought there was something here worth working on. What I really wanted to do was make those ghostly trees on the other side of the canyon a bit more visible — to rescue them from the mist. This first draft didn’t do that very well. So in my next effort, still in Lightroom, I threw the kitchen sink at the image: tweaking HSL sliders, adding a graduated filter to the top half of the image, adjusting black and white points, shadows, messing with detail and sharpening, etc. I fiddled with practically every setting Lightroom gives me access to, and the result is better. Somewhat.

Second effort in Lightroom. Lot of effort for a slight improvement.

This is where I start to wonder if the problem is me, or my editing — or the photo. But I wasn’t ready to blame it all on the photo. So I turned to the Nik apps, which have done wonderful things for me in the past.

Treatment in Nik Silver Efex Pro — long regarded as the gold standard for b&w treatments.

I was actually pretty happy with this, and I still like it. The trees are better defined in the mist, and the black and white treatment emphasizes the white slash of the waterfall, while preserving lots of detail. But the more I looked at it, especially on the big display, the more I worried that the treatment was a tad extreme. My daughter’s comment was, “It looks ‘shopped,” meaning, the processing is too obvious. (Give yourself 10 points if you noticed that the crop is a bit different on this one image.)

So next, I tried Perfect Photo Suite 9. I like it a lot and it has done some really nice things for shots of the monuments and buildings in Washington, but it struggled with this image. The skyline here is too defined and the overall effect is artificial and generally unsatisfactory. (The black and white preset here, by the way, is called “Ansel in the Valley.”)

Processed in Perfect Photo Suite 9, using the Black & White module. Click the image to see it larger.

Optics Pro 10 to the rescue

And that is about when I remembered the big new feature in Optics Pro 10: the “ClearView” tool. I sent the image from Lightroom over to Optics Pro. Just enabling the ClearView feature produced an image that was immediately better than anything I’d gotten so far.

Processed in DxO Optics Pro 10, mainly by enabling the ClearView tool.

I know it’s hard to see on a small screen, but on my iMac’s display, the impact of the ClearView was wonderful to behold. There is one small weird problem with this image: the clump of foliage in the foreground on the right is abnormally green. Not sure what happened there and I’d fix it before printing this image.

Otherwise, I thought that was the best result so far. But I wanted to try a black and white treatment, as well. A minute or two later, after a few tweaks to exposure and microcontrast and the imposition of a black and white preset, I decided I’d just about gotten what I was looking for in the first place.

Again, processed in DxO Optics Pro 10 with help of ClearView tool — plus a little exposure and microcontrast adjustment and the addition of a black and white preset.

I don’t know whether I like the color version or the black and white better. The black and white version is possibly too dark, although I’m thinking about that. I think it’s “moody” and will make a good print. But the bottom line is, it’s definitely a choice between the two DxO treatments. For display on screen, the Nik treatment is my runner up. (You are of course free to disagree.)

Lens corrections, no extra charge

In this photo, at least, this is a relatively minor issue, but I want to mention one other advantage that DxO gives me more or less automatically, namely, the correction of distortions inherent in just about every lens. DxO has done more than anybody else to test almost every combination of body and lens and understand each combination’s weaknesses and strengths. Since it’s not obvious, let me show you once again the Lightroom second draft (which has no lens correction) and the first draft in Optics Pro 10 (which does).

Lightroom: no lens correction.
Optics Pro: with lens correction.

If you want to see the difference clearly, you can do this: Copy the URL of this article and open a second copy of it in a separate tab of your browser. In the first tab (this one) click on the first photo above to enlarge it. In the second tab, click on the second image immediately above to enlarge it. Then switch back and forth between the tabs. The difference will be obvious.

If you don’t compare the images side by side, it’s not obvious, and at least in this photo, it’s not a big deal. But a simple way to describe the difference is that the Lightroom image (without lens correction) seems flatter, as if the middle of the image is pushed toward the viewer a bit, while the Optics Pro image (after lens correction) seems to have a little more depth, as if the center of the image were ‘pushed in’ a bit. Lightroom doesn’t actually serve Olympus bodies or lenses especially well. You could get pretty much the same correction Optics Pro provides by using the Olympus Photo Viewer that comes with Olympus cameras. But aside from the lens corrections, it’s an unpleasant app to work in.

Quick is better than slow

Whenever I switch from Lightroom to Optics Pro, I have the feeling that Optics Pro is really slow. I certainly wouldn’t want to use Optics Pro to review and edit all the images from a wedding. But the slow processing of each edit reflects the fact that Optics Pro is actually doing a lot more than Lightroom with every single pixel — every piece of data supplied by the raw negative. I think I’m pretty good with Lightroom — I’ve been using it since the beta of version 1 — but it took me many minutes of experimentation to get that second draft above and as I said above, I touched just about every slider and option available (add even added a graduated filter). But — to pick another image from Little River Canyon National Preserve — it took me exactly 1 second in Optics Pro 10 to go from this —

— to this:

Those are screenshots straight from Optics Pro 10, and the only thing I did in the second image was enable the ClearView feature. You don’t need it on every image, not even on most images. But sometimes, it’s just what the doctor ordered. • Addendum on the matter of skinning cats: As the saying goes, there’s more than one way. (My cat Mao is looking at me funny as I write this.)

No program does everything well, there’s something that every program can’t do at all, and yet, if you know what you’re doing, you can take any program and use it to get great results. When you’re talking about feature rich programs like the ones mentioned above — not to mention Photoshop, or Athentech’s Perfectly Clear — a really skilled user can almost always get the job done one way or another. I bet I could have done a better job in Perfect Photo Suite 9 (or Photoshop) by using layers, masking and selecting the appropriate blending mode.

So in the end, we all pick what works for us and what we like to use. What I like about DxO Optics Pro iis that it solves certain important post-processing problems almost effortlessly. I might be able to get pretty close to the same results in something else, but not without breaking a sweat.

Originally published at blog.william-porter.net on March 20, 2015.