DxO PhotoLab 3.1: A Lightroom Replacement?

DxO PhotoLab 3.1: A Lightroom Replacement?

Photolab 3.1 from DXO has been out a couple of months now, and early looks from photographers have been positive. It's a complete raw editor and has many features photographers will expect to see and adds some very worthwhile enhancements that will highly interest editors at every skill level.

We took a look at the first offering of Photolab back in 2007. It was a capable program then, with lots of room to grow, and grow it has, turning more and more heads of photographers looking for alternatives to the Adobe suite of tools.

What Is Photolab 3.1?

Photlab 3.1 from DxO is essentially a raw editor, living in a similar space to LightroomLuminar 4, On1Capture One, and Affinity Photo, to name the most prominent editors. While generally, all these programs encompass the major features of king of the hill Lightroom, they all offer some unique features that Lightroom doesn't offer. This latest version of Photolab has evolved in several ways. 

PhotoLab 3 introduced the DxO ColorWheel, an innovative and visual-based approach to color management, optimized the repair tool, and created a new Local Adjustment Mask Manager. In addition to the search criteria that are already available in the DxO PhotoLibrary (metadata, shooting parameters, folders, etc.), DxO PhotoLab 3.1 has now added keyword management, which was previously only available in its macOS version, to its Windows version. This feature lets photographers add, delete, or rename keywords assigned to one or several images simultaneously. Users can also display keywords associated with an image, including images imported from other XMP-compatible software, and add them to multi-criteria searches.

Support for the Latest Camera Models

DxO engineers added support for the major camera models released at the end of 2019. PhotoLab 3.1 now supports the Canon EOS 90D, EOS M6 Mark II and EOS M200, Fuji GFX 100, Nikon Z50, Olympus E-M5 Mark III, as well as the Sony a6600 and a6100. The software also offers preliminary support for the Sony a9 II.
More than 3,000 optical modules have also been added to the database, which now includes over 55,000 different camera/lens combinations. These include the recent Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM and RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM, the Fujinon GFÂ 50mm f/3.5 R LM WR and GF110mm f/2 R LM WR, the Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S, the Sony E 16-55mm f/2.8 G, and the Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD for Sony FE.
Through the high-quality raw conversion technology included in DxO PhotoLab 3 and DxO's scientific calibration process, the photos taken with these devices will be automatically corrected for any faults in their lenses, such as distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, and a lack of sharpness. In all, Dxo supports more than 42,000 lens and sensor combinations.

Using the Software

I'm mightily impressed to how this software has evolved. As DxO has long been the leader in software for optical testing, it's nice to see that expertise fully bloom in this editing software. When you first open an image, Photolab 3.1 looks at your image metadata and automatically adjusts lens parameters that goes far beyond what I see in other software. The fixes are obvious to the eye, and there is a convenient before and after button to see what Photolab 3.1 has accomplished.

Opening the same image is Lightroom and Photolab shows a readily visible quality increase, especially in sharpness. That's with correction on in both the Adobe software and Photolab.
The software readily identified my camera as a Sony a7 III and recognized my two Tamron lenses and my Rokinon wide angle lens.

The screen layout and GUI are likely an acquired taste. I'm so used to the Adobe way of doing things, with all its quirks, that Photolab seemed even quirkier, but after editing a few images, I began to prefer the way Photolab does things. 

Local adjustments are very powerful, and a new on-screen controller makes the process intuitive after you get used to it. I found repair tools comparable to what Adobe offers, and the repairs seemed as effective and invisible. 

DxO continues to use U Point technology, something that has survived from the early days of NIK tools, which DxO has purchased and enhanced. U Point technology is a smart selection tool that makes it easy to select a point of interest and add a Control Point. DxO PhotoLab intuits what you want and automatically and intelligently extends your selection to areas that share the same characteristics within an adjustable radius.

The tool works really well and fits into my workflow very nicely, and as the tool evolved, more adjustable parameters have been added.

Is  Photolab 3.1 an Adobe Replacement?

I think it can be for some photographers. As all these software challengers improve, Lightroom and Photoshop seem diminished in some capabilities by comparison. I'm not yet ready to abandon Adobe, even though I truly dislike the subscription model and their inferior customer support.

Photolab can coexist nicely with Lightroom, and you can seamlessly move between the programs. Adobe still leads with its plug-in architecture. In my work, there are some plug-ins I simply must have, and there's really no support in Photolab for them. Maybe someday.

Photolab does support its own plug-ins, notably the NIK tools plug-ins, which are powerful and useful. In general, I could get along nicely with the combination of Photolab and the NIK tools, leaving behind Lightroom and Photoshop. I'd still want Luminar 4.1 for some editing, so I could not completely cut myself off from other editing tools.

Still, I'm really impressed with Photolab 3.1. It can take on a lot of the work I do in Lightroom and Photoshop, and its lens correction capabilities are best in class. Color controls are excellent and comprehensive. Photolab offers a library module, but frankly, I'm not enamored with it or Adobe's. I keep it simple and use Adobe Bridge. Photolab has dozens of presets. I'm not sure most photographers would use them, wanting to use their own techniques rather than the canned ones, but I realize presets are all over photography apps and DxO wants to be feature competitive. Of course, no one is forced to use them.

I can't go over every feature Photolab brings to the table in even a moderate size review, so I urge you to head on over to the DxO website and see how the Photolab feature set stacks up against your requirements.

What I Like

  • First-class corrections of optical issues in lenses
  • Intuitive GUI with some practice
  • A broad feature set including masking, local adjustments, repair, and cloning
  • Compressive online help with links to video tutorials
  • Support for the NIK suite of tools

What I Would Like to See:

  • Third party plug-in support

DxO Photolab probably doesn't jump to mind if you are looking to explore new raw editors, but it is certainly a powerful and well thought-out tool deserving of serious consideration. I found it a pleasure to use, and for many of my editing tasks, it was equal to or better than my Lightroom/Photoshop workflow. 

Photolab 3.1 comes in two versions, an essential and an elite application. In addition to all of the features of the Essential Edition, DxO PhotoLab Elite Edition includes advanced image-processing features such as denoising technology, color management, and output formats. It also offers more possibilities for customizing your workspace.

The Essential Edition is $129 and the Elite Edition is $199. There is upgrade pricing for previous users of the software.

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How good is the clone tool?

It’s fine for basic things. For more complicated issues, better to use PS or AP. The retouch tool is fairly poor, aside from some simple spot healing. You should definitely download the demo to see if it’s sufficient for you.

Yeah let's try this wonderful tool with my X100F ! Oh wait...

That’s really on Fuji though. They need to drop that X-trans nonsense. It doesn’t help anyone and they’ve moved away from it on their own MF. It’s time for the X-lines as well.

"nonsense", another nice internet word.. personally im fine with my x-trans sensor camera, no issues at all.

X-Trans is just another organization of data. Any other software can handle that. It's more of a DxO nonsense to miss the business.

Why does every new thing has to be "insert item" replacement or killer? Why can't it just be a "insert item" competitor/alternative?

Because this is the new dumbed down Fstoppers. Grown-ups journalism is a thing of the past.

Same as the 'Compressive online help' ... In the rush for more superlatives new words get created..

I will never replace Lightroom if it need 4-5 month to support new camera and lenses.

...so you're buying new gear every 2-3 months?...

I've used DxO for years now and it has come a long way. I can say with my new addition of a Z50 that DxO and C1 20 actually handle the raw files better than LR. They look like garbage in LR honestly. DxO's noise reduction is on par (or better?) with Topaz, it's that great. DxO does have some caveats though.....

DxO wont open or even view DNG files it creates??? They are huge to begin with so not a big deal anymore unless you definitely use DNG's in your workflow.

There is no option to manually select or override a lens profile. This is were I think LR has an advantage as I can go in there and manually select even old AI-S lenses. This is huge since mirrorless is starting to take off and there is a lot of people using adapted vintage lenses where there is no lens data in the EXIF.

I still feel like like LR is king in the import and cataloging departments for my work flows.

Lastly, while I love DxO for what it does do. The highlight recovery is probably the worst out of all the other alternatives for the exception of maybe ON1. If you do a lot of landscapes, outdoors, ect., and expose to the right.... you will run into this.

I still can't recommend this to any Fuji user with X-Trans sensors. Fuji users should just go straight to C1 20 and forget about DxO.....for now.

I'm not sure it will be a replacement for most but it does bring a lot to the table. I think objectively one should consider it a tool in their workflow if so desired.

I'm wondering if the highlight recovery is RAW format dependent? Because in my own testing I've found Dxo lab to be on par with Lightroom, and light years ahead of Capture 1(which is totally, entirely useless, it does not recover anything at all). But that is using Nikon RAW format(D850 and D610).

Like most people, I was a diehard Lightroom fan but found problem when I shot tethered in the studio. Lightroom would freeze for 10 seconds, 2 minutes or forever. I was continually restarting Lightroom or turning my camera off and then back on! I checked out Capture One and discovered it was fantastic at tether shooting but it appeared too complex for me to jump into.

I purchased Captured One and used it when shooting in the studio and when I attempted to use it for editing of photos complained that it wasn't like lightroom. So I would go back and edit in Lightroom and Photoshop. This went on for about six months, not wanting to change because I knew Lightroom and didn't want to learn another program. I finally noticed a few features the Capture One had that Lightroom didn't and decided to take the plunge.

I started editing only in Capture One and doing round trips to Photoshop. If I didn't know how Capture One did something I took the time to figure it out. I am glad I did, Capture One, in my opinion, is much better, faster and never fails me when shooting tethered. The color engine is superior and the response of the program is instant.

You can practically configure Capture one to look like lightroom at least

My path was similar: I dragged the learning of the Capture One for quite a while. I used to convert new raw files into DNG and still import these using LR 6.14, than go into Capture One and 'sync' the directories. Everything was an effort to me. Is it the Old Dog does not learn New Tricks syndrome ?

No more, now I love Capture One for all tasks, I also have the Luminar 4. I am keeping the LR catalogs only because I am a prosumer level photographer, and have thousands of older raw files from "lesser cameras" not supported in Capture One. Example: Leica/Lumix travel zooms etc. Maybe they will add these to supported cameras, who knows.

Just for the sake of competition, other developers should create competing products with LR. I've tried DXO.. I guess it's OK, but for me, it's just not Lightroom. Lightroom was the single biggest reason that I stopped shooting film and moved into digital. Intuitively, LR was "conceptually" like working in the wet darkroom except that it converted Raw Files without the arduous process of film development. Working with the tools in LR was "conceptually" similar to printing (burning, dodging, masking etc...). So I am jaded because I have LR operations embedded into muscle memory. I use Luminar4 and Photoshop to perform a couple of functions that are more graceful than in LR. Also, I hear of other photographers speaking of things that Adobe hasn't developed. I am certain that is true. Nevertheless, the completeness (cataloguing, developing, printing etc) in LR as a whole, provides everything I need. Now, let's talk about the 800lb gorilla in the room. Much of the distaste regarding LR would probably go away if Adobe had not gone to a subscription model. Having worked in the software business back in the 1990s, it is very hard to fund operations without a steady revenue stream. New products typically do not come out quickly enough to achieve that. That's just an economic fact. Right now, new companies can make money by stealing LR customers ---which is the purpose of competition. However, each of these products will hit critical marketing points where revenue growth will become an issue. Certainly, they will explore subscription models as well. For now, I just pay the fee and enjoy the product. I know that others cannot/will not decide like I do. At least, such as they are, there are alternatives for users to explore.

What is the file Management system like, I use Lightroom mainly for my file manager

It doesn’t use a catalog, which is how all these software applications should work. You just browse your file system the way you have it, no import necessary and you can move files around however you like it. The edits get saved into separate sidecar files in the same directory as the original. As long as you move both the original and the edit, you will keep your edits intact wherever you move them.

The catalogue along with the clever file management is the main reason why there is [unfortunately] still no real competition to LR. It is a phenomenal time saver, particularly as Photoshop effectively works as an additional LR module with files dealt with in PS being added to the catalogue as you go along. No tedious round tripping and faffing with file management. You just work on your images. This idea that file management should be separate is last century thinking. Being able to open raw files into PS and keep them raw whilst working on them too is another huge advantage of using Adobe products.
Not sure you actually know how to use LR properly if you are unaware that LR can also store the edits in XMP files next to the files too and worry about moving files. There should also rarely be any need to move your work other than when placing your work on a new/bigger hard drive. Then all you do is tell LR where the top folder is and everything is all linked again immediately. LR should be setup that upon import the images go directly to where they need to be and that's it.They stay there in that file structure order. Though for some minor things I use LR to move and tidy up folder and files, Something I mostly do with screenshots and images on desktop that are not my own that do not need filing in the date/folder order I use for my own photography. I also will sometime's separate a day's shoot into multiple folders, that is if they contain separate subjects because my folders are organised by date-description.

I had used DXO like 4 years ago. Back then its noise reduction was pretty good.

Oh, good old replacements for everything in this world. To me it looks like a miserable attempt to bring the product closer to some giant when in fact it is in a galaxy far far away. My own "replacement" for LR is Photoworks but only because it works faster which is important for me. I just can't dwell on the photo for a long time :( But maybe I will try this one just in case, thanks for the info!

I did try it, but found it fiddly. And honestly, I have spent so much time learning LR/PS and then Luminar 4/Exposure that the effort required to learn one more bit of software is a bit too much of effort. That is the biggest challenge that they will face