I tested a range of raw camera files in different development programs in a quest to find the ultimate development tool. This time it is the turn of DxO PhotoLab 6. Lightroom is good, and Capture One was better. How does Photolab 6 compare, and is it worth the investment?
A Quick Summary of DxO Photolab 6 Elite
DxO Photolab 6 is an entirely different program from the others I have tested before. It rides high on its ability to produce superior picture quality, with extra strength coming from its lens profiles. How does it compare to Lightroom Classic?
It is a premium program. There is no subscription, but it has a purchase price of $219. That’s $80 less than the purchase price of Capture One and slightly less than double the price of the Adobe Photographer Plan. But when it comes to bang for your buck, Photolab 6 also includes the excellent Nik Collection. It also has its highly regarded built-in Deep Prime noise reduction.
Also, like Capture One, which I compared with Lightroom last time, I’m new to PhotoLab 6. I found the catalog feature simpler to use than Capture One’s but not as intuitive as Lightroom, and it hasn’t the same digital asset management (DAM) functionality.
However, the purpose of these articles is to look solely at the unchanged raw conversions for the different camera brands. However, I am also lightly testing the ability to recover shadows and highlight details and how accurate the adjustment sliders are.
The straight-out-of-camera results were impressive across the range of camera raw files I tested. The developed images were also far better than anything I could achieve in Lightroom Classic. The photos seemed to have more presence than those produced by Adobe’s raw engine. It was hard to put my finger on why, but they jumped out more. Colors were more vibrant, skin tones looked healthier, and the images were cleaner.
When developing raw files, the adjustment sliders were the most precise I have tried. The shadows slider could be pushed further than in Lightroom, giving more scope for correction before resorting to adjusting the tone curve.
Lens Correction in PhotoLab 6
Photolab 6 has access to DxO’s extensive lens test data. This makes a significant difference to the way profiles are applied for cameras and different lenses. They claim: “DxO’s corrections are unique and bespoke to each camera and lens combination.” This is because they have “analyzed hundreds of cameras and thousands of lenses, across tens of thousands of combinations, all using the most extensive testing protocols in the industry.” In comparison, other software uses generic data. Why does this matter? If you take, for example, the newly released Canon 15-30mm STM, it has a heavy vignette at 15mm. Other software applies the same crop to remove that, not just at 15mm but across the entire range of focal lengths. So, from 16-30 mm, the 15mm vignette crop correction is applied, even though it is unnecessary.
The following example, courtesy of DxO, shows the same image file with Lightroom on the left and Photolab on the right. The lens profiles apply sharpening corrections only where needed and not across the entire image.
Shot at 16 mm, notice how the image on the left produced by Lightroom has been automatically cropped to remove vignetting that is only there at 15 mm. The righth version is from PhotoLab 6.
DxO PhotoLab 6 Test Results
DxO Photolab 6 and Nikon
With Nikon images, I found that the highlights were much brighter in PhotoLab than with Lightroom, and the mid-tones and shadows were slightly darker and more saturated. Both were recoverable, however.
Pulling back the highlights slider, the sky’s details were recovered, and unlike Lightroom, the blues between the cloud were evident, although they were more subtle than in Capture One.
There was no loss of detail in either. The default sharpening brings out fine detail without introducing unsightly digital artifacts. As I found with Capture One, the details were much better defined in PhotoLab than in Lightroom. There was a clear definition in the green pine needles on the tree in the test image that was better than Lightroom and on par with Capture One.
The default AI noise reduction settings from its DeepPRIME engine were effective and didn’t leave the image looking muddy as Lightroom’s does.
DxO Photolab 6 and Canon
Similarly, Canon raw images were brighter than in Lightroom, and less noise was visible. It was on par with ON1’s results. Highlight details were recoverable, and shadows were raised without producing noise. Again, the colors seemed more alive in this program than in any others I have tested. Similarly, the colors were more accurate than with Lightroom.
Details were crisp and sharp, and skin tones seemed pleasing.
DxO Photolab 6 and OM System
With OM-1 raw files, the colors in the mid-tones and shadows in some photos seemed to match Lightroom’s closely. The highlights in PhotoLab were slightly darker, and thus the colors looked a little more saturated. The big difference was in the details. Like the different camera brands, the OM System photos seemed more impactful in this program than the others I tested.
As you can see in the following image, because Lightroom (left) seems to consistently under-expose the images from the ON-1, and its Olympus camera raw files before it, I have consistently added exposure compensation in the camera to my photos to make them appear correct. Using PhotoLab (right), it will not be necessary as the image appears much brighter.
With PhotoLab, the image was much sharper than with Lightroom Classic too. Furthermore, there were no ugly over-sharpening artifacts. Pushing the shadows slider up introduced clean details in the shadows with no noise. In comparison, in Lightroom, there was that unpleasant purple tint in increased shadows.
My previous test using Capture One found it could not bring out pale blues and reds reflected in the water, whereas Lightroom Classic could. PhotoLab 6 not only gave improved color detail at default settings than Lightroom but also recovered this detail with more accurate color than Adobe’s offering.
You can see this in the following example of a heavily cropped image. On the left is Lightroom's conversion, having increased the exposure by +2 EV so that the pale reflections on the left of the screen can be seen. On the right is the DxO Photolab 6 version at default values. Photolab also had much better noise control.
DxO PhotoLab 6 and Sony
The results with Sony images were like those I found with the OM-1. With PhotoLab, the resulting pictures were clearer, with better colors than either Lightroom or Capture One. Skin tones were good. Photos of people of color had better skin colors, although there was a slightly more yellow tint than with Lightroom. I tried matching the white balance in Lightroom Classic with PhotoLab 6, and still, the subject’s face appeared more yellow in the latter, but not as much as when I used Capture One. I note from the comments from the previous article that other photographers have not experienced this issue. Therefore, it may be something particular with my source images.
All images appeared to be nearly a stop brighter in PhotoLab. This meant that photos exposed to the right needed an exposure reduction, whereas Lightroom previewed over-exposed pictures as if they were correctly exposed. Correctly exposed images needed the exposure slider increasing in Lightroom. The following were also exported at default settings, with Lightroom on the left.
DxO PhotoLab 6 and Fujifilm
I had to wait to finish this article as Photolab had not released an optics module update for the X-T5. I suspect the long wait is due to the significant extra testing DxO does.
I started testing using images from an X-T3 and an X-T4. At default values, the images opened in PhotoLab 6 were very similar to those produced by Capture One and far superior to Lightroom’s, through which the photos seemed bleached in comparison. Green foliage in PhotoLab was far better defined and overall crisper.
Moving onto the image I used in the earlier programs from the X-T5, there was a stark difference in results at default values. The grass, which was in shadow, was far brighter, and the detail in the leaves did not show the strange artifacts that were visible in Lightroom.
Recovering detail in the sky highlights worked well, and three stops could increase blacks and shadows without producing noise.
What I Like and What Could Be Improved With DxO PhotoLab 6
Each program has its advantages and disadvantages, but I was hard pushed to find many developing issues with PhotoLab 6. At default values, it was superior to Lightroom in most ways and also performed slightly better than Capture One. However, the latter had a very slight edge with Fujifilm images, especially when handling green foliage.
I’m aware that I am testing using high-end cameras with noiseless images. So, out of interest, I opened an old photo shot using a 2007 10-megapixel Four Thirds camera. I could recover the shadows in Lightroom, but the result was very noisy. However, PhotoLab 6 gave a much cleaner result in comparison. Furthermore, where Lightroom needed 2.9 stops of correction using the exposure slider, it required only 1.3 stops in DxO PhotoLab 6 to reveal the details.
This comparison mostly looks at one aspect of the programs: image quality. There are some functional differences. For example, I like that I can zoom in when cropping in PhotoLab 6. This is a godsend as I shoot seascapes and want a precisely level horizon, which can sometimes be a small portion of the frame. Then again, PhotoLab 6 cannot flip an image. That functionality requires the purchase of ViewPoint 4 or opening the image into an external editor.
That notwithstanding, its image development results are first-class.
There are far more programs than those; I will continue looking at the results from other raw processing software. It’s rare that I review something and am persuaded to abandon what I use and adopt something different. The last time it happened was when I reviewed a Benro Tortoise Tripod and was so impressed that I bought it. Most of my work only happens in raw development, and image quality is of prime importance. Consequently, DxO PhotoLab 6 is now my top choice. I will still use Lightroom’s catalog function, or maybe On1 Photo Raw’s, but PhotoLab 6 is now an important part of my workflow.
I want to once again thank my fellow writers for generously sharing their images for me to play with: Used with the kind permission of Peter Morgan, Canon; Gary McIntyre, Fujifilm X-T5 and Nikon Z 7II; Andy Day, Sony a7 III, and John Ricard, Sony A1 and Nikon Z6. Crop comparison image by kind permission of DxO.