Technique: DxO Optics Pro as RAW converter for Aperture

Front image: Baby Emperor Tamarin, image created at the Zurich Zooh on 20 November 2013, Canon EOS 5D Mark III with Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS. ISO 1600, f/4, 1/640s, Evaluative metering +1/3. Image converted using DxO, exposure corrected by +1 stop, Smart Lighting 100 and Shadows +20. Noise reduction PRIME algorithm (3 min process on Mac Pro, 6 cores). Further edit in Photoshop and Nik Color Efex.

I have what may appear to be 2 conflicting views on Aperture: 1. I consider it the best DAM out there (personal opinion), 2. I blame Apple to be slow at updating it to the next major release.

The fact is that I wish to have access to simpler while more complete RAW conversion engine dealing with the exposure optimisation part of my workflow, enhancing noise reduction and adding lens correction. If needed I am then fine to further edit the image using photoshop for finer retouch which is generally easier done with layers functionality, of course I’d be even happier if Aperture were to give me those functionalities. As to the digital asset management itself I am perfectly fine with what Aperture has to offer today (though give me higher performance and I’ll be happy too…). Dealing with my frustration, I am looking for and testing complements to my beloved Aperture able to improve my results and/or make my life easier.

When it comes to optical corrections with Aperture there are a few of interesting plugins:

  • PTLens which offers a sophisticated plugin able to correct lens distortion either manually or using lens/camera calibration profiles available for download. It also allows to retouch vignetting, perspective and chromatic aberrations. It has a fish-eye mode as well but I prefer the next plugin over PTLens
  • Fisheye-Hemi is a specialty plugin to correct part of the fisheye lens distortions and render the image more natural
  • DxO ViewPoint is a simple perspective correction plugin

There are 3 other popular non-plugin versions (well 2 really): DxO Optics Pro and Adobe Camera RAW which is used in both Photoshop CC and Lightroom. DxO Optics and Photoshop CC could be used as external editor in Aperture, however Aperture in that case will first convert the RAW image into a TIF before passing it on to the external editor. No a problem with those working with JPG but with RAW it is less than optimal.

Until Aperture is, maybe, made able to pass a RAW file and get the result back there is an elegant work around: Catapult. Catapult is an Aperture plugin to edit RAW files into Adobe Camera RAW, DxO Optics Pro, Nikon Capture and Canon Digital Photo Professional and back to Aperture. It makes the workflow a bit convoluted but not that difficult to manage and as long as the additional steps are rewarded by less post processing time or at least better results, it is worth it.


DxO Optics Pro

This software has been around for awhile now, first announced in February 2004 by the French startup DO Labs, it has evolved to version 9 introduced in October 2013. It includes sophisticated algorithms for noise reduction, lens correction and exposure restoration in the shadows and highlights. It can do a pretty incredible job at restoring very wrong exposure, though it won’t ever produce as good result as a correctly exposed image.

I have been tempted to try DxO Optics Pro for a long time, but it did not integrate well to my Aperture workflow, so despite having purchased the licence and its successive updates I never spent any serious amount of time to try it. Additionally until the current version I felt that their user interface was quite obscure and slow… Not a good start. But the interface improved for version 8 and I find it much more comfortable with their version 9 (it is difficult not to see some similarities with Adobe Lightroom).

What does it offer?

First a large library of profiled camera bodies and lenses to automatically correct lens distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting and softness. Then a number of correction tools, such as noise reduction, exposure adjustment and highlight/shadow restoration. Finally there are a number of good presets that make correction a snap. In most cases it can render directly the final image unless you are, like me, fussy about retouching for all its flaws and distractions.

DxO seems to keep their profile library quite up to date: for instance the latest Pentax K3 is not yet supported in Aperture whilst it was included in DxO Optics Pro at mid December together with the Nikon Df (incidentally Aperture does already support the Nikon Df… go wonder).

Unfortunately not ALL possible combination and lenses have a DxO profile: for instance Canon big guns 500mm and 600mm are profiled with their mark II only, not their mark I. Though one can wonder if correcting the 500 or 600L is really necessary…

What do I like?

Two main things: I like its results and its automated correction with preset profiles. So far I had very pleasing results with letting DxO in automated mode correcting optical distortion and image noise, I’m sure that in certain cases I might want to takeover the control from the automation but so far it worked well for me. I like its ability to (they call it Smart Lighting, nowadays every thing is SmartSomething… but why not?) re-tone images to preserve mid tone while restoring both highlights and shadows, and at the same time reduce the noise in a very, very! effective manner. Let’s face it, lens distortion is good for portraiture, architecture, travel, landscape, street photography, for animal photography it is of anecdotal interest: the enemy is tough lighting and image noise. I was so far pretty happy with Nik Dfine, one the plugin of the Nik Collection, and for good reasons it is a great noise removal tool, but DxO Optics Pro does an even better job (at the cost of speed) with its standard noise reduction mode, there is even a Prime mode which goes further but do launch it only before having a coffee or meal: even with a powerful workstation it will be slow and easily take 10 or 20 minutes. The ability to commingle exposure tweaking and noise reduction seems to produce much better results, preserving details and eliminating perceptual noise, than splitting the task in two steps.

DxO has a few profiles available, I tend to opt most of the time for either the standard preset, HDR natural or neutral. But there is more to explore in there and it is possible to create your own presets. I also like to avoid any sharpening at this stage so that I can leave it to the last step.

From there the resulting image is good to go as a Master (an image that has not yet been resized and sharpened according to its use) or to be further edited in Photoshop.

Is it worth it?

DxO is pricey, at 169 USD for its standard edition or 299 USD for its elite edition (that means that pro camera bodies are only supported with the Elite edition) this is not cheap compared to Photoshop Photography Program at 120 USD per year. In my case it is worth it, especially because I wrote off the initial cost a while back and I only paid for an upgrade which was reasonable (69 USD). For those interested there is an offer until end of January (and no I am not taking a fee from DxO…).

The main reason I find it worth it is that I reduced the image optimisation step to mere seconds with better results than before giving me more time to be as fussy as I want to deal with repairs, distractions and other flaws in Photoshop.

The image of this post was processed in less than 30 minutes with a pretty decent result and with very limited noise, especially as the left eye of this monkey was severely underexposed. A pretty good deal indeed!

Technique: DxO Optics Pro as RAW converter for ApertureChristian C. Berclaz

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