Adobe Lightroom and Camera RAW have been the go-to photo editors for photographers of all genres. But could this be about to change? There are now several alternatives, and today, we will look at one of the very best: DxO PhotoLab 7.
Many of you are familiar with DxO through their Nik Collection or PureRAW plugins. From these, we’ve learned to expect quality regarding DxO software. So, what about PhotoLab 7? Should it be on your radar?
That’s part of what we will look at in this PhotoLab 7 review. Let’s take a close look at the interface, tools, and performance and learn whether or not this is a photo editor you should use.
What is DxO PhotoLab 7?
PhotoLab is a RAW photo editing software made by the French company DxO. Its usage can best be compared to Adobe Lightroom as it includes a library module for image organizing and a customize module for post-processing.
As with all DxO software, Photolab 7 is available as a one-time purchase. The price is steep, but many prefer this to a subscription model. The purchase includes updates for this version, and you get a significant discount for purchasing newer versions when released.
As of writing this, the Essential edition costs $139, while the Elite edition (recommended) costs $229. If you own previous versions, you can upgrade at a cost of $75 (Essential) or $99 (Elite)
PhotoLab 7 First Impressions
I have tested a lot of photo editing software during the past decade. Whxile there have been some impressive tools occasionally, I’ve never been tempted to move my workflow to any of these editors.
PhotoLab 7 was different. My first reaction was something like, “Wow. This is really impressive”.
Now, that was my first reaction. Whether that impression remained is something I’ll come back to later in this review.
The first thing I noticed was how intuitive PhotoLab 7 is. It didn’t take me many minutes to quickly find my way around the interface and understand how the adjustments work. Keep in mind that I haven’t used previous versions.
I might have an advantage because I’m used to various processing software, and most of them are relatively similar. Still, I believe this is an easy-to-understand tool, even for those who have never used a photo editor.
I’ll get back to specifics later on, but here are some of the other features I quickly took notice of:
- The PhotoLibrary module is clean and simple. Everything you need (such as filenames, ratings, metadata, and folder hierarchy) is in obvious places.
- The histogram can be shown in 5 ways: RGB, R, G, B, or L. This is a neat feature that I’ve missed from Lightroom. You can also turn both shadow- and highlight clipping warnings on, and show monitor- and destination gamut warnings.
- Metadata is neatly presented in the PhotoLibrary Module
- Everything is functioning at high speeds
- The Customize Module is easy to use, and you can organize the tools how you want them.
- The Presets tab opens a window where you get a preview of what the image will look like with any given preset.
Another interesting function is the Default Correction Preset that pops up the first time you open the software. Here you can choose one of three options for how an image is treated upon import:
- Style – Natural
- Optical Corrections only
- No Corrections
While most advanced photographers will opt for the third option as they prefer greater manual control, the first two are great for those who prefer an easy solution.
Design and User Interface
As I mentioned, the PhotoLab 7 interface is very intuitive. I’m merely a monkey in a human suit, but it didn’t take me many minutes to find my way around. Within the first fifteen minutes, I felt like I’d been using this software for a long time.
This is a crucial aspect, especially for those just entering the world of post-processing. Overcomplicated software can be so overwhelming that many avoid it.
There are two main modules in PhotoLab 7: PhotoLibrary and Customize.
PhotoLibrary is used for organizing your images, and Customize is used for applying adjustments. Let’s take a closer look at them:
PhotoLibrary: Image Organizing in DxO PhotoLab 7
As your image library grows, you quickly realize that organizing is just as important as post-processing.
Having a well-structured folder hierarchy will save you a lot of time and worries in the long run.
PhotoLibrary is the organizational module in PhotoLab 7. It is surprisingly fast and relatively easy to use.
The left tab shows all the available folders on your computer or external hard drive(s). Click on the folder you want to use, and all the images within will show in the main window.
You can adjust how many images are shown on the grid by pulling the slider left (more) or right (less). It is not possible to look at only one picture at a time in PhotoLibrary. To do that, double-click the image, and it opens in Customize.
This is annoying as I like to scroll through single photos in the library module, especially when culling through a series of images. The upside, however, is that you can have the filmstrip view beneath your one shot in Customize.
The organizational tools are similar to those in Lightroom and other photo libraries. You can apply ratings, color labels, tags, and keywords to your images. Selecting multiple photos allows you to apply the information to all at once.
PhotoLab 7 also has a Projects function, which can best be compared to Collections in Lightroom. This is a neat function if you have images from multiple folders you want to display together.
The one thing I miss is a way to create Smart Projects. In Lightroom, you can automatically add images to a collection based on a keyword, rating, label, or combination of them. Projects in PhotoLab 7 feel slightly more rushed and simplified.
On the right hand of PhotoLibrary, you will find all the metadata information about your selected image. This includes an excellent histogram tool, information about the camera, exposure, and keywords.
If you use the Nik Collection, you will find a button that lets you quickly open the image(s) in one of its eight plugins.
Thanks to its speed, slick layout, good metadata tab, and good organizational tools, I find PhotoLab 7 to have one of the best library modules of any raw editor. It’s up there competing with Adobe Lightroom.
There are only three things I wish they would fix or improve:
- You can only view images in “active” folders. This means you won’t be able to see photos on an external hard drive unless it’s connected. This isn’t a significant issue, but I like having image previews available, even if they’re low quality.
- The Projects function is rather basic and has a long way to go to compete with Lightroom’s Collections.
- There’s no way of viewing a single file in PhotoLibrary without opening it in Customize.
I believe these three minor adjustments would take this tool to the next level.
Customize: Tools and Adjustments for Image Editing
While image organizing is important, post-processing tools are the deciding factor when it comes to photo editors.
The module for image editing in PhotoLab 7 goes by the name of Customize. This is opened by double-clicking on an image or selecting the tab in the top left corner.
Customize offers a wide range of tools found in both the top bar and right-side window.
Many of these tools are well-known from other raw editors (such as highlights, shadows, exposure, etc.) However, there are a few that I want to talk more about, which I believe are a big reason why PhotoLab 7 is such an exciting software:
DxO Smart Lighting
I’m not a huge fan of AI or automated adjustments. They often do a little “too much” and take the image far away from where I want it.
DxO Smart Lighting is one of these tools, but it’s pretty subtle, unlike others. Perhaps because it doesn’t do more than correct the exposure.
I’ve tested this on many images, both under and overexposed, and it does a good job balancing out the shadows and highlights without giving it the dreaded 2000’s HDR look.
Smart Lighting is a basic but helpful tool. It’s certainly not groundbreaking, but it’s a breath of fresh air to have an AI tool that doesn’t do too much.
DxO ClearView Plus
ClearView Plus is another AI tool that caught my attention in PhotoLab 7. It aims to increase contrast, reduce haze, and enhance vibrance by adjusting a slider named Intensity.
After testing it on dozens of images, it is a bit split. It’s fair to say that it shouldn’t be used for every shot; it’s a bit hit-and-miss. This is to be expected, though, as every photo has different needs.
The one thing I miss is a second slider that allows you to adjust saturation or color temperature. ClearView Plus often adds excellent texture and contrast, but the color becomes too grungy for my taste.
What’s quite impressive, though, is that it doesn’t increase the Edge Halo. This is a common issue with Lightroom tools such as Dehaze, Texture, and Clarity, but in this case, you don’t need to worry as much about damaging the file quality.
That being said, I still wouldn’t recommend applying it at 100% intensity, but I wouldn’t be worried about using values up to 50.
DxO Deep Prime and Denoise Technology
Topaz DeNoise has been crowned the best noise reduction software, but I can confidently say that DxO’s Deep Prime is even better. It’s extremely quick and does an outstanding job of reducing noise while retaining details.
When using the Denoise technology in PhotoLab 7, you can choose between four methods:
- High Quality: A basic method that uses algorithms suitable for simpler photos. This is best for images that require little noise reduction and don’t have a lot of complex details. The render time is extremely fast.
- Prime: Uses more advanced algorithms to eliminate noise in more complex images. This is a more demanding method that requires a longer processing time. It’s an excellent option for images that require heavier noise reduction.
- DeepPRIME: Reduces noise, increases clarity, and purifies results from your camera’s sensor using machine learning. This heavier algorithm takes more effort from your computer, but the results are extraordinary.
- DeepPRIME XD (Extra Details): Delivers even finer detail and contrast in both high or low ISO images. Expect photos free from noise, with smoother bokeh, finer textures, and more realistic and natural colors.
You are also presented with an additional five sliders to fine-tune the adjustments: Luminance, Chrominance, Low freq., Dead pixels, and Maze
One of the things Prime (Probabilistic Raw IMage Enhancement) does differently than the competitors is that it analyzes a much larger area to determine which pixels represent noise. Because of this, the processing time may be slightly longer, but it’s still reasonably quick.
The Prime noise reduction tools only work with RAW files. If you’re trying to reduce noise in a jpg file, you’ll have to settle with the High Quality setting.
There are some seriously good noise reduction software on the market now, and while Topaz Labs might be the most popular, more photographers are realizing that DxO has put out the most advanced algorithms yet.
Note: Prime, DeepPRIME, and DeepPRIME XD are only available in the DxO PhotoLab Elite edition.
Local Adjustments in PhotoLab 7
In PhotoLab 7, you can use Control Points, Control Lines, Graduated Filters, Auto Masks, and Brushes to apply local adjustments. If you’re using DxO FilmPack, you can also use Luminosity Masks.
Regardless of what masking type you use, you can apply a wide range of adjustments within it. You can also adjust the opacity to reduce (or increase) the overall strength of the filter.
You can use as many masks as you want and combine Control Points, Graduated Filters, and Brushes. You can also adjust the Brush mask size, feather, flow, and opacity.
Though I’m used to Control Points from the Nik Collection, they take a little more getting used to than the standard selection of masks in Lightroom. The advantage is that they use U-Point technology, meaning they help give a more precise selection.
Control Points select a circular area and apply the adjustments to all pixels of the same color and brightness as the point. It feathers the adjustments softly to ensure a natural transition between the affected and non-affected areas.
It’s also possible to rename all your masks by double-clicking on them. This neat function can help those who use many masks find the ones they want to refine further.
One neat feature of PhotoLab 7 is that the Customize menu is entirely… customizable.
The tools are initially organized into various categories, but you can rearrange this at any time. Go to View -> Workspaces -> Advanced Workspaces, and create your workspace.
Here, you can move tools up or down, create new categories, rename the palette, and highlight your most used tools. This is an underrated feature. It makes great sense to organize the workspace precisely as you want it.
Treatment of RAW Files
Many photographers forget that every photo editor will read and interpret RAW files differently. That means your image will look different when opened in Lightroom, CaptureOne, or PhotoLab 7.
After comparing multiple images in Lightroom and PhotoLab 7, I found the following:
- Colors are slightly cleaner and brighter in PhotoLab
- Images have a little more contrast in Lightroom
- Photos appear a little more artificially sharpened in Lightroom
- Images in PhotoLab are slightly softer
It’s important to note that I am not using any import presets in either Lightroom or PhotoLab 7, meaning the results here are purely each software’s interpretation of the RAW files.
Performance and Speed
Speed and performance are important topics. Nobody wants to work with a super slow photo editor. Good software needs to be quick and responsive, with minimum buffer time, even when applying more complex adjustments.
Regarding speed, I find that PhotoLab 7 has a little way to go in the PhotoLibrary Module. The initial load is a little slow. Especially when switching between different folders. After that, it’s very responsive and fast to work with.
Once the image is opened in the Customize Module, any complaint about speed goes straight out the window.
This is, as it should be, extremely fast to work with. Any adjustment you make will be immediately visible on the image preview. Advanced AI adjustments work just as fast as the most basic ones.
How Good is PhotoLab 7?
I’ve tried a lot of photo editors over the years. Many have had one or two neat functions, but none have made me want to reinvent my processing workflow and include them.
DxO PhotoLab 7 is the first exception.
I’ve been spellbound since I opened it for the first time. Perhaps this shines through in my writing, but I can’t get over how good of a software this is.
I might be too invested in the Adobe universe (having used Lightroom for about a decade) to make a complete switch, but it’s safe to say that PhotoLab will become an integral part of my workflow.
What Could be Better?
I’ve covered most of my thoughts already in this PhotoLab 7 review, but let me summarize the few things I believe could be better:
- Improved PhotoLibrary: The current version is slightly more basic than Adobe Lightroom and could benefit from extra features such as “Smart Projects” and an Import function that allows you to preview offline images.
- Better integration with Photoshop: Exporting images to Photoshop appears slightly complicated, and I wish there were a smoother way of doing this.
Did I miss anything? I’d also love to hear your thoughts if you’re using the current version of PhotoLab.
It’s important to remember that DxO PhotoLab 7 is a RAW editor rather than a tool for more advanced post-processing. Just as with Adobe Lightroom, it has its limitations. For more advanced needs (where any layering is involved), Photoshop remains a “must-have”.
That said, I have yet to encounter a better raw photo editor than PhotoLab 7. It performs better than CaptureOne, Luminar Neo, Photopea, Pixelmaster, and any other software I’ve tried.
The RAW processing in PhotoLab 7 is better than Lightroom, and several tools, including noise reduction and sharpening, are way above most other competitors. I also love that you can customize the tools to make a workspace that suits your needs.
So, to sum it all up, I believe that PhotoLab 7 is the best Lightroom alternative. It outperforms it in several aspects.
On the fence if DxO PhotoLab 7 is the right choice for you? Then take advantage of their free 30-day trial! To access the best tools, I strongly suggest getting the Elite package.
DID YOU ENJOY THIS REVIEW? THEN DON’T FORGET TO GIVE IT A SHARE!