The original image:
Producing this image took no effort on my part at all – Photolemur just did its thing and produced a very decent result. In particular, it is noise free, has pulled a lot of detail out of the shadow areas and has not overexposed the highlights. The colours are natural.
However, there is still a need to process this a little further for the final result – it could be more saturated and needs extra sharpening before it could be printed.
But it’s a great effort and if this was part of a batch process of maybe hundreds of images, it would save a huge amount of time.
DXO Photo Lab
DXO gave me complete control over the result and had produced a richly saturated and superbly detail photo. I used its Prime Noise Reduction and, although it takes a lot of time to process the image, the result was worth it. The original image had some noise in it and DXO removed that entirely. No matter how much I pushed the processing settings, DXO simply refused to add noise to the result.
DXO sharpens images in a way that none of the others can and, even though I was only using it’s automatic sharpening settings, it has done the best job of all the tools when it comes to detail.
Maybe the shadows could have had more detail pulled from them…
Lightroom’s result is closer to Photolemur than to DXO. Where I struggled was that if I pushed the settings any further then noise was introduced. It’s a decent enough result but I would have to finish it off in another tool. It’s not got anything like as much detail in it as DXO’s.
As chance would have it, Luminar was updated whilst I was preparing this page. I reprocessed the image and found that it had improved from the previous version in terms of sharpening and noise reduction. I used a local Structure brush on the mountains to bring out their detail without affecting the rest of the image and its Polarising filter to deepen the sky.
It’s result is similar to Photolemur’s and it has recovered a similar amount of shadow detail. I was able to push the saturation a little more as well.
Try as I might, I could not pull out details from the shadows without them losing too much contrast. I used its Layers implementation to adjust the sky and the mountains. It’s not a bad result but it needs better shadow recovery to work with this sort of image.
The Smart Photo Editor
As with X3, SPE has not been able to pull out as much shadow detail as Luminar and Photolemur. Actually, nothing competes with them for shadow detail.
The SPE is such a full and varied tool that I could have easily produced 20 very different and very acceptable results. It has a wealth of options. In the end, I chose to manually adjust the shadows and colours and used its DeNoise, Subtle Sharpen and Vibrance effects. It’s a good result.
The bottom line
It is not easy to decide which tool is best and, with the exception of Photolemur, my skills at image processing were being tested as much as the software. And it is very subjective – what I like others may not!
None of the tools have produced a bad result. Photolemur and Luminar’s ability to pull detail out of the shadows is impressive. It is, of course, a matter of taste whether you prefer an image to be evened out or to remain very contrasty. There’s no right or wrong here.
A factor to always be considered is that of cost – if a tool is too expensive then it doesn’t matter how good it is. So here are the prices, as of July 2018:
- Lightroom: From £9.98 GBP every month (so about £120 GBP annually)
- DXO Photo Lab (elite): £119.99 GBP
- Photolemur: £20.88
- Luminar: £64
- Exposure X3: $149 USD
- Smart Photo Editor: £19.95 GBP
There is quite a range of prices. Lightroom’s price is a subscription – you pay this monthly, forever, or Lightroom stops working. However, the price does include Photoshop…
The others are a one off price, but it is usual for them to issue a new ‘major’ (i.e. you pay for it) version annually with the upgrade price being discounted (usually by about 50%).
The pros and cons of Adobe’s subscription model have been debated at length on the Internet and whether you like it or not, they are not going to change it in the foreseeable future. For your £120 a year you get a lot – Lightroom, Mobile Lightroom, Photoshop, some Cloud storage and the ability to sync Lightroom edits between your PC and Tablet.
Then again, even if you purchase one of the more expensive tools such as DXO or X3 and upgrade these bi-annually, the Adobe subscription is still more expensive.
Anyhow, here’s my conclusions:
Best RAW converter: DXO
Best Batch Processor: Photolemur
Best Image Browser: Exposure X3
Best Interface: Luminar
Best Feature Set: Lightroom
Best Cloud Integration: Lightroom
There is no ‘one size fits all’ tool that will provide every image editing feature you need. Lightroom’s Digital Asset Management features, its ability to produce slideshows and web galleries and books and its Cloud integration are worth the price alone, IMHO. Most of the other tools recognise this and integrate seamlessly with it.
Exposure X3 is the main alternative as far as Digital Asset Management is concerned. It is a far faster and generally better image browser than Lightroom. If they can get the shadow detail recovery up to scratch then its RAW processing abilities will also be competitive.
For batch processing there is only one choice – Photolemur. Its ability to analyse an image and provide very decent, tailored, enhancements is impressive indeed. As was shown in my review of Photolemur, when combined with DXO, Photolemur’s conversions are even better…
For sheer RAW conversion quality, DXO is the best. It produces the sharpest images with the lowest noise of all these tools. Its local adjustments are also leading edge.
Luminar is a joy to work with – it has one of the best interfaces I’ve ever used and its results are very good. It also has a Polarisar filter implementation, which works really well.
The Smart Photo Editor is unique and its list of effects grows daily as its community of users share new ones.
When we take the prices into consideration, some of these tools are no-brainers, purchase wise. Photolemur and the Smart Photo Editor are so cheap (currently, at any rate) that I would get them without hesitation. Even if you only use them occasionally, they are great value.
The choice between DXO, Luminar and Exposure X3 is a little harder. None of them are seriously expensive and all bring their own unique features to the table. If you can afford to, I would get Lightroom or Exposure X3 and add DXO and/or Luminar.
DXO’s only weakness is that if it doesn’t support the camera you are using then it can’t do any RAW conversion. Even if you convert the RAW file to DNG it won’t process it. It will process a TIF from that camera but then it’s Prime Denoise and Camera-Lens corrections are unavailable.
Additionally, if it supports the camera but not the lens, then it can’t do the Camera-Lens corrections. You should check the DXO website to see if your camera and lenses are supported before making a purchase. True, DXO are very open to suggestions and usually do get around to adding the camera and lenses, but it’s not a rapid process from suggestion to implementation. Also, they just don’t support Fuji X-Trans sensors and don’t seem to be planning to do so in the near future.
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