Raw Converter Shootout Part #5b – DXO, Lightroom and Exposure X3

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Last time I took a look at Photolemur. This time, I’m looking at Lightroom, DXO and Exposure X3. This section looks at their general usage and at their specific strengths and weaknesses.

Interface

All three have a remarkably similar interface as you can see from this comparison:

Raw Converter Interfaces

DXO

DXO

ExposureX3

ExposureX3

Lightroom

Lightroom

They all use a set of panels for viewing images. In both Lightroom and Exposure X3 you can choose to display the full image or the tumbnails in the centre panel when in browsing mode. DXO always puts the thumbnails in the bottom panel, but you can drag it across to a second monitor.

In both DXO and Lightroom you have to choose to go into full edit mode by selecting Develop (Lightroom) or Customize (DXO). In Exposure X3 (X3 from now on) you can work on the selected image directly and double clicking makes it fill the central panel.

Both Lightroom and X3 allow you to view two images side by side. X3 goes further and you can compare up to six images at a time. DXO is one image at a time only.

Using them as an Image browser

Lightroom insists that images are imported into its database (or catalogue) before they can be browsed. Therefore you cannot use it as a simple image browser. The import step takes time as Lightroom builds previews of the image and can perform various operations, such as making a backup copy of the image, moving the image to a new location and so forth.

DXO’s browsing is limited in that the bottom panel is the only place where image thumbnails can be seen. It’s better placed on a second monitor, if you have one, although it feels weird selecting the image folder on the main screen and browsing on the secondary one. Loading the thumbnail images is quite fast but not instantaneous. Loading a large folder is quite slow…

X3 is by far the fastest browser of the three and is very configurable. However, you do need to tell it which folders you are interested in. It doesn’t show the usual Windows File Browser. I like this. I usually keep my images in a limited set of top level folders and it’s good to not have to see all the irrelevant folders cluttering up the display.

One important thing to remember with Lightroom is that is uses a database… Therefore, for Lightroom to keep track of an image you must use Lightroom when moving  the image to a new folder. If you move it using Windows Explorer or any other tool, Lightroom will lose track of it. You can be sort this out later on, but it’s painful.

X3 and DXO don’t use a database but store information (such as development settings) in sidecar files. DXO uses the same folder and X3 creates a subfolder. Of course, if you move the file in Lightroom then the sidecar file wont go with it and you’ll lose the development settings unless you move the sidecar file yourself. Again, this can be painful.

The moral of this story is to either only use one tool or to get your folder structure right so that images don’t need to be moved around too much, if at all.

Image Import

Lightoom has a sophisticated import facility which is (usually) clever enough to be able to exclude images already in its catalogue. I usually import directly off the SD Card. Lightroom can rename the files, add copyright information and keywords and import copy the pictures to a folder of my choice.

DXO has no image import facility – you have to manually copy images to their target folders using another tool or Windows Explorer.

X3, like Lightroom, copies images from a memory card, renames them and applies meta data to them. It is much faster than Lightroom but it is doing much less.  It has no catalogue to maintain and no clever preview images to build.

Presets

All three tools come with preset processing settings that can be applied to an image. I rarely use them as they often don’t do what I want them to and the results look poor. All three tools, however, allow you to create your own presets and this is much more useful, especially when working on a set of similar images.

Unique features/Extras

Lightroom

Lightroom is a mature product and is jam packed with features that go way above and beyond image processing. Here’s a short list of what it can do:

  • Full Digital Asset Management
  • Search for and filter images with comprehensive set of functions. I find that being able to see how many images I took with each camera and lens (including focal lengths of zoom lenses) is useful, even if it’s only so I can decide whether to keep or sell it!
  • You can see where your images were taken on a map, assuming they are GEO tagged
  • Create a book from your images using Blurb or as a PDF file.
  • Generate slide shows that can be saved as a movie, complete with sound
  • Print images
  • Create web galleries
  • Create an HDR image from two or more exposures*
  • Create a panorama from two or more exposures*
  • Synchronise your images to the Cloud so that you can work on them using Lightroom Mobile

*Lightroom offers a very basic implementation of HDR and panorama creation. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t. It is certainly better than nothing, but dedicated tools for these tasks usually do better.

DXO

DXO is a purist tool that has no extra bells and whistles. You can’t use it to create slideshows or build a website. It does one thing and it does it extremely well – it processes your images and really brings out the best in them.

Just look at this example:

DXO is sharp
DXO Is Sharp

This image is a crop shown at 100%. I processed it in Lightroom from an NX300 shot using the 16mm prime lens. It’s a very sharp lens. I applied sharpening in Lightroom. However, the little inset image is the same photo that I processed in DXO – just look how much sharper this is! You can see the two tiny people clearly whereas they blur together in the Lightroom version.

DXO’s ‘unique’ feature is that is does everything really well and, sometimes, better than the others.

Its standout features are:

  • Camera/lens specific sharpening. If it supports your camera and lens then it will bring out the details! Just see the image above!
  • Prime Noise Reduction – simply the best noise reduction around.
  • Clearview – This is DXO’s implementation of ‘Clarity’. It cuts through haze really well.
  • Smart Lighting – DXO is able to balance the lighting in an image and correct the exposure.
  • Local edits – I will cover these below.

Exposure X3

This tool is relatively new to the RAW processing scene but it brings with it plenty of extras from its days as a photo effects tool.

These are its standout extras:

  • Film emulation. There are many presets that make your image look like it was captured on film. The Infrared Presets are particularly good. DXO does have a Film Pack add on that can also emulate films but it has to be purchased separately.
  • Film grain. Whereas digital noise is plain ugly, high ISO films would have a textured, grainy, look that in the right circumstances looked really good. You can add grain to your image using X3.
  • Image printing with a full set of adjustment parameters such as print specific sharpening.

Local Editing

One of the reasons tools like Photoshop are so popular is that you can edit selected areas of the image without affecting the rest of it. The earliest RAW converters would apply the changes to the whole image. In those days I would just do a very basic development in the RAW converter and then head to Photoshop do do the rest.

Actually, this is still a good strategy but there is something to be said for a tool that enables you to do all of the work without the fuss (and expense) of using another program. These days, of course, a Lightroom CC subscription comes with a Photoshop licence, so if you have the one you have the other.

Photolemur supports local editing behind the scenes and DXO has only recently added it. Let’s see how the three tools being considered in this post perform local edits.

DXO

DXO recently acquired the NIK photo software package from Google and have wasted no time in bringing in a really special feature – U Point selections. If you’ve made selections in Photoshop you will know that, depending on the image, it can be a time consuming and tricky process. Photoshop has all the tools you need, but you have to work quite hard to get the selection correct.

With DXO/U Point you just click in areas of the image and it cleverly selects them with astonishing accuracy. Then, you adjust the RAW development settings for that selection. You just make a new selection to exclude an area from receiving those adjustments. It really is that simple. If you have used NIK Viveza then you know how good this tech is.

Currently you can adjust the following in DXO locally:

  • Exposure
  • Contrast
  • Microcontrast
  • Clearview
  • Highlights
  • Midtones
  • Shadows
  • Blacks
  • Vibrancy
  • Saturation
  • Temperature
  • Tint
  • Hue
  • Sharpness
  • Blur

In addition, DXO features an automask facility and a graduated filter, all of which support the same adjustments.

Exposure X3

Unique to X3 is that it supports layers. Photoshop users will be used to them and it’s good to see a tool incorporate them into their software. X3’s implementation of layers isn’t a full or as detailed or as complicated as Photoshop’s. In some ways, that’s a good thing.

If you are new to layers, think of it this way. Imagine you had the same image printed on several sheets of a clear materia, such as glass or plastic. If you stack them all together the image look the same.

However, if you change one of those sheets, maybe altering a colour on it, it will affect the look of th image. If you change a different sheet it will also change the look of the image without undoing the chage on the first sheet you altered.

In X3, to do a local edit, you create a new layer, select the brush tool, select a preset or an adjustment value (such as brightness) and just paint it onto your image. You then add a new layer when you make a different change to part of the image.

The interface allows you to control how much of the change affects layers above it and you have a high level of control over the result.

That almost all the presets and adjustments can be done locally via layers and the brush tool is really good. You can correct mistakes by using the eraser brush. Everything is very configurable. You have complete control. I don’t think it’s as easy to use as DXO but you have such control over the outcome. Certainly, if you like Photoshop then you’ll like this.

You can also visit Exposure’s support website to view video tutorials of these features in action.

Lightroom

Lightroom provides local adjustment. The following settings can be adjusted locally:

Lightroom-adjustments

It does so using three methods:

  • Graduated filter
  • Radial filter
  • Brush

Brush is simple enough – as with X3 you just pain on the effect. Note the New mask button top right – this ensures that different effects can be painted over each other. You use the eraser brush to correct errors.

Graduated filter also works as expected.

The radial filter is a bit different. Lightrooms support website states:

The Radial Filter allows you to apply selective adjustments to photographs in interesting ways.

This is wonderfully obscure – what exactly does interesting mean? It was primarily introduced to all you to create off-centre vignettes but it can also be used to select any circular or elliptical area of the image and appy effects to it or to  the area that wasn’t selected. I’d classify this tool as ‘nice to have’ but not one I would use a lot.

Summary

All three converters have a good set of options that go beyond basic RAW processing. Lightroom probably has the widest selection of tools, including building web galleries and books.

All three have their own approach to local editing. DXO is the easiest to use, X3 is probably the most sophisticated as it has support for layers and Lightroom is also very decent.

Lightroom has the additional feature of a database for Digital Asset Management. Some view this as a plus and some as a minus. It certainly slows down image imports and Lightroom is quite slow as an image viewer/browser. It’s not the best tool for viewing and assessing a large number of images. I would use X3 for that.

DXO is the best RAW converter of the three if it supports your camera and lens. Although, you probably wouldn’t actually see the difference in the final result unless you pixel peep at 100% or make a massive print…

Next I’ll look at the Smart Photo Editor and Luminar and then I’ll show the final image that each converter produced…

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Image Resizing

The best image resize program is Topaz A.I.Gigapixel

Image sharpening & noise reduction

Topaz A.I.Sharpen can not only sharpen images but correct slightly out of focus and blurred images.

Topaz A.I.Clear both sharpens and removes noise. It is the best noise reduction program around.

Photoshop and Lightroom Alternatives

Exposure X4 is the best alternative to Lightroom as far as image browsing and management goes. It is also a decent RAW converter and image editor.

Affinity Photo is the complete Photoshop replacement.

RAW Development

Skylum Luminar is a full featured RAW converter with a basic image browser. Its shadow recovery is the best in the business.

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Photo Ninja is a purists RAW converter. It is not as fully featured as the others but it produces some of the best results, especially if you are prepared to build camera profiles.