How much is quality determined by your camera's sensor and how much is determined by your software?

I have tried DXO Optics Pro on several occasions. The last full, elite download I did was version 4.2. DXO is now on version 9.x. I used DXO back in the days when we were shooting with a Nikon D2xs (12 megapixels) and it was the sharpest camera you could get your hands on unless you ventured into the rarified area of medium format digital. At the time I bought that version we were doing an ad campaign for a multi-national technology company and we were shooting people in clean rooms. It was important to use a very wide lens (at the time a 12-24 Nikon lens), get perfect geometry and perspective, shoot without supplemental lighting and control noise in the files. While the PhotoShop of the time did okay the trial of DXO I downloaded pretty much blew me away and clicked off every checkbox on my list of needed file improvements.

The only downside of the program back then was the excruciating slowness in processing images on the computers of the day. (No 64 bit, no multi-threading, less RAM, single core processors, etc.). The trade-off wasn't important in the situation at hand because there were things I just could not control. I had to shoot without lighting. I had to ramp up the ISO past my usual safety settings and I had to count on a lens that needed some help on the edges and in the corners. But after we successfully completed that job the slowness of the program took its toll and I gradually stopped using it while the Adobe products continued to improve.

Last Thurs. I did a job in the studio for two ad agencies. The shoot required me to photograph a very good actor, on a white background, in a series of funny outfits and with fun props. The shots were from head to toe. I used my GH4 and the 25mm 1.4 Panasonic. I chose the lens both because it is known to be a very good performer and it was also just the right focal length for the project. This was an important job because I was working with a new ad agency for the first time and also working with a second agency that is one of my all time favorite Austin shops. Everyone loved what we were seeing on the screen and we all patted each other on the back for how smooth and trouble free the project had been.

As the agency people were packing up the props I asked my main contact how they wanted the files. I am certain we had discussed that the images would be used mostly on the web. They were also doing the masking so I just assumed that they might want to wait around for twenty minutes or so and I would hand them a memory stick full of images and be largely done with the project. And that's when it happened.

The head honcho from the front agency casually mentioned that they should probably just make selects from a web gallery since the final files needed to be big. (Big? Really? for the web?). It seems that in the time between talking to me about the job and finalizing it everyone decided that it would be really great to do a series of four posters with the shots. Not small posters either, but real 24 by 36 inch posters. Of course I smiled and told them I'd get right on that web gallery. I waved as they all drove away and then I had a crisis of confidence. Had I royally screwed up by switching to the smaller system? Would the files have been remarkably better had I stayed with the full frame cameras? Yikes. Creeping anxiety. What was I thinking when I made the "all or nothing" plunge into the smaller sensor cameras? And what would I tell my blog audience after having strutted around like an expert espousing the charms of the Panasonic GH series cameras?

I looked at the files in Lightroom 5.5 at 100 % and, while it may have been my over active imagination they did look a little soft to me. Maybe a bit less detail than I had been used to with the files from the Sony a99. I fretted about it all day yesterday. I went ahead and did the web gallery and it looked great. Of course it did, the files were 2000 pixels on the long side....

Then, this morning at swim practice the letters "D" "X" "O" popped  into my head and I relaxed just a little bit. I'd go and down load the program and see if it was as good as I remembered it. I reconciled myself to the expenditure of another $269 to get the new version and I pulled out the credit card. I logged in and hit the "buy" button for the Elite Version and the menu told me that as a previous purchaser I was eligible to upgrade for only $69.

I couldn't hit the keys fast enough. Once I had the program and the modules for the Panasonic camera and lens loaded I went through the whole image fine tuning process with one of the raw files. Once the process was completed I was looking at a file that was much sharper, smoother and happier than the full frame files I'd been pulling from the Sony cameras in Lightroom. The GH4 files yielded absolutely wonderful files that stood up well at 100%. Clearly better than previous generations of cameras I'd owned.

The final test was to output the improved file from DXO and to open it in PhotoShop so I could res it up to 9000 pixels on the long side and see how that looked. I tried several different resizing protocols and all of them were more than satisfactory. I may investigate some other enlarging programs but I am very happy with the look and feel of the file and will sleep well tonight.

DXO is not a program I'd want to use to process batches of images. It's still just too slow on my computers. But once a client narrows their take down to the top five or ten images the amount of control in the program is amazing. The images I put through were significantly better than what I was seeing in Lightroom and Photoshop. While I'm sure there are people out there who are such PS masters that they could replicate the look I am also certain it would take a lot of time and effort. Much more than the investment of $69 and a half hour learning curve.

I am even more satisfied with my GH4. I feel as though the camera can handle literally any photo job I come up against with the right handling in the right software.

Now, this is not to say that running the files from a Nikon D800 or Canon 5Dmk3 wouldn't result in even better images. But if I am happy with poster sized photographs from my camera of choice then the software engineers have done their job and the Panasonic folks have done their job by providing data files with enough information potential that, once unlocked, makes the camera wonderful.

Just an observation on a Saturday afternoon.


Frank Grygier said...

DXO Pro with the new Lightroom plugin is the core of my M43 workflow.

David Garth said...

What are the advantages of the GH4 over a D800 in a studio setting? If you shoot much in the studio, why did you switch?

Kirk Tuck said...

Frank, why we're you holding out on me? I want the good workflow too.

Kirk Tuck said...

David, I never shot with the 800 other than to test one. The Gh4 is a much better video camer and the focus vis a vis the Nikon is more consistently accurate.

ajcarr said...

Kirk: When you export from DxO, you can select the image size you want, and it will upsample for you. I don't know how it compares to the two leading resizing programs, PhotoZoom Pro and Perfect Resize (formerly Genuine Fractals), or even to Photoshop, but I doubt if DxO have been sloppy in their implementation.

You should also look at things like perspective control in DxO, and also their latest noise reduction technique (you can only preview its effect on a postage-stamp-sized sample of your image, due to the processor power required).

If you buy DxO FilmPack, that provides you with conversions to all sorts of (measured and analysed) film emulsions. FilmPack also comes with plug-ins for Photoshop and Aperture (the latter now being rather redundant).

By the way, nice photo: beautiful tones.

John Krill said...

Thanks for the heads-up. I'm downloading the 30 day trail right now. I need to know if it works with my Dell laptop. If everything is OK will purchase the standard version.

Currently they have a special going on and DXO is just $99 through July 15. I have to assume it's for the standard version. That's all I need anyway for what I have and what I plan to purchase within the next year.

This should be fun.

Frank Grygier said...

Import raw to DXo. Let the magic happen. Export DNG to LR and sprinkle on the fairy dust.

Kirk Tuck said...

Sounds just right to me.

Carlo Santin said...

I find the DxO sims to be camera and lens dependent. By that I mean that some sensors respond differently to the sims. It's very much hit and miss with my Sony Nex 6 files, sometimes the sims are wonderful other times they look rather poor. But on my little Nikon V1 DxO seems to do a stellar job. I'm not using the most recent version...or maybe I just don't know what I'm doing. That's been my experience though. I have spent a good deal of time cooking up some presets in Lightroom and I'm often happier with those than what DxO gives me.

Corwin Black said...

DxO currently has one of best (if not best) noise reducing algorithms. It takes a lot of time per file, but results are nothing short of amazing.

Otherwise its pretty good software all around, didnt feel too slow on my PC. Apart that NR. Tho one might want to do sharpening in another pass than that special NR of theirs, unless they fixed it (it did "maze" effect, when both NR and sharpening was on).

Anonymous said...

"The images I put through were significantly better than what I was seeing in Lightroom and Photoshop. "

Well, no comment on the perpetual mFT vs. FF debate/squabble, but it's not really much of a secret (or at least it shouldn't be) that one doesn't need to be an Adobebot to have a fully satisfying life within digital photography and videography. There's a vibrant, colourful world outside the Adobesphere, too.

Apart from DxO there's CaptureOne and some others, and even Aperture hasn't gone anywhere, yet, despite the recent news. Then there are apps like OnOne Perfect Photo Suite 8 and a few others.
On video side it's even easier, as we've got FCPX, Avid, Lightworks, Motion, DaVinci, Film Convert, Red Giant, etc, etc.

The marketing might of Adobe is very strong, they're almost like Microsoft in their heyday, but they are not the only option, not even for professionals. Unless one chooses to be an Adobebot.

In other words, one should not underestimate the power of the Dark Side. Therefore congratulations Kirk, for finding a way out, and welcome to the Bright Side. May the Force guide with you. ;-)

CaptureOne 7 Pro seems to be on sale now, too...

Edward Richards said...

With the controlled lighting, you should be able to take your settings and apply them to all the images. Then go get a cup of coffee and when you get back, they are done. If you output them as TIFF or DNG, you can then do lightroom tweaks if you need to.

It is more tedious if you have to do different DXO settings for each image, but I doubt it is as tedious as doing it in PS.

DXO will really make your Sony Rx10 images sing - I use it with my Rx100.

Racecar said...

The detail and resolution of digital cameras is astounding. To achieve the same results during the film era, one had to employ a 4X5 camera or larger. DXO seems to squeeze every last drop of resolution out of these fine sensors. We are only limited by the quality and sharpness of our lenses after all. Glad you got a good night's sleep Kirk.

Joseph Kashi said...

I agree with Racecar. DXO 9.5.1 is superb used in conjunction with Lightroom.

The level of crisp detail that I see using an Olympus E-M5 and Oly 12-40 zoom, pre-processed with DXO and final processing in Lightroom, is as good or better than what I obtained with 4x5 C41 sheets and modern lenses.

I overrode DXO's default slight lens sharpness -.50 degradation setting and found that the resulting exports seemed almost too sharp - the results appeared harsh in some cases, despite the absence of sharpening artifacts and the absence of halos.

Bayer // Old Dog said...

I've stumbled on your article at ZITE this morning and boy, how glad I am for that.

I've just purchased DXO Optics 9, and I using it with a Nikon D3200 (APS-C sensor). Even photos taken with the Samyang 85mm 1.4 at full aperture gets very sharp after running in DXO (and keep in mind that this a manual focus lens, so any help is welcome in the sharpen department).

After the combo DXO Pro + Lightroom plugin, and now I feel like a have a new camera.

jlemile salvignol said...

DXO is the ideal partner for small sensors, like those of Nikon 1, this to basically:

- Optimize sharpness,or can y say acutance?
- Control noise with Prime (slow but very very effective.

My workflow is oriented towards a TIFF output from DXO to CC. Than images are - if necessary - converted into smart object in CC and all useful adjustments are performed in a "special smart filter" called ... ACR! That's all.

Gábor Metzker said...

DxO looked nice in the ads, so the other day a tried DxO because I have an ancient Nikon D2H and wanted to see what it can do with that camera's noisy files, but DxO doesn't support it. Cannot even open NEFs from it.
I just say be aware of RAW files older than a couple of years old, you may not open them later...
...at least not in every software.

RawTherapee opens and edits everything. But it's as slow as DxO :)

Honeybadger said...

Welcome back to DXO. I've been using it as my RAW converter for years, and it keeps getting better. I believe 'View Point 2' is also on sale now. Yes Photoshop can straighten out keystone lines, etc, but none as good as DXO. With the supercharged noise reduction filter in DXO, I can shoot my Oly OMD-1 at 3200 iso and it looks darrrrn good.

Anonymous said...

"DXO will really make your Sony Rx10 images sing"

You'd better be right about that, Edvard, because your comment just cost me $99. ;-)

Timur Born said...

Thanks for the article and sharing your professional experience!

DxO's demosaicing can get more extremely fine details out of M43 raw files compared to Lightroom. You need to watch out for some artifacts where it may introduce vertical stripes at 100% that do not exist in the original. Moire, or rather how DxO's filters affect it, can also be a problem. I do have to check out the latest version, though, maybe things improved. Watch out for that "Remove dead pixels" filter, it can get funky.

Personally I'd also pull down the default "Lens softness" settings considerably to protect finely detailed texture.

In those cases where DxO introduces artifacts and LR doesn't deliver enough fine detail you can try Raw Therapee, which gets you the detail of DxO without the artifacts. Main drawback may be the lack of a color profile for your camera(s).

LR can be tricked to demosaic without the deliberate blurring, but you likely will get labyrinth patterns in return instead of true details.

Here is a bunch of old comparison images that gives you an idea, especially image 8, 12, 1 and 15.