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A Comparison Review of DxO Optics Pro 9 Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

23 October 2013

It was, as we expected it would be, an interesting briefing. DxO Optics Pro product manager Laurent Prost and DxO chief scientist Frederic Guichard introduced us to Optics Pro 9, announced early today, by explaining that recent gains in ISO sensitivity have been primarily via software.

As they calculated it, hardware advances since 2004 have accounted for a one stop improvement in high ISO performance while software has added two more stops. They claimed Optics Pro itself has managed three stops in that same period and with v9 will add yet another stop.

So while the sensor improvement from a Nikon D70 to a D5100 was 1.3 stops and from a Canon 300D to a 100D was 0.6 stops, JPEG denoising added two stops for the D5100 and 100D. The same improvement was seen in Raw converters.

Because these improvements are measured on high ISO images to begin with, they are not quite as compelling an improvement in image quality as simply a lower ISO image. But they are noticeable improvements.

TAKING THE CUFFS OFF | Back to Contents

The big tradeoff, though, was that to remove more noise, you need more processing time. Image quality was therefore limited to allow for faster processing.

So the team asked themselves what if they gave the software all the time in the world?

That gained them another stop compared to v8 (two compared to everyone else) at the price of about five minutes processing time.

Briefing. DxO chief scientist Guichard and Optics Pro product manager Prost at the briefing.

The benefits, they said, include:

  • The same level of detail minus digital noise
  • Preservation of color saturation, particular in the shadows
  • Texture preservation
  • A more pleasing image

DxO graciously explained how it all works, too.

The short version is that an initial crude denoising pass identifies similar pixels before resampling the original data in comparison with the similar pixels. A larger number similar pixels refines the result (each stop requires double the number of pixels) but takes longer to process. The crude pass helps identify a large number of similar pixels and the software takes as much time as it needs to process them.

Behind the scenes, the software evaluates over 1,000 "candidate" pixels to arrive at 16 similar pixels. A four-stop gain requires over 30 times more computations than a three-stop gain. So it takes about five minutes to process a 20-Mp images compared to about 10 seconds otherwise.

Result: a two stop gain over what your Raw processor can do.

That has significant implications for sport, night, concert, indoor and HDR photography, DxO Labs pointed out. And they call it DxO PRIME for Probabilistic Raw IMage Enhancement as a result.

But because it takes five minutes, it's also optional. In the Noise Reduction panel, a Quality option has two buttons: High and PRIME.

In Optics Pro 9, the Processing step has moved to the Export step, so you don't pay the processing time until you export your edits. Clicking the PRIME button, therefore, doesn't bring civilization to its knees.

But the PRIME option isn't always available. We tried it with a pre-release version of the software and noticed that it wasn't available for any JPEG we were working on. It requires a Raw file.

And it did take a few minutes, even for a 12-Mp image. Those few minutes were accompanied by the excited whirring of our MacBook Pro's fans, too, much as if we were encoding video. But we had the comfort of knowing the GPU was helping out.

We liked what we saw in the exports, so we sent Lightroom through our 50,000+ library with a Library Filter that looked for images shot at high ISO. Despite the restriction of early cameras, which were typically limited to ISO 400, we found quite a few. Lots of blow-out-the-candles birthday shots but some night shots and interiors we were glad we took.

WAIT, THERE'S MORE | Back to Contents

But there's more to Optics Pro 9 than PRIME. Here is the full list of highlights:

Image Quality Improvements

  • Denoising with DxO PRIME and Standard Denoising
  • Improved highlight recovery
  • Improved color rendering

Editing Improvements

  • Visual Presets
  • More efficient workspace


  • New export system
  • Improved workflow with external apps
  • Visual aids for beginners
  • New Mac interface

Our favorites among these are the new Mac interface, the revised workflow and the visual presets (which show a screen full of thumbnails rendered with any group of presets).

Mac Interface. More Mac-like.

But it's the new denoising, improved even if you don't opt for PRIME, that highlights Optics Pro 9. And while it makes impressive improvements to what you get from the camera, we were curious to find out how well it compared to the latest Photo Ninja and Adobe Camera Raw.

PRIME | Back to Contents

So how did PRIME do in comparison with in-camera processing, Adobe Camera Raw and Photo Ninja? We took a look.

A few notes first:

  • We worked on each Raw file independently, without referring to the output of the other image processing software. So we were just looking for the most pleasing image we could develop. That meant we were sliding those sliders back and forth, going too far and not far enough until we found the sweet spot.
  • DxO refers to the improvements in terms of stops to image quality. That's a little hard to eyeball. We tried to improve the overall brightness of the image so details could be discerned throughout without turning night into day. Then we tried to minimize noise (those grainy speckles) without losing detail.
  • The uncropped images is the Optics Pro 9 thumbnail. For a look at the grain pattern, a 100 percent crop from a part of the image including everything from deep shadows to highlights is provided below comparing several approaches. Note that the first "JPEG" image, which is quite dark, is the in-camera JPEG.

ACR. Optics Pro" "Uncropped image.

All of these Raw converters use sliders to change parameters. And sliders are the right control because you are often nudging a bit this way and that to optimize the effect. Data fields are made available but they aren't nearly as functional as just moving a slider.

As far as the controls themselves go, we found it easier to use Adobe Camera Raw's sliders. Both Photo Ninja and Optics Pro were shorter, making adjustments less precise.

Optics Pro does offer several presets for its sliders and an Auto option on some as well. And Camera Raw offers an Auto correction for all its sliders. On difficult images, Auto is often out of its league. And on the images that follow, we made our changes manually.

Our Nikon D3 image was shot at night using f4.5, 1/25 second and ISO 3200 at a 4.0 Light Value and 38mm focal length. Here's a 100 percent crop of the image, showing a full range of tones:

Here's a detail from another night shot, comparing just the in-camera JPEG (which would be the worst case) and Optics Pro 9. This was shot with a Nikon V1 using the 30-110mm zoom at 35mm and an exposure of f5.6 at 1/10 second and ISO 3200 with a 3.3 Light Value:

Optics Pro. Uncropped image.

So what did we learn from this? Optics Pro's PRIME processing handled the Night scene very nicely. We preferred it to the other approaches by a whisker. We see a slight improvement over the JPEG in the Bistro scene as well, with less noise in the colorful highlights.

A FEW MORE NOTES | Back to Contents

Standard denoising has been improved over v8 with finer grain and a less artificial default look with more detail. In the demo that was clearly visible, although the description doesn't do it justice. So we tried it on some Cologne cathedral interiors we took with a Nikon 990 at f2, 1/8 second, ISO 400 and a Light Value of 3.6 in 2006.

Optics Pro. Full image.

We also processed the 2006 JPEG in Photoshop CC using the Camera Raw Filter, which provided a significant improvement over previous options in Photoshop for reclaiming this image. As you can see from the original camera JPEG, there's not much there.

During the briefing, DxO showed improved highlight recovery of cloud detail in a stormy but overexposed sky. But it seemed to us as if data was being created rather than recovered in the example shot, losing contrast in the cloud cover to "recover" highlights. Better results were seen with blown-out skin tones in a concert shot, though, where smoother transitions made a more credible rendering.

Color rendering of skin tones has been improved (a bit less yellow) as well with saturated but natural colors, which are also used in new presets.

Visual Presets. Click the 'Apply Preset' button in the top right.

The Visual Presets tool, inspired by FilmPack 3, shows you a range of corrections. And there are 30 new presets sorted by type (portrait, landscape, black and white, moods, HDR) to pick from.

Export. Skip the Processing step of Optics Pro 8.

The new interface reorganizes things both across the top and bottom of the screen. Mac users should see a more OS X-like interface as well, something sorely lacking in previous versions. And indeed we liked the improved Mac interface. Widgets are still DxO-ish but it just felt like a smoother experience than previous versions.

The new export system automates the processing step, simplifying the workflow from edits straight to exports. Other small tweaks have been made to inter-application use, too.

Help. Click the '?' to see the Help text for any panel.

For new users, the essential tools have been grouped together with the advanced tools below them, easily accessible but out of the way. This is the way Lightroom works, scrolling up or down to the panel you need, rather than Camera Raw, where a click takes you to a clean panel.

Help is also nicely integrated into the tool palettes. Just click on the question mark in the top right corner and the panel expands with some text to explain things, staying out of the image's way. The example illustrated here explains luminance and chrominance noise reduction.


The Standard and Elite editions of DxO Optics Pro 9 for Mac and Windows are now available in the DxO Labs line store ( and at photo resellers at a special discount through Nov. 20:

United States:

  • DxO Optics Pro 9 Standard Edition: $99 instead of $169
  • DxO Optics Pro 9 Elite Edition: $199 instead of $299

Great Britain (suggested retail prices, including VAT):

  • DxO Optics Pro 9 Standard Edition: £79 instead of £119
  • DxO Optics Pro 9 Elite Edition: £159 instead of £239

Europe (suggested retail prices, including VAT):

  • DxO Optics Pro 9 Standard Edition: €99 instead of €149
  • DxO Optics Pro 9 Elite Edition: €199 instead of €299

Photographers who acquired a DxO Optics Pro 8 license on or after Sept. 1, are entitled to a free upgrade to version 9. Other customers can benefit from a special discount on their upgrade directly from their customer account through Nov. 20.

A fully-functional trial version of DxO Optics Pro 9, good for one month, is available on the DxO Labs Web site.


We appreciate the improved workflow that folds the Processing step into Export. And we applaud the new Mac interface.

There are still a few interface tweaks to be made to the interface. The obscure Auto tool for Noise Reduction Luminance (to the right of the Luminace slider) could be more obvious. And sometimes the correction preview became blurred. But it doesn't feel like a foreign application any more.

PRIME did appear to improve our Raw images. We might have done even better if the interface had held up.

One of the surprises of this test, though, was how well the Camera Raw filter did with normal JPEG images. We seemed to make a better image with it than with the improved standard denoising of Optics Pro 9, which is nothing to sneeze at itself.

We used to wonder if we were nuts taking photos at ISO 400 in near darkness. And others at ridiculously noising high ISOs. If your focus is strictly on the hardware, you'd confirm that diagnosis. But software never stops improving. And Optics Pro 9 promises new life for images you otherwise may have given up on. More importantly, it promises new frontiers behind the lens in more challenging situations.

And we're not just making noise.


Very interesting article, thank you. I haven't used any DxO products so far, but I'm interested in Optics Pro 9, even though I still don't fully appreciate its qualities. I have been an enthusiastic amateur for years and always subscribed to the 'don't go above 400 ISO' philosophy. Having finally managed to buy a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, I have been staggered at the quality I'm achieving at 3200 ISO, although my choice would always be to reduce the ISO if possible.

More articles on ISO would certainly be of interest to me.

-- Kevin Ball

Thanks for the kind words, Kevin. And great idea on the ISO story.

Having learned photography with film, it's hard to think of ISO as an exposure variable. We learned it was an exposure factor but a constant, not a variable. In the digital era, it's a very useful variable.

One way to get used to it is to let the camera pick it. Every camera has an Auto ISO function and many let you set the upper limit. That can make your aperture or shutter speed selections more successful. And it can make that f4 constant aperture long zoom a lot more practical than it is at ISO 400.

But image processing software can do even more impressive things once the image leaves the camera.

One consequence of writing the Optics Pro 9 review was seeing just how well Photo Ninja and Adobe Camera Raw did with the images. Detail didn't disappear as the grain was smoothed away.

But as we wrapped up the review, we felt there was more to say about the subject. So thanks for the nudge!

-- Mike

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