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From Lightroom to PhotoLab

March 17, 2018 at 7:00 PM


Adobe Lightroom Now Subscription Only

In the past, Adobe was committed to offering a stand-alone, perpetually-licenced version of Lightroom that you could buy, own and optionally upgrade. This is no longer the case; we now only have Creative Cloud subscription options. The last stand-alone version of Lightroom was version 6 released in spring 2015.

Lightroom Subscription Options

There are currently two Creative Cloud versions of Lightroom - Lightroom CC and Lightroom CC Classic. Lightroom CC is a truncated, cloud-based system, and Lightroom CC Classic is the latest version of Lightroom as we knew it in version 6 - a desktop version for your own PC or Mac.

The Issue

Whilst it might not sound unreasonable to subscribe at £9.99/ month for Lightroom CC Classic, it's far more costly than buying and upgrading the owned software used to be - but that ultimately isn't the issue.

The real issue with the subscription model is that Adobe intends to further develop the cloud-based option, Lightroom CC, until it has nearer the full functionality of Lightroom CC Classic, and that at some stage, development of the Classic version might stop and subscribers would be forced to migrate to the cloud-based version. Topically, the February update for Lightroom CC Classic has a new feature to convert your local folder structure into "Collections" - something that would be necessary if migrating to the cloud-based version.

Adobe has said that they are committed to maintaining the Classic version, but they said that about the stand-alone version and changed their mind.

Some won't be fazed by the idea of the subscription model and totally cloud-based image file storage at £9.99 per TB. Others will want to buy and own software and store their image files locally.


Some months ago, I began trialling alternatives to Lightroom so I would have something to recommend to clients as an alternative to the Adobe subscription model. Together with some opensource options, the list included Skylum Luminar, ON1 Photo RAW, Corel Aftershot, Alien Skin Exposure, DxO PhotoLab, Capture One, ACDSee Photo Studio and Affinity Photo.

The latter was more of a graphics editor, like Photoshop, and although I kept an open mind, I still concluded that such pixel-based editors, while they may have their uses, are over-complicated and a deprecated approach in comparison to dedicated RAW development software.

Most of the offerings seemed either incomplete, clunky or had unsatisfactory RAW development that lacked detail and colour accuracy. And ON1 Photo RAW wouldn't run on my laptop, so that was easily dismissed. Capture One and DXO PhotoLab however, proved to be excellent offerings. I eventually dismissed Capture One for being expensive (£299) and having a steep learning curve. This left DxO PhotoLab, which I instantly loved and kept returning back to as I dismissed the rest.

DxO PhotoLab

I had always liked OpticsPro, but with no local adjustment tools, I considered it incomplete as a stand-alone RAW developer. DxO PhotoLab is basically OpticsPro 11 with the addition of local adjustment tools - at last!

There are two versions - Essentials at £99 and Elite at £159. There are also additional modules - The ViewPoint pack at £59, FilmPack Essentials at £59 and FilmPack Elite at £99. PhotoLab and both modules are available as a discounted package called DxO Photo Suite with Essentials and Elite versions. And there are periodic discounts on the cost of the individual options too.

For most, I would recommend buying the Elite version. The ViewPoint module is for perspective and lens distortion corrections, and the FilmPack is for advanced black and white developments - both quite specialist applications that you could add later if required.


You're first asked to download a lab-developed profile for your camera and lens combination. With this, PhotoLab corrects the imperfections for that specific sensor and lens pairing at the focal length recorded in the image's EXIF data.

Images are then intelligently analysed and corrections are adapted accordingly for exposure, dynamic range, microcontrast, chromatic aberration and more. All this takes place automatically, courtesy of DxO's Standard preset when viewing the image and without having to do anything yourself.  You can also create custom presets and have them applied on import instead of the DxO Standard.

With the objective developments mostly done before you start editing, this just leaves you to do the more interesting subjective enhancements and local adjustments.

PhotoLab's RAW processing engine delivers superb image quality which surpasses that of Lightroom. Sharpness and noise reduction are excellent as standard, but the Elite version comes with DxO's legendary PRIME noise reduction, which does an incredible job with high ISO images.


PhotoLab has a plethora of powerful tools to develop your images, some of which are duplicated under different "Pallets". Optionally, you can switch off pallets you don't use, and you can create your own user pallets of tools if you wish.

Of particular interest are Smart Lighting, Selective Tone and ClearView (the latter only available in the Elite version).

Smart Lighting works with an analysis algorithm to set its slider parameters for each image. Its function is to compress and optimise the dynamic range of an image, recovering highlights, brightening shadows and bringing out tonal contrasts - and it works very effectively.

Selective Tone allows accurate and powerful exposure adjustment for highlights, midtones, shadows and blacks.

ClearView locally analyses each image. It reconstitutes the black point and intelligently increases vibrancy and large-scale contrast whilst reducing haze. And it's particularly effective on landscapes. It's a powerful tool that can quickly add contrast, detail and drama to your image.

These tools have been very well implemented. They are easy to use and very powerful. In fact, you can easily achieve a heavily tone-mapped HDR look to a single RAW image using Smart Lighting, ClearView and Microcontrast in seconds!


Meet the full PhotoLab Interface. It's fully customisable. Here I've put the histogram on the left panel rather than it's default top-right, but you can do much more.

Local Adjustment Tools

DxO bought Nik Software and incorporated its U-Point technology into OpticsPro to finally equip their highly-esteemed RAW development software with local adjustments. PhotoLab is now a complete and very competent stand-alone RAW developer, as well as a Lightroom plugin (more on that later).

Simply right-click on your image and you get a roundel offering a choice of local adjustment options comprising of a brush selection, graduated filter, control point, auto-selection and a selection eraser. The tools are very intuitive and user-friendly.

Control Point: My favourite, and different than anything I've seen before, is the control point. The control point tool has a small centre circle and an adjustable outer circle which defines the boundary of the area to be affected. The colour and tone of where you place the centre circle defines the colour and tone of what is affected by the adjustments you choose.

On placing the control point, as with the other local adjustments, an equaliser-style tool desk pops up (see screenshot above) offering several adjustments including exposure, contrast, saturation etc - even ClearView. You can add more selection circles to each control point and, by pressing the Alt key, de-select any areas being affected by unwanted adjustments using a new control point to define colour and tone.

This tool quickly and easily allows you to deploy area selection with both luminance and colour filtering / masking.

Ease of Use

As stated above, PhotoLab performs lens, sensor and other intelligently derived changes on viewing the image. Take a minute to adjust SmartLighting and add some ClearView, and some people would stop there - very easy for beginners. There's also a range of preset "looks" with previews including black and white, HDR and more.

For the more experienced, there are tools aplenty! Selective tone, contrast, microcontrast, white balance, saturation, vibrancy, HSL, colour rendering, cropping, levelling - the list goes on.

And with the excellent local adjustment tools being so quick and easy to deploy, PhotoLab is indeed both powerful and easy to use.

Compared to Lightroom

There are some similarities between Lightroom and PhotoLab. The interface is similar, and some of the tools have similarities. But development with PhotoLab is simply more effective at delivering great images!

PhotoLab's SmartLighting and ClearView deliver depth, contrast, vibrancy, detail and overall interest to an image that Lightroom simply cannot achieve. And it does it with little time and effort invested.

Photo Merge: Since version 6, Lightroom has had Merge to Panorama and HDR, which PhotoLab doesn't offer. So if these are your priority, you will have more to consider.

These processes aren't without problems though, and I do believe that shooting brackets and pano sets, just like carrying too much equipment, can get in the way of proper photography - previsualisation, capture and creation.

PhotoLab's tools can get great results with lots of detail and interest from a single RAW file.

Catalogue: Lightroom, of course, has the catalogue that gives it its Digital Asset Management facilities. So if you don't have a properly-organised folder structure for your photos, and you use Collections and Smart Collections extensively, you will have more to consider if wishing to replace Lightroom and its subscription model.

PhotoLab, however, does have the ability to set ratings and tags, and filter images by these and other attributes such as camera, lens, file extension, date etc. And having direct access to your images via a file browser seems more straightforward than having to import images to a database.

Best of Both

PhotoLab is also a Lightroom plugin: So if you wish to use Lightroom to organise your photos with its digital asset management features and benefit from PhotoLab's superior development tools and industry-leading PRIME noise reduction, you can do just that! Great for those of us who own stand-alone versions of Lightroom 6 and can do so without subscribing.

Images can be imported into Lightroom, developed using the PhotoLab plugin, and then have geometry corrections applied by Lightroom, for instance - deferring the purchase of the DxO ViewPoints module.

Am I Biased?

You may be thinking I'm biased towards PhotoLab, and perhaps I am.

DxO doesn't have an affiliation program, so I'm not gaining financially from this. I suppose it comes down to the fact that I don't like what Adobe has done trying to force me and my clients down the subscription model and, similarly, are likely to try with cloud services.

I like Lightroom! In January 2018, I started looking for something that was just like Lightroom but without subscription and associated cloud services. Conversely, PhotoLab won me over for being refreshingly different!

Lightroom is what we're familiar with, and an industry standard to which we compare other development software. But once you use PhotoLab, you'll perhaps discover a better way to develop your images.

DxO PhotoLab is more than just a Lightroom alternative.

I will, of course, continue to teach Lightroom to clients. It's a great RAW developer and digital asset manager. I will, however, be offering tuition in DxO PhotoLab as a great alternative or Lightroom plugin.

Tags: Lightroom CC Classic alternative DXO PhotoLab RAW development software
Category: Photography

Peter Finch

I am an independent digital photography tutor and writer from Irlam, Manchester, England. I offer one-to-one photography training in Greater Manchester, Cheshire and other north-west areas. Click "Tuition" on the main menu to read more.

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