As the popularity of digital photography has grown, so too have the number of tools to help tame every aspect of the digital workflow.
Pictures are too noisy? No problem - there are a wealth of standalone applications, Photoshop plug-ins and even simple Action files that claim to reduce or eliminate digital camera noise. Have a folder of photos that are dark and off-colour? Again, have no fear - there are dozens of software solutions that purport to restore proper brightness and remove colour casts at the press of a button.
The sad truth is, while there are a few gems (Noise Ninja tops our list of new favourites), too many of the products that claim to provide a solution to an image quality or workflow efficiency problem are ill-conceived, under-engineered or just plain don't work.
It's against that somewhat-cynical backdrop that we approached the recent announcement by DO Labs with a large dollop of skepticism. Their upcoming DxO Optics Pro application for Mac and Windows promises to counter the effects of different types of chromatic aberration, vignetting, distortion (barrel, pincushion, etc.) and blur (coma, astigmatism, low-pass filter softness and more). Oh, and these corrections will be applied automatically, quickly and without the need for fine-tuning of settings on a per-image basis. The corrections are applied with "laboratory-grade precision," says a company press release. The result: "genuine and perceptible quality improvements."
Yah, right, we've heard this sort of bluster before. We'll have to see it to believe it.
Viewing before/after prints from Canon EOS-1Ds files designed to demonstrate the potential of the company's upcoming software, our skepticism has morphed into an eagerness to see DO Labs ship DxO Optics Pro as soon as possible so that we can bang it about in our own workflow. The prints show a near-elimination of the optical problems the software is designed to tackle, without any apparent side effects.
If this is typical of what DxO Optics Pro can do, especially for a camera like the EOS-1Ds (with its uncanny ability to expose the optical frailties of lenses like the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L), then DO Labs' upcoming product could well be a vital tool for quality-minded professional photographers.
Our excitement about DxO Optics Pro also stems from talking to Philippe Tarbouriech, DO Labs' VP Strategic Development, and other DO Labs representatives at PMA 2004. The French company has thrown some serious brainpower at the optical problems that their software is designed to tackle, as the CV's of the company's principals will attest. Equally importantly, DxO Optics Pro doesn't attempt a one-size-fits-all solution to correction. Instead, DO Labs painstakingly profiles a camera-lens combination, varying the aperture, focus distance and focal length (with zoom lenses) to come up with a model of the optical characteristics of that lens and camera together.
This data is built into a 10MB+ profile (which compresses to about 1MB for download, fortunately). DxO Optics Pro loads this profile when processing photos from that camera-lens duo (it reads the photo's EXIF metadata to determine things like aperture and focal length). Assuming minimal lens-to-lens manufacturing variation, this approach should - and seems to in the sample prints - provide a high level of precision in the correction process.
DxO Optics Pro will initially be able to process JPEG files; that version is to ship in March 2004 says a press release, though company representatives at PMA 2004 were quoting a March-April 2004 timeframe (a price has not been set). The ability to process RAW files is also planned, where the source file and corrected destination file would be in the RAW format.
In other words, DxO Optics Pro will be able to apply its set of optical fixes to RAW data, without converting the data from its RAW form, so that RAW goes in and RAW comes out DxO Optics Pro. The main advantage, says Tarbouriech, is an even more impressive overall final file than when the software is working from a camera JPEG, in as much as the bayer interpolation process just works better when the RAW data is free of such abnormalities as chromatic aberration. There's also a potential workflow advantage in having the RAW data corrected, in that regardless of when or where that RAW file is converted later it will already have had its optical abnormalities reduced.
The company plans to support the RAW formats of several camera makers, including Canon and Nikon; the RAW-capable version of DxO Optics Pro is expected to trail the JPEG version by 1-2 months.
If DxO Optics Pro is good, then one of the biggest frustrations in the first few months of its release will almost certainly be obtaining filters for your favourite digital SLR and lens combinations. DO Labs' stated goal is to support the following cameras initially:
- Canon EOS-1Ds, Canon EOS-1D, Canon EOS-1D Mark II, Canon EOS 10D, Canon EOS D60 and Canon EOS Digital Rebel/300D with a selection of Canon EF and Canon-compatible lenses
- Nikon D100, Nikon D1X, Nikon D2H and Nikon D70 with a selection of Nikkor and Nikon-compatible lenses
- Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro and Kodak DCS Pro 14n with a selection of Nikkor and Nikon-compatible lenses
- Olympus E-1 and Pentax *ist D with a selection of compatible lenses (including Olympus and Pentax lenses, as applicable)
From what we gleaned lurking about the DO Labs booth at PMA, however, it seems unlikely that all of the cameras listed will have profiles available at the time of DxO Optic Pro's launch, and that Canon cameras - mated to Canon L-series lenses like the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L, EF 24-70mm f2.8L and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS - are at or near the top of the priority list.
At launch, DxO Optics Pro will be a standalone application for Windows and Mac. A Photoshop plug-in version is being contemplated by DO Labs, says Tarbouriech, though no decision has been made. Pricing and profile availability will be announced closer to the software's release.
Update, February 18: Imaging Resource has posted DO Labs-supplied photos showing the corrective capabilities promised for DxO Optics Pro.