Highlight recovery

High dynamic range scene, in-camera JPEG file from the Sony SLT-A57. Crops below are taken from the area highlighted in red.

In this very high contrast sunset scene, highlight clipping is apparent along the left side of the image. Yet there are still areas containing some data in the green and blue channels. Below are 100% crops of the top left portion of the scene. Here we're comparing how successfully each raw converter can recover actual tonal information. The adjustments used for each conversion are listed and the in-camera JPEG at default settings is shown as a reference. Click on a crop below to view the full size image.

In-camera JPEG. 100% crop DxO Optics Pro 8: Exposure -.99, Highlights -24. 100% crop
Capture One Pro 7: High Dynamic Range 66.
100% crop
Lightroom 4: Highlight -90. 100% crop

DxO Optics Pro 8 offers the least effective results. Though it clearly recovers some information that was lost in the camera JPEG, you can see bands of yellow in abrupt transitions from areas with three-channel data to blown highlights. Capture One Pro 7 does a significantly better job here, recovering enough usable data to reproduce more distinct cloud patterns. Lightroom 4 also shows an impressive degree of cloud detail while avoiding some of the more obvious edge artifacts.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 both recover significant highlight information.

Distortion correction

All three raw converters include tools for correcting lens distortion. The differences lie in whether the corrections are applied automatically or require manual adjustment. The scene below was shot with the Sony DSC-RX100 at its widest focal length. Look closely at the first image and you see barrel distortion in the phone box. Click on any image to enlarge it for a better view.

Capture One Pro 7: 'Generic' lens profile. Notice the distortion in the phone box. Capture One Pro 7: Manual distortion correction.
DxO Optics Pro 8: Default lens correction. Lightroom 4: Default lens correction.

What's telling is that Capture One Pro 7 does not perform a behind-the-scenes correction for this distortion. Because the lens is not explicitly supported with a profile in Capture One Pro's Lens Correction tab, the software defaults to a 'generic' setting that leaves visible distortion. Lightroom does not offer a specific lens profile for the RX100 either, but as you can see, does perform distortion correction at its default setting. In fact, there's no way in Lightroom not to make this correction. Toggling the 'Enable Profile Corrections' box has no effect for lenses for which software corrections are part of the lens design.

In comparing images shot with various wide angle lenses, I found that Lightroom 4 and DxO Optics Pro 8 often gave reasonably similar results. Of course, lens correction is enabled by default in DxO Optics Pro 8, saving a step in the process. With neither program did I have to resort to manual corrections with a raw file as I've had to with Capture One Pro 7. And even when Capture One Pro 7 did have a matching lens profile, I found instances where it cropped off noticeably more of the image after correction than either Lightroom 4 or DxO Optics Pro 8 did.

TWO-WAY TIE: DxO Optics Pro 8 and Lightroom 4 both offer effective automated distortion correction.

Moiré removal

Olympus OM-D E-M5. This uncorrected raw conversion displays significant moiré in the singer's patterned vest and cravat. The crops below are taken from the area highlighted in red.

Color moiré removal can be problematic simply because you run the risk of desaturating and/or smearing real image colors along with the rainbow-like repeating patterns. Both Lightroom 4 and Capture One Pro 7 offer the ability to 'paint in' moiré removal over select areas of the image. As you can see in the crops below, however, DxO Optics Pro does a very impressive job of minimizing color moiré without desaturating other image colors, even though it only offers the moiré removal option as a global adjustment. Click on a crop below to view the image at full resolution.

Uncorrected raw conversion.
50% magnification
DxO Optics Pro 8: Moiré +100 (auto setting).
50% magnification
Capture One Pro 7: Adjustment Layer with Moiré Amount +90, Pattern +9, and Saturation -36.
50% magnification
Lightroom 4: Adjustment brush with Moiré +66, Saturation -80. 50% magnification

With careful settings applied to their moiré removal tools, both Lightroom 4 and Capture One Pro 7 can effectively eliminate the color moiré patterns. Both applications also required some selective desaturation to avoid a slightly purple cast to the singer's vest. By contrast, DxO leaves a hint of visible moiré even at its moiré tool's maximum setting. You can see it also results in a less than neutral gray tone in the singer's vest. And if you click to view the full size image you can see the effects of color bleeding in his wristband. DxO's results are certainly impressive for a one-click global adjustment, but ultimately, the control offered by a localized adjustment tool pays dividends that are worth the additional editing time.

TWO-WAY TIE: Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4 offer localized moiré removal tools.

Default sharpening

In evaluating sharpness differences between these apps I turned to a file we shot this summer with the 36MP D800E. The conversions below were processed at each application's default sharpening and exposure settings, with lens corrections enabled.

Nikon D800E with AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G lens, mounted on a tripod. ISO 100, 1/400 sec @ f/6.3. The crops below are taken from areas of the scene highlighted in red.

As you can see in the crops below, the differences come down to variations in edge contrast, which we perceive as a sharpness difference. Lightroom 4 takes the most conservative approach with its default settings, taking care to avoid edge halos or stairstepping, but yielding a softer image. It's important to keep in mind that these 100% crops are analogous to a very close view of a very large print. Nonetheless, its clear that both DxO Optics Pro 8 and Capture One Pro 7 output crisper files than Lightroom 4 at their default sharpening settings. A trade-off of this more aggressive approach, however, is that some artifacts become visible in fine organic green textures like the foliage, something that Lightroom 4 manages to avoid.

Raw conversion with sharpening disabled.
100% crop
DxO Optics Pro 8, default sharpening, lens correction enabled. 100% crop
Capture One Pro 7, default sharpening, lens correction enabled. 100% crop Lightroom 4, default sharpening, lens correction enabled. 100% crop

In DxO Optics Pro 8, sharpening settings are built into the application's lens correction modules. (While there is a separate Unsharp Mask tool, it is disabled by default and meant to be used in cases where there is no pre-existing lens support.) DxO leverages this lens module data with its Lens Softness tool, which automatically makes additional lens-dependent sharpening adjustments out towards the corners of the image. Below we examine crops from the bottom left corner of the image.

Raw conversion with no sharpening. 100% crop DxO Optics Pro 8, default sharpening, lens correction enabled. 100% crop
Capture One Pro 7, default sharpening, lens correction enabled. 100% crop Lightroom 4, default sharpening, lens correction enabled. 100% crop

Here you can see that DxO Optics Pro 8 shows some benefits over Capture One Pro 7, with greater contrast in the chain-link fencing. A small advantage, to be sure, but one that requires no manual adjustment to achieve.

WINNER: DxO Optics Pro 8 offers crisp default settings and superior results in the image corners.

Noise reduction

All three raw converters do a very good job of suppressing color noise, even at their default settings. The differences lie in the effect that noise reduction has on artifacts and image saturation. In the examples below I've compared raw conversions using each application's default sharpening settings.

Nikon D600: ISO 25,600

At default noise reduction settings, you can see that DxO Optics Pro 8 aims to remove any trace of noise structure, with the result being a 'smeared' look. To be fair though, this suppression is applied intelligently so that it doesn't result in any loss of detail compared to its rivals, but does produce a very unnatural effect. Lightroom takes the opposite approach, allowing for prominent noise structure that to my eye rather successfully mimics high-speed film grain. Capture One Pro 7, sits in between these approaches, with a good compromise between luminance noise smoothing and retention of image texture.

DxO Optics Pro 8's undeniable advantage here is that it manages to retain more color than the desaturated results from both Capture One Pro 7 and Lightroom 4. And, as you can see below, by significantly reducing its Luminance slider value, you can get a much more natural image texture. Neither Capture One Pro 7 nor Lightroom 4 can move much further beyond their default desaturated results without introducing prominent color noise.

DxO Optics Pro 8 default NR settings. 100% crop Custom settings: Luminance 10
Capture One Pro 7 default NR settings. 100% crop Custom settings: Luminance 22, Color 29, Detail 8
Lightroom 4 default NR settings. 100% crop Custom settings: Color 12, Detail 36

WINNER: DxO Optics Pro 8, with some manual adjustments produces very good high ISO detail while retaining more color data than the competition.

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